Don’t Drink The Gatorade: The Case Against Unofficial Aid

Want an orange slice?
Want an orange slice? Just say no to the forbidden fruit!  (Photo credit: Lorianne DiSabato)

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.

marathon aid station
Legal aid during marathons is often available every mile.

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:

Illustration for Cheating Français : Illustrat...
Is this your style? Didn’t think so. Don’t take the off-course aid! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?

2 time Olympic Trials qualifier in the Marathon, looking to make that 5. I'm a talker, and I'm loud, if you get embarrassed easily...don't go into public with me. I laugh harder when trying to explain why I am laughing. A-Type, try to get things done before the microwave beeps sort of gal.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. I just saw this same thing happen in the Philadelphia Marathon yesterday. I finished 9th and a girl I do not know was ahead of me for many miles. I watched as multiple men came on the course at various points to hand her drinks/gels/whatever. I didn’t think anything of it the first time but when it happened again and again I did think; You know we are all somewhat close to winning some $$ in this race; completely unfair of her. She ended up not getting a prize or age group award but it definitely made me think there is that rule for a reason.

  2. Thanks SO much for writing this piece. I agree with you wholeheartedly…taking outside aid just gets me furious. Whether the athlete taking aid is an elite or an age grouper the rules are the same and the behavior is just plain wrong. I recently read a piece by a prominent blogger that discussed her habit of taking outside aid to avoid the congested water stops and it just made me furious! Yes, folks, the water stops are congested. But they are congested for everyone, whether you are a fast runner or a slow runner, front of the pack or back of the pack. Water stops cause every single one of us to break our stride just the same and that means that the playing field is level. Taking outside aid to avoid that level playing field is just as bad (in my opinion) as taking “supplements” to gain a few extra seconds on the competition. It all is unfair, unethical and against the rules.

  3. I agree with the rules as far as taking aid, such as fluids or gels are concerned and I commend you for asserting yourself to that coach and ultimately the RD.

    The only part I disagree with is calling a high 5 or hug on the course unfair aid. That type of thing does not give an unfair advantage in my opinion – if anything, stopping to hug someone will slow you down. It is also one of those things that could be a slippery slope. If you say you can’t high 5 anyone because it may give you a big boost, what’s next, your family members or friends (or complete strangers) can’t cheer for you or hold signs? One of the best parts of racing is taking in the awesome spectators – I’ll never stop high fiving them – even if it is against the rules. 🙂

    1. I think she just meant that runners need to be careful about getting hugs and such because it might be construed as someone sneaking a gel or something to the runner.

  4. Agree!

    Similarly, those who enter a race that’s being run concurrently with another should not be allowed to switch races mid-race – unless this rule is explicitly stated to all entrants beforehand.
    At a minimum, they should not be eligible for awards of any sort.

    Some of us actually scope out our competition. When I see a person wearing a bib for the other race, I cross them off my list.
    I don’t *think* I’ve personally been put out by such an incident. But, I do know of runners who have switched races mid-race and either been ticked that they weren’t given credit or happy to accept their AG award.

    Here’s a recent example that made headlines … unusual in that the switch was from Half to Full:

    1. Disclosure: I did take the dixie cup of beer offered by an unofficial, perennial aid station near the end of a certain marathon in which I won nothing.

    2. That’s another great issue, Liz! I read about that and felt it wasn’t quite right too. It seems like most people thought it was great, but I think it’s hard to understand why it’s wrong unless you’ve raced for place before. Racing for place is different than racing for a PR. You can do both at the same time or you can race for just one of those purposes too. Anyway, thanks for reminding us of this one!

  5. All I can think about is the little kids who hand out freeze pops at races and how sad they would be if no one even took one. I understand the reasoning behind it all, but so many people don’t run marathons to compete with anyone besides their own records. I don’t have a solution, but I also don’t have any sense of anger or injustice when people get orange slices on the race course from a group of girl scouts.

    1. I am guessing that taking the freeze pops from the little kids would violate the rules. However, at least in that situation, the freeze pops are being made available to all runners (until they run out of them). That’s quite different from a situation where one runner essentially has his or her own support crew.

      I was just thinking though. What if I am friends with a super fast runner, someone capable of running a 2:30 marathon and I am only trying to qualify for Boston and need a 3:15 marathon finish? My friend agrees to run along side me during the entire race, carrying water and gels and other items for me. So, instead of having to stop at an aid station, I just say, “Hey, Jeff. I need some water.” So, he hands me a small water bottle and I hand it back to him when I’ve had a few sips.

      I would think based on the concept that no one should have an unfair advantage, that kind of behavior would need to be against the rules too.

      1. I agree on the freeze pops and the oranges (I inserted the orange slice photo and thought that then). When you have you’re own personal aid system, that’s when it gets cheaty.

        As for your hypothetical, I was more or less in that situation and we did just that and looking back and now better understanding the rule, I think it was definitely in violation of the rule and I’d never do it again.

      2. Taking things that are available to all runners isn’t a problem. So the freeze pops don’t sound like an issue. However having someone running hand one aid is against the rules. Even if I run to a table and grab water and drop it and another athlete offers me some of theirs it is technically against the rules. At the 2016 Olympic Trials they ran that point home knowing we would be racing in groups and more than likely w training partners. It is against the rules to take aid from other athletes on the course as well. I know it seems weird but, it is because people who don’t have a faster person to run with them at their disposal/or comparable training partners to race with are then at an advantage over those who do not.

        1. Isn’t this comment a contradiction of what you wrote in the post? The freeze pops are not a part y of the legal aid stations so they would be considered illegal aid according to the rules.

          1. I guess so! I thought she meant as part of the race kids were handing them out to all runners. The rules actually state that anything that you take must be available to all athletes so as long as the freeze pops were available to all then it would be ok. But if it’s not for everyone it technically would be against the rules. You’re right!

  6. Ok. So my friend and training buddy was signed up for a race that was my goal race. She got injured, but already had a spot in the elite entry. She figured she could still run at least most of the race with me, so we used her elite bottles together. We shared the water bottles and both taped our gels to them. At the time, we felt we were covered since we were both entered in the race, but looking back I am cringing with the cheatiness of it! I am a cheater! Good thing I bombed the race (*cough* kharma *cough*) or I’d be facing a dilemma about PRs and such.

  7. I have to admit as a middle of the pack runner I had never even thought of this issue. I need to drink my water frequently and in little sips so I always have a belt or a hand held water with me in a race. I have even grabbed a cup at a water station in a long race and refilled my water bottle, but have never had someone I know pass anything to me. I can see how doing so would offer an advantage.
    I can also see how elites should probably avoid the high fives and hugs for fear that it may look like they are getting something passed to them. As for the rest of us, high five away! I have actually run a couple of half marathons where my main goal wasn’t time but to see how many kids I could pass along a high five too. It makes the event so much fun. I have also accepted orange slices from kids who are holding out a tray of them for runners. I guess technically I could be getting an unfair advantage since it is unlikely the kid will have enough for everyone but I love to take one and offer a thanks. Again, just part of the fun of the day.
    As for what to do when you see a top runner getting outside aid, I wouldn’t feel guilty about reporting it at all. At that level I would expect everyone to know the rules and follow them. If a runner chooses not to follow the rules then they should be prepared to face the consequences.

  8. One of my biggest pet peeves is people who listen to music despite it not being allowed. Drives me insane.

    Have to admit I accepted water from my parents in my most recent marathon at Marine Corps. Justified it b/c of the late rule change to not allow CamelBak’s when I’d been training with one, but that prob didn’t make it right though. Ended up I had a terrible day and wasn’t near a BQ or anything else.

    My last marathon before that was very small though (about 100 runners) and allowed outside aid, but only at aid stations. It was a hot race and I handed off my water pack to get refilled with 6 miles left to go and couldn’t get it back until the next station 3 miles later. The girl ahead of me handed her’s to a friend in a car who filled it while driving along side her and immediately handed it back – this drove me crazy that she beat me out for 2nd place woman even though she’d broken the rules!

  9. I don’t mind others getting aid from friends, but I HATE those bikes on the course. Even if they stay out of your way, there’s something evil about having someone coast along on a bike nearby. Happened in the Ann Arbor marathon when a biker gave a runner by me some yummies and then spoke with them for nearly a mile. It still stirs up anger… GRRRRRRR!!!!

  10. I had no idea this was a race rule, but it does make sense, especially for the elite runners. Even though I am far from an elite runner, it feels good to know I have been following the rules. I bring my own gel with me because I hate the thick gu and I have always found the water tables along the way enough for me throughout the race. I have definitely seen the people along the way with bottles of sports drinks, water, baskets of marsh mellows, and bags of skittles. I have never taken them, maybe because the whole “never take candy from a stranger” thing always seem to pop into my head. I am sure the people along the way mean well and are trying to help, but I don’t feel comfortable taking something from some random person that could be a physco. And if you are in the position to place and are aware of the rules, you should definitely follow them!

  11. I am aghast! I had no idea! Every year, I’ve threatened to hand out doughnuts on the Boston course, and am so glad I never followed through. Thank you so much for the enlightenment!

  12. Never water or gels, but I did once take an orange slice after I discovered my energy beans had slipped out of my pocket. This is a great reminder and I won’t do it again.
    This is a beneficial post for many runners totally unaware of this rule and most races also don’t publicize it or explain it. At a fairly large 1/2 marathon last year, the announcer warned runners to take water and aid only at official stations. Runners in the 9-minute corral with me looked at each other with expressions that said “what’s that about?” There was no explanation that it was a rule or prohibition.
    For runners who may never qualify for $$ or even an age-group place, where they place within their gender and age group is important to every individual runner. Would like to reblog this with your permission.

  13. I had no idea about this, so thanks for posting about it. I had my parents give me water once and never knew it was illegal!