So my friend Russ Bauch was running the Fox Valley Marathon in an attempt to qualify for Boston. He missed by only 30 seconds, due primarily to some cramping in his legs in the final two miles of the race. Still he averaged 7:45 for the 26.3 mile distance.
You read that right. Either the course was long or he did not run the tangents correctly. But given that the course has no real curves and goes pretty much straight down and back the bike trails along the Fox river, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that perhaps the course is .1 too long.
I’ve seen it before. We’ve all seen it before. There’s no way you can truly measure a marathon course perfectly and accurately.
I mean, think of the logistics involved in measuring a 26.2 mile course. You can do it by bike. You can haul along a GPS. You can walk it with a wheel. Probably each time you do it, the course distance will come out a little different. It all depends on the angles you choose from point to point. Over a 26-mile distance, it would be pretty easy to miss .1 mile. Knowing the organizers at the Fox River Trail Runners as I do, however, it is very likely the course itself is accurate to the best standards available. They are one of the best running groups in the Midwest and perhaps the country, and this race has grown as a result, because it is so well run. Pun intended.
Long time coming
Having won a few 10K races that were definitely long, I can testify how discomfiting it can be to run a race course that is longer than the prescribed distance. During a streak of races where I was averaging well below 32:00 for the 10k distance, along came a charity run where the prizes were tempting, so I entered.
By the time I’d raced 33:00 I knew the race was mismeasured. Then came 35:00. And finally 37:00 passed. I won the damn thing in 38:25 or some crazy time. Everyone that came across the line was moaning and complaining about the long course. Perhaps because it was a charity run, the race organizers were trying to give everyone a good value for their entry fee. But given the time-obsessed nature of most runners, all would probably have preferred the course be a little short. “Yeah, some people think it was not the full distance,” you can hear runners repeat to one another. “But you know my training’s been going really well, so I’m not going to write it off that I almost got a PR.”
Sure, sure. We know how all you people think. It’s the same thing with cyclists riding with the wind at their back. On you go for 20 miles at 20mph+, thinking all the while you’re in such great form. Only when you turn around and come crawling back those 20 miles at 14mph does reality hit home. Then you turn off your Strava and try to find a shortcut. Reality sucks and it blows.
But there are situations where reality becomes twisted into tradition. Even races with long histories can turn out to be too long. One local 10k that I won two or three times was finally measured by an area high school coach who noticed this his times were longer than any other race he’d done. He measured that course by walking with a wheel not once, but twice. It measured more than 200 meters long both times.
That’s at least 37.5 seconds at 5:00 mile pace.
It all comes down to this plain fact: we should not expect perfection on our race course measurements. And while we’d love to think that a sanctioned and certified road race is accurately measured, there simply are no guarantees. Much depends on how you run the course when you finally have the opportunity. An accurately measured course will definitely run a bit longer if you do not run the tangents, for example.
It makes sense. Running in the second lane of a track meet, for example, or the third or fourth lane, adds distance per lap. Even in a mile competition, some competitors run a longer distance than others. It’s the dynamic of a race that people have to accept. Even the winner in most races likely runs more than a mile. Simple geometry tells us that the 400 meter distance is measured along the inside rail of the track. Put yourself out a foot or two out from that and you’ve run more than a mile. Yes it sucks, but that’s how the world of running works.
This is not to torment my friend Russ about his missing Boston by only 30 seconds. I once had a friend on our sponsored running team that ran 2:19:20 for the marathon. He missed qualifying for the Olympic Trials by 20 seconds. The Olympic Committee would not cut him a break. Even if he could somehow prove the course he ran was too long, it doesn’t matter. You can’t mashup a marathon.
All this time and distance does illustrate how subtle our sports can be. The men’s winner of the half marathon yesterday ran 1:17:05. The women’s winner was Tera Moody, an Olympic Trials competitor, and she was just 15 seconds behind the overall male leader. What an interesting headline that would have made! “Woman Wins Overall Half Marathon title!”
And had she run her PR for the distance she would have won the overall race by five minutes. She’s a 1:12 half marathoner and a 2:30 marathoner. Tera was running in her hometown of St. Charles, Illinois, where she represented St. Charles East and won two state mile titles. Suffice to say she’s covered a lot of ground over the years.
We all run our own race
It’s tempting to consider how much difference there might be between the distances run by all those competitors in the race. Some might actually run shorter than the 26.2 mile distance if they somehow (by chance, or intelligence) take a shorter route through tangents than those who measured the course.
And there are some who, no thanks to race meanderings for water stations and porta potties, that probably run 26.4 miles, or even more, as we weave or wander our way through the course.
It is what it is
None of this is fair, or unfair. It just is what it is. There is no way to control all the variables in a given race or any race. It’s a funny comparison, but you have to consider that the sport of golf is even crazier when it comes to distance played. One player might hit the ball a total of 430 yards and get a score of four for a par. Yet another might scattershot their way across the fairway and hole out from 40 yards and get the same score. Is that fair? You be the judge. It is what it is.
Even on a point-t0-point course such as the Boston Marathon, some runners take a longer course than others. There are water stations to consider, and potty breaks too. All potentially add distance. You may recall that Rosie Ruiz figured out a way to cheat the distance at Boston. But she got caught. And shamed. There are no shortcuts to glory unless the course itself is short. And really, you don’t want that.
But my friend Russ can take some consolation that he came darn close to his goal of qualifying for Boston. Standing with a group of friends he quietly muttered, “26 miles is damn long way to run.”
Indeed it is. And the distance is the arbitrary product of a legend from long ago, about this Greek warrior and all, who possibly ran to his own demise bringing news of a military triumph back home to his people.
We’re all are own warriors when it comes to the marathon. And we don’t always bring news of victory or success home. Heck, we don’t even run the same distance, if you stop to think about it. But what you carry around inside you after any race, and especially a marathon, is the knowledge that you set a course and did it. It’s a long way to Boston any way you run. So congrats for doing it. All of you.