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What Went Wrong – and How Event Owners Fixed It

1 May, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

It’s every running event director’s nightmare: an error leads to an athlete’s performance being taken out of consideration for something bigger – and reflects badly on the event itself.

In the case of the recent 2019 Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile, it was a misplaced line of traffic cones that inadvertently shortened the course and negated what could have been an American record time for runner Stanley Kebenei.

And yes, that was bad. But organizers did what they could to make good on it, and their examples can serve as a case study to others.

As background: The incident took place on Sunday, April 7. Kebenei, in the lead on the out-and-back course, followed course marshals’ directions at a turn-around point on Ohio Drive in West Potomac Park, located near the National Mall in Washington, DC. Only trouble was, the semi-circle of cones indicating the turn had been put in the wrong place, effectively shortening the course by 240 feet. (The problem came about because of road construction that forced the course to be adjusted a few weeks before the event itself. The revised course was then measured and certified in accordance with international course measurement standards, and record times would have been valid if the course was run as measured. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Later analysis showed that cones for the turn-around on Ohio Drive had been set in the wrong place on race morning.)

Human error was to blame (as it almost always is). Had the run been valid, Kebenei’s 46-minute time would have been a course record, eclipsing a 1983 record of 46:13.

It was what happened next that made a difference, however. Course officials immediately announced the problem to runners and to the media at large. Event Director Phil Stewart said, "The organizers profoundly regret this unfortunate error in an event which for 47 years has prided itself on organizational excellence and support for elite athletes as well as the masses of runners who follow them.”

Despite the shortened route taken by the runners, race organizers announced they would pay Kebenei the $10,000 record bonus for posting a time faster than the 1983 record. The Credit Union Cherry Blossom Run also pays $1,000 and $750 each year to the first two men and women who run times better than 46:00 and 52:00 minutes, respectively. Race winners Jemal Yimer (45:36) and Rosemary Wanjiru, (50:42) and second place finishers Josphat Tanui (45:38) and Gotytom Gebreslase (50:47) were paid those time bonuses; their times were well under the established time bonus benchmarks.

While it’s impossible to know whether Kebenei would have beaten the course record – or whether he will, should he choose to run the race again – the lesson here is that organizers followed the most important maxim in public relations: maximum exposure with minimum delay. By acknowledging the issue quickly, and by admitting fault, they were able to avoid any accusations of trying to sweep the problem under the carpet.

Additionally, by paying Kebenei and the other frontrunners their bonuses, they showed good faith to athletes.

“We have taken every step possible to make our bonus winners whole again,” Stewart noted. “Clearly, this is not the ending we wanted to an outstanding weekend with perfect running conditions, nearly $100,000 in prize money and bonuses paid out, and $400,000 raised for Children's Miracle Network."

Unfortunately, an application for recognition of Kebenei's effort being an American record will not be submitted to USATF. Rosemary Wanjiru also ran an apparent record - fastest U.S. all-comers time in a women's only race - which will also go unrecognized, even though she finished one minute and two seconds faster than the time of 51:44, set here in 2007 by Tebya Erkesso. Race organizers do not offer a bonus for U.S. all-comers records (defined as the fastest time run by an individual of any nationality on U.S. soil). Wanjuri's time will not be considered as an event record either, leaving intact Colleen de Reuck's women's event record of 51:16.

As they did in 2015 when a traffic accident necessitated re-routing the race route at the last minute, which resulted in runners running a shorter course, race organizers will adjust all runners' pace per mile in official race results to reflect the fact that they only ran 9.96 miles this year. There were 17,656 finishers in this year's 10 mile.

Additionally, the race website noted that because the course deviated from expectations, runners’ per-mile times did not calculate exactly; therefore, they published a special calculator through which participants could enter their finish time and come up with their average per-mile pace.

The lesson here: you don't have to be defined by your mistake but you will be remembered for the way you respond to it. Event owners at the Credit Union race couldn't go back in time and erase what happened, but they could -- and did -- find ways to show athletes they were interested in helping make things right.

The concept of a course error leading to problems with finish times is hardly an isolated event. In 2016, the Santa Rosa Marathon got some unwanted publicitywhen runners were accidentally steered off course, causing them to run an additional mile and changing their finish times – leading to them being denied entry into the Boston Marathon (the SRM is a qualifying race). Because Santa Rosa’s event is held in September (very close to the opening date for registration for Boston), interested runners had to scramble to find another qualifying marathon – and then get registered in time. Many, unfortunately, did not, and Boston’s organizers were unable to make exceptions because of the botched course.

Race course snafus happen with unfortunate frequency. Almost every weekend 5K warrior, for example, 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; in 2015, the Bangkok Half Marathon took on the dubious distinction of being the world’s longest hal fwhen 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. One year, the inaugural Chattanooga Marathon ended up 0.28 miles too short. The Rehoboth Beach Seashore Marathon in Delaware was about one-third of a mile short in 2011 due to a misplaced course marker, and in 2012, 50 runners mistakenly went off-course. The 2016 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.

Bottom line: mistakes are made. Problems happen. Even skilled planners can experience them, whether on a racecourse, in a gym or in a pool. The question is what to do next. Investopedia provides these tips for working through a public relations nightmare – and coming out intact:

Own Up: First and foremost, companies should own up when the negative press is warranted, because ignoring the problem is definitely not going to make it go away. BP was in the midst of a media circus during the Gulf Coast oil spill in 2010. Following the incident, shares in BP plummeted and there was much fear and speculation that the company would not survive. Even though things were a bit sketchy at first, BP did take responsibility for the spill shortly after its occurrence.

Make Good: Beyond simple accountability, companies need to show a commitment to repairing negative fallout and restoring trust. Which leads to the next point…

Stick It Out: Nothing is worse than when a person or organization makes all kinds of inflated promises but never actually follows through with them. Once you’ve explained what you’re going to do to keep the problem from recurring, you need to do it.

Effective Communication: Once an organization has owned up to a fault, communication should continue. Companies should allow the public to know exactly what is being done to remedy the situation, even once the initial panic has died down. The more the public is aware of what lengths an organization is going to, the more likely the organization will return to public favor.

Be Creative: A little creativity or a sense of humor can go a long way when it comes to dealing with negative PR. In today's digital world, word of mouth can travel quickly as people take to social media and a variety of other forums for spreading public opinion. Showing you understand the frustration can go a long way toward forgiveness.

The Bottom Line: One of the most readily available measures that organizations can employ to either avoid or reduce negative publicity is to aim for transparency.

You can’t make a mistake not have happened but with the right approach, you can help your event move forward – and leave the mistake behind.

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