Running EtiquetteAt the 1978 New York City Marathon, while helicopters beat the air above the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge like so many overstuffed dragonflies, a little figure far below ran about frantically waving his arms, trying to make order from chaos. Fred Lebow, no slouch of a runner himself, was trying to pull off the biggest marathon in the history of the world. Despite the fact that he'd done it before and had spent months of planning, some systems were not functioning perfectly. He would later criticize himself for the failure to provide certain mile markers, for the lack of effective split times, and for a hundred-and-one other real or imagined failures in the effort to move some 10,000 people 26 miles.
Perhaps the most annoying systems breakdown at the New York City Marathon took place at the starting line on the male side of the bridge - and there was little Fred Lebow could do about it, because it was more a malady of the current running boom than something that could be conveniently legislated away in committee meetings at the New York Roadrunners Club.
The most flagrant disregard of running etiquette occurs at the start of a race like New York. Despite Fred Lebow's attention to having signs at the start behind which marathoners of various abilities were supposed to line up, there was total chaos. Runners who knew they would be doing 4:20 marathons were lining up with those who were capable of 2:45s. The New York computer had assigned race numbers according to previous best times: theoretically all 2000-2999 should have been grouped in one place. Unfortunately, there were many 4000s and 5000s in front of the 2000s.
When the cannon was fired to start the race, many of the runners with 2000 numbers found themselves having to attempt broken-field running around an assortment of runners who should have been 100 yards behind them at the start. Doing broken-field running off the starting line tends to bind up the muscles in the legs and does everything but allow the runner to develop a smooth and relaxed stride. Some runners with 2000 numbers spent 24 minutes crossing the bridge when it should have taken only 14-15 minutes.
It is not a problem unique to New York or unique to marathons.
Recently several of us ran a 10-kilometer race one weekend and a marathon the following weekend (certainly not a practice that is encouraged, but one that is a symptom of over-enthusiasm).
There were nearly 200 runners in the shorter race. We inched our way up to the sixth row from the front, planning on running between 38 and 39 minutes. Within the first block of the race we had to pass three guys running side-by-side holding a conversation and not paying attention to anything going on around them, an elderly gentleman running in high-top sneakers, a group of kids who were getting themselves tangled in everyone's legs, and several women who had not even bothered to remove their warm-ups for the race.
The following Sunday, at the marathon, with a 3X5 card bearing split times safety-pinned upside down to my shirt so I could read it easier, two of us stood about 20 yards back from the front row. Two middle-aged men in front of us turned around, looked at the splits and smiled. "You're gonna try for a 3:15, huh? We're hoping to break 4:30." They turned back toward the front and continued their conversation as the starting gun was raised. By sprinting toward the side and using the pavement, we managed to get around them and a few others within the first half-mile. They still hadn't come in when we were showered, dressed, and headed to our car.
Starting where your abilities dictate makes a race run smoother for everyone. It allows the faster runners to get away smoothly on their way to better times; it allows the slower runners to concentrate on their own efforts without having to wish they'd worn a rearview mirror so they could anticipate the next fast runner coming past them at five miles an hour faster, possibly having to use an elbow that hasn't been raised in frustration since track season.
It would be a welcome relief at a race to merely hear the command to start and then the sound of the runners breathing together in their effort, instead of having to run through a shower of "Track!" and "Coming through" and "Passing on the left."
By practicing it now, it would save Fred Lebow a lot of anxiety come October.