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Gotta Run: Why do accurate race course measurements matter?

Why does it matter if a race course is accurately measured, particularly if everyone runs the same distance? Well it does matter and we’ll address that after catching up on the upcoming events.

On Saturday, the Bostian Elementary 5K kicks off at 9 a.m. There are 11 age groups for men and women. The fun run for kids 12 and under is free. There are special 5K registration rates for families and for students. All proceeds benefit Bostian Elementary School. A printable race brochure and link to online registration is available at www.salisburyrowanrunners.org. Contact Michael Thomas for more information at 910-232-2695.

Recently, I was made aware that one of the most popular running venues in the area had finally fixed a short course. The McAlpine Greenway 5K course in Charlotte had been the location for many adult races and multiple high profile events for high school and college runners. While the course had been around for more than 30 years, over time veteran runners had suspicions that the measurements were incorrect. Recent construction brought the issue to light, and with input from retired East Mecklenburg cross country coach Larry McAfee and several of the veteran runners, the new course is about 250 feet longer than the previous course. The regional 3A event at McAlpine, where Rowan County teams competed yesterday, was the first high school meet on the new and accurately measured distance. Permanent start, finish and mile markers are now in place.

After reading this information about the course at McAlpine, I decided to go and satisfy my own curiosity about the Dan Nicholas 5K course. The course has long been used for both the pre-county and county meets for all the local high schools, both very popular events. Catawba used to use this course for its women’s cross country meets but has now moved to Salisbury Community Park.

A few of our local runners, me included, were very curious about the actual distance of the Dan Nicholas course. It seemed well worth the time to go measure it and end the speculation. Years ago, we did a couple of adult races on the course although we took for granted that the existing measurements were correct, not something that I prefer to do. Last Friday afternoon, I took the measuring wheel and walked the course.

Why the wheel and not a GPS device of some kind? Because certification of courses for the United States Association of Track and Field (USATF) by GPS is not recognized because of poor accuracy. Neither are things like MapMyRun or automobile odometers. The only recognized measurement techniques involve a solid wheel and, in certain cases, a bicycle odometer that has been tested for accuracy based on a wheel-measured mile. So, it all comes back to the wheel. I carry one in my truck all the time and enjoy measuring and marking nearly all the current courses in Rowan and surrounding counties.

Why does it matter to me so much about the accurate distance? It came from having run nearly 1,000 races over the years. In many cases, an unusually fast or slow time has something to do with the accuracy of the course but could also have to do with the difficulty of that course or weather issues. I always wanted the variables to be the difficulty and weather, not the course accuracy. Improving fitness, not a short course, should generally make for faster times.

Over the last 10 years, popular local races are nearly always 5Ks. 10ks have just about disappeared. Very few 8Ks, 15Ks and 10 milers or anything longer. Thus, the measurement of fitness has become the 5K, of which there are more than 35 in Rowan in a year’s time. We need to get the distance correct.

Short courses do nothing for anyone, although cross country courses are often measured short on purpose or just conveniently left alone, such as was the case with McAlpine. The situation with short high school courses has become so bad that fast times for top runners don’t have the clout that they used to. Catawba College Cross Country Coach Jason Bryan said, “When I am recruiting runners, I look at results online, but if don’t know the course, it is hard to trust the results. You never know who put together the course and how recently or accurately it was measured.” Bryan and other college coaches regularly use track times for more reliable results.

It is my opinion that most adults who run and race regularly know when road race courses are either short or long. Don’t present an argument that your GPS says this or that. Clouds, dense shade, and tall buildings are among some of the factors that affect GPS distances. By the way, certified USATF 5K courses are always longer than 3.10 miles and often 3.14 with the goal that everyone runs at least 16,368 feet.

We found Dan Nicholas Park’s 5K course to be 75 feet short, not nearly as much as McAlpine, and easily fixed. Their course just needs to back up to the diagonal line from the tree for the start line that was used for many years. It needs to have permanent markers for the start, finish and miles. Other than that, it is a perfect course. Beautiful and mildly challenging, it is a keeper, with plenty of places to challenge to the runner.

See you next week, hopefully out running somewhere.

David Freeze is a nationally certified running coach and president of the Salisbury Rowan Runners. Contact him at david.freeze@ctc.net. Learn more at Learn more at www.Ulearn2run.com

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