Runner or Organiser Responsibility?

Signage can be bright red on the trails, but it's still possible for runners to get lost.
Signage can be bright red on the trails, but it’s still possible for runners to get lost.

Following TNF100 a few weekends ago, some interesting questions arose, one of which was: ‘Where are the lines between runner and organiser responsibility?’

Are they clear in all races? Or are they blurred and/or confusing? Do we need to have more clarity in the rules of trail/ultra running races to ensure we know exactly what is expected of us as runners, but also of race directors too? Or are there enough rules as it is and we should just let it be? The purpose of this article is to not resurrect the events of TNF100, that’s all done and dusted, but to look at it in the context of our sport as a whole and runners staying on course and the requirements to navigate. This stuff has happened at other races, with consequences far more serious than simply a missed turn on a section of course.

We saw recently in New Zealand an incident whereby a runner went off course and spent the night out on the trails, surviving off breast milk.

But where exactly do people stand? Sometimes, it’s very clear-cut as in the case of the first two examples below… but a lot of the time it’s not clear as the last point makes:

A.) Runners should take responsibility for their actions. They should have course knowledge, or failing that have studied maps and understand where they need to go. Yes mistakes do get made, completely innocently in some cases, but ultimately the runner bears responsibility for what they do. Just as we all do in life. Take it on the chin and suck it up.

B.) It is the responsibility of the race organiser to ensure the course is fully marked, with appropriate signage (marshals if required) and tape to enable the runner to travel around the course without the need for maps and directions. Runners do not need to consult maps (only to be used in an emergency), or have much idea as to the terrain they are traveling across. This is a race to see who is the fastest, not the fastest at navigating.

Trail running is just another subset of ‘running’, which is essentially a competition to see who is the fastest over a given course, regardless of terrain. If we want to add navigation into the mix too, then we have activities such as rogaine and orienteering for that.

C.) Life and trail running isn’t that simple as a number of variables get thrown into the mix. The world is not black and white. There’s a blur as to where the lines are drawn/meet, and both runner and race director bear responsibility depending upon the situation. This is a camp that I’m sure a lot of people will and do sit in.

Maps and directions can be pretty useless if you're not sure how to read them properly
Maps and directions can be pretty useless if you’re not sure how to read them properly

The trail running blur

Depending upon your own opinion and philosophy, there a blur in the trail running lines. While races such as TNF100 and many others are a race as to whom is fastest, you can’t simply apply track mentality to trail running. We have numerous variables to play with, some of which are firmly outside of the control of the race organiser. For example, the Wild Endurance event in NSW has suffered from repeated course vandalism, with people removing or changing the directions of signs. How do you legislate for that?

The fact is that people do get lost and take wrong turns – which is why navigation comes into play heavily too. This is why some race directors enforce as part of their race rules that maps and directions are carried. For the vast majority of us they will never come into play, but in situations where runners do go off course or miss turns, there is a blurring of the lines. Should the runner take overall responsibility, given they are required to carry maps and directions? Or because the course is so heavily marked and marshaled, should the race organiser carry the can? Just where are the lines drawn?

Getting specific with the rules

Much of the answer aligns with specificity in the race rules. Some race organisers are very specific about the fact that you will need maps and directions to enable you to get around the course and that you are ultimately responsible for yourself. If you miss a turn or part of the course, then you return and redo it. An example of that in Australia is the GNW100s – it’s part of the fun of the race. I still remember my first attempt at the course and going off track a number of times, probably adding in the region of an extra 8-10kms to my distance – felt like 20kms at the time! But ultimately it was my own fault. I didn’t know the course and didn’t follow instructions – I couldn’t blame anyone else as the rules were clear. I signed up for that and that’s what I got.

Others are completely the opposite, I can think of Terry Davies’ Highland Events in New Zealand as a good example of that. He runs the Northburn 100 miler and Mount Difficulty Ascent over quite tough and rugged terrain. But the courses are extremely well-marked, there was no need to even consult the maps – despite the fact that last year I got lost on the latter race – bit of a trend here isn’t there! The Glasshouse 100s up in Queensland are similar. The only requirement is to carry a bottle of water.

The irony in some respects is that the less mandatory gear you are required to take, the more trust a race director is placing in you as the runner to make the right call for yourself and what you need to bring with you.

Some people argue that trail running is just another subset of running and should be treated as such. If we want to navigate then we go do rogaine and orienteering, yeah?
Some people argue that trail running is just another subset of running and should be treated as such. If we want to navigate then we go do rogaine and orienteering, yeah? (pic credit: Hanny Allston)

The only one accountable for you is you

Plenty of organisers make you carry maps, directions and even a compass, yet in most cases, there is very little requirement in the rules to be able to read and use them properly – a quick Facebook poll we ran really highlighted this and I’m sure has made a few race directors think too! So what’s the responsibility on the runner here? Surely basic requirements should be that if you’re about to head into the bush, either know the course like the back of your hand, or at least be able to read a map properly – that much is common sense isn’t it? It’s where personal accountability comes into play hugely.

While a race organiser can go to great lengths to ensure course markings / directions are clear, things can and will go wrong. So like anything in life, you are ultimately responsible for you and what you do. Just because you’re in the confines of a ‘safe’ race, doesn’t mean that as a runner you should diminish all responsibility to a race organiser – we still need to have our wits about us.

Another factor to throw into the equation however is the increased commercialisation of the sport placing a different type of pressure on race organisers.

Is commercialisation placing an increase on organiser responsibility?

With the rise in the commercialisation, premium entry fees and aspirations of well-heeled runners, there is a strong argument that the organiser is facing a growing proportion of responsibility here – there is an expectation to deliver an experience for the masses.

A point also made in our comments section was that in major races, lead runners are here to race, not to read a map. Does this ‘unwritten rule’ exist in our racing culture? If it does, then is the race director effectively taking overall accountability for the race? What do mid-to-back of pack runners think about this? Is there one rule for one and one for another? It’s dangerous territory to be in as the argument could be made by a mid-to-back of pack runner that maps and directions are in effect, redundant – BUT… personal accountability says that we all know that it’s not as simple as this.

The unfortunate thing about examples such as TNF100, is that no-one had really planned for it. In some regards (certainly not in gravity), it’s like major disasters, no-one really plans for them extensively because they haven’t happened yet and we only learn post-event.

This runner in New Zealand survived a night in the bush by covering herself with dirt and drinking breast milk after becoming lost in a trail race.
This runner in New Zealand survived a night in the bush by covering herself with dirt and drinking breast milk after becoming lost in a trail race.

Will this occur again? Maybe, but other things that we haven’t thought of yet are more likely to crop up. I’m sure as a result of what’s happened and the discussion at the National Trail Running Conference, some race organisers are considering where the line between runner and race director responsibility lies and adjusting rules. Some have very clear rules and guidelines, others still probably blur the lines of interpretation. Really, it all comes down to communication, as do most things in life. If thing are explained and communicated clearly in that everyone has a clear understanding of what will happen should XYZ occur, then everything would be fine.

Some simple advice

While some sports do have very clear lines drawn as to where responsibility and accountability lie, the beauty of trail running is that we do have a mix of both runner and the race director responsibility – I think it’s what makes our sport interesting and great. The question for race directors is how far this line goes in either direction and the clarity they add around it. I know a number of race directors very well and understand the great lengths they go to, towards ensuring runners can get around a course safely. Lengths that I’m sure many runners may not understand or appreciate fully. Having organised a race myself, I was overwhelmed by just how much there was to do and account for. It’s a massive job.

But what you can do as a runner, is take every measure you can to ensure your own personal accountability:

  • That starts with not only following mandatory gear rules, but to go the extra mile and understand how to navigate properly or to read a map for example.
  • If you’re headed into the mountains, make sure you have the bare necessities to survive a night out there. Have you got enough warm clothes or food?
  • A really easy one, but at least make sure you have a phone on you for those emergencies, along with a basic emergency first aid kit
  • Don’t take stupid risks if it’s going to put others in danger. Make sure too that you have an exit strategy should things go belly up. What’s the plan to get out?

Last year in a race, I was up a mountain at 1,800m on terrain I’d never been on before and was lost and couldn’t see any markers beyond the one I was at. My gut was telling me to head to the communications tower, up on the ridge, but I couldn’t be 100% sure that was where I needed to go. Standard procedure? Follow the path back down from whence you came and retrace your steps to makers that you can find and descend. Soon enough I came across the sweepers and we all ran up to the comms tower, just as I had suspected. But the fact is that for me, the race was over and it became about making sure I got off the mountain safely. There are times as a runner when you need to be able to see clearly through those lines.

As runners we have to make the sensible decisions in life should you be faced with them, but above all else, know exactly what you’re going to do before these situations occur so that when they do, you follow that plan. Race directors can and do everything in their power to minimise risk, but the fact is that the runner needs to be able to have a big sense of personal responsibility too.


Like our articles? Take a second to support Ultra168 on Patreon from as little as $1 a month!
Dan on Twitter
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.

9 thoughts on “Runner or Organiser Responsibility?

  1. ‘the events at TNF100’ -> What events? As a finisher, I am not aware of any specific events at the time, nor I can I find anything online …

  2. i think its pretty simple if you have to carry maps then you need to know the course or how to read them . if you don’t have to carry maps then the course should be marked properly .

  3. Maps and any other mandatory gear should not be there to assist you to race an ‘organised race’…it should be there for the same reason you carry snatch straps, jacks etc on an organised 4WD trip. To use in the case of rescue, but you should never be in the position to use it in first case.
    I would say that the feedback on map reading via FB is still only scratching the surface from experienced runners. At TNF with nearly 2,000 entrants in a highly commercial and organised race, with ‘average joes’ forking out up to $400 to complete an adventure in a ‘controlled environment’, very few of them as a % would have the appropriate map reading skills to navigate without markers…nor should they be required as they have every right to expect a ‘controlled environment’.
    By all means , the hard core (who constitute most of the readership here) can go ahead and ‘organise’ their limited assistance adventures, with small turnouts. But the sport is still ‘running’, the best runners will on average be the best trail runners and if the race organisers want feet on the ground then they need a higher level of control


  4. The onus of responsibility comes down to who takes the rap if something goes really wrong. Getting lost overnight, being found in the morning all comes out OK. But, if the ultimate prevails, ie death, someone has to explain to the police, magistrate & / or the coroner what they did or did not so. Simple OH&S rules apply if you are a manager or a race organiser. Cover as many bases as is possible, then do more.

  5. For the record, the course marking at TNF100 is the best I have ever seen. And there were marshals everywhere, including where the leaders missed a turn.

Leave a Reply