I belong to several clubs that count marathons. Some count total marathons, some count marathons run in a given time period, and some count the number of states or countries where you’ve run marathons. They all have one thing in common. They have rules regarding what constitutes running a marathon.
Without going into a lot of detail, each club’s rules generally boil down to two questions.
Was it the course long enough?
Was it an official race?
With respect to the first question, most large marathons have certified courses. This means they followed an approved procedure for measuring the course, and they provided documentation of the course to a governing body, such as USA Track and Field. Many smaller races don’t have certified courses. This is particularly true of trail races, which aren’t as easy to measure.
Most running clubs that count marathons don’t require that they have certified courses. For the races that don’t have certified courses, they generally require that the race director made a “good faith" effort to ensure that the course was long enough.
The second question largely comes down to distinguishing between races and training runs. Generally, a race is expected to have a race director, provide advance notice of the event, and publish results. Even still, with the proliferation of small, low-key events, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between a race and a group of friends getting together for a long training runs that’s been disguised to look like a race.
When I joined the 50 States Marathon Club, they had a rule requiring that a marathon have at least five starters and three finishers. When I joined Marathon Maniacs, they had the same rule. Many small events just barely met these criteria. Some of them gamed the rules by having a couple people start the race, even though they had no intention of finishing.
The 50 States Marathon club eventually changed their rules. They added a requirement that the race have an independent timekeeper, who isn’t running the race. They also increased the minimum number of finishers to 10 and dropped the requirement for a minimum number of starters.
Marathon Maniacs eventually made similar changes, but in addition to 10 finishers, they also require 15 starters. I’ve always found the rule for number of starters to be problematic, since it can’t be verified. Published results list all the finishers, but not the people who started and dropped out. I can remember being at the start of a race where I didn’t know if there were 15 participants. I could see dozens of runners in the start area, but I didn’t know how many were running the marathon and how many were running the half marathon. Often, only the race director knows how many runners started a race.
Since each club makes their own rules, that inevitably leads to the possibility that a race might count for one club but not another. I’m an obsessive record keeper, and I like my records to be consistent. It would drive me crazy if my marathon lists for different clubs were inconsistent. For that reason, I try to go out of my way to avoid gray areas.
Most gray areas are of the “was it an official race” variety. So far, I’ve managed to steer clear of these situations. I usually look at the results from past years. If I’m not convinced the race will meet the criteria of all my running clubs, I look elsewhere.
Until recently, I had never encountered a gray area of the “was the course long enough” variety. Then I ran the Big Wildlife Runs Moose’s Tooth Marathon in Anchorage, AK. This race had a certified course, but on the day of the race, the course was marked incorrectly. On one of the out-and-back segments, the turnaround was marked in the wrong spot, so the runners were all directed to turn around too soon. As a result, the course was short by about a mile.
Most runners realized during the race that the mile markers seemed to be way off. The situation was somewhat confusing, though. Even before the turnaround, the mile markers were inconsistent. It took me seven minutes to get from the 6 mile sign to the 10K sign. Then it took only a minute to get from the 10K sign to the 7 mile sign.
My own situation was even more confusing. Later in the race, I missed a turn. I kept running in the wrong direction until it was obvious that I was off course. Then I had to backtrack. My wrong turn had me off course for about five minutes before finding my way onto the course again.
Some runners, after finishing, told the volunteers in the finish area that the course was short. They were told that the course was right and their Garmins must be off. I can’t fault these volunteers for making that assumption. They didn’t know about the mismarked turnaround. They’re probably used to getting complaints from runners who think the course was off. GPS isn’t anywhere near as accurate as most runners assume. It’s not uncommon for two runners doing the same race to have GPS measurements that differ by a half mile or more. GPS usually overmeasures, but it can undermeasure in heavily wooded areas, where the watch can’t maintain contact with the satellites. This course had wooded areas and also had a few short tunnels.
After the race, the race officials acknowledged that the first turnaround was marked incorrectly, but they said only the leaders turned in the wrong spot, and the error was later fixed. Eventually they acknowledged that all runners were affected.
I’ve done other races where I suspected that the course was either too long or too short. It’s more common for a course to be too long, but short courses happen. Usually runners compare notes, shrug their shoulders and go on to the next race. If they weren’t setting a PR or trying to qualify for Boston, it’s not that big of a deal.
Two things made this race different. First, it was a fairly large error. Second, this race was in Alaska. A lot of runners with 50 states goals traveled to this race at great expense, so they could get their Alaska race. When they learned the course was short, many were immediately concerned about whether it would count.
The first club to make a ruling was Marathon Maniacs. One of the Main Maniacs was at the race, had an opportunity to talk with race officials, and understood the situation. Marathon Maniacs can count this race. I think that was the right call. The race organizers, in my opinion, met the “good faith” requirement. They actually had a certified course. The mismarking of the course on race day was an honest mistake.
For purists who don’t think anything once inch short of 26 miles, 385 yard shouldn't count, I’d point out that the modern standard wasn’t adopted until 1926. The first Olympic Marathon was only 25 miles.
It was a bigger deal for people who were trying to qualify for Boston. This was supposed to be a Boston qualifying event. The race officials wasted no time contacting the BAA to determine if the race could still be used as a qualifier. Their solution was to extrapolate how long it would have taken each runner to finish the correct distance, based on their average pace over the distance they actually ran. Within a day or two, they published a list of “adjusted times.” It’s an imperfect solution, and many people found fault with it, but the BAA is accepting it. If your “adjusted time” met the qualifying time for your age group, you can use this race to qualify for Boston.
The next club to weigh in was 50sub4. Once they learned about the “adjusted times,” they ruled that if your adjusted time was under four hours, you can count it as a sub-4 finish for Alaska.
I didn’t qualify for Boston, but I was trying to get my second sub-4 for Alaska. I crossed the line with a chip time of 3:56:24, but my “adjusted time” is 4:05:27. That accounts for the missing mileage on the first out-and-back segment, but not the extra mileage I ran when I made my wrong turn later in the race. That’s fair. The second wrong turn was my own mistake. I shouldn’t get any credit for the time it took me to run that “bonus mileage.”
It’s possible that my wrong turn cost me a sub-4. It would have been pretty close one way or the other, so I’ll never know for sure. The bottom line is that if I want to complete a second circuit of 50sub4, I’ll need to do another Alaska marathon. I’ll also need to run it faster. That’s a separate problem.
The last of the major running clubs to weigh in was the 50 States Marathon Club. They issued a statement that said, “The board of directors of the 50 States Marathon Club just completed a vote on Big Wild Life Runs 2015 and we have decided to count BWR 2015, but not as a certified race.”
To understand what that means, you need to know something about the club’s finishing procedure. There are two types of 50 states finishes, certified and uncertified. When a member finishes all 50 states, they need to provide the club with a list of the races they ran in each state. For a certified finish, they must also provide hardcopy documentation of their results for each race. Either way you get a 50 states finisher trophy, and your finish is recognized in the club’s newsletter and website. If it’s a certified finish, the trophy has the word “certified” on it. Certified finishes are distinguished in the newsletter by an asterisk.
Some people who ran this race were upset that they couldn’t use it for a certified finish. Other people were upset that it could be counted at all. Personally, I was puzzled by this ruling. The difference between certified and uncertified finishes is usually a matter of providing documentation. To say that it counts for an uncertified finish but can’t count for a certified finish, even with documentation, seems inconsistent to me.
With Alaska, I’m one state short of finishing my second circuit of 50 states. Even before this fiasco, I was considering doing an uncertified finish. I’ve been saving my results, but getting a certified finish involves mailing a mountain of paperwork. It’s also a lot of work for the person who has to review it. My first finish was certified. That was important to me. For my second and subsequent finishes, it’s not such a big deal. Knowing I can only count this race toward an uncertified finish makes my decision easier.
Here’s what my 50 states map looks like with Alaska. I only need Hawaii to finish my second circuit, but I don’t know when that will be. I haven’t scheduled another Hawaii race yet. I’ll probably wait until I’m confident I can break four hours.
My 50sub4 map is unchanged. I still need Alaska, Hawaii and Utah. I missed an opportunity to get Utah when I had to cancel my plans to do the Ogden Marathon. I lost another opportunity in Alaska. Until I’m healthy and can resume normal training, I can’t count on breaking four hours. I expect that’ll get worse before it gets better. I plan to take a break at the end of the year. Once I’m healthy, it will take time to get back in shape. Maybe I can do it next year. Maybe not. It’s a long term goal that has to go on the back burner for now.