I managed corral setup for a large marathon. Loading of the corrals was delayed because, unless the wheelchairs took a longer route around they had to come up through the corrals. Corral loading was to begin at 5:15 and it had been widely published that runners were to be in the corrals by 5:55. The wheelchairs did not turn up until 5:50 so the corrals stood empty and the sidewalks were totally packed with well a more than 20 thousand runners waiting to get into their corrals. The show was held up waiting for the wheelchairs to make their grand procession up the corrals. After they had made their grand entrance there was only 5 minutes left of corral loading time, with about three and a half thousand assigned to each corral. This quickly got completely out of control with a general stamped for corrals near the start line and the poor workers assigned to corral gates getting overrun.
Personally I like giving all athletes a chance to do a race. But it is grossly unfair to the thousands of other runners who's start prep and corral assignment was messed up. Most Web reports complain that the start was a f-up and of having to spend the first few miles dogging slower runners, most of whom had just charged uncontrolled into the wrong starting corrals.
Although not as f-up as this year, the tardy arrival of the disabled athlete cavalcade has been a problem for several years. Alternative routes to the start have been proposed but their team handlers insist on making a grand entry through the assembled runners and no one has the balls to stand up to them. This seems to be an attitude of the coordinators of the disabled athletes, not the athletes themselves.
Has anyone else experienced this problem?
Instead of going back to the race management and going "This is really bad and f-up AGAIN and it is YOUR fault for not putting your foot down" I would like to go in with some positive solutions.
Do any of you have any suggestions or solutions?
This is a situation where Race Management needs to stand up for what is right, and for what needs to happen, for the good of the race on the whole. There should be no question that Race Management has to make decisions there are in the greater good for the event. I am a strong proponent that road racing should include room for disabled athletes, and there is a right way to do it for ANY group of athletes whether it be disabeld athletes, elites, top level age groupers, mid packers, and back of packers. That is one of the great things about this sport, that it can be open to anyone to challenge themself.
My background for the response I'm going to give is that I have been in race production for almost 25 years, mostly on the technical side. For the last decade I have designed the start area and procedures for a marathon with about 5000 in the start corrals including about 15-20 wheelchair racers. I don't directly manage that start area, but I am active to make sure things are happening the way they were designed to happen. I also handle all elements of the start areas for 2 smaller races with about 1000-1200 entrants, and I produce XC races operating under NCAA rules for anywhere from 50 to 200 starters.
Without knowing the specifics of your race's start process, I am going to assume your wheelchairs start a few minutes before the rest of the field. Based on the times you gave I'm going to guess wheelchairs start at 6:00, and let's say the rest of the field starts at 6:05. Also, you say "large marathon" so I'm guessing at least 7500 marathoners need to load into the corrals. If those parameters are close, then I would say a couple things are appropriate:
1) There is no question that in order for the start process and first few miles to work the way they need to that your runners need to be loaded into the corrals at the latest by 6:00. Given the number of runners you are trying to move into position, 5:15 to 5:50 is a reasonable window of time to publicize that happening. You cannot get a good start process if you are trying to load thousands of starters in 5 minutes, and you are allowing a situation to happen that is guaranteed to be unsatisfactory for the majority of your entrants. This is not acceptable.
2) If the wheelchair racers want to be a part of your event then they need to work under the guidelines they are given-as long as what you are setting up for them is reasonable. If you're telling them they need to be there at 5:15 I'd say that's not reasonable. It would be interesting to know what the wheelchairs racers are told to do, what you wrote doesn't say. You don't say why the wheelchairs can't be loaded from in front of the start line. If that's a possibility then it probably makes the most sense - that way you can have the thousnads of marathoners load their corrals and just bring the wheelchairs in when they arrive. If the wheelchair racers, or their handlers, don't want to work that way then I'd tell them they have the choice to go to another race.
This may not be a case where "positive solutions" work, if you define "positive solution" as "everybody is happy". To me this is one of those times where the Race Management needs to be firm and clear with all parties about what the expectations are. Be ready to explain why you are dictating changes but never be afraid to make the changes you need to make in order for your event to work. One thing that will certainly help with communication to your disabled athletes is to bring a representative of their group onto your Race Committee. That way any planning that involved them has someone who understands the specifics of what the wheelchair racers need.
The marathon I'm at, we work closely with our disabled athletes in fact one is a member of our Race Committee. I also conduct a day-before-race wheelchair technical meeting where we review the course (how it's marked, potholes, etc), talk about start procedures, how to deal with the chips, etc. We usually get about 75% of our wheelchair racers at that meeting. At our start we have 4 corrals; wheelchairs (~20), elites (~50), Preferred Corral (~500, marathoners with sub 3:20 credentials), Regular Corral (~4400). The first 3 load from in front of the start line and the Regular Corral loads from in back. Our corrals are open 60 minutes before the start, and entry to the Preferred Corral closes 5 minutes before the start. If you earned a spot in the PC and don't get there in time you need to start in the RC. Our wheelchairs usually arrive about 10-15 minutes before the start but there are always one or two who arrive just a few minutes before the gun. We allow the elites and PC starters to warm up in front of the start line until 5 minutes before the start, at which time the wheelchairs are positioned for their start. Our wheelchairs start 60 seconds before the runners start. We always start right on time (www.time.gov) for all our races, so runners know exactly what to expect. After the wheelchairs roll out we give our elites 1 final stride out, reset the chip mat, and it's go time for the main field.
If you want to bounce any ideas around feel free to contact me offlist as I don't check in here too often.
Thanks, you backup my gut feelings. You are a little out on the size, the race field was around 25,000. So the delay in loading corrals was just about catastrophic, at least from my point of view. When race control finally gave the order to open the corrals we lost control of the corral gates, as the impatient waiting runners just stormed the barricades. Later reviews on the web all mentioned the problems at the start.