Q: How long have you been measuring race courses?
A: I’ve been doing this for about 14 to 15 years, and I average about 40-50 races a year. I’ve done about 500 total. I was a race director in 2001, and the guy that used to measure that race retired, so I decided to do it myself and have been since. I’ve done the Hot Chocolate 15K/5K race a few times, the Wisconsin Marathon and several half marathons, but usually I do more local 5Ks and 10Ks. The Bank of America Chicago Marathon has a guy who always does it.
Q: When you get asked to measure a course, what are your first steps?
A: The first thing I always do is make sure they have a good course laid out. I work with a lot of race directors with different experience, so I have to recheck their work. I use a web tool to make sure the course they chose works, and then I have to make sure they got approval from the city or park district. After that, we set a date and time and meet up to begin the measuring process.
Q: What tools do you use to measure the course?
A: We have what we call a Jones Counter to count wheel revolutions. Measurers started using them in the mid-‘60s and it’s changed a little bit, but it’s really key to measurement. Basically, it is just a digital counter that goes on the front wheel, and measures in increments of 20 counts per revolution of the axels. We also have to use high-pressure tires to make sure the pressure doesn’t change too much, which can affect the measurement.
Q: Can you walk us through the exact measurement process, then?
A: Well, first we go to the course and lay out a calibration course to calibrate the counter on the bike. I use steel tape, and lay out at least 300 meters on a nice straightaway – the best case is the path will represent the same surface as the course. We ride the 300 meters four times and record the counts each time. From there, we come up with an average and develop a constant factor that determines how many times the wheel will travel in one meter. Once you get that, you can translate that to the course and distance.
After it’s calibrated, you just ride the course using the determined measurements. You have to ride the course at least twice to get the minimum of two good measurements that agree within a tight factor. As you ride, you mark different mile points and turnarounds – I usually use chalk for a temporary marking, but it depends where I am, because some park districts or forest preserves don’t want markings. Sometimes I use duck tape and let the race director know where they are. Once you have two good measurements, then you recalibrate your bike to make sure nothings change. If you lose even a little tire pressure, then you have to start over. Then, you just make a map with the race director of the official course.
Q: Sounds like a lot can affect the measurements, what types of things do you have to consider?
A: It’s best to do it on a nice cloudy day with no temperature change so the wheels aren’t affected. It can warm up really fast during the day, and if the sun hits the blacktop, then it can change the tire pressure and the measurement. In the fall, though, the sun is lower so it’s not as much of a factor – it will affect it a little but nothing the runner will notice. If there is a weight or temperature change, you have to start over.
Q: Has this ever happened to you?
A: Over the years, I’ve had about two different times that I noticed something was going wrong in the middle of my measurement. I always carry an extra tube, so I had to stop to fix it then start over. Doesn’t happen often, but always have to be prepared for that.
Q: Can you ride as fast as you want when measuring?
A: My bike is set for 12mph. I have to keep the bike steady and it’s hard to go any faster or slower without wobbling. One thing that’s in the requirements (that CARA helps make) is that I have to ride within 12 inches of the curb or edge of the path, because if there’s a lot of turns, swinging out there can add a lot of distance and make the course come up short. In fact, the biggest reason runners often complain about courses being long is because they don’t run on the tangents. When I measure, I’m always looking for the next turn and aim straight for that turn to make sure it’s even.
Q: How far in advance does this have to be done before race day?
A: To be certified for the day of the race, it just has to be measured and submitted the day before. There are occasions when they found out something changed and measurers are out there on race day. Some of the bigger races have measurers on site that morning anyways, so if something happens where they need a detour they can be there. That has happened before, that the course needs to be remeasured on the fly.
Q: Why can’t cars be used to measure road races?
A: Well first of all, manufacturers deliberately set their readings to look like they get better gas mileage. Then, car tires wear, and it’s not a calibrated method.
Q: Where did the measuring process come from?
A: It was developed in the 1960’s by Ted Corbitt, the ULTRA and Olympian runner and founder of the New York Road Runners Club, and has been changed a little over time, but it’s pretty much what we still use today. He did a lot of research and figured out the calibration and important things to consider, like temperature and weight. Like, two people could ride this bike and get slightly different measurements based on weight. But Corbin is the father of the current measurement system; it’s a proven process and is even used for the Olympics.
Q: Well you’re very knowledgeable on the subject; obviously you enjoy it?
A: It’s fun because I get to meet all the race directors and learn about new courses and races. Plus, I’m riding my bike, so people pay me to get my exercise. It’s a fun part-time gig that pays for my golf. I’m retired from the corporate world so I can do this during the week, which helps race directors out a lot.
For more information on the measurement process, Winston suggests readers visit http://www.usatf.org.