Simultaneously conducting multiple distance races along the same course can create problems.
DAVE MCGILLIVRAY, for Runner's World
Recently, you may have heard that at a race in Canada, a woman who registered for the half marathon, inadvertently went the wrong way at the split of the half and marathon courses. As such, she found herself on the marathon course instead of where she should have been, that is, on the half marathon course. She kept running and went on to cross the finish line as the first female finisher. The question then surfaced, should she be declared the winner of the marathon or should she not be awarded the win since she was not officially entered in the marathon race?
The race director had allowed her to continue on the marathon course where she crossed the finish line as the first female and was declared the winner. As you could imagine, this gained some pretty good national attention. The mainstream media like the Today Show and Good Morning America picked up on it and as you might have guessed, made her an instant media darling, reporting on how amazing a feat this was. Of course, as is often the case when reporting something right away, not all the facts had been presented or exposed yet for the media or the court of public opinion to fairly pass judgment on.
On the flip side, according to our industry rules, policies, and standards, should she in fact have been declared the winner?
Right after the race, the race director of the race actually emailed me and asked me if I thought he had made the right decision in giving her the win. I was not quick to answer him as I knew I did not have all the important facts at my disposal in order to intelligently answer him. I had more questions than answers. I emailed him back asking him if we could talk on the phone first which we eventually did a few days later.
There are a number of issues at play here:
- First, did she in fact sign up for the half marathon and not the full? Yes.
- Did the half and the full have different color bib numbers so that competitors would know who is entered in which race? Yes.
- Was there a written and clear policy on the race website or race application clearly stating the rule that if you signed up for one race but run the other race, what that would result in? No. No such policy was ever clearly defined or stated anywhere regarding this scenario.
- So, if there is not a written and defined policy, is there an “assumed” policy? Tough one. Since this race was in Canada, it was not sanctioned by USATF thus any USATF rule or policy here would not necessarily apply.
- Was an official, qualified referee, and Jury of Appeals appointed for the race? No. Thus the reason the race director ended up making the decision.
- Is there a difference in entry fees between the half and the full? Yes. The full marathon obviously cost more than the half. I was told by the race director that once the race was over the participant immediately paid the difference to the race.
- It’s been reported that the participant was wearing headphones throughout the race and perhaps that could have had an impact on her not hearing volunteers at the split yelling which way to go. Did anyone else in the race go the wrong way? Doesn’t seem like it. I was told there was signage at the split indicating which way to go for each event.
- Did any of the other women in the marathon file a written protest immediately following the race? No. However, I’m not exactly sure who they would file it with if there were no referee or procedure in place.
In a race this year in Boston, there was a 5-miler along with a half marathon. The two races were supposed to be separate starts. It was published as such, with the 5-miler starting 15-minutes after the half marathon. However, at the beginning of the race, the race announcer just called “all the runners” to the start, not specifically just the half marathoners. Some 5-milers then took off with the half marathoners. The 5-mile course wasn’t even ready to accept them. So, whose fault is this and how should these runners been treated in the results?
Generally speaking, I feel there are usually no real first time mistakes, only lessons learned and we can all learn from each other and each other’s races. Here are some “lessons learned” when managing and/or running in multi-distance races:
- Rules and Policies - Make rules and policies in advance. At some races, they have actually stated that someone who registers for the marathon but then finds themselves in trouble half way can exit at the half, however, they are NOT eligible for awards. They only do this so folks who are in stress or trouble, especially in extreme hot weather races, don’t feel forced to push it and then become one of our casualties. However, if you sign up for the half and decide to run the marathon instead after the gun, you will be removed from the results. Note: You can’t disqualify someone from a race if they were never legally entered in it. The key here is to make the policy and make sure everyone is told in advance. In many cases it’s your race, your rules.
- Switching – In most races, runners are not allowed to “switch” races after the gun fires, thus deciding which race they want to run while they are actually out on the race course.
- Communication – Put this policy in writing well in advance and then announce it over and over again on the PA system before the start of the race.
- Enforcement - Appoint a referee and jury of appeals in advance. Let your participants know you have these officials and they will be monitoring the race. Don’t you as the race director make the call if you can at all avoid it.
- Capacity – Since many races have “capacities” or field size limits, allowing switching during the race can cause issues such as running out of medals or other race amenities in one of the races. Also, if I wanted to run the half but it was closed out but the marathon wasn’t, I could sign up for the marathon to get into the event. If the race allowed switching even after the gun, I would then run the half marathon distance.
So back to the race in Canada and answering the question the race director posed to me – “did I make the right decision in allowing her to continue and winning the marathon?” Given his situation with no written policy, no referee and no protests and the fact that we now know even the second place finisher felt the person earned the win, the race director’s decision was what he thought was fair at that moment in time and given the facts that only he had at his disposable.
I would think “hardcore” runners and race directors would feel that her performance should not have counted and she should have been removed from the results. One local race official here in Boston stated – “for me, the runner made a choice and entered the half and with this choice go rights and responsibilities. The runner had the responsibility to complete the race she entered. (Without an official race referee appointed), the Race Director has the responsibility to support and enforce the entry process and not give an award to an unregistered runner. To do otherwise is an invitation to chaos in the sport and totally unfair to all those who complied with the published and accepted race practices.”
The lesson here is to state your rules and policies clearly and in advance otherwise you will find yourself in similar difficult spots, being tempted to acquiesce to what is best from a public relations position. I’m sure the race just didn’t give a lot of pre-race thought to the possibility that someone could run the wrong race. This is all a learning experience and I’m sure there will be written rules and policies in place in this race next year.