Road Race Course Certification:
How do courses measure up?
by Steve Vaitones, USATF New England

You think you've just run a Personal Record time at the local 5K, but when exiting the chute you hear, "that course has got to be short". (And it's possible that the same race elicits "that course is definitely long".) Or, you're set for a good race and hit two miles just ahead of goal pace. Unfortunately, the splits for the two indvidual miles differ by a minute each and by the third mile, you've lost all faith in ability for the day.

Would a race director ever announce their course distance as "about 5 miles"? Of course not. Yet a surprising number still do not take the time to determine that their route is indeed accurate.

How accurate are road race courses? If a course is not certified, less accurate than one might think. Believe it or not, some race directors just don't care. Other courses are accurate to a director's own standards and "close enough". One race director said his course was "pretty accurate" based on comparing the winner's time to a previous week's race time. Another comment - "I figure 40 or 50 yards either way is pretty accurate".

A good number of directors tout their course as USATF certified. This is the mark that runners should look for to know they have covered the advertised distance.

Certified means a course has been measured to exacting standards and is at least the stated distance. While no method is infallible, guidelines for certification have been developed over the two decades with the input of many technical minded contributors with a running background. The key is standardization - all certified courses use the same procedures for measurement and can be accurately compared.

Courses must be certified to be eligible for any type of age group record, and any runner's PR is only as good as the course being certified.

NOTE: Certified should not be confused with sanctioned which relates to conduct of a race and provides USATF liability insurance for an event. Sanctioning must be done annually. Certification is done once and is good for up to ten years.

It does not take a paid expert to measure a road course; anyone with a sense of precision and ability to follow directions can do the measurement. It simply takes a bicycle, a "Jones Oerth" counter (available on loan from the USATF New England office) and a few hours of time to ride the course and complete several pages of forms.

Naturally, paperwork for the first course or two will be very scrupulously reviewed by the national certifier - in the case of Massachusetts and Vermont, this individual is Justin Kuo. Ray Nelson and Toni Youngman do the same for Rhode Island and New Hampshire, respectively. They will return the paperwork with necessary corrections, suggestions, and comments on how to improve one's measuring work.

Methodology of Measurement

A car's odometer might be within 0.1 or 0.2 miles of the stated distance simply because that is as accurate as such a device can be. Bicycle computers get even better precision, now down to 1/100's of miles.

A surveyor's or measuring wheel does a good job getting to a few yards or meters, but walking the wheel doesn't produce good straight lines and there is wobble side to side which exagerates the measured course length.

The preferred method of measuring a course is with the "Jones-Oerth" counter attached to the front wheel of a bicycle. The counter is then calibrated over a surveyed or steel-taped 1000' calibration course. My bike and counter registers over 18,000 "counts" per mile (a counter registers different totals depending on tire size). That is just over 3 inches per "count", producing pretty good accuracy. (Website for purchasing at bottom of page).

When calculating the measurement factor for the bike counter, a Short Course Prevention Factor, 1/10 of 1%, is included in the calibration constant. This SCPF gives a course that is very slightly long, adding a perceived 5 meters over a 5K. Yet, much of that can be "eaten up" by the rider swerving to avoid a pothole or a vehicle, wheel-wobble, or in doing a first time measurement.

When a course is measured for certification, it is done along the Shortest Possible Route (SPR) that a runner can take. That is, the route is measured along the line of sight a runner has, cutting all tagents and crossing corner to corner. If a course is to be restricted in any way in meauring (such as staying to the right of the road or going wide around a turn, there will need to be monitors, fences, or cones to do so. Anyone reading this article has probably seen that you can't rely on runners to stay in the breakdown lane, or to run where they should if it is not monitored.

These restrictions must be marked on the course map, and more importantly, the markers have to be in place on race day - one potential US record was lost due to cones not being in place at a 1996 championship.

Because a rider follows the SPR, measuring is best done early on a weekend or holiday morning to avoid traffic so all tangents can be cut. The assistance of a vehicle driving behind the measurer is comforting.

Note that every course does not need to be certified and some are in fact "uncertifiable" - running through parking lots and over roadways which cannot be properly defined and monitored. Other races may be on traditional courses at non-standardized distances which have no need for such accuracy.

New races may need the first year or two to determine if a start or finish location can handle their field. What looks like a fast or scenic finish when setting up a course may be too narrow and crowded when several hundred runners are walking through the chutes. But if the course is used more than a year or two, it should be certified.

In a nutshell, the procedure is as follows:

  1. Set up a calibration course on a flat, straight road. Once laid out and marked, this standard calibration course can be used at any time in the future. It is best set out on a lightly traveled road.
  2. Attach the counter and calibrate the bike. Every bike wheel will calibrates differently. Even changes in temperature during the day can change the constant several counts per mile.
  3. Ride the course at least twice. Use the longer of the two rides (ie. the ride with the fewest number of counts) as the final ride. The rides must be within 0.08% of the distance of each other, or a third ride is needed. While it may sound like a difficult precision to attain, experienced measurers routinely have their two rides match to within 10 counts or less (about 30") even over courses 10K and longer.
  4. Recalibrate the bicycle following the measurements to be sure the constant has not changed. A change in temperature or air pressure can change the constant. Adjust the course if needed.
  5. Complete the application and draw a detailed map to accompany the paperwork. The map should allow a total stranger (or a new race director) to set up the start, finish, and race course.
  6. Send this paperwork to the certifier postmarked no later than race day, and preferably earlier. Courses cannot be retroactively certified after the date of the race.

For a novice doing a basic 5K with a good estimate of where the start and finish will be, the whole process (excluding setting up the calibration course) will take about three hours. As one gets experienced, riders will be able to do this more quickly and more accurately.

There is a one-time fee required for certification, in the $25 range depending on the person who reviews the work and gives final approval. This covers review of the paperwork and maintaining a central file of maps and information. Course certification are good for up to ten years, or until the course changes. The ten year lifetime is based on reviews that found many roadways experience some construction which can change the course over that time. (Courses measured prior to 2001 could be renewed once with a maximum expiration date of 2011; all courses now need remeasurement. (Remember the story of the Boston Marathon being remeasured in the 1950's and found to be significantly short, due in most part to roads being re-built and curves being straightened.)

When runners who are paying an entry fee, the least a director can do is offer a truly accurate record-quality courses on which to achieve a meaningful Personal Best performance.

Certification/Measurement contacts for the New England association:

Other Links:

USA Track & Field New England

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