Bringing Up the Rear: How Late Should a Race Course Remain Open?
The sport is booming. The walls of intimidation have been torn down. Anyone willing to make a commitment and accept the sacrifices involved can do it. Races are closing out at record pace, especially at the marathon and half-marathon distances. Life is good in this business.
Posted Thursday, 11 May, 2006
However, with success comes along new challenges. Many of us are old enough to remember the “running boom” of the 70’s and the early 80’s. The Shorter, Rodgers, Benoit phenomenon was all the incentive we needed. It was all about competition back then, knock down, drag out competition, not just participation. It was about running each other into the ground, running real hard and real fast until you dropped. At Boston, they shut down the clocks and the finish line at 3:30 in the afternoon. If you couldn’t run 3 ½ hours for the marathon, you didn’t belong and had no business being there.
Roll the cameras 30 years ahead…a recent study by MarathonGuide.com shows that the “average” finishing times for all 2005 marathons was 4:32:08 for the men and 5:06:08 for the women, for an overall average of 4:45:47. That is the average…meaning almost half of everyone running marathons these days is running/walking even slower.
Personally, I think it is GREAT that so many people who once thought running, and in particular, running a marathon, was strictly for the obsessed, skinny, get-a-lifers, now realize that with a little peer pressure…ah, encouragement…and some self-confidence, they too can conquer the 26.2 mile distance. Building self-esteem is the end product of all of this. Add to this the power of the charity movement and you have an explosive combination of will power and philanthropy.
Now, you know there is a catch to all of this or why would I be writing about it The catch is how this all impacts race management as well as the communities with in which these events are conducted. It used to be about just shutting down the roads for a few hours and businesses and residents would tolerate the short inconvenience. Now, with having to have to shut down an hour or two in advance to set up and then with some folks taking up to 7+ hours to complete the course, we as event directors are being asked to seek permission from cities and towns to keep their roads closed for up to 9 hours. Even races as revered as the Boston Marathon can’t realistically expect to paralyze communities for this length of time. Although residents look forward to the race, they don’t appreciate being “landlocked” in their house for that length of time. It is becoming increasingly more unrealistic to expect a race’s entire infrastructure and volunteer support system to remain fully intact for this length of time. It is common for a huge percentage of volunteers to leave the event prematurely if they are being required to stay for an inordinate amount of time, especially if the weather is not cooperating.
So, now what? Where do we draw the line? At Boston, given city and state requests and requirements, we must start breaking down at certain designated times and begin to re-open the roads at pre-determined times but, of course, only when it is safe to do so. However, there are those relatively slow runners who tend to feel that the course should remain totally closed and secured and services and volunteers remain fully in place until they have passed. They have paid their entry fee, they have perhaps trained like everyone else who finished before them and they have a right to be out there and counted. This is a tough one folks.
Every race is different and as such none of this is very consistent nor are there any standards. If your race finishes in a park like the NYC Marathon, then perhaps you have all kinds of time to keep the finish line up and running. If your race finishes on a major downtown roadway like in Boston and you need to start the break down process so as to be clear by rush hour traffic the next morning, then you can’t stay open until all hours of the night. Same is true with your entire course in most places.
So, if in fact there is a course timeline and some runners are still out there after that, what should the race’s obligation be? Can you allow runners to still be out on the course while traffic is now flowing? Do you simply say “please move to the right of the road or get up on the sidewalk (if there is one)” and allow them to continue. Can you allow runners to be out on the course with no water stations or medical aid stations still operating? Do you have a right to “pick up” the runner if they are behind the established timeline? What if they don’t want to be picked up and they insist on finishing? What if they do finish and don’t get a finishers medal or a time? Believe it or not, this is happening more and more and more especially in marathons and it is becoming quite a dilemma. At the Ironman Triathlon, they have strict cut off times – if you don’t finish the swim by a certain time or you are not off your bike by a certain time, you are pulled from the event, no questions asked.
And, what are the obligations of the participant? Can we truly expect or require that they “prove” that they can cover the distance under the required time limit? It is reasonable to conclude that anyone needing more time than 6 hours to complete a marathon is “walking” a fair amount of the “race”. With very successful charity programs and training methods produced by Jeff Galloway which encourage participants to run/walk as a means to “run” a marathon, more and more participants are taking longer and longer. How can a race “dq” someone who finished after the cut off time but raised tens of thousands of dollars for a worthwhile charity and spent months and months in a training program with a lifelong goal of completing a marathon and then be told once they do cross the finish line that “it doesn’t count” because you missed the cut off time and we had to turn off the timing system? Even if you state this clearly and up front, it’s tough for a runner to accept this and its tough for a race to enforce it. When I asked at a recent Running USA conference for suggestions as to how race directors should deal with this, the only answer I got was “just start the slower people earlier”! Well, that doesn’t help the situation much as you just need to close the roads earlier and ask your start and course volunteers to arrive earlier. Having them out there earlier is not much different than having them out there later.
Perhaps some possible solutions to this dilemma could be:
- Races that allow runners up to 7 or 8 hours to complete the course should promote themselves as such and those are the races that these participants should truly focus on.
- Participants who know up front that they cannot meet the cut off time of a particular race should not enter that race and put everyone in an uncomfortable position.
- Perhaps some races may have a course that could be adjusted on the back end such that after a specific time into the race, runners can then redirected to perhaps do a few out and backs so as to minimize the community impact. This is a stretch but for some races, it could work.
- Some races that offer both a full marathon and a half-marathon are encouraging participants who are slow or who want to walk the course to choose the half-marathon distance over the marathon distance.
Again, it is great to see so much interest in the sport and it is equally exciting to see so many having the new confidence in making a commitment to run a marathon. Although the mantra should be “last but not least”, more attention up front needs to be given to this issue by all involved.