Wrong Turns

Guest Post by White Trash (Alan Abbs)

I just received the latest issues of Trailrunner and Ultrarunning magazines, both of which referred to the debacle at Flagline 50K, and my thoughts turned to the subject of wrong turns. We’ve all taken them at one time or another — in training runs they open up new possibilities, but in organized group runs and races they’re a source of frustration. There’s probably not a trail ultra out there that hasn’t had someone cross the finish line and talk about the wrong turn they took. Over 50K/50M/100K/100M or whatever distance, something’s going to happen with a sign, a flag, a course monitor, or a runner who just happens to not see something at a critical moment. I’m guilty of spacing out myself, although it usually doesn’t take too long for me to figure out I’m not where I should be. Then again, I’m not usually in the lead. You backtrack, continue on, and if you lose a few places you take it in stride. In extreme cases, you keep going and going before you realize something’s wrong, and all of a sudden you’re miles from where you should be, foodless and waterless, worrying about whether you can get to the next aid station before it closes.

Where is the trail?

Where is the trail?

We could talk about that kind of stuff forever, but let’s look at it from the RD’s perspective. The RD starts the day ready for a great race where everything goes the way it should, and then all of a sudden there are reports of runners not showing up, coming from the wrong direction, and talk of course marking problems. What do you do? How do you balance correcting the mistake with the fairness associated in the final result? Or do we just look for a result that makes everyone happy? Now, I’m not trying to create any drama and say there’s an absolute right way or wrong way to handle things. So before I become the subject of everyone’s wrath, I’ll provide a personal example. Feel free to use it as a discussion point.

I’m the Co-RD (with my lovely wife, Bev) of a small race in NorCal called the Tehama Wildflowers 50K (April 23, 2011, in Red Bluff for those looking for a cheap, low key, early season, fast trail 50K). One year, the leader came into an aid station from the wrong direction, and the aid station captain corrected him and sent him on his way. I had enough time to catch him on a mountain bike with 5 miles to go, but I only had a rough idea of how far he had run. To be on the safe side, we agreed for him to run 2 quarter mile loops near the finish line to compensate for the wrong turn he had taken. After the 2 loops, he still won by about 20 minutes. Once the race was over, we measured the course and did some calculating. A purist might point out that the winner didn’t do the marked course, but my rebuttal would be that he raced a half mile more than everyone else.

But what happens when the race is closer? What would we have done if another runner had finished first while the guy who took the wrong turn was doing two unnecessarily long penalty loops? What if something similar had happened at a point in the race with no time to make a correction, or we found out after the fact? Do we let the result stand? I’m glad it didn’t come to making those types of decisions. It was stressful enough, and I’m just talking about a local 50K.

To raise the stakes a bit, consider the 2007 Where’s Waldo 100K. The race was in its first year as the U.S. Masters 100K Trail Championship and over $5,000 was on the line for the top 5 masters men and women. Early in the race the course markings were vandalized at four junctions along the course, sending runners in the wrong direction at 24 miles. Race staff had to scramble to figure out what happened and decide what to do. A promising day for some racers turned out to be less so by mile 25. In the end, most made it to the finish, some having done a bit more mileage than others. The early leader, Neil Olsen, ran 8-9 extra miles and made some people cry as he crossed the finish. He never said a bad word about what happened, but he did look pretty bad!

We found and corrected other instances of course vandalism that day, including one spot just 4 miles from the finish. What would the RDs have done about the finishing order if that had been where things went awry? If someone has a couple-minute lead at mile 24 that’s one thing, but it’s quite another when you have a couple minutes with 4 miles of downhill and a flat sprint to the finish, and visions of being the national champion. I suspect the ruling would have gone to the winners who were the first to cross the line having done the full course.

Which brings us to the Flagline 50K held recently in Bend, Oregon, the USATF 50K Trail Championship. You can read a synopsis of the race, and some lively back and forth commentary, at Scott Dunlap’s blog here. In this situation, the eventual winners ran a different (shortened?) version of the course after being misdirected due to either course vandalism or a mistake by a volunteer – it’s unclear which. Some runners may have backtracked to do the full correct course plus the additional mileage. The runners, USATF officials, and the race director somehow decided amongst themselves the order in which they would finish. Knowing some of the runners in question, there’s no doubt about their sportsmanship, and I know that some may have selflessly accepted a negotiated finish placing lower than they might have otherwise gotten. Others might argue that their placing would have been lower still if they had backtracked and done the correct course. And to paraphrase commentary in Scott’s blog, rules are rules and a race course is the course you’re supposed to race, thus, those lead runners that exhibited the incredible sportsmanship should have been disqualified.

So, aside from having dark fantasies about what we’d do if we caught a course vandal in the act (In mine I’d make them a permanent course marker with duct tape and Montrail flagging), what’s an RD to do? Are we hard-hearted, or are we flexible? How do we make the best of a situation gone awry? Is it fair to hold firm to the rules if a runner goes where the signs and flagging tell him or her to go? Does it matter if it is malicious vandalism or race management mistake? Does it matter if it is a USATF championship event where the rules are much more clearly defined?


  1. At my race this year we had an instance where a couple runners took a wrong turn. Luckily, I was in my car nearby, so we picked them up and drove them back to the race course. It’s a fact that you will always have runners get off course, no matter how heavily you mark the trail (Pocatello was a good example this year, with the blizzard). Sometimes it is ok to let it slide; unfortunately for championship races, it comes to DQ of front pack runners if they take a shorter course. I live by the mentality that if it’s an ultra, it’s going to hurt. If you are hurting at the finish line, then you got what you paid for.

  2. Alan, thanks for the post. Must say I was shocked when I heard of the decision by the USATF officials and the RD at USATF Championship at Flagline 50K. If I were the RD I would have told the top 7 at the finish line to go back to the intersection in question and complete the course or cross the line and be DQ’ed. The first runner to complete the correct course would be the national champion. The race could have compensated the lost leaders by coming up with more prize money and paying them what they might have won, but I don’t understand how they justified giving them arbitrary places in the results. Maybe the USATF officials knew of a precedent? I hope they didn’t just set a precedent.

    I’ve seen something similar at the Phoenix New Times 10K 10-15 years ago. The lead runners (all Africans) thought a balloon arch at about the 6 mile mark was the finish. The first two stopped at the arch despite the yelling and urging by race officials and spectators. The runner in third understood what was going on, passed them, and ran the last 1/4 mile to win the race. The first two that stopped continued on and finished 3rd and 4th. The RD (with the help of the elite coordinator who I was helping – Mike Scannell) had a decision to make. The runners were livid. It was chaotic. They didn’t change the results, but did pay the 3rd and 4th runners the same money that the 1st and 2nd place runners got. The decision cost the race some big bucks, but the results weren’t fabricated and nobody got cheated out of prize money.

    I like that resolution. I don’t think that is hard-hearted. The integrity of the results was maintained.

    • @Craig

      I agree with Craig. Runners HAVE to run the correct course, regardless of the distance covered, in order to be considered ‘finishers’, much less ‘winners’, especially of a national championship.

      Although not on the same level as a championship, of course, our pre-race instructions for every event state:

      “If you don’t see your respective ribbon for 3-4 minutes, you are off course. If you get off course, you should retrace your path until you find where you left the course and then continue along the marked course.”

      We had a situation recently at a race (Redwood Park) where a same-day equestrian event’s flour arrows caused the 4 leaders to go off-course. After we figured out what had happened, we remarked that intersection…and gave the first place awards to the guy who’d crossed the line fifth, who’d studied the map and followed our markings, not the horses’.

  3. A couple of facts regarding the Flagline 50k. A volunteer moved the markers on a properly marked course. And then they stood at the newly mis-marked junction emphatically directing runners the wrong way. The misdirection added distance and arguably difficulty. I was there and a witness to some parts of the “debacle”.

    Nice discussion though.

    • @Curt Ringstad, that would definitely make an RD feel culpable, and the volunteer must be feeling really small. That is unfortunate and I feel for them. But, in my mind that doesn’t justify compromising the integrity of the results. I’d love to see someone from USATF show us the precedence for this decision. Maybe this has happened at a road race? Or maybe a track race where the officials miscounted laps and told a runner to stop short of completing the distance?

      • @Craig, I sure don’t know of any precedents for this resolution, but had I been the RD I don’t know what I would have done. While watching it being settled it seemed like a good idea at the time. And it seemed like the race officials were salvaging what they could of it. Maybe it doesn’t measure up well with traditional racing standards but I can’t find it in me to fault the runners in any way. That’s the sticking point with me and I look forward to hearing other opinions.

  4. Is going off trail, whether it be intentional vandalism or mistakenly mis-marking a properly marked (or a not so obviously marked) course any different than just having a bad race? Things happen and the true sportsperson (whether they be the leader or not) deals with it with dignity.

  5. I think it would be a mistake to apply a one size fits all approach to problems like this. At Flagline it wasn’t so much a case of the lead runners missing a turn or marker, as it was a serious organization problem. I don’t buy the argument that “you should know the course” in a case like this when a course official deliberately sends runners on the wrongly marked course. On any ultra course how many runners are capable of memorizing every turn from a course description? Perhaps if you’re a local or you’ve done a course a few times (or have a Rainman memory) you might know that a turn is wrong, but certainly not on a first or second time. I don’t think there is an easy answer. I actually think the Flagline runners made the best of a bad situation and showed good sportsmanship (which seems so sadly lacking in many sports today). Had the leaders simply missed a course marking or turn, then a different ending would be justified IMHO.

    Does this set a precedent? I think not. Reading the pages of ultrarunner over the years I’ve seem all kinds of different solutions applied to course mistakes. I think it’s good to have a bit of flexibility in making a decision. Personally, I think the RD and racers should be able to make the best decision possible given the individual circumstances. What sits right in your gut? While I agree that in most cases completing the correct course is mandatory, it doesn’t sit right with me in a case like this. And frankly, if Max and Erik are OK with it, then you’ve probably made the best of a really bad situation.

  6. I’m with Aztek on this. When the course flagging is changed to the “correct” one by race officials after some runners are through doesn’t seem right to me. If you were really for keeping everything competitive, the flagging should have remained as it was, the race official should have directed as he did, and then see who ignores it and runs the official race. Somehow I”m not for that solution. How could you say to the people that were directed off course by a race official that their efforts don’t count. I thought the runners did the right thing in a difficult situation.

  7. At Cactus Rose 50/100M in TX a couple of weeks ago there was a vandalism switching marking at mile 15 and shortening the 25M loop by 5M. When runners (places 3-11) showed up at the loop-start earlier than expected and the mistake was figured out, RD took them by car back to mile 15, ran out to see the wrong turn (0.5M after AS) and send them off on a full 10M to finish the loop proper. It was tough on those guys, esp. because they were all in top 10. Only 2 dropped – one right after the mistake was discovered, and one at mile 45, saying he came to run 50 miles, and he just did.
    I also remember Waldo 2007.
    And I have no clue what Flagline RD should have done. Once runners crossed the finish line in their own picked order, and the fact that the distance ran by “lost” was not less (and may be more), that decision might have been done for him (RD). With the volunteer sending runners wrong way giving out more prizes could be done too.
    Frankly, I have no clue…

  8. Races that have not been blessed by USATF the Race Directors (RD’s) should obviously have the latitude to do whatever the hell they want with their race. We the runners get to choose professional races, well established races, fun runs, etc. If you are serious about racing, expect a certain level of coarse marking, accurate distances then choose your races accordingly. When RD’s wishes to offer runners some racing guarantee (other than the race legacy or the RD’s past credentials) then they can gain the blessing of the governing body. Whatever rules/procedures are established, the RD’s stick to them or should lose the blessing. Ultra running is not the same as other forms of racing, and needs some unique rules (if they don’t already). For example, it’s unreasonable that a RD would have to guarantee that the course will not be vandalized and that a runner may be miss-directed. However, USATF could require that all runners be provided a map of the course that meets certain standards of clarity or that all volunteers be given some type of briefing and be required to have a map at the aid station at all times. It’s probably also reasonable to expect that the course volunteers would not send you the wrong way (would be grounds for a protest). For a USATF sanctioned event, the runners must follow the rules which would include being DQ’s if they didn’t complete the correct course.
    However, we can’t place all the responsibility on the runners. When a race is sanctioned by a governing body the runners should be able to know what to expect. By not recognizing the unique needs of this
    sport or by not holding races to established rules, USATF will quickly erode its credibility in its ability to govern the sport of trail ultra-running.

    • @Dan Olmstead, is USATF our governing body? What does it mean to be a USATF National Championship race? According to the usatf website: “A sanction tells athletes that an event is being run according to applicable competition rules.” I agree that the RD of a non-USATF race can do whatever they want with respect to their results. In fact, the host of a USATF championship race such as Flagline 50K still can do whatever it wants with respect to the results of their race. But, the USATF championship results are separate and only include those runners competing in the championship.

      According to rule #255 from the 2010 competition rules book “The general rules of Long Distance Running apply unless otherwise modified in this section.” Not much in that section (yet?). Maybe a lawyer or somebody from MUT can help us understand the ruling at the 50K Championship.

      I can understand the perspective of Aztek and SLF, but only with respect to the non championship results. With a USATF championship we have rules of competition and methods for appealing results. If we don’t like these rules, as RDs we should think twice before bidding for or hosting USATF championships. And, hopefully the MUT council of USATF will be reviewing the 50K championship at their meeting coming up and continue to develop rules specific to our sport.

  9. I acknowledge that the Flagline RD worked hard to prepare and put on a quality event, but am I the only one who had doubts about a championship race being held at a first time venue? When I heard about the confusion, I was not surprised. Really, how many first time events go off smoothly ? This was a mess waiting to happen. I hope they get another shot to do it the way they intended.

  10. Good article, Alan, and great discourse per usual.

    I actually saw this decision as being in the hands of the participants more so than the USATF official or RD’s, much in thanks to the way the USATF rules work (at least as far as I understand them). I probably should have described this better in my blog post.

    When I crossed the finish line and validated that I had done the course correctly (along with Derek Schultz, who finished ahead of me), they explained what had happened ahead of us, and said that each of us as USATF runners had the right to protest the results. If we protested, then the results would be adjusted accordingly, since all the runners ahead of us fully admitted to taking a wrong turn. Max and the others were all very cool about this, saying they would be fine with whatever we chose.

    Personally, I felt like what had happened ahead of me didn’t affect my race at all so I was fine with it (it probably helped that I won the Masters either way). Derek felt similarly, as did all but one of the folks behind us. And had that one guy chose to protest, I’m sure everyone would have been okay with the adjusted results. These things happen.

    So rules or no rules, I kinda liked that it came down to those “most affected” to formally choose. I think that is what the USATF officials and RD’s were shooting for.


    • @ScottD, I’ve hosted three national championship races and was never led to believe I couldn’t make decisions with respect to the results unless another runner protested. Of course, if I make a ruling that ruling could then be protested by a runner which would then be reviewed by the jury of appeals (three people). But that doesn’t mean the RD can’t DQ a runner.

      Let me ask a hypothetical. At Waldo we have two summits (Fuji and Maiden Peak) that must be tagged with a little out and back. We have summit monitors that record bib numbers. We verify that each finisher summitted each peak back at home on Sunday after the race before releasing the results as official. If I discover that somebody didn’t summit one of the peaks but did cross the finish line and has a finish time and result, do I not do anything unless another runner files a protest? Do I not have responsibility here with what I release as official results? I can assure you that this RD would not put his name to those results without investigating. According to your understanding of the rules, I’d be in the wrong?

    • @ScottD, Scott, I can see how an RD might want to throw that decision to the affected racers, but that really puts people in a tough spot despite the implication that you’re coming to a decision by consensus. It’s like saying- “all these faster people did so and so, it’s up to you whether you want to protest this…” Part of you says “I was expecting these people to beat me anyway, so why should I contest it,” while the other part says something contrary. In the end, it’s probably easier to let the results stand, for right or for wrong.

          • @Curt Ringstad, Runners have the responsibility to study and know the course. What do you tell Waldo runners each Friday night before our race? Carry a map and always know where you are. Anticipate intersections. Did any of them carry maps? What about the first year of Waldo when our first four runners (early starters) were sent the wrong way at Maiden Peak and PCT in the early morning darkness. How did that monitor get corrected? By a runner that knew the course and told him he was wrong. He pulled out his map and showed the monitor he was wrong.

            In this case, I would need access to more information and details to make a decision on the proportioning of culpability, but I don’t think it really matters. When the runners got to the finish line I suspect they knew they would be (or should be disqualified). They had an opportunity to go back and finish the course proper. They didn’t. I’m not faulting them. Sometimes things just suck. But imagine the article Tia and others could have written about sportsmanship if they disqualified themselves…

            • @Craig, But what if the map looked like this:
              http://www.superfitproductions.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Flagline50k_CourseMap.jpg I believe that the junction where the runners were directed incorrectly is labeled aid station 2. Do you see a trail heading approximately 15 degrees or so off the red course line towards the south/ southwest? Well, it is on the ground but not on the map at this point, although maybe you can see it crossing the Cascade Lakes Highway just off the lower left hand corner of the blue rectangle (unless that is road 370, I can’t say for sure). I dare say that anyone would have had an extremely difficult time making a decision on their own. The more I look at this incident the more I believe that the judgement call made by the runners and officials was a good one, given the circumstances. Yes, a better map would be helpful. So would pre-running the course if one could figure it out. Neither were really possible this year so I think a strict adherence to the rules would have been a terrible injustice. I see this type of issue much like I view mandatory minimum sentences in the court system- a strict adherence to the rules without considering the circumstances of the infraction is bound to lead to some inappropriate sentences. I would rather the judges, or race officials in this case, had some latitude to decide the best resolution of any problems or infractions that occur. The Waldo maps are adequate as they show intersecting trails, this map does not in any detail. Even I wouldn’t have been able to be hardass on anyone in this case. My curmudgeonly reputation would have been besmirched, I’m afraid.

              • @Curt Ringstad, what am I missing? Looks like the runners had already been through that intersection at 15 miles. They came back through the second time and were supposed to go out on the same trail they came in but instead were directed to turn right and follow a different (not on the map) trail? Guess I don’t understand how even you would have a hard time following the same trail you had already been on?

                • @Craig, Well, the trunks of the big Mt. Hemlocks would still have been brown and the needles green-this is a forested, unremarkable section of trail. There are many intersections that are not on the map. In fact, the aid 2 location is in close proximity to several, I’m not even sure exactly where the water was located. I would have to go up there again to throughly make my case but it is too late this year. But with the acute, turn on a downslope, multiple junctions- a large portion of them unsigned- and the lack of landmarks in this section I’m pretty sure I would have gone off with the misdirected group.

                  And I will try to stop taking up space on you blog. This horse has been beaten enough. It’s OK if we both believe what we believe…

                  • @Curt Ringstad, You are a kind man and I admire you defending the race and the decision w/ respect to the top 7. We never got to discuss the headphone disqualification. I imagine the defenders of the race will find some way to justify applying that rule to disqualify a runner (who purportedly corrected the misdirection by backtracking and completing the course proper only to be disqualified later for wearing headphones) but we’ll leave that for another blog post.

  11. That’s why I like the track, no such complications, if I don’t get it right on one lap, well..there is always another, I don’t even get lost on the track. Hey, when is the mile coming up anyway?

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