Every year, I run the Army 10 Miler in Washington, DC. In many ways, it should be my favorite race of the year -- it's a fun course and the weather's usually great, plus I love the 10 mile distance. But there's one thing that always leaves me sour, year after year. The starting corrals.
To explain further, Army is a gigantic race, with nearly 30,000 runners. Like other big races, Army then splits the runners into different corrals, based on a past race time. Faster runners are assigned to the corrals at the front, slower runners at the back (corrals are color coded to match each runner's number bib). In large races, the start is also split into waves. For example, the first three corrals will start in order at 8:00 am as the "first wave," then the next few corrals at 8:10 am as the "second wave," and so forth. (explanation here)
There's a reason for this practice, and it's not elitism. In any situation where you have runners with different paces, it works best for the faster runners to start earlier. The effect is a "reverse accordion," where the runners string out as they run, with the faster runners pulling away. This means more space for everyone to run. That's a good thing, especially on a narrow course.
Add in the use of a wave start, which gives each wave of runners time to clear the first mile of the course and string out before the next wave starts, and everyone gets a chance to run the race at their own pace.
It works great. But only when enforced. And at the Army 10 Miler it never is. At all. To the frustration of many.
Army is notorious for runners from the slower corrals and waves starting in the initial wave. I understand their motivations for doing so. Army, like many other races in DC, has a time cut-off. All runners have to pass the 5 mile mark of the race on or before 9:35 am (the race starts at 8:00 am with the first wave) in order to be allowed to continue. So, runners from the back waves and corrals jump into the lead corrals so that they can start the race as early as possible, to give themselves the most time possible to hit the five mile mark before 9:35.
I'm sure many of them think that it's a victimless crime, and simply don't understand the effect of their actions on others. Well, here it is.
The net effect of the slower runners starting in the front corrals is a traffic jam, as faster runners are forced to dodge and dart around them. The faster runners, most of whom are targeting specific times, have their race potentially ruined, due to losing too much time in the first miles. The dodging and darting also increases the chances that a runner will trip, twist an ankle, etc. As someone who has a time goal and starts in the first wave, I debate each year whether to enter Army, for the simple reason that I have no assurance that I'll have the opportunity to go for my goal.
Those that jump into faster corrals also ruin the races of those in their original corrals. If the first wave is slowed, then it doesn't clear the course fast enough. So then the start of the second and third waves is delayed, making it harder for those runners to achieve their goal of hitting the 9:35 cut-off time, since they have less time to do it.
One cause is likely lack of education -- many of the runners in the later waves don't understand the reasoning behind corrals and waves, or the fact that runners are assigned to corrals by times. On the train to Army that morning, I had a group that was complaining about being in wave 3 observe that I was very smart to have registered so early so I would be in wave 1... Sadly, I also think there are some runners that are aware of their consequences, but don't care -- as long as they get to run their own race, no one else matters.
Another aspect of the issue is enforcement -- unlike the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler (my favorite race of the year), Army doesn't monitor the corrals at all, effectively perpetuating the issue. Army could enforce simply by having race staff monitor the entrances to each corral to check bib color. Or alternately, by looking at race times afterwords, and noting runners who crossed the start line before their assigned wave. But they do neither. I honestly can't understand why.
So, wave 2 and 3-ers, when I can't totally suppress my dirty look as you enter my corral, it's honestly NOT because you're not wearing a team singlet, or that you have a different body type from me, or you're wearing a fanny pack or hydration belt, or you're not wearing racing flats. That's not how I roll.
It's because your number clearly indicates that you've hopped into a corral you don't belong in, so that you have a chance at a good race even if you ruin the races of others.