Running's Greatest Bloopers
True stories of chaos on the roads, tracks and trails of the world

Take thousands of people and set them loose on the streets of a city or town, a mountain trail, or even the controlled environment of a track, and what do you get? A not-so-rare opportunity for things to go spectacularly wrong! After exhaustive research around the globe, we have compiled a sampling of the funniest-case scenarios we’ve been privileged to witness (or hear about) in recent history. We present here Running Times’ awards for Outstanding Achievements in Running Mishaps and Misadventures. All of these stories are true and, we believe, qualify for induction into the Blooper Hall of Fame.

Best Track-Race Blooper
Presented by Zola Budd

Track and field is not immune to such goings-on and provides us with a wonderful new venue for blooper material. The scene in this case was a dual meet between Brandeis University and the University of Connecticut, held at the UConn track in Storrs, CT. The well-known Brandeis coach, Norm Levine, was standing on the track infield area watching the shot put, when the second heat of the 800-meter race began.

As with many tracks, there was a barrier several inches high running between the track and the infield. Coach Levine became so engrossed in the field event that he didn’t realize he was stepping backward. And backward over the barrier the 250-pound Levine went. He toppled onto the track just in time to bring down almost the entire 800-meter field. We award this prize to Coach Levine posthumously, as he is now attending the Great Track Meet in The Sky.

Thanks, and forgive us, Norm, for a moment of humor in your absence!

Best Race-Start Blooper
Presented by Atco Speedway

It was thrills, chills, and spills for spectators and participants alike at the start of the 1987 Boston Marathon as the wheelchair racers skidded on wet pavement just seconds after the start of the race and turned innocent bystanders into human bowling pins. Not to be outdone, the runners followed their wheeled brethren into Blooperdom when race officials put a rope in front of the elite athletes, then fired the gun. Down came defending champion Rob de Castella, among others, along with cops, officials, and various and sundry others. As bloopers go, it doesn’t get any better than this, folks!

Race starts, especially of large events, have always teetered on the edge of disaster. Picture poor Allan Steinfeld, then technical director of the New York City Marathon, at the start of the 1978 race. Thousands of runners stood on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, anxiously awaiting the starting cannon. The mayor of New York lit the fuse of the big gun. Pfffft—nothing! Steinfeld stood there in complete shock until a voice behind him said, "Where would you like me to put the shell, sir?" It was a National Guard trooper, mercifully holding the elusive cannon fodder. (Allan briefly thought of telling the trooper where he could put the shell, then wisely thought otherwise.) The shell was inserted, the fuse relit, and the race went off from there without a hitch.

Best Dog-Encounter Blooper
Presented by the U.S. Postal Service

The scene: The D.H. Jones 10 Mile race in Amherst, MA, in February 1975. Bill Rodgers is in the lead as the route passes through a residential area, when a particularly vicious dog decides to try taking one of Bill’s skinny legs home for lunch. Bill darts to the side of the road to avoid the canine’s chompers and grabs a rock from the gutter. The other runners in contention just a few yards behind seize the moment and take the lead from the distracted and extremity-threatened Rodgers. Bill hurls his weapon, which bounces off the dog’s snout and (would my husband lie to me?) crashes through its owner’s living-room window, which shatters all over the road. The sounds of breaking glass, the epithet-spouting owner and the yowling dog send enough adrenaline through the terrified Rodgers that he’s able to retake the lead, win the race, and set a course record.

Best Aid-Station Blooper
Presented by the Dixie Paper Cup Co.

This blooper comes to us courtesy of the volunteers at the 1992 Honolulu Marathon. Those manning one of the aid stations along the course were doling out gobs of petroleum jelly to runners plagued by blisters or chafing. How thoughtful. The only problem was that a bunch of Japanese runners grabbed their gobs and ate them, thinking it was some sort of sports nutrient. Hey, at least it wasn’t Ben-Gay!

Our second-place award goes to the wonderful folks at the aid stations of the Citrus Half Marathon in Florida who, just before the race was about to start, were delivered cone paper cups instead of regular flat-bottomed ones. Oops! They did their best, but a lot of thirsty runners probably stayed that way as they passed that station.

Best Frazzled Race Director Blooper
Presented by the Sunny Days Rest Home

This award is presented on behalf of all beleaguered and under-appreciated race directors to Jeff Darman and includes a year’s supply of orange cones and safety pins, plus a case of tranquilizers. Let’s let Jeff tell the story in his own words:

"At the Nike Women’s race one year, I’d had a call during the week from a popcorn company wanting to come to the race and offer samples. They didn’t want to pay us anything, they just wanted to offer free samples to people at the race. We told them no, as our sponsor policy precluded this.

"Lo and behold, on race day when the event was over and everything race-wise had gone great. I noticed a person dressed as a bag of popcorn walking around giving out samples. I went into a rage. I guess it was a combination of post-race fatigue and the fact that I had specifically told them no. I grabbed one of my uniformed park police friends and had him in tow as I prepared to berate the popcorn character and kick him out of the park.

"I’d just started to dress down Mr. Popcorn when I realized two things: One, my erstwhile law enforcement buddy had a mouthful of popcorn. Two, I suddenly had a vision of what my life had become—I had sunk to the level of chewing out bags of popcorn for a living. Ever since, I think I have become a little more mellow on race mornings."

Best Disaster-Averted Blooper
Presented by Disney World’s "Tower of Terror"

A yearly event on the Orlando, FL, running calendar is the Channel 6.2 road race, directed by the affable and efficient Jon Hughes and his group, Event Marketing and Management International. In 1988, the city of Orlando had constructed a brand-spanking-new parking garage near the start. To bring the public’s attention to the wonderful structure, city officials suggested to Jon that he might want to start the race there. Jon and the race organizers agreed to the unique start idea, and the run was set to go.

Fortunately, however, a member of a local running club, an engineer, calculated that the weight of several thousand runners pounding down the ramps of the garage would be more than sufficient to bring the structure down. Needless to say, the start was moved to a safer location, and the runners ran through the garage at a later stage of the race when they were more spread out. On behalf of all the un-squished runners in that race, we gratefully present Jon and the anonymous engineer this award and thank them both for keeping us from having to present them Running’s Greatest Disaster blooper award.

Best Adventures in Race Certification Blooper
Presented by the Amelia Earhart Society

This award goes to Doug Thurston, the race director of the (in his words) "first, last and only Disneyland Marathon in Anaheim, CA in March 1995 (not to be confused with the successful and ongoing event at Disney World in Orlando, FL)." Again, let’s let Doug tell the story in his own words:

"I can speak firsthand of thinking my career was over when all 1,600 marathon runners were directed off-course about a mile and a half into the race, missing about two miles of the course. Wrong turns is a story often told. What makes this story for the ages is that Ron Scardera, the course measurer, was on-site with his calibrated bicycle and was able to measure the lost distance and add it on to the end of the race and recertify the course while it was being run. The course was a complicated double out-and-back loop through the Disneyland theme park and surrounding streets. Although the splits made little sense to the runners, by the time they’d hit the finish line they’d finished a certified marathon. The course counted as a qualifier for the Boston Marathon and Olympic Trials. You can imagine the scene as we were laying out cones and moving volunteers and barricades with the lead runners bearing down on us."

Along with this award, we present Doug with the Best Sense of Humor in the Aftermath of Disaster Award.

Second prize in this category is presented by Hansel and Gretel and goes to Roy Benson. Years ago Roy was living in Gainesville, FL, and with two of his best friends decided to put on an old-time cross-country race. They chose a friend’s farm as the race site, thereby avoiding permits, police, traffic control, etc.

Roy laid out a nice, interesting course around the pastures and woods surrounding the farm. On the morning of the race he went out early to mark the course, using a box of laundry detergent. No sooner did the race start than it began to rain, washing the route very clean indeed and thoroughly confusing the runners, who made a sport out of running headlong into one another all along the course.

Best "Off-Course" Blooper
Presented by the Orienteering Society of America

I know we have all seen or participated in races where runners made a slight departure from the designated route here and there. Of course we’ve gone off-course! But see if you can top this worst-case course-departure scenario.

The Detroit Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot of 1997, directed by Ed Kozloff of the Motor City Striders, wins a place of honor in the Blooper Hall of Fame for the most runners to go off-course in any race, ever. About 5,000, to be exact. OK, it wasn’t Ed’s fault, but that of a very well-intentioned yet very loud and very misinformed spectator who decided to take matters into her own hands at the two-mile mark.

This annual 10K event takes place in conjunction with a Thanksgiving Day parade in Detroit and part of the race runs along the parade route in front of the waiting parade spectators. For some reason, the race had to be slightly altered from the previous years and involved an out-and-back followed by a return to the stablished course. Arrows painted on the street clearly directed the runners where to go once they’d done the out-and-back segment, but they’d also been explicitly instructed by Ed to run through the arrows the first time they passed them.

The runners took their mark and off they went without a problem. Ed began to make his way toward the finish area. He had no sooner crossed the street, however, when someone remarked, "What’s that?" and suddenly there were all the runners, running back toward them and in the wrong direction! As the story later came out, the lead police car had gone through the arrows as instructed, when our spectator began to scream at the runners to follow the painted arrows. Apparently she was so insistent that they all heeded her words. A multitude passed before a race official could catch up and convince her that she had sent thousands of runners into the streets of Detroit without a lead vehicle.

By this time the lead runners were beginning to suspect something was amiss as there was no car or course to follow. A local runner managed to catch up to the leaders and convince them to head back toward the main street where the finish and the parade route were. Good idea, but it failed to account for the thousands of parade-watchers already lining the street in their lawn chairs, coffee cups in hand.

The scene, as Ed describes it, was like a cross between a steeple-chase and a stampede. Hundreds of runners followed the leaders over the waiting spectators and race barricades to get to the finish line.

Well, the city of Detroit had a fit and poor Ed got reams of hate mail, all because of a misguided and overly zealous spectator.


Best "One-Bad-Apple-Spoils-the-Whole-Bunch" Blooper
Presented by the New Hampshire Apple Growers Association

Unquestionably, this prize goes to Tom Derderian, who managed single-handedly to ruin the 1981 Portsmouth (NH) Marketplace 10K by sending thousands of hapless runners into total chaos and confusion. (This story is a Running Times exclusive, as Tom has kept his dark and horrible sin a secret for 18 years and is only now revealing the truth to clear his conscience once and for all.)

It all began innocently enough as the gun went off and several thousand runners headed through the winding streets of the old seaport town. They were led by two sub-30-minute guys who, along with the lead vehicle, promptly disappeared out of sight of the chase pack. Tom was happily in third place, leading a pack of several dozen men running about 31- to 32-minute pace, with several hundred more runners strung out behind.

Well into the race, the chase group came to a confusing intersection with no course markers. The lead runners were nowhere to be seen, so Tom—knowing the town quite well—led the huge pack in the direction of what he thought was the finish line. Unfortunately, he took a detour, adding about two minutes to their time. Far worse, however, he and the several hundred runners who followed him now were heading toward the finish line from the wrong direction. And—you guessed it—the next contingent of runners, plus everyone else behind them, had gone the correct way and was now heading toward the finish from the right direction, but about to run into those errant souls who’d made the mistake of following Tom.

The top two guys finished the race. After a minute or so, the race officials began to wonder why no one else was showing up. Then, to their horror, they saw the second pack, led by Tom, approaching the finish from the wrong direction! Thinking quickly, they turned the finish-line banner around. No sooner had they done so, though, when the next pack of runners came into view running top speed in the other direction.

Imagine, if you will, several hundred runners all sprinting at once toward the finish line from opposite directions. It was, in Tom’s words, "like knights at a jousting match, crashing into each other and bodies being tossed in every direction." Without a word, Tom escaped to sit on a nearby hillside and witness the ensuing carnage.

We thank Tom for his story and congratulate him on his award, which comes with an all-expenses paid trip to the Bermuda Triangle 10K.