' AARD: How strict are cut-off times for races/courses? | Adventures with FitNyx

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

AARD: How strict are cut-off times for races/courses?

Today's question was originally asked by Joan Oliver Emmer (Women Who Run the World), but I chose this one for today because I recently had the same discussion with another runner friend who was curious: "How strict are cutoff times for races?  Why can't I get my medal if I am only a few minutes behind?"

Here's the main deal with cutoff times - they're not usually the race's choice.  Course limits are most often dictated by the venue where the race is being held, which for longer races that have cutoffs usually means a city.  There are lots of permitting points that I'll probably eventually discuss, but the most relevant today is the street closure aspect, and therein lies the basis for the cutoff time on a half or full marathon.  My best example is the Marine Corps Marathon: the famous "Beat the Bridge" cutoff is set at mile 20, which participants MUST reach by 1:15pm.  This is a hard-and-fast limit that is enforced by a line of buses pulling in front of the course.  All participants who miss the cutoffs are put on the buses and taken to the finish line, where they do not get a medal or a time because they didn't finish the race.  The MCM website is very clear about several cutoff points and the pace needed to "stay alive" on the course.

But why 1:15pm?  Why a 14-minute pace?  The 1:15pm time is the latest Washington DC will allow the roads to be closed around the capital.  Obviously, DC is a kinda important city for our country, and even on a Sunday, people need access to the buildings along the National Mall and other points of the course.  The 14-minute-per-mile pace is not some arbitrary "we think you need to be a better runner than this" decision, but rather a calculation of what it will take to make it to the Bridge by 1:15pm.  This cutoff isn't meant to discriminate against slower runners specifically, it's just a city requirement to have the streets cleared at a reasonable time.

Of all the first-marathon advice I received, "don't get on
a bus" was the piece that stuck with me the most!

Boarding buses at the cutoff, however, is NOT the universal solution for races with a time limit.  For other events, that cutoff time is a little more "soft", and most participants will still be able to complete the race and earn their medal.  If the venue/city allows it, a soft cutoff will see slower participants moved to sidewalks or all-purpose trails so the streets can reopen, allowing the participant to continue with their race at their own pace.  The important difference between these two types of cutoffs (hard and soft) is communication prior to the event.  MCM makes it very clear what will happen to anyone not meeting cutoffs, including when and where those sweeps will take place.  Other races plan for sweeps, but don't tell their runners what to expect - at these events, runners are surprised to learn they may not be able to complete their goal.  It is very important as a race director to make sure we're communicating our cutoffs and what to expect at those times, especially if a soft cutoff means fewer aid stations.

In very, very rare occurrences, a race will impose a cutoff time simply to allow the race workers and volunteers to go home.  I've really only seen this done for ultra marathons, if a company doesn't have a big enough crew to keep shifting employees throughout an event that might take some people 24 hours or more.  Some races will keep the course open but may not be able to keep volunteers on the course for the full time and cannot guarantee course support after a certain point; again, communication is key for these instances.

Finding a pacer can help you manage your race splits better
while also giving you an experienced runner's advice along the way!

I keep putting the onus on the race directors to ensure their participants are aware of a cutoff time and what it may mean for their experience - but it's equally important for race participants to do their due diligence in researching an endurance event.  While prepping for my MCM experience, I wrote a post about finding the right marathon for your pace, especially if you're looking to enter a limited field event.  It's just as important for runners to do their research before signing up for an event, and perhaps even more important for potential participants to be honest with themselves about making the cutoffs.  Be prepared for what you might experience at your race, and we'll do our best to craft races that can accommodate as many people as possible!  This whole crazy running business is a team effort, after all!

Have you ever been stymied by a course cutoff?  Have you ever been surprised on race day to find out you're in danger of an unadvertised sweep?  What other questions do you want to Ask a Race Director?

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