How Strict Are Time Limits in Races?

Spectators cheering for man helping injured marathon runner
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Many running races have cut off times—a time limit by which all participants must cross the finish line. In most cases, there are good reasons for the rule. If you have never run a race before, it's smart to research the cutoff time and then do some math based on your training runs to make sure you can finish before the course is shut down.

Why Have Race Time Limits?

Race officials don't want race participants on the course after a certain amount of time because they can't logistically provide necessary safety and support services. These services not only include road closures but also the use of traffic enforcers, medical personnel, and staffed aid stations.

Weather is also a factor during the warmer months. Race officials don't want people running or walking in the hottest part of the day, so a time limit forces people off the course before it becomes too hot.

Race directors don't set time limits to exclude runners. Instead, cut off times are established to make sure that runners stay safe.

Will I Make the Cut Off Time?

Many new runners worry about not finishing before the time limit or being one of the last race participants to finish. This is especially true for marathoners. It's helpful if you do some homework before registering for a race to make sure that you'll finish on time.

Estimate Your Finish Time

First, you want to estimate your race finish time, based on one of your shorter race finish times. If you've never run in a race before, you can use your pace or finish time for training runs to estimate your time.

Research Time Limits

Almost every registration or event website has small print somewhere that discloses the course finish cut off time. If you search the event site and still can't find it, locate the course director's email address or other contact information for the event. Send a quick email to get clarification.

There are typical cut off times for different races. However, that doesn't mean that the race you plan to enter is required to follow it. Different cities and locations may have different laws and rules regulating the use of roads for races. These regulations may affect the cut off time for your event.

Marathon Cut Off Times

Typically, marathon cut off times are around 6 hours. For example, the NYC Marathon has a cut-off time of 6 1/2 hours, which translates to an average pace of 15 minutes/mile.

Athletes who run the Boston Marathon have six hours to complete the course. That means you'd have to average a pace of just under 14 minutes per mile.

The Twin Cities Marathon requires marathoners to run an approximate average pace of 13:44 minute/mile as their course and finish line closes at 2:15 p.m., about six hours and fifteen minutes after the race starts. Keep in mind, however, that most runners don't start the race at exactly 8:00 am. So if you run that marathon, your total allowed time running will depend on when you start running.

Half Marathon Cut Off Times

Half marathon cut off times are often more generous than marathon cut off times, meaning that you can run a slower pace and still finish.

For example, the San Diego Half Marathon has a time limit of 3 hours 30 minutes (approximately a 16 minute per mile pace). The Las Vegas Rock 'N' Roll Half Marathon sets a time limit of four hours which would require you to run or run/walk an average pace of just over an 18-minute/mile pace.

10K Cut Off Times

Cut off times for 10Ks are usually around an hour and a half.

In New York, 10K races organized by NYRR have a cut off time of one hour, 30 minutes (14:29 min/mi pace). The Las Vegas Rock 'N' Roll 10K course cut off time is 1:35 or just over a 15 minute per mile pace.

As a helpful measure, the average 10K runner finishes in about 50-70 minutes.

5K Cut Off Times

Cut off times for a 5K race are almost always an hour. These races are usually walker-friendly and require that you maintain an average pace of 19:18 minutes per mile.

What If My Estimate Is Slower Than the Cut Off?

If your race time estimate is above the cut-off time, or even a little bit under (since you may be a bit slower than the estimated time), try to find out how strictly the cut-off time is enforced.

Read the explanation about the cut-off time in the race rules. Some races are very strict and have a sweep bus that picks up runners and walkers who are behind the cut-off time pace at various points during the race.

Other races state a cut-off time, but still keep the finish line open beyond the time limit. In those cases, the race website may state that participants can stay on the course but the roads will be reopened to traffic and they won't have access to course support.

If you choose to participate in one of those races it's a good idea to carry your own fluids as well as a map of the course. Mile markers, aid stations, and other course signs may be taken down while you're still on the course.

Some races may not provide additional details about the race time limit. If that's the case, you can try talking to other runners who have done the race and find out how strict race officials have been in previous years.

You might also email the race director and find out how they'll enforce the time limit. Ask whether there will be a sweep bus or if participants can stay on the course, but they won't get an official finishing time.

A Word From Verywell

If the race you are interested in is strict and you're in danger of not finishing before the time limit, don't sign up for it. It's not fun to try to run or walk in a race with the constant fear of getting kicked off the course.

And you may miss out on some of the race amenities, like water stops, official finisher certificate, a finisher photo, and medal. You're better off finding another race with no time limit or one that you know you could comfortably beat. There are plenty of races that are very accommodating to runners and walkers of all abilities.

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