The Curious Case of The Helsinki Half
Subtitle: How Events Can Fail to Support All Runners
Now, before I get too much into this post I want to say that the Helsinki Half Marathon held on 8th June was, in general, for me, a really wonderful event. It was hot this year but despite the conditions any sub-2 hour runners wouldn't have noticed anything wrong. Unfortunately, find yourself in the rear of the race in the Finnish capital and you were in for a series of nasty surprises as you ran. The Helsinki Half Marathon hasn't been the only major race in recent times where slower runners have been let down, the world's premier long-distance event, the London Marathon has also landed itself in hot water. Read on for details of these problems, what runners should expect as minimum expectations at races, and finally a couple of handy tips to keep in mind before a race. Enjoy.
Organising a mass participation event isn't easy. But there are some clear golden rules. In Helsinki everything seemed to be fine before the race began and even potential flash-points which could have been challenging - we had to pick our packs up on the morning of the race as we flew in late the night before - went perfectly smoothly which supported one RCHU runner who was attempting their first half Marathon. The start itself was relaxed and calm, with everyone self-allocating themselves to a predicted time gate, and 'run-off' was approximately on time. The route began with a certain understated dramaticism. Runners followed an open tarmac cycle path running gently downhill and 5-10 meters below the rest of the city like a dry canal, enclosed at the sides but open to the sky and offering an uninterrupted path directly to the sea. The sea and docks, which once revealed, took one's breath away.
The dream start hid the power of the sun on that day. Average June temperatures in Helsinki reach 19°C, this day it was closer to 25°C and whilst distracted by the docks and coastline, these conditions began to tell on the runners. The drinks stations were overwhelmed by thirsty athletes and at some point in time, every drinks station from the 7km mark ran out of all fluids. Tales have been told of queues of runners at stations gasping for the final drops of water only to be told it had all gone a couple of people before them, and that their only hope is to move on to the next station if they want fluid. A disaster. Stressful, dangerous and something which should never have happened.
Helsinki hasn't been the only major event to have had problems. The London Marathon has faced its own onslaught of criticism this year because of the way it had been unable to protect the very slowest of runners from abuse, not only from cruel spectators, but also from the London Marathon's own staff.
It is commendable that the London Marathon looks to support all runners, even those with very slow paces. In fact this year they offered a pacer for runners who expected to finish in 7.5 hours. Shamefully, this respect given to such runners by the planners of the event didn't get communicated to those at water stations which were closed before all runners had passed or to the cleaning staff who sprayed runners with chemicals. Stressful, dangerous and something which should never have happened.
Events MUST ensure that there is ample water at all stations for every runner; if an event finds that there are buckets of water and small hillocks of nibbles left over and every runner was able to gain the sustenance they need, then the event organisers have done their job.
Waste (too much water): that isn't for me or any runner attending a major event to worry about. What matters is that every athlete, be they elite down to the first timer, is catered for to ensure the best performance they are capable of achieving, in a healthy way and with the maximum of enjoyment!
Races don't have to cater for every type of runner. The participation level can be indicated in a myriad of ways, from the marketing to explicit statements in the signing up process to the numbers and paces of the pacers an event puts on. Unlike the London Marathon, events must be conservative and clearly manage the slower end of the race with care and not set the most vulnerable runners up to fail.
So, what can you do to help yourself as a runner approaching a race? Whilst you shouldn't have to assume the worst, there are some key things that can be done to reduce the risk of problems on the day despite the potential for a poorly-organised event. Hydrate. Not just in the 'wee' hours before the race, but in the days before the event. Especially if you expect hotter weather than you are used to.
Also, just as events should make clear to runners, keep an eye out before signing up for a race for the hints as to the level of the race. Try and find out what pacers will be running, or the 'cut-off' time. These factors will help you gauge the athletic level of an event, and may suggest that another one may be better for you. A race with only a few fast pacers isn't going to be naturally 'friendly' to a slower first-time half marathoner. In general, pacers are great and offer support for those who need a back to follow, or a little bit of friendly encouragement now and then from a more experienced runner. They truly are excellent people, giving up their own chances for a PB or to demonstrate their own running capabilities to become a temporary pal for you and anyone who is targeting the time flying on the flag which waves precariously (and heavily) from their backs. So try to find an event with pacers who will be running at your speed. Even if you want to run alone, they are an extra lifeline of support and experience you could always grab if things go wrong.
I hope this advice is useful to you. This post is all about ensuring that you are ready for what can go wrong, and ensuring that you are able to enjoy the achievement of arriving and participating anyway! If you have had a bad experience at a race, please comment below and tell us how you coped. :-)
H/T: J.Eyes & S.Ford for proofing! ;-)