Las Vegas marathon runners say they were sickened

The water tasted metallic and stale, but runner Charlene Ragsdale needed to replenish her fluids if she were to finish Sunday’s half-marathon at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon.

Nerves twisted up her stomach, at least, that’s what she thought.

Suddenly, it wasn’t just the taste that didn’t seem right, it was the way her body was reacting once she was done drinking.

Rock ‘n’ Roll had taken on a whole new meaning.

Soon, the 50-year-old Las Vegan was doubled over from stomach cramps "worse than childbirth." Violent vomiting and explosive diarrhea almost kept her from crossing the finish line.

As Ragsdale reached another water station, she saw water being pumped from a nearby fire hydrant with white hoses into a plastic lined garbage can. Event volunteers wearing plastic gloves would dip cups into the cans and pass them off to runners.

It didn’t look filtered or flushed, and it didn’t look safe, she said.

"The pain was horrible," Ragsdale said. "I realized I was in serious, serious trouble. Something is wrong now."

Runners all around her slowed their pace as they, too, struggled and appeared to be in pain. People began throwing up all around her, she said.

"I was thinking, ‘Did we have a war and not know about it?’ " Ragsdale said.

She kept asking for help — an ambulance or a medic. She was twice pointed to the portable toilets by event volunteers and police and told to keep walking to stay warm. It wasn’t until the 12th mile that she finally got someone to listen to her that she needed an ambulance. She was transported to a St. Rose Dominican hospital campus for hypothermia and dehydration. Her husband also became violently ill after the race and experienced similar symptoms, she added.

It’s unclear exactly how many race participants were sickened, but Ragsdale’s story is echoed by dozens of other runners, who participated in the race, on the event’s Facebook page.

Participant Sara Raetz-Day posted Wednesday, "Yeah…3 days post race and I still feel queezy. Actually puked after the race, which has never happened."

Another runner, Paul Arroyo, posted that he stopped drinking the water at the event once he saw hoses coming from the hydrant.

But according to officials at the Las Vegas Valley Water District, water in the race area, near the Wynn, was tested days before the event and came back clean. The water district collects 35,000 samples annually from around the distribution system to test water quality. There were no complaints from the hotel, either.

J.C. Davis, water district spokesman, said event organizers rented a district meter, a chamber that screws onto a hydrant, allowing access and tracks water usage. Hoses connected to the hydrants are provided by meter renters, not by the water district, Davis added.

"Unfortunately, we can’t be responsible for how people are going to utilize and dispense the water once it gets out of our distribution system," Davis said. "We don’t know how well they sanitized the containers. New containers actually emit certain chemicals when mixed with water for the first time. They’re not designed as giant drinking glasses."

San Diego-based Competitor Group, which owns all the Rock ‘n’ Roll events around the country, said the water distribution process is not unusual. CEO Peter Englehart said that is not only standard operating procedure for his company’s events around the country, but for almost all major running events.

"That’s the plan, and we have it in every city. We’ve done it in Las Vegas the past two years, and we’ve been assured by the water district that it’s potable," Englehart said.

"It’s the process we’ve followed in 25 other cities around the country. Every big event in the country does that, and even some smaller events."

Davis said he was concerned that people were using their hands to dip cups into an open container exposed to thousands of race participants.

"You wouldn’t do that in a restaurant," he said. "I don’t know what the source of it was. All I know is what it looked like when we delivered it essentially through the meter."

As for the "metallic and stale" taste?

"We do a lot of water quality outreach, and people generally don’t like the taste of our water," Davis said. "There’s a high mineral content and high chlorine residual. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone said the water tastes funny."

Jennifer Sizemore, Southern Nevada Health District spokeswoman, said the health district has received only one complaint. However, the discussion has prompted district officials to reach out to the event coordinator next year to ensure water is coming from an appropriate source .

Ragsdale, an experienced runner who ran in 26 races this year, said she will never race in the marathon again.

"I will never put my life in danger with them again," Ragsdale said.

"I really thought I was going to die, and that’s not an exaggeration. There was a lack of care, and I didn’t know what was going on with me. … Something was amiss. Something was horribly wrong."

Review-Journal writer Patrick Everson contributed to this report. Contact reporter Kristi Jourdan at kjourdan@ or 702-455-4519.

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