Security hard to ensure at local races

After Boston Marathon bombings, officials alert to concerns about Broad Street Run, Asbury Park Half Marathon and Pittsburgh Marathon

Runner take off from the starting line during the 32nd running of the Blue Cross Broad Street Run in Philadelphia, Pa., on May 1, 2011. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)

Race officials couldn’t have foreseen the Boston bombings.

  • Experts say the Boston bombings don’t put other races at risk.
  • Officials and race organizers will look for ways to improve safety for upcoming races.

After Monday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line, race organizers are confronting an unanswerable question: How do you secure 26 miles?

The truth, security experts say, is that you can’t. And that holds true for shorter distance races, as well, like next month’s 10-mile, 40,000-participant Blue Cross Broad Street Run in Philly and this weekend’s Asbury Park Half Marathon. 

Based on the distance alone, “it’s impossible to fully secure something like that,” said Wojtek Wolfe, a political science professor at Rutgers-Camden and an expert on terror attacks.

Other factors that make security a challenge: Road races are held in open areas. Spectators don't even need tickets, and can come and go as they please. Both runners and spectators carry backpacks, water bottles and other containers, and often leave such items unattended.

Race officials couldn’t have foreseen the Boston bombings, said Ira Somerson, an Upper Gwynedd-based security consultant. The only way to prevent any attack, he said, is to identify people who could be prone to violence and get them help.

“You can’t look at the race for the answer,” he said. “You have to look before the race.”

Experts say the Boston bombings don’t put other races at risk. Though there will be heightened awareness at upcoming races, sporting events are still relatively safe and unlikely terror targets, Wolfe said.

But officials and race organizers will still look for ways to improve safety.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said Monday that runners and spectators should expect “a much more visible security presence” for the May 5 Broad Street Run.

Bob Both, director of the Asbury Park race, says he expects local police to be especially alert to “any unusual activity or strange objects or trash cans in the area, particularly at the start and finish areas.”

The 37,500-runner London Marathon is also this weekend, and organizers say they are reviewing their security plans with the Metropolitan Police.

And in Pittsburgh, officials will check the route for the May 5 Pittsburgh Marathon for suspicious objects the week before and morning of the race. A team of bicycle riders also monitors the course for anything suspicious throughout the marathon, race director Patrice Matamoros told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. For the first time this year, a six-foot chain link fence will control crowds at particularly packed “choke points,” Matamoros told the newspaper. 

Focusing security efforts on such crowded spots is a prudent move, said Michael Rozin, president of Rozin Security Consulting.

Having more officers, surveillance tools and police canines at such areas “could minimize the potential for things happening there,” he said.

It’s also crucial to prepare contingency measures for how to communicate and get medical help to any victims if a disaster happens, according to Wolfe.

“It’s much more feasible to prepare for the aftermath of the attack than to prevent the dozens of ways that someone could attack,” he said.

The public can also play a role, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said at a Monday news conference. Ramsey is asking Broad Street Run participants and spectators to be “very vigilant” and report anything suspicious.

For their part, many runners say they’re undeterred by the bombings. Though a few messages from runners considering dropping out of Broad Street surfaced on social media, other athletes say the Boston bombings make their next races more meaningful.

Christopher Gannon, a 25-year-old Philadelphian, says he plans to buy a Boston Marathon shirt and wear it during the Broad Street race. He wrote in an email that he refuses “to let terror affect our beloved sport.”

Both, of the Asbury Park race, is encouraging runners and spectators to wear blue and yellow -- the colors of the Boston Marathon -- on race day.

And Joe Arnold, a 34-year-old from Merion Station, will be running his 10th Broad Street Run next month. He said the Boston bombings make this year’s run more significant.

“You’re doing things that are tied toward bringing people together,” he said.

Contact Emily Babay at 215-854-2153 or Follow @emilybabay on Twitter.

Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443; Follow @phillynews on Twitter.