The Value of a Certified Race Course
Issue 18 (July 2006)
When looking at a race's brochure, you
will sometimes notice a line that references
a certification number. It may
be as short as "Certification #CO-06008-DP,"
or it may say something like "certified race
course." Maybe it has both. But what does that
As a runner, it means that you can
run the race confident that your time is for an
accurately-measured distance, and your time is
useful to you when comparing your results to
other races you have run (keeping in mind the
variations in the terrain between the different
courses). If you are training for a target race in
the future, you can accurately assess your progress.
If you have recently started running, you
can see if you are improving. And if you are
going to use your time as a qualifying time for
another race, usually the course must be certified
for your time to be accepted.
A certified course also means that the
race director has been given descriptions of every
mile-point (or kilometer, if appropriate), so
if they place the mile markers in the correct location,
you know your splits are for each mile;
not a little longer for the first mile, a bit shorter
for the second mile, accurate distance for the
third mile, and so on. What good are splits if
they are not for an accurate length? The certified
course tells you that you should be able to
trust your split times, in addition to
your overall time.
Race directors can help
keep runners satisfied with a certified
course. How many times have
we heard runners comment that
they don't trust their times because
they were so far off what they expected
them to be? There is little
chance of those runners returning to
that race the following year.
How a Course Gets Certified
USA Track and Field has
precise guidelines for how a course
must be measured to become certified
(see sidebar to understand why
a car odometer is not even close
to accurate enough, and neither is
even the best GPS unit or cyclometer).
The site has a list of approved
http://usatf.org/events/courses/measurers/) for the entire
Once a measurer has been
selected, they will review the
course with the course director and
make sure there is sufficient allowance
for modifying the distance to
achieve the desired race distance.
Each course has its own challenges
for getting a precise distance, especially
if the start and finish line
must be in specific spots. When
this is the case, it is best to have a
turnaround spur that can be adjusted
for precise course-length.
The measurement device
is a bicycle with a Jones counter
mounted on it. The Jones counter
is a mechanical device that records
23 1/3 counts per revolution of the wheel.
Therefore, the measurer must calibrate the bike
before (and after) measuring each course (tire
pressure affects the distance traveled with each
revolution). Once the measurer has determined
how many "clicks" the counter will have in each
mile (18,000 - 19,000 is common), they ride the
course at least twice, making sure both measurements
are within .08% of each other (that's
about 46 clicks, or 13 feet for a 5K course). If
not, they ride again. During the ride, the measurer
rides the shortest possible line that a runner
may run on the course.
After measuring the course, the bike
is calibrated again, and if there is a difference
in clicks-per-mile, the number that results in the
shortest course is used (the shortest course will
still be as long as advertised). If that means going
back out to the course to adjust the start, finish,
or turnaround point, then it has to be done.
After riding , the measurer documents
all his (or her) work, creates a detailed certification
map, then submits all of that to the person
that puts the USATF stamp of approval on the
work and the course. If there are any questions
or problems, the measurer has to explain it adequately,
or go do it all again. But, in the end,
the race director and the runners all will know
that the course is the advertised length, making
the times meaningful.
So, the next time you are looking for
a race to run, check for an indication that the
course is certified. You will know that the distance
is accurate, and that the splits have been
Are Other Devices Accurate?
While modern measurement devices
are wonderful to help us estimate our
training runs and bike rides, they aren't always
A GPS unit is not accurate enough
for a course to be USATF-certified. Even
the best commercially-available GPS unit
is only accurate to about 12 feet at any
given time, and can be hundreds of feet
off in accuracy. Most units will show you
what their current accuracy is, and you can
watch it vary from 12 feet to 350 feet or
more. GPS units must have a clear view
of at least three satellites to get a reading,
and the more they can acquire, the more
accurate they are. However, trees, buildings,
and even your body can interrupt the
signal, making it less accurate at any time.
Further, they only check their position
periodically, not constantly. Some
units check every second, some every 20
seconds. The user can sometimes set the
unit to check at certain time or distance intervals,
but if the unit has lost contact with
the satellites, it can't tell where it is, so it
misses that checkpoint. So, if you are running
quickly, you may make a few turns
while the unit doesn't have contact, so that
section will be measured incorrectly.
Bicycle cyclometers are also not
accurate enough for USATF because your
tire pressure varies due to slow leaks or
temperature variations. While you may
take extreme care to calibrate it, you won't
be riding in the same conditions every time.
While you can calibrate to the tenth of a
centimeter, the distance you have to ride to
get a really accurate average is longer than
most people have space to measure, and
more revolutions than you can keep track
of while riding a straight line.
Automobile odometers and personal
pedometers are even less accurate.
Cars for the tire-pressure reason along with
the inherent inaccuracy of odometers, and
pedometers due to the different lengths of
each of your steps. Generally, for a 5K
course, either of these methods may only
get you to within 1/10 of a mile, many
times even less accurate.
Duane Russell is a USATF-approved measurer,
and has measured more than 15 race courses
in the last year in Colorado, Arizona, and Idaho,
from 5K to Marathon. You can contact him
through his website at www.RaceMeasure.com
or email at info@RaceMeasure.com.
About This Site |
About Running Network |
Contact Us |
Advertise With Us |