Of the many problems that can keep a race director awake at night, dealing with rules infractions might be the thorniest.

As an independent thinking, live-and-let-live kind of guy, I don’t like a lot of rules. But I also understand that even the freewheeling trail running community needs some structure. I’ve been on the Board of Trustees for the Western States 100 for the past 22 years, and boy, there are a lot of rules at Western States. The race program lists 16 rules for runners, 11 more for pacers, and yet another 15 for crews. Many of the Western States rules belabor the obvious (each runner must complete the entire course under his own power). Almost all of the others are the result of some overly inventive runner trying to create a competitive advantage (runners may not store supplies of any kind along the trail). Among Board members, these rules are often referred to by the name of the original offending runner.

The problem with a lot of rules is: once you have them, you have to enforce them. This is exacerbated by the inability to apply one of the basic rules of jurisprudence: the punishment should fit the crime. Race organizers generally only have disqualification–the moral equivalent of the death penalty–to fit any and all crimes.

At the recent Transgrancanaria 125k, a mountainous trail race in the Canary Islands, overly zealous race officials at first disqualified both the winner, South Africa’s Ryan Sandes, and ninth-place finisher Dylan Bowman of San Francisco for minor rule infractions. [Editor’s Note: To be precise, the disqualifications (and eventual reinstatements) came from the Federacion Canaria de Montañismo, the governing sports body for this race and other sporting events on the Canary Islands. In this race’s case, neither the race administration nor the Ultra-Trail World Tour, the international ultrarunning tour that this race is a part of this year, had say in or control over the federation’s decisions.] Sandes’s transgression was a failure to produce the mylar space blanket that all runners are required to carry. It turns out he did have it, but simply didn’t understand the request to produce it at one of the checkpoints. Bowman was initially DQed for not having his bib number showing at the finish line. His number had been torn from his jersey by a shrub (they obviously have some pretty aggro shrubs over there); he had it in his pocket, but it was not properly displayed when he crossed the finish line.

After appeals, both runners were reinstated. But suppose Sandes had inadvertently failed to carry his space blanket. Although one might reasonably argue about the necessity of carrying a space blanket on an 85-degree-Fahrenheit day, it is one the race’s rules. Most of the ultra-trail races in Europe have similar requirements. Sandes clearly deserved the win, coming from well behind to beat the runner-up by nine minutes. Disqualifying him for such a minor infraction would be like being thrown in jail by airport security for failing to remove the coins from your pocket before going through the X-ray machine.

Many years ago I was in New Zealand on holiday. My flight back to the U.S. was canceled and I was re-booked on the next available flight three days later. This turned out to be a stroke of good luck, as it allowed me to enter a 50k in Auckland that I had seen a flyer for–a run that was scheduled for the day after I should have left the country. Upon arrival at the start, I discovered that the race was the New Zealand national club championships. It was a small race and the local runners were all delighted to have an American in the race–they could no doubt tell with one glance that I wasn’t much of a threat. But the two officials from the national federation were altogether another matter. Both were older gentlemen, nattily attired in very official looking blue blazers with a prominent logo on the breast pocket. They had that officious self-important air of upper-crust public school Englishmen. I was able to produce a valid USATF card, showing I was a member in good standing of my country’s governing athletics body.

“And what club are you representing?” asked one. “Pamakid Runners Club of San Francisco,” I replied, hoping they weren’t going to ask for proof, as I had none.

“And what might your club’s colors be?” the other one asked, eyeing me skeptically. “Ummm,” I stuttered, looking down at my horribly mismatched outfit–the only remaining clean running clothes I had at the end of a three-week holiday. “Red and blue,” I said, and then looking down at my shorts, “and black.”

They went over and consulted a third official and I was allowed to run. As it turned out, the runner who finished one place in front of me was disqualified for wearing navy-blue shorts when his club’s uniform called for light blue. For the record, the Pamakid colors are green and white. And to this day, the 3:49:19 from that race remains my 50k personal best.

At the 2010 Lake Sonoma 50, Bob Shebest missed a turn off the main trail that should have taken him a quarter mile down to the first aid station and then back up to the main trail. (Runners getting off course are also high on the list of things that keep race directors awake at 3 a.m.) Not realizing his mistake, he continued on–now in the lead–until Hal Koerner caught up to him a few miles later. They chatted and Shebest realized what he had done wrong. He arrived at the 25-mile aid station where I was, certain that I would disqualify him on the spot. “Just do the out-and-back to the aid station twice on the return trip,” I told him. He did, and eventually finished third.

In 1990, Dan Williams finished Western States in 18 hours, in sixth place. Ferrying their small kids around on a very hot day, his wife drove down to the Rucky Chucky river crossing so the kids could cool off in the American River. She knew that she couldn’t actively crew Dan from there, but wasn’t aware that merely driving down the public road to the river crossing was a rules violation. The Board was openly split between feeling a need to enforce the rules on the one hand (“what if everyone drove to the river”), and the recognition that the punishment was far greater than the crime on the other (“no real harm was done”). Williams, a very popular runner who had already finished Western States six times, was disqualified by a 6-5 vote. This decision so rankled the minority voters that it was revisited four years later–with cooler heads, the passage of time, and a somewhat reconstituted Board–and Williams was reinstated. (One of those small kids playing in the river that day was Williams’ daughter Christina. Now 30, she finished Western States in 2013, and was paced part of the way by Ann Trason.)

The point here is that common sense should prevail. The problem is that most of the time race directors only have a choice between complete disqualification and ignoring the infraction altogether. I don’t think most of us have any problem with a disqualification for flagrant rules violations such as cutting the course or aggressively rude behavior. But failure to carry a space blanket? Common sense dictates something short–well short–of complete disqualification.

But what?

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

Before we begin our discussion, we want to make a call for civility. We expect that we will all have differing opinions and you are welcome to share them here. We ask that you speak respectfully with each other and about everyone referred to in this column, using constructive criticism and fair debate tactics should you wish to join the conversation. In advance, thank you!

  • Should the letter of the law be enforced or should other standards of justice prevail from time to time?
  • Should races create and state penalties other than disqualification for certain infractions?
John Medinger

is the founder and race director of the Lake Sonoma 50. A former publisher of UltraRunning magazine, he ran his first ultra in 1980 and has now completed more than 130 ultras. He is also the founder and former race director of the Quad Dipsea race and has served on the Western States 100 Board since 1992.

There are 25 comments

  1. @Baristing

    Follow the lead of most sports, and clearly state the penalty for a given violation beforehand. That way, there's no ex post facto arguing needed, which will always be biased by context. You could, for instance, have "yellow card" violations, which require two (or more, even) infractions to incur disqualification, and "red card" violations, such as cutting the course, which result in an immediate DQ.

  2. nrkuhl

    The make-up lap on that aid station out and back seems like a good solution. Penalty laps seem pretty workable, and you can scale the number of laps to meet the crime. Granted, this assumes you have a short loop trail handy, but it could always be laps around a parking lot perimeter, or campground access road.

  3. @urbanwilderness

    Time penalties have the advantage of being applied during the event as well as after the discovery of a missing piece of required gear, and they allow for the runner to contest the ruling (unlike a penalty lap, which is an awesome idea nonetheless!).

    My guess is that we don't see this approach often as it strikes one as particularly contrived – what is the time/speed advantage of not carrying a 2oz space blanket? But of course all rules are contrived and penalties are not intended to perfectly level the playing field but rather as a stated repercussion for infractions. And time penalties are far more flexible than outright disqualifications.

    1. djconnel

      2 ounces is 1/8 lb, so for a 150 lb runner (w/ clothing, etc) that's 1/1200th total time, so if speed is inversely proportional to total mass, over a 12 hour race that's 1/100th of an hour or 36 seconds. Penalties need to be greater than just compensating an advantage, so if you multiply that by 5 you're up to 3 minutes. That seems reasonable for a 12-hour race.

      1. lstomsl

        I doubt anyone would leave out a space blanket because of weight. I'd guess space would be a bigger issue. If it means the difference between running with a fanny pack or having to carry a larger backpack the time difference could be much greater.

  4. Rob

    Perhaps time penalties? If a racer is not able to produce a space blanket then a 30 minute time penalty is incurred, as an example. The Ironman comes to mind, where an athlete is penalized with additional time or must stay in a penalty box for a set amount of time if a rule is violated…seems more fair than DQ. May be more difficult to enforce on a trail ultra, but could still be effective.

  5. Emir

    It is really hard to know or enforce all the rules since there is no one governing body overseeing all the ultras. Good rule of thumb is to follow rules listed on the race site. Infractions should be reviewed and it should be up to the race director and the board in some cases to decide the outcome.

  6. TxUltraRunner

    I recently ran a 50K where I missed an out n back section of the course and found myself in front of runners I knew were ahead of me. I finally realized the error and was trying to figure out what to do as I didn't want to be DQd. When I reached that part of the course I told the aid station captain what had happened and that I was going to run the out n back section twice. He said that would be ok since they let a late arrival run the course backwards. Other runners ahead of me didn't have an issue and actually thanked me for correcting the situation. I could have been DQd as I technically cut the course, which violates most races' rules. Being DQd would have sucked as I PRd, but I would have accepted the decision. I agree that blatant violations should be specified along with the penalty and that clear, level-headed thinking should prevail as most cases are not blatant.

  7. Sarah

    Great column, Tropical John. I feel strongly that if RDs have rules, they should be enforced consistently — and those who follow the rules deserve respect; they reinforce a culture to "do the right thing" and "play by the rules." One example comes to mind: when I did the Grand to Grand stage race, a woman I was leap-frogging with on the course suddenly turned around when she realized she had forgotten to get her card punched at the prior aid station, which was one of the rules. We were in the middle of the desert with heat in the high 90s, so for her to back track a mile and let me gain a lead was heartbreaking for her — but she did it, even though one could argue that the RD might let her oversight slide, since witnesses had seen her at that aid station. I gained so much respect for her, and I always think of her when I'm tempted to cut corners or "fudge" a rule.

  8. fromsofatoultra

    Most of the races I do here in England have mandatory equipment you must carry. The simple solution for any item found to be missing at random spot checks is a one hour time penalty per item missing. This seems a very reasonable half way house solution to the problem of minor rule violations.

    With regards Ryan Sandes issue, it can seem silly to have to carry a space blanket in that heat, but in 2012 when Seb won the race, it was almost freezing and with thick fog and rain. The weather on Gran Canaria can change very fast, so there was a reason that this is mandatory.

  9. guycheney

    I hate zero-tolerance policies, but of course we need rules in races.

    I think the enforcement of race rules should be based around the answers to these questions:

    1. Did the runner gain an advantage?

    2. Did the runner intentionally break the rule, or was the runner ignorant of rules that were clearly written/stated?

    3. Is the runner a professional runner? (I would argue that despite my distaste for the "blanket rule," if Sandes or had inadvertently left the blanket out of his pack, he should have been disqualified. I wouldn't apply the same rule to a runner who finished 215th.)

  10. @mackeydave

    This is an excellent article TJ! Personally I think rules can be bent once in awhile and logic can be applied for the most part. That said it is clear that politics take part as well.. ie Kilian cutting course at Speedgoat and the skyrunning overall title playing a role in the determination of his fate. If it'd been another runner and not Kilian, the decision outcome would likely/possibly have been different. At the Hong Kong 100K in January, a couple of the top runners littered, cut course, and had on-course aid by their team manager. This was photographed by one of the other top runners. The racers and manager denied rules infractions even though I and other runners saw them doing it. Not much has been said publicly about this, but it seems that the lesson has been learned by the offenders in the aftermath, so live and let live I guess. In this case there were surely cultural dynamics at work, and maybe politics, but it is complicated when overseas.

  11. Alessandrots

    I think that if there's a rule, you must respect it. Period. You're supposed to run (possibly at your best), not to argue about the rules. Curious that just the top runners seem to "forget" space blankets, rain jackets and the like…Just take a look at pictures of Jornet Burgada winning UTMB then check the race mandatory equipment and ask you some questions…

    1. Bryon of iRunFar

      When I ran UTMB in 2011, I carried all the obligatory equipment and what I wasn't using easily fit in a quart size bag (940mL). If you have the lightest and smallest equipment, it's not much.

    2. mikehinterberg

      I wouldn't suspect nor do I know of any evidence that the top runners are any more likely to neglect to bring required gear on purpose, and in fact might be less likely to do so based on the potential for scrutiny. And, those rare cases are more likely to be publicized for top runners than for mid-packers.

  12. lstomsl

    The following clarification on the rules of Luis Escobars Born to Run ultra (the burning man of ultras) just came out today and is the reason that this is the one event I will go back to every single year,whether I can run or not…..

    BTR rules of conduct
    BTR mandatory runner agreement: where as and as follows –
    Page three (03) Section B Paragraph one (01): there shall be no rules of conduct – so – do what ever it is you were considering doing and do it big

  13. ClownRunner

    Here is the breakdown:

    Cut switchbacks: Next race must carry a cactus for entire race.
    Race number in pocket: Next race must wear bib attached with pins to bare chest.
    Forget Space blanket: Next race must carry a down sleeping bag.
    Forget to sign in at Aid Station: Next race must write "I will sign in" 100 times at Aid Station chalkboard.
    All other infractions: Death and/or dismemberment

  14. stevewgregg

    I always have a look through the race rules before I enter – if there's something you're not prepared to do there's a simple solution… Don't enter.

    For a lot of runners who have no hope of winning a lot of race rules are regarding safety. If I was a race organiser I certainly wouldn't want people dying during an event I was in charge of. Maybe this is Europe/North American divide, as here in Scotland carrying full body cover (e.g. waterproofs) and space blanket is often mandatory in all but the shortest races. Even at the height of summer the weather can change in 5 minutes from glorious to horrendous, and tragically even experienced and well prepared people lose their lives on the hills throughout the year – there was a man died this week.

  15. mtnrunner2

    I think the rules designed for equality (i.e. you must run the same distance on the course) should be enforced, while rules designed for non race factors like safety (space blankets) should not even be rules. They should be recommendations.

    The team colors thing just makes me laugh. Really? That is absurd.

    BTW I like your call at Lake Sonoma 50. Again, the standard should be equality: did the runner run the same course and distance. This was a novel way of doing that, but it worked.

  16. Max

    In all honesty I can't disagree with mandatory equipment related rules. Sure I prefer the American common sense and your own consequences policy, but other than Hardrock is there really a race as demanding and unforgiving as the euro mountain races? The fact that Ryan's disqualification was overturned shows that the organizers care about the safety provided by mandatory gear more than enforcing rules for the sake of rules.

    In general rule enforcement seems to be a case of intent. Was it to gain an advantage or be a dick, or an honest mistake? Smaller runs-that-aren't-races used to add time penalties for missing sections rather than outright disqualifications.

  17. Ben_Nephew

    I think varying levels of on-course aid is a big problem at many popular competitive races, and it can make a big difference. In a 50 mile race with smoothly run aid stations. I'll only have lose about 1-2 minutes at aid stations, sometimes barely any time at all. In one race last year where I had to wait for them to get supplies out, I lost 6-7 minutes. The guy ahead of me was only 3 minutes ahead at the finish, and he blew through all the aid stations because he was getting help from people all along the course, on the run. At the IAU trail race in Connemara, the French team members were running along with their runners out of the aid stations, which was not allowed. The difference between 1st and 2nd in that race was only a minute.

    I've heard some strange stories from Transvulcania in terms of how they have dealt with varying levels of support on the course. People have commented on how much gear Sage has carried, but many of the guys carrying little or nothing have help all over the course.

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