by Kelly O’Mara
You did it! You made it to the finish! Congratulations!
Except, even as your runners celebrate finishing their big day, your work as a race director isn’t over yet. A start line can be as simple or as complicated as the size of your race dictates, but “the finish is usually a lot more elaborate,” said David Katz, who has been the official course measure for three Olympic Marathons, served on the USATF technical and rules committees, and currently sits on the World Athletics competition commission.
Your finish line and post-finish area can include everything from the lead-up to the finish, the finish line itself, and the athlete flow post-finish.
Managing athlete flow
A lot of the issues in managing your finish line come down to keeping athletes moving through and after the finish. Athlete flow is important so that runners behind them can get across the finish line and so there is no overloading of medical or volunteer staff. (Most medical staff don’t want there to be too big a peak of athletes incoming—especially if weather conditions are extreme—or they can get overrun and resources spread too thin.)
That finish line athlete flow, according to Marcel Altenburg, a leading crowd scientist at Manchester Metropolitan University, actually depends heavily on how you start the athletes—how many runners start when, how closely together, and how they’re spaced out.
“That’s why we call it Start Right,” said Altenburg, because after the athletes leave the start it’s a lot harder to control what they do out on course, and so how they start affects how they finish. “The last time I can impact that is at the start.” (Find start line best practices here.)
There are, however, a few general finish line rules and principles he utilizes to keep post-finish athlete flow moving.
– For every 200 finishers per minute, said Altenburg, a minimum of 8 feet of walking width needs to be left to avoid athletes backing up. (For 400 finishers/minute, you’d need double that.)
– To approximate how many athletes you’ll have finishing per minute at peak finishing times, the rough calculation is .6 x total number of finishers / race distance in kilometers.
This means, for example, if you have 1,500 athletes running a 5K in a mass start, you’ll have approximately 240 athletes/minute finishing at the peak density time. You should then leave a minimum of 10 feet wide for athletes to walk post-finish.
How far you allow for them to decelerate post finish and begin walking is called the deceleration zone, but you want them to get spread out both across the road (or path) and along it.
Besides the fact that athletes get more spread out in longer races, so they don’t tend to bunch up as much at the finish, the other thing to keep in mind about your deceleration zone is that athletes are likely moving faster at the finish in shorter races—so you may need a longer deceleration for a 5K than for a half-marathon.
It can also be a good idea, as you plot out your finish area, to have volunteers positioned and ready to keep athletes moving (or catch them and direct them to medical if they need help). “Keep them moving and get them to the post-finish area as quickly as possible,” said Katz.
Arranging your finish line
As you plot out that finish line and athlete flow, keep in mind your finish actually begins in the final 200 meters of your race course. You don’t want to have any turns in that final stretch or it could create pinch points and complications. For medium or larger races, there should also be fencing or barricades along the final stretch to prevent spectators from wandering into or crowding onto the course.
Per official USATF rules, it’s also important to have an actual finish line—whether your race is small or big. That might sound funny, but if it comes down to a sprint finish for a podium, you don’t want to have to argue about where the finish really is.
Then right at the finish line, you need your timers and timing mat. Before the advent of chip timing, finish line funnels were much more complicated (and involved manual processing of athletes in order), but even the smallest races likely don’t require that anymore. If you contract or hire a timing company, they’ll tell you how much space they need, but plan on having timing equipment and staff located right at the finish line.
The finish, itself, should also be wide enough to accommodate your flow of athletes, per above—at least four meters wide, said Katz, so there’s room to negotiate if people are crowded up together or trying to run past each other.
He also recommends having some kind of actual finish banner, arch, or sign, and a clock. If you’re a small race that doesn’t have much money for signage and you only have a one-sided banner, then Katz actually recommends having the sign point away from the runners and towards the post-finish area—ie. you want the photographer to get that beautiful picture of the winner coming through the finish line with the sponsors name on the banner sign.
And more important than an announcer—though an announcer at the finish is also important to provide info, cheer in athletes, and keep things moving—is having music, said Katz. That can be as simple as setting up a speaker in a truck on the side and subscribing to a commercial satellite radio license, or having the timing and equipment team set up larger speakers. Music will keep the athletes happy and moving.
But your finish doesn’t finish at the finish line. As you usher athletes through the finish and keep the flow moving, you should follow a general order post-finish—what and how much you include can depend on the size of your race.
After the finish line, proceed in this order:
– At the line, you need timers and timing mats
– Then, a deceleration zone
– Volunteers stationed ready to help athletes and keep them moving
– Medical services — how you position the medical assistance depends on what you have available to you, but you want to have medical services either immediately available as athletes come to a stop in the deceleration zone and may need help, or you want volunteers who can usher or direct the athletes who need medical assistance to the appropriate place; most athletes won’t need help, they’re just tired, but some will
– Water should be handed to athletes past the deceleration zone, as they first thing they end up at once they finish and get through the immediate scrum
– Then funnel them out into the post-finish area
For small races, the post-finish area can be as simple as having the finish chute spit them out into a park with a picnic table lined with food, water, and other goodies. You’re typically limited to what’s available to you by the municipality and permits.
For bigger races, this post-race area may include things like a spot to hand out medals, food, and drinks as they move through the chute, a spot potentially to take pictures farther away from the immediate finish, and ultimately directing them out into meet-up spots and places to pick-up their gear or join the post-race festival.
Think of it all as a funnel. What should be first, then next, and last? Where do you want the athletes to end up? What’s the most logical thing they will do in their post-race tired state? Don’t make it complicated or confusing, think about the path of least resistance and how tired runners will act.
And, of course, make sure you have things planned out so that you have as many amenities, food, water, and staff for the last finisher. “Celebrate every finisher,” said Katz.
Then, of course, don’t forget the post-race clean-up.
About the Author
Kelly O’Mara is the former editor-in-chief of Triathlete Magazine and the founder of the Triathlonish