USATF Road Race Course Measurement
by Brian Cavanagh, USATF Certified
How do you drop your 10km time from 45 minutes to 38 minutes
in a year? Here's one story.
I was 37 years old, had dropped my 10km
times from 45 to 41:30 from August of 1992 to July of 1993. I had run higher mileage
and mountain races in 1992 to develop a solid foundation of cardiovascular
and muscular endurance. I was training hard
with a good mix of speedwork and resting appropriately. An enticing sub 40 by
the end of the summer looked possible. Having run 35:51 for 10km in 1984
(and 27:41 for 8km in 1979), I wanted to get back to that feeling of strength
and power that comes from a sense of mastery over one's own body: the feeling
of being able to "turn up the throttle and rev the engines", to push my
own limits and feel that I still had more power. That's what I loved about
racing when I was well-prepared.
In late August of 1993, I ran an 18:33 for 5km (down from 20:44 in January
1993), then in early September, I ran a 38:07 for 10km! I was psyched because
I ran hard and felt that maybe this 38:07 was my breakthrough race. I had
brought my bike to that race to measure
the course since I wished I had done so for the 18:33 the week before.
(The 5k was accurately measured by an expert, I later learned.) I rode
the bike on the "10k" course afterward, finding out that the course was
not even 10km (6.2137 miles). It was 6.07 miles! That meant that the
supposed 38:07 would have been a 39:01 if the course had been the correct
length. It was still a breakthrough race, but why would a long-time experienced
race director and runner put on a race that was a full minute short over
10km? The local runners raved about what a great fast course and good time
the race was. There was a festive atmosphere, good food and camaraderie there.
How could the course be so short?
Surprisingly fast road race times are often the
result of inaccurate courses, although many runners would like to believe
that they simply ran well. USATF (USA Track and
Field) has special procedures which a few of us in the Sullivan
Striders and Orange Runners Club have been applying to make more courses
in the region accurate. RRCA (Road Runners Clubs of America) has adopted
the same standard, as have the international marathon race directors, World
and Olympic Championships. The procedures are the result of years of experience
in all weather conditions and running surfaces, on every type of course
imaginable. Hundreds of articles have been written on the topic of
road race measurement procedure.
runners are unaware of the role which course accuracy plays in their sport.
I was one of them from 1974 to 1989 until Pete Mazeiko of the Orange Runners
Club explained what a Jones-Oerth device is and how it is far better than
a regular bike odometer. Here are some drawings of a Jones-Oerth device
Pete, Frank Giannino and Kurt Krauss did
much of the expert course measurement work in Sullivan and Orange
Counties in the 1980's and early 1990's, with Frank achieving
the USATF standard of certification for more courses than anybody. In
2001 and 2002, Brian Cavanagh and Steve Holmbraker led the way on course
measurement, assisted by Ed Homenick, Kathleen Rifkin, Bob Harris, Bill Norton, Pete Anzevino, Barry Shavrick and
Zac Shavrick. Through collaborative efforts and planning in 2001 and
accurately measured more than thirty courses in Sullivan
and Orange Counties. Race course distances varied from 5km (3.106856 miles)
to 100km (62.13712 miles). The 100km is only the sixteenth USATF Certified
race of its length in the United States.
We have found that the majority of road race courses in the
region are NOT accurate. We have heard runners grumble about a course being
"long" when it is accurate; because the other races they had been doing were
short, their frame of reference was skewed. This
reminded me of the high school football players who
bragged that they had run "the mile" in sub 6 minutes: they ran five laps
around the football field. There was no track.
When my HS track distance runners ran the same five laps around the football field in gym class, even
the slowest guy on my team (a 2:48 half-miler) ran a 4:48, several guys ran
well under the league record of 4:21, a few even breaking the magic 4 minute
mile barrier for high school students which had only been broken once before
by Jim Ryan and Marty Liquori. My fastest guy even broke the World Record
by running a 3:38 ! It took some
explaining to convince my track team optimists they hadn't run a full mile.
Postscript: the "3:38 miler" eventually ran a 5:11 for the mile (when he
was in far better shape) on an accurate track that season. While the differences are usually not as exaggerated in road
racing in the region, the differences between accurate and inaccurate can
range from subtle to obvious. More race directors should have their courses
accurately measured using USATF course measurement
If they say
it's a 5km, it should be a 5km (3.106856 miles)
. It's a simple matter of using
truth in advertising.
USATF course measurement procedures are designed to insure that
the actual distance for a race is at least the advertised distance, meaning
"not short"; by USATF standards, it should be accurate to within one tenth
of one percent when compared to a known accurate course. Over the span of
5km (16,404 feet), that would be about 16 feet. USATF certified courses
also have a one tenth of one percent correction factor added (ie. 1 meter
added per 1,000 meters) to insure that they are not short. The correction
factor that is added to a 5km is 16.4 feet (5 meters).
The two most essential steps for accurate
course measurement are:
- First, use the Jones-Oerth device on
the calibration course, then
- Second,measure the road race course
with the Jones-Oerth device.
Shouldn't the times you run in races accurately reflect your level of
Yes! While the experience of running two different courses is never
identical in terms of hills, number of turns, weather conditions (such as
wind), and how you feel that day, the distance of the two courses should
be comparable to a known accurate course. In USATF lingo, a known
accurate course is called a calibration course.
The first step that we take in measuring
a road race course accurately is to establish an accurate calibration
course. The level of detail required is visible in the USATF-approved paperwork below. This
course is measured by using a series of surveyor's steel tape measurement
lengths and then adding or subtracting distance by using a math formula which
takes into account the effect of temperature on expansion or contraction of
the steel tape. Fiberglass tape measurement is not acceptable because the
tape stretches inconsistently. Nails are driven into the roadway to permanently
mark the location of the calibration course, a detailed map is drawn,
then the map and an application (below) are submitted to USATF. Amy Morss,
an experienced certifier with USATF, examines the math, the map and the application
for all New York State courses to see if procedures were followed correctly.
If they were, a certificate of accuracy is given along with a USATF Course Certification number.
The course is then called a USATF Certified Course. The following is an example
of one: USATF Certified Course
#NY01046AM. This code is for a race in New York State ("NY") which
was approved as accurate in 2001 ("01"), and was the 46th course of 2001
("46") that was certified by Amy Morss ("AM") of USATF as accurate.
The second step in course measurement involves laying out a road race
course. This is where it helps to have the expertise of previous race directors.
RRCA and USATF have lots of information on their websites which you can read to learn how to measure courses,
and local measurers (above) can be hired. Laying out a course means deciding
where it will go, making sure that there is enough room to adjust the start
and / or finish to make it accurate after actual measurements are done.
It is not possible to decide in advance exactly where the start AND finish
lines will be. However, their locations can be approximated during the layout
The third step is measuring a road race course. Courses should be
measured from finish to start because finish line area details are usually
more complex and the finish line needs to be established before the start
line is precisely located.
To measure a road race course, we do not use a bike or car odometer.
Instead, we use a highly accurate device called a Jones-Oerth device. This
is a mechanical counter that mounts on the front wheel of a bicycle and
shows a series of digits in a row, just like a car odometer reading. Each
digit it registers represents only a fraction of a bicycle wheel revolution,
so we call this "high resolution" measurement: it is very sensitive. One
bike wheel revolution may increment the Jones-Oerth counter 3-4 counts.
Since the number of counts that the device registers varies according to
the wheel diameter, we will see how many counts it takes to ride a known
accurate course (calibration course).
For example, if the Jones-Oerth device registers 4,000 counts on a 400
meter calibration course, then we do the math and figure that it must
be registering 10 counts per meter that day (4,000 divided by 400 equals
10). Further calculating tells us that we would need to show at least 10
times 5000 (50,000) counts if we were to measure out the appropriate distance
for a 5000 meter race. (5000 meters is the same as 5km.) Because there
is always a margin of error when measuring, USATF requires that 1 meter
per km (5 meters in this case) be added onto the course, or 50 more counts
on the Jones-Oerth device. Therefore, when measuring from finish to start
along the intended road race course, the Jones-Oerth device should register
50,050 counts on those days when we get 4,000 counts per 400 meter calibration
What makes the use of the Jones-Oerth device significantly different
from a bike or car odometer is that the Jones-Oerth device has to be calibrated
every day that it is used or else it is worthless. This allows the Jones-Oerth
device to usually register more counts on a 400 meter course on a cool
day than it would on a hot day. On a hot day, the bicycle tires expand enough
to increase the wheel diameter (and consequently the circumference, the distance
of one wheel revolution). This causes the Jones-Oerth device to register
fewer counts per 400 meters on those hot days. The amount of air pressure
in the tires, a high pressure or low pressure weather system, direct sun,
cloudiness, and road temperature will all affect the number of counts which
the Jones-Oerth device registers that day on the calibration course. The
weight of the rider and his or her equipment on the bike will also affect
the number of counts which the Jones-Oerth device registers.
Contact Steve Holmbraker of the Orange Runners Club, or Brian Cavanagh
of the Sullivan Striders (see phone number below) if you would like to obtain
a Jones-Oerth device, learn how to measure road race courses, or would like
to have them measure a course for you.
Below is a sample application
for certification of a calibration course by USATF (USA Track and Field.
The calibration course
is 400 meters long, is on Airport Rd in the town of Bethel, and was measured
by using a series of surveyor's steel tape measure lengths.
Return to reading above
APPLICATION FOR CERTIFICATION OF CALIBRATION
1. Name of Calibration Course _________Airport Rd 400M________________________
2. Length of Calibration Course ______________400 Meters______________________
3. City and State _______Bethel, NY (USGS Quad: White Lake )
4. Date(s) Measured _________7/18/02________________________
5. Method Used to Measure Calibration Course ______steel tape
6. How many times did you measure the calibration course? twice
by tape, pre-measured ("roughed out") by calibrated bike four times
7. Measuring Team Leader: ____Brian Cavanagh______ , ___________845-791-6149_____
_____9 Lake Shore Drive West, Rock Hill, NY 12775_________________
8. List Names and Duties of Team Members: Supervision, teaching
(by demonstration), reference measurements & note-taking: Brian Cavanagh;
Barry Shavrick- lead tape person, reference measurements; Zac Shavrick-
rear tape person
9. Submit a map of this
calibration course, showing direction of north, the name of the road
(and relevant cross streets), and the exact locations of start and finish
points, including taped distances from nearby permanent landmarks.
10. Is this calibration course: STRAIGHT? __yes_________ PAVED?
11. How are the start and finish points marked? PK nails, pink
survey ribbon in pavement on inner edge of white line demarcating shoulder
of road, white line on paved shoulder of road perpendicular to lane line.
12. Are the start and finish points located in the road where
a bicycle wheel can touch them?_yes_
13. Approximate altitude of calibration course: _1280 ft_
Mark endpoints in a permanent way (concrete or P-K nails). Paint
will fade. The calibration course, once certified, can be used to measure
14. If the calibration course was measured by Electronic Distance
Meter (EDM), describe on a separate sheet the exact procedures used; also
include a copy of the original field notes from the measurement.
15. If the calibration course was measured by steel tape, fill
out a copy of the steel taping data sheet and complete the following:
16. How much tension (force) was applied to the tape while measuring?
17. How was this tension maintained? spring scale
18. Was the tape free of any kinks, crimps or splices? _____yes___________
19. Bicycle Check. This is a check against miscounting the number
of tape lengths. (If you used a gross measurement check other than a bicycle,
Gross check: 400 meter course pre-measured ("roughed out") by
calibrated bike four times prior to taping.
STEEL TAPING DATA SHEET