Columbus Police say they’re lucky no one was hurt when a train cut through the path of thousands of marathon runners Saturday.
They were only about ten minutes into the course when they heard the train coming and realized it wasn’t going to stop.
Chaos ensued as runners found creative ways to get around the train. But, they were also in serious danger.
How It Happened
It was the perfect day to pound some pavement.
“It was a beautiful morning, so we knew we were going to be running in great weather,” said Cliff Huggins, who ran the half in the Mill Race Marathon.
Huggins was one of more than 3,000 people signed up for the race, which was only in its second year. He toed up to the starting line, excited to take off.
“There’s always a lot of adrenaline going on,” Huggins said. “There’s just this great race day atmosphere.”
But, that atmosphere quickly changed. Runners didn’t make it very far before they encountered a large, unexpected obstacle at the edge of Mill Race Park.
[pullquote]I was probably about a quarter of a mile from the railroad crossing when I heard the train do this really, really long horn blast.
“I was probably about a quarter of a mile from the railroad crossing when I heard the train do this really, really long horn blast, which tipped me off that something was wrong,” Huggins said.
A Louisville Indiana Railroad train was barreling down the tracks, through the course of the marathon.
And, thousands of runners were in its path.
Some were trying to set personal records or get times fast enough that would allow them to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
So, many runners didn’t stop for the train. Some ran in front as it was heading down the track. Once the train stopped, others rolled underneath or climbed between the cars.
“To me, just trying to clamor in between the train cars when you’ve got a mass of people behind you is just an opportunity to fall,” Huggins said. “Just seemed way safer to me to walk around the front of the train.”
At the Columbus police station, Sgt. Matt Harris was manning one of two command posts for the event. He heard about the train and immediately worried about the safety of the runners.
Police officers at the scene tried to control the chaos, but they were overwhelmed by the number of people.
“The train did continue moving after a couple minutes and the officers were trying their best to make sure there was no one in the way of the train,” Harris said. “But, there were a lot of runners who went around the train who continued on with the race. And, we’re just very thankful that no one was injured.”
An Avoidable Obstacle
Bartholomew County Emergency Operations Director Ed Reuter says the train never should have passed through Mill Race Park.
He spent months communicating with the railroad company to ensure no trains would come through the county between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. on the day of the marathon.
“They did tell me that it had been communicated with the operator of that train that he had been told earlier that morning to clear Columbus by 7 a.m. because of the marathon,” Reuter said. “And, to what reasons that didn’t happen, I just don’t have that information.”
Reuter said the railroad company is launching an internal investigation into the incident. WTIU/WFIU reached out to the president of the Louisville Indiana Railroad, but he declined to do an interview.
Reuter says event organizers and the city of Columbus did everything they could to prevent the situation.
“You can do anything and everything you can possibly do and, somehow, someway, something goes wrong. And, this is one of those times.”
While the train was only stopped for a matter of minutes, every second counts for runners who are racing against the clock. Like one of Huggins’ friends, who was trying to set a record.
“He was trying to get a personal best,” Huggins said. “He was trying to break one hour and 50 minutes. And, he ended up finishing the race in one hour, 11 seconds.”
Race organizers say there’s no way to adjust times to reflect the train delay.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have any way to know who got held up and who didn’t get held up, so all we have is the official times,” said Race Committee Member Randy Stafford.
While some are disappointed by that news, Huggins says it’s still a race he’ll never forget.
“It made for a unique race story.”
Columbus police say, despite reported threats from the conductor, no one was arrested for climbing on the train.