Measuring a marathon takes more than you might think.
Organizers of the 4 Bridges Half Marathon and Chattanooga Marathon have heard remarks such as "you had one job" in the wake of their most recent events, both of which included races that came up slightly short of their advertised distances.
In reality, several people have a variety of responsibilities when it comes to ensuring a race course measures exactly 13.1 or 26.2 miles on race day when runners line up.
It all starts months in advance, though, and officials with 4 Bridges and its companion 7 Bridges Marathon are making sure that process starts as accurately as possible this year.
Motorists may have noticed Brandon Wilson's white Dodge Big Horn pickup truck making frequent stops around town this weekend.
Wilson, an internationally accredited course certifier with USA Track and Field, came to town in advance of October's 7 Bridges and 4 Bridges races to lay out a precisely measured course.
The 4 Bridges Half Marathon came up 0.6 miles short last year after race officials failed to correct a traffic plan based on a previous year's course.
Race director Jay Nevans, who measured the course himself last year, opted to bring in Wilson this year to handle the task, which will afford Nevans the freedom to focus on other aspects of the race.
Wilson, a Kinston, N.C., resident who has been measuring race courses for six years, spent the weekend in his truck and on a bicycle working through a protocol that should ensure the accuracy of the course.
And he will return on race day, Oct. 16, to ride the course on his bicycle one more time to confirm the course has been laid out properly by a special crew Nevans is delegating to handle the placement of turnarounds and other course markings.
"Stuff happens. Rightly or wrongly, that stuff happens," Wilson said. "What I think is great is that Jay has stepped back to do the right thing by the runners, letting them come back at a discounted rate and getting this course certified."
Wilson's measurement protocol requires him to lay out a tape measure and pedal the length of it 10 times on his bicycle, which is equipped with a counter.
After he adjusts for minor discrepancies caused by the temperature, Wilson takes his bike to the running course, knowing exactly how many "counts" on his counter it takes to reach a certain distance.
The method is regarded as much more precise than GPS measurement.
"The real trick in all of that is everyone talks about their GPS," Wilson said. "Two people with the same version of a GPS can run this course shoulder-by-shoulder and come up with something different than the other. This counter actually counts one count for every four inches."
He then measures the course in sections rather than in bulk, stopping to re-measure sections multiple times and also to recalibrate his counter as the temperature changes and alters the amount of air in his bicycle tires.
"A lot goes into it," he said Sunday in Coolidge Park as he prepared to go through the courses one last time. He planned to lay down washers and nails to physically mark the course so that Nevans' crew will know precisely where to mark the course on race day.
Wilson also certified the course for March's Chattanooga Marathon, although he was not asked to return on race day for a final check as he is planning to do for the 4 Bridges and 7 Bridges this year.
The full-distance portion of the Chattanooga Marathon wound up being 0.28 miles short after a race official placed a turnaround two blocks too soon in St. Elmo.
Wilson recalled asking Chattanooga Marathon officials if he could have done anything differently to make things easier for them. However, he said race officials took the responsibility for the mistake, just as they did publicly as news of the miscue spread.
Chattanooga Marathon officials also offered a discounted entry fee to this year's event for those affected by the error.
"We have a few different things in the works to try and make sure we set up the course per his standards," Chattanooga Marathon race director Bryan Myrick said.
He added having a USA Track and Field certifier return to the course the morning of the race to ensure the accuracy of the course would be a measure that race officials will consider this year.
"We've had a few issues here in this community," Myrick said. "So I think everyone is going to step it up to ensure that the athletes get what they deserve from these races."
Contact staff writer David Cobb at [email protected] or 423-757-6249.