You’ve trained for months and it’s finally the big day: time to rock your goal marathon! It’s a hot day and you know it’s extra important to drink enough and it’s always important to take your gels. Lucky for you, your buddy has her bike and will bring your favorite bottle and favorite fuel along the course to hand to you when you need them. While everyone around you veers left and right and slows down at aid stations, you sail straight on through knowing your pal will be just ahead with whatever you need – and no worries about spilling overly strong gatorade all over your face in those flimsy cups: you’ve got squeeze bottles baby!
Sounds great right? What if I told you, you could and really should be disqualified for this?
On the surface, distance running is pretty simple: one foot in front of the other from start to the finish. But in a race atmosphere that simple practice becomes complicated with rules designed to make competition fair and fun for all participants. There is a USATF, RRCA (Road Runners Club of America) and official race rule of almost every marathon that many people do not know about (or ignore). It is the prohibition of taking aid, water, gels or even a hat from any place other than an aid station or from anyone along the course other than the volunteers that are at designated aid stations. The rules for the Spokane Marathon sum this up nicely:
One rule that many people aren’t aware of is the rule of illegal aid. This is true in all races where they give awards. Runners need to use the aid stations only for their aid (or carry what they need with them). If you are getting water, gel, or any other aid from someone other than aid station workers, you are actually getting illegal aid. You are getting help that others in the race aren’t able to get. Now, if you are just trying to finish, chances are people won’t notice that your spouse is meeting you every half mile and giving you the secret potion that you need. However, if you are vying for an age-group award, it may become an issue. Technically, according to USATF and RRCA rules (which are the rules we abide by), this is grounds for disqualification. The marathon committee’s hope is that everyone on the course will act with integrity and finish the race within these rules. We have had to deal with this issue once, and would rather not have to do so again.
The purpose of this rule is to prevent one athlete from having an unfair advantage over another. Before races, the elites are often gathered for a race orientation where they are informed about rules and regulations. This is one of those rules that we are always reminded about. We are told to avoid doing anything that might appear like we’re receiving aid, like high-fiving people in the crowd or hugging a family member while out on the course.
Unfortunately, this rule isn’t always made clear to the rest of the field. This is most likely because the stakes are different for nonelites. For many, marathoning is fun and high-fiving and hugging loved ones along the way is par for the course. When there isn’t prize money on the line, most mid or back-of-the packers aren’t as concerned about the aid. Meanwhile, elites know that hugging someone mid-race, let alone taking water, gel or anything from a friend or family member could cost us hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and possibly qualification for something bigger like the marathon trials.
Elites are supposed to know this, yet I have been in a race and watched sisters grab bottles of fluid from their father as he biked along side them, while I was only able to grab the small cups that were available on the course. It irritated me and when the race was over and I finished just behind one of them, but in front of the other. It bothered me to know that they didn’t play fair. I chose not to say anything, but in all honesty I held a grudge. I find great joy in the rawness of our sport and for someone to be able to get 8 oz of fluid while I would be given only 3 oz on a hot day I knew they had a distinct advantage.
This fall, I went to a marathon to cheer on a friend going for her OTQ, and along the course, I witnessed a runner blatantly disregarding this rule. I was just a spectator, but even so my knee jerk reaction was of disgust and anger. At mile 12 I saw the 2nd place woman’s coach dash onto the course, grab the runner’s water bottle off the table where it was sitting and hand it to her, so that she did not have to run to the side and use extra energy to get it herself. Meanwhile, every other runner had to veer to the side of the course and grab her own bottle.
I was uncertain of what to do, but it kept nagging at me. Initially I decided to let it go, and made a mental note about it in case I ever raced this woman in the future. As the race progressed it bothered me to see her do so well and finish in 2nd place taking hundreds and thousands of dollars from other women that raced hard within the rules. The internal battle raged.
After the race, I was with my friend who qualified(!) and finished right behind the woman who cheated. When the cheating coach bumped into me in the hospitality room I mentioned that I saw her grab the water bottle for her athlete. I told her that what she did should disqualify her athlete and that she should not do it again. She became angry and started yelling at me. The elite coordinator heard the yelling and asked what the problem was. I didn’t know what to do for a moment, but then it became clear.
While I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that both the coach and athlete were well aware of the rules, they just didn’t care and were not going to stop doing it. So, I told the coordinator what went down during the race, which lead to talking to the race director and giving a statement on what I saw. In the end, an elite bike escort also witnessed the cheating so the woman was disqualified from the event entirely. I felt sad that someone who had undoubtedly worked very hard was disqualified, but in the end it was worth it to know the women behind her were given fair placement and awards. While I hope to never be in that position again, I know that when all is said and done I did the right thing.
So you see how this plays out in the front of the race, but what about for nonelites: should the rule against taking off-course aid apply to everyone?
YES. Here’s why:
In the masses this happens all the time, and while it is not regulated in any way, it is still an unfair advantage to the other runners in your category. The rule, while often not enforced, is still in effect for the entire field. Getting aid from friends and family is an easy way to make sure you get everything you need, I understand that. However, it’s cheating. When a runner’s boyfriend hands her a water bottle and a gel so she doesn’t have to deal with paper cups at the crowded aid station or risk chaffing by carrying her own gel, it’s not fair to those that do need to go to the aid stations or carry their own gels. If she gets third in her age group, part of that is because she skipped aid stations and possibly because she was able to hydrate better and was more comfortable than other runners. That’s not fair to the woman who came in fourth and everyone else behind her.
Additionally, what if you take aid from off-course and qualify for Boston? That Boston qualifier shouldn’t count. Part of racing a marathon is abiding by the rules and Boston requires you race a qualifying marathon in a certain time. Plus, nowadays faster qualifiers get into Boston before slower ones. If you get in because you cheated it’s not fair to someone slower who played by the rules. As far as I’m concerned, you shouldn’t even use a race where you receive aid as a PR. It’s just not right and it’s not fair to the people who do play by the rules.
The fact is that almost every race these days offers water and sports drinks, plus there are many ways to carry what you need yourself. You are running a race, a sporting event, so there are rules. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, and I understand that there is fun involved in hugs and high fives, so have at it, just do not take aid from people off course. Races need to do a better job of informing the masses about the rule against off-course aid, but now that you know about it, follow it, please! While you may not be in the front of the race with money on the line, keep in mind that having an unfair advantage over others is just that: unfair.
What do you think about taking water or gels from spectators along the course? Have you ever done it? Did you know receiving off-course aid is grounds for disqualification? What would you have done in my shoes if you saw someone cheating?