Race Directors: How to Implement an Early Start

Race directors- is your half marathon time limit three hours or less?  Are you looking for an easy way to add more race participants?   Or, do you want to encourage athletes of all abilities and paces to participate, but want to make sure you don't have a handful of people still out on the course when your volunteers need to leave?  Consider adding an early start.

Many half marathon races now offer a half hour or an hour early start for walkers or slower runners to give them a head start on the course before the official start time.  There are many benefits to doing this:
  • Most of your back-of-the-pack participants will wind up finishing with the mid-packers, so your athletes will be off the roads earlier
  • With the time difference between the early start and the regular start, the early starters will be spread out enough so that all other runners can typically pass by safely
  • Your registration numbers can increase as athletes that may not have made the time limit before can participate now with the early start
  • Timing adjustments are easy- most timers take a list of the bib numbers for the people at the early start and then just add the additional time to their results later
  • Your water stops, course marshals and volunteers won't have to wait on the last finishers to come in far beyond the main pack  
  • Having an early start supports athletes with disabilities that may need the additional time, giving more people the opportunity to participate in events

Race directors should publish specific rules regarding the early start.  We recommend you state clearly on your website that the early start is designed only for athletes that will finish in over a certain time (such as over a 2:45 or over a 3:00 finish), or their pace must be more than a specific minute per mile (such as a 15 minute mile).   We suggest you specifically state that this early start is not meant for athletes that just want to get home faster, and that athletes who take the early start and  finish faster than a certain time will be disqualified.   Early start participants typically are not eligible for awards (this is completely understandable- those in the main start would have no idea they have a possible age group competitor that started earlier, and that would not be fair). 

Also, it is your call about support for the early starters.  Many race directors recommend their early starters take a course map in case there is any confusion.  Some races will not have their first water stop set up in time for the early starters, and they tell the early starters they should carry their own water for the first hour.

In the past few years, we have seen early starts grow from a handful of people to thirty or more participants.  They are thankful that they have the time to comfortably participate in an event, and that they are welcome and accepted as half marathoners.