Opinion: The Hand-Holding Debate – Should we?

This weekend just past, one of Australia’s toughest 100 milers saw two mates come home together for joint first, or joint second depending upon your point of view. Now, the point of this article is not to place any focus on their own particular performances or to judge those two in any manner, running 100 miles is a damn hard thing to do, especially when it involves 7,000m of climbing and the same going down. However it reignited a debate as to the merit of joint finishes in ultras. I was part of one debate and I have to admit that the overwhelming sense was that we should try to discourage this type of thing. After all, a race is a race yeah? But is it as simple as that?

Personally, (and I said this online), I don’t think it is that simple – there’s more to it than that. Let me state first up, I’m not in favour of joint finishes personally. I have been involved in two myself (not for a win), so I can see why they happen and I can empathise with why runners may choose to come to the decision they want to.

Handholding at races... Right or Wrong?
Hand-holding at races… Right or Wrong? (Credit Association Press)

So what’s the deal here then? As always, I like to act a little like Switzerland and offer up both perspectives on the matter, before coming to a bit of a conclusion weighted on what we’ve said. I’m sure it will create healthy debate, however I would ask that it remains healthy and with respect for one another’s opinions, rather than calling out people’s thoughts as bullshit.

No way hozay, a race is a race…

The simple fact is that a race is a race. The Long Run has already made a point of being very vocal about this issue. If you want a nice day out in the mountains, save your race entry fee, hire a holiday home and go on a trek to be all at one with the mountains. The point of a race is to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ in as short a time as possible and through that process, beat as many other competitors as you can. Sounds really easy doesn’t it?

These decided there was no way they'd be holding hands come the finish and we saw an awesome result as a result at TNF100 this year
These decided there was no way they’d be holding hands come the finish and we saw an awesome result as a result at TNF100 this year

Well in short it is, and for the most part, we generally do not see many joint finishes relative to the number of races there are in this country or indeed around the world, so a lot of the time the question or decision never really arises.

Another argument put forward was that by having a joint first place finish, it negates the need for someone to come in second place. Afterall, no one remembers second place right? So by having a joint first place, both runners get to share in the glory, the spoils and we create a nice warm glow around the event. Sponsors and race directors marvel at the ‘incredible’ and ‘inspirational’ nature of such a performance by the runners, that after 20-30+ hours of running, how could it be so tight? But all that is just a little bit too nice isn’t it?

That’s all well and good for those involved, but there could be a sense that those around the fringes, the spectators and those within the community almost feel a sense of being ‘cheated’ by it all. Why haven’t we seen two guys (or girls) at the pointy end really go for it and hammer each other into the ground. Isn’t it ultimately a cop-out not hurt one another’s feelings. That there’s almost a sense of ‘it’s the right thing to do’. Have we become compelled here in Australia that if a race is close at the end, we make sure all those involved can share in the spoils? Does this type of thing happen overseas in say Europe and the US? There was a joint finish at UTMB this year for second place (or third) – what’s all that about?

That’s all well and good, but hang on a minute…

While debating this topic on an online thread, one of the biggest points I wanted to make was that of having context around the situation. I don’t believe this is a black and white call, you need to delve deeper into what’s going on at the time. While joint finishes are relatively rare, when you think about it, it’s hard to look at many other sports where we see this type of thing happening? Why does ultra running entertain this type of thing and what are the reasons for it?

Some have tried to make comparisons to other sports. After all, you wouldn’t see Usain Bolt skipping down the track holding hands with his rivals for a joint finish, likewise the Tour de France doesn’t stand for it either, but you do see in the latter, some elements of sportsmanship (rather ironic for cycling, given its chequered past!), creeping into the day-to-day competition that are akin to ultra running. Comparisons to these sports, are completely irrelevant though. Millions of dollars (and livelihoods) are at stake, which is why we see people injecting their veins with shit to ‘get ahead’. Some people are motivated by the dollar and you could argue that if the livelihoods of those two guys at Alpine depended upon coming first, I don’t think you would have seen a joint finish.

Given the slower speeds and long distances in ultra running, it is a sport that's more conducive to the 'hand-hold' finish.
Given the slower speeds and long distances in ultra running, it is a sport that’s more conducive to the ‘hand-hold’ finish.

Which brings us right back round to the core values and ethics that I feel are a major part of our sport. Some of my comments around this were derided, labeled as bullshit. That’s fine, people can make ‘noise’ but they’re clearly not bullshit as they obviously ring true in our sport, and were witnessed this weekend. The simple fact is that our sport is amateur, there is no money to be made from it in Australia and for the most part, livelihoods do not depend upon winning or not. That changes the dynamics and the emotional context of mindsets that we see.

We are not a 100m sprint or a 10km track race. There is very little emotion that you might feel towards your fellow competitor. It’s business. A livelihood and dog eat dog. In our sport, there’s a general feeling of knowing and understanding what the other competitors are going through. Rather than deride that, it says more about the state of our world that this is a quality that is rapidly being lost in this self-centred, ‘me, me, me’ planet we inhabit.

Now, I’m not going to go all political on you, spark up a joint and start singing about arranging flowers into necklaces, but in a world where money and ego seem to rule the roost, it’s quite refreshing to see a sense of community exhibited every now and again. So why is this a bad thing? Why does society feel the need to deride others because they’re not motivated by smashing the shit out of someone?

What about the notion of healthy competition? Bringing this back to our two runners this weekend. At face value it appears as though they skipped through the mountains, hand in hand, friends on a merry journey together. But the fact is that they both went for it hammer and tongs for around 10km before the finish. As a result, both got lost and had navigational issues. It was at that moment they decided that due to this, it would be the best thing to finish together.

The final word

Each situation requires context. There are and could be a variety of reasons as to why we see joint finishes in races, or in some cases other runners letting another runner past for a win because they were held up or took a wrong turn due to no fault of their own. It happened in a road race a few years back that I remember posting on our Facebook page. Comparisons to other sports are stupidly futile because the variables are so wildly different.

All of this comes down to ultimately the type of person you are and the type of person you want to be. The most important thing in life is to be comfortable with who you are, what you do and your impact on those around you. If that means making a decision to finish jointly with someone, so be it if it feels like the right thing to do. If that means fighting to the death to win a race and you’re comfortable with that and who you are, then that’s fine too. Our sport is more conducive to these types of finishes because of a number of variables that you don’t really see in many other sports. Each situation needs to be taken into context – it’s not black and white.

Feature image credit: Lachlan Millar


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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

13 thoughts on “Opinion: The Hand-Holding Debate – Should we?

  1. Thanks for the balanced write up. As one of the joint finishers, I’d just like to re-iterate that although we may be friends, we were both very much going for the win in that last 10km. It was no jog through the tulip fields holding hands. We smashed ourselves down the final hill and basically got lost on the final turnoff to the finish. At that point it really didn’t seem fair for either of us to claim the win. We made the right decision at the time and I stand by it.

    1. Great stuff Paul and appreciate you explaining further. I had heard about your finish and getting lost, which is why I think it’s really important to give the context around it all. Well done at the weekend, I know from your Strava that you and Tom go hammer and tongs at each other, great to see such respect for one another.

  2. I think it’s all down to the two (or more) runners involved. They’re the one’s out there slogging it out if they want to cross the line together, go for it, if they wan’t to thrash it out and compete to the last metre, go for it! I’ve done it and it came down to the fact the other runner and I had achieved everything we wanted from the run and didn’t care either way between a first or second and so decided in the last km to cross together. I say if the runners want to do it, so be it, and a hearty pat on the back for getting yourself into a position where you have the choice to choose anyway. I think crossing the line together is a great reflection of the mate-ship and community of ultra-running whilst not diminishing the competitive spirit in any significant way.

  3. An interesting article. I’m more in favour of the race-is-a-race view and would like to see competitors competing all the way to the finish line. However, I can understand that after a long time battling through difficult conditions and over long distances our perspectives can change and unique and strong bonds can form with other competitors who have shared the experience. Your conclusion is spot on for me: “each situation requires context”. I’m looking forward to seeing what others have to say.

  4. We usually think that the act of running is SOLELY a function of our own training, ability and effort. However in ultras we usually NEED the assistance of others. Think of the aid station volunteers who prepare and provide us with refreshment and access to our drop bags. Sometimes we use pacers (runners for various portions of the race to act as both pace setting and mental encouragement). Sometimes our pacer is another competitor for part of the race. Sometimes a word from a competitor will keep us from making a serious navigational blunder. The point is, in ultra running more than any other sport, cooperation between participants is as much a part of success as is our own preparation and effort, hence a partial trade-off of the pure competition versus other runners and the competition we face within ourselves and the course. Of all the ultras I have attempted the spirit of cooperation is the strongest at the Barkley. But even there, the most successful, those attempting the 5th loop are required to go alone that final loop by rule having to go in opposite directions if more than one person is ready to start the 5th loop about the same time. That rule was instigated AFTER two runners finished the 5th loop together. The race director determined we can’t have that again.

  5. in this event it is called the alpine challenge not the alpine race , its all about challenging yourself and looking after each other . As mike said its called sportsmanship i think it was awesome.

  6. Great write up, I’ve been on the hand-holding side just this year at Ronda del Cims, I’ve been through the team-work side of things at Barkley all the way up until loop 5 and I’ve done the “sprint finish” go with everything you’ve got! At Tor des Geants last year after having already raced for 80+hrs…Very interesting article, I agree with Allan on a lot of points and agree with the article on several points, overall I’m not sure where I stand on the debate still.

    1. Hey Nick, great to have your comments. It’s not clear cut and my over riding message is one of context. Hope you’re well and rocking the trails.

  7. I have organised a few longer more challenging events as well as being involved in the training of trail runners. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing that a group on newbies are willing to accept the challenge of what, 6 months earlier, would have been an unrealistic dream, support each from start to finish, cover the whole distance together and to see the elation on their faces as they finish together. For them it is not a race but a challenge, something they have successfully achieved together as one.

  8. I agree with all the running comments. Situation dictates.
    What’s odd to me is road cycling seems to view this differently & has mixed rules within the same race. They work together in quite large teams & protect the one person they want to get across the line first. Often a person who could quite clearly win themselves sits up with just a few metres to go & lets their team ‘star’ cross first. In that regard it’s certainly a team race. However it’s also quite different that the first few individuals get their own unique time but the big bunch of people just behind them all get the same identical time given to them, the ‘bunch time’, even though some cross the line many seconds later. I understand it dates from when people or technology couldn’t accurately record the times of big fast bunches but nowdays that’s no longer relevant. Weird! At recreational and lower amateur levels some cyclists use up to 30% energy, almost coasting behind the bunch absolutely as much as they can & then claim they were just a few seconds behind the winners. They were but they didn’t earn it ! Not on in my mind anyway & hence why I rarely road cycle race. Much prefer MTB races where it’s virtually always personal individual effort that gets you to the finish line fast. To me I race to the line, personal best, give it all with healthy sportsmanship and knowledgment of those around me. I’ve slowed & let others go ahead when they’re really helped me but if they haven’t I’m there giving it my all to be ahead of them

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