Comrades Call time on Mat to Mat timing –
Race safety officer and organiser fear start chaos at big events could be a Disaster waiting to happen
Potential Comrades marathon runners face a tougher challenge to get to the start line for the 93rd edition on 10 June 2018.
The first challenge will be this Sunday (5 November) at the Old Mutual Soweto Marathon which has around 11000 runners wanting to get under the 5 hours qualification or into a good seeding time.
Runners no longer have the luxury of waiting to cross the line after the gun is fired – instead every second that a runner takes will be a second etched from their qualifying time and the fear from some organizers is that the Comrades decision will result in every runner trying to be on the start line and cause a situation that could see people tripping, falling or being trampled.
In a mail from Comrades Race Organizer, Rowyn James, to the organizers of the Maritzburg Marathon it was made known that mat to mat timing would no longer be accepted for qualification for the 90km SA Ultramarathon.
Only runners completing a marathon on Gun to Finish line under the required 5 hours will qualify to run the 2018 race.
With the number of entrants in qualifying marathons and ultras having increased dramatically in recent years, it can take the last runner 7 to 12 minutes (or more) to cross the line after the gun. This effectively reduces the qualifying time from 5 hours for a marathon to 4:50 or less.
The use of mat to mat (also known as nett time), meant runners could gradually cross the start line in a controlled fashion, as each individual effectively had 5 hours to reach the finish.
The new ruling means that the larger the race, the greater runners will feel the need to be as close to the start line as possible. This may incite pushing and the blocking of faster runners, but slow runners keen to get away as early as possible.
The Safety Officer, Race Organizer and an Athlete’s Agent attending Thursday’s Maritzburg Marathon launch, all raised their concern that this would see runners, particularly those who were borderline to the qualifying times, lining up on the front and unwilling to let faster runners past.
Such safety concerns became a significant factor around 5 years ago, but the use of mat-to-mat timing over recent years has assisted in alleviating and reducing the level of risk.
This year the growth of the fields and the demand for Comrades places, saw the 21500 places filled in a record-breaking three weeks.
Similarly, most major events are also reaching their entry limit well before their official closing date. The major growth is seen in the mass of runners toward the rear of the field.
Sunday’s Soweto Marathon sold out the 11,000 places well before the closing date, and its is believed that many will be targeting the comrades qualification, or one of the 20 minute seeding batches between 3 hours and 5 hours.
Importantly the final instructions are still being sent out stating that mat to mat qualification will be forwarded to to Comrades, but in fact this is incorrect as James explains in the interview (below).
It would seem that no formal communication, that mat to mat will NOT be allowed, has been given to these runners.
The Soweto rules continue to state that times will be calculated on the basis of calculations of chip timing, which is contrary to the Comrades mail, currently sent only to the Maritzburg Marathon.
“This (insistence on Gun to finish time), is based on the same principle as Comrades, which has always only ever been timed from gun to finish,” said Race director Rowyn James, “I think the concerns over safety at the start (in qualifiers) is more a personal perception (by organizers and safety officers). It’s one thing to say it, and another thing to substantiate (these concerns)”
Maritzburg marathon has been the most popular Comrades qualifying marathon for a number of years, and has grown from 2000 runners three years ago, to the point where the Marathon and Half Marathon field are capped at 6000. This increase in numbers significantly changes the dynamics at the race start, says John Hall the Maritzburg Race Director.
“The growth of the sport has been substantial over the years,” said Hall, “one of the reasons we have been able to allow the increased number in recent years, is the use of mat to mat timing.
By bringing those in contention for prizes to the front, we were able to allow others to cross the start in a leisurely and controllable fashion, which still gave them the full 5 hour qualifying time.
The return to ‘Gun to finish’ will pressurize runners to stand on the start, which we fear will mean greater jostling and pushing, and thereby an increased the risk of injury”
The ruling will not simply affect the 11000 in Soweto on 5 November, but also the 8000 starters in Johnson Crane in Benoni on 28 January, and the Pick n Pay marathon in February.
Mat to mat times have been provided at all these events for the past few years.
The 10,000 plus runners who competed in September’s Cape Town marathon will also be impacted and are entitled to feel ‘cheated’ by the tardy and limited nature of Comrades notification on this matter.
Those running Cape Town for qualification purposes believed that nett time qualification would be sufficient, but the mail sent from Comrades office, (over a month after the race), would seem to have moved that goal post. Ironically at this stage, as with the Soweto entrants, the runners have yet to be informed.
Not only does it seem this internal ruling has only been communicated to one event, but according to Comrades Board Member, Isaac Ngwenya, it has yet to be discussed or passed at Board level.
“Comrades is a very responsible organization, but I must say I am hearing it for the very first time here today”, said Ngwenya. “We do have a race advisory committee and I am proud to say that Comrades is also for safety, and we will be advised by them and revert back to you.”
All road races in South Africa have to conform to the Safety in Sport Act 2010 version 2, which is the basis of concern for Maritzburg Marathon’s Safety Officer, Andre Botha.
“My concern is over the crushing. We have seen this before even in smaller races. I had to go to the ICU following a 4-year-old being crushed against the fence line,” said Botha. “In my opinion mat to mat timing needs to be considered for any event.”
Although James is adamant that the use of nett timing was only a lose arrangement with Maritzburg Marathon over the last couple of years, a Johannesburg based timing company involved in the majority of the large marathons and ultras up country claim they have been updating Comrades profiles with the nett time results for the past three or more years. They further claim that they have a letter from the Comrades office approving the practice.
As it stands it seems the change in status may turn the atmosphere at the Soweto start, the country’s single largest marathon field, from normal race anxiety to a calabash of chaos as runners fight to be close to the start line.
Ironically, The Old Mutual Two Oceans Race Director, Carol Vosloo, confirmed that Two Oceans Ultra Marathon will happily continue to accept nett times for qualification. Vosloo said that a return to Gun to Finish timing had never even been discussed and she does not see this being changed in the foreseeable future.
The situation for runners competing in the International big city marathons is even greater.
Back runners can frequently take 20-40 minutes to start after the gun, and for this reason they are normally provided with their Mat to Mat (nett time) not the gun to finish time they will now be required to submit for Comrades qualification.
James believes that the insistence on Gun to Finish time only affects a few runners in terms of the ability to qualify or not, but this overlooks the fact that it also impacts on the seeding pen for a considerable number of runners, be they borderline for seeding A down to H.
Most importantly though that view over-looks, and fails to give recognition to impact in runner attitude at the start of the event.
Predicting aspects that contribute to higher risks is an obligation and responsibility of all race organizations under the Safety in Sport Act, and it could be argued that this responsibility could be extended to decisions that impact on the safety of any events they accept as qualifiers for their own race.
This new ruling will have significant impact for some, a possible and more palatable alternative would be for Comrades to consider upgrading their adoption and acceptance of technology in line with International races as well as all the major races in South Africa.
For the safety of the runner, the good of the sport, and in terms of predictable behaviour, it is hoped that when the matter does reach the Comrades Board the current decision will be reviewed and revised.
This is one time when many runners will be hoping -The Comrades will make a turn around and there will be a turning back!!!