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Dr. J. on Running

Sneakers and Wheels Don't Mix

Runners' Safety Crucial

Published August 23, 1999 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

The media bombard us with catch phrases that seek to communicate important messages. "Don't drink and drive." "Just say no!" "Get stupid, get high, get AIDS." Add a new one: "Sneakers and wheels don't mix."

The proliferation of foot races and the pursuit by many race directors of conformity and originality have created a dangerous mix of sneakers and wheels at the expense of the safety of runners. Simple physics dictate that the energy of a body in motion is proportional to the square of its speed. In other words, a roller-skater travelling at 20 miles per hour packs four times more energy than a 6-minute miler of equal mass.

Throughout the land, road races are held on open roads where runners are forced to contend with motorized traffic. Adding fuel to the mix, race directors often permit, or worse, encourage, baby joggers, strollers, wheel-blades, roller-skates, in-line skates, bicycles and wheelchairs. While it is politically correct to accommodate non-pedestrian competitors in a footrace, the first responsibility of every race director remains the safety of the runners.

In an ideal world, all road races are held on roads that are closed to vehicular traffic. Large city marathons and several local races have succeeded in convincing local authorities to redirect traffic away from race courses. Equally important, intersections should be carefully monitored, and better yet, closed. Race directors should continue to seek race courses that are free from traffic.

If cars and trucks are hazardous to runners, imagine a race course that crosses an active railway or barge canal. Recently, a local runner missed setting an age group world record at the 30K when a bridge on the course opened to let a barge through. More tragic was the death of a runner who failed to beat a freight train at a course crossing.

Bicycles, roller-skates and wheel-blades have no place in a pedestrian race. Participants in wheeled sports have chosen to travel at speeds beyond a runner's dreams. Wheelers are entitled to compete against their peers in wheeled competition, but they should not be permitted to endanger the welfare of runners.

While baby joggers provide many parents the only opportunity to continue running with children, their use must be governed by the safety of the baby as well as runners. Properly designed baby joggers with large wheels and hand brakes may be used safely in controlled environments, such as a well-paved park road. On the other hand, baby strollers with small wheels, intended to transport infants or to take them on short strolls, should never be used for running.

Regardless of their design, wheeled baby carriers should never be permitted in footraces. Besides endangering the wellbeing of fellow runners, a baby-jogger puts the life of the child in direct jeopardy. In a policy statement discouraging the participation of baby joggers in road races, the Road Runners Club of America cites safety and liability as their main concerns. A few years ago, a competitor at the Mountain Goat 10-miler was knocked to the ground and injured by a baby jogger.

The admission of wheelchairs in footraces poses an emotional dilemma, which is often resolved at the expense of the safety of the runners. The same law of physics that empowers a moving object with energy proportional to the square of its velocity turns a speeding wheelchair into a deadly weapon. A tired wheeled athlete, competing for time and position, can hardly be expected to exercise constraint on a downhill packed with pedestrians.

Speeding wheelers are a tragedy waiting to happen in races where wheels and sneakers share the road. At a recent American Heart Run, an out-of-control wheelchair hit a volunteer in the chute and shattered his knee cap. On a related matter of award equality, a judge unfortunately ruled against the New York City Marathon in favor of wheelchair racers. Whether a matter of safety or equality, wheelchair competition should be held separately from footraces.

One final saying: "Safety is a terrible thing to waste."

Kamal Jabbour suffered physical and emotional trauma after colliding with a roller-skater who collapsed in his arms. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains TrackMeets.com, the world leader in live track webcasting, and receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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