The Long and Short of It


File this under: Less Than Meets the Eye.

According to an article in the Wellesley Townsman (“Change of course for Marathon in Hopkinton“), road construction on East Main Street in Hopkinton is likely to shorten the 2015 Boston Marathon course by an estimated 6-8 feet. The story must have struck a nerve with someone at Track and Field News, since they put a link to it on their home page.

Is this a big deal? You might think so, especially when the story opens with the reverent observation that the Boston Marathon course is measured to the inch. You might continue to think so when you read about the letters being sent back and forth between the Town and the BAA. And when the story goes on to say that the “parade permit” is up for review at the Hopkinton Selectman’s meeting, well, OMG, what if they don’t approve the permit?

This is, of course, all pretty silly. The roads between Hopkinton and Boston are under more or less constant construction, and the BAA remeasures the course frequently. The whole idea that the course is measured “to the inch” is also a bit fanciful. The most important thing to remember about course measurement is that a course must not be short. For that reason, the certification process for road races includes various procedures to guard against short courses, including the addition of a “short course correction factor,” defined as 0.1% of the shortest measured distance of the course.

For a standard marathon of 26 miles 385 yards (138,435 feet), the short course correction factor is 0.001 x 138,435 = 138.4 feet, so a distance of 6-8 feet falls well within measurement error.

(By the way, if you have a free half hour, you could do worse than spend it reading the USATF course certification manual.)

In Tom Derderian’s book on the history of The Boston Marathon, he talks about how the marathon course (and distance) changed in the days before anyone bothered to re-measure the course. Road construction projects that were much more extensive ended up reducing the length of the course significantly. So the issue itself isn’t frivolous, even if in this particular instance the proposed changes are minor.

You have to admire Tom Grilk of the BAA for responding to the letter from the Hopkinton Selectman with appropriate gravity. In an email, he writes: “Over the last 118 years, we have remeasured and made slight adjustments on occasion and in coordination with improvements to the roadways through the eight cities and towns which comprise the Boston Marathon route. We are prepared to do the same with this project if and as needed.

Amen. The BAA is on top of this and no one has to worry that they’ll somehow have their time thrown out because the course was found to be drastically shaved.

By the way, if you’ve read this far and been wondering how much time you would save if you didn’t have to run those missing 8 feet, here’s your answer: if you’re an elite marathoner traversing the course at 5:00 per mile or better, you would finish about 0.45 seconds earlier. If you are a four-hour marathoner, you would arrive at the finish about 0.82 seconds sooner than if you had to cover those additional eight feet.

I don’t know about you, but if I had an extra second to play with I’d probably spend it running anyway.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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