Phantom runner clouds run results

Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Pep talk Lee Stubblefield goes over race strategy with Jacob Jennings and Cristian Sellars prior to the Freedom Run half marathon at Table Rock Dam State Park on Saturday.

"Coach!" Jacob Jennings hollered at me. "They show me finishing in sixth place. I know I was in fifth."

At that moment I didn't care what place anyone was shown in. I was struggling for air and trying to down water as fast as reasonably possible without becoming nauseous. The finish area of any half marathon is never pretty, and the Freedom Run of the Ozarks race on Saturday saw nearly 100 runners fight the hills and the heat as much as each other.

When I finally regained some composure, I carefully checked the posted finish results. Yes, they showed Jennings in sixth place, me in seventh. Problem was -- at least by our reckoning --that wasn't correct.

For all of the 13.1 miles, I had run in sixth place of the half marathon runners. The 5K and 10K races started with the half, and those races had different turnaround points on the out and back course. Once the leaders reached the 10K turn point, only the half marathoners continued down the Table Rock Dam trail another six tenths of a mile before heading back.

One of the advantages of an out and back course is being able to account for all the runners ahead of you at every turnaround. You don't always know names, but you recognize faces and uniforms as you meet them at the switchbacks.

The Freedom Run had an unusual course layout in that the half marathon covers the same out and back course three times, and you get a lot of chances to see who is in front of you and who is coming up behind.

The early leader was 19-year old Garrot Hull, of Springfield, wearing green and white. Scott Hicks, 34, of Billings, followed in a red jersey. Cristian Sellars and Sari Higgins ran side by side in third and fourth. Jennings was a few seconds back in fifth, and I hung on in sixth place.

For the remaining 10 and half miles of the grueling race, I ran grimly in that same sixth position. The early pace was too fast for me, and I could not keep up with the young legs of the leaders. After four miles, the lead changed hands as Higgins -- a product of Hillcrest High School and Drury University -- pulled away mercilessly from the guys and their egos.

Higgins, who set a Drury school record of 17:57 for 5K this year, punished the leaders over the final two loops and eventually finished over two and a half minutes ahead of the men's champion.

The lead pack reached the final turn with just over two miles to go. Higgins had a comfortable lead, Sellars had moved into second, and the next three spots belonged to Hicks, Hull and Jennings. I was stuck in No Man's Land, trailing Jennings by almost two minutes but holding a 47-second lead over the 7th place runner.

With the heat taking a toll on my legs, I did a reality check and decided the wisest decision would be to just coast in and try to maintain my position. That worked well enough, and I reached the finish line without requiring medical attention.

Then came the finish order snafu.

You don't expect problems of that sort when you compete in races that use chip timing. The electronic chips are fed information for the runner they represent, attached to the runners' shoes, and communicate with a computer when they cross the finish line. Within minutes, a complete listing of runners by gender and age groups is generated. Usually a hand-held watch is used as a backup, but there are rarely any problems unless someone kicks the cord and disconnects the power.

So we were stumped when the Phantom Runner showed up in fifth position for the half marathon. Jennings and I weren't the only ones who noted the error. It was apparent to many of the runners and to spectators as well.

So what happened?

The runner in question left after the races and was not present for the awards ceremony.

I studied the area around the finish line and it dawned on me that the chip removal area was immediately AFTER the finish line mat on the course. If a runner was not feeling well or decided not to finish a race for any reason, they would still have to cross the finish line to turn in their timing chip.

Guess what? The computer would register their finishing time at that moment, regardless of what distance they had run. Of course it was possible that there was simply a computer glitch associated with his timing chip.

For my own peace of mind, I did some investigative work after I reached home. There were a number of race results available online for the Phantom Runner. His most recent half marathon was back in November, when he completed a one hour, 57 minutes, one second effort at the Bass Pro race series in Springfield.

Earlier in June, he had run a 25K (15.5 miles) race in over two hours and 25 minutes.

Neither these, nor any of the times he achieved at shorter distances in the past six months, suggested that he was capable of running an hour and 32 minutes on a hilly course and in extreme heat on Saturday.

But there he was in the finish results, in fifth place with that time.

Now, keep in mind that there were no monetary awards given on Saturday. The error didn't cost me or anyone else any money. But it changed the race results for everyone who finished behind the fourth place runner, it changed the order for one men's age group, and it changed the order for the men's masters division.

Jennings' reported finish time matched what he had on his wrist watch. My time was accurate also. All the entry fees went to benefit a very deserving charity. So in spite of the apparent injustice of the reported results, no one died. This was not an incident on the scale of the Olympic basketball fiasco of 1972.

But for runners who spend or are planning to spend a lifetime involved in a sport where records, times and places are held sacred, it is an avoidable travesty. Our sport rests its reputation on accuracy. It's pretty simple stuff.

Race Director Becky Lowrance responded to my documented concerns with grace and professionalism.

"There are some valid concerns," she wrote in a reply. "I sincerely appreciate your calling this to my attention and want to do everything possible to make sure everyone receives the awards that they earned."

As a runner, you can't ask or expect anymore than that from a race official.

When all was said and done, it was a beautiful day. Ninety runners completed the 5K race, 21 mastered the 10K course, and 80 of us finished the half marathon.

Area 10K finishers:

* Todd Lekarczyk, Purdy, first place, men 45 to 49, 1:01:30.0.

Area half marathon finishers:

* Cristian Sellars, overall men's champion, 1:27:32.1.

* Jacob Jennings, Washburn, second place, men 15 to 19, 1:32:38.4.

* Lee Stubblefield, Cassville, men's masters champion, 1:35:13.2.

* Tina Mills, Aurora, fourth place, women 35 to 39, 2:21:41.9.

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