Canadian Running ( here's an easier-to-read copy of the above article from the Sept. & Oct. 2016 Vol. 9 issue 6 )
Why we should care about the shortage of certified courses
By Madeleine Cummings
This spring, my running coach had to decide which 10 women should compete on a competitive relay squad. Since there were more of us than spots on this team, we had to prove our speed at some point during the season. In order to be fair to everyone, he set basic guidelines: the race had to be at least 10K and the course distance had to be certified. Routes measured with a GPS watch or MapMyRun, he decided, would not count because they just aren't accurate enough.
Due to injury, I missed the two races most people used to qualify: the Calgary 10K (certified by Athletics Canada) and a local 10,000m race on a track. But with three weeks until the relay, I figured I had time to clock a 10K— ideally one in Edmonton, where I live.
Most big cities have at least one road race every weekend, and I was willing to travel for one that had been measured. Even if a route hadn't been certified by Athletics Canada, my coach was prepared to consider races that had been measured using a wheel. Surely I could find a suitable to lc somewhere in the province of Alberta?
The task proved impossible. After a week of contacting race directors and officials, I realized that finding certified road races is like finding real maple syrup in American restaurants. Most people don't care about the difference, so why bother with the trouble and expense of offering your customers the real thing?
Race organizers from the Banff Marathon, the DNA Dash in Calgary, and the Spinal Cord Injury Wheel Run in St. Albert all told me their 10K courses were measured by GPS. So those were out. A 10K in Blackfalds was measured seven years ago using a wheel, but its route had since been altered and confirmed with GPS. The Mayor's Recreation For Life Run 10K in Airdrie was "sanctioned" by Athletics Alberta, but I learned that it, too, was measured with GPS.
There are many legitimate reasons why races don't go through the hassle of getting routes certified. It takes time and it can cost hundreds of dollars. Here's a simplified version of the process: a race hires an accredited race measurer, who measures a short "calibration course" and then the full route twice using a Jones Counter mounted on a bicycle. The measurer pays attention to tangents and marks each kilometre along the route, taking care to make sure the math checks out. They then must re-ride the calibration course multiple times and fill out pages of paperwork for Athletics Canada, which issues certification. Lots can go wrong during the measuring process — a flat bike tire, for instance, can undo a day's work — and with traffic on the roads, measuring can be dangerous.
When I called Peter Pimm, a former coach of mine and longtime course measurer in Ontario, he confirmed what I suspected. "The vast majority of races are not certified," he said.
I don't think every fun run or charity race needs to be meticulously measured. For many people, running a race is about uniting around a fundraising goal or enjoying the fresh air with friends and family. But for races that keep track of course records and promote themselves as competitive, accuracy is important. Properly measured courses also make it easier for timing companies to position their equipment in the right places. What's the point of having chip timing, that measures to the second, if the route isn't quite right?
Canada's shortage of certified courses affects more than elite runners. It affects anyone trying to qualify for races like Boston and everyone who cares about personal bests.
When races aren't measured accurately, runners notice. In 2015, the Around the Bay 30K in Hamilton turned out to be short, and hundreds of runners looked to their watches, and race organizers, for answers. (It turned out the route had once been certified by Athletics Canada, but changed to an uncertified route.) UK Athletics announced this year that it will not recognize runners' times from the Greater Manchester Marathon from 2013-2015 because the course was found to be 380m too short.
Amateur runners — not just elites — do care about accuracy. "I look for races that talk about certification," said James Koole, a 45 year-old runner in Toronto. Koole ran Around the Bay in 2015 and investigated the length of the route after he noticed his GPS watch came up short. "A lot of runners put a lot of time and effort into their training," he said. "They measure themselves and compare them-selves and are proud of themselves based on those times."
For races that care about accuracy but can't afford certification, Pimm has a simple suggestion: instead of measuring a course with GPS or a wheel, you can use Google Earth's measuring tool.
"The accuracy is incredible," he said. To test it out, you can zoom in on a local track and measure a lap. "It'll come out as 398-400 m," he promises. [ Pimm edit: that's if you use the tool to measure close to the curb of the inside lane of a track that you know for a fact is the regulation size of 400m and it should come out as about 399 to 401m. See an example of this tool's accuracy, below] Pimm himself uses Google Earth to estimate where start and finish lines should be before he measures a route properly.
Though I never got the chance to to run my 10K, I did get to race the relay in the end, on a lovely (less competitive) team. My next race, I've decided, will be 5K — on the track. Can't argue with that.
Madeleine Cummings is a reporter for the Edmonton Examiner and a Canadian Running columnist.