Past champ calls for Capital City Marathon course correction

Race organizers say course is accurate, '96 winner say it's 393 feet too long

Staff writerMay 14, 2014 


    Sunday, Sylvester Park, Olympia.

    • Start: 7 a.m. marathon, 7:45 a.m. half marathon, 8 a.m. 5.2-mile race.
    • Kids race (1.2 miles): Saturday, 4 p.m., Heritage Park, Olympia.
    • Cost: $100 marathon, $95 half, $45 5.2-mile, $10 kids race
    • More info:
  • MAP:
  • Map of the Capital City Marathon

    Click to enlarge.

The Capital City Marathon isn’t easy, but two accomplished Olympia runners say it might be even tougher than most participants realize.

Gary Cooper and Bob Brennand believe the race is longer than the standard 26.2-mile distance. Precisely 393 feet longer, they contend after measuring the course twice.

While that might not seem like much — about 36 seconds for a runner at an 8-minute-per-mile pace — Cooper and Brennand say it potentially is a very big deal for those with specific goals.

“What if somebody entered trying to qualify for Boston (Marathon) and miss by a few seconds?” Cooper asked.

“It might not matter to some, but accuracy is important to a certain subset of their runners.”

Nona Snell, Capital City’s volunteer race director since 2012, agrees, and said she’s listened closely to Cooper and Brennand. However, she said, “I believe it is 26.2 miles.”

The course was certified by United States Track and Field in 2006 and “we are standing by that certification,” Snell said.

Jim Lux, president and course safety manager, said the course is 26.2 miles if you run the most direct route.

The course is due to be recertified next year, and Snell said the Capital City Marathon Association will take Cooper and Brennand’s input into consideration as it prepares for the remeasurement.

Frustrated, Cooper said he’s decided to sit out the race that Sunday will pass in front of his house during the 17th mile.

“I would probably run it every year,” said Cooper, who won the race in 1996. “But after awhile it’s hard not to be offended. I think this is an important issue.

“… I know these are good people who do a lot of great things and that’s important. But accuracy is important, too.”


Cooper said that 10 to 15 years ago he might not have questioned the accuracy of the course. But today, like almost every runner, he carries a GPS tracking device.

Runners use apps on their phones or watches to record their distances, their pace and myriad other details.

When Cooper checked his Garmin 305 watch after the 2010 race, he was surprised by the number: 26.39 miles.

At first, he didn’t worry too much about it, because as a veteran runner he knew several factors could result in a longer measurement. Trees sometimes interfere with satellite signals. And traffic (both vehicles and fellow runners) can keep runners from taking the most direct route.

The rise in popularity of these devices creates chatter on the course and off. At almost every mile marker, runners can be heard questioning why their device doesn’t match up exactly with the signs.

And race directors say this technology has led to fuller email inboxes.

“I hear from people who say the course is too long and people who say it is too short,” Snell said.

Tony Phillippi, co-director of the Tacoma City Marathon, gets similar comments every year, and is considering a bold move to eliminate the confusion.

“Maybe we’ll be the first race to stop using mile markers on the course,” Phillippi said.

Mile markers aren’t required on certified courses and not having them would make staging the race easier and most runners have their own GPS devices anyway, Phillippi said.

While Cooper understands the potential shortcomings of GPS, he also knows it can be quite accurate.

At the 2011 Capital City Marathon, his watch said he ran 26.41 miles. In 2012, when he set the course record in the Super Masters division, it said 26.44. And last year, it read 26.41.

By comparison, when he ran the 2013 Eugene Marathon his GPS said 26.21.

He started talking to other runners, many of whom also had a hunch the course was too long.

One of them was his friend, Bob Brennand. Not only is Brennand an accomplisher runner — the 52-year-old was the fastest of the 113 South Sound residents participating in last month’s Boston Marathon — but he measures courses for the USATF.

Of the 15 races in Olympia certified by USATF, Brennand measured 11.


Courses are measured on bikes, but it still takes longer to measure a marathon course than for the fastest runners to finish them.

A course measurer attaches a device called a Jones counter to the bike’s front wheel and then heads off to a 300-meter-long calibration course. The calibration courses are marked on straight sections of road or trail, and riders must ride the course at least four times with all of their counter readings within at least 0.1 percent of each other.

They must record other details too, such as the temperature, which can change tire pressure and affect readings.

On the course, they try to ride in the manner runners race. They take direct lines between turns rather than staying to the edge of the street. They stop at each mile to record its location in relation to the nearest permanent object.

They must either have two cyclists to measure the course or ride it twice.

Next, they prepare a map of the course, complete with description of each mile location, and submit it to the USATF certifier.

Races pay $35 to $50 per mile (measurers can establish their own price) to have their course measured on top of a $30 certification fee.

In measuring the course, a safety margin of 0.1 percent (about 138 feet for a marathon) is added to ensure a course isn’t too short. Records set on a course that’s too long will stand, but records will not be recognized on a course even a meter short.

Measurements for courses in Washington are submitted to Mark Neal, a Michigan engineer, for certification.

“We certify courses, not races,” said Neal, one of 30 USATF certifiers.

He said it can take an hour to check the work and certify a short course or as long as a week for a longer course. He certifies 40 to 60 courses in Washington each year.

“There can be a lot of back-and-forth (via email with the measurer) to make sure everything it right,” Neal said. He said it’s rare that a course needs to be changed, but sometimes the measurer’s map will need to be tweaked before he prepares the certificate for the race.

The certification is good for 10 years, but the onus falls on race officials for the course to be set up each year as the certification map instructs. Even if the course is set up wrong it will not affect the certification, Neal said. However a record set on a certified course set up too short won’t stand.


Brennand and Cooper biked the Olympia course twice together — using the Jones counter method — both times finding it too long. They presented their findings to the Capital City Marathon Association.

According to the certification on file with the USATF, the course was measured by David Mora and John Pearch in February 2006. Neither currently is listed as course measurers on the USATF website.

Neal wasn’t certifying races in 2006, but he, Brennand and Cooper said that if the Capital City Marathon is long, it is not because of an inaccurate map. More likely, they say, the course is being set up different than the map instructs.

In a May 7 email to Cooper and Brennand, Snell wrote, “We have reviewed your map and comments closely, and we agree that we should mark the course to more accurately reflect that 2006 certification in three places.”

Those areas on East Bay Drive, Boston Harbor Road and Eastside Street.

“Over time, the course markings in these areas (were) adjusted slightly from the original course to ensure the safety of the runners,” Snell said.

Lux, who sets up the course, said he plans to use markings Sunday to direct runners to the most direct tangents in these areas.

However, Snell and the board of directors disagreed on Cooper and Brennand’s assertion that other course markings don’t match the route taken by runners.

Neal said it is the race’s prerogative to tweak the course, but says that if the race is actually 26.3 miles, he’d encourage race officials to let participants know.

Brennand and Cooper believe the alleged long course can be fixed by simply moving the start line forward 393 feet.

That won’t happen, Lux said.

“There’s absolutely no question the start and finish are in the correct place,” he said.

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