Q: Why can't I wear my headphones during a race? Shouldn't it be my decision to run with or without the aid of music? 

A: There are generally two reasons that headphones are not permitted during races. Safety and leveling the playing field.

A runner that has earbuds in is less aware of their surroundings. Runners that cannot hear, cannot take direction; whether that direction comes from a passing runner, course marshal or an emergency vehicle coming up behind them.

Also, though races do their best to remove hazards from the course, it is impossible to predict them all. Inconsiderate cyclists or pedestrians often intrude onto race courses. When I ran a marathon in Anchorage, Alaska, runners encountered a moose on course. A friend of mine encountered a bear in a local triathlon. Thus, runners who wear headphones are more susceptible to injury.

A less commonly known reason is that it is considered a form of illegitimate assistance. Race directors who sanction their race through USA Track and Field Association are required to follow the USATF rules for competition. Rule 144 bans the use of audio devices:

144(3)(b) The visible possession or use by athletes of video, audio, or communications devices in the competition area. The Games Committee for a Long Distance Race event may allow the use of portable listening devices not capable of receiving communication; however, those competing in championships for awards, medals, or prize money may not use such devices.

The rule now allows long distance races (5k and above for road races) to permit "portable listening devices not capable of receiving communication". Arguably, your smartphone that you use like an mp3 player does not fit within this exception because it is capable of receiving communication even if you do not have a coach on the phone feeding tips into your ear.

Because of runner demand, many distance races are moving toward relaxing rules on headphones instead of outright banning them. For example, at the ODDyssey Half Marathon, we now ask runners to refrain from using headphones. But, we do not ban them completely.

But, remember the second part of rule. If you are competing for "awards, medals, or prize money" the USATF ban is absolute. It would be heartbreaking if a runner winning an age category award or an overall winner were to be challenged for having used headphones. So, to runners using headphones, I suggest you proceed at your own risk, both in terms of safety and rules of competition.

Carl Ewald is the Race Director and chief innovator for the ODDyssey Half Marathon and Great American Brewery Runs. A Philadelphia resident, his runs are popular because they are designed by runners for runners and elevate the racing experience from just a race to a full event experience.

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