Behind the Scenes at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon

Published December 5, 2017

I recently had the pleasure of joining the leadership team for the 2017 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon (STWM) at its Forward Command Centre prior to the event as well as during the race. The marathon, organized by the Canada Running Series, is Canada’s second largest marathon, host to approximately 25,000 runners and 50,000 spectators annually and it features a 42km marathon, 21km half-marathon, and a 5km run. I attended the event as a guest Risk Consultant and observed the management team in their element, assessed race management procedures, and then provided feedback on potential risk exposures. This blog serves to share some of the important learnings that I gathered from my weekend of observation, and highlight some effective risk management practices I identified from the event.

The Forward Command Centre is the central intelligence hub for the STWM leadership team, which consists of approximately 25 individuals who represent various roles and agencies. The team includes the Event Director and her various department managers (race directors, operations and dispatchers, communications, customer service, transportation, volunteers) as well as several City of Toronto services (police, paramedic, fire, transit), and contracted services (medical and security). Forward Command is located in a secure, indoor space that is within close proximity to the start/finish lines and participant amenities. The race itself is supported by 3000 volunteers and 500 event managers who are strategically located throughout the course which spans roughly 30 square kilometres. The STWM leadership team is connected to these managers and volunteers via two-way radio and cell phone communication, and there are varying levels of management and information flow to ensure that the leadership team can coordinate their staff effectively. The race is a considerable undertaking as the team must manage a large number of participants, road closures, and a wide array of logistics while doing so in the downtown core of the fourth largest city in North America.

In addition to generally great planning and a sound communication structure, here are some important learnings that I gathered from my observations:

1) The event had a strong medical action plan:

  • STWM boasted a combination of contracted medical services (Odyssey Medical Inc.) as well as Toronto Paramedic Services (TPS): 15 paramedics, 75 on-course responders, 15 mobile teams (on bikes on-course, on-gator, finish chute and finish line), and five advanced and primary care paramedic units, reporting to Forward Command including six Odyssey coordinators and two TPS incident managers. The finish line included a medical compound and field clinic team comprised of a medical director, ER physician, a charge nurse, a ‘care’ team and first responders.
  • There were 11 on-course aid stations, two casualty collection points (for medical attention beyond first aid), and 16 defibrillators, all strategically positioned throughout the course in high volume areas, difficult access points, locations further from hospitals.
  • Strong planning procedures and response alignment between Odyssey and TPS existed. They co-managed the coordination of medical staff deployment and communications, utilizing their best available medical resources depending on the location and severity of any injury. They followed a clear protocol for emergency escalation to ensure the best possible care for any injured participants.

2) The event had strong volunteer support with clearly defined roles and support from Forward Command. Effective communication systems (site-wide two-way radio coverage and cell phone communication) ensured that the absence of the STWM leadership team members at specific locations was mitigated by knowledgeable volunteers with clear directives from Forward Command.

3) There was intensive coordination with City of Toronto Police Service Planning in the deployment of police officers and the coordination of road closures, which effectively mitigated disruption to local residents and those travelling around the city. As an example, the leadership team delayed the race start for one cluster of runners and swiftly opened a road closure to allow for a woman in labour to reach a local hospital.

4) I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of multiple race directors from other cities and events, from as far away as Halifax and Chicago. In the running community and in other sports, this is a common practice. By welcoming other event directors on to the team, the leadership streamlines its level of teaching and instruction, fosters a great sharing of resources and best practices, and has trust in their ability to respond to situational challenges.

I also observed several effective risk management practices at STWM that can be applied to almost any type of sport event:

1) Hourly situational awareness meetings: At the top of each hour the Event Director or designate leader would garner the attention of the room and do a brief around-the-horn session to gather any pertinent updates from the leadership team (i.e. weather updates, medical, and share any critical updates of their own). This is an important risk management practice for event managers to implement within their own events. Do not leave your people in silos for the duration of an event and always keep them informed!

2) Event Alert System (EAS): A colour-coded flagging system (green – yellow – red – black) was utilized throughout the course, to communicate the status of course conditions to staff, participants and volunteers. The EAS is based on weather and other event conditions, and is widely communicated to all participants via public address announcements, signage, and flags throughout the course. Each colour designation represents a degree of risk, suggested messaging for participants, and recommended actions. This system is simple, recognizable and very easy to implement at any event.

3) Muster stations: More than 30 muster stations were established throughout the STWM course. The use of muster stations is to address a critical situation where all participants should be evacuated, or ‘mustered’, to a safe zone until the situation is resolved. Situational examples include severe weather or acts of god (e.g., earthquake), a terrorist threat, or a structural collapse. Whether your event is big or small, you should plan for muster stations or shelters just in case a critical situation occurs, however unlikely that may be.

The lessons and practices shared in this blogpost only scratch the surface in terms of the preparation and safety-focused execution of the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Whether you are hosting a running event or any other type of sport event, the learnings and risk management practices that I observed at the STWM can likely be applied to your event operations. These are just a few measures that can help you to mitigate your risk and enhance your standard of care. If you are interested in learning more about event risk management, conducting an audit of your events, or just investing in event safety in general, I welcome you to contact me for an informal chat. @sportarchitect


Recent Posts

Trespass and Restricting Access to Facilities and Events

My Passion for Sport Fueled my Passion for Sport Law

The Cost of Doing Good: Athlete Activists Pay the Price

Here’s Hoping for Healthy, Human Sport in 2024

Grief, Living Losses, and Shattered Dreams: Why doing the grief work will help sport heal


Sign up to our newsletter.
Newsletter signup
Let's resolve your challenges and realize your vision