Friday, December 9, 2011

Water in Marathons

As I'm sure you all know by now, many many people were sick during Rock n Roll Las Vegas (if you don't know what happened in Vegas check out their Facebook page.)  And, a lot of those people are claiming that it was the water served at the aid stations on the race course that cause their illness.  In the aftermath of RnR Las Vegas there has been much discussion about the source of the water used during the race, and the fact that RnR races utilize water from fire hydrants.  I posted a blog last week about the water that is used in marathons.  See original post here.  (I know, I still need to post my RnR LV recap... but there have been so many already... maybe what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?  I'll probably post something short this week.)
Cups and cups of water- but where did it come from?

If you're anything like me you've probably never given the water source in a race much thought.  Many races have a water sponsor, even the Rock n Roll Marathon series has a water sponsor listed for some of their races, including RnR Vegas (sponsor was Arrowhead).  You might assume that the water that is served along the race course is provided by the sponsor, and thus bottled.   But, that might not actually be the case.

In this article in the Las Vegas Review Journal, Peter Englehart, the CEO of Competitor Group, (which owns and operates all Rock n Roll races) said, about their usage of fire hydrant water for the aid stations along the race course, "Every big event in the country does that, and even some smaller ones."  Competitor says that they use water from fire hydrants in every race they put on in the US, some 23 marathon and half marathon yearly (they also put on 4 marathons/half marathons internationally).  If you look at the sponsors for all of those events you'll see that a number of the "tour stops" have a water sponsor.  So what is this water sponsor providing?  Probably just the bottled water at the finish line.

You might be wondering, what's the big deal?  Water from fire hydrants is the same water that comes out of your tap.  If you didn't know that, yes, this is true.  At least here in Los Angeles, many people filter the water from their taps, whether through their refrigerator, a filtering jug, or just using bottled water.  But, even still, water from a fire hydrant really shouldn't cause problems, as long as it's been flushed out and the proper techniques for getting the water from the hydrant to the cups to the runners is used (proper technique = using food grade hoses and ALL people pouring water and serving water wearing gloves).
Gloves are good.
No glove, no love.
I decided to do a little digging to see if what the Competitor CEO said was true.  So, first I posted a couple of tweets, to the San Francisco Marathon, LA Marathon, Marine Corps Marathon and NYC Marathon.  I got responses from SFM, LA, and MCM -  very quickly.  After I got their responses I decided to look up the biggest races in the country and get in touch with all of them and find out their source of water.

So, based on 2010 finishers, on, here is the list of biggest events in the country with their water sources next to them, starting with the largest (if I have not yet received a response the space next to the race will be left blank until I do):*

New York City
Chicago - One-gallon sealed jugs of water for all on-course fluids.
Boston -  Bottled water - Poland Spring 
Los Angeles  - Bottled water, but uses fire hydrants if it is a hot day and more water is needed.
Marine Corps - Jugged water provided by Walmart
Disney World - All runDisney races use 1.5 liter bottles of Dasani - one of the race sponsors
Rock n Roll Marathon Fire hydrants**
Philadelphia - Bottled water
Twin Cities - Some stations fueled by bottled water, others by hydrants.
Houston - Filtered fire hydrant water at all aid stations (from their website)
San Francisco - Bottled water
CIM - Use businesses and home owners along the course with food quality hoses.
St George - Local bottled water company provides all water at aid stations.
Rock n Roll Arizona Fire Hydrants**
Grandma's - Water from Lake Superior from private homes and properties, using food grade hoses.
Rock n Roll Vegas Fire Hydrants**
Nike Women's - Bottled water - FIJI
Dallas White Rock - Several sources, water from hydrants among some.
Rock n Roll San Antonio Fire Hydrants**
Cincinnati Flying Pig
Rock n Roll Seattle Fire Hydrants**
Rock n Roll Mardi Gras Fire Hydrants**
Long Beach - Purchases all water
Big Sur - Water barrels filled with private spring water, no hydrants.

Others I contacted (or who contacted me) -
Eugene - Own hoses and use tap water from sources at homes and businesses on the course
Surf City - Bottled water - Arrowhead
Ocean Drive Marathon -Water is supplied from the US Coast Guard base with bottled water at the finish. 
Cowtown Marathon - Depends on location - approx 3 locations use fire hydrants, majority from spickets on outside of businesses.  A couple of water stations use bottled water.  Food grade hoses are used.
St. Jude Memphis Marathon - Water is donated - Premium Refreshment Service Co, distributor of Clear Mountain Water brand.  Do not use fire hydrants.
Baltimore Running Festival (Marathon, Half Marathon, Relay, Kids Run) - Bottled water from sponsor
Oakland Running Festival (Marathon, Half Marathon, Relay, 5k) - Bottled water from sponsor
Frederick Running Festival (Half Marathon, Relay, 5k) - Bottled water from sponsor
Detroit Free Press Marathon - Water in gallon jugs
Cleveland Marathon - From their website: "The water we use on the course on race weekend is from hydrants that are flushed twice before race day. The hydrants are flushed two weeks before the race and once again the day before the race or race morning. The process we use to obtain the drinking water results is the same quality that a Cleveland resident would receive from turning on their faucet. The Cleveland Water Department tests the water quality, and assures us that it is safe. We also purchase new hoses every year to ensure the highest level of quality for our participants. And, as an added safety feature, our water stop volunteers wear gloves while distributing the cups."

So, what does this all mean?  Well first off, Peter Englehart, the CEO of Competitor Group, should get his facts straight.  Yes, I'm calling you out Mr. Englehart, make sure you know what you're saying is correct.  As you can see every major marathon in the country does not utilize fire hydrants for their water during races.  In fact, so far, aside from Rock n Roll events, most do not use it, or only use it for extra.

Second, we, as runners and consumers paying good money to run these events, should all DEMAND that proper food and health safety guidelines are followed at every race we participate in.  I get that this is not necessarily cost effective, but shouldn't the health of your runners - the people who give you money to put on a race, your customers, be important?  If a waiter's bare hands were in your water cup you wouldn't drink that water, would you?  (And I definitely saw race volunteers without gloves on passing out water and their fingers were in some of the cups, gross.  This is something I've heard from many people who were also at RnR Las Vegas.) We need to stand up and say something.  Enough is enough.  Whatever your water source you need to make sure your volunteers are practicing proper food safety guidelines.

A lot of people got sick at RnR Las Vegas, myself included (multiple bathroom stops and some dry heaving, followed by an upset stomach all week), and there must be a link.  I am not saying that the water from the fire hydrants caused it, but something did, this is not a coincidence.  I am not a new runner, I have run many races.  This was my first night race, and I can't prove that the water at this race is what got me sick, but I was sick.  I always carry my own hydration, but I did still take the water along the course, thinking it was safe.  Now I wonder if it was.

A race using water from a fire hydrants will not prevent me from running it in the future, but their health and safety practices, those I will take in to account.  The only way things will change is if we, as runners and consumer, demand those changes be made.

*If you would like to see the races exact responses let me know and I'll share their emails with you - a few races gave me VERY detailed responses about how they serve the water, exactly where it comes from, training of volunteers, etc.  Also, one race pointed out that RnR was wrong in their account of who uses fire hydrant water, as they do not.

**I did not email Competitor Group, as in the article referenced above they stated that they use fire hydrant water in all of their races.


  1. Elisabeth - thank you for taking the time to reveal this truth. I was one of the unfortunate ones who was rushed to the hospital. Friday was my first day of solid food. I had planned after this week to do some research and you got it covered.

    We should demand our water supply is pure and clean. The CEO has repeatedly lied and providing misinformation, so I am not surprised he has his facts incorrect on this one, also.

    If a man can claim he "ran a half marathon" and in fact, he did NOT but took the glory for it - at his OWN event, then surely he will cover up more.

    Furthermore - until the incident. RnR repeatedly denied using fire hydrant water. Until Vegas Channel 8 confronted them did they admit it and say they have always sanitized their hoses, etc. It APPEARS they will reveal information as it is needed, not full disclosure.

    The Vegas Health Department is hopeful to find the source. Whether it be water, trash can liners or volunteers. There is a common thread and RnR has finally been exposed.

    Thank you again - I will be circulating this blog post, for sure!

  2. Excellent research. I'll be sure to help spread this post around!

  3. Ack! I am feeling more or more regret about signing up for the RNR Half in D.C. this spring. I will definitely carry my own water (as I usually do). Thanks for all the research that you put into this.

  4. Great post! Thanks for the research. My daughter and I only drank water at one station and we both were sick until Tuesday. Scary!

  5. Kristie, did you contact the department of health in vegas. They are doing a survey trying to pin point where people got sick.

  6. Thanks for the info. Absolutely ridiculous that they use hydrants when they are the most expensive races out there. I still have not figured out why they charge so much more....for the entertainment? I have yet to be at one of their races that the entertainment was a major act. I had decided sometime ago to stop running RnR races after they continued to get so large and kept increasing the prices. Lots of other great races out there - and much better run - but now I will certainly NEVER run their races again. Yuck! If a cruise ship had this many people sick, it would have been all over the national news, CNN, etc.

  7. Wow, thanks for the research, and I'm sorry it took getting sick for this research to happen. I'm looking forward to seeing what the remaining races (particularly Richmond) have to respond!

  8. I honestly thought that since Arrowhead was the sponsor at RnR, it was their water at the stations (until the Vegas incident happened and I learned the truth). Great job and THANK YOU for the research. I took my own water to the LA Holiday Half this weekend out of fear. They used Niagara water (3 gallon sized bottles put in a water cooler). It's a bummer that we had to suffer the "Vegas Plague" to be educated on this issue.

  9. This is freaking me out for RnR NOLA. I hope they get sufficient pressure to change it by then.

  10. My husband was incredibly sick post race. Hypothermic, vomitting, diarhea and severe abdominal pain. He was admitted into the hospital for 5 nights with ischemic colitis. He had reduced blood flow to his colon during the race (started feeling sick at mile 11) He drank the water but blood test and biopsy's of his colon suggest ischemic colitis (meaning not from any type of contamination) His body temperature had a lot to do with his illness. I agree that water from a hydrant is foul but wasn't the source of my husbands illness. Wonder how many others had weather related illness?

  11. As a microbiologist (and I have my food handler's permit as well from my waitress days), I have no problem with them serving potable hydrant water or water through any clean hose. I'm think Portland uses spigot water from businesses and homes into 5 gallon jugs. I also have no problem with ungloved hands. They would be well-rinsed after handing out a few cups, so long as they sanitized their hands after restroom stops, etc. They couldn't be the source of more and a couple of infections, if any. And those would take at least a day to become symptomatic. Waitresses also touch your plates and glasses with ungloved hands. More likely, if from the water, it was from a cleaner, soap, or chemical contamination. Those could cause nausea/vomiting in an hour. But no bacteria, virus, or fungus would. It's not the germs that would get you, it's the stuff that is meant to stop the germs. But more likely there was a common source 1-2 days before the event with norovirus, like on a cruise ship. It's more likely to have been passed around the crowd at the packet pickup, for example, the bathrooms there, etc.

  12. Think of the MOUNTAINS of plastic bottles that would have to be recycled if you didn't use a spigot or hydrant water. Not to mention the gas burned transporting them to/from the event and water stops. A logistical nightmare for any event. I've had an event with just 2000 participants and we couldn't have done it with bottled water. We use 5-gallon jugs and fill them from faucets and park spigots.

  13. Thank you for all your hard work and research. I hope this helps uncover just what went wrong and where. I never would have inagined the water would have come from hydrants or improperly handled. I guess I was too trusting. I've learned my lesson...painfully.

  14. I was a volunteer at a water station along with several friends and family members. For the most part we were drinking the same fire hydrant water that we were handing out and nobody I know who volunteered had gotten sick. I'm not saying its not possible that it was the water but with so many similar actions the runners must have taken over the course of the weekend I wouldn't immediately jump to the conclusion that it was the water especially because I haven't heard of any volunteers getting sick.

  15. The Chicago marathon DOES!!! use fire hydrant water. You can ask whoever you want and they WILL respond HOWEVER they want but next time why dont you start calling the FIRE DEPARTMENTS of that town and start out ASK them!! In fact Chicago marathon have their own special meters they store at 1 fire house and they go and get it every year. so if you are going to start posting stuff at least make sure you ASK the right people! Because once again YOU are posting half truths!

  16. I also was sick after that race! I figured it was exhaustion or something until I saw everything on the RnR Facebook when I got home. I saw volunteers dipping water cups into barrels of some kind of water to refill cups when they were running out of water. I figured it was melted ice that was keeping water jugs cool. I guess not!

  17. Great article and research!!! Thanks!

  18. Good post! I did not get really sick running Vegas but got sick with the poor organization of the event. I am fine with hydrant water as long as it's handled properly, but not with the rest of the mess they disorganized in Vegas.

  19. Brilliant! I love that you exposed yet another lie coming from the mouths of Competitor.

  20. I've done Chicago and have seen pallets and pallets of water on the course. Maybe the hoses were used to clean up the cytomax off the streets but I've seen gloved volunteers handing out water from bottled water.

    I'm very curious about this because it skives me out thinking about this. yuck.

  21. Charlene, it amazes me that you still have in your mind that the source of your problem could only have come from "water, trash can liners or volunteers". You completely discount that it could have a been a virus, bacteria or other pathogen introduced at another time. You also have admitted that you were diagnosed with hypothermia when you were seen at the hospital but ignore that this could have caused any of the symptoms you experienced.

    You have even claimed to have been systematically denied medical care in the face of your "life threatening situation" yet you decided to finish the race instead of immediately stopping and calling 911 to get the care you needed when you realized that you may be indeed be in a life threatening situation.

    I'm sorry, but you seem to be laser focused on finding someone else to blame. It's very possible that your situation was the direct result of your own choices, in not wearing the proper clothing for extended exposure to the cold temperatures and wind chill.

    Furthermore, it's very possible that lots of runners unprepared for the cold caused an extreme load and on medical staff that could have lead to the triage situation that they faced.

    I know you'll keep blaming the water but in your heart of hearts, I hope you're starting to realize that your hypothermia wasn't caused by Competitor Group and that due to your own choices, you could have ended up in much more serious condition or even died.

    I'm very sorry that you got sick and had such a terrible race but the extent to which you've gone to blame everything else, while not even considering taking one iota of responsibility for your own actions, astounds me.

  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

  23. Kentucky Derby marathon in Louisville used bottled water in 2010.

  24. I'm amazed that the "green" folks in San Francisco would use bottled water. I've actually had people come up to me on the street and give me grief for all the damage my water bottle is doing to the environment, not that it's ever stopped me from drinking them. Of course, it's probably certified organic free-range bottled water in biodegradable BPA free bottles delivered to the aid stations on emission free bicycles.

  25. The Inconvenient Truth is that nobody drank the water at the beginning of the race and got violently sick by the end of it. It's simply not biologically possible, viruses and bacteria take much longer than that to incubate. Hydrant water may sound icky but it's used by lots of folks, not just in marathons. Believe it or not, most cities use the city drinking water supply to feed their hydrants.

    But then again, if it wasn't the hydrant water, the garbage cans or the ungloved volunteers then maybe it wasn't something the Competitor Group did to you. So, you keep telling people you drank the water and you just know that's what made you sick, when what you really want to say is that the Competitor Group pissed you off. They pissed me off too, just not because of the water.

    It's too bad all the focus on the water took the press off on a tangent and caused them to not focus on the medical support issues and the overcrowding at the Mandalay which are much more involved stories, much more important to fix.

    If the Health Department comes back and says it wasn't the water, I still predict that there will be dozens of people that claim conspiracy, that the Health Dept is in Competitor's back pocket or they did what they had to do to suppress the story, the city council or tourism bureau got the to the people at the Health Dept or something crazy like that.

  26. Excellent post!

    I'd add more, but I've talked about it so much already.

    And if it wasn't the water ... it WAS something! I've never seen anything like that before in my entire racing life. This was race #16 of 2011 and never has it been a war zone at the end with so many people getting sick.

  27. Just curious, out of those 16 races in 2011, how many of them were at the temperature and windchill we saw in Las Vegas? How many of them included 44,000 runners?

  28. Anonymous .... I do 95% of my runs at night in the cold in Oregon. The weather was not a factor, nor was the time of day. And I don't just do tiny local 5K races. Not all are 44,000 but they aren't small by any means.

  29. For many people that were diagnosed by their doctors with hypothermia, weather was most certainly a factor, one that one of the posters here has described correctly as a life threatening condition.

  30. I work for an environmental testing company that analyzes drinking water. It's entirely possible that the water coming from the hydrant could've been contaminated. Just because it is coming from the same source as the public drinking water doesn't mean it isn't getting contaminated with something by the time it hits the distribution system. Only way to find out would be to have the hydrants tested.

  31. This information is great! Can you repost when you get information from other races (that have been left blank)? There are a few up there that I would love to know about. Thanks!

  32. Yep, the hydrant water could definitely be contaminated. That would explain people that got sick a day or more after the race. For anyone to have vomited during the race, they would have had to have been exposed to that viral or bacterial bug a day or more in advance of the race, not during the race.

    It's pretty simple biology that viruses and bacteria need time to multiply before showing symptoms in their host. Not sure why this basic biological fact is so hard for people to understand. I guess some people are so emotionally fused to the idea that they were wronged by the organizers that the basics of how people get sick are easily glossed over.

    Even if the water was really, really contaminated, that doesn't mean that a 24 incubation period becomes 60 minutes, it just means that even more of the 43,000 or more people that also drank the water and didn't get sick would have gotten sick 24 OR MORE HOURS LATER. It's kinda like the old saying that 9 women cannot have one baby in 1 month. It takes 9 months to have a baby, even if the woman is really, really pregnant, again, basic biology.

    Besides, it has been reported in the same articles about the mysterious outbreak that the water district DID HAVE THE HYDRANTS TESTED and they were OK. Of course, they did not test each hose, bucket or garbage can nor did they test the volunteers but, again, it takes 24 or more hours to get sick from bad water.

    The question that needs to be answered is what made the people sick during the race?

  33. I happen to know that Peter Englehart, the CEO of Competitor Group, runs a lot of his own races. I personally saw him running in the 5K, at the R-N-R LA. So he drinks the same water we all do. Hypothermia is a serious issue here. If the water is really cold, as the air was in the lower 40's, it could cause nausea, as your body rejects the cold temperature of the water. If your body temp is going down from hypothermia and you ingest something colder, your body will reject it. I have nothing to do with the Competitor Group, but we need to look at the weather here. Should we have a night race in the desert, in the winter-time? That is the bigger question. You can die from hypothermia. And many had at least initial stages of that. I doubt that the water from a hydrant is that much different from what we get at home. But being out in a t-shirt, depleting your energy, at higher intensities, in cold weather, with some wind, now there is an issue with some serious problems. I love the night race idea, but maybe a different month would be better. But that sounds like the real issue here.

  34. Add the Baltimore, Oakland and Frederick Running Festivals/Marathons to the list of bottled water. We have water sponsors and use their product, exclusively, at all water stops, including the finish.

  35. We had one in our group getting really sick and it was her first 1/2...we all had to assure her that they are not all like this!

    Another thing that I find really interesting is that Zappos - "powered by service" - is the key sponsor... I would imagine that Tony Hsieh is not very impressed.

    More thoughts on the subject:

  36. Thanks for the great research & article Elisabeth. My niece was violently ill after the race, with pains that started around mile 11 (I'm noticing a pattern there!). She is a healthy, fit, experienced long distance runner, and is a certified nutritionist and trainer. She has NEVER felt anything like this. It was 10 straight hours of extreme pain, vomiting, excruciating intestinal pain, and "feeling like she was going to die." It was not hypothermia, we were both dressed in layers and were warm and comfortable during the race. Reading comments from people dismissing the illnesses makes me angry. This was REAL, and a very dangerous situation. I was at her side the entire time and scared to death. She even texted her Mom to say she was dying. We called for emergency medical help at the Mandalay Bay, and were told "you and a thousand other runners" by their staff. A horrible, terrifying, traumatic experience. Not mincing words here to (hopefully) get my point across to those dismissing this.

  37. It doesn't look like people are discounting the fact that people got ill, we all saw that, we know it was very REAL. But given how water poisoning works from a biological standpoint, it's the least likely cause for someone who got sick that quickly within the short time span of the race.

    There are many other causes including dehydration and low sodium and electrolyte balance that could have caused or at the very least significantly contributed to it. All of these maladies are very common at marathons in general, much more so in races done in such cold and windy conditions. And it's very likely a combination of many causes, given the many different kinds of stress we all chose to put on our bodies that evening. And, these conditions do come on quickly during a race.

    Furthermore, all of these conditions can and do feed on each other, creating a degenerating spiral that can lead to severe illness, perhaps even death. Again, these are biological processes that are common to our bodies, especially as distance runners. Nobody is immune, no matter how many races they've run or what their fitness level is. The more people understand this, the better they can prepare themselves in future races and reduce the risk of serious injury and/or death.

    I hope that your niece is feeling better and that we'll all soon find out what the Health Dept. has found in their investigation so changes can be made by RnR/CGI and all of us runners can take actions to better prepare ourselves for future races.

  38. Thanks for putting this together. Did you happen to find out what Detroit uses? I have run that one several times, so I am just curious.

    The Derby Festival of Races (a week prior to the Kentucky Derby) actually provided water in mini bottles from Louisville Pure Tap (the water company's brand here) at several of the water stops. They had cups of water too. Not sure where those came from. I am not affiliated with the race, I am just commenting from my one experience with it. if you hear from Detroit. Thanks!

  39. Really informative post. I hadn't thought about where the water comes from. It kind of feels like a "duh" moment.

    That stinks about RnR Vegas. :(

  40. ING Miami used hydrant water this morning.

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