Tony is made to measure, sometimes with a police escort

Peterborough’s road runners are hoping for a return to racing later this year. As ever, they will be dependent on the hard work, diligence and bicycle maintainance skills of that often overlooked but crucial ingredient of every race, the course measurer.

Monday, 1st March 2021, 9:59 am
Tony King.

There are only 50 course measurers in the country, and in Tony King we have one of the best and most experienced of them all living here in Peterborough.

Longthorpe-based King is a very fit 81 year-old and has been measuring courses for 35 years. The former manager at Pearl Assurance took the job on in the 1980s at a time when his employers were the leading athletics sponsors in the country.

It all began at a pre-race dinner for the Pearl sponsored Great North Run in 1984 when King found himself sitting next to London Marathon co-founder John Disley. Disley was in charge of race measurement in Britain at the time and was trying to improve the standards.

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“In 1985 a training course was set up at Crystal Palace for potential measurers” recalls King.

“It was made clear that the task required people who were reasonably fit, had a bit of a brain for number crunching, owned a bicycle and did not mind working at sometimes very unsociable hours.”

King came through the course with flying colours and first hit the road in 1986. He has been busy ever since, and despite now being in his eighties is showing no signs of curtailing his activities. King has measured in the region of 500 routes varying in distance from 3km to 100 miles. Silverstone and Mallory Park motor racing circuits are amongst the more unusual places he’s he’s worked, and closer to home he has measured at RAF Wittering and private college gardens in Cambridge. Even a trip to the other side of the world can turn into a busman’s holiday for King and he once helped measure a half marathon route in Australia while on holiday.

Explaining how it’s all done King said “The process is carried out on a bicycle fitted with a front wheel meter known as a Jones Counter. Many race directors use a surveyor’s wheel to set the route up before requesting a measurer to fine tune it.

“The Jones Counter is calibrated each time a course needs measuring, and in Peterborough my calibration course is the Towpath of the rowing lake at Thorpe Meadows.

“At either end of the Towpath are marks exactly one km apart and are the most accurately measured km in Peterborough. “They were set up as part of a military exercise involving the Army Logistics Corps who used to be based at Waterbeach Barracks. They spent a day at Thorpe Meadows with their laser and satellite measuring equipment to set the distance according to International Athletics Guidelines.

“Currently there is a lot of talk about using satellite and laser measuring technology to try and improve course accuracy even more, but such equipment is very expensive to use and the 2020 London Marathon multi-lap route cost in excess of £10,000 to be measured in this way.

“Many runners use Garmin equipment to check their distances, but although getting better some of that equipment is still prone to error especially where a satellite signal is weak.”

Out of necessity a lot of the measuring is done at night on relatively traffic-free roads, sometimes with a police escort. The busy Peterborough city centre section of the Great Eastern run route is generally shut when measuring is taking place.

Such an unusual pursuit is bound to bring with it a few mishaps as King remembers: “I once cycled into a huge trench in the middle of the road when I was distracted by a dog who was paying rather too much attention to my right ankle. On one course in London I had to cycle right through Soho, and at 2am the last thing ladies of the night expect to see is a man arriving on a bike.”

Measurers are graded according to their experience and ability with there being three levels of skill grades.

King is a level one measurer, and can measure a course for any event including International and Olympic standards. A beginner will be at Grade three and entitled to measure local and Club events. Peterborough is home to three qualified measurers, and all are members of Werrington Joggers. Club chairman Tim Cook and Peterborough 5km Grand Prix organiser Phil Lloyd are both qualified.

The average age of measurers is not young and the organisation are always on the lookout for new recruits. Information can be found at coursemeasurement.org.uk.