The 2017 Seven Bridges Marathon in Chattanooga, Tenn., was too long; the half-marathon was too short. By Cameron McWhirter Dec. 22, 2017 10:50 a.m. ET
On a windy October Sunday, Kimberly Nickel clocked a personal best in the PNC Milwaukee Marathon of 4 hours 37 minutes. The 53-year-old engineer said she was “super excited, super happy.” As soon as she got home, she posted photos on Facebook, including a selfie with her medal.
“I hadn’t even showered,” she said. “I was so proud.”
Later that day Ms. Nickel received crushing news: the 26.2-mile course had been laid out incorrectly, making it about 0.8 miles too short and disqualifying the race as an official or certified marathon. She looked at photos of the race she had posted and “I quietly took them all down,” she said. “How could you get it wrong?”
The answer is simply, and sadly, human error.
Even with the proliferation of Global Positioning Systems, mapping software and wearable, internet-connected technology, measuring an official marathon relies on a bicycle with a tool developed in the 1970s. It also depends on the perfect execution of a variety of tasks from the placement of traffic cones to marking turnaround points to basic math.
Kimberly Nickel with her medal, before she learned about the race error. Just this year, runners ran too short or too long in races in Tennessee, Texas, Maine, Florida, Mississippi and Scotland. Last year the Greater Manchester, England, marathon declared its races in 2013, 2014 and 2015 were all short by 380 meters, due to a calibration error in 2013.
Sometimes people lay out the race incorrectly. Or those setting up the course get it wrong. Other times, volunteers or staff posted at sections of a race send runners in a wrong direction.
“There’s a billion ways to mess it up and only one way to get it right,” says Jay Nevans, 48, race director of the Seven Bridges Marathon and Half-Marathon in Chattanooga. This year both distances were wrong—the marathon too long, the half-marathon too short.
USA Track & Field, which approves official events, has a 66-page manual of procedures for certifying races. It lists 13 items of necessary equipment for measuring a race, including masking tape and spray paint for temporary markers, a pocket calculator with at least 8 digits, a good road bicycle preferably with high-pressure tires and a Jones Counter, a device that attaches to the front bike wheel and measures distance by counting revolutions.
Bike tire pressure must be constant and measurers must conduct calibrations—using steel tape measures at least 300 meters in length—to account for how changing temperatures might impact the size of the tires or the length of measuring tape. And the entire course must be biked in its entirety at least twice.
Brandon Wilson, who mismeasured both the marathon and the half-marathon in Chattanooga in 2017, said he faced trouble at every turn. The racecourse passes over a highly trafficked bridge and a dam that aren’t bike friendly. When he decided to make the ride in the middle of the night, a car almost hit him and his assistant.
“That really scared us,” he said. Then his computer crashed, taking with it many of his measurements and calculations. He went out and measured parts of the course again, but skipped a final check for safety reasons until the day of the race.
As the runners took off, Mr. Wilson biked ahead of them to check the course. By the time he reached the dam, he knew something was wrong.
“I thought, ‘Oh, this is not good,’ “ he said. “Before anyone called me, I knew it at mile 15.”
Mr. Wilson dashed to check his calculations. When going over it again, he realized he hadn’t made one mistake, but two. He mapped out the wrong place for two turnaround markers along a Tennessee River park, which meant the marathon was about .75 miles too long and the half-marathon was about .63 miles too short.
“If it could go wrong, it went wrong,” he said.
If a race distance is off, it can’t be certified, which means a runner’s time might not be allowed to qualify them for major competitive races, like the Boston Marathon.
Race director Mr. Nevans said he was inundated with “hyper-negative” email and social-media posts. “The venom on Facebook is just crazy,” he said. The race offered refunds and in one case paid for a runner’s entry fee to another marathon, he said.
Mr. Wilson, who has measured hundreds of races, said he plans to measure Chattanooga again next year, but this time in conjunction with another measurer who will independently check the route.
Decades ago, when there were fewer races and ways of measuring them, such mistakes likely happened and didn’t get noticed. Today, serious runners wearing tracking devices discover mistakes even before the race is over.
Since the 1980s, the USATF has sanctioned use of the bicycle-measurement technique that many measurers maintain is better than GPS technology, which can’t track races as closely and isn’t as reliable near tall buildings or under trees. Race measurers and certifiers hold annual gatherings to discuss new technologies to reduce errors and discuss the subject regularly on a special listserv—but races continue to miss their mark.
“It’s always human error,” said Duane Russell, 61, a longtime race measurer in Denver. Even if you lay out a course perfectly, people in a city show up in the wee hours before a race and move markers or cause other problems, he said. “You have to check and double-check.”
David Katz, chair of the USATF’s Road Running Technical Council, said race measurement errors are “extremely rare” but “nobody’s perfect.” Mr. Katz, considered one of the most meticulous measurers in the field, said, “I’m scared stiff I’m going to screw up.”
Don Weyer measured the Milwaukee course this year that came up short. A self-described “map freak,” Mr. Weyer, 70, has been measuring races for about 40 years. He said when he heard about the mistake, he panicked: “There is no way in hell I could be that far off.”
For two days, he went over all of his calculations, reviewing each step again and again. Finally, he says race officials told him it wasn’t his fault. Someone who helped lay out the course misread his instructions, they told him. Race officials didn’t return calls for comment.
For Ms. Nickel, the botched marathon left her in an odd limbo. What she thought was her triumph “feels like a scratch,” she said. A friend recently told her that she should display her medal “but that I should cut a chunk out of it first.”
Write to Cameron McWhirter at firstname.lastname@example.org