How are certified courses measured… are they really accurate?

Gene J. from Toronto, Canada has a question that is important to every runner out there: As a runner near near the front of the field, I was a bit confused with cones that were laid out along parts of the course and how the course was measured. The cones were placed close to the right side of the road. Was this meant to keep us runners inside to the right of the cones at all times and is that how the course was measured? It was especially confusing as we rounded corners and turns as most courses are measured to the tangents (i.e. straight line being the shortest distance). There was also single and double lines in many sections of the road. I was unsure whether I could cross the centre lines. I did not cross the lines but did see many others crossing the lines on my way back on the second loop.

My Garmin also gave me a measurement of 42:54km. I know Garmins are inaccurate but a 354metre overage is more than I’ve been out for most of the other marathons I have run which makes me wonder about how the course was measured. I am just curious for my own interest but this might be interesting to others.

First, even though you are from Canada, national certification bodies follow the IAAF rules and so the USATF will have a similar process and rules to Canada’s governing body. USATF rules are very explicit.

Next, be very clear that not all courses are certified (though without much doubt your marathon is). This is a very prescribed process and requires a certified official. There are fees involved and so many lower keyed races never do get their courses certified. Your local 5k or 10k course may have been measured by a driven vehicle, traversed by someone with a GPS or mapped out online. In any case, these are not certified and may be wildly inaccurate. Thus, when someone bemoans poor times or oozes over excessively fast times… I first question the course. On the other hand, if it is certified it will have been assigned an official certification registration number. By the way, if the course needs to change due to road construction or whatever (from one year to another), it must be reassessed for recertification.

If you visit this link you clearly see that all CERTIFIED courses follow the absolute shortest possible route a runner could take. Any other route yields a longer course or gets someone disqualified for cutting a course. Generally a road race does not allow running on the sidewalks (though I have yet to see this enforced) so all measurements are roadway measurements. The tangents to corners are within the street and not over the side walks. What this means is that almost every runner runs longer than the actual race distance. And that distance will vary depending on how far out you are pushed by the crowds or how you follow the leaders versus the shortest tangent route on the course. Even elite runners do not run exactly the shortest distance. In some marathons they have a blue line painted on the pavement the whole way. You can see on TV how they do not always follow this. And every step not on that line, is longer than the certified course.

So, to your questions.
The cones are usually used to denote where you cannot cross a mid-line stripe on a roadway. Often you will see these on out-and-back courses. Ones solely on one side would indicate to me NOT to run “outside” them. It appears from your recount that you ran correctly.

Your GPS is most likely as accurate as it ever was. Within the usual margin of error (which also in my experience would never be as far off as your numbers) these are very accurate. You added over the course of the marathon extra distance with every side-of-street switch, every go-around-that-person-pass, and every weave-over-to-the-water-stop move, etc. So, what do I say? You ran much further than you had to because you did not follow the shortest route. The good news is that using your final official time and your actual distance, you ran a faster pace per mile than you thought.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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4 Responses to How are certified courses measured… are they really accurate?

  1. Gene says:

    First, thanks Dean for taking my inquiry. This is a topic that I’ve thought about after running in many different events.
    I received an answer back on some of my questions that I sent to the race director of the Ottawa Fall Colours Marathon, Terry McKiinty. He stated that if the roads had cones we should stay to the right. But he also stated that we could run ‘inside the cones’ when rounding corners. Then Terry went on to say that we could run the straightest line route – but that would put me on the wrong side of the cone and also allow me to cross centre/double yellow lines. (Which I did not, but did see other runners doing).
    Bottom line, I like your explanations Dean. It is a grey area. It is the runners responsibility to know the course beforehand – I maybe should have driven it and then could have had my questions answered before I ran it. Since I hadn’t, I ran what I felt was the ‘right’ way to run the course.
    Oh, one more thing – Terry said that since the course was measured and certified, my GPS was off. Sort of a pat answer, but I am letting that one go. Hey, I’m not bitter here, I just want to run ethically and within the boundaries of what is right and fair.

  2. Norm says:

    I’ve run several certified marathon and 1/2 marathon courses (as well as many shorter ones) and my Garmin always, without exception, measures them longer than the published distance. I’ve always interpreted this as a result of me not following the shortest race path, not that my GPS was “off”.

    I find it very difficult to follow the shortest path when it’s not marked, especially in the first few miles of very large (by number of participants) races, where I find that I’m usually weaving back and forth to get around groups of slower runners. Which brings me to a pet peeve: runners that ignore the pacing banners in order to start closer to the front.

  3. Dean Hebert says:

    Right on, I think unless you have a painted line exactly following the “shortest route” you will always run longer. Even logic dictates that… every single variance makes the course longer and you could never make it shorter (legally) in other areas to even it out again.

    I also agree with the pacing issue. But, that issue has been around for 30 plus years… ever since the “boom”. Before then, races were so small it didn’t matter. I don’t have solutions for that one!

  4. running10 says:

    Nice post… on another topic, I hit the 30 bracket with the 10k and only after 30 real days running AND missing a week last week. Coming back strong. Might enter a race on 31st of December here in my town. $5000 for the winner (although the top 10 or so are pro’s) I will keep you posted and keep in mind the lines on the road you just talked about. Thanks Dean.

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