Rocket City Marathon Course Certification
With Huntsville experiencing rapid growth, the marathon has endured multiple course modifications over the last few years, and 2019 has been no exception. Those changes, however minor, all require new course certification, which can be a tedious effort. Understanding this may give you, as a runner, a greater appreciation for some of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes well before the race starts.
Rather than describe the certification process from scratch, we thought we’d share extracts from two articles from Issue #218 of the HTC News. The first, written by DeWayne Satterfield, is entitled “More Precise Than You Think”, and the second, written by John DeHaye, is entitled “2014 Marathon Course: Beginning Concept to Certification.”
More Precise Than You Think
On Sunday, September 7th, Eric Fritz, Rob Youngren, Craig Armstrong, Dink Taylor, Blake Thompson, John DeHaye, Valerie Connaughton, and I (DeWayne Satterfield) gathered to measure the new Rocket City Marathon Course. This is a quick synopsis of the measurement process. With the rise of GPS watches and online route mapping tools, most people think that measuring a course is relatively easy. And I suppose measuring a course is relatively easy, but measuring a course to be USATF certified is another matter. Due to update rates of GPS receivers and satellites and accuracy issues with online mapping tools, those devices, while great for planning training routes, are not useful (not accurate enough) for the precision needed by USATF guidelines. First we start with the device called a Jones Counter. This device attaches to the front wheel of a bicycle and displays “counts” per the number of wheel revolutions. It is so precise it measures about 30 counts per one revolution of the bike wheel. This equates each “count” to be about 3 to 4 inches on the ground! Once the Jones Counter is in place, you need a rider who can control the bike (ride a straight line) consistently. For this certification we had three cyclists: Craig Armstrong, Valerie Connaughton and myself on the lead bike. The riders then (with pencil and paper close at hand) ride a calibration course. Our particular calibration course is 1000 feet long. Each rider must ride the 1000 feet (steel-tape measured) course 4 times, recording the number of counts for each pass. The number of counts cannot vary by more than 4 counts from each pass of the calibration course (which equates to about 1 foot)! Once each rider has their calibration set, then the number of “counts” per mile is calculated. It should be noted that we start at the finish and measure the course backwards. Thus our first mile mark (26) is .21857 miles from the finish. Then we follow the course backwards marking each mile, paying close attention to the Jones Counter and taking the SPR (Shortest Possible Route). Here in lies the crux of the certification. It order for a course to be certified, not only do you have to follow the calibration guidelines and follow tangents along the course as precisely as possible, but also, you must have two measurements that are within .08% of each other!!!! I said that correctly, .08%, which means at least two of the separate cyclist’s measurements cannot vary by more than 0.0008!!! If you get a flat, the whole thing must be repeated! The measurements are so precise that if a vehicle happens to be blocking our tangent, we literally ride up to the bumper of the vehicle, lock the wheel of the Jones Counter, move the bike to parallel the vehicle…then roll the bike the length of the vehicle, lock the wheel again, and move the bike back into the tangent line of the course! Needless to say attention to detail is paramount and no GPS nor online mapping tool has this kind of accuracy. I suppose having degrees in mathematics, they thought it would be a good idea to make me the lead biker…therefore I spent some time pre-computing all the “count” numbers I should see at each mile mark…most should know, however, that math majors are notorious for not being able to add and subtract. After double checking my calculations, we proceeded to measure the course, leaving the finish line, which is on the floor of the Van Braun Civic Center arena, and following the SPR backwards. Eric Fritz knew the course better than most, so he offered to ride out front to yell where the next turn was, so I could follow the tangents. Craig and Valerie followed in intervals behind me. The other aspect of the measurement is the detailed location of each mile mark. As I would get to a mile mark (determined by the counts on the Jones Counter), I would spray paint a dot at the location. Craig and Valerie would ride to the dot and log their count numbers and then the teams of John, Dink, Rob, and Blake would permanently mark the spot with a nail/washer and then steel tape measure the location to some nearby permanent structure, such as a fire hydrant, utility pole, building corner, etc. These locations are then written down as well as detailed on a map. Once the entire course has been measured and marked you would think we are finished, ah but wait…now the cyclists must go back to our 1000 feet calibration course and recalibrate by riding the course 4 more times. Things like temperature changes, tire pressure, and even fatigue of the rider can cause the calibration to be different. If this measurement is off by too much, then the entire process can be invalid. Needless to say course certification (especially for a marathon) takes a team and many, many hours to accomplish. Heck, I didn’t even mention all the paperwork and maps that John DeHaye has to produce and file! A couple of anecdotes; we had a police escort to help with traffic since we often had to ride in the middle of the road (always following the tangent) or cross a major intersection. As I followed the “counts”, the 25 mile mark ended up in the middle of crossing Governor’s Drive. The police officer asked why I stopped and I explained that this is where the mile marker must be placed. He informed me that we could not keep stopping in the middle of major intersections and that I should not let that happen again. I started to explain that the mile markers fell where it fell, but he was not interested, so I shrugged my shoulders and hoped for the best. We had a couple of more marks that landed very close to major intersections, but luckily none that caused us to block traffic! Perhaps the funniest time is when Eric was leading us through the course (we had marked the first two: miles 26 and 25)…remember we were supposed to be following the course backwards, suddenly Eric stops and says “uh oh”. I locked my Jones Counter and waited. Eric then apologizes, “Sorry, I am following the course the wrong way!” We were about half mile past the turn we should have made. I considered rolling the bike backwards, unrolling the counts, but that would have been extremely challenging. I then realized we could go back to the 25 mile mark and start again from there. However two things had to happen. We had to block traffic again at Governor’s Drive (much to the chagrin of the police officer) AND I had to recalculate ‘on the fly’ all the counts for miles 24 back to the start. Luckily that was the worst thing that happened, except for a brief panic when we miscalculated our final results and thought that our measurements were off (that is we thought we had more than .08% error); however after correcting our math (I told you math majors have trouble with arithmetic), all was well and we now have a USATF certified (pending the paperwork) marathon course that showcases some of the major attractions of the Rocket City!
Extract from 2014 Marathon Course: Beginning Concept to Certification
Preparation of the certification certificate starts after the bicycle measurement and initial data review. At that time, I collected the measurement data sheets from DeWayne, Craig Armstrong and Valerie Connaughton. And then the location descriptions for split points, start line, and cone locations from the two teams performing this function. (Those teams were John DeHaye and Dink Taylor, and Rob Youngren and Blake Thompson.) The first and only paper work followed, when I scanned all the data and location sheets. Everything after that is computer generated. The first task was entering the measurement data into a spread sheet for analysis. This didn’t take long, perhaps one hour. And as expected, the course measurement was good. Agreements among all the rides were within the 0.0008 limit, with the best of 0.000323. That amounts to a 13.6 meter difference in the course length of 42,195 meters. The next job was generating a list of all point locations for the course. This starts with the descriptions made during the measurement. But in some cases, the brief notes or descriptions were hard to understand. A Google Earth zoom-in or street view solved some of these. A few cases were more difficult and I drove to the site for the final location data. It all worked out in the end. This was about a 15-hour task. The next and biggest challenge for the certificate is the course map. I actually started it before the measurement. The task is to fit the course map and all the course details onto an 8.5” x11” sheet [a RRTC requirement] and have it legible. I use a CAD program for this job because it gives you many options for scale, zooms, line thickness, fonts, etc. The final map must be in .png format, with 300 dpi resolution. I spent at least 30 hours on this job. The certificate page is an adobe fill in form that is a quick job. But it must also be changed to .png format. After the three pages were completed, I sent them to the USATF/RRTC Chair and Vice Chair for final review and insertion into the USATF data base. Their lists show the map, list of points, and certificate.