Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Wed, 27 Nov 2002 22:18:16 -0500

Pushing the Limits

RUNNING COMMENTARY 442

Twice this fall I attended conferences for race directors (see RC 441). At both of them Issue 1-A in the hallways and at meals, if not in the formal meetings, was what do about the ever-slower finishers.

Put another way: How long must races keep the course open? When can a race declare itself finished, even if all of its entrants aren't? What time limit is fair and reasonable?

These questions most concern directors of big marathons. They attract many runners (and more and more run-walkers and pure walkers) whose glory comes in finishing, no matter how long that takes.

I don't damn anyone for being slow, being ever more so myself. I'm happy to have so much slow company. We wouldn't be running races now if time limits hadn't eased dramatically.

Longtime writer and longer-time runner Bob Cooper recalled in RC 441 how he dropped out of a 1970 marathon after seeing he wouldn't make the cutoff time. It was four hours. "Can you imagine," he asked, "the number of dreams that would be crushed if a four-hour cutoff existed in marathons today?"

I've faced even stiffer dream-killers. My first marathon was Boston, and my big worry there was not finishing before the official timing ended -- at 3-1/2 hours. This limit scared me into beating that deadline by 40 minutes.

Worse was the 1971 National Championship Marathon in Eugene. An even three hours was its limit. I missed that time by a few minutes and felt a letdown akin to arriving at a party right after it ended.

How times have changed. In 2002 I set a marathon PR -- for the longest time announcing at a finish line. At the Yakima River Canyon Marathon the last person checked in at 8:05, and found the finish area still up and running.

I didn't mind sticking around. If someone spent that long on the course, the least I could do was call her name at the end.

Yakima, with its rural road course, could be generous with its time. But runners need to know that such a liberal allotment isn't always, or even often, possible.

Races need a finish line, in time as well as distance. The question is where to draw it. The answer requires compromise among all the competing interests who have say in how a race is run -- and for how long.

Runners, and especially late-finishing walkers, want the course to stay open at least as long as needed for them to finish on a worst-case day. They argue that their entry fee entitles them to the race's full attention for as long as needed.

Sponsors ask race officials to deliver numbers, as do charities. The more people who enter, the wider the exposure to a sponsor's goods and services, and the greater the charitable donations. Numbers add up the quickest at the slow end of the pack.

Volunteers, from race director down to cup-picker-upper, come out early on raceday and stay late. They are the runners' hosts. They welcome almost everyone to their party, but prefer that the guests not stay too long.

City officials and police tolerate races, often barely. They dictate how long a course stays open -- or as they think of it, stays closed or limited to traffic. They usually have the final say on time limits, as with the 5-1/2 hours imposed on the Napa Valley Marathon by the state highway department and enforced by the California Highway Patrol.

From these conflicting interests must come to consensus on when a race officially ends. As someone who has been on three of these four sides (all except public officer), these are my views:

-- Set as liberal a time limit as the politicians and police will allow, and the volunteers can tolerate. State this time clearly in prerace notices, explaining exactly what will happen to people who miss the cutoff time. Will they be swept off the course, allowed to go on without traffic control, recognized or not at the finish?

-- Vote with your feet. If you don't like a race's limit, don't go there. Instead support "slow-friendly" events such as the Portland Marathon. It has a designated walking division, eight hours to finish and a two-shift system of volunteers along the course.

-- Run shorter races. The marathon isn't for everyone. Many of today's later finishers would be better served by the halves often held along with marathons. The same time limit could apply for both distances while being doubly generous in pace for the half-marathoners.

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