A Race Director’s Almost-Worst Nightmare – Maine Coast Marathon 2017

Maine Coast Marathon course error

Sometimes life throws us a curveball…

This past weekend, it was in the form of an extra 1/2 mile on the Maine Coast Marathon course. That might not seem like a big deal to some – indeed, it’s probably only an extra 3 – 8 minutes added to most peoples’ day. For the exceptionally fast, though… that extra few minutes could be the difference between earning a coveted, and often elusive, BQ… or walking away heartbroken after months of effort seemingy wasted.

Needless to say, the pitchforks and torches are out.

People are raging on social media, railing against the race, and demanding their pound of flesh. In this situation, as often happens, not everyone knows what, exactly, happened… but they know they’re angry and upset. They know they want answers and a resolution. While nothing I can say today is going to award anyone a BQ… hopefully I can help give a little insight into things…

As runners, we can be a needy bunch.

I say it because I am one and I know it. I’m also (often) a paid race timer and (sometimes) a volunteer. Seeing races from all sides of the event allows me to see runners (including myself) at our best and at our worst. I think we can all be honest and agree… many runners damned-near expect perfection when we roll up to a race. We expect fast, easy parking, and a lightning-fast bib-pickup. We want short bathroom lines and an ideal race-course experience. If we get bottlenecked at any point on-course we’re complainey and if our photos aren’t cover-worthy we whine. God forbid our official time doesn’t match what our Garmin says… I mean, what the heck! We paid good money for this!

Race Directors, it seems, have a much shorter list of race-day “needs”.

As a Race Director… you know there are SO many variables… and you just hope you can control as many as possible (and that those you CAN’T control go your way). Things like… it would be GREAT if nobody got injured or, God forbid, carted off to the nearest hospital. Hopefully vendors show up on-time with enough stuff. Having good weather is always a bonus. Of course, you want your volunteers and paid support staff to do their jobs correctly. Ultimately though, the most important thing is that your runners have fun and enjoy themselves.

Both groups have their moments.

In the end, though, everything usually tends to work out and go just fine. For all the complaining and whining we as runners might do… it was a pretty good race! And for all the worrying the Race Directors tend to do… It usually goes off pretty smoothly!

Sometimes, though, the Universe demands blood.

A Race Director never really gets to breathe easy until the last runner crosses the finish and he/she can be reasonably sure everything went well. A race director’s worst nightmare is to get news mid-race that something terrible happened. Despite the best of preparation and instruction… sometimes, for some reason… the Universe, it seems, demands a blood sacrifice. That is exactly what happened at the 2017 Maine Coast Marathon.

A half-mile on course, havoc at the finish.

In short… it appears a paid course marshall / traffic control official went rogue, directed runners off-course down a side-street and back, and added about a half-mile to the race. In the end… this didn’t really have a big impact on the majority of runners. Sure, some will complain they ran farther than they were supposed to. I’m sure a good few were amused to find they accidentally became Ultramarathoners that day. A handful, though… were seriously impacted. That half-mile added a few minutes to their time… and that few minutes either certainly or probably cost them a Boston Qualifying finish time. To say these people were upset would be a massive understatement. How could something like this happen? Who should you be mad at? And WHAT can be done?

Frankly, this should’ve been impossible.

I worked this race as a timer, so I was behind the scenes. I was that guy at mile 8.8 in downtown Kennebunk – you probably didn’t see me, I was hiding from the rain in my SUV with the timing laptop. On the street – my timing mats were placed just so across that crosswalk, and my GoPro was positioned and aimed just so on the white monument/street marker by the traffic cop.

Know why everything was just so?

Because I had a very detailed, very exact GPS satellite-view map telling me exactly what to do. There were green arrows indicating runner direction and path. Red arrows told me where to point the GoPro. A little blue nearly-to-scale rectangle indicated exactly where to place my timing mats. There was even text detailing everything, just in case I got confused or was unclear. It would’ve been shockingly difficult for me to screw it up. I basically would’ve had to not read or completely ignore my instructions.

Course officials had the same kind of instructions.

Maine Coast Marathon had many volunteers, cops on detail, and they also hired a company to provide about 20 traffic control personnel / course marshalls. All of these people, if they were positioned on-course, were provided similar instructions to what I had (though I’m sure theirs didn’t include where to place timing mats or where to point a GoPro). In fact, that means their directions were even simpler than mine. A Maine Coast Marathon Facebook post this morning confirmed: they had a map/diagram with green arrows indicating the direction of runners for each intersection – very simple. Not only that, they had pre-race meetings and the Race Director even drove the course with these hired traffic control personnel to go over things and point out everything.

So how did this happen?! And who’s fault is it?

What SHOULD’VE happened.

Yes, I understand that if you were affected… you’re angry. Your pitchfork is out and your torch is blazing. You want your pound of flesh… you want your BQ restored. You want your effort to not have been wasted! I get it. So who’s to blame? Well, of course, the Race Director is accepting responsibility as any good Race Director would. Know what, though?

I don’t think the Race Director is to blame.

The Maine Coast Marathon leadership – Charles and Erik, did everything they possibly could to ensure they provided more-than-adequate very-clear instruction to their paid and volunteer crew in a number of different ways, with ample clarification. As someone who had a set of instructions from them… I honestly don’t understand how that course marshall / traffic controller could’ve possibly mis-interpreted his/her diagram/map. So am I blaming the rogue course marshall? Maybe, yeah.

Maine Coast Marathon Course Error
What ACTUALLY happened.

Why would he/she have directed people off-course like they did? We may never know. Do I understand that, ultimately, anything that goes wrong lands at the Race Director’s feet? Of course. Doesn’t mean I have to agree with it. At the end of the day, I think Charles and Erik did everything they reasonably could have, and more, to ensure the course was accurate. I don’t blame them for this… but then again, I didn’t run it.

So what can be done?

Unfortunately the short answer is: not a lot. Charles indicated that it’d be easy enough to measure and certify that extra distance… but many runners realized it was a mistake and didn’t run the whole detour… meaning not everyone ran the same extra distance and rendering that “fix” not-doable. While they ARE talking to the B.A.A. it’s unlikely the B.A.A. will do anything to honor a just-missed BQ, as there are rules in place and it’s simply too hard to certify what would’ve happened if you hadn’t run the extra distance (however long you, in particular, ran). Too many variables, too many what-ifs, and too big of a can of worms.

Remember to keep things in perspective.

Trust me, I know very well what goes into training and preparing for a marathon. The time, money, blood, sweat and tears that goes into the months of marathon prep is considerable indeed. The sacrifices you make to get it done and the sacrifices your family makes to support you have an impact on daily life… even moreso when you’re pushing for a BQ. Really, I get it. So I feel for those of you who feel your Boston Qualifying time.. or your new personal best (or both)… was just ripped out of your hands unfairly. But as crushed as you are… try to remember…

The Race Director is just as crushed.

Race Directors spend lots of time and effort planning, coordinating, and preparing for the event. They spend countless hours and many sleepless nights in order to ensure a solid event. They sacrifice just like you, and so does their family (who often helps out for free), to help create the best event possible… even if at their own expense (financially and figuratively). When YOU get a BQ or a new personal best, they share your joy and accomplishment. The fact that this happened, and so many people are upset, angry, sad, and broken… cuts them to the core.

And now they’re trying to figure out what happened… and why.

Charles and Erik are sitting at home right now with overflowing inboxes and phones ringing off the hook. They have the weight of all of your anger and sadness on their shoulders… and they’re helpless to do much of anything for you. This kind of thing is a race director’s worst nightmare… the only way it gets much worse is if someone actually dies during the event. They’re doing their best to investigate and figure out what happened… but at the end of the day… all they can really do is express a heartfelt & honest apology. They personally apologized to runners as they crossed the finished, they apologized online many times, and I’m sure they’re apologizing individually and personally as you email/call them. Frankly… I’m not sure there’s much else they can do.

It’s time to pick yourself up and keep running.

Not very satisfying, I know… but unfortunately it is what it is. Sometimes things go wrong and there’s nothing that can be done for it… no further care or caution that could’ve prevented it. The best thing a runner can do in this situation is… well… keep running. Sad truth of the universe is that bad things happen to good people for no reason. There will be more marathons and more opportunities for a BQ. If you’re already in fighting shape now… pick an August marathon and keep moving! Focus on the sport you love, have mercy on the Race Director, and keep on running. If you’re still looking for answers, you can email the Race Director at info@mainecoast262.com – just give them a bit of a buffer as they’re working hard to answer everyone and remember…

Race Directors and Runners aren’t all that different… if you’re hurting or angry over this right now… don’t you suppose they are, too?