UPDATE (9:09 a.m. PT) — Twenty-two-year-old Kallin Khan is fast. So fast that by mile nine of Sunday's Portland Marathon, he was far in the lead, out of eyeshot of the pack of runners on his tail.
This meant nobody saw Khan, and the police escort guiding him, make the right a little after mile nine. So when the second-place runner got to the same spot, he stayed straight. The person in third followed. As did the fourth. And fifth.
Ultimately, somewhere between 15 and 20 of Sunday’s fastest runners took a wrong turn near the entrance to the Ross Island Bridge as they followed one another more than a mile off course onto Southwest Barbur Boulevard. The entire front of the pack — with the exception of Khan — estimate they had between 10 and 20 minutes added to their final time as a result.
“By virtue of being fast, we got totally screwed,” said Zach Custer, 33, a senior director with Gizmodo Media, who estimates he was in about 13th place at the time. “Normally, being fast in a race is a great thing.”
Custer said he began to sense something was awry when he didn’t see a checkpoint at the 15-kilometer mark, (the equivalent of about 9.3 miles). Once he entered a tunnel with cars driving past him at 55 miles per hour, he was certain he’d strayed off course.
Custer, along with a handful of other runners who chose to continue after realizing the mistake, ended up finding their way back to the route near the Sellwood Bridge. He ended up placing ninth with a time of two hours, 53 minutes. Without the detour, Custer thinks he’d be looking at a time 10 minutes brisker.
“It seems like a majority of us got the same places we would have gotten, but certainly not the same time,” he said, adding, “the time is all that really matters.”
“Time equates to qualifying for other races. It’s your bragging rights.”
Khan ultimately crossed the finish line a full 20 minutes ahead of the second place finisher, a victory he said has turned “bittersweet” since discovering the runners most likely to catch him made a major detour. He said he’d be open to the idea of the race crowning a “co-winner,” so that he would share the gold with whomever “ended up winning the 28th mile edition of race.”
Racers point to two problems that led some of the earliest risers in the pack astray: no signage and a well-intentioned but ultimately confused, volunteer explicitly pointing them in the wrong direction.
Jared Rohatinsky, the CEO of Brooksee, the company that organized Sunday’s event, said the two signs were meant to be at a fork in the road just after mile nine, telling runners to stay right at the median. The company, he said, is “still trying to determine exactly why they were not up.” As for the confused volunteer, Rohatinsky said she was not a sanctioned part of the event, and “was essentially a lone wolf woman who was out riding her bike.”
In an interview, Rohatinsky emphasized that the problem affected “a very small handful of runners” and “was corrected almost immediately” with fewer than two dozen people directed off course out of the nearly 6,000 that ran the race. These runners, he said, have been given full refunds and free entry to all future marathons put on by Brooksee.
Dan McDowell, 37, said that while he understands that the mishap delayed “a very small percentage of people,” it was difficult to swallow as the race was the finale to months of intense training.
“I was really frustrated and sad,” he said. “I’m 37, and I feel like I'm the fastest I've ever been, and I don't get many chances to do this.”
After running off course for more than two miles, McDowell said he briefly rejoined the route before deciding to quit and meet up with his wife, who was waiting for him to pass at Reed College. McDowell estimated he was in 12th place before making the wrong turn.
McDowell, who worked in race production in Chicago, encouraged Brooksee to invest in more bike marshalls for future races, as he said there is often a gap that emerges between first and second place, particularly in small races like Portland’s, where the presence of even one Olympic-caliber athlete can create a significant gulf between the winner of the race and everyone else.
Rohatinsky said the company already has changes in mind to prevent's Sunday's mishap from ever repeating itself. In future races, he said they plan to have multiple lead cyclists clearly marked in event gear, as well as “much-improved route markings.”