The Great North Run (A Pilot's Perspective).
Personally, I've always had an affinity for the Great North Run. In the 80s, I took a couple of seasons out from road cycle racing and instead dabbled in triathlon. One thing led to another and before long I was taking part in the Great North Run (from 1987-1990). At that time, it was a much smaller event. I don't think it was even televised back then.
Today however, it's a different story. Over 50,000 runners now compete and it's now televised live on BBC1 (and around the world) with a highlights package airing the same evening. In fact for me, having solely covered cycle racing from the early nineties (the Milk Race, the Nissan Tour of Ireland & Britain, the Tour de Langkawi and several of the European Classics), the Great North Run was the first running race I'd piloted for in the late nineties. Since then it's always had a special place in my heart.
So, last Friday, as I turned the MotoCam van, fully loaded with four of the latest BMW C-Evolutions into the BBC N.E. headquarters at Fenham (just up from St. James' Park) it was with a flutter of excitement. Excitement, still after years of covering this event and even though we know exactly what will happen.
Because, the order of events, always goes something like this: I arrive alone with the motos on Friday morning, hand them over to Mike at Timeline TV who then spends the rest of the day rigging them with RF (Radio Frequency) equipment. This prepares the motorcycles to beam the pictures from the cameras up to an aeroplane circling overhead and back down to the outside broadcast "nerve centre" situated in a large multi-million pound truck on the finish line.
One camera operator then arrives on the Friday afternoon and we take one of the rigged bikes down to the Quayside in Newcastle to test the RF links for the Newcastle City Games which takes place on the Saturday before the Great North Run. Once all the production and technical staff are happy with the pictures coming from the bike, we're cleared for the hotel - the fabulous Hilton under the Tyne Bridge at Gateshead. This is also event headquarters where we are always bumping into celebrities taking part in the race.
Next morning, bright and early, we head back out to Fenham to collect the one bike where we take it down to the Quayside for more testing prior to shooting the five short 500 metre and one mile races that will take place that afternoon. We need to test the RF over the whole one mile course from Millennium Bridge to the finish on the other side of the Tyne at the Baltic Flour Mill. But it's awkward as the whole Quayside area is packed with spectators and we're left having to thread the motorcycle through it all to complete our test. It's the only time we wish the C-Evolutions made some noise, this way people would hear it and clear the way more readily!
The rest of the City Games goes without hitch. Over the years, Timeline TV has honed its equipment. This year, we encountered no picture break up whatsoever, despite the fact that the course frequently diverted away from the Quayside and behind buildings.
The runners always surprise me though with their turn of pace. We need to be fairly close at the start as we are the only camera covering it. When the gun goes these world class athletes are up to speed in a heartbeat. Rapid acceleration - but no match for the instant throttle response of the fully electric BMW C-Evolution.
Literally, the moment the last race finishes, we need to be straight on our way, this time back to Town Moor, the starting point for tomorrow's race and where Mike and the technical team are waiting to test the RF links for Sunday's Great North Run. When we arrive, we meet the rest of the moto camera crews for the first time. While we've been shooting the City Games, they've arrived and collected the other three C-Evolutions and they're waiting with Mike for the start of the test.
Pleasantries exchanged, Mike announces that the RF receiver / sender aeroplane is circling overhead and we're cleared for the test. Once we're connected through our Autocom headsets, we are not only in touch with each other but we are able to communicate back to the technical truck should we have any issues. Most importantly though, we also have a live feed from the OB truck on the finish line. On this feed, we are able to hear everything that's going on in there. At the front of the communication is Matthew, the director who's calling the shots and is speaking and giving instruction to all four motos (along with fixed cameras and the helicopter which will cover the race using a highly stabilised camera in the air). On the day of the race, we will also hear Steve Cram's commentary in the background. This helps us to position the moto and the camera shot to the athlete he may be talking about.
Matthew sends the four motos out at ten minute intervals from the start at Town Moor and out to the finish at South Shields. On the test, good prep helps. Certainly us old hands could cover the route virtually blindfold. However newer members of the team have downloaded GPX files of the route and, with no directional markers along the way and in heavy Saturday afternoon traffic, they use the files on their navigation devices to find the route for tomorrow. Certainly tomorrow on closed roads and with barriers in place over the majority of the route, this journey will be entirely different.
The test goes without hitch and at the finish Matthew calls us into the truck to make sure that we're all happy and to explain to the camera ops how he will use graphics on tomorrow's race. Then we're free to go return to Fenham where we give the motos a wipe over, recharge them and connect the auxiliary batteries that power the RF to trickle chargers.
In the morning, we decide that Mike must be mellowing in his old age; In the past he has had us all standing in a cold field near the start while the sun is still coming up. This time, he relents giving us a much more relaxed call time of 7.30 am. It's still early given that the first race - the wheelchairs - doesn't go off until 10.10 am. However television is like that. Equipment needs to be tested and then tested again. It's a live broadcast and nothing should ever be left to chance.
We spend the time draining the production crew's tea urn sat under a small tent and talking to Town Moor's permanent residents, a herd of young heifers who seem particularly interested in BMW's latest electric vehicle technology. Banter in the crew however makes the hours go quickly and before long Moto 4 is called and readied. This motorcycle will take the wheelchair race almost to the finish where it will double back along the course, through the women's field and back to take up position as the elite men's follow bike.
Almost immediately afterwards Motos 1 and 2 are called. They will film as lead and follow to the women's race which goes off just five minutes after the wheelchairs. As I watch them leave the field and begin to pick their way through the sea of spectators and out to the start line, I always get the feeling that I've been left. As Moto 3, camera op Lawrence and I will need to wait alone for another thirty minutes before we are called for the start of the men's race. It's an odd feeling when the other three bikes are out on the course working whilst we're left waiting.
Time goes fast however and soon we're picking our way down the slip road, through the barriers and onto the dual carriageway where the race will start. We weave past the timing car and the truck load of stills photographers that travel just in front of the race and turn the moto around some fifty or so metres in front of the start line. As I do so, I see the announcer introducing the star runners and notice Brendan Foster who is normally in the commentary box, stood in the start gantry waiting to set the race off. Soon, in my intercom I hear Matthew cut from the free roaming camera covering the runner introductions and onto the fixed camera situated on the bridge above our heads - the start is imminent.
As the gun goes, we roll out relaxed and steady. Our shots will become important as the race develops but for now Matthew has a selection of fixed and helicopter shots to go to. In fact with what is happening in the final stages of the wheelchair race and with the women's race developing elsewhere on the course, Matthew doesn't come to us (when we see our live "on-air" tally lights go on the dashboard of the bike) until mile 3.
The rest of the race goes butter smooth. The wide, straight course always makes for great steady filming and for the first time this year, we're experimenting with a centrally mounted RF antennae mast. This takes it out of the camera operator's view completely giving Lawrence a field of view of almost 270 degrees. This means that I am able to freely move the moto from left to right in front of the field of competitors without having to worry about the mast getting in the way of the lens. The smooth movement of the moto from left to right and back again makes for more dynamic shots on the move. When home later, I watch the event back on BBC iPlayer and notice the difference.
Later, as the race develops with the head of field breaking up to four runners, then three, then just Mo Farrah and the New Zealander Jake Robertson, we provide more and more live shots. Eventually as Farrah prepares to attack in the last four hundred metres along the South Shields seafront, Matthew takes a final shot from the moto and clears us by pulling us over. A five minute wait for the key runners to finish and that's it -we're now good to go!
The four motorcycle camera crews reconvene through the finish line and we head back along a mixture of public roads and closed ones to Fenham where Mike is waiting to de-rig. In fact by the time Matthew takes his final camera shots and the credits begin to roll on BBC 1, we've de-rigged, loaded the motos into the van and are now heading down the A1 for some much needed lunch courtesy of Washington services. All in a weekend's work and a thoroughly enjoyable one at that. We all know that we are lucky to do this job!