Fast Responders

Race Guards’ in-race first aid teams help runners stay safe every step of the course

Written by Kristin Pladson
Originally published by ACE™ Brand Products

A cool rain fell early the morning of March 22, when seasoned runners Ron Tran, his wife Janie and their three children crossed the starting line of the 2015 Dallas Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon. Part of a throng of nearly 12,000 runners, the 48-year-old Tran and his daughter Michelle took off at a gentle trot, leaving behind Janie and children Vincent and Sarah to tackle the hilly 13.1 miles together.

Just three miles into the race, Tran couldn’t hold back his competitive spirit any longer. Feeling “energetic and strong,” Tran was ready to increase his pace. Michelle waved him on, agreeing to meet her dad at the finish line.

But Tran wouldn’t finish the race that day.

“At 13 miles I was pretty exhausted but I wanted to push hard for the finish line,” says Tran. “Then it was like a switch turned off. I just went down. The next thing I remember was waking up in an ambulance.”

Tran learned later that he had suffered cardiac arrest, a critical, sudden condition that depends on immediate treatment for survival. In fact, 95% of cardiac arrest victims die, often simply because help can’t be delivered quickly enough–ideally, three to five minutes after collapse. But that day, time was on Tran’s side. Life-saving help was on the way even before his body hit the pavement.


“I had finished the race and decided to go back upstream to see if anything was happening–it’s easier to see runners’ faces that way,” explains Laura Dowd, a San Diego-based veterinarian. “I was about 10 feet from Ron when he went down and began having a seizure.”

Less than three minutes after Tran fell, Dowd began CPR compressions, helping to restart his heart after a previously undetected congenital heart defect caused the muscle to stop functioning.

That Dowd was exactly where Tran needed her when he needed her wasn’t by chance. She participated in the half-marathon that day as a volunteer for Race Guards, an ACE Brand-sponsored organization that provides in-race aid to athletes.

“Laura saved my life that day,” says Tran. “When my heart stopped, my lungs stopped. I could have had brain damage or heart damage or maybe even wouldn’t have woken up. It was a miracle that she was there at the moment I went down. If Race Guards hadn’t been at the half-marathon that morning I don’t know that I’d be here today.”

If Race Guards hadn’t been at the
half-marathon that morning I don’t know that
I’d be here today.

Ron Tran
Cardiac Arrest Survivor

In-Race First Responders

Running in teams of two at fast, middle-of-the-pack and slow paces, Race Guards are staggered throughout the course looking for anyone in distress who may be limping, listing to the side, in pain or disoriented. Every Race Guard is certified in first aid, CPR and the use of an AED (Automated External Defibrillator), and carries a 5-pound pack of medical supplies, including items like ACE™ Brand Elastic Bandages, Nexcare™ bandages, chafing treatments, ice packs and salt packets. Along the way, they help with everything from chafing to heat stroke to simply providing an encouraging voice.

Though major incidents like cardiac arrest do happen–Tran was the second runner Laura saved through CPR since joining Race Guards–the majority of issues treated by Race Guards are relatively minor. “Things like blisters, chafing and cramping are all really common,” says Dowd. “As a Race Guard, I almost see CPR as a failure because our job is to prevent something from getting that far. We want to get the people before they fall, before they need extended help.”

That proactive approach is exactly what inspired the creation of this organization. Twelve years ago, Andy Voggenthaler, founding director of Race Guards, had just finished the swim portion of a triathlon when the 37-year-old racer beside him suffered a fatal heart attack. “It made me think about all the things that happen over the course of an event and how they rarely take place near the aid stations or medical tent,” recalls Voggenthaler. “I figured that if we could get people who are knowledgeable and approachable out on the course right next to the runners, they could get help faster and earlier and hopefully avoid the bigger issues.”

With support from a community grant, Voggenthaler tested the Race Guards idea in March 2012 at the Finish Chelsea’s Run in San Diego, a 5K race Voggenthaler co-founded in honor of a California teen who had been brutally murdered while out jogging. Though he didn’t expect much action that day, Voggenthaler’s team of 30 EMTs, doctors and physician assistants helped 13 people who otherwise may not have successfully finished the race.

“We got back to the medical tent, and I noticed that everybody from the Race Guards team had a huge smile and was so excited,” says Voggenthaler. “There was a whole different perspective for these athletes who were able to be out there and give back to the running community.”

While many Race Guards are doctors, nurses, EMTs or have other professional medical training (Race Guards provides the necessary medical certification training for all), the primary qualifications for volunteers are a proven track record in endurance sports, a friendly attitude and a passion for helping others. “It takes a special individual,” says Voggenthaler. “They have to be fun, outgoing people who want to make a difference. Many have just gotten to the point where they’ve trained so much over the years that now they really just want to help others achieve great things.”

A Growing Field

Today, there are more than 700 trained Race Guard volunteers spread across the country. And this year, the organization hopes to cover 35 to 50 events ranging from 5K community events to marathons as well as some triathlons, cycling, swim and obstacle events. But with more than 40,000 races taking place in the US each year, Voggenthaler admits they have room to grow. “Now there are so many events that are themed,” he says. “New runners are more interested in having fun with their friends than they are about training. It’s great for them and great for the sport, but we’re seeing a lot more folks that are undertrained.”

Of course, even seasoned running veterans like Tran can get into trouble, as a result of anything from undiagnosed medical concerns to extreme weather. That’s why having Race Guards present and available is more important than ever. “We want to be the standard of care in endurance sports moving forward,” he says. “We’re helping people accomplish a goal and do it safely. It’s about getting people to the finish line.”

We’re helping people accomplish a goal and
do it safely. It’s about getting people to the
finish line.

Andy Voggenthaler
Race Guards Founder

Run Safe with Race Guards

Whether it’s your first 5K or your fiftieth 26.2, crossing that finish line is something special. But getting there takes preparation and smart choices. Here are some Race Guard-approved tips to help you make it through the chute safe and strong.


Train properly: The single best way to guarantee a not so fun run – and perhaps a medical issue or two – is not putting in the mileage before race day. Every race – especially if it’s the first time you’ve done the distance – requires appropriate training. If you’re a beginner, Voggenthaler suggests finding a local running group or signing up for a training program that will help you safely train for the distance.


Know the course: If the course takes place in an unfamiliar area, be sure to get a course map and drive, run or walk it if possible, suggests Voggenthaler. By becoming familiar with the terrain, turns and elevation changes, you’ll have a better sense of where you need to push and where you can cruise. And knowing the starting area will save on unnecessary race morning stress.


Fuel up: Sorry, breakfast haters. Your body just can’t store enough fuel from dinner the night before to carry you through a morning race. Skipping breakfast will not only strip the fun from your run but could even cause an early race exit (and a helpful visit from the Race Guards). Try starting the day with simple yet power-packed breakfasts like oatmeal, peanut butter toast or a banana.


Keep it familiar: To reduce your odds of experiencing mid-race GI distress or chafing, avoid trying new foods, new shoes or anything else you haven’t used on several training runs, says Dowd.


Don’t overdress: A good rule of thumb is to dress as you would to be comfortable simply standing outside if the temperature were 20 degrees warmer. If pre-race warmth is a concern, “wear an extra layer at the start then be ready to toss it as soon as you warm up,” suggests Voggenthaler.


Listen to your body: Your best defense against illness and injury is simply listening to your body. Never ignore or try to push through symptoms like chest pain, dizziness or faintness, nausea, shortness of breath or sharp pain. If you need help, ask for it. As long as you take care of yourself, there will always be another race or another shot at a PR.


Keep moving: Grab your medal and keep walking for at least 10 minutes or until your heart rate comes back down to its resting state, and then do some post-race recovery stretches and icing, advises Voggenthaler. And the very next day, do some stretching along with some non- or light impact activity like walking, swimming or cycling.


Enjoy every step: “A lot of people are so hard on themselves when it comes to finish times, but I try to remind them that no matter what their pace is they’re out there. They’re not on the couch,” says Dowd. Whether you’re leading the charge or in the back of the pack, the most important thing to do is simply have fun.


Written by:
Kristin Pladson

A longtime runner, marathoner and Minneapolis-based freelance writer, Kristin's running and stories have appeared in Runner's World, Live Better America, and Whole Living, among other publications.

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