When managing our races, we tend to focus a lot on the elite leaders in the race: we make sure they go in the right direction, they follow our lead vehicles, and they're cheered on by thousands of spectators. However, what about the last runner(s)? How much time and effort and resources are dedicated to ensuring they, too, are taken care of and go in the proper direction and receive their due adulation? In many cases, probably not that much.
Most races do establish cut-off times and pace times where runners need to reach certain distances along the course by certain times so the roads can be safely re-opened. These cut-off times should be established early on in the planning process and stated boldly on the race’s website before anyone registers so as to set the expectations from day one for all those interested in registering for the race.
Even with the expectations established and the rules in place, many still enter thinking they can meet these standards but come race day find out the hard way that they can’t. Others might just be having a really bad day. So, what do we as race directors do with these folks who fall behind the timeline?
Here are a few ideas and thoughts you might want to consider and plan for:
- Always establish and promote what your cut-off and road re-opening times are and give prospective participants an average pace by which they are expected to meet throughout the race. Don’t spring this on them at the last minute or surprise them after they have entered the race.
- Most cities, towns, and municipalities will require that the roads be re-opened by a certain time, so this should help you in establishing these times. Also, some races must require runners to be beyond a certain point (a bridge, railroad tracks, through a park) by a certain time or they will be stopped.
- Develop a detailed road re-opening program including timing system breakdown, equipment, supplies and trash pick-ups, pace vehicle, bicycle spotters, trail vehicle (sweep bus), and police support.
- Communications: it is critical for the race’s Command Center to be able to maintain constant communications (cellular phone, amateur radio or 2-way commercial radio, GPS) with all the trail vehicles and be constantly made aware as to where the last runners are at all times.
- The trail pace vehicle and bicycle spotters should be following the pace timeline. As they approach runners who have fallen behind the timeline, they should inform the runners that the roads are going to be re-opened and instruct them to either board the trail bus (sweep vehicle) or move to the sidewalk or side of the road.
- Typically, the sweep vehicle is a mini-bus able to transport a dozen or more runners and could be supplied with water, food and even medical personnel. The idea is that once someone boards this sweep bus, official personnel on the bus should help “ease the pain” of those boarding as it can get emotional when runners realize they were not able to fulfill their goal of finishing the race.
- An issue arises if there are no sidewalks or if it is dangerous to even run/walk on the side of the road with traffic flowing. If this is the case, there should be a requirement that anyone following behind the pace timeline must board the bus and either be driven up ahead where they can get back on pace (although they might have to then be DQed from the results) or driven all the way back to the finish. The real challenge becomes what to do about the person(s) who refuse to board the sweep bus? If it has become a public safety issue, that is why it is always good to have a police vehicle and officer with this package.
- In some cases, it can actually be difficult to track the last runners if for any reason someone decides to leave the course (go into a store or gas station or portable restroom) as the trail vehicle package passes by. Not always a perfect science.
And lastly, one of the most challenging issues I have struggled with is: What is the “ethical” responsibility of the race to any runner still out on the course after the cut off time and after all the trail vehicles have passed? We all may state certain things on our website site about this but in the end, do we really leave them out on the road and perhaps in the dark all alone? Even though they may have refused to board the sweep vehicles, do we still have an obligation to “care” for them? Do we leave medical stations set up? Water stations? We can’t keep our volunteers out there forever, especially for just a few folks who are way behind the timeline. How long do we truly leave the finish line structure set up with personnel and medal distribution? Do you break everything down, pack everything up and leave knowing you may still have a few folks still out on the course? Tough call indeed. For me, I have a hard time just leaving them out there alone. If they have someone else out there with them and caring for them that is one thing. If they are truly on their own, I try to assign someone to stay with them until they are finished and are able to get themselves safely back to where they come from if they don’t have any family or friends waiting for them at the finish line.
It is certainly inspiring to see so many folks getting off the couch and participating in our races. However, at some level, everyone needs to take personal responsibility for themselves and be trained enough going in to be able to meet the race's pace standards.