01 April 2015, 7am
In New York back in 1981, where I first saw it, it was a line painted along the centre of the roads used for the Marathon. It did not approximate to the “shortest possible route” (SPR) that a runner could take, which was already a well-established concept governing the way in which marathon courses were measured. Its purpose seemed to be simply to declare that ‘the Marathon comes down this road’. As such it fulfilled a useful role in consciousness-raising and public relations, but not a lot more.
The Blue line was an idea that the New York City Marathon race founder Fred Lebow took away from the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Allan Steinfeld, who succeeded Fred as race director, remembers: “The Department of Transportation didn’t have blue paint so we went to a paint company who created ‘Marathon Blue’ paint for them, which we paid for… The reason the line did not follow the SPR was that the Department of Transportation were concerned that at night drivers might [confuse it] with lines indicting traffic lanes and possibly cause accidents. It had been my intention [for the blue line] to follow the SPR.”
London Marathon first started to put down a blue line in 1985, using the highway marking company Wilson and Scott. This new application was a learning exercise for all concerned. The equipment used — a hand-pushed trolley bearing a barrel of paint — was more like that used for marking football fields than highways. Except football fields are usually flat. I was in the first of four gangs, each covering around 10km of the course and the abrupt downhill between 4–5km meant we had to restrain the machine from running away from us. By contrast the uphill sections involved a lot of hard pushing.
This blue line was intended to indicate the shortest route to runners “within the width of road available to them”, and that is how it has since become generally understood. IAAF rules now specify that “In all [World Athletics Series competitions] and where possible in [Area, regional and group competitions] the measurement line should be marked along the course in a distinctive colour that cannot be mistaken for other markings.”
But this can lead to problems: sometimes the road cannot be used to its full width, and runners may have to be directed to one side or the other. The blue line must take this into account, but it is painted before cones, barriers and tape are in place.
On that first exercise in London we were so intent on controlling the runaway paint trolley that we forgot that runners would be funnelled in this way. We started to paint a line that would have had runners from one of the three different starts running into the back of those departing from another. Any mistake like this involves going back and either erasing or painting over the part of the line marked in error and then re-painting the line along the correct route. In a celebrated incident prior to the 2000 Sydney Olympics pranksters did just this in order to divert the blue line through the doors of a pub, the Doncaster Hotel on Anzac Parade, at around 15km.
At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics the blue line was painted correctly but a water station was set up at the side of the road instead of on the pavement. If runners had followed the blue line they would have bumped into the tables. They would of course have avoided them but anything placed on the blue line itself looks out of place and, especially in TV coverage, faintly ridiculous. To avoid this the London Marathon blue line is slightly ‘tweaked’ in a couple of places to avoid it being directed through ‘mist stations’ (another Marathon neologism). If runners wish to take drinks or run under the cooling shower spray they should have to slightly depart from the blue line to do so.
White lines are standard road markings and yellow lines have achieved notoriety as indicators of parking prohibitions. But why not green? In fact the first such Marathon line was green, and it was used for the Melbourne Olympic Marathon in 1956. Parts of it remained visible for more than 25 years.
On p.271 of the official report of the 1956 Games it was claimed that: “An innovation which greatly assisted competitors in the road events, both in training and competition, was the painting on the road of a bright green broken line over the whole of the route. This ensured that they never got ‘off course’. It overcame language difficulties when training, for competitors did not need to ask directions as to the route.” And somewhat more contentiously that: “It also permitted accurate measurement.”
The 2000 Sydney Olympic Games Road Events Manager, Dave Cundy, was well aware of the original green line in Melbourne, and resolved to do better in blue:
“SOCOG went out to tender [but] a Melbourne marathon runner owned a road marking company called Zaganite Industries Pty Ltd: He wanted the job so much that he underquoted to make sure he won the tender. We first painted a dotted white line, as close as possible to the SPR. He was punctilious: he calculated exactly where the blue line should cross from one lane to the next in order to mark the diagonal tracking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge (rather than doing it by eye, as we did for the measurement).
“We then smothered the dotted line with the ‘marathon blue’ thermoplastic paint (ref.280700 299C). You could, and still can, feel the blue line under your feet when you run on it.
“The [Zaganite] owner said: ‘that line will last for 40 years’. Yes, but traffic authorities removed the diagonals for fear that the line would confuse motorists and cause accidents. The line is still obvious where it has not been removed. The ‘end of the line’, on Olympic Boulevard, was resurfaced a year or two ago and they replaced it — but only in blue road paint and not the original thermoplastic. Removing thermoplastic isn’t easy and you could still see a grey outline across the Harbour Bridge until they resurfaced it a couple of years ago.
“Crushed glass was used in the paint mix to ensure the line was non-slip. [Someone] fell off their bike in Centennial Park and wanted to sue SOCOG. That we had specifically put the crushed glass in to make it “non-slip” was enough to defuse that one.
“I’m a little biased but I credit the blue line with changing the mood towards the Olympics in Sydney. Almost overnight people started talking about this blue line, and they realised the Games were just around the corner, and they could all be involved.”
More exotic colours have been proposed and occasionally used. In 2000 the inaugural Milano City Marathon used a pink line in recognition of their title sponsor, the Gazzetta della Sporte newspaper, which is printed on pink paper. At the 2002 Commonwealth Games Marathon in Manchester, for similar reasons, a purple line was first proposed in acknowledgment of Cadbury’s Chocolate (which is wrapped in purple foil). Then a yellow line to mirror the pages of the Manchester Evening News, the Games’ media partner. In the end no line was painted at all, and that lead to a particular problem during the women’s marathon.
Something for everyone
The blue line has public relations value, and shows the shortest possible route to runners. It also indicates to the vehicles leading the race on which side of the road runners — particularly the leading runners — will likely be running. So the lead vehicle, bearing a clock, can reinforce the ’blue line’ message by driving along it; any media vehicle can obtain best positioning for photographers by being off to one side of the line or the other; and TV bikes can use the line as an indicator as to when it is best for them to switch position in order to avoid being trapped on the kerb at corners, and impeding the runners.
In Manchester, there being no painted line of any colour, TV bikes made decisions without the help of road markings and runners followed them like lemmings. The women’s lead pack took a corner wide and crossed the central divider before being waved back on course. Luckily, the only damage done was a few extra metres run.
To remove or not to remove?
Despite the “distinctive colour” required city authorities are nervous about allowing blue lines to remain marked on their streets for much longer than the duration of the marathon. Urban myths abound of drivers ‘locking on’ to the blue line as if it were a set of tram tracks, including stories of drivers at the time of the Sydney Olympics attempting to plough a diagonal course across the Harbour Bridge.
London Marathon has always had the line removed, after the passage of the last runner, as part of the clean-up operation. Removal takes longer than laying it down as it is done at walking pace using high-pressure hoses containing a solvent. Doing this more than doubles the cost. For a while a self-contained unit was hauled along the line, like a motorised metal caterpillar, to remove the paint but the city authorities became concerned about the wear and tear this caused to the road surface ,
If the authorities allow the line to be ‘licked off’ the road over an extended period by the normal passage of traffic then the cost of removing the line can be saved. But in Berlin, for example, this has left several years’ lines remaining visible next to each other along certain lesser-used parts of the course.
Technology has moved on since we pushed the paint trolley back in 1985. Very soon after that initial effort a unit was attached to the back of an open-back pickup truck and paint was released through a nozzle (or three nozzles, to paint three thinner parallel lines, when adidas became the official sporting goods supplier). At first the paint was released manually but soon a computerised unit was attached and the release mechanism could be programmed to deliver, for example, 1m lengths of painted line with a 4.5m gap between them when travelling at any speed. This is the specification we also used for the London 2012 Olympic Games Marathons, but as a single 10cm wide line rather than the three thinner parallel lines.
Putting the paint unit on the back of a pickup means that it is likely to be offset at corners by as much as 1.5m. The rule for measurement is that the measurer takes a line offset only 30cm from the kerb — so at every right angle turn the blue line is likely to exceed the measured route by 1.9m and at U-turns by 3.8m. This is of little consequence and allowing the blue line to be less “tight” around corners than the measured line is preferred practice. It can reduce bunching on turns, but the main benefit is just that it looks better — even if in the London Marathon, for example, it could end up being about 70m longer than the measured line.
There are other ways to lay a blue line, usually more makeshift and a lot cheaper. At the 2006 IAAF World Road Running Championships held over 20km in Debrecen, Hungary, the course was a 5km lap through the ‘Great Forest’. The authorities did not want any non-official paint on their scenic roads so we spent a day with a string line and rolls of blue tape, cutting 1m lengths and sticking them to the road surface lined up at 5m intervals. For the 2012 Olympics we were on hands and knees for several hours on race morning filling in the gaps where paint was not allowed (such as on the cobbles in front of St Paul’s Cathedral) by sticking down 1m lengths of blue tape. Where the tape has not been available but paint tolerated I have done a similar thing with paint and stencils.
Continuous or discontinuous?
The IAAF rule cited was previously interpreted as requiring the marking to be a continuous line but the major marathons that popularised the blue line were never so prescriptive. London, Berlin, Prague and other marathons have always used discontinuous or ‘broken’ lines. The Athens Olympic Games Marathon course of 2004 was marked with a continuous line but over such a difficult route, where the road height and direction were so frequently changing, it was difficult to hold to a constant trajectory. Any small adjustments then show up on long camera shots only too obviously. A broken line greatly reduces the visibility of such imperfections.
To this end, at the IAAF World Championships in Helsinki in 2005, we sought official permission from the responsible IAAF Technical Delegate for a broken blue line. In the end it was painted as a continuous line, but the point was established (and made a difficult task somewhat easier the following year in Debrecen).
But why go to all this trouble and expense? At most marathons there is probably no call for a blue line. In terms of assisting runners to find their way around the course it should be an additional indicator. But where barriers, cones, tape — and even course marshals — are missing, as at one U-turn in the Dubai Marathon this year (see diagram, right), it could have made all the difference.
Thanks to the following who supplied information for this article: Trevor Vincent, gold medallist in the steeplechase at the 1962 Commonwealth Games, Len Johnson, Australian athletics writer; Steve Scott, Wilson & Scott (Highways) Ltd; Dave Cundy, Road Events Manager Sydney 2000.
Zaganite industries: http://www.roadsonline.com.au/index.php?guide&s=Z&gid=1793
Wilson & Scott (Highways) Ltd: www.wilsonandscott.co.uk
Melbourne Green Line: https://www.youtube.com/
David E. Martin, Roger W. H. Gynn, “The Olympic Marathon”, Human Kinetics (Champaign), 2000. ISBN 978-0880119696