On May 6 Juraj Šebalj and Karlo Golub will be driving the Catcher car at Wings for Life World Run in Zadar, and it won’t be their first time. Even though it’s not that easy to sit in the car for such a long time, maintaining a steady speed, they are well aware they’re privileged to have front row seats.
Wings for Life World Run is a very special race in which the Finish Line comes to the runner, and not the other way round. The Catcher Car will have the spotlight in Zadar, just like it always does. It will go after runners and drive past them with no mercy for as long as it takes to catch the last one on the track – the winner of the race.
The Catcher Car takes off 30 minutes after the race starts, driving 15 kph for one hour, slowly catching up with the slowest runners. Then it shifts to 16kph and maintains the speed for one hour, increasing the speed to 17 kph after an hour has passed. During the fourth and the fifth hour of the race, it takes its pace to 20 kph, afterwards shifting to the maximum 35 kph, catching up with the leaders.
This year’s Catcher Car is Renault Koleos, and its driver, Juraj Šebalj, says that driving a Catcher Car is more and more interesting every year.
“There are more and more runners every year. Last year there were so many runners on the road that it was sometimes quite difficult to maintain the required speed. That was the first time it happened.” Juraj is one of the best drivers in Croatia. Sunday in Zadar will be a short break for him after the rally in Opatija the weekend before.
Šebalj will not carry out this mission alone. About 30 meters behind him there will be another Renault Koleos with Karlo Golub behind the wheel.
“The other vehicle is there for safety reasons, in case the first one breaks down or if there’s a problem with the computer system that registers results. It also registers results for those runners that the first car didn’t get to register.” Karlo is a talented sports car driver who says it’s quite a challenge to maintain the required speed at Wings for Life World Run.
“Ever since I stared racing at the age of six, I’ve become used to driving at full speed, but the atmosphere in Zadar is a bit more relaxed. It’s not easy to maintain a steady speed but time goes by quickly when you see all those people truly enjoying the moment you catch up with them and overtake the. We are the first ones to witness their emotions, see what they’re going through. The driver’s seat of a Catcher Car is the best spot at the race.”
All those who think the only role of the Catcher Car driver is to avoid collision with the runners, while the rest runs automatically, are definitely wrong.
Šebalj explains: “We have a GPS system with a display showing us where exactly we need to be. It’s a line which is either red or green. We always need to be within these boundaries. It is much easier to drive that way and push the gas pedal manually than drive with the cruise control or a similar system. Being in the car for four hours is not easy, but I know it’s much easier for me behind the wheel than it is for any person running the race. I only have to bring enough food. Last year we made a mistake and didn’t bring enough so we had to stop at the refreshment station to get bananas and oranges. We had a little break then, which is normal.”
Golub, on the other hand, leaves nothing to chance, because physiological needs are the driver’s deadliest enemy: “Getting ready is quite simple. When you wake up in the morning, you have to stretch out and do some exercise for your legs. You should, by no means, drink too much water or take too much caffeine if you want to avoid trouble. You can drink water during the last hour when you know you’re close to catching up with the last runner on the track. Before that, you only wet your mouth.”
At the end of the day, the driver goes home with so many impressions.
Karlo says: “The most impressive for me so far were participants in wheelchairs that I caught up with 20 or so kilometers into the race. There were some funny sights as well, like people with cakes standing by the track. There are many different experiences during the race.”
Juraj adds: “There are many events that have a few good years and then people start losing interest. Unlike that, Wings for Life World Run in Zadar keeps growing, and I am very pleased to see that. The atmosphere is great and I hope it will achieve its goal of finding a cure for spinal cord injuries. I’m happy to participate in my role, and once they don’t want me to a be a driver any more, I promise to join the runners.”
Matej Markovič Slovenia
Kenny Belaey, Ieper, Belgium
Melina Magulas, Norway