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Coming Up Short: When a Course Error Means Athletes Can’t Qualify for a Bigger Race

5 Apr, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Inaccurate Course Measurements, Runners Led Astray and More Resulted in Failure to Qualify for Boston. What Can Event Planners Do?

If the term, “every sports event planner’s nightmare,” had an illustration, it might be this: runners standing there, open-mouthed after finishing a marathon with a Boston-qualifying time, only to find out they can’t qualify because of a course error.

That’s the scenario out of Texas where, after runners were misdirected at the Woodlands Marathon on March 4. Race Director Willie Fowlkes confirmed that anyone who wanted to use their time to qualify for the 2018 Boston Marathon would not be able to. 

Race management posted an apologetic note to runners on the organization’s Facebook page. It stated that runners who would have qualified will receive a discounted entry to next year’s Woodlands Marathon if they contacted the organization before May 1; however, many participants did not feel this was adequate and expressed their displeasure in the comments section of the Facebook page.

According to an article in Runner’s World, runners skipped the second turn of the race when the lead motorcycle and lead cyclist accidentally led them down the wrong route, shortening the course by 0.8 miles. Fowlkes contacted the Boston Athletic Association the next day about adjusting the times of an estimated 120 runners who were on pace to qualify for Boston. However, he was informed there was nothing Boston could do.

In having to explain this to runners, Woodlands joins an unenviable fellowship of races in which racers were led off-course or where other problems have resulted in shortened or lengthened (or delayed) races which affected overall running times.

It’s not uncommon, either. Almost every weekend 5K warrior can recall a race (or a story about a race) in which a volunteer on the course pointed runners in the wrong direction. And the U.S. isn’t the only place for bad directions; the Great Scottish Run also suffered recent similar problems and in 2015, the Bangkok Half Marathon took on the dubious distinction of being the world’s longest half when a race director error led to a 17-mile (not a 13.1-mile) route. Ouch.

Across the U.S., mistakes have resulted in a too-long or too-short course. This past fall, the Santa Rosa Marathon steered runners off the course, making them log nearly a full extra mile and skewing their times.  The inaugural Chattanooga Marathon ended up 0.28 miles too short. The Portland Marathon (Portland, Oregon) was approximately a half-mile too long. The Rehoboth Beach Seashore Marathon in Delaware had course errors two years straight. The Lehigh Valley Health Network Via Marathon was derailed when a freight train (and a slow-moving one at that) rumbled down the tracks runners were supposed to cross, causing a full 10-minute delay.

Having problems in events is never fun. However, when mistakes happen in races during which runners are trying to qualify for a major marathon such as Boston, it’s very bad news. These scenarios and others like them to be used as case studies (in the “Don’t let this happen to you” chapter) at meetings and conventions of race directors nationwide.

Sometimes, race directors are sympathetic. In the past, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) has accepted adjusted qualifying times from races that have either come up too long or too short, but it’s usually done on a case-by-case basis.

While there’s no foolproof way to guarantee runners will stay on a course (many workers are volunteers and that means they sometimes leave their post unattended to do something like hit a rest room or check text messages – and to be fair, there have been plenty of athletes who strayed from courses with no help at all), event owners hate the negative publicity that comes with the news that an athlete’s performance was compromised. And in the social media era, it’s likely that unpleasant experiences will be shared far and wide.

That’s not all, says Runner’s World. On March 7, during the Marathon of the Treasure Coast on the eastern shore of Florida, a police officer directed a pacer off-course, causing 51 out of 177 marathoners (and 108 out of 624 half-marathoners) to skip a 0.8-mile portion of the race through downtown Stuart.

The race management team released a statement almost immediately, taking full responsibility for the mishap and promising to make improvements at next year’s race. But according to the TC Palm, officials later said participants should have known the course better beforehand to avoid any misdirection:

"Most people went the correct direction and we had signs there, but they were in a pack and (when) we have a couple of people go in the wrong direction, others will follow," race director Jeanne Brower said. "What's really important as a runner is to make sure you know your course. We don't have course marshals at every single intersection, so people should study the course before they come out to run it. Most of the elite runners that I talked to about the issue said 'their mistake; they should've known the course.'"

The comment section from the Facebook announcement turned into a forum; while runners overall believed ‘people are human and allowed to make mistakes,’ there were requests for apologies from the race director. This was followed up with a comment from the organization itself:

It is unfortunate that such a statement was made in the pressure of the crisis. And then made worse quickly before we could correct it via the newspaper. We are a large team from a diverse and talented endurance community here on the Treasure Coast, so we understand that it is our job, not runners or pacers, to make a fool-proof course.

So what can event owners do when a mishap causes a mess-up that DQs athletes from bigger and better things? Act quickly. Come clean, apologize – and at the least, make a gesture to the athletes in next year’s event. (The gesture itself is up to you; the discount offered to Woodlands athletes wasn’t sufficient, according to the Facebook comments from those runners; they wanted free registration for the following year.)

In short, face the complaints, make the apologies, undertake a thorough review of what went wrong and do your best to ensure it won’t happen again. Oh, and be prepared for some humor at your expense.

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