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I got this question and I don't know how to answer it. I'm posting it in hopes that someone will be able to offer some guidance:

I am a member of USATF’s Mountain, Ultra, and Trail Council. We are in the midst of discussion about course designation as “road” or “trail” and are looking to put together guidelines for prospective races to know if their courses will be eligible for consideration in one category vs. another. Is there a rule or some precedent set for the amount of say, dirt road that a road course can contain, or something to do with variations in surfaces for “normal” road races when applying for certification? It would seem to me that a course applying for certification as a road marathon should have some guidelines for the actual percentage of paved surface. I would appreciate any input or direction you could give me regarding “mainstream” races that we might apply to ultramarathons.
Thank you.
Howard Nippert

Any takers? Have at it!
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Over the years things have got overcomplicated. For any course measurement, what defines whether it can be certified is the map. If all aspects of the course can be defined, without ambiguity, then the course's length can be certified.

This means that the map should be of sufficient quality that a stranger could travel to the course and ride his bike right in the tracks of the person who originally measured it.

A golf-course cross-country course is near-impossible to document.

A trail or dirt road with ambiguous borders may not be easily documented.

What people choose to call these various types of courses is what causes the confusion.

Is there a solution? I have no easy answer. Perhaps one will be found.
It really comes down to what is meant by "trail". Trails can come in all shapes and sizes. Some trails are very well maintained and their borders are clear and unambiguous. However, there are those that maybe a single track or rarely traveled and get grown over, or get eroded during the summer months due to heavy traffic. In my opinion there is no black and white answer. It needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. There are certified marathon courses that are 95%+ on trails. It all comes down to whether or not the course can be well defined and documented, and not whether it is dirt or asphalt.
The USATF Operating Regulation 6, listed below, gives a fairly specific meaning for a road course and courses in general.

A Definition of course:
1 Path: A running course shall be defined as the streets, roads, paths, marked paths on grass or gravel or dirt, and/or paths
using established permanent landmarks or benchmarks which is intended as the runner’s path for any type of race; and
2 Shortest possible route: The measured running course shall involve the course noted above and the measurement shall
follow the runner’s shortest possible legal route.
B USATF certification: A course may be designated as “USA Track & Field Certified” only if a final signatory national certifier
who is approved by the certification chair of the Road Running Technical Council of USATF has determined that the shortest
possible route has been measured with reasonable accuracy.
1 Stated distance: Courses meet certification standards if the measurements demonstrate that the course is at least the stated
distance. In order to ensure that a course is not short, the measurement must include an addition of 1/1000th of the stated
race distance; and
NOTE: Information concerning acceptable methods of measuring courses should be obtained from the Road Running
Technical Council of USATF prior to the measurement of a long distance course.
2 Effective date: Certification is effective as of the date that all measurements and necessary adjustments are submitted as
evidenced by the postmark, although the actual review and approval of the certification may be at a later date.
C Road Running Technical Council: This body is now defined in the Long Distance Running Division, Article 15-D (page 48-49).
Thanks to everyone for input on this question. I would have to agree that actually certifying a course would have to be decided on a case-by-case basis. Cross country is an interesting area in this regard-- some of these courses get used so often that lots of folks including runners, are convinced that they "know" when the course is or is not laid out or followed correctly. Can any of these be documented? I think the answer is "yes", and I have a set of courses in Washington that I've documented (for myself) exactly how to lay out. But sometimes another question is relevant also-- even if you do go to the trouble of specifying, for instance, where to place key stakes for flagging and limiting the course, what are the chances that someone else will make the effort to follow the instructions carefully?
Bob - only if you lay out the course yourself can you guarantee with 100 percent certainty. I've tried hard, since getting into course measurement for certification, not to get wound up about courses I measure that are laid wrong...and invariably I'm the guy that gets yelled at when courses are 'wrong' in the opinion of the GPS-wearing 'experts.'

You can provide documentation to the 'n'th degree to a race director, but if they have a support crew who have set up the (incorrect) course over a period of years (as with many established races here that never had a certified course) they may not receive or heed the 'memo.'

I have asked race directors after races I've measured and raced (yes, I race too) why the course was not properly marked...most agree that communication on their part was the root cause of the deficiency.

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