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  1. The instructor blew his whistle and off ran the runners.

Why not:

  1. The instructor blew his whistle and the runners ran off.
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    The speaker might also be trying to avoid confusion with the common phrase "to run off" meaning to escape. Although the meaning is clear through context, a native speaker might be amused to imagine that the runners abandoned the track and scattered, and this could distract the reader.
    – user11628
    Aug 28 '16 at 21:46
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run off is a phrasal verb like run away. The first part is a verb: the second is an adverb. It is possible to add emphasis to the adverb by inverting the word order- moving the adverb to the front. Sports commentators regularly say things like "...and off they go!" at the start of a race.

Another example is when somebody won't let go of a subject: you say

there you go again!

It is also used frequently when talking to small children: "up you get" and possibly "ups-a-daisy".

Note that the phrasal verb run off can have both a literal meaning and an idiomatic meaning, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as Escape from a place, person, or situation. The second (non-inverted) version the runners ran off conveys the idiomatic version much more strongly than the first (inverted) version off ran the runners. Having said that, the inverted form is used in the title Pearl Jam's song off he goes which is about somebody who finds life stressful and keeps running away.

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Both sentences are grammatically correct but the second sentences conveys two meanings.

  1. The instructor blew his whistle and off ran the runners. - Here the word [off] is used like the word [away] and in sports it mainly means [to start a race].

    • The instructor blew his whistle and the runners started the race.
  2. The instructor blew his whistle and the runners ran off. - Can confuse some readers because it conveys two different meanings.

    • to run off as away from the place in question; to or at a distance. (Adverb). To leave somewhere or someone suddenly. (Phrasal verb)
    • to run off as start a journey or race; leave. (Adverb)

In British English there is an informal noun [off] which means the start of a race, journey, or experience.

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