Some of you may remember my post earlier this summer about my "opportunity" to measure the Illinois High School Association's (IHSA) State Final course at Detweiller Park just north of Peoria, Illinois.
The background is as follows: The IHSA has held the high school State Final meet at Detweiller Park since 1970 and on a 3 mile course since 1971. The boys' course was largely unchanged from them until 2003, when the introduction of chip timing required a relatively minor reconfiguration of the course. The course record is held by Craig Virgin, who ran the course in 13:50 in 1972.
The course is relatively flat (approximately 20 feet of elevation change from highest to lowest point) and generates fast times in good conditions. It was rumored to be short of the 3 mile advertised distance. The IHSA claims to have has the course measured by civil engineering students from Bradley University, and held to their contention that the course was, indeed, three miles.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) state that a cross-country course should be measured "Down the middle of the course". This, of course, is at odds with the rules of USATF and the NCAA, which state that courses should be measured using the Shortest Possible Route.
Thus you have the recipe for confusion and controversy: People who don't know how to measure a course, using inaccurate equipment (measuring wheels) trying to measure to at least two different standards.
In November, 2007, at the state meet, Chris Derrick won the state championship with a time of 13:52- just a couple of seconds off Virgin's 35 year old record. The DyeStat message boards heated up; the question was who ran faster? It became clear that only an unbiased measurement of the course by someone who knew a little about course measurement could provide credible information regarding the current and historical length of the courses. A number of us formed a task force with the goal of putting the controversy surrounding the length of this course to rest. I managed to visit the course three times over the winter, stopping by Peoria on my way to or from somewhere else, and took pictures, readings, and notes.
Among the co-conspirators in the effort was Tony Jones, the co-publisher of Illinos Prep Top Times, which is now DyeStat Illinois. Tony was aware of the efforts of John Tucker, the head men's cross-country coach at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, to develop a system that would allow times on various cross-country courses to be compared against each other. Part of the process involves rating the course, and part of that process involves measuring the course.
John has compared various course measurement techniques and strongly prefers the steel tape. My experience, of course, has been with a calibrated bicycle. We agreed to meet in Peoria the weekend of July 19 and 20 to measure the course at least those two ways.
John brought an assistant, Roger Koehler, and I worked with Gary Finley, another former high school runner who had developed an interest in the project. John and Roger began toi measure the course with a steel tape in 50 meter increments. Gary and I set out a clibration course on a straight paved course north of the park. I calibrated on the course we set. Then I rode to the course and re-calibrated over the first 300 meters of the course as measured with the steel tape. My numbers were about 0.83% off, with the bicycle requiring more counts to cover the 300 meters on grass than on asphalt. I measured the course four different ways that afternoon- the current and historical course on both the NFHS and USATF line. John measured the current course on both lines. I recalibrated on the grass course.
Our numbers were close- my lengths were about 6 meters shorter than John's on both courses- but I was mre than a little concerned about the inconsistencies in my calibration data. USATF's procedures call for calibration on a paved surface. What if the race course isn't paved? So, you calibrate on the grass surface. Some parts of the Detweiller course were hard, solid ground. Others were soft. Some places were grassy. Some had been worn bare. How do you find a surface on which to calibrate that accurately reflects the surface you'll be measuring on?
Add to that another interesting experience I had earlier in the year on a crushed limestone path in Chicago's Licoln Park where the measurement numbers changed as the surface thawed and I've come to a conclusion: If your bicycle wheel leaves an indentation on the surface you're measuring on, you probably shouldn't be measuring on that surface with a bicycle. I do not think I would measure a cross-country course with anything but a steel tape.
We think we put together a pretty comprehensive report on the measurement; it's posted on the DyeStat Illinois site.
John Tucker called me earlier this week to see if USATF course measurers could be enlisted to help measure cross-country courses in the event a coach or event director wanted his or her course rated. I ran it by Gene and Pete and Pete suggested we put it up on the board. So here it is. It's outside our charter, but it definitely falls under the umbrella of using our expertise to benefit the sport and its participants. Please weigh in with your experiences and opinions.