What is a Mass Start?

Dan Cavallari

Marathon runners and bicycle racers will recognize the scene immediately: a large group of athletes standing close together, stretching their legs and mentally preparing for the race ahead. These athletes are in queue to start the race through a mass start, in which a large number of racers begin the race all at once. The mass start is often chaotic and slow, but as the racers spread out, the pace quickens and the group breaks up. Jockeying for position is common during a mass start, and crashes, bumps, stumbles, and other obstructions to forward progress are common.

A mass start is common at marathons.
A mass start is common at marathons.

In cycling, a mass start can be executed two ways: either the racers begin the race on their bikes all at once in a large pack, or they begin the race on foot in what is known as a le mans start. During the le mans start, the cyclists must run a set distance before mounting their bikes to begin riding. This helps break up the group quickly so the riders do not get bottlenecked on the race course. The le mans mass start is particularly difficult because it immediately begins to tire muscles the racers will need once they mount their bikes.

Mass starts can take place in auto racing, where competitors are assigned a starting position, but the group starts all at once.
Mass starts can take place in auto racing, where competitors are assigned a starting position, but the group starts all at once.

In running, a mass start is common at marathons and other long-distance races. The racers will have ample time to break away from the group during a longer, marathon race, whereas during a shorter race, it may be difficult or impossible to break from the group at all. Most shorter races are broken into categories, generally by ability level, to limit the amount of competitors running a race at once. In some cases, racers are broken into separate lanes so they do not crowd each other. During a mass start, the racer is free to run where he or she pleases, provided he or she stays within the course markers.

Mass starts can also take place in other sports such as auto racing. During many auto races, the competitors are assigned a starting position, but the group starts all at once. The competitors must jockey for position from there. While the racers are racing at a slower speed during the start than they will race later on, accidents are most common during the start because so many cars are in such close proximity, and because they are all trying to move forward in the pack. It is not uncommon to see multiple-car pile-ups during mass starts.

Mass starts occur during cycling races.
Mass starts occur during cycling races.

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Discussion Comments


I feel sorry for the better competitors during the mass start of a race. Sometimes they just can't break through a pack of slower athletes and they get stuck way behind the leaders. I've seen mass starts at car races where half of the field gets in a wreck before they even finish one lap.


When my local running club held its first open marathon, they used a mass start. Nobody had an assigned position, even the elite runners who came in from other countries. The start of the race was a real nightmare, since very few officials could see when competitors actually crossed the line and started racing. Eventually the crowd did thin out and the more elite runners made it to the front of the pack, but it was very confusing for a while.

Now the marathon is divided into different athletic levels, so the elite runners all start in their own pack and have electronic cards that record their official starting times. The rest of the runners wait fifteen minutes until a new race clock starts. They start on the honor system, more or less. They tell the officials at the end what the race clock read when they started, and the times are calculated from the start and stop information.

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