A blue light convoy with a purpose

2009-01-02 00:00

BLUE light convoys or perhaps, more correctly, the behaviour of some of those cowboys involved, have annoyed many South Africans.

Last week, however, Durban Metro police’s blue lights provided protection to the measurement for the Nedbank Durban City Marathon and did so safely and slickly.

Many runners have little idea of how races are measured or the time and resources required.

My introduction to course measurement in 1985 was through Peter Walsh, the founder, owner and then editor of SA Runner magazine, who was one of the motivators for the use of the bicycle method in South Africa.

Before this, most races in South Africa were measured either by pushing the surveyor’s wheel or by car.

Mick Winn, then chairman of the South African Road Running Association and Comrades Marathon, remembers that they insisted on using a Mercedes, as it was seen to use the most accurate measurement.

But when measuring the Comrades route by bike for the first time in 1986, I had to erase two kilometres from the distance.

U.S. ultra-runner Ted Corbitt and Briton John Jewell were the prime developers of the bicycle method in the 1960s. The basic principles are simple. A counter is attached to the front wheel of a bicycle and then calibrated over a standard distance, normally between 300 and 500 metres.

If you know the number of clicks to measure 300 or 500 metres, then simple proportion gives a figure per kilometre, and one metre per kilometre is added for safety. This constant is used either to measure an existing route or lay out a new one.

The concept is straightforward, but the accurate implementation is somewhat more complex as the process takes into account many aspects such as weight of the cyclist, temperature changes during the measurement and variation in road surface texture, while it relies on consistent riding to obtain the shortest possible line between and around corners.

Long before any measurement, there’s considerable planning required, and the basic course design for Durban began in November.

The chief priority is to have a fast, flat single-lap course, not only because the race is the 2009 SA Championships — and a Comrades and Two Oceans qualifier — but also because it is an IAAF qualifier for the 2009 World Marathon Championships in Berlin.

IAAF measurement is key to achieving this status.

Although aiming to avoid hills, twists and turns, the municipality wants to encourage live TV coverage to promote the culture, history and features of the city while minimising the inconvenience to traffic and citizens.

Many requirements are almost contradictory in nature, so selecting a suitable route is something that requires numerous rides, runs and car trips over the various options before starting the measurement.

With assistance from Dumile Khanya of Special Events and Lunga Lamula of the municipality, the 2009 route uses only nine major roads, including NMR Avenue, Smith Street, Victoria Embankment, Shepstone Road, and 14 km on the M4 freeway to provide 38km of the race.

It is the fastest Durban marathon route ever, but it still passes the Opera and Playhouse Theatre, the Human Rights Wall, the ICC, the City Hall, the Da Gama clock, Expo centre, the Moth Hall and the Old Fort, Dick King Statue, Harbour Master’s House, Timeball Square, Ushaka Marine World, Mahatma Gandhi monument, Sun Coast Casino and the new Moses Mabhida Stadium.

Eventually last Monday, Sagren Moodley and I were able to undertake the formal measurement, much of which is against the flow of traffic.

It can be quite scary watching a counter fixed low down on your front wheel while crossing from inside to outside lane, all the time keeping an eye for oncoming traffic bearing down on you at a rate of knots!

This is where the blue lights come in. Most South African measurements are without any escort and rely on the protection of a friend or family driving behind.

Flashing amber lights and indicators are ignored, and drivers can be downright abusive, despite measurement warning signs on cars.

In good conditions, marathon measurements typically take five to six hours. Overnight measurement reduces the traffic risks, but takes longer to read the counter and see ahead. Focus is critical, so talking is minimised as it destroys the concentration.

With a small, efficient crew whose members each do a job, you can carve minutes off the riding time, but there’s still at least a day’s work in calculations, alterations, writing up the report, photographs, and final location of key points.

Last Monday’s measurement in Durban was the slickest I have experienced in the province in two decades, and the safety was comparable with the very best around the world.

Constables Deven Gouden and Mazwi Mlangeni, who leapfrogged their cars between junctions with blue lights flashing and sirens screaming, were the prime reason for Moodley’s and my safety.

With my wife Karin protecting our rears and Gouden and Mlangeni directing the on-coming traffic out of our path, we were kicking butt out and back on the M4 and the contra-flow down the length of Smith Street and NMR at 7 in the morning!

Three hours from the finish to determine the start with every kilometre marked and a level of safety I have never experienced in Durban.

This blue light convoy was protective and accident-saving.

The long, straight, flat roads provided a fast measurement, so you can be very sure the Nedbank Durban Marathon on February 8 will also provide fast times – no matter if you are looking for Two Oceans or World Championship qualifying times.

It’s a race not to miss.

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