Readers Roundtable: What’s the Deal with Rule Breakers?

The real winner of the 2014 St. Louis Go! Marathon, Andrea Karl was robbed of her moment by a cheater.

It always seems that we talk about cheating way more than we should. Over the last few months, we heard about doping scandals in the pro world and BQ cheating among the masses. A couple of years ago, Rocket wrote about a cheater she helped bust at the Columbus Marathon. This hit home as I’m heading to Columbus on Sunday to race my heart out.

Just this week I received the Columbus Marathon elite runner summary. We were reminded about three rules, that runners seem to want to ignore. I can’t believe we have to talk about these again!

Rules: There have been issues in the past with respect to rules. There are no exceptions!

Per USATF rules the use of headphones is not permitted for competitors competing for prize money.

Elites may accept nutritional aid (water, other fluids, food, gels, etc) only at one of the official aid stations. Accepting nutritional aid from any outside source (family member, friends, un-official front-yard stations, coaches) may subject a competitor to forfeiture of prize money and awards.

“Pacing” may only be done by officially entered competitors with bib numbers.

I recently witnessed several of the prize money winning women in a marathon with headphones on. These rules aren’t new and any runner even remotely close to competing for prize money should know them.

My point is that when my competitors cheat, it really annoys me: I work really hard to simulate race conditions including aid stations, water bottle tables, gels, and pacing feedback. If I missed out on third place to a woman whose friend bikes up and hands her a water bottle, I’d be really annoyed. Wouldn’t you? So I want to hear your thoughts:

How do you know if you might be in contention for prize money: shouldn’t everyone have to follow these rules? And WHY are these rules so often ignored? Would you report a rule breaker?

I'm a subelite marathon runner, but I didn't come from a collegiate running background. Instead I'm trying to break into competitive running in my thirties. I write about chasing the dream of running with the elite girls and tell stories of adventures along the way. Watch me chase the next big thing.

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  1. It seems like the rules should apply to everyone if purpose is to “even the field” for medal contenders. Who knows who may ultimately win? On the other hand, seems harsh not to allow mid-and-back of the pack runners the ability to have friends hand them drinks given how crowded some of the aid stations are. Official pacers make sense but what if you’re running your first marathon and a friend unofficially paces you? I don’t use ear buds, think they’re dangerous for anyone. The rules should at least be enforced for those to whom they apply, though, because could give unfair advantage. Good questions.

    1. I think in crowded races the unofficial aid thing would be really hard to enforce – it would be so hard to tell who’s doing what! Also the earbud thing – you’d have to DQ 3/4 of the race! I personally think headphones should not be allowed at races and agree they’re a hazard, although I think we’re WAY in the minority there 😉

  2. The reality is that the front of the pack IS different the rest of the field. The masses do not get tents with heaters to keep warm at the start or their own pre-mixed water bottles that make nutrition and hydration faster and easier. So I think those of us who are in the masses should not be begrudged ear buds and other small comforts that make our race easier.

    1. Yeah, I know. It is a different race for everyone up front. (But by the way if you are close enough to the front and you ask nicely, you will get access to these things.)

      1. You don’t get access to these things unless you are given elite or preferred status. I can’t go into Detroit this weekend and ask nicely for my own water bottles and access to the warm tent and don’t expect them to oblige. And I will probably be top 20 overall.

        I am not saying that this gives me a right to get water bottles handed to me from someone on the side of the road. Does it really matter if I did if my age group competitor has preferred status and gets his own water bottles with his own choice of what’s in them and I have to wear half the gatorade from an aid station? Hardly seems fair does it?

    2. Interesting! Should prize money be reserved for those in the pampered elite class who are subject to these rules? Is it ok for a non elite to use an iPod and outside aid and win prize money? Otherwise it’s those runners at the top of the nonelites who are kinda screwed?

      1. The reality for competitive races is that the non-elites don’t have a chance at winning the race. There are also a bunch of instructions and pre-race drug testing going on at competitive races.

        1. I don’t know about that. I think people can be a little under the radar and not have the track record to get an elite start, but then have a breakthrough in the race. You’re right about big $$ races, but that’s not true for small and medium races necessarily.

        2. Actually, the guy who won Columbus a few years back was denied elite entry. The rules clearly state that only those who start with the elites are eligible for prize money. The same thing happened at Chicago with Wesley Korir one year (he didn’t win, but placed high enough to be in the money).

    3. There is always going to be someone in the front. (duh!, right?). I guess the goal is to make the front as competitive as possible. The front is where the race is won and elite qualifying times are made.

  3. I feel that headphones and support should be a non issue for us what I would call semi elite status. Since when you are usually given access to your own water bottles when having an elite status in a race, there are numerous water stations in which you can get your own water bottles with want you want in them along with whatever gels taped to them. Getting a water bottle between two of these stations would not make a difference. I also don’t see how headphones would really give a semi-elite any advantage either. It is not like we are getting updates as to our competitors throughout the race.

    I think you should worry about the things that really matter and not waste energy on the things that really don’t. I know they are the rules, but I wouldn’t get worked up about the ones that do not effect the outcome.

    1. You bring up a lot of good points. Maybe the solution is to make elites freeze their asses off at the start and have to squeeze Dixie cups like the rest of us! Haha!

      1. I am not saying that they should have to freeze and drink out of dixie cups. I have had elite status and it is a lot of fun and something that takes a ton of work.

        Cheating is really about getting an unfair advantage that is not available to everyone else. Breaking the rules that doesn’t provide an unfair advantage is not cheating.

        You could follow the rules and still be cheating. With pacing, if you are lucky and happen to know someone whom is willing to pace you and have a legal bib, they can break the wind for you and provide the mental relief of holding pace. Since I am age group racing, and if I use a younger person to do this tasks, am I not cheating? I now have an advantage over my other competitors. I didn’t break any rules. I see this as cheating and others will have a different interpretation. The point is, where do you draw the line.

        1. More good points!

          So let me see if I understand. What you’re saying is that basically some rules are dumb and arbitrary and there are many ways to gain a potentially unfair advantage without violating rules. So should races not have these three rules (ear buds, unoffical aid, and pacers)? Is there some rule you think would make things fairer, but isn’t currently a rule?

          1. I think it depends on what context the rules are applied whether or not they are dumb (I tend to use the term inapplicable but dumb will work) or arbitrary. If someone is racing the the Olympic Qualifiers then I think they are valid rules and make sense. If I am racing in my local race with 500 participants then I don’t think they all make sense. Even then I don’t have a problem with the rules. I just wouldn’t necessarily call it cheating if some of them are violated.

            I guess my point is there can be a lot of gray area in the lower tiered races and if my competitor has headphones on I could care less.

          2. It is not just ipods that are prohibited because of the communication rules. You know those timex watches with cellular communication? They do two way communication. There are those watches that stream to headphones. And there is also the now defunct Bia. This stuff is now so small and hidden, it is hard to enforce on a per device basis.

          3. My point with headphones is that non elite runners (I define elite as very top tier and not status given by a specific event) are not using them to get an unfair advantage. If an elite in Chicago had a communication device and none of his competitors did, he/she could be relayed information from a coach/spotter on where their competition is, if they are in trouble, etc….. If you had a lead and knew exactly where your competition is behind you without having to look behind you (and also if they are suffering or not), then this would be an unfair advantage.

            Whether my competitor is listening to AC/DC or the sound of his footsteps, I don’t see an advantage being made. I wouldn’t complain about it.

            With someone riding up and giving my competitor a water bottle. If I still had to drink out of dixie cups like everyone else, then yes, this has an unfair advantage. If I can get a water bottle filled with a liquid of my choosing at all my water stops and my competitor does not, then no, this is not an unfair advantage. I believe that the rule is valid to keep order and ensure safety for all the participants. Breaking the rule in this instance is not cheating in my view.

            You used the word cheating which I feel is too strong. We need rules, otherwise chaos would ensue. I am just arguing that breaking a rule does not imply cheating.

      2. That would be a hilarious story- “Meb decides to run with the masses- his thoughts on dixie cups, port-o-potties, and shivering under a garbage bag.”

  4. You state that this isn’t a team sport. I can follow the rule and have someone pace me if they have a bib number. I followed the rules but didn’t adhere to the principle that this is an individual sport. Running is not an individual sport and is very much team oriented at the top tier level. You can’t tell me that the Kenyan’s or Ethiopians don’t work together to drop competitors. Running be individual is a very misinterpreted view.

  5. I’m a rule follower for races. I tend to feel that if I have elected to compete in a sport, I have elected to compete by its rules. Safe or not, headphones can be an advantage.

    Also, I’ve been pleasantly surprised on more than one occasion with money, even though I’m generally far from elite. The terms are clear- no headphones for those in the prize money. I’ll follow the rules so I’m free and clear on my rare wins.

    1. I believe in following the rules as well. Sometimes they can be unclear and are we always subject to USATF rules if money is involved. I am running Detroit and there is no mention anywhere on their website that if you are competing for cash prizes that headphones are not allowed. The only reference to headphones is you can wear them but it is not recommended. I am in a position in which I could potentially get 2nd or 3rd for the Master with a cash prize. I am not going to wear headphones but I thought about it and there is no clarity on the race website whether or not USATF guidelines are in effect.

  6. Interesting! Just as an aside, I have never raced with music, but some guy paced off of me for 6.5 miles during a half this weekend with music so loud that I couldn’t hear myself think. I asked him to turn it down and he didn’t. Finally I dropped him just because I couldn’t stand the rudeness. Made me go faster than I wanted– unfair advantage:)

    1. That’s so annoying!!! I think I rather have one of those guys hyperventilating because he’s trying so hard not to get chicked right behind me than some guy blaring crappy music through headphones!

      But I love the end result! Hilarious!!!

    2. I’ve had the same thing happen except the guy had his ipod/phone/whatever on speaker to say all of the course turns and his pace each time he hit whatever random split. It definitely pushed me to get as far away from him as I could, who does that?!?!

  7. This is where things can get confusing. The above in the post states that USATF does not allow headphones if prize money is available which is untrue unless it is a championship. Although, it is at the discretion of the race director so they can have this rule.

    “(f) The visible possession or use by athletes of video, audio, or communications devices in the competition area. The Games Committee for an LDR event may allow the use of portable listening devices not capable of receiving communication; however, those competing in Championships for awards, medals, or prize money may not use such devices.”

    The rule previously had banned the use of headphones by all runners. While headphones remain banned for any athlete competing in a USA Championship, they may be allowed by race directors in other circumstances, at the discretion of each race director.”

    I do agree that since this rule is specifically stated and emphasised in the Columbus Marathon that it should be enforced and there are no excuses for the elite athletes.

    1. I have no idea what they do at other major races. At Pittsburgh, we had a whole lot of instructions about drug testing, drug testing escorts, the order in which to do media interviews and drug testing, rules that mostly meant not talking to pacers, how to drop out. All sorts of stuff that doesn’t apply to the general field that has no chance of winning.

  8. You can’t control what the cheaters do. You can only control yourself. My philosophy is run clean yourself, and even if you place lower than a cheater, at least you kept your integrity.

  9. But I should add that I really don’t care much about what place I take. I only care about doing my personal best for that day. I guess someone who cares more about placing would be more upset about cheaters. But no matter what, you can only control what you do, and not what others do.

  10. I don’t think it’s right to take music away or friends and family aid from casual runners. They aren’t trying to win they are trying to finish. There’s a difference. As a runner who just pr’d a half marathon with a time of 2:54, I would die without my music. But I run to enjoy it, not to win. I keep it low and try to be extra vigilant so I don’t get in the way of other runners. I also try to make friends with people around me, but a lot of times I’m alone and it’s a long way to go without someone to talk to and no music.
    I think if you “cheat” because you didn’t think you would be that fast, then you should be honest and let it go to the next person. You still know you did that well.
    If you’re trying to win or place, recognize the rules and don’t try to work around them.
    Just my two cents.