English road relays mass start error prompts fierce debate about the 51-year-old event.

‘Human errors’ meant only the top three men’s teams were allowed to complete the national road relays unhindered, leaving the rest of the field stranded before being allowed to restart 15 minutes later. Here we look into what happened, talking to some of the runners and officials involved, and discovering much to debate about the whole existence of the event that dates back to 1967.

On Saturday, April 14, Tonbridge AC triumphed over runners-up Highgate Harriers and bronze medallists Swansea AC in the men’s 12 stage event of the English National Road Relays, while Leeds AC won the women’s 6 stage relays ahead of Cambridge & Coleridge and Rotherham Harriers on a day that may forever be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

RELATED: Leeds and Tonbridge claim gold at road relays

An error made by English Road Running Association volunteers resulted in only the first three teams being allowed to run through the end of the 11th leg to complete the race on the 12th, while the rest of the field behind – some just seconds adrift of third-placed Swansea – were held back for 15 minutes before allowing to restart en masse.

Although the mass start has been in place for years to ensure the event does not roll on long into the evening, it usually allows at least the top ten teams to run through to complete the final leg as part of the relays format. Not this year.

Comments such as “It had to be the most stressful 30 minutes of my running life” and “It is so hard for a club to get their 12 best distance runners fit and healthy at the same time and place (to compete here), this (mass start error) just feels like a smack in the face” are just two of many that have been made by angry runners forced to wait a quarter of an hour before restarting the competition, denying them the chance of finishing the relays in the time honoured fashion.

The history of the relays

The national road relays hold a special place in many a club runner’s heart, with the longtime host of the event, Sutton Park in Birmingham, witnessing a myriad of world-class performances over the years. The relays date back to 1967, when the multi-leg competition superseded the London to Brighton race, and was first held at Leicester’s Whetstone Park.

Club athletes from across England (with some invited teams from Welsh and Scottish clubs) have enjoyed rubbing shoulders with international stars including multi-Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah in recent years and Bruce Tulloh and Brian Kilby in earlier competitions, all sharing the same steely resolve to run as fast as possible over the mixed distance relay legs.

The prestige of the event

Many clubs spend a good part of the year preparing for the relays, such is the prestige of the annual national event. If the chance of a medal is out of reach, there is always the exciting prospect of aiming to beat last year’s placing on the ‘fastest leg’ tables, and the team element of the day cannot be underestimated. With teams travelling the length and breadth of the country to participate, it is a long day out for athletes and team managers alike, requiring extensive preparations, cost and organisation for all involved.

While the women’s event is only six stages and does not require pre-qualification, the men’s relays number twice the number of stages and only the top-ranked teams from the regional relays are able to participate. This adds an extra edge to the competition, and, although the relay legs have changed distance and course over the years, organisers have a good idea of when the last runners will be crossing the line.

What went wrong at this year’s men’s 12 stage relays

2018’s national relays will stand out in the history of the event because instead of this rule being adhered to, a case of ‘human error’ in race referee Bill Adcocks’ words resulted in only the top three teams being allowed to complete the relays unhindered.

The ERRA’s official statement on their website reads: “The officers of the ERRA offer an unreserved apology to all the competitors in the Senior Men’s 12 stage road relays on the 14 April at Sutton Park. We failed to provide a race which came up to the standard required. We will naturally be reviewing and instigating changes to ensure that the mass start is organised so that it does not ruin the race. We will be considering changes at our July committee meeting and would welcome input from team managers and competitors.”

Comments from the ERRA’s chairman and this year’s event referee Bill Adcocks

We spoke to the ERRA’s chairman, Mike Neighbour, to clarify what had happened, why, and how the issue would be resolved so it would never be repeated.

He said: “It was a big cock up, we apologise and I have every sympathy with those teams who were affected by the timing errors. I spoke to several teams on the day after the error had occurred, (halting the rest of the relay field much earlier than previous years, leaving all but the top three teams to fight it out for the medals), but by that time nothing could be done to rectify the situation.

“As for the race referee on the day, who happened to be Bill Adcocks this year, we rotate that role every year, and this year it was Bill’s job to referee the event. We will get this sorted, changes do need to be made, but we are not going to rush those changes. That is why we will be discussing it in a meeting in July, once we have had a chance to reflect on it calmly, and listened to what team managers and their athletes have to say. We are encouraging people to put their views forward. We want this event to retain its traditional elements, so I don’t think we need drastic changes, but we do understand that changes are necessary.”

Adcocks – an esteemed lifelong member of Coventry Godiva, an Olympic and Commonwealth Games marathoner holding a 2:10:48 PB and proud owner of seven national relay medals – also apologised for the effects of the ‘error of judgement’ on the day and the outcome it had for those teams affected.

He explained: “I was the referee on the day, but I was joined by a whole host of top officials covering the start and finish area. I don’t know who made the error that meant only the top three teams were allowed to go through to the final leg before the mass start, but officials are only human. It is a long day for everyone involved, with last year seeing the last team finishing the men’s event in six hours. The mass start is there to ensure the relays don’t go on any longer than necessary, it’s too long for the old folks on the finish line to be stood there.”

When asked his thoughts on whether the event should reduce the number of legs, or the standards be tightened further than the existing regional relay qualification criteria, he is steadfast in his answer: “No, definitely not. The event does not need to change, it was just one mistake and it will not be repeated. Reducing the legs would reduce the standard, getting 12 athletes out to represent them is the measure of a club.”

Relay athletes’ responses to the events at Sutton Park

The events of the day have been a hot topic on social media ever since the error occurred. Lincoln Wellington AC, Kent AC and Leeds AC headed the teams chasing down the eventual bronze medal-winners, Swansea Harriers, with all three clubs having much to say about the way the mass start mistakes were handled.

We spoke to Lincoln’s Aaron Scott (who will toe the elite start line at this Sunday’s London marathon) and Kent’s James Bowler and Chris Greenwood about their experiences on the day.

Scott, a 2:17 marathoner, did not hold back when asked what he thought about what had happened: “It’s great that Mike Neighbour has apologised but it’s still not enough. I think many teams are now thinking about boycotting it or looking to start an alternative unless the ERRA is willing to radically change.

“Yes, there is a mass start every year, but what happened this year made no sense whatsoever. I asked Bill how he would have felt in his day, if someone had stopped his team when they were chasing a medal. He told me runners in his day wouldn’t have been so slow, and ‘would have finished by now’.

“The argument I heard from others supporting his decision, or getting annoyed at how angry everyone was, was that everyone is a ‘volunteer’. I appreciate that, but if the volunteer can’t do their job properly, I’d rather they didn’t bother turning up at all.

“What I don’t understand is that from the men’s event alone, the ERRA has made £7.5k in entry fees. Where has this money gone? Surely you could put the event out to tender, get chip timing and a company to properly run the event for you with this sort of budget? It’s an absolute joke and they need radical change, and I know for a fact that if Bill Adcocks is in charge in future, then we won’t be attending.”

Kent’s Chris Greenwood was critical of what happened on the day, but took a considered approach to the issues raised, and feels it has, at least, opened up the debate on how the event can be improved going forward.

He began with a conciliatory tone: “Firstly, this isn’t a witch hunt about the organisers or race referee, who manage these events year after year and have apologised for the obvious mistake. The volunteers do an amazing job and are the ones helping to make the events happen, we simply only need to turn up and race. I think these are important messages before going into any specific detail.”

Greenwood, who posted a marathon PB last year of 2:26:41, four years into his time in the V40 ranks and earning him a top five UK ranking for this age group, went onto comment on the errors that occurred.

He said: “The decision to hold all runners apart from the top three for a mass start was a strange call, given this is a national relay event with a lot of tradition behind it. There were three teams going into the final leg with a chance of winning a national medal, so there appeared to be something to play for Leeds, Kent and Lincoln.

“We were later told it was something to do with the event schedule running late, but it completely changed the momentum of the race and became a slightly chaotic 5km road race. The outcome was the same based on time, but the pressures are very different when being pursued around Sutton Park managing your team’s lead, plus the15-minute wait completely destroyed whatever momentum was building for those involved.

“It would have made more sense to at least allow the top 10 or 20 teams to continue the agreed format before implementing the mass start at an agreed time, which I believe is the usual format. Surely at least a top 10 finish at a national championships means something to a number of running clubs out there, so shouldn’t be dismissed on a whim. The race referee’s additional comments weren’t necessary and only inflamed a sensitive situation for all parties.

Fellow Kent club athlete James Bowler added: “The mass start is meant to be for the last few teams – maybe only the back 20 or so places, so from 50th place or beyond. No one has ever had any qualms with this. For example, on the same course last year, we were able to count our B team in, who finished in 37th place. So the only thing I can say about the decision was that it was inexplicably stupid and ruined what was an exciting race for the bronze medal between Leeds, Kent, and Lincoln Wellington.”

Two of Greenwood’s team mates, Lawrence Avery and Russell Bentley, were so incensed by the situation they both wrote blogs about what happened on the day. Bentley’s can be found here in full, and Avery’s here.

Taking the positives from the errors at the national road relays

The events on April 14 at Sutton Park will surely be discussed for some time to come, but perhaps the last word should go to Kent’s Chris Greenwood, who is determined to take positives from the errors on the day.

“In certain aspects, it might be a positive, because it has opened a debate around the event and how it’s seen across the running community. It’s a fantastic event, and allows club runners or up and coming athletes to showcase their abilities against some seasoned internationals.

“This was witnessed by the fastest long leg of the day going to young Alex Yee by some distance. (Yee ran 24:57 to post the fastest long leg for more than two decades). The momentum needs to continue, because it [in my opinion] is a great event on many levels, from personal improvement and development and historic importance to team building and giving club athletics a platform.

“There are other debates around the higher end depth and incentives to improve this again, but I guess that is for another day.”