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Ethical Running

Posted by Filed Under: News and Opinion, Races & Racing, Running Tips

opinionIt’s not often that ethical dilemmas occur during road races (at least those that don’t involve Rosie Ruiz), but two recent incidents got me thinking about how much responsibility each of us has to watch out for our fellow runners.

In a 10K race recently, one of my teammates was up front the entire race, trading the lead with a very strong masters runner from another club. My teammate, Kit, had won this particular race in the past and had finished a very close second last year and was looking to take back the trophy this year. The course is a challenging one, especially in the latter half, which includes a series of long hills that go on for close to three miles.

Kit is in great shape as he prepares for Boston later this month and was running a very close second as they came to the homestretch of the race, which is a fairly steep downhill leading to an intersection. At that juncture, the course turns left toward the finish, which is about 100 yards away, up a short hill. As they approached the intersection, the leader went straight instead of turning left toward the finish. Kit was a few strides behind, and had a very clear choice in front of him: Say nothing and win the race or shout out a warning and finish second again. Kit chose the former, telling the other run to turn left, and indeed ended up coming in about six seconds behind.

A similar, but less dramatic, incident occurred in a race I ran last weekend. It was a small race, with not a lot of volunteers on the course and a couple of times we had to sort of guess which way to go at various intersections. With about half a mile to go, I was running in third place with another runner about 25 yards behind me. As I came to an intersection, I had the choice of going straight or bearing left. The volunteer manning the intersection said nothing and gave no indication that I should turn, so I went straight. After I was about 10 or 15 yards past her, the volunteer finally yelled out, telling me to turn around and take the turn instead. I made a quick U-turn, swearing all the while, and got to the turn a second or two ahead of the runner who had been behind me. The next quarter mile was up a steep hill, and I was able to stay ahead of him and held on to third place.

After the race, the runner who came in fourth said he had tried to warn me to turn left, but I apparently didn’t hear him. I don’t doubt that at all and I thanked him for trying, but I started wondering what I would have done in the same situation. And, when I heard Kit’s story the next day I thought more about it and came to a somewhat troubling conclusion: I don’t think I would have said anything. I applaud Kit for what he did, and he got a lot of praise for it afterward from our coach. But to me, the main question here is this: Did Kit have a responsibility to say anything?

My answer is no. That he chose to do so is commendable. It is the responsibility of the race director and the volunteers to set the course and ensure that the runners know which way to go at every turn. If a runner misses a turn, it’s up to the race staff to correct him and get him back on course. My feeling is that as competitors, it’s up to us to pay attention to what we’re doing, run as hard as we can on that day and expect other runners to do the same. Had I ended up fourth because of my wrong turn, I would’ve been disappointed and angry with myself, but I certainly wouldn’t have faulted the other runner for going by me.

This happens fairly often in trail races, where the courses are less well-defined and runners often are by themselves for long stretches. And it happened in a local marathon in Massachusetts a few years ago, with the men’s leader going off the course for nearly a mile before he was corrected, but by that time had lost the lead and never regained it. If you run long enough, you’ll probably find yourself in a situation similar to this, and I would submit that there is no right or wrong in these cases. Each of us has to make our own decision and live with it.

About Dennis Fisher

Dennis is an award-winning journalist and not-so-award-winning runner. His day job involves writing about technology, which is why he runs so much. A native of Virginia, Dennis is a veteran marathoner and road racer who has recently discovered the joy and broken bones of trail running. He trains with the Greater Boston Track Club and lives outside Boston with his wife and children.



12 Comments
  1. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on April 10th at 9:00 am

    I agree that it is the responsibility of the race directors and volunteers to direct a runner, and it is the responsibility of the runner to know the course. However, I would (and have) corrected my competitors when they go the wrong way. I don’t want to win that way.

    I actually mentioned this very thing last January when I discussed race etiquette for runners. You should know the course rules, you should know the course, and if you see somebody go off course it would be nice to let them know. And if they are cheating or trying to cheat, you should inform a race official.

    In your case, the volunteer should have told you as soon as you were near them that you were going the wrong way. Any time that I have any doubt, I will always point or even ask somebody which way to go. When you explicitly ask somebody a question, it is a lot harder for them to steer you the wrong way.

  2. Ed on April 10th at 9:14 am

    I am grateful that I am so slow that I don’t have to deal with these ethical crises. 🙂 Running 10-11 minute miles has its advantages.

    I don’t think that Kit’s behavior is merely commendable. I think it is good sportsmanship. I’ll be the first to admit that I do not have the the tiniest flicker of the competitive spirit burning in my chest, but I would hate to win or place in a race because I chose not to help out a fellow runner who was straying off the course. The same thing holds if somebody falls down or collapses. I’d want to stop and help, my own time be damned. Call me old fashioned, but for me it is a matter of honor. I would want to win [or lose] on the most equitable terms possible, and helping somebody in trouble is just the policy I try to live by no matter what circumstances I find myself in.

    Of course, this does not remove one’s own responsibility for staying on the course. If the racer strays, that’s the racer’s own bad luck. Or it’s the fault of the race administrators for marking the race poorly. So as the person watching the other guy go off course, it’s easy to say that it is somebody else’s problem. However, in my book, the sporting thing to do is help out. If she ends up beating you, then them’s the breaks. You should have run faster.

    In other words, as I said before, I would rather win based on how fast I ran compared to everybody else than on a technicality, exploiting someone else’s bad luck, or bad race management.

  3. 21stCenturyMom on April 10th at 1:21 pm

    Have you really thought through how you would feel knowing you let a fellow runner go in the wrong direction? If you meditate on that do you feel okay about it? At the end of the day can you really assume no responsibility to inform a racer s/he is going the wrong way when it is happening right in front of you? Do you want to win so badly that you would feel satisfied with a win that came about as a result of someone else’s mistake?

    I personally couldn’t do that but then I’m not very competitve. Maybe if I were I’d see things differently. For me it doesn’t matter whose responsibility it is – if I see someone going the wrong way I’m going to call out and let him or her know.

  4. ScottD on April 10th at 2:58 pm

    In trail runs, I feel it’s every runners responsibility to aid others in going the right direction. A wrong turn could be devastating out in the wilderness, particularly in ultras.

    SD

  5. Tammy on April 10th at 4:27 pm

    I get what you’re saying. Not because I would want to win that way, but because prior experience has programmed me to “mind my own race”. Actually, knowing me, I would question myself and end up following them the wrong way 😉

  6. Jeanne on April 10th at 5:11 pm

    I have no idea what I’d do, but since I wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, or placing, it’s not something I can really relate to. but i admire your honesty with yourself. and us.

  7. Jenn on April 10th at 7:25 pm

    I was running a 10k where there was a 5k going on at the same time, both races started out together and it was an out and back course on a road. There was suposed to be someone at the 1.5 mile mark to tell the 5k runners to turn around. After about 2 mile mark I passed someone who had a 5k bib insted of the 10k bib. I didn’t think anything of it at the time and kept on going. When i finished the 10k there were a lot of people who were quite upset with the race director. Turns out there was no one to tell the 5k runners where to turn around. Some of them realized shortly after they passed their turn around point and some ended up running the 10k. Awards were a mess. Who gets the 2nd men’s 19-24 trophy? The guy who signed up for the 5k and beat the guy from the 10k, or the guy who orignaly signed up for the 10k?

    I think they ended up makeing and sending out special awards for the people who accidently ran 4 miles insted of 3.1.

  8. thodarumm on April 11th at 6:16 am

    I run 10 minute miles. Unlike Ed, I do have a competitive spirit. I am very competitive with myself. Even though I will be never be in contention for any medals , at least not in the foreseeable future,( see..I still hold on to hope..I figured if I can maintain my current pace, I can actually qualify for Boston when I am 90 :)), I always want to do better than my last race. But given this as my background, I would have done exactly what Kit did. Otherwise, I would die of guilt. Kudos to Kit for his great sportsmanship.

    Yesterday, I was running intervals with my coach in my ear and even though I wanted to stop to see the crocus on the road, I did not. My coach told me I had to max out on my HR and I just had to keep sprinting 🙂

  9. Dori on April 11th at 10:00 pm

    Very thought-provoking. I admire Kit, and I agree that it’s good sports-manship to do what he did. But yeah, we don’t have to be responsible for everyone else. For me, I do what I can live with. I’m too slow to ever be in a racing situation like that, but I recently found some diamond earrings in the women’s locker room. I tried to find the owner, and then I turned them in to the Lost and Found. Although I don’t own a pair of diamond earrings, I know that if I kept them I’d feel guilty whenever I wore them. The same with a trophy that I didn’t feel I deserved without any reservation.

  10. Dennis on April 12th at 11:15 am

    For what it’s worth, Kit gave me a little more background on why he made the choice he did. A similar thing happened to him a few years ago when he was leading a race and ran off course, except no one was around to correct him. So when he saw the same thing happening in front of him, he felt compelled to correct the other runner. He’s hoping that the karma has evened out now!

  11. Tim Lawhorn on April 13th at 7:21 am

    “Each of us has to make our own decision and live with it.” – This statement I agree with.

    But I personally would not want to have a victory won by knowingly allowing what the author descibes.

    While one may not have the responsibility in a case such as this, one has to be able to face oneself in the mirror and personally, I couldn’t do it.

  12. Of(f) Course, You Are » Complete Running Network on May 28th at 10:00 am

    […] recently related an ethical dilemma he weighed when a frontrunner momentarily went the wrong way. I’ve never led a race, but I have been far enough behind to witness a course marshal asking […]

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