DAVE MCGILLIVRAY, for Runner's World

What are the accepted/required procedures for starting a marathon? Do you have to say, "Ready... set... go"? (Or "Ready... set... (bang!)"? I've seen races started with a car horn, a handheld horn, a whistle, and a starter's gun. I understand that the New York City Marathon is started with a big Army artillery piece, maybe a 105 mm gun.
But I'm really asking about the stuff before the "go/bang" part. Most races have some general instructions to runners in the minutes before the gun. And really big races have some professional speaking, to build excitement. So what is the proper protocol? Do you have to say "Ready"? If so, when? How about "set"? Again, when?  How about the 1-, 2-, 5- and 15-minute warnings?  How accurate do they need to be?
I'm asking because I always seem to stress out a bit as I finish my stretching and pack my sweats into the bag drop. - Oyster Engineer

You pose a number of good questions here. First, I always try to start a race at precisely the advertised time. Of course, if we aren't ready at that time, I won't start the race. But that rarely happens. Any speaking program is done on a timeline leading up to the start time, so as not to affect the start time. (I'm not a fan of long speeches at the start, so speakers are asked to keep their remarks to less than 30 seconds.) Most races also play, or have someone sing, the National Anthem before the start. Most announcements should be instructional in nature, so as to keep the participants informed of what is going on and where activities are occurring. The key, again, is to keep everything on a timeline leading up to the advertised starting time.

Generally, for most of my races, I use an air horn to start the race, as that method seems most audible and dependable (if you keep the air horn out of the cold). However, races may opt for a starting mechanism that's somewhat "thematic" -- e.g., a Pilgrim firing a musket for a Thanksgiving Day race.

As for the actual countdown, I always have the announcer give time checks at 1 hour before the gun; then 30 minutes, 15 minutes, 10 minutes, and 5 minutes before; then 4 minutes, 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute, and 30 seconds. The last warning is made 15 seconds before the gun, and then things are in the hands of the starter. The announcer simply states, "Listen for the air horn" -- we don't given any verbal commands with 15 seconds to go. I never have a countdown from 10 seconds over the PA. If for some reason I have to hold the start at the last second -- for instance, if a child or a dog runs out in front of the start, a lead vehicle stalls, etc. -- this sort of countdown could be difficult in stopping the runners from just bolting when they got to zero. If we have to hold the start for some safety reason, we reset to either one minute or 30 seconds to go. Everyone is aware of this, so there is never a reason to panic. Additionally, I am usually the one on the road in front of the starting line with communications giving the signal to the starter to fire the air horn. This puts the responsibility for actually starting the race solely in my hands.

Two anecdotes leap to mind, when I think of starts that went wrong somehow. Both of them were at the Boston Marathon.

The first was in 1987, back when Boston still started precisely at noon. The moment the clock hit 12:00, the official starter, Tom Brown, fired the gun. Unfortunately, officials and police officers were still standing in front of the starting line. The restraining rope, holding the runners back, had not yet been removed. Not good. The previous year's winner, Rob DeCastella, was actually tripped up and tumbled to the ground. Lucky for me, it was then that the BAA decided to seek a "technical director" for the race. I was hired for the job in 1988.

More recently, 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist Joan Samuelson was tapped as the official starter of the 2008 elite women's race at Boston. As she raised her arm to fire the gun with 10 seconds to go, everyone braced themselves; photographers from around the world readied for that all-important shot of the start, and the top three finishers of that year's U.S. Women's Olympic Marathon Trials stood next to Joanie on the starter's platform. With a second to go, she pulled the trigger and... nothing. First time in my 22-year history the gun misfired! One second seemed like an eternity. However, no one panicked, we reset the start for a minute later, replaced the gun with a back-up, and Joanie succeded on her second try.