Runners assisting others across a finish line make for a nice moment, but are they breaking the rules?
It was the photo seen “around the world”: Four runners stopping to carry another runner about 250 meters to cross the finish line at this year’s Boston Marathon. As the moment picked up steam on social media, it gathered praise, collecting terms like “inspirational,” “heartwarming” and “selfless.” Indeed, it was all those things.
While legions of people cheered on the runners’ actions, there’s another, less enthusiastic camp out there. This smaller, yet vocal group, questions whether or not the assistance should carry with it words like “illegal” or “disqualified.”
Mike Korfhage, 44, a landscaper from Louisville, Ky., is one of the four men who aided the downed runner, 26-year-old Jake Mogan of San Francisco. “I saw him up ahead of me and noticed he was stumbling around,” Korfhage explains. “When I reached him, he was collapsing and his head ended up on my foot.”
Korfhage, whose goal time was already out the window for the day, and the other three runners asked Mogan if he wanted to finish or if he wanted medical help. “He couldn’t really focus on us, but he said he wanted to finish,” he says. “We got him up and we realized we were dragging him. At that point, we just picked him up and got him over the finish line.”
Upon crossing the line, Korfhage and the others handed Mogan to the medical team, who placed him in a wheelchair and carted him off. Korfhage later learned that Mogan’s temperature was extremely high and the medical team rushed him to the hospital for ice baths and IVs.
Photos and videos (including one that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker posted on his Twitter) of the assisted finish began making the rounds almost immediately and it didn’t take long for popular running forums to begin debating the action. Those opposed to this type of finish-line aid argue that if a runner cannot finish under his or her own power, then he or she should not receive an official time or medal, as Mogan did in this case.
While some might perceive the runners who disapprove of giving official finishes to those who do it with aid as cold-hearted, these disapproving runners do have the rules on their side. The Boston Marathon officially follows the rules set forth by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), USA Track and Field (USATF), and Abbot World Marathon Majors. The IAAF and USATF rules spell out that runners must finish a race under their own power in order to receive an official time or medal.
According to Boston spokesperson T.K. Skendrian, all runners must sign an agreement that they will abide by the rules set out by these organizations. However, he explains, “I think these governing bodies rely on race organizers to make the judgments on certain incidents,” he says. “We have not disqualified people in the past (for this infraction), but we’d look closely at each incident.”
Some other major marathons are likely to look the other way too. Just one week after Boston, another photo grabbed the public’s attention as Matthew Rees helped David Wyeth across the finish line of the London Marathon. Event director Hugh Brashner had this to say about the incident: “It’s a simple story of one person helping another in their moment of need. Neither runner was trying to win the race. The marathon, above all mass participation events, is grueling and involves determination, commitment, camaraderie and togetherness. Matthew’s gesture demonstrated this wonderfully.”
The ultra-running world, however, isn’t so accommodating. At the 2006 Western States 100, competitor Brian Morrison was within 300 meters of winning the race that year when he began stumbling and falling down. His official pacers—one of which was famed trail ultrarunner Scott Jurek—repeatedly helped him to his feet and got him across the line. “The race finishes in a stadium and the assistance was out in the open and very obvious,” says Western States race director Craig Thornley. “One of our rules is that you must finish under your own power, so we had no choice but to disqualify him.”
The decision was met with plenty of outcry, but as Thornley sees it, the issue isn’t a gray area. “Ultras involve pacers so we are picky about this,” he says. “Helping another across the finish line is disrespectful to the integrity of the competition.”
Sage Canaday, professional ultrarunner and coach, says that in road races, these situations prove tricky, especially near the finish line. “It’s human nature to help someone when you see them struggle,” he says. “You never know what’s going on and they may need medical assistance.”
To Canaday, much of the issue does come down to whether or not an age-group placing or money is on the line. “Most people aren’t going to care about assistance if it means nothing more than finishing,” he says. “But when it’s potentially taking a coveted qualifying spot for next year’s Boston, or winning prize money, then it might matter.”
In the case of Mogan and Korfhage, the runners finished in 3:09:46 and 3:09:34 respectively. Only Korfhage re-qualified for next year’s race, whereas Mogan did not for his age group. “We weren’t winning any money or really impacting the standings in a meaningful way,” Korfhage says of the results.
However, Canaday also points out the consideration of getting a runner in need to medical help as quickly as possible. “It might be better to hand someone over to medical rather than trying to get them to the finish line,” Canaday adds.
Again, in Mogan’s situation, Korfhage asked the hurting runner if he wanted medical or to get across the line. “That [getting him across the line] was probably the fastest way to get him help at that point anyway,” Korfhage says.
While he knows there is some negative chatter out there about the assistance, Korfhage wouldn’t change his actions. “In a crowded race, I guarantee you that Jake had already run 26.2 by that point anyhow,” he says. “This was helping someone for the last few hundred yards of the race, not 10 miles.”