DAVE MCGILLIVRAY, for Runner's World
Dave, I hope you'll indulge me to mention a pet peeve of mine. It involves time limits. I've done a few marathons lately that announced a 6-hour time limit. I'm a walker and it takes me 5 1/2 to 6 hours to complete a marathon.
At one race (a double loop course) the first time around the course was well manned both by police and volunteers. The second loop was not. I understand volunteers are there by their own goodness, but the intersections were no less dangerous 3 hours after the start than before.
At another race, the police actually informed me (as the last person) that they were leaving and I was on my own -- at about 5 hours into the race. When I finished, the time on the clock was 5:44, so I was not over the limit. Also, the race had touted its excellent post-race food selection, but there was nothing except maybe some water by the time I got to the tables, and it was being hauled away.
At yet another race, I finished in under 6 hours and there was a person with a clock to record my time, but when I asked about a finisher medal I was told they were packed away already. As was the food. And the race director had departed.
I've started calling this phenomenon the "pseudo 6-hour time limit." I would be happier if race directors were honest. If you don't want to support 6 hours, then make it a 5-hour limit. Or only have a half-marathon.
On the flip side are races that announce a particular time limit, but allow people to finish up to an hour later. This can be extremely annoying to someone who does not sign up knowing they aren't fast enough for the announced time limit, only to find out later that they could have done the race.
Can you address this issue? - Vicki M., Cantonment, Fla.
Thanks for writing, Vicki.
Ten or so years ago, race directors generally never considered cut-off times for their events. Most participants ran in the race and most ran pretty swiftly; thus, time limits just weren't needed. However, as we all know, it is a new industry now. Whereas it is inspiring and encouraging to see so many people "participating" in races -- in particular, in half and full marathons -- it has also brought with it challenges for event directors and for the municipalities within which races are conducted.
The challenges for race directors are fairly obvious. Most cities or towns and permitting agencies who are gracious enough to give permission for an event in their community are concerned about how long their roads will be closed to traffic. For example, when marathons were held in the 1970s and '80s, most participants could finish under 4 hours and everyone would definitely finish under 5 hours. Now, that is simply not the case.
Given the walk/jog phenomenon, and the fact that walkers are allowed (and in many cases encouraged) to participate, hundreds of participants need at least 5 hours to finish, if not 6 hours and for some even 7+ hours. Events need to clearly state their policies up front, including time limits. Not only that, but it should also be made clear how that maximum finishing time translates to a per-mile pace. If the pace per mile is not being met, it should be clear exactly what that means for the participant -- either removal from the race course or being instructed to move onto the sidewalk or side of the road where it is safe to continue.
It's worth noting that some races must remove participants from the course at certain locations if they don't meet the time limits, as the race may need to re-open a bridge or a theme park or a major roadway. These races just cannot take no for an answer.
If participants remain on the course beyond the stated time limits, the problem becomes twofold.
First, what course support does a participant expect once the pace per mile is exceeded and the course is officially opened to traffic? Typically, chip mats are pulled, water stations and medical stations are closed down, and -- if the course is heavily marked by cones and signs -- perhaps most of those are being picked up. Where does that leave the participant in terms of aid and direction? Even if it is clearly stated in all the registration material that they are own their own after a certain time, can we as event directors truly ignore them? And what is the liability in this case?
Second, if a participant completes the entire marathon distance and finishes after the time limit, do they still get a medal, a time, a place, water, food and medical assistance if needed? In fairness to all those volunteering their time to the event, some have been on the course or working the finish line for 10 hours or more. Is it fair to ask or require them to stay even longer because of slower finishers out on the course, even after the published course re-opening time?
And what about those races that publicize a cut-off time but don't really enforce it? The intent in publicizing it is to discourage people who need longer than the cut-off time to finish from entering. However, if you do end up accommodating those who don't meet the cut-off time, is that fair to those who stayed away out of respect to these guidelines?
Some have suggested starting the slower participants earlier. The obvious problem with this is that if there are a lot of them, you would then have to get the volunteers out there earlier and shut the roads down earlier so you really haven't achieved much in doing it this way. Additionally, once the race begins you could be faced with the faster runners catching and passing the slower runners and walkers, which could result in issues out along the course, especially with lead vehicles being unable to pass.
So, my advice to race directors:
- Determine up front if you need to impose a cut-off time and a pace-per-mile time. Have a trail vehicle (car, scooter, or bicyclist) riding in back at this pace-per-mile speed so participants know right at the start if they are running/walking within this time limit.
- If you do decide to impose a cut-off time, communicate that early and often. This is key.
- If you state this as a policy, stick to it. The tough part comes if someone is, say, just one minute over the time limit. If you make an exception here, then what about two minutes, etc.?
- If your course can't allow participants to be out there after a certain time limit, perhaps even create an option whereby if some runners don't reach, say, the 20-mile mark by a certain time, divert them to an alternative one-mile loop course that they could cover six times to minimize resources needed. They can at least cover the distance and get a time, a medal, and their results.
My advice to runners:
- If you honestly know you need more time to cover the course than a race allows, don't enter that race.
- Look for walker-friendly races -- that is, races that allow participants to take longer times to cover the course.
Bottom line: When races publish a time limit, it is their responsibility to stick with that limit (unless there is an emergency of sorts that couldalter this) and to be prepared to continue to provide all the necessaryservices and amenities to everyone within that time limit: volunteer support, medical support, fluids, food, medals, finishing time. Participants have trained hard and invested time and money and deserve that much. I agree that to provide anything less is reasonable cause to request a full or partial refund, although that pales in comparison to what the participant had to experience. The event has to be prepared to deliver on all its promises, or it will lose credibility with the running community.
With more and more people entering races -- whether as a runner, a jogger/walker, or strictly a walker -- this challenge will only grow.
Readers: What are your thoughts?