Over the years, I have spent quite a few weekend mornings working as a race announcer at area runs, bike races and triathlons. And along the way, I have met a whole bunch of really fun people, but one post-race conversation really stands out to me. I was in the middle of announcing racers as they crossed the finish line, when a gentleman asked to talk to the Race Director…immediately! While I wanted to make sure everything was o.k. and deal with his complaint, if he had one – the timing was just plain bad. The Race Director was busy making sure the race went smoothly, and I was busy giving people the credit they deserve when they cross the finish line. So, I asked him if I could take a message for the Race Director? He told me that in all his years of racing, he has NEVER run a 10k race that was EXACTLY 10k (6.2 miles)…until today, and he just wanted to thank and congratulate the Race Director for a job well done. I assured him that I would pass his praise on to the appropriate person, which I did.
While it was really nice to hear a compliment about the race that I was working, I was also laughing to myself when I got that compliment. Laughing, because what I usually hear are complaints that the course was longer than 5k/10k/half-marathon/marathon/etc. Over the years, I have learned that what you see on your Garmin watch probably will NOT match exactly with the distance of the race. The reasons that the distances usually don’t match are really quite simple if you think about it a bit. Think about the fact that a little tiny watch on your wrist is communicating with a satellite thousands of miles up in the sky to get you your information – you can pretty much be assured that your Garmin is not as accurate as the methods that are used by the race officials to measure the route. Also think about the fact that the race officials are measuring the route with an empty course – they are not weaving in and out of other runners – causing the distance to inch up a little bit at a time, they take more of a straight line approach. And think about the fact that the race-course isn’t a straight line – and you probably take the corners just a little different than the race official who measured the course did – he/she might have cut the corner really tight, while you had to go wide because there was a crowd of people in tight. You also get off that line a little bit each time you head into an aid station (or take a wide arc around an aid station to avoid the crowd at the aid station) and every time you jump off the course to use a porta-pottie. No, these are not huge variations, but they add up over the course of a race – maybe only a 100th of a mile in a 5k, and maybe as much as a few 10ths over the course of a marathon.
Of course that’s not to say that every race is measured out perfectly – I heard about a race a few years ago that was organized by non-runners who didn’t realize that “5k” is an actual DISTANCE – they thought it was just what we called a race, kinda like we call facial tissue “Kleenex.” So, they set up their 5k race with about a 4 mile course…and a LOT of really unhappy runners at the end of the day. I raced a half marathon a couple years ago and my Garmin read 11.5 miles when I got to the finish line – now I know I just explained how differences happen, but more than a 1.5 mile difference over the course of a 13.1 mile race, is more than me cutting a few corners. Add to that the fact that I passed a friend of mine TWICE during the race – because he missed an entire section of the course that wasn’t well marked, so he got back in front of me for a short time. His half-marathon was about 11 miles. So yes, it happens that the Race Directors mess up from time to time, but for the most part, you can count on the race-course being the correct distance, as advertised.