When Race Directors Make Mistakes and Blame Runners

My awards for winning. Missing: the course record bonus prize.
My awards for winning. Missing: the course record bonus prize.

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.

How the records appeared on the race website until they were changed a few days after the 2016 race.

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. 

I'm running as fast as I can so I can continue to put off law school. I was 39th at the US Olympic Marathon Trials in February, and now am focused on running some road personal bests. Further in the future, I’m looking forward to running a quick fall marathon. I mainly write about the physical and mental aspects of racing at an elite level, trying to navigate the post collegiate running world, and setting aside other life goals for one; running fast.

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  1. Wow. Clearly this RD would never succeed as a customer service rep. I’m sorry you had to go through that.

  2. Some race directors told me years ago that it is the norm to base the top three places (overall awards) on gun time, so I would have expected the course record to be based on gun time, not chip time. http://www.millenniumrunning.com/ask-the-race-director-net-vs-gun-time/3349

    I’m confused by the race director’s statement. You said you saw the race advertise that there was an additional bonus for breaking the record, but the race director flat out denies that this incentive was published. If it wasn’t published, then the race director was correct in not giving the bonus. If you had broken the wrongly published course record, you should have been given the bonus because you ran in good faith that was the actual course record that you had to break.

    1. The fact that everything about the course record was so unclear is the mistake. We could go searching through the website cache or interview more runners about what the website said or didn’t say, but that’s not the point. Clearly there was much confusion (why did the RD tell Ruth about the record before the race if there was no issue? And why on earth would Paprika invent this in her head?) The RD not adequately communicating his intentions or the rules was the mistake and that could have been easily remedied with a brief and polite explanation, but instead he reacted the way he did. Why? No one knows.

      1. I never said that the unclear course record wasn’t a problem. It is. I totally support Paprika in getting the bonus based upon the published course record.

        The problem that I’m pointing out is what the race director said. He said that the bonus was never advertised for this year. I don’t think Paprika is making anything up. I believe her when she said that she saw it advertised. The question is where. If it was on this year’s website, then the race director is lying about it being advertised. If it was on last year’s site, but not this year’s, then he has a case for saying that Paprika doesn’t get the bonus.

        The other separate problem is rudeness of his behavior, which I didn’t comment on earlier because I agree that he shouldn’t have been rude even if he is in the right (which I’m not sure if he is or isn’t).

        1. In my pre-coffee haze I was worried the point wasn’t clear. What maybe doesn’t come across in the post is that what was “last year’s” site was simply a website that hadn’t been adequately updated, but that fact was not clear to the readers of it at all.

          1. So, this was a sanctioned race. What does USATF rules have to say about it?

            The facebook page links to the 2015 web page which states,
            “Prize Money for 2015 Run of the Mill!
            Men’s and Women’s Divisions:
            1st Place – $500
            2nd Place – $250
            3rd Place – $150
            4th Place – $100
            5th Place – $75
            Course Record Bonus of $250
            Jordan McNamara 14:13 in 2012
            Ruth Perkins 17:06 in 2011”

            having two websites up is messy. So is not fixing your f-up for $250 and making it go away.

            while misleading and messy, if you are on the wrong website, it does say Prize Money for 2015. What did the entry form actually say for 2016?

    2. Exactly, Cardamom! I’ve been at races previously where it has been gun time, not chip, and honestly I think it’s about 50/50 for local races that use either. So I wasn’t sure, but I never saw my gun time as 17:06. The bonus was published on last year’s race website which is no longer up and running…

        1. Yes….. and the facebook page linked to the 2015 web site.
          But there was also a 2016 web page.
          Of course, you couldn’t register for the 2016 race from the 2015 web site. In order to register, you would have needed to register from the 2016 web site. So everyone running that race did at some point see the 2016 website. Sloppy nonetheless.

  3. In Dexter to Ann Arbor this year, prize money was withhold on suspicion of doping allegations…. The catch: It was an unsanctioned race and technically didn’t have any rules. None of us like doping, but that is not the point. The race is after the fact creating racing rules that didn’t exist or weren’t clear. (also keep in mind that there are different anti-doping rules depending on sanctioning body)

  4. This is crazy. Even if this had been a complete misunderstanding on Paprika’s part — and it doesn’t sound like it was — the RD should have handled the situation much more gracefully. I just don’t understand the attitude on his part.

    I’ve never had award money denied to me, but I did recently run a 10k and, despite being the first woman overall, I received no recognition and no award during the awards ceremony. I was super psyched when I crossed the finish line first — I had never won a race before — and I waited around eagerly after the race to hear my name called. At the ceremony, they announced the age-group award winners and then it was over. When I asked why they hadn’t announced the overall winners, the RD said that there were only age group awards. When I said that, in that case, I should have won my age group, she said I was ineligible because I came in first place overall. I explained that that made absolutely no sense — usually the overall winner doesn’t get an age group award because she gets the overall award. The RD responded that in this race there were only age group award winners and I “should have known that because of the website.” (It’s true that the website advertised three-deep awards in each age group, but it didn’t say no overall winners, and that wouldn’t be the assumption most runners would make upon reading about the age-group awards.) She finally threw an extra medal at me and told me to take it up with the official timer if I wanted to be listed as an age-group award winner instead of the overall winner (!). Needless to say, I didn’t, but you know it’s a poorly run race when the women’s overall winner, the men’s overall winner, and the masters’ winner are all complaining at the end. At least the men’s overall winner got to break a tape — I didn’t even get that!

    1. That is so weird. Yeah, if you’re just doing age group awards, then have everyone compete in the age group rather than overall. Weird. And if it was confusing, BE NICE. That RD is responsible for not communicating the rules effectively, not all of you who didn’t understand and she should just say “Oopsy!” and be done with it. But I get that these RDs are stressed, especially on race morning. But still.

  5. Sorry you had to deal with this. Mistakes and misunderstandings happen, but dealing with someone who can’t act polite or professional is a real bummer. I guess the lesson really is runner beware (if any money or qualifying times are at stake).

  6. Yeah, when I simply asked something along the lines of “would you like to make a statement about the misunderstanding” and I got an angry ranty whatever that is … it does really seem like he has a chip on his shoulder and is making rules up after the fact. A simple “we didn’t update the website and we’re sorry for the misunderstanding” would have sufficed all around and we’d all understand because we’re all busy and get it and don’t always have time to take care of the little things ourselves. And there wouldn’t be a post on Salty Running about it 🙂

  7. The point is, that there are a 1000 different ways that this could have been handled better. It’s tough to be a race director and yes mistakes do happen. Admit that the website was unclear and at least apologize for the confusion. For charity or not, your race is a business and runners are your customer. If you want people to return to your race, you treat them well and don’t make them feel like a criminal. Even if you don’t feel that awarding the prize money is the correct thing to do, you make a sincere apology and put steps in place to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

    1. It’s hard being the organizer of an event. Mistakes happen when there are so many moving pieces, no matter how diligent you are. As an organizer, I found the best way to handle is to openly admit you made a mistake and to apologize. Being defensive gets you nowhere.

  8. That’s really frustrating, and definitely no need for all the ‘tude if it was in fact an honest mistake. I’ve noticed that along with the “running boom,” there are a lot more race options every weekend than there were when I first started running. Great right? Unfortunately, you get a lot of green race directors who I don’t think understand how hard it is to put on even a small 5K, or that their customers are runners and it would behoove them to try and understand their needs and accommodate when possible.
    I’ve definitely gotten a lot more careful about researching races before I register to make sure they’re well established and not just trying to cash-in (ie: they actually care about the runners and putting on a RACE, not just printing some t-shirts and having a Facebook event page). I’m certainly not fast enough to run professionally, but I do try to put myself in position to win the races I enter, and I care about my times because I put a lot of effort into this hobby – and I doubt I’m alone in feeling this way. There are definitely days when I wish running wasn’t so popular and would go back to being a niche sport, and honestly that’s really sad…

  9. That is terrible! Since it was the RD’s mistake, the right thing to do would be to pay out the bonus money. So many conflicts would be easily resolved if people would just honor their word!

  10. Why the change this year in bonus awards? It looks like they upped the fundraising goal of the race. Good marketing would want the race to remain competitive and attract elite athletes like Paprika. I realize this is a non profit event but the goal of effective non profits are to maximize fundraising (which occurs when you bring elites to the event as I just mentioned). For someone like Paprika, knowing the record is 17:06 vs 16:45 would presumably influence participation and pacing (especially if the goal is hard workout vs all out race). Clearly this guy is not a runner and failed to use this to maximize his objectives.
    Great run, regardless and hope you stay healthy for the next one.

  11. This happens all the time, which is unfortunate. I really appreciate your write-up. I hope it kind of alarms RD’s and racers to communicate more effectively, and that it encourage RD’s to focus on updated & clear platforms which are easy to navigate prior to race start/s, especially when it comes to prizes/$. Communication is finicky in and of itself, because if you approach it softly/with kindness, you might get dismissed, or worse, feel like you didn’t stand up for yourself; if you approach it with any sort of assertion, or come across accusatory in the slightest, it could elicit rebuff/defensiveness. How you reacted and interacted sounds the healthiest and most helpful-to-self, though this RD sounds like they were always going to be a closed door, not compromising or understanding. I feel better knowing that others go through the same, so I’ll offer one of my own:

    1) Ski to Sea 2015 – Prize offered to Overall 1st Place Female Team of Alaska Airlines tickets to each athlete (8 total), and had been offered and successfully given to the 1st Place Female Team for the last 10 years, which coincidentally, had been the same women’s team to have won all 10 years (Boundary Bay Brewery Women’s Team). Prior to the race in 2015, we had looked at the website and saw that the tickets were still offered. We believed in this without hesitation, as it had been a constant for 10 years. There was no reason not to believe (akin to the previous years of this particular 5k having offered the same $250 course bonus). In 2015 Kulshan Cycles took Overall 1st Place Women’s Team, overthrowing the decade-long-winning Boundary Bay, and were thrilled at the opportunity to be awarded the Alaska Airlines tickets. It was all we could talk about for the next day. Until we didn’t hear about the tickets, asked the RD, and were told, “Oh we aren’t offering that this year.” Upon which we took a picture of where it was documented on the website & sent it to him. His response was something like, “That was a misstep, we forgot to take it off the website,” and within hours it was removed from online .He offered, “I’ll try to do something to make it up to you.” We never heard back, and no apology was issued to the team. A lot of times when something big like this happens, the RD will pretend like it didn’t happen & hope we don’t overreact, because, yes, you’re right, they throw it back in your lap like it was your mistake you didn’t ask enough questions or see through the misinformed details on their un-updated/un-edited website.

    1. Ugh. That is so annoying!!! The other thing is that if the website says something along the lines of “we will give you x if you do y” there may be a legal claim against them, if you do y and they do not follow through.

  12. You’re a Blogger fellow runners need to know what race this is so they can choose if they want to run this one or pick a different one. Race Reports are important.

    I have an entire Middle Tennessee YMCA race series I will never run because they canceled a race, didn’t tell anyone, (heard from another runner it was canceled) refused refunding me $40 or even allow me to pick a different race in the series.

  13. Wowwwwww. That email response! It makes one thing very clear: Proof-reading is not a priority. Sorry you had to deal with such a jerk!