DAVE MCGILLIVRAY, for Runner's World
I’ve heard stories about poor course markings or improper directions from course officials causing runners to go in the wrong direction. What happens to the results in such a scenario? - Name Withheld
Let me begin by saying that in a properly planned event, this should never happen. We are all human, however, and occasionally mistakes do happen.
Years ago, race organizers had much more limited resources in terms of budgets for signage, lead vehicles and other precautions to prevent runners from going “off course.” During that era, it was common for organizers to hang their hat on a USA Track & Field rule which states that participants are responsible for knowing the course. Nowadays, with participants numbering in the thousands, larger budgets for signage, and public safety departments requiring more detailed plans for course control, there is little excuse for runners going in the wrong direction during a road race. As a runner myself in many races, I rarely know the course I am running and just rely on following the people in front of me and/or paying attention to the road markings, signs, cones, or volunteers directing me.
In rare circumstances, race officials may re-direct the flow of participants during a race due to unforeseen circumstances (traffic jams, fallen trees or electrical wires, fires on the course, or other emergency circumstances). The possibility of such scenarios presents a catch-22 to lead runners who have studied the course and know which way the lead vehicle is supposed to go. In general, I would always advise runners to follow the lead vehicles. In a case where the lead vehicle goes the wrong way, the rule still states that the winner must have run the designated course. However, when this does happen, often it is at the discretion of the race director to decide who is awarded what and how the race is ultimately scored. Just recently in the St. Jude Memphis Marathon, the top four runners went off course due to misplaced cones. Although they were disqualified from the race, the top three (along with the actual winners) were still awarded prize money as if they run the full course. Of course, if a runner has been officially disqualified from the race for going the wrong way, everyone else (who went the right way) moves up in the overall results.
On a number of occasions I have received e-mails from runners who have just run a marathon explaining that -- through no fault of their own -- the course was either a little too long or a little too short and asking if their "adjusted" time would qualify them for the Boston Marathon. Under these circumstances, if it truly is close we suggest to the event director that they provide us with the appropriate adjusted times within reason and we typically give the benefit of the doubt to the runners. However, that only applies to our qualifying procedures -- not to the USATF rules regarding final finishing times and places.
A few critical elements in keeping runners on course: using lead police vehicles; having race officials riding in the lead police vehicles; having knowledgeable bicycle escorts in case of “breakaways” (when a handful of runners go past the horizon of the main pack); ensuring clear course marking (paint and/or signage) at all turns; and placing dependable volunteers at each turn and major intersection.
When runners put down their money to participate in an event, they should be able to trust the organizers to provide the proper direction and course markings to prevent them from getting lost.