For 243 gruelling kilometres each year, more than a thousand keen sportspeople race across the width of the South Island of New Zealand from Kumara Beach on the Tasman Sea to Sumner Beach on the Pacific Ocean.
This year, for what’s believed to be the first time ever in such a multi-sport event, a device used to radio-track animals was pinned to 20 of the competitors who cycled 140 kilometres, ran 36 kilometres and then kayaked 67 kilometres. Top competitors take ten and three quarter hours to cover the 243 kilometres while the slowest time every recorded was twenty-four and a half hours.
The miniaturised Global Positioning System (GPS) trackers produced by New Zealand company Sirtrack are programmed to take readings of the wearer’s latitude and longitude, which when downloaded give precise times, locations, and speeds.
“What they wanted was the course that the competitors ran,” says Rowan Calder, spokesman for Sirtrack, a subsidiary of public research institution Landcare Research.
The information from the trackers will be used by a New Zealand television production company Leggework for a documentary on this year’s inaugural World Teams Challenge race, tracking the competitors’ routes over the 243 kilometres.
This year the data from the competitors were logged onto memory boards as the trackers checked the competitors’ positions every five minutes. “At the end of the race what they do is download all the memory and graph it on a map and join the dots and it basically gives a route that they took,” Mr Calder said. That data will then be spliced into the live footage of the teams’ event.
Race director Robin Judkins said the unit used by competitors had to be waterproof and able to withstand severe movement. “We’ve been searching for just this equipment for some time, and to be able to source it within New Zealand is fantastic,” he said.
Gordon Legge, the managing director of the television production company producing the film, says to his knowledge GPS coordinates have not been used in endurance sports graphics before. “I credit Sirtrack’s ‘can-do’ attitude for getting the project to this stage.”
For Sirtrack, there were slightly different pressure from the usual problems of tracking wildlife. In that instance, researchers prefer longevity for the tracking device, and so limit the size of the battery and the number of times during a day that the position of the animal is checked. However, while batteries had to be light for the coast-to-coast athletes, the short duration of the race meant that their position could be checked every five minutes.
This is the first time Sirtrack’s GPS trackers have been used with humans, but Rowan Calder says the units have provide very versatile. “They weigh just 150 grams, and are sewn discreetly into the competitors’ race bibs.”
And next year there may be even more ‘bugged’ competitors. “We will look at extending the GPS coverage first to all the competitors in the one-day event, and then to competitors in the two-day event,” says Judkins.
In the inaugural World Teams Challenge, Australia was first, Sweden second and South Africa third.