Picture this. A local 5k race advertises prize money for breaking the course record and publishes the course records on its website. You know you can easily break that published record, could definitely use the cash, and need a good effort for your training, anyway. You go to the race, plan to run under the record, and then execute your plan exceeding the published record by five seconds. Would you expect to receive that prize money?
By now we’ve all heard how hard it is for emerging elites to financially support themselves while training at a high level. Many of them rely on small race prize money to supplement their meager incomes. But, what you might not know, is that many local races are not well-run, do not have clear rules for prize money, and sometimes blame the athletes for the race’s or race director’s mistakes. This is precisely what happened to me.
As I scoped out some local 5k or 10k road races for tune-ups, I remembered one that started half a mile from my front door. My husband ran it last year and assured me it was a good race. Even better, it landed on the calendar two weeks before I go to my goal race Boilermaker 15K in Utica, NY. After a sub-par performance at the Portland Track festival a few weeks ago, I was looking to get my racing legs back under me. A local 5k seemed like the perfect way to do that.
Cementing my decision further was that the race offered a cash prize of $250 for beating the course record, which the website listed as 17:06. I knew this was well within my capabilities, and I decided to target a 17:00 to get the course record and a great tune-up in under my belt.
Saturday morning arrived and before I knew it, I was listening to the excitement and panic-inducing countdown of, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1…” and we were off. The race went well, the volunteers were incredibly friendly and helpful, and I had a great time racing. I executed my plan, secured first place, and ran a 17:01, five seconds faster than the published record.
As the awards ceremony unfolded and I heard my time and name announced, I was confused when the race director announced my time was as 17:06, when my chip time was 17:01.2 and he announced every other runner’s time using their chip time. I had a sinking feeling. Was he going to use gun time to determine the course record? Would it come down to analyzing my gun time by tenths of seconds to determine a course record, or, worse, was he going to use gun time to wiggle out of having to give me the course record prize money?
I saw my friend Ruth, who, according to the race website, held the old course record, after the race. I asked her how the race handled prize money in the past. She said that, before the race that very morning, the race director told her the “correct” course record was 16:45 and was set in 2014. I stifled a laugh, and asked, “Wait, what?” But, she was not laughing along with me. She said yes, the race director informed her the website was incorrect, and that he had noticed it the previous night. I took a deep breath and conferred with my husband about this. He was just as confused as me. I decided to talk to the race director after the awards ceremony.
Cut to a tense conversation. I asked the RD about the course record, and he repeated what Ruth said he told her, that “Last night the website was wrong” and the course record was really 16:45. I felt disappointed that I was learning this after the race. Why hadn’t he updated the race website? The “real” course record happened two years ago! At the very least, why didn’t he announce this at the beginning of the race? Possibly at this moment:
I asserted that according to his own website, I broke the course record by five seconds. He said he would not make a decision right now, but would email a response. Sunday afternoon, while I was lazily listening to podcasts and basking in the sun, I checked my inbox to see if I received an email from the race director. I sure did. In short, I would not be receiving any course record bonus money and I would not be rewarded based on “a technicality.” Adding insult to injury, the tone of the email was not exactly pleasant and insinuated I knew the record was actually 16:45, and I was trying to get extra money based on a loophole. And all without an apology.
I was shocked. By now it wasn’t about the money, but that the race made a mistake and the RD was making me out to be the bad guy for relying on their mistake. I naively assumed that when the RD did not make a decision at the race, that he’d carefully consider what the right thing to do was and would be respectful to me at the very least. It was like he was treating me like I was cheating and that’s not ok.
Unfortunately, this is not all that uncommon. A similar situation happened in Encinitas, California at the 2015 Surfing Madonna Beach Run, where the race director incorrectly handed out too much prize money to winners. The wording on the website was quite frankly confusing, and it landed race director, Bob Nichols, in quite a conundrum. Nichols originally asked for athletes to pay back the additional prize money, but most refused. It became a legal entanglement, and ultimately Nichols paid the additional prize money out of his own pocket to save his non-profit foundation, The Surfing Madonna Oceans Project. All of this could have been avoided if the race director made the rules clear and concise before the race.
In my case, I accept the race director’s decision not to pay out the bonus prize money. I recognize it’s out of my control and it’s not like it’s a disagreement over a $125,000 contract. But my acceptance is not without indignation.
Directing a quality race is no easy task, especially one with a small budget. I get that. But, as any business person must, a race director must adequately inform its customers, the racers, of the terms of its service, the race. From my, the customer’s, vantage point, I did everything that was asked of me; I abided by the terms the race director set forth about the race. Yet, when I was told the terms were different from the ones that were published before the race and were different because of a mistake made by the race director, not me, I was made to feel like I was in the wrong, when an apology would have been simple and effective.
Since this happened, the race director updated the website to reflect the 2014 course record. I hope the race director continues to update the site and maybe use this as a lesson to ensure all rules and terms of the race are clear. As for me, I left the race feeling disillusioned and I’ll be emailing race directors to confirm the terms of prize money before relying on receiving any in the future.
Have you ever been wronged by a race director’s mistake?
*** Note from Salty: I reached out to the race director to ask him if he’d like us to publish a statement about his side of the misunderstanding. Here’s his response. We decided not to publish his name, the race name, or the athlete’s name he refers to because the point isn’t to slam him, but rather to demonstrate what can happen when rules aren’t clear and how some RDs respond to the situation. The message is unedited, except we removed the name of the athlete.
Please help me understand your use of the word misunderstanding. What is this based on? There was not a misunderstanding but instead wrong assumptions by a misinformed runner. If you can show me any documentation which indicates the record breaking incentive was offered I will gladly correct our mistake and issue the award.
There was at no point a incentive published for a course record for this years event. I think that perhaps The runner to which you are referencing assumed there was based on being told that by a previous record holder or from past year’s events because in the past we had offered that prize. The event does have a generous incentive for being the overall winner especially for a event of this size and that incentive was paid as advertised at the completion of the event during the awards ceremony.
Initially during the awards ceremony when I was interrupted about this challenge issue I told the two protestors that I was not making any decision on the topic on the spot.
After the event First I confirmed the record and verified she had not broken it by about 15 seconds. I emailed the runner over the weekend informing her of this.
Then after I returned to work the following week reviewed our websites t and discussed with my staff who created the website.
I wanted to see if there was an incorrect post of time because we had created a new web site this year and upon verification review after the race I found their challenged to be merit less Because We had not posted the incentive for this year’s event at all.
The runner to which you are referencing asked us to be registered after the event registration closed just a couple days before the race. I did that for her and comped her entry.
It is correct that the website listed the incorrect record time but that has no merit in this discussion because no course record incentive was ever offered for the 2016 event.
On a positive note I did learn from this issue that I should have paid [the runner who ran the 16:45 in 2014] the incentive from a previous year event for breaking the course record. Upon contacting her last week to apologize she said she was aware but thought the event was so generous donating every penny of proceeds to charity that she wanted it to be donated and never made me aware. We agreed on a charitable cause and the money was donated. You can view our event Facebook page to see a post about this.