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Neil Featherby: Forget your GPS watch...THIS is now how measure a course's distance

Neil Featherby has been doing some research on how courses are measured this week. Picture: Neil Featherby

Neil Featherby has been doing some research on how courses are measured this week. Picture: Neil Featherby


After last week's column caused a big reaction on social media, I think it is only right to say there is a place for everyone when it comes to running, whatever the standard or ability.

If a reaction gets people talking for the good of the sport then everyone wins.

However, and what is for sure is that whilst the very elite are running faster, the times at the sharp end in the more conventional domestic road races have dropped off during the last few decades.

All sorts of reasons have been put forward as to why, but one which very rarely gets mentioned is course measurement, which I decided to do some research into.

After having spent a number of hours reading documents about the best way to measure courses and the various ways they were measured in the past, a 20-page report by John Jewell of The Road Runners Club of Gt Britain published in 1961, was packed with so much information and attention to detail, it had me glued to its every word.

John not only explained how courses had been measured in the preceding decades leading up to his report, but described the methods used for calibration right back to Roman times.

He, along with Ted Corbitt in the US and Norm Patenaude in Canada, really did pioneer this work back in the mid 20th century for which it has to be said, set the standards for today’s course measurers.

John’s report makes it quite clear that organisers and athletic bodies around the world even back then went to tremendous lengths to ensure that courses were as accurate as possible using a combination of ordnance survey maps (deemed to be less than 1% inaccurate), various measuring wheels (hand held or fitted to vehicles), chains and steel surveying tapes and rev counters fitted to cycles.

Even air temperature was taken into consideration with regards to tyre pressure when using cycles and the calibrated wheel which by the 1960s seemed to be agreed as the best way forward.

However, by 1971 an athlete by the name of Alan Jones refined this even more, manufacturing another piece of calibrated equipment which also fixed to the front wheel of a bicycle.

The accuracy of this new piece of equipment was soon recognised and was used by all race organisers who wanted to ensure that their race courses were spot on. By the time AIMS were formed in 1982, the Jones Counter was being used worldwide in accordance with accurate course measurement.

So whilst that is all in the past, how are the courses measured today?

The IAAF and AIMS work to a very strict set of regulations and whilst also acknowledging the dedicated work which was done by John Jewell and co, 60 years ago and more lately by Alan Jones, it is the Jones Counter fitted to a bicycle which is still the only recognised and agreed form of measurement for road running courses.

With regards GPS watches, while they are great for training purposes, they are not acceptable for course measurement especially when courses need to be deemed accurate to the inch.

Therefore, it can most certainly be demonstrated that whilst participation is up, it is also fair to say that there has been a slowing of times amongst the front-runners in most local road races. Does it matter? Well depending on how you look at it. I personally think that the new found running boom is brilliant and long may it stay what with the many benefits of this type of exercise being felt by so many who perhaps just a few years ago wouldn’t have even considered putting on a pair of running shoes.

However, as a former athlete and one who is proud to be from Norfolk, I also want to see our best athletes develop their potential to the full.

Going into 2018, I feel confident that changes will be made to cater for everyone.

During the 1980s and 1990s a good friend to many of us was a gentleman by the name of Roger Gibbons. Before Roger sadly passed away, I used to talk at length to him about the subject of course measuring for which he really was such a perfectionist when it came to getting it right. Memories of Roger out on the roads with his measuring devices are still very much with some of us older runners here in Norfolk.

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