-- Marathon Running Information, Coaching and Advice from Coach Joe English

Racing — First Follow the Rules, What Happens Next is Not Up to You

running-advice-bugTwice in the last year I’ve been on different sides of a the same issue and it has to do with knowing and following the rules in racing. I think it may be helpful to think this through, because whether you’re a leader or a follower, the bottom line is that you need to follow the rules of the race — whether the race officials follow their own rules in application is a question for them, not you.

Yesterday I was running in a mid-sized 10K race. I say mid-sized (about 1,000 runners in the 10K distance and 5,000 in all distances) because it was a well organized race and you’d expect the course to be well marked. I was sitting in a comfortable fourth place, well out of contention and enjoying myself. I was there to get in a good workout and I was happy to sit back and watch the top three guys up there fighting it out. But then we came to a fork in the road, literally. I knew that we were supposed to take a right turn, but I saw the two leaders keep going straight. There was no volunteer at the intersection and it was otherwise unmarked. The third place runner slowed as he came to the intersection and then he looked back at me — I pointed to the right and he went right, but slowed down to let me catch up.

I was certain that the course turned right at that intersection, because I run this route probably twice a week in training. This is my hood. Unfortunately, I also knew that the road the leaders were following was going to shorten their course pretty significantly. Either road would have lead to a turn-around at the half-way point of the course and then we would have headed straight back to the finish, so it wasn’t a matter of getting lost. It was just a matter of running the right course and the right distance.

So did we make the right choice? Well, first a review of the rules. In both running and triathlon it is the responsibility of the athlete to know the course. Going off course, whether on purpose or not, is against the rules because it could result in shortening (or lengthening the course). There has been high-profile cases of leaders taking wrong turns in marathons and getting disqualified, but race organizers hate doing this because it almost always means that something wasn’t marked correctly.

The rules then say that you as a runner need to know and follow the course. My thought process yesterday was, first, that there could have been a timing mat at the turn-around and second that if someone did file a compliant (like the guy ahead of me in third place) that we would move up into first and second place, putting us both in the prize money. I wasn’t going to make a stink about this, because I wasn’t in contention anyway, but I was concerned that the leaders might set a course record by shorting the course.

As it turned out, there was no timing mat at the turn-around. We ended up finishing in the same finish order, but there is a much larger gap in the results than there should have been. When we told the race organizers what had happened they essentially blew it off. The finish-line official (who I personally think is a great guy) just said, “they didn’t set a course record, so it doesn’t matter.” But what does matter here is that when faced with making the choice between following the rules and not following the rules, you should always follow the rules. They very easily could have disqualified the first two runners, completely changing the outcome of the race.

Now I said that this has happened twice, so let me take you back to exactly one year ago this weekend. On this weekend (which may be cursed for me) I was leading a race and had been in the lead for the entire race. This was a duathlon and I was approaching the finish area. In this case a race volunteer pointed me in the wrong direction (I yelled, “which way, which way” and she pointed the wrong way). So I went down the wrong path, taking me into transition rather than to the finish line. In this case, race officials told me to go back and finish on the other side. I did this, but the second place runner passed me in the process.

In this case I did lodge a complaint because I felt I had been misdirected. In triathlon and duathlon, race officials are much more comfortable assessing penalties and disqualifying people — unlike road-running it happens in pretty much every race. Here the race official said, they were not willing to make a change in the results because of the volunteer’s error and that if I wanted to lodge a formal complaint, they would have to assess a penalty to me for failing to follow the course. That was a pretty unfair result, but the point is that the rule says the athletes need to know the course, even if race organizers fail to mark the course or a one of their people sends you the wrong way.

The bottom line here is that you follow the rules first. That’s your part of the equation. What happens after the race is not up to you, but you would rather have the rules on your side than not.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News


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