IT IS a painstaking process, but a course measurer must ensure he never puts a foot wrong, from start to finish, to determine the length and the course a road race must take.
Google maps is the tool commonly used nowadays to plot the path between two points, but the routes churned out by the search engine after a few finger taps on a keyboard is not always appropriate for feet to tread upon.
Sagren Moodley, 57, is counted among the few local course measurers who can be relied upon to map out the road races run in Durban and various parts of KwaZulu-Natal.
Moodley is a long time official of KZN Athletics and when this schoolteacher is not marking courses for road races, he is often seen riding the lead motorbike, fitted with a custom-made timing clock, which he built, to guide frontrunners in a race to the finish line.
Moodley was on his bike this morning, leading athletes that were running the Durban City Marathon.
Race days are thrill-a-minute affairs, with athletes pounding the streets to achieve set goals and spectators lining the route to cheer them home.
The credibility of a road race relies heavily on the behind the scenes work done by course measurers like Moodley.
Race times, especially records, only stood if the race measurement was accurate.
One of the best-known South African race measurement fiascos emerged when Matthews Temane, an ace middle and long-distance runner, was denied a world half-marathon record in 1987.
Some believed Temane’s time in the East London race was ruled out because sinister forces conspired to deny the runner, who was known for his explosive finishes.
Therefore, each time Moodley measured a race, he does so meticulously and pays attention to the details.
Initially, he measured courses by driving his car, but found it wasn’t completely accurate and had to use hard copies of maps.
“Thankfully, now, Google is helpful, but the physical measurement is more accurate because the maps may say one thing, but on the ground, the setting can be different.”
Moodley of Westville, said he preferred to measure in the early hours on weekdays because he was less likely to encounter drunk and reckless drivers.
To confirm the distance of a planned route, Moodley has to ride his bicycle with a Clane Jones Device fitted to the front wheel.
The device, which was made specifically for race measurement, was able to count each revolution of the wheel, and a tally of the revolutions determined the distance between two points.
Moodley said the best practice when measuring, was to ride his calibrated bike contraflow, from the finish to the start, along a path that athletes were likely to take when negotiating bends, which usually meant cutting across lanes on a road.
At times, motorists screamed profanities at him when he cycled, but Moodley, who has been doing measurements for 15 years, said he’s learnt to take the abuse in his stride.
On different days, the number clicks on the device, over a 1km, might vary slightly. Moodley said tyre pressure and weather conditions could affect the reading.
“I usually start by riding over a fixed 300m track, marked off on Jaco Jackson Drive (Stamford Hill). The number of clicks that get recorded while riding on the track helps me to project a figure for a kilometre on that day.”
Moodley usually sprayed a marker on the road after he measured each kilometre and also made notes on the location of markers.
“I am usually by myself when marking.
“My wife gave up on calling to check on me because the sound of the phone ringing often wakes the dogs, and they start barking.
“I’ve asked her not to do so.”
Once his measurements are completed, Moodley issued race organisers with certificates that were valid for five years.
Moodley was usually seated in the lead vehicle on race-days to guide the driver along the route, if he was not riding his motorcycle.
Liaising with metro police officials is another of his responsibilities before a race begins.
“I enjoy instructing them where to block roads and where to hold-up traffic,” he chuckled.
Previously, KZN had their own scooter, which he used to lead races, but after it ran into disrepair he bought his own bike, which he adapted, so that a digital clock could be mounted on the vehicle.
“The clock helps the front-runners to pace their run.”
He places his own distance boards along the route so that athletes are aware of the distance they have covered.
When the KZN Athletics Association invited interested people to a learnership in course measuring, about 20 years ago, Moodley responded.
Many have lost interest, but Moodley kept at it and has continuously upgraded his skills over the years.
Norrie Williamson, a veteran runner and well-known athletics personality, and Mike Rook were the two seasoned course measurers who Moodley works alongside in KZN.
Moodley, the chairman of the Newlands Athletics Club, was also an accomplished runner.
Having participated in many road races over the years he has landed a Comrades Marathon “green number”, which is given to athletes who have achieved 10 finishes.
His last Comrades was four years ago and Moodley was set to compete again, when the race would be run again in August, after the Covid-19 pandemic caused the event’s cancellation.
Moodley, who grew up in a rural part of KwaDukuza, never participated in school sport, mainly because he had to catch a bus home afterwards and he had set chores, besides, running shoes never featured in his family’s budget.
Once he began to practice as a qualified teacher, he had the means to afford running gear and his love for athletics continued to grow strong.
Aleck Skhosana, former president of Athletics South Africa, appreciated the work done by Moodley, who took up measuring during his stint as KZN Athletics’ head.
In appreciating the work done by course measurers, he recalled how Temane’s world record run in 1987 was not recognised. He doubted that inaccurate course measurement was the exact reason.
“Measuring is very complex and technical, very similar to surveying. Moodley didn’t look back once he started learning the craft.”
“Sagren has done a good job and will continue to do so. We would also like him to empower young people with the skills and knowledge he has acquired,” said Skhosana.