Tuesday, December 6, 2011

When Races Go Bad

The subject of this post is not about bonking, puking, injuring yourself, or worse - It's about race organization and the duty organizers have to those running. I would like to suggest that race organizers have both a moral and legal duty to deliver what they promise. Runners sign up for races, pay good money (sometime VERY good money), and expect and plan for the race to provide what the organizers say they will provide. There were apparently two very poorly run races this past weekend: Hot Chocolate 15k/5k and Rock n Roll Las Vegas. The question is: What do race directors/organizers owe runners who register for their events? When things fall apart, what sort of accountability should race organizers be expected to assume?

I didn't run either of the above mentioned races, so I cannot comment first hand about what the situation was, but it seems clear that many runners had horrible experiences. Crowds and poor management/planning caused dangerous and uncomfortable situations. Many runners immediately jump to the conclusion that mega-organizers, like Competitor and their Rock n Roll series, is the root of these evils, and while I'm not super psyched to see the evolution of marathoning moving in the direction of the mega-corporate route, I'm not sure that that is THE problem.

Instead, I believe that greed plays a greater role, and greed is something that may plague both mega-races as and smaller, local races. Greed does not simply concern money and sponsorship. Greed also includes the desire for establishing a reputation - Dreams of Grandeur. Both these races were probably too big, and the organizers were ill equipped to deal with the sheer number of runners. They should have capped the races at lower numbers. Why they bit off more than they could chew is the real issue here.


Though mega-races have more issues to deal with. Let me offer my experience with two smallish Colorado marathons, one a nightmare and the other a fantastic experience that will keep me coming back for more. What makes the difference? Well, in one case the race director wants to create a world class marathon, and in the other case the race director hopes to run a really good Colorado Marathon.  Both are admirable aims if approached realistically.

In the fall of 2009 I ran the Boulder Marathon. It was local, on the roads I train on regularly, and small - all things I find appealing. It was my hometown marathon! I had to run it, right? I trained through the summer and felt ready to run the race. Race week was HOT, hitting the mid-to-high 80s all week. This did not bode well for me because I hate the heat. SO be it, I can do this things as long as I drink and account for the heat. Race morning dawned warm, as expected. By the 8 a.m. start the sun was already high and hot and a desiccating wind blew across the plains east of the Rocky Mountains. I peeled off as many layers of clothes as was legal. I brought a small hand held water bottle to fill at each water stop. This was going to suck, I told my husband, but I can do it.
At this point I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

What I didn't plan for was that some of the aid stations would run out of water and Gatorade - that is, they had NO Fluids. At about mid-race the temperature was 86 degrees.The last hour of this race was a death march for me. Cramped up runners literally littering the sides of the roads. Ambulance sirens rang out from all direction. Cars drove around picking up distressed runners. At around mile 23, a Subaru pulled up next to me. I was walking, the first time I have every walked in a race, my legs cramped in an agonizing, unrelenting spasm. Someone from the Subaru asked if I wanted a ride. Oh jeeze, I look that bad, I thought to myself. I looked into the car and saw it was full of half-dead looking runners, and shook my head defiantly, laughing a little at the absurdity of what I found myself in the middle of, and said "No thank you". I should have taken that ride. I made it to the end, barely. Looking back, I realize now that my symptoms were fairly serious and this could have been worse then just an awful race. By the time I reached the food tents, there was none - well, there were some banana halves left. And all the available water had been trucked out to the course. There might have been some beer. Somehow, I just wasn't in the mood.

Initially I swore I would never do another marathon. The experience rivaled the pain and effort of childbirth without the happy ending. But of course, that resolution was forgotten after the week of cramping subsided. After doing meticulous research and reading scores of reviews on Marathon Guide,  I signed up for the 2010 Colorado Marathon...

On Mother's Day 2010, the buses ferry us up the Poudre Canyon at 4:30 a.m. to the start of the race. The race begins at a chilly 6 a.m. The sun is just rising as we make our way down the canyon serenaded by the bubbling rumble of the Poudre River. What a wonderful way this is to start the day.

 This race is capped pretty low because of the narrow canyon road. The race usually fills by early January, so the organizers are clearly making a decision to keep it manageable given the logistics of the venue. In my opinion, this is a smart move. Everything about this race went off without a hitch. There was water and Heed at every aid station (which were plentiful). And while this race, on this day, didn't have to deal with any unusual circumstances (eg. bad weather), it was pretty warm, probably in the mid-70s, once we left the the shade of the canyon for the last 10ish miles. The Colorado Marathon doesn't have the crowds and the glitz of a big city, mega-race, but it is a runners marathon.


Big or small, when a runner signs up for a race, pays the entry fee, trains for the race, etc. they are expecting, and have a right to expect, that they will be given what the organizers say they will offer. If there are aid stations, then those aid stations should be equipped with aid! Duh. Runners make their plans (ie. should I carry my own water/fuel) based on what organizers say they will have available on the course. Running out of water, or anything else promised is unacceptable. Period. If the organizers have failed to keep their end of the agreement it seems that they owe something to the runner's who they've let down. It's simple: They've violated their end of the agreement and the runner has not received what she paid for. 

In response to the 2009 Boulder Marathon fiasco, the director responded with (lame) excuses: He explained that they ordered enough water but it wasn't all delivered., and, that the weather was hotter than expected. To both weasily excuses I say "Piffle". Who's job is it to check on supplies? And, the weather reports for the entire week clearly predicted very hot (80s) conditions for a marathon and half marathon.

We all sign waivers when we register for races, and I suppose that I have been remiss for not reading them very closely. My bad. But regardless of the stated legal responsibilities that races may or may not assume, it seems there is some moral demand to do what you promise to do. Failing to do so puts runners at grave risk that they can not anticipate. So what do we have coming to us when we sign up for races? Is it up to the race directors what we have a 'right' to with our registration? Do the races have no moral and/or legal duty to deliver what they assure us they will offer? My main gripe is with for-profit groups like Competitor, RAM Racing, and other non charity races (big or small) that seem to be offering a 'product' (as much as I hate referring to races that way), but it looks more like a case of "bait-and-switch".

We probably won't see this issue discussed in the pages of Runner's World or Running Times. These magazines depend on the advertising dollars and are unlikely to bite the hands that feed them. But it behooves us, as the runners, who actually run these races, to get the world out and tell our stories. Support well run races, large or small. And to the race organizers who fail to meet their end of the bargain: I think you owe us our money back, at least. 


  1. I have participated in 3 brand new first time 5K runs and 2 second time races. They actually all went very well. One was an obstacle course and on the kids portion of the "1 mile" aka .5 miles (what they actually ran I think) was the worse. They did not plan the course out for the kids and there was really only one complaint that I had and I told them as well some of the other paraticipants. The only complaint is that they only recognize first place and darn it I keep making second. That is a bit discouraging, but I understand (my 13 year old does not though). I basically keep all my races local for the sake of giving to my community and save on driving all over creation to run. Hopefully I will experience a bigger event when I run my 10K. But so far I can say all is good, but if someone ran out of water as in your case I would be absolutely livid and most definantely never race that one again!

  2. I was in the DC Hot Chocolate this weekend and I was the one who posted asking opinions on large vs small races. Thank you for this well written and insightful article. It was exactly the sort of commentary I was looking for!

  3. I recently ran the NORTH FACE ENDURANCE CHALLENGE 50 MILE and the lighting at night was insufficient and the trail markings were super hard to see even with a beam headlamp. My partner got lost at one point because he went down the wrong trail at a fork. We both got severely dehydrated because there were no water bottles- I ended up in the hospital a day later because I couldn't keep fluids down. Ill never run north face again.

  4. Vegas was at minimal acceptable because it was a cool event being the first "major" nighttime marathon. Running the strip was supposed to be fun because the last half would be nothing but the Vegas lights and the crowds. But I ended up playing frogger for 12 miles. Fighting the Imperials (think of the big white walking machines that the Ewoks fight) that are walking 8 deep only to pass them and find that there are hundreds more. This is not only physically stressful in an already stressful scenario, but I think the mental aspect proved hard too. It took everything I had not to say "GET THE F&$* OUT OF THE WAY". They had it coned off with little itty bitty signs that said marathoners this way and halfers that way, but when you are running among the people in corral 40 of the halfers, you do not really expect them to know that this actually means something. They had plenty of water (after you passed about 10 empty tables) and perfect time on Vaseline (medical tents). My wife and I are out for Vegas though in the future. She only ran the half and she ran 10 minutes slower than she ever had before. And to top it off, that night on the news, they said they were looking to go from 44000 to 66000 next year....

  5. I have done 7 races in the 10 months since I've become a runner, from 5k's to a half marathon; all were great experiences except for Fans on the Field--a logjam of too many runners and too small of a space to pass through at Coors Field caused many people to have to stop DEAD in the tunnel under the stadium, in 90 degree sauna like conditions...and they had completely shut down the water station at mile 5 by the time I got there. There were 100s of people behind me, so it wasn't like I was that slow. I was fortunate to have brought my own water, but I have no idea why they started shutting down so early. When race organizations are charging large sums of money, they really need to be on top of things like water and fuel, and signage for runners...it definitely makes me think about which races I will consider in the future.

  6. Philly ran out of cups at several stops on the marathon route. I was slower than I hoped by to be (5:07ish) but was no means last. It wasn't a huge deal for me because I had my own bottles that volunteers refilled at the aid stations, but it was a big inconvenience for people who hadn't brought their own bottles.

    I prefer to bring my own for any race over 5 miles, but I can definitely understand why someone wouldn't when they've been told to expect aid stations every two miles!

    The only race I've been to that I think went REALLY bad, though, was a duathlon that my wife competed in. They pulled volunteers or police (not sure which) from the bike portion of the course, causing several bikers to miss the turnaround point and then the turn back into the staging area.

  7. I am fortunate to have never run a poorly planned/supplied race. Well, except for a littlr 10k on an extremely warm Thanksgiving morning, but I survived. I had friends who ran Vegas and while they did enjoy running on the stip, they felt a lot of things went wrong. People pay a lot to run a R&R race, but these races have gotten so huge...I think they are just huge money making machines. However, I think if R&R puts on too many poorly organized races, their runenr attendance will begin to suffer. We like good, well-run races!


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