Racing Etiquette and Empathy

Single Track

Recently, a discussion on Facebook tackled the subject of racing etiquette at a Spartan Race, and when the idea of running for time in an open heat can lead to hazards for other runners.  In this case, several runners were observed bombing down a steep hill off trail to get around a slow moving line, dislodging rocks and debris that put those on the trail at risk of injury.

First off, a few points on trail running etiquette:

  • Slower runners/walkers should yield to faster runners on trails and get out of their way if it is safely possible to do so.
  • Runners should let walkers know they’re coming by saying loudly “On your left” or right, though left is the default passing lane.

This seems pretty simple, right? There are a few factors that make things more complicated at a Spartan Race or similar OCR. The first is that race directors love to make use of single track trails, often on steep hills. This means that it may not be feasible for someone to safely pass. Add in natural hazards like Poison Oak, and it may be very detrimental for them to leave the path and let the runner breeze through. On the other side of things, many walkers often proceed side by side, effectively blocking the path, and are often oblivious of runners or unaware of the etiquette involved.

Single Track

The comment that really rankled on this post was that, in effect, if you’re not trying to get your best time in, or are only walking the course, you don’t belong at the race. To me, this was a remarkably ignorant and self-centered comment. What follows is my (gently edited) response:

What I really hate about some of the responses to this post is the disdain and condescension towards your fellow Spartan. If you have the talent and training to run fast, that’s awesome. I certainly will attempt to get out of your way and let you pass if you’re going faster than me. Not everyone knows trail etiquette, and that’s too bad; as a runner this is something you need to suck up and accept just like you would a line or backup at an obstacle.

If you’re creating unnecessary hazards by passing or being rude to your fellow racers (and they are, regardless of their speed), I will call you out on it. Hard.

How dare anyone say who should and shouldn’t be on the course? It’s exactly this kind of trash talk that scares many people away from these races because they don’t want to be made fun of. I take my lead from many of the best of the elite runners, who have stated publicly on many occasions that the people who inspire them are the ones that take 10 or 11 hours to finish a Beast. It is likely the hardest thing they have ever done, and the stamina and will to keep going for that long, especially when you’re being passed by so many on the way, is simply awesome. There’s a reason that Spartan makes a point of celebrating the LAST runner to come in off the course, and it’s not just to make them feel better; it’s because they recognize the achievement involved and the barriers that person had to overcome to get there.

A much better way is to occasionally get out of your own head, turn, and give someone else a hand. It doesn’t take a whole lot of extra time for your race, but IMHO it’ll make you a far better human being.

There are a huge number of reasons why someone or a group might do the race slowly. One of the most inspiring things I’ve seen was a large group of adaptive athletes making their way through last year’s Monterey Beast – athletes missing limbs, with spina bifida or spinal injuries, deaf athletes and more. They took nearly 12h to finish the course, and along the way, they were indeed the subject of irritation by people who were bottle-necked behind them on parts of the course that were “running for time”. Many people at the races are battling their own personal demons on the course – injuries, addiction, PTSD, eating disorders, obesity, and more are all fought, and occasionally slain altogether, step by step out there on the course. Others are afflicted with cramps or blisters or are simply pushing themselves farther and harder than they have ever gone before.

Adaptive Athletes

I know many people who started a race running “for time”, and changed their minds partway through; they ran into a friend or stranger who was injured or spiritually defeated by the course, and decided their new goal was to get that person to the finish line instead, no matter how long it took. As someone that’s done this more than once, it feels far better than when they place the medal around your own neck. Still others see how long they can spend on the course by helping those who need it at every obstacle, often spending hours longer than they need to between the start and finish lines.

I would argue strongly that their race is no less important than yours if you’re an athlete running for time, and indeed is probably far more significant to them as a personal accomplishment than shaving a few minutes off your time, or moving up in the rankings a little.

The bottom line is that if you are THAT concerned about your time, run elite. That’s what those heats are for. If you run in the open heats, YOU shoulder the risk of bottlenecks or of lines on some obstacles. Putting someone else down because you happen to be faster than them (or stronger, or better at some particular obstacle) is simply pathetic. We should be pulling each other up, not putting each other down, and placing any other racer at serious risk of injury because you are in a hurry means you should be disqualified and banned from future races.

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Chris Cow

Chris is a research scientist for Novartis Pharmaceuticals, but on weekends he is an avid runner, endurance athlete and OCR junkie. He runs mostly with his wife, Anne. He is a 45 year old father of two gorgeous teenage daughters, and wants to help them adopt a healthy outdoor lifestyle.
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    1. I dare ANY “elite” DBag to challenge me if i’m too slow…Guarantee their time will not be what it could be due to their limping along after the encounter. I do my best to be courteous. We are ALL on the course to finish, try out best and help each other if needed…”elite” runners!? You are ONLY an elite if you are sponsored and have won some $$$. Otherwise, you are just like everyone else out there. See you at the next challenge all!

      1. Hey man, don’t meet discourtesy and rudeness with more of the same. The article is about respect and etiquette, not getting back at someone because they call themselves “elite.”

  1. Well-said, Chris! And thank you for doing so. I was almost knocked into a ditch by one of those would-be elites when I didn’t move out of his way fast enough on a tricky single track.

  2. Great post Chris…and a growing problem in OCR. Now that you’ve said it all, I can share your post instead of writing my own! This seems to be across the OCR board too and not just at Spartan race. I also think it’s indicative of some of the ‘athletes’ that OCR is starting to attract. Fortunately (for us racers) I do think these people are not going to be in this for the long haul and will be looking for the next ‘new thing’ in the relatively near future. Another reason OCR participation will level out and growth will be more sustainable. Look forward to your next post!

  3. Fantastic Article! I used to run for personal times. Then I started worrying more about helping others. Then I got hurt. To any elitist douchenozzle who complains that slow people shouldn’t even be on the course I have this to say, “Every single person is just one injury or tragedy away from being an adaptive athlete themselves.”

  4. Agree 100% & Chris, it only took us (Team Avengers ) 10 hours & 59 minutes to complete that Monterey Beast. . Lol

  5. Well said. Yes I run for time but I will also slow down to assist a fellow racer as well as to offer advice, motivation and to cheer them on. As a runner for 11 years, I am familiar with the “rules of the road” but not everyone is. This needs to be posted on the Spartan and Battlefrog pages as well.

  6. I see this all the time. If you want to run for time and its important to you, run the “elite heat” and toe the line with people who want to challenge themselves. If you run an “open heat” expect delays, bottlenecks and having to stop. Spartan Race has far too many single track races for runners to behave dangerously in the name of time. You can’t really be an “elite” runner in an “open” heat…

  7. I totally agree. The only problem for me is cold races and to keep “moving” so for me the passing is to simply stay warm not me trying to be rude. One thing I think that can help at obstacles is a “fast track” line in which the athletes in that line are 95% sure they can get through without assistance and quickly. I know that each obstacle each athlete would vary on whether they can do the fast track so it’s not a set in stone which line you do but your choice. One thing that bothers me in one attempt and then burpees..people will then default to getting help to avoid burpees rather than pushing themselves and trying and possibly seeing they are stronger than they thought. That’s one thing I do love about savage race is that you are allowed and encouraged to try the obstacles over and over. I usually pace people on these courses and my only rule to Them is you MUST attempt each obstacle and if you what. That’s not’s “you have something to
    Work on” defined differently. I will always share burpees with my running mate. I’ve been on all aspects of the spectrum as an athlete and was very appreciative to have athletes willing to stick with me post open heart surgery, pacemaker, and strokes. Spartan races gave me the will to fight and by far that was the slowest I’ve ever gone..but meant the most to me. We all have our stories..many many are actually created ON the course!

    1. I love this post, and agree that a “fast-track” lane could definitely be helpful (if difficult to enforce). Thanks for sharing.

  8. Bingo! When I really care about my finish time and placement I run elite. That’s humbling in its own way because there are so many strong, fast athletes out there.

    But I have to say, there are so many strong athletes who run open heats too, and I am not just talking about those who run fastest. I am talking about those who overcome – fear, disability, former sedentary lifestyle, etc. I cannot stress how uplifting it is when someone offers you a hand or you offer someone your hand. People need to understand that elite and open are truly different races. Those who want to post finish times and placement should run elite and stop complaining about burpees, bottlenecks, etc. Those who choose to run open should acknowledge the accomplishments of everyone with the courage to attempt the course and be willing to give and receive help.

  9. Great article. I have been that person slowing everyone down before. I tore my left ACL and medial meniscus on the first obstacle of the 2014 Virginia Super. It took me just over eleven hours to finish because I had to limp the whole race. I would have never finished without the help of two of my teammates. I agree with you 100%. If you are running for time, run elite. If you are running to finish, run “chump” as I call it… least for myself. And I DO NOT use the term “chump” in any derogatory manner. The “chumps” have just as much right to the course as the elites. They paid the fee, too. And I am inspired by them much more so than the elites. I never worry about my time…..all I care about is the finish, and helping others finish as well.

  10. Chris,
    I agree with the points you make. Do you think race culture has something to do with some of the issues presented? I mean, even Spartan Race only acknowledges the fastest (or so it seems to me anyways). From prizes, to recognition, to special giveaways, the “fast” ones are celebrated. Point being, I am not so sure all the fingers should be pointed at those being called out – including the person who made the insensitive comment.

    On the other hand, it is the Spartan community – mostly everyday folks, who have acknowledged and appreciate those who have bigger hearts than egos. I am talking about people like Joe Forney, Zackary Paben, Laura Messner, Andi Hardy and others like this crew. There are also so many nameless faces that deserve (but would never ask for) the pedestal for their selflessness, support, and encouragement out there in the mud…. those never asking for the spotlight. These people, both known and unknown, are those I have come to admire in my OCR journey. These are the people I want to be more like.
    Anyways, each one of us pays our money and races for our reasons that are private and sometimes public. I am not sure that saying all those who need the fast race should be in the elite heats. That is as arrogant of an approach as the initial, objectionable suggestion. Perhaps the issue is bigger than that…perhaps it’s the culture and logistics that need a review?

  11. Either run elite or pay the extra to run in the first few waves. If you’re not willing to do either of those then shut up and deal with the consequences. ANYONE that pays the registration fee has a right to be on the course.

  12. Couldnt hsve said it better Chris. I dont know you but well said on the people that run for themselves snd for their timed goal. I wish all those people woul read sll that you posted and run the elite runs so that now they can bevtold to get out of the way by the much faster elite guys and they get a taste of what it feeks like to get told to move.

  13. Great read, couldn’t agree more. 2015 has been my first “full” year of OCR and I can honestly say i’m hooked on every level. That being said, as a first year runner who has never considered himself an “elite level” runner I run open but for personal goals am always motivated by my time. My steady improvement over the year on time shows growth, instills faith that my commitment is paying off, and motivates me to want more. At 25 i’m still pretty nimble and tend to pass alot of people but am always sure to do so politely. I always say left or right or excuse me, always say thanks guys, and towards the end of the race always say nice job or doing great to those i’m passing who clearly look like they’re struggling. Next year will definitely involve some elite heats, but for now I’ll be holding it down in 25-29 open at OCRWC. If you see my HTFU Crew Sleefs or battlefrog headband say hello

  14. I must say I totally agree with this. Doing the Virginia Spartan Super 2015, it took us 9 hours. By about mile four, my legs were jello, one of my teammates knees were killing him.

    We saw many people pass us, 100% of them were very courteous. But to those that really, really want to do it for a personal best, understand, like stated earlier, those you are passing might be going through their own trials. I hold the utmost respect for the last person that made it through the Virginia Spartan Super. The amount of perseverance they had to go through it is just amazing. Sure, the guys that do it in record times are great, but I remember the ones that offered words of encouragement more than those that sped past us.

  15. Excellent!! Very well written! Thank you for taking the time to write this piece.

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