Some Thoughts On Crowd Control

There have been lots of debate (see here) regarding the crowd issue in the recent Penang Bridge Marathon. These exchanges are healthy and should be encouraged, provided they take a proactive stance and no personal jabs. I’d like to add my personal take.

Established marathons employ different ways to counter crowd. They can be:
1) limiting the number of entries
2) stagger start
3) different start/end points
4) enforcement

In the context of the recent PBM, from what I can see, there wasn’t any complains pertaining to the actual start, except the long-standing issue of entry to the USM gate, which is a classic case of the organizers unwilling to sit down and reengineer the registration process. As for runners being caught by the road closures, I think this is not the case of the organizers erring but the lack of preps on the part the runners in finding out about the road closures and getting there earlier.

So let’s take a look at the above 4 crowd countermeasures.

1) Limiting the number of entries
This should be considered by the PBM organizers. Major
marathons have this restriction enforced. NYC Marathon cap their entries at around 40,000, Boston via stringent qualifying times and 31,000 or so, Singapore at 22,000… Those that have qualifying times are more elite in nature and these are steeped in history and tradition and nearly as glamorous as the Olympics Marathon. So this is a viable option for Penang as well – the capping part, and not the qualifying part.

2) Stagger Start
I don’t think this is an issue since the marathoners set
off at an insane 3am, half at 4:30am, followed by the rest. Having said that, the organizers need to rethink the gate entry.

3) Different start/end points
NYC marathon with 40,000 participants, have runners segregated not only by Pace Groups but also starting locations. How many start points? Not 2 but 3! The runners are differentiated by bib colours. They’re only merged at around the 10K mark. The logistics and thought-process that went into the planning are stupendous and can only mean that these guys are passionate and take pride in what they do. For PBM,
there wasn’t any starting problems, nor will it ever reach the numbers of the Big 5 Marathons (NYC, Boston, Chicago, Berlin, London) so let’s look at the finishing problems.

What they could’ve have done would be to let the marathoners continue along the coastal road past the marine police building. Then they can take the same loop around RECSAM back to the starting line. To reduce the distance to compensate the extra run, they don’t have to run until Seagate but instead U-turn around the Queensbay Mall area (either just cut across the divider or use a ramp). Since the main road is already closed both ways, they should make use of it. The marathon finish will be the same spot as the start. The rest can finish on the other side of the road but not on the field. The field is strictly for crowd holding and relaxing. Erect 1 gantry for marathon finish and 1 for 21K and below. No budget for gantries? Use banners then.

In the case if NYC marathon, Central Park is definitely more than adequate to handle the crowd. For a fantastic NYC Marathon photo report see here

Which brings me to the last point below.

4) Enforcement
This is where all the volunteer and uniform bodies come
into play, ensuring the runners are channeled into the correct lanes, don’t cut queue at the finish gantry, don’t block the gates, continue walking towards the field. Take the crowd and channel them quickly to the field. The uniform persons should also enforce queues at the refreshment stations (which should have been more strategically placed). I don’t see any semblence of crowd control in Penang. Neither were there barricades, A-boards, etc…

There are many ways to make a runner feel welcomed at a roadrace. While PBM was tied in with the VMY2007, there was hardly anything that linked it to the tourism extravaganza. In fact I heard news that the local residents there were not very supportive and because of that the marathon category will be scrapped next year. In NYC, over 2 million supporters, majority of them residents, line up the route to cheer the runners. Many run NYC not to do their best times but to EXPERIENCE the city. That single race day was also regarded as the best way to see NYC on foot. Regardless of the multi-ethnicity and notoriety of NYC, that few days in November are when everyone comes together (talk about running bringing people together!). NYC need not channel advertising money into tourism to bring people in. The marathon can do the job.

Penang has so much more potential to draw loyal runners but their repeated mistakes combined with the evident lack of experience (at least they should seek experience voices out there) make KLIM look like a 6-star event. Which is really a shame. Before you say that if I’m complaining so much, I might as well don’t run PBM and just travel to overseas races. But that would be missing the point. Not everyone can afford to participate in overseas races. The point I’m trying to make here is not to ridicule the organizers and most certainly not trumpeting the notion that West is best. We can certainly do as well, if not better. We live here and if we don’t seek to improve – in the case of this article, to generate awareness and offer suggestions – then what’s the point of just complaining?

We really need to compile these valuable feedback and send to the organizers be they in Penang, KL or Ipoh, copy The Sun, Footloose and high traffic web community like Do what we can to better things because like it or not, we live here in this country and if the organizers are not willing to change, we runners have to take up the role as agents of change. If you think this article serves a purpose, please feel free to also post it on your blogs.

Some other articles on the NYC marathon: Chip timing A runner’s experience Spectator’s Guide NYC Marathon Official Site

Published: July 3rd, 2007