When you’re watching the London 2012 marathon this summer, spare a moment to applaud Hugh Jones. Hugh has measured the route dozens of times over the last two years to make sure it’s as accurate as possible.
Unsurprisingly, Hugh is one of the world’s leading IAAF course measurers. He has measured the London Marathon since 2002 and, incurring our envy, rides in the front vehicle monitoring the race line.
He has measured more than 300 courses over his career, averaging 15,720 miles, all on his trusty bike. Hugh isn’t just a stickler for race accuracy however, he’s also a talented runner with some big wins under his belt. In 1982 he triumphed in the London Marathon and he also tasted victory in the Oslo and Stockholm Marathon.
Read our fascinating interview to discover how he measures routes, his verdict on GPS, his Olympic favourites and top races across the globe.
How do you measure race routes?
On a bike with a mechanical counter in the front fork of the wheel, which records numbers. The first thing you have to do is correlate those numbers with distance on the ground. The way you find the distance is by measuring it with a steel tape measure or laser or whatever equipment you have, on a long straight piece of tarmac, preferably a bike path where you don’t get too much traffic. You start at one end with a number, then you ride to the other end and have another number, then the difference corresponds to that distance. You divide the number by the distance in metres to get a conversion factor. Once you have that conversion factor you can convert any distance into metres very easily.
How can you make sure the measurements are accurate?
There is no such thing as an exact measurement. There is always error in the method, the key is to know how much error. After lots of practice, we know, used by a reasonably proficient, qualified person, the error is one part per thousand. For every kilometre, there could be an error of plus or minus one metre. So we take one metre for every kilometer and we add it on as a kind of buffer to absorb the error. So what we’re actually saying is, we don’t know how long exactly this course is but we do know it’s not less than the required distance. We also know that it’s not more than – well it’s actually within the margins of two per cent more. In a 10K race we can guarantee the race is between 10K and 20 metres more than that.
How accurate is GPS compared to your methods?
It’s hopeless, absolutely hopeless. It’s pretty good if you’re in the North Pole or Sahara desert, but if you’re in Canary Wharf the signals go completely haywire. We measured a change to the London Marathon course along the North Collonade, with the GPS strapped to the handlebars of a fellow measurer’s bike. When he got home and he downloaded the trace it looked like a postman’s route! It looked like he was crossing over the road, diving into the Bank of America, coming back, and going in a complete zigzag. We do get results through which show what we know is a mile is recorded as something more than 1.25 miles.
How many times have you measured the Olympic route?
Oh dozens of times, it changes every week slightly and it will continue to change. There are small roadworks specifically for the Games that will need to be taken into account. Even after we’ve done the official measurement, there will probably be small changes and we’ve got to remeasure those particular sections.
We’ll be doing the official measurement in early June. That will be a little different, as it’s so high profile we’ll have a police escort. When I’ve measured it previously I haven’t had police protection. I just go in the middle of the night and it’s quite interesting, you find at 5am it’s still very busy in Trafalgar Square. We’re likely to be doing the official measurement on a weekday morning at around 3am.
What would be the best tactical way to run the Olympic marathon?
It’s one small lap and three large laps. The small lap around Embankment, Bird Cage and the Mall, 2.2 miles roughly. The large lap is around eight miles and it goes along Embankment, around St Paul’s, it ducks in and out of Guildhall Yard through Leadenhall market and turns around on Tower Hill. There are certain parts of the course that are very twisting and have very short sight lines. I would imagine if you want to make a break, you’ll make it on the third lap and you’ll probably do it as you approach lots of twists and turns where you can get out of sight fairly quickly.
Which runners are you most looking forward to watching in the London 2012 marathon?
I would like to see Mary Keitany win the women’s marathon, I think it’s asking just a bit too much of Paula. It’s certainly possible Paula has an outside chance of a medal, but I think gold is beyond her grasp this time. I can’t think of any man that stands out, given that Geoffrey Mutai and Patrick Mackau, the fastest in the world, haven’t qualified.
In both races though, I won’t be watching the competition too much. I’ll be in the lead vehicle and it’ll be my job to ensure they get round the course as it was measured and to make sure there’s no interference to the course lines by the TV cameras or that kind of thing. I’ll be looking forward as much as backwards.
You had a very long and successful running career, what was the highlight?
Objectively, you might say winning the London Marathon. Personally, the highlight was probably the realisation that yes, I had it. That happened a year earlier when I won the Rugby Marathon by three minutes on a tough course. I knew then that I had what it took to be a marathon runner and I had a good few years ahead of me.
What was it like winning the London Marathon in 1982?
It was a long time ago but I remember how straightforward it was. I don’t take things for granted, but by the time I was half a mile into the race, I’d got my nose ahead and no one seemed to be to keen to take me on. By three miles I was 100m clear and it just went on like that. I eventually won by close to a kilometer, around three minutes.
You measured and competed in lots of courses. Which races have really stood out?
Having won Stockholm twice I’ve got to say there is a special feeling for that marathon. Aside from that, I ran the Saharan Marathon through the refugee camps in Western Algeria through the Saharawi people. You go there, you stay in the camp with the families and it’s a very rounded experience. I found it amazing running using distant landmarks to navigate your bearings through this vast emptiness, where it’s just you, the earth and the sky. It made a profound impression on me.
How can organisers make sure their races are accurately measured?
Just go to www.coursemeasurement.org.uk and you’ll find out all about it. There are more than 80 measurers around the UK and one of them is bound to be close by. They perform a service and it’s the only acceptable way to measure road races.
Schweppes Abbey Well Water, the official water of the London 2012 Games, has chosen Hugh as one of its official Unsung Heroes of London 2012. Comedian Steve Williams visited Hugh to give him the good news, and have a go himself. You can watch him in action here: http://www.youtube.com/abbeywellwater