It’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.