By Jim Roberts
Originally Published in Pace Magazine Fall 2014
Most runners and walkers have probably heard or read that a particular course is “certified.” To a non-runner/walker, “certified” may be applicable to the idiots in the race. I have seen some pretty strange looking runners. Oh! Never mind, I was looking in the mirror. Whether or not a course is certified probably doesn’t matter to most runners. However, an accurately measured course is probably important to at least seventy percent of the entrants. Most of us compete only against ourselves. The older I get, the less important it is to me who the female and male winners are. For one thing, they are so far ahead they are usually finished and running back along the course just to make me feel bad. Well, not really, but it sure feels that way.
Many may be under the impression that the importance of accurately measuring road courses is only a couple of decades old and that times they heard their parents or grandparents talk about are suspect. I don’t think that’s the case. The first courses I measured for accuracy were in the mid to late 70s and early 80s, which is before most were even born. The first course I measured was at UNC Charlotte, a 10-miler.
Accurate road race course measurement has been going on for a long time. Ted Corbitt, a 1952 Helsinki Olympic marathoner, born in South Carolina, and the founding President of the New York Road Runners Club in 1958, was an early American proponent of accurate and certified road race courses. The NYRRC was patterned after the Road Runners Club of England, which had standards and certification programs. Mr. Corbitt became chair of the AAU Standards Committee, which had responsibility for certifying national championship courses. For the first courses I measured, I used Mr. Corbitt’s booklet on course measurement. After his Olympic career, Mr. Corbitt ran ultra marathons when they weren’t cool – at least, now they’re a little less crazy. At one time, Mr. Corbitt was the American record holder in the marathon as well as track distances from 25 miles to 100 miles. Interestingly, in high school and college he was banned from competing in some track and field meets because of racial discrimination. Nevertheless, he persevered and became very important on the national scene for track and road racing.
Getting back to the accuracy of road race courses. My estimate is that over 95% of courses are accurate. Whether specifically “certified” or not, most of us want an accurately measured course. Of course, that doesn’t eliminate the opportunity to fuss about a course being too long if we do poorly compared to what we had expected. Strange how we don’t complain as much if the course seems short. We justify this by crediting our training, improved ability, karma, tailwind, etc.
To assure an accurate course, race directors will measure or have someone measure the course in accordance with procedures established by the USATF (USA Track & Field) Road Running Technical Council (RRTC). In the U.S., all certification of courses is done under the auspices of USATF/RRTC.
If you are interested in measuring courses for certification or you just want to know more about what’s involved, the place to go is http://www.usatf.org.
However, if you’re not overly interested, but need a diversion while waiting to see a specialist for knee problems, hip problems, calf problems, pulled hamstrings, plantar fasciitis, or other running injury, the following might keep you from focusing on your injury:
To measure a course for certification (or even without certification), you will need the following:
- USATF/RRTC Course Measurement and Procedures Manual.
- USATF/RRTC application forms for course certification.
- Jones Counter. This is a mechanical device that fits onto the front wheel axle of a bicycle. Depending upon the gear ratios of the device, there will be 20-30 “counts” per tire revolution. Each count represents 3-4”.
- Bicycle; preferably 10 speed or higher.
- 30 meter or 100 foot steel tape.
- Spring scale to put the steel tape under proper tension. Something like a fisherman’s scale capable of 50 newtons (5 kg. / 11 lb. force).
- Thermometer – digital or analog. Any temperature measurements should be taken out of direct sunlight.
- Notebook and pencils.
- Small pocket calculator with eight significant digits.
- Colored masking tape, lumber crayon or chalk (I use blue masking tape). It’s easy to spot when doing the second measurement.
- Spray paint can (you can carry this in the bike’s water bottle holder). A pail of paint is also acceptable, but is much trickier to balance on your handle bars. (I hope you didn’t believe that for even a second.)
- Safety vest, yellow clothing, and/or flashing light to make yourself very visible.
You may be wondering why you need all that stuff. Fortunately, the USATF Procedures Manual is very detailed. It outlines the following seven steps. I will be general only. If you are actually interested in measuring courses for certification, you really need to download the manual.
1. Calibration course
Start by noting the temperature and time. Lay out an accurate calibration course of at least 300 meters, which equals 984 ft. It must be on a flat stretch of road and reasonably level.
I create a 1000 ft. calibration course because it is easier with a 100 ft. tape. Laying out the calibration course is the only part of the measuring process that requires at least two people. The good thing about the calibration course is that it can be reused numerous times. The calibration course doesn’t necessarily have to be certified, but if it is, it will be given a number and can be used by anyone. New certifiers are encouraged to check the USATF website to see if there is a calibration course near them. It saves a lot of trouble.
A 1000 ft. course is measured in 10 sections. Two measurements are required. Most just reverse direction at the 1000 ft. point and come back to where they started. The average measurement is used. When measuring, one person will pull 10 lb. of force on the tape. This ensures that the calibration course is not short due to a slack tape. If the temperature is less than 68 degrees Fahrenheit (68•F), a correction factor is required by USATF. For example, measurement at 60•F would require adding six tenths of an inch to the length of a 1000 ft. calibration course. Otherwise, because of tape contraction the calibration course would be short. It’s not mandatory to make a temperature correction for higher than 68•F. Now you have a legitimate calibration course. Next, drive nails into the asphalt at the start and finish and fill in the forms – at least in draft.
2. Calibrating the bicycle
Put the Jones Counter on your bike. Before measuring any course, you must calibrate your bike against the calibration course. At least four calibration rides must be done before measuring the course and four after. If there is a difference of more than two or three counts among your rides, you will probably have to do more rides because you might have wobbled too much during ride. In general, the first ride will be the longest because your ride is less steady. The lowest count means the ride was straight. You use the average of the four counts and multiply by 1.001 (short course prevention factor). This is the “working constant.” For example, if the average count is 2819 for the 1000 ft. Your working constant will be 2822 (2819 x 1.001). This is used for your splits and your total course. You’ll use this “working constant” to determine the counts per mile and counts for the entire course you’re measuring.
3. Measure the course
It may surprise most people that race courses are usually measured backwards. This is because the race director or organization knows where they want the finish line. It’s the accurate location of the start that is in doubt. This is why the start sometimes ends up in a strange place – like in front of a worn down building. And, if it is an out-and-back course, it will be the turnaround that will be in question.
The course must be the shortest possible route. Otherwise, it will not be accepted as accurate and will not be eligible for certification or records. The finish also should not be more than one tenth of one percent lower in elevation than the total length. Otherwise, it is considered a downhill course. For 5K, this is only 16 feet lower! It can still be certified, but is not eligible for any state or national records.
The measurer is required to ride the shortest possible route. That means taking the tangent at curves and cutting corners if it can reasonably be expected that a runner could do that. For rough, broken pavement or storm drains it may be necessary to walk the bike. In most cases though, it is far better for the cyclist to be on the seat so the tire makes good contact with the pavement.
Splits will be predetermined based on the “working constant.” For example, if the constant is 2822 counts per 1000 ft., the mile split will be 14901 counts. For a 10-mile course, the total will be 149,010. The first course measurement utilizes this information to determine actual location of splits and the race start. The measurer marks each split and the finish with tape. Then measure the course again! The second course measurement begins at the same starting point (finish line) and is measured against the first measurement. The measurer notes and records the counts at the split points, start and finish marked with tape during the first course measurement.
Before leaving the course, the measurer must confirm that total course counts are within .08% of each other. If not, a third measurement must be taken.
4. Calibrating the bicycle again!
After all the measuring, one must ride the calibration course 4 more times. The “finishing constant” is determined by taking the average counts x 1.001. The larger of the “working constant,” the one determined at initial bike calibration, or the “finishing constant” is considered the “constant for the day.”
5. Determine the proper course length
The “constant for the day” will be used to recalculate each measured course length by dividing it into the total counts for each ride. Usually, the counts for the second ride are lower because the cyclist was slightly more careful in riding the course. Recalculating the length of the two rides is another good way to make sure the courses are within .08% of each other. The properly measured course length will be the lesser of the two course measurements. The difference between this lower measurement and the required course length will usually be added to the start.
6. Make the final adjustments to the course
If the proper measured course length differs from the desired, required or advertised course length, the difference will have to be added or subtracted from the start, finish line or turn-around point. I have personally never subtracted from the required course length and have not heard of it. Usually, it is added to the start. For example, if the recalculated shorter course measurement is 9’6” less than the required (advertised) course length, it can then be added to the starting line using a steel tape. It is usually not necessary to change any of the original splits you marked because the changes are insignificant. It is the total course length that’s important. To avoid confusion, once measurement is complete, all temporary markings should be removed from the course.
This is also the time to drive nails into the asphalt at the start and finish points so that anyone checking your course can figure it out, even after paint markings have faded.
7. Submit applications and supporting documentation to the regional USATF/RRTC certifier
This is my least favorite part, but it is necessary. There are only six pages that must be filled out, but a detailed hand drawn or electronically created map must be submitted with all pertinent data including semi-detailed course map, list of splits or measured points, elevations, as well as accurate reference measurements to permanent landmarks.
If you are interested in actually measuring a course for certification, it will be necessary to go to USATF’s website where you can get all of the forms and information you need.
A course can be accurately measured in accordance to USATF RRTC, but may not be certified. If you want to know for sure, ask the race director. If she or he doesn’t know, follow it up with “Is the course accurately measured?” If he answers no, or doesn’t know what you’re talking about, your next question might be “How then was it measured?” If the answer is your Mom’s Mustang or a geek’s GPS watch, don’t count on an accurate course. Both can measure short or long, but not usually right on the money. I knew that myself, but still fell victim – twice. In two different marathons, the distance on my Garmin showed .25-.3 miles longer than 26 miles, 385 yards. By thinking my GPS device was acceptably accurate, I was actually 5 seconds per mile slower and ended up being 2 minutes short of re-qualifying for Boston. Fortunately, I ran another marathon and did manage to re-qualify, but it wasn’t until the very end that I realized what had happened the previous time.
Hopefully, the above will at least give you an idea of what’s involved. And the next time someone looks at his watch after a race and says, “no way was this course accurate,” you can smile knowingly to yourself.