Marathon Medical Director: Preparing for the Big Event

September 20, 2017

Dr. Mark Westfall transitions to the bike at last year's Wisconsin Ironman.

As someone whose day is impossible to plan for, Dr. Mark Westfall knows the importance of being prepared.

So it is for an emergency room physician.

“You’re never quite sure what situations you’ll be presented while on duty in the ER,” said Westfall, “so readiness is a priority for our ER team.”

That mindset of readiness also serves Westfall well in one of his other roles: Medical Director of the Fox Cities Marathon (FCM). Westfall leads the team that oversees the medical needs for the nearly 7,000 participants in this year’s festival of races on September 22-24.

For many years prior to assuming the role of Medical Director, Westfall helped to coordinate the event’s on-course ambulance services, the first responders who need to be prepared for any 911 call or life-threatening emergency during the event weekend.

Getting ready to provide medical attention at multiple races – culminating in a Sunday marathon and half marathon that collectively boasts more that 5,000 athletes – well, that calls for a certain amount of forethought.

“I am extremely fortunate to work with the professionals who comprise the Fox Cities Marathon medical team,” said Westfall. “Collectively, we have experienced just about every event-related emergency imaginable, so we have a solid foundation for event safety.”

What about the emergencies they haven’t experienced?

“We do our best to prepare for those as well,” said Westfall.

All of the emergency medical service personnel and medical staff are what Westfall refers to as “local talent,” the physicians, nurses, therapists and other medical professionals that are called upon every day when community members have health care needs. The medical professionals staffing the first aid stations, bike teams, pre-stationed and roving ambulances, and the finish line medical tent have extensive experience in recognizing and treating conditions that can affect participants on race day. 

“We are very fortunate to have volunteers from across all aspects of healthcare within the Fox Cities,” said Westfall.

Looking at the uniqueness of illnesses related to distance events such as marathons and Ironman challenges, Westfall utilizes best practices with the goal of improving the experience of every athlete.

“For FCM, we use best practices established by the International Institute for Race Medicine, as well as those practiced at the Boston Marathon and the Marine Corps Marathon,” said Westfall, who has traveled to Boston, Chicago, Walt Disney World and sites around the country to observe onsite medical teams in action.

“Our goal is to provide the same type of care at FCM that one would get in Boston or New York,” said Westfall. “By connecting and sharing information with medical coordinators, both nationally and internationally, we can share ideas and innovations that make our races here as safe as they can be.”

Westfall also brings a runner’s mentality to his role as Medical Director. He is an avid distance runner and has competed in numerous marathons, half marathons, and triathlons.

His most recent goal was to compete in last year’s Ironman in Madison, the state’s only

Ironman event. Comprised of a 2.4 mile swim in Lake Mendota, a 112 mile bike ride, and a marathon. Despite his training, Westfall admitted the event didn’t go exactly as he had planned.

“There was pain and suffering,” said Westfall, “but the Ironman experience was amazing and unforgettable.”

As someone with a passion for distance events, Westfall embraces the challenges presented when preparing for a race, whether as participant or medical director. One challenge presented to the medical team is a given: there will be an injury or an illness.

“I cannot remember being at a single event that did not have one or the other, or both,” he said.

One strategy to quickly respond to medical emergencies is through the use of the RunnersHealth Medical QR Code®, technology created to provide immediate access to vital health information of athletes experiencing acute illness or injury.

This year, every participant wearing a pre-printed race bib will have a unique Medical QR Code® with their name, address, phone number, and emergency contact immediately available to credentialed emergency personnel through a secure and proprietary app, in less than 30 seconds. More extensive information, such as multiple emergency contacts, medications, allergies, and medical conditions, will also be accessible if provided.

“Through my work in an ER/Trauma Center, I see people every day with illnesses and injuries that run the gamut,” said Westfall.  “They share a single commonality: all these visits to the ER were unplanned.”

Westfall notes that meticulous preparation is a given in any emergency and standard operating procedure for a medical team providing care at a distance event as well.

Westfall feels strongly that it’s a refrain FCM participants can never hear enough.

“As every runner knows,” said Westfall, “careful and thorough preparation can pay extraordinary dividends on race day.”

And just like in the ER, you never know what’s going to happen on race day.

Just ask the good doctor about his Ironman experience.