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.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Off (Or On?) A Tangent

I've run road races since 1995, but never really learned about how to run a course until I raced the 2003 Recycler Run in Ft. Walton Beach, FL. It was there Brian McMahon taught me how to run a race course. The Recycler Run course winds through a residential area, but what made this course even more interesting, outside of the live oaks on both sides through the neighborhood, were the gorgeous sweeping turns. There might have been two miles of straight road on the total, but at no more than a two-block stretch at a time.

We had a gorgeous, cool, overcast morning for the race, so it didn't take long for us to get comfortable on course. I was pacing former Pensacola Runners Association president David Harris, who wanted to run 19 minutes for 5,000 meters, so we needed to run about a 6:19 pace. A pack of us were moving at about 6:20 pace, with Brian just a little ahead. We caught up with him & kept a comfortable clip. As we exited a corner, I could feel a little bit of a nudge from Brian, who was off my right shoulder. Brian & I at that time had a history of pulling a little college cross-country physicality (elbows & shoulders) on each other, so this was nothing new. I nudged him back.

He nudged my shoulder again, & said: "Mike, run the tangent." At that point I suddenly realized what he was doing. I always heard the shortest distance between two points was a straight line but to that point in my racing career had never practiced the technique. This had a lot to do with some of the courses I raced in Tampa being straight out-and-back types.

I could see a couple of guys perhaps five seconds ahead of us; at first glimpse they appeared to be drunk & weaving from the left to the right side of the road. Ah, so they were running the tangent. Brian & the rest of us commenced to play "follow the leader" until the turn-around point on the course, then headed back. I not only ran a good race, bringing David painfully close to his goal of a 19-minute 5K, but also learned that day road racing is a thinking person's game.

You can't go into a road race, shut your mind off & expect to run your best. Pacing yourself is one thing, & smart training is another, but you can needlessly waste precious seconds on a road race by not knowing the course & not running the shortest possible distance.

Most people know I measure courses for USA Track and Field certification. It's one reason I don't run a lot of races in Pensacola. If I show up for a local race three things happen: I'm asked whether the course is certified. I'm asked if I measured the course. And, I'm confronted by runners who say the course was long, according to their GPS receiver.

There aren't many races I'll run which are not on a certified course. I want to know the distance is reasonably accurate (which USATF defines as "not short"). This way I can tell how well my training has progressed over time. I've written much about the USATF measurement protocol, so I won't go into detail here. But even I forget about the technical limitations of GPS receivers & the USATF/AIMS (AIMS is the international marathon measurement authority) protocol. When I ran the Rock n' Roll/Mardi Gras Half Marathon last year in New Orleans my GPS mile splits would beep initially about five seconds (eventually a minute) before the measured mile splits. I fussed for a second, & then remembered the additional 5.28 feet/1.609 meters which were added to each mile to make certain I didn't run less than a half marathon.

But a lot of GPS wearers don't take the time to understand the measurement protocols, don't know the limitations of their equipment (up to 25 feet of error at a single point) &, most importantly, do not run the shortest possible distance on the race course.

Rather than take a winding section of road - some sections are more winding than others - let me use a standard 400-meter track as an example:

- The width of one lane of a standard 400-meter running track is 1.25 meters.
- An athletic track lane distance calculator ( shows the distance around a 400-meter track, in lane three (3.75 meters out from the inside rail) is 415.71 meters.
- Multiply the additional distance by 12.5 (the number of laps in a 5,000 meter track race) and the total distance is 5,196.375 meters.
- The width of one lane of a two-lane roadway with a shoulder is approximately 3.75 meters, a little over 12 feet in width. Even when the five added meters for USATF's short course prevention factor is subtracted, that's an additional 191 meters of distance to run if you're one lane of road out from the tangent for the entire race.

Lose your concentration for five seconds if you're running a six-minute per mile pace & you can add a little over 20 meters to the distance run at a 5K.

In closing, even a set of legs, a heart & lungs in the best of shape can be defeated by a brain that's not prepared on race day. Knowing the course & running the tangents can save a runner from running an unnecessary additional three percent of course distance.

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