Andrew McDonagh takes a slightly tongue in cheek look at a plague sweeping the worlds road races…

These are harsh and recessionary times.  The numbers of people in work is plunging.  Tax revenues are down.  Greece has been bailed out, Ireland is being bailed out and it seems Portugal and Spain are next.  Even the temperatures have taken a nose dive…

And yet there is one thing that is going up and up and up.  The dreaded curse of Start Line Inflation (SLI for those in the know) is alive and well!

For those who have not come across this strange phenomenon before I suggest you go to the start line of any race and you will be able to see it in full action.  There, lining up at the front you will see the usual lean racing snakes.  And interspersed among them there will be a few people wearing trackie bottoms rather than shorts, fleecies rather than singlets.  And sure enough when the gun goes the racing snakes set off in a cloud of dust while the unwitting victims of SLI set off at a brisk walk.  Often 2 or 3 abreast and occasionally even linking arms.  And these poor unfortunates are then trampled underfoot as thousands of faster runners penned in behind them try to batter past.

More tragic victims of SLI.

I have first hand experience of this bizarre occurrence.  Lining up well towards the front of the pen in the Dublin Marathon a few years ago I was waiting for the start when the runners in front moved a little and I saw the unwitting victims.  There were three of them, snug in their warm jackets while we shivered in our bin bags beside them.  But the biggest give away was the Tesco carrier bag that the largest one was carrying.

What’s in the bag?” asked the runner beside the SLI victims

A few sandwiches, you wouldn’t want to get hungry half way round would you?!” was the answer…

So how does this tragedy happen?

Experts are divided but there seem to be two main drivers of SLI, each feeding into the other in a dangerous feedback loop.

First is simple inexperience and naivety.  Someone with little or no experience of races may not realise that the faster people go to the front and the slower go to the back of the starting pens.  Likewise people without experience of the finer points of race elements like chip timing might want to get as close to the start line as they can so that they don’t “lose time” getting to the start.  And many of the victims of SLI lack the fitness of their faster compatriots and don’t see the need to cover the extra distance to the start line in some of the really large races!

And this then feeds into the second cause of SLI.  Many more experienced runners also fall foul of SLI.  They go to a race and line up at the right place in the starting pens.  And the gun goes and they set off at a run.  And they spend the first mile or two of the race dodging past walkers and slower runners who lined up to close to the start line.  So next time what do these runners do?  They line up closer to the start line to try and get in front of the walkers, well in front of where they “should” be.  And of course they are in front of faster runners who are in the right place, who then get frustrated dodging around all the slower runners.  So the next time…  Well you get the picture!

So what is the answer to this insidious peril?

Well there is probably not a lot that we as runners can do about inexperienced race entrants not knowing race etiquette.  Race directors on the other hand could.  Better information pre race on where entrants should line up would help, as would clear markings in the start area as to expected finish times.  Stronger and more assertive marshalling to shepherd people to the right place would also be a huge help.

And the second issue?  Well that’s down to all of us.  People line up further than they should because people line up further than they should.  With chip timing at more and more races there is no excuse and while it is a pain to dodge people in most races you’ll be clear fairly quickly and the congestion can help prevent you going out to fast.  And if we all line up where we should then we break that feedback loop.

If we all work together we can break the menace and we can make the world an SLI free zone!

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