Mid-race running pile-ups: when a non-contact sport goes a bit wrong

Running is a non-contact sport. In theory, at least. In truth, an occasional occupational hazard of having lots of people running in a big crowd is that sometimes two or more runners will end up in exactly the same place at exactly the same time.

Now, from having witnessed a few, mid-race running pile-ups are never malicious. It isn’t like motor racing categories such as touring cars or NASCAR, where rubbin’ is, of course, racin’. Contact is usually caused by one runner being surprised by another one in close proximity to them doing something unexpected.

Case in point: the worst mid-race pile-ups I’ve seen have usually involved one runner stumbling, tripping or completely falling over, and in the process collecting one or more runners following close behind.

Hopefully, this happens at slow enough speed that what follows is a very British sequence of profuse apologies, checking on the health of other runners, and trying to keep a stiff upper lip and just get on with the race. Thankfully, the biggest injuries sustained in the worst mid-race accidents I’ve seen have been nothing more than scraped skin and chastened egos.

Now, I’ve been close to a few pile-ups in my time, and had a couple of narrow escapes. Perhaps the biggest calamity I dodged was on a parkrun a few months back, and involved someone running ahead of me with a dog on an extendable lead.

The runner with the dog had set out at a rapid pace, but at just after half-distance another runner and me began to catch him. But we did so on a narrow part of the out-and-back course where runners were passing in both directions, so there was little chance to pass, and we both ended up close behind.

And then… his dog suddenly decided something on the other side of the path was more interesting than running straight ahead. He veered sharply to the right, across the path of runners coming in the other direction. Eager to avoid mayhem, the man was forced to pull up suddenly and tug sharply to retract the rapidly extending dog lead. The combined forces of this led to him being spun around, and very nearly getting bumped by the runner just behind him.

I was next up, and very surprised to find a runner facing the wrong way with a dog lead now tangled around his body. I had to ease up sharply, dart right and just made it through. Amazingly, while several runners heading in both directions had to ease up, nobody actually made full contact or fell over. Phew!

But last weekend (and yes, this is actually the tale I promised in my last post…) I was finally involved in a mid-race pile-up. It was early in the Kingston parkrun, and I was already feeling a little put out after realising I’d left my Garmin GPS watch in mile pacing and splits, instead of kilometres. As I was running, I was desperately trying to work out what my 5k run pace worked out into in mile splits.

Around a kilometre in, the Kingston parkrun runs on a relatively narrow Tarmac path alongside the River Thames. At this stage there are trees and bushes on both sides, with the bushes on the left on a short, sharp slope that goes down to a mudpath alongside the Thames itself. It’s a little narrow, especially early in a parkrun before the field spreads out.

At this stage, I was catching the runner ahead of me, and beginning to think of pulling out to move past – except there was another runner overtaking me to my right. So I was closer behind the runner ahead of me than I’d usually be, and a bit preoccupied with both my watch and waiting for the runner beside me to go past.

And then… an object came flying out of the pocket of the runner right ahead of me. It flipped in the air, and clattered onto the road right in front of me. I realised it was his phone, and instinctively focused on trying not to tread on it. And then I heard the runner ahead of me swear, and looked up to see him slow dramatically as he realised what he’d dropped.

What happened next was pure instinct – on both our parts. Seeing him slow, and with another runner to my right, I had two choices: run straight toward him, or veer left and try to avoid him. My survival instinct kicked in, and I veered left, into the bushes and right onto the edge of that steep muddy slope.

The runner who’d dropped his phone had two choices: stop in the middle of the road and turn around, or pull up and move to the left while he did so, trying to ensure the runners behind him could get past safely. His survival instinct kicked in, and he veered left, into the bushes and right onto the edge of that steep muddy slope.

Yup, our survival instincts had put us both onto a collision course. The contact, when it came, wasn’t exactly major. In fact, it was largely comical: we bumped slowly, which toppled both of us down the slope a bit. And, in even more comical fashion, both of us seemed more concerned with trying to stop the other from falling over completely. It ended with a slightly awkward half man-hug with a stranger halfway down a muddy slope.

We briefly exchanged words of ‘sorry’ and ‘you ok?’ as we untangled, and went our separate ways: me onwards, and him to pick up his phone and rejoin the race. The whole thing lasted little more than ten seconds, but the adrenaline kicked in and fired me up for the next chunk of the run.

At first, I was a little annoyed that another runner failing to properly secure his phone had cost me time, but by the time I reached the finish I’d calmed down. It wasn’t like he meant to drop his phone, after all.

And, hey, despite all that my time wasn’t bad: a 19m 52s. Okay, it didn’t match my entirely unexpected 19m 39s course PB from a week earlier… but, if anything, the incident took away any pressure to follow up that time with another PB. Having lost time – maybe ten seconds, maybe a bit less – through an event that wasn’t my fault, it suddenly wasn’t my responsibility that I wouldn’t match that PB. That might well have freed me up to run faster in the second half, shorn of pressure.

Who knows? I was just grateful that the pile-up wasn’t any worse – and both me and the other runner could have a laugh about it at the finish (his phone was surprisingly intact as well, for those who might care about such things).

Not the world’s most dramatic running pile-up then, but a brief reminder that even in a supposedly non-contact sport, they can happen…

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