Every bit helps on race day

2008-09-26 00:00

IN February, many runners in the 10 km of the Nedbank SA Marathon Championship missed their turning and went on extended “walkabouts” around the city. Some almost doubled the original distance.

Last Sunday, the gremlins hit again in the Ethekwini Four in One events, with the 10 km being taken on an additional loop to wind the distance up to over 12 km. Simultaneously in Cape Town, the top 10 women in the 10 km of the city marathon were escorted on an additional trip up Long Street before the 11th-placed competitor, a local who knew the route, corrected the mistake and pulled the rest of the field over the correct course.

Neither Durban, Nedbank nor any other race or organisation has a monopoly on these errors that are more common than we would like to acknowledge.

The Totalsports women’s race in August produced some stunning times that tempted statisticians to rewrite the years’ rankings. However, verification this past weekend proved that the course was 407 m short.

In most cases, the errors can be traced back to fairly simple human and organisational failings.

In the February event, the problem was a combination of a volunteer sector head whose work commitments prevented his attendance at meetings. This meant the late briefing of a marshal, enforced race start times that meant the marathon and 10 km runners had to be split at that junction, and no major distinguishing marks.

Early reports of the Ethekwini race suggest the basic cause relates to the navigator of the 10 km being used elsewhere for a technical problem, leaving a person who had only been briefed third-hand to lead.

An inadequate measurement report and diagram of the start in Stellenbosch accounted for about a quarter of that error, with the rest appearing to stem from poor appreciation of how the women would run the course.

In Cape Town, the lead women were following the TV crew on a motorbike, who clearly had not done their homework, but were so close to the runners that they blocked the marshals’ view, leaving runners to follow.

The interaction between third party providers and race logistics can frequently cause problems.

As the TV bike was leading the 10 km women adrift, the live production bike at the head of the Cape marathon was amazingly informing the clock car at the head of the marathon to work around the TV bike’s requirements. That a TV motorcyclist actually believed he was better informed to lead the athletes than a car containing the two course measurers is amazing! At best, the TV crew were taken over the roads prior to the race, but their knowledge of the route was zero.

The Cape course is one of only two marathons (the other is the Durban SA champs) in southern Africa to meet IAAF standards as a World Championship qualifier.

The measurement takes the shortest legal line corner to corner with an accuracy that induced an 18 m adjustment simply because the police changed the side of road to be used for a 1,5 km section. Ensuring the runner follows the correct line makes considerable difference to times — especially on Sunday where the early pace was on sub-2:08, something we haven’t seen for years.

The TV crew even attempted to intimidate the driver and navigator into submission by putting them on air. What interest was that to a viewer keen on the race?

These examples highlight errors that are totally unacceptable, but also indicate how easy it is for people with the best of intentions to make major problems. The TV bikes were only trying to get the best shot, but didn’t appreciate the outcome of being the perceived “leader”.

It is impossible to correct or regain performances lost with such errors. But it does emphasise the vulnerability and reliance of the sport on people on the ground — the volunteers who hold flags, and set up the water point (too often on the running line), the lead drivers, and the officials who record the age group tags, times, and positions.

These are too often considered as mundane tasks, but the months of planning can all be lost because one marshal, volunteer or official fails to turn up.

Organisers are virtually powerless to replace individuals on race day, particularly with 5 am or 6 am starts.

Ironically, large races like London, Berlin, Comrades and Two Oceans have fewer risks of directional errors as their bigger fields force road closures, and they have greater reliance on fencing and limited traffic considerations compared with a club event of 500 runners.

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