Confessions from a Marathon Sweeper Bus

loading A PBIM2019 sweeper bus passing the midspan of Penang Bridge.

FOR THE CREW of the sweeper buses during the Penang Bridge International Marathon (PBIM) last November, work starts a good three hours before flag-off. Stationed outside The Light Waterfront the night before the race, four Rapid Penang buses stand at the ready while a group of young volunteers – two to a bus – are carefully briefed. The role of a sweeper bus is simple: to collect runners who are too injured or fatigued to complete the course within a stipulated time for the bridge and roads to be reopened to vehicular traffic.

Execution, however, depends on varying factors. Weather is arguably the biggest determinant, as rain greatly increases the number of non-finishers. In cases of severely wet weather, organisers sometimes call in extra sweeper buses or order more rounds for those already on duty. The compassion of the crew who deals with a host of broken marathon dreams and the goodwill of runners also come together to determine a successful clearing of the roads. But before all that, the buses need to cross the Penang Bridge first.

To the Toll Gate

Malaysian Red Crescent Society senior volunteer Cheong Jia Jian (far right), 22, setting up with his team at Water Station 5.

As the buses wait, people begin arriving at the turnoff to The Light Waterfront along the Tun Dr. Lim Chong Eu Expressway. Volunteer Nazihah Mohd Noor, 35, is one of the first to arrive. One can generally tell how experienced volunteers are by the size of their bags, with first-timers lugging heavy rucksacks; and in the case of this writer, a sleeping bag. Sporting a sling pouch about the size of a pencil case, Nazihah, who hails from Kulim and works with the Penang Island City Council as a chief clerk, reveals that it is her third year helping out at the event. “They provide us with water, bread and raincoats if it rains. Last year it poured and semua basah (everything got wet). But it’s so encouraging to see parents who bring their kids along for the race,” she says.

Slightly farther away, a team of 18 Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS) volunteers are being instructed of their duties. “When in your life do you get to sleep, sit and take selfies on a highway?” jokes senior volunteer Cheong Jia Jian. He has been volunteering at the marathon since his school days. Nazihah and her colleagues, along with the MRCS team – one of many on duty during the race – make up the team at Water Station 5. The police arrives next, just before midnight. Within minutes, the road is lined with barriers and traffic is diverted as the last of the cars heading to Butterworth are allowed to pass through.

The role of a sweeper bus is simple: to collect runners who are too injured or fatigued to complete the course within a stipulated time for the bridge and roads to be reopened to vehicular traffic.

Sooner than seems possible, a calm settles on the usually busy expressway and the four sweeper buses are let out onto the now deserted road. Onboard are eight young volunteers – four from SMJK Heng Ee and a team with Universiti Sains Malaysia – who are tasked to cut the bibs of runners who board the buses to ensure that these non-finishers cannot claim finisher T-shirts, medals and lucky draw tickets. Janice Ong Yen Li, 16, heard about the opening to join the sweeper bus crew from her senior who had volunteered on the bus the previous year. “My friends and I were all looking for jobs to earn some money during the school holidays so we are excited to be here. It’s something none of us has done before,” she says.

Ch’ng Wan Qi, 21, has also loaned her time and services to PBIM during her secondary school years with St John Ambulance, and looks forward to seeing the first wave of runners on the bridge. “It’s an amazing feeling when you see them. They can run so fast!”

After crossing the bridge, the sweeper buses loop around the mainland exit following the route that PBIM full marathoners will start to ply in around two hours’ time. They come to rest at a dirt clearing in sight of the bridge’s toll booths, right before the branch-off to a U-turn back to Butterworth. And here, it’s home for the night.

Here They Come

Along the road just in front of the buses, a group of scouts settle into their final positions. Armed with blinking baton lights, these young volunteers have a gruelling task ahead – and perhaps, one of the loneliest of the day. At intervals, they stand along a traffic cone barrier that divides the road and guide runners to the correct toll booths that have been opened for the event.

PBIM2019 sweeper bus crew members (clockwise from left) Janice Ong Yen Li, Ong Yee Xin, Ch'ng Wan Qi with a driver from Rapid Penang.

Across the road, the setting up of Water Station 9 is in full swing with boxes of bananas and cartons of mineral water and 100PLUS to be distributed to participants. As it is the only water station on the mainland, this stop is crucial for runners before they begin the return journey back to the finish line on the island. This is also the meeting point for the St. John Ambulance bicycle squad, whose riders will round the course offering immediate medical assistance to runners in need. Everything is in place and ready. With over an hour to spare, volunteers at Water Station 9 chat, take selfies or catnap. Back on the island, the gun is waiting to be fired at 1.30am to start the race. However, just before 3am, the mood on the mainland changes; the Kenyans are coming.

Kenyan runners have long dominated the podium of previous PBIMs; this year promises to be no different. The leader of the entire marathon emerges from the mouth of the bridge and turns into the water station as cheers erupt from the waiting volunteers. He grabs a cup, downs the contents and discards it quickly without breaking stride. And just like that, the runner, Moses Kiptoo Kurgat is gone, only to reappear a short time later on the far side before passing through the toll booth and disappearing again onto the bridge. [He would go on to win in 2:20:05]. A handful of runners follow him and awhile later, the front runners for the women’s category appear – four amazing athletes, running together in a line. Foot traffic at the water station steadily builds as the middle pack approaches.

To motivate the group of runners he was leading, a pacer with a brightly-coloured balloon bobbing above him is heard uttering, “Yang penting, kita habis (What’s important is that we finish the race).”

The Sweep

A sombre mood in one of the sweeper buses.

As the cut-off point for the full marathon approaches, the sweeper buses start their engines as orders come in over the telephone. The sky has been clear all morning, and the sweeper buses expect an average load this time around. Full marathoners have seven hours to complete the course, half marathoners are timed for 3 ½ hours, and 10km runners are restricted to 1 ½ hours. The cut-off times are 8.30am, 6.30am and 8am respectively.

Just after 7am, the buses motor onto the road. Travelling in a row, they take turns leading and picking up runners who have decided to throw in the towel. As the cut-off time for the full marathon has not passed, no one is forced onto the sweeper buses and all surrender is done voluntarily. One of the first to board is Sheng, 31, followed by his friend Liang who is seen carrying one of the former’s running shoes. “I’ve done two half marathons before, and this is my third PBIM. Right after I got onto the Penang Bridge, I felt the pain. I managed to limp on for one stretch, but on the way back, I knew I was done,” says Sheng, adding that he waited for his friend to catch up in order to assist him. Despite the defeat, however, the two are in good spirits, joking and poking fun at each other – sure proof that the right sort of friends make any situation better. “I have only run three 10km runs before this. He (Sheng) asked me to sign up for the full course this time and he’s the one who had to stop! I don’t know how he’s going to ride his motorcycle home,” Liang laughs. But injury and defeat do not mar Sheng’s good manners in any way, as he later stands to offer his seat on the bus to an older lady who has just bowed out of the 10km run.

Haqim, who also boards the sweeper bus, travelled a distance for the event. “Six of us came from Negeri Sembilan for the run: three for the half marathon, and the rest for the full course. The three half marathoners made it through, while we full marathoners had to stop. I just don’t know what happened today,” he says, adding that he has two full marathons already under his belt. Still, the 26-year-old manages to find a silver lining to the day. “Yesterday, we had to ‘control’ the food we ate. After this, I’m going straight for nasi kandar,” he smiles.

While some runners are obviously unprepared for the distance, there are also the more experienced ones who are equally taken off-guard. A.C., an older gentleman who looks distinguished even in running shorts, says he needed to bow out when he felt pain shoot through his leg. “It was a risk to come today as I just finished a half-Ironman (Triathlon) three weeks ago, but I feel OK though. Sometimes you make it, sometimes you don’t,” the 56-year-old says. In the end, A.C. does manage to take himself over the finish line after he opts to get down from the sweeper bus a few kilometres from where he first boarded it. Although not eligible for a medal, he at least finishes the race on his own terms.

After pausing at the bridge’s mid-span for the 10km runners to clear the course, the sweeper buses are escorted by police outriders to a stop near the finish line where the runners disembark. One sweeper bus then takes a last sweep of the entire 42km-route to ensure that no one has been left behind. No one has; and the only passengers on the bus this time around are the last group of volunteers from Water Station 14. They are carried to just over 1km away from the finish line and here, around 9am with the sun shining down on a beautiful Sunday morning outside Queensbay Mall, the last PBIM sweeper bus makes its final stop.

Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.

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