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RI Certifer, Ray Nelson, had a nice 2-page article in the November/December issue of the New England Runner Magazine. The article was originally features in the NikonRunner blog.

Ray Nelson article

I included the text from the blog article below. Thank you. -- Justin

Hi all, I have decided to include a guest blogger to the site. He is longtime runner and friend, Ray Nelson who is a USATF certified course measurer. I thought it would be interesting to get a little insight into the measurement of race courses.

Take it away Ray:

I have been measuring course for over 30 years, starting out in 1978 with a measuring / surveyor’s wheel, and walking courses. As a competitive runner back then, I wanted to know the ‘actual’ distance of race courses, rather than the ‘stated’ distance which was usually not accurate. I wanted to be able to compare and assess my race performances and check my performance level and progress. And if a 5 miler was short, say 4.8 miles, I couldn’t get a decent reading on how I was doing. So it was kind of for selfish reasons that I first got into course measurement, wanting to know the actual distance so I could then calculate my real per mile average, and compares races, etc.

In 1978, I recall flying from westerly, RI to block island with Pat McNulty, friend and Johnson & Wales AC teammate, to "wheel walk’ the Run Around the Block 15K. It took us a long time to walk the course, compared to using a bicycle, but we marked the course which as far as I know is still being used today, and has not changed !!!

In the early 80’s I learned that there was a road running "technical council" founded by Ted Corbitt, and got hold of a Procedures Manual, bought a Jones counter, and basically taught myself how to measure a course according to TAC standards (The Athletics Congress), the name for the sports governing body at the time, since changed to USATF.

In 1986, I was invited by John McGrath, former publisher of NER magazine, to measure the Boston Marathon, along with David Katz, an expert certifier from NY. We rode our bikes together but did independent measurements. When we got to 10 miles we compared notes, and discovered that we were within 1 foot apart - an extremely close correlation!! From that point on, I had gained considerable respect and personal validation that I was going the job right !

After serving a year-long apprenticeship, I was appointed NATIONAL CERTIFIER in 1992 by Wayne Nicoll – the Eastern Chairman of RRTC at the time. Wayne and I had done some measurements together, and he was my mentor, who showed me the fine points of course measurement. So I have been a USATF certifier for 18 years, and have measured 100’s of courses, probably close to 1000, mostly in RI and MA.

Accuracy is important to standardize performances so they can be graded and count legitimately as PR’s, and for records in general, including world / American, and age group records. In 1993 Elana Meyer set a world record for 5k on the roads at the downtown 5k in Providence. In order for her record to count, the course had to be accurate, and not less than 5000 meters. The following week Pete Riegel from OH, national chairman of RRTC at the time, come to Providence to perform a ‘validation’ measurement of the course to make sure it was at least 5000 meters, so that Meyer’s record could be ratified. So my work, her performance, and the race reputation were all on the line. Bottom line was that the course passed !!

Anyone is eligible to measure a course by following the procedures, and submitting an application and course map to the certifier for that particular state. You need a Jones counter which attaches to the front wheel of the bike, and a calibration course of at least 1000 feet or 300 meters. The calibration course is tape measured, usually 100 feet at a time, and the endpoints are marked with nails. There is a separate section in the procedures manual for measuring a calibration course. Prior to measuring a course, the bike must by ‘calibrated’ on the ‘cal’ course. This takes 4 straight, wobble-free rides and recording the number of "counts" for each ride from end to end. From the average number of counts of the four rides, the number of counts is figured for each mile or kilometer, and for the total course distance. Now you are ready to do the actual course measurement. For USATF certification, you must measure according to SPR (shortest possible route) that the runner can take, i.e. measuring by tangents. This can be challenging without police escort with traffic coming at you both ways!! This is why early Sunday mornings are generally best for measuring when there is the least amount of traffic, but it can still be tricky. The course must be measured at least twice, and the difference between measurements cannot be greater than 0.08% of the race distance (4 meter for a 5k). After the course measurements, the bike must be post-calibrated to again figure the number of counts for each mile, etc. The details of these procedures can be found at

I think the most dangerous course I measured was a 10 miler in Worcester, MA in heavy traffic without a police escort. The race director did follow me in his car with flashers on, but it was quite a harrowing experience with more than a few close calls, and getting called every name in the book!! I definitely used up 1or 2 of my ‘cat lives’ on that measurement, and looking back on it, I probably should not have done it.

I measured the Boston Run to Remember Half Marathon in South Boston a half dozen years or so ago, and then found out the day before the race that the course had to be changed, as part of it went through private property and the owner said NO to using his land !!! So I was called upon to adjust and re-measure the course with the race a day away. Driving up to Boston on that Saturday in early March, it was snowing hard in blizzard-like conditions. I was wondering how I would be able to do the measurement in this horrible weather, and thought how bizarre it was. Fortunately the snow shifted over to slush, and rain, and the temperature did not drop below freezing, so I was able to ride my bike and get it done, but now without incident. On Day Blvd. I biked through a large puddle, as that was the ‘shortest line’ to take, and for accuracy sake did not want to go around it. Unbeknownst to me, I hit a pot hole, and lost control of the bike and went head over heels into the puddle. I was wearing several layers of clothes and a gortex outer layer, so I did not get chilled to the bone. I shook it off and went back the previous mile mark and continued on the remaining few miles to the finish. After a hot shower and dry clothes I was fine, and the course was done!!

Don’t get the wrong idea, most course measurements during peaceable weather, and minimal or no traffic , are not catastrophic, and are quite enjoyable. I get to go to places I would not ordinarily go to, and some are like mini-vacations in a sense. The best one was the Mt. Desert Marathon in Maine, starting at Bar Harbor and going by Arcadia National Park. It is by far the most scenic course I have ever measured. I was awestruck by the majesty of this course.

In 2007 I helped design, measure and certify the Women’s Olympic Trials course in Boston. After a short opening loop, the course repeated an exact 6 mile loop four times. I designed it so that the mile marks on the 6-mile loops overlapped at the same points, making for easier splits and course management. That was a difficult assignment and one in which I take considerable pride.
I recently measured the B.A.A. Half Marathon in Boston, a major race that just last week (mid-july) sold out in just two hours !!!!!!!!!!!!

I take pride in the maps I produce, doing my best to make sure they are clear, neat, and accurately depict the course. I look back on some of the maps I made 25 years ago and note the poor quality, as with most jobs, it takes time to develop one’s skills and get better and better at what one does. That is what I strive find ways to improve, there is always room for that.

Course maps for all states at all distances by different measurers and certifiers can be accessed from the website.

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