The Loneliness of the Long Distance Route Marker

Behind the scenes at Ultra Trail Cape Town, with route marker Stuart McConnachie and his bag of tricks.


Stuart McConnachie has been there from the beginning.

As soon as Nick Borman recruited him as a partner in creating the first Ultra Trail Cape Town, the search was on to create the perfect route and establish something special. That would entail a lot of hours on Table Mountain, knocking pins into hard ground for holes to slot the course marker flags into.

Working out how weary runners would be feeling where, and what they’d need to see so as not to go astray, and making sure other people on the mountain wouldn’t compromise the markings before the start gun in the early hours of the morning…

The logistics are simple, but scary; and the experience is quite a task to take on, year after year. But this year the UTCT team got the big news that they would be granted 24 hours for the 100km course – a major breakthrough! The event takes place on the weekend of 27/28 November this year.

Runner’s World: Did you know what you were signing up for?

Stuart McConnachie: I guess I didn’t know what I was in for, when I joined Nic. I just said, I’m in; I don’t care what I have to do, I know where we’re going with UTCT, and I’ll do what needs to be done.

That was in March, and the race was scheduled for October; and by the time event week arrived, we were spinning! We had manpower, but we hadn’t really got to a point where we knew exactly what everyone had to do.

One of my main roles was route marking, though, so we started with small sosatie-stick-size droppers – tiny, with a little… [He rummages around for an example] …hah! Here’s one. With a SanParks message on it, saying, ‘Please don’t remove’. I ended up doing about 70km of them.

RW: Did you know when you woke up that you’d be out there for that long?

SM: Well, I did it over Wednesday, Thursday, Friday… It took four days, back then.

A lot of the time was spent marking the tarred roads with chalk. Thank goodness it didn’t rain, we would have been screwed! It was trial and error, figuring things out.

Essentially we take what’s called a roofing pin, and tie it to a hammer. You’re taking it out and putting it back so many times that you want to keep them close to each other, and have as few moving pieces on you as possible. The hammer-and-pin creates the hole for your stick. In it goes, and then it’s on to the next one.

Basically, you’re squatting down, standing up and running, all day long.

RW: How many markers do you have to insert?

SM: We’ve got 1 350 markers. About 300 left, 300 right, 200 straight; and the cards, which are extremely bulky, and stick into the backs of your legs too many times during a full day!

It’s a lot, but so important – we always have a little celebration when the leaders cross the line with no incidents.

RW: You’ve developed a system, by now; but did you learn from other races too?

SM: Yes, over the years we’ve learnt a lot. While visiting Ultra Trail Mont Blanc in Chamonix, I watched, and asked them all about the course marking.

And we’ve got to a point now where we have three groups with three or four people in each, all with backpacks full of markers. We mark it in two days now, with a final check on the morning of the race, where we split the route into three sections.

On race day the forerunners start at midnight, and set out in the dark. By the time they get to the top of Platteklip (about 25km in), they look down – it’s about 4am, at that point – and they watch the start take place. And then they watch the runners winding their way through the city.

RW: Tell me something that would surprise people about the nuances of route marking.

SM: On the trail, there’s no noise or other confusion. In front of you is only a marker, or a tree, or a rock.

But coming into an aid station – it’s way more confusing. There are cars, flags, people, noise. And runners get confused. So the aid stations need a lot of attention, and we have to get into a mindset of… okay, when you’re exhausted, what do you see in front of you?

We have a good system now, where we use a whole team to mark strategically, and save using quite a few markers.

RW: What about collection, after the event?

SM: This used to be our worst part of the event. But we use the sweepers, on race day, and just have dump sites for the flags.

The vibe is great though; and they love to see the back of the race unfold, with the cut-off times and all the drama. 

READ MORE ON: races ultra ultra trail ultra-trail cape town

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