Betsy called me one afternoon, not long after a note landed in my e-mail. When I get both e-mail and a phone call it's usually something important, dramatic or entertaining. This particular call was a blend of all three categories.
"Do you have any idea what the USA Track and Field rule is about runners going off a race course? I know we've always used the old 'it's the runner's responsibility to know the course' dictum, but I can't seem to find any rule."
When it comes to triathlon I can cite the USA Triathlon competition rule to chapter-and-verse level. But USATF doesn't have a large presence around here, save for the fine folks of the Road Running Technical Council. Those are the people who tell me what to tell race directors who want race courses measured.
So, I ran back into my living room library and pulled my gently-used copy of the USATF Competition Rules. Once you get to the mid-point of the book - Rule 65, section 7 - USATF talks about what happens when racers leave the course: "65.7a. No competitor, after leaving the track or course, shall be allowed to rejoin a race either for the purpose of gaining a place or to pace or to assist another competitor." 65.7c then states: "In any track event of 20,000 meters or more, or in any road race, a competitor may leave the road or track with the permission and under the control of a judge or other authorized official, provided that by going off or returning to the course the athlete does not lessen the distance to be covered."
So, as long as the racer doesn't cut the course - and is supervised by an official or judge - then leaving the course is only a little inconvenience. It's not like the world, or the rest of the race field, will hit the "Pause" button until you return to the course. In the case of most recreational runners this is not an earth-shaking situation. It stands to reason that 99 percent of the time we're going to follow the runner directly in front of us...and hope like mad the entire lot of them didn't screw up. It's happened before; naturally, it's another good story.
However, for the elite runners, the fast guys and gals looking for a medal and/or a paycheck, that's the equivalent of working on a PowerPoint presentation for two-or-three hours, only to have the file go "toes-up" minutes before the meeting is to start. (I've had that before.)
Frustration only starts to describe ones' emotions. Train like mad for a potentially-nice pay day, and have a police officer turn the wrong direction or a course marshal "fall asleep at the switch?" Churchillian blood, toil, sweat and tears. For naught.
It's one of the reasons I took up course measurement. It was either that or spend thirty minutes at the packet pick-up begging for a course map, then studying every little detail. I absolutely needed to know the direction, the turns and the finish line...or at least where it was supposed to be...on race day. An extra 800 meters during a 5K will teach you that lesson.
Every athlete I have trained has heard me talk about the particulars of their upcoming race course, if I'd raced it in the past, to the smallest detail. For a short distance race, such as the 5,000-meters on the roads, it can mean a couple of extra seconds toward a personal best time. In the case of a half-marathon or longer, it can mean the difference between injury and a good day. Especially if you know the specifics of the terrain.
USATF Competition Rule 134.1 states: "Running courses shall be adequately marked at strategic points to keep the competitors on course. Each turn and intersection shall be clearly marked in such a way that there will be no doubt as to the direction the runner should go to stay on course."
As a course director for run portions of multisport events, I believe there's not enough a race director can do or place; whether it is chalk or paint on the asphalt, cones or barriers in the road, signs along the shoulders, and obnoxious human beings. Multiple back-ups are sometimes necessary to make certain nobody turns too early or wrong.
Of course, there are differences between road racing and multisport, especially when it comes to running. A set of headphones at a USAT-sanctioned event may earn at least one, and up to three, penalties, depending on the vigilance of the transition workers and referees. USATF strongly discourages their use for safety reasons, to include the ability to hear volunteer instructions.
The perfect storm of a half-informed lead driver, a briefly-distracted course marshal and a slightly under-marked course can ruin the runner's day. A study of the course map and a pre-drive of the course can make for a good "umbrella."