So, How Many Hats Do You Wear?

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Pensacola, Florida, United States
Husband. *Dog Dad.* Instructional Systems Specialist. Runner. (Swim-challenged) Triathlete (on hiatus). USATF LDR Surveyor. USAT (Elite Rules) CRO/2, NTO/1. RRCA Rep., FL (North). Observer Of The Human Condition.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Help Wanted

MB comment: A little something written for my friends in New Orleans. The Times-Picayune ( has a running section in the on-line version of the paper...blogs and all...have to love a city that loves running. Happy Chanukkah and Happy Christmas to you, also. See you guys soon.
Six times a year I receive phone calls from race directors. While they may not know it, the call’s an advertisement that sounds like:
“HELP WANTED – Fearless, anal-retentive, detail-oriented person/s to ensure running course accuracy. Skilled in problem-solving, math calculation, line-drawing, detail elaboration. Bike-handling skills & lack of fear a must. Track, cross-country or road running experience highly recommended. Must own bicycle, CPSC-certified helmet, & RRTC-approved measuring device – no GPS users! Must memorize simple mathematical calculations, exact metric & English course distances. Know capabilities & limitations of GPS/alternative measuring systems. Can communicate USA Track & Field definition of ‘accurate course’ to general public. Skin thickness, selective hearing, & love-of-travel, able to adapt courses at whim of race directors/police necessary. Compensation varies by difficulty of job, prior experience of applicant. Hours: Flexible; highly-dependent on auto traffic. Resume to (850) 867 5309.”

In Florida, there are over 30 of us listed with USA Track & Field (USATF) as course measurers. Some have been measuring courses for decades, others for a handful of years. We do it because we love the sport of running; we understand the need for accurate courses, & in many cases, because very few others will do the job.
When I tell people I am a runner I receive two questions immediately afterward: ‘Have you done a marathon? Have you done Boston?’ To do Boston, you have to qualify on a certified, accurate course. USATF, the national governing body for the sport of running, defines an accurate course as one that is NOT SHORT. It’s important to know the course you run on is not short; you need to know how well your training is progressing. You want to compare your race performance to others in your age group, another town, or around the country…even year-to-year in your town. If you think of a race director like the manager of a Subway shop, you want to make certain the five-dollar foot-long you paid five dollars for is really 12 inches in length. Any smaller would upset you, & you would go some place else to eat lunch. So, the race director wants you to come to their race rather than somewhere else. One good way to ensure this is by having a USATF-certified course.

Just because you get a USATF course measurer to measure your course doesn’t mean it’s certified by USATF. But having a USATF course measurer measure the course will ensure the job is done properly. The measurer does this by use of several tools and a simple protocol.
The first tool is a bicycle with a counter mounted to the front wheel hub, which provides a fixed count for each turn of the front wheel. The earliest model of counter is accurate to within three inches, more accurate than the GPS receivers used by fitness enthusiasts. The measurer does a series of calibration rides to determine the number of counts (turns of the wheel) per miles/kilometers. These rides are performed on a calibration course, measured out using spring tension & steel surveyor’s tape; most measurers have one or more calibration courses in their area.
Once the count (wheel revolutions) per mile/kilometer is determined, the measurer adds a 1/1000 factor to the count to help prevent a course from being shorter than the actual distance. So, a ten-kilometer (6.213172 miles exactly) run, such as the Crescent City Classic, is actually closer to 6.219925712 miles in distance.
The measurer, once on the course, begins to act like a runner. They ride the shortest possible distance from start to finish; riding 12-inch tangents on curved sections of the course. If runners are going to be restricted from part of the road, these are noted. Distance splits are made at multiples of each count per mile/kilometer, marked (temporarily) & noted relative to fixed points. The counts at the finish are also noted. During a second ride of the course, the count from start to split points & finish are noted again.
The total counts between the first & second rides are divided to ensure the difference between the two rides is no more than .08 percent (26 feet, 4 inches for a 10-kilometer race). Once the course rides are complete, the measurer returns to the calibration course to repeat the calibration done before the measurement rides. The calibration rides before & after the measurement are compared, with the smaller count used to measure course length. The smaller count per mile/kilometer is used to compare the shortest course measurement to the desired distance. If the course distance varies from the desired distance, the measurer adds or subtracts distance – if necessary – to make the course distance accurate.
The measurer then draws up the map, showing detailed location of start, turn points, and finish. Each of the distance splits are noted, as well as places where runners are restricted by cones or barriers. This map, the calibration form, the measurement form, & an application for course certification is sent to the USATF state course certifier, along with a check (in FL, it’s $30). The certifier reviews the paperwork, certifies the measurement met USATF protocols (sometimes after asking for more data), then prepares the certificate. The certificate number & map is placed in the USATF course database, where it can be found by the general public. The race director is asked to place the certificate number on all documents related to their event, both before & after the event. Course distances are valid for ten years from the date of certification, after which the course needs to be measured again & submitted to the certifier.
So, racing on accurate certified courses benefits the individual athlete because they can truly compare their performance to other days or other persons. Accurate certified courses benefit the race director because it’s another proof to market to potential customers of their event’s quality. In fact, USATF and Road Runners Club of America championship races are required to be held on certified courses. So, think twice before you take that GPS receiver-wearing runner’s opinion of the course measurement as gospel – look it up on the USATF web site. If it isn’t there, it isn’t accurate.

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