The Soapbox: Should GPS Be Mandatory in Marathon Racing?

Words by Chris Southwood | Images by Flow

When bogans get involved the results are rarely good. A few months ago, the Brownie Points Burner 80km race, held at Taree, was thrown into disarray after local idiots decided to remove course markings. End result, lots of lost riders, some of whom ended up running out of water. It could’ve been a very bad day.

But even when markings aren’t stolen or altered, the potential for riders to go missing during a marathon race is always a worry for event organisers. Plenty can go wrong when there’s 100km of dirt to be navigated; when the red mist of racing descends, tired brains start missing things, or riders just simply follow each other like sheep, it’s easy to see how a rider can quickly find themselves five kay down the wrong fireroad and unsure of the best way out. In some instances, the results can be life threatening (take the 2012 Crocodile Trophy for example, when riders found themselves heading towards bush fires!).

Which leads me to ponder the question: should GPS units be mandatory during marathon races?

Obviously there are some barriers and the potential (and consequence) of getting lost is greater at some events that others. But with the costs of GPS units dropping rapidly, increasing numbers of riders are already using these devices to keep an eye on their progress, heart rate, power output or to manage their nutrition. With all this technology increasing utilised and increasingly more accessible, it does seem a little incongruent that we rely solely on bits of corflute nailed to a tree to make sure we don’t get lost!

There are plenty of advantages. Event organisers could upload a GPS file of the course ahead of race day, allowing racers to have a map right in front of their noses (on devices that have this capability); if a racer pulls this pin they can easily navigate their way back to the event centre; if a rider is badly injured, calling in help is a matter of simply providing the coordinates on the device and the heli is on the way. Ostensibly GPS units could even negate the need for expensive timing equipment. Perhaps this could lead to lower entry costs, offsetting the costs of buying the GPS unit itself.

On the flipside, mountain bike racing is already expensive enough as it is without imposing additional equipment costs on riders. Plus a GPS is no guarantee that riders still will not go a-wandering. It may be that this suggestion is one step too far towards the nanny state, but I do think it’s worthy of consideration.