How Far Was That Marathon?

My beautiful grandma sad and worry .... but so...
"26.1 miles? Oh that poor uterus." Image via Wikipedia

Oh that Grandma and her nagging about drooping uteri and silly questions about race length. I always laughed her off, but what if she was actually on to something.

Recently there was a big race in town and many runners wondered if the course was short. It got me wondering, when you finally hit the finish line how do you know how far you really went? Unless the race was USATF certified it’s difficult to know whether the race course was the advertised distance.

Confidence in the race distance is important for several reasons. To have any real sense of how a performance on one course compares to another course we need to know both courses were virtually the same distance. According to the USATF, no race will count as a USATF record or for national rankings unless it’s certified for that very reason. Along these same lines, the Boston Marathon also requires qualifying marathons be run on certified courses.

So maybe you aren’t trying to qualify for Boston or maybe you aren’t going to break any records or be nationally ranked any time soon. Maybe, like me, you like to patronize small local races that don’t have resources for course certification. Confidence that the race’s distance is the distance advertised is still important. Say we run one 5k race that is accurately measured at 21:00 and then run a 5k that is only 3.0 miles in 20:30. You might think you ran a substantial PR in the second race, but you actually ran a slower pace than the first one. Sure, it’s not the end of the world, but if you use the second race time as your PR I think you actually cheapen the value of that PR to someone who ran the same time on a legit course and you’re not being honest with yourself. Maybe I take it all too seriously, but I think citing a short course as a PR is a little like lying on your resume. Kinda shady.

The problem is is that it’s not easy to know whether a course is short (or long for that matter).ย  Unless the Race Director cops to the error, we will have to do a little investigating. Here’s some evidence (sorry. I’m a lawyer.) we can use to determine whether an uncertified course is legit enough to use for PR purposes. If you can think of more evidence, please share!

1. What does the t-shirt say? That’s a good place to start. If the t-shirt says it’s a 5k, chances are the race is going to be somewhere close to 3.1 miles. It doesn’t mean it will be by any stretch, but it’s a good place to start.

Jones Counters: Upper- NYRRC model. Middle- Oe...
Tools used to certify courses. Notice they are not GPS watches! Image via Wikipedia

2. What does your fancy GPS watch say? The watch gives us a little more to go on than the t-shirt, but is best used to corroborate the shirt. If the shirt says 5k and a random sampling of 10 GPS watch wearers say the course was between 3.09 and 3.12 miles long then we can feel fairly certain the course was very very very close to a 5k. The watch alone does not tell us if the course was accurate. But if almost all GPS’s are showing a short course, it’s probably short. DC rainmaker makes a great suggestion if you’re suspicious about the length of a course: look up the results in Garmin.Connect.ย  I looked up the results of that recent suspicious race and almost all entries had the course significantly short and there were next to none that measured it long. Keep in mind that most GPS watches will measure a course slightly longer than advertised because most runners cannot run perfect tangents and all certified courses are actually a little long based on the rules for certifying courses (the certifier adds 1 meter per 1000 meters of the course to ensure the course is not short). For (a lot) more on GPS accuracy go here and here and here.

3. Is there a normal amount of PR’ing going on? We can then corroborate our suspicions by the level of PR’ing that seems to be going on. PR’s are hard to come-by and that’s why they’re so celebrated by runners. When it seems that 4 out of every 5 runners is PR’ing then the course is probably short, especially when the other evidence seem to indicate as such.

4. Do the performance times match up to the course’s level of difficulty? Another way to corroborate your suspicions is to consider the performances in light of the course difficulty. If the course is hilly or had lots of turns or both, it’s not a particularly fast course and should yield slower overall times. Do the times of the top runners seem unusually fast given the difficulty of the course or the conditions on race day? If so, it’s probably short. Are the top times pretty slow in a competitive race? Then perhaps it’s long.

5. If the course seems short it probably is. Here’s where I get cynical. Race directors are in business to make money. They make money when people sign up for a race. Will more people sign up for a local race in which a ton of people run super blazing fast PRs last year or a race that everybody complained about for being on a tough long course? Fast races generate a positive buzz and will lead to more entries in the following year. Plus, who complains more to a race director: someone who ran way faster than anticipated or someone who ran way slower than anticipated? You bet people find it much harder to sweep a little fuzzy course measurement under the rug when that measurement made them run farther than they thought they had to! When a race director is just eyeballing a course using a GPS (just likes the imprecise one’s I talked about above!) or a car’s odometer (don’t laugh. Happens all the time!) the incentive is to make the course a little short rather than a little long. One race director I talked to said his response to questions about whether a course was short is, “Maybe you just had a good day.” He’ll make more money selling those good days than bad days, that’s for sure!

None of these pieces of evidence alone is enough to make a slam-dunk argument. Unless you want to ride around the course several times with your Jones-Oeurth device to measure it, you can only rely on the circumstantial evidence I cited above. That means whether you use a race performance on an uncertified course as a PR is a personal choice. Personally, if the evidence above indicates the course was short I wouldn’t use the time as a PR. Would you?

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. Great post and thanks for the link – I get really concerned about a race if my GPS measures at or below the stated distance (unless it’s the Towpath Marathon – then I expect the Garmin and race distance to be pretty close, since it’s a straight route). The Towpath Ten-Ten admitted to being around 0.2 miles short in 2010 (and most runners I compared notes with suspected it was), I was glad to see they corrected it in 2011. I had put an asterisk next to my 10-mile PR from 2010 until I was able to beat it in 2011.
    As you say, in most cases the race distance is as specified, and a PR is a PR. Every once in a while though, it helps to have a bit of healthy skepticism.

  2. Even if many people think the St. Malachi course was short… It was a very tough course. I will still be using that as my PR for 5 miles. I feel I could definitely run that time in a flatter 5 mile course. If you think that’s “shady” then you can label me as that.

  3. While I would love to call my newest 4.84ish race a 5 mile PR, I would not cite that on my PR list. Maybe it isn’t as important as I make it, but when I cite a list of PRs to get into an elite start I want to know that I am telling the truth about my abilities and that I will deliver a performance at that race in line with what I told the RD I could do when signing up. I know for sure my time would have been close to a PR or a PR on a flatter/faster course, but had the course been legit on Saturday it would not have been a PR. At best I would have been about 29:41 for the total distance on that course. That is almost a minute slower than the results. I’d be delusional to say I could have run the time they gave me, as I know my 4th mile was Slooooooowwww and there was no making up for that mile on that day!

    Just in personal experience every certified race I have ever run is long on the garmin, so much so that my OCD nature makes me run faster than my coach tells me to on training runs to account for my pace not being “real” race pace.

  4. In a way I feel the GPS for racing was an inevitable and probably evil toy bound to rear it’s ugly pacing dial eventually, I mean runner’s are pretty precise and neurotic by nature. However, to actually use it as an official timing device — will never happen (hopefully). Although I like to think ALL runners are honest I am almost certain, someone would stop it, run ahead a bit and restart it, or find some other way to cheat.

    Regarding the “shadiness” – If it’s about “bragging rights” for someone’s ego, I don’t really think it matters if the course is short. If it’s about competion, short or long when I go head to head with someone the victor will be the same.

  5. I always go by what the race says, if they say it’s 5 miles then I assume it is 5 miles and would use the PR. Unless the RD says otherwise. I have been to a few races where they announced that the course was .05 short or a couple times apologized for it being long. Nothing like running a half marathon looking down and seeing 13.1 on your garmin but not seeing the finish line for another .5 mile.

  6. Thanks for sharing your post with me. My post was really about the over-the-top complaining about course distances b/c a Garmin says so. Like you said–unless the course is certified, it’s going to vary.

    So addressing your separate point here–I think that if houbara that much about accuracy, only run certified courses. If someone gets a PR on an in-certified course, just let it go. It doesn’t hurt you or diminish your accomplishments at all.