High tech or old tech? Join a running debate


Howard At Play

February 20, 2005|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

ONE OF our favorite quips from a comedian, whose name we can't recall after too many years, was along the lines of, "Who's right, the 10,000 runners who compete in the New York Marathon or the 1 million who watch them."

We watch.

Often smiling.

Because runners, at least the recreational kind around Howard County, tend to be nicely educated, articulate, active, inquisitive, and - well - interesting folks.

Take as an example, the idea of how precise the distance of any given race is. You'd think no one would care much about a mere 5 kilometers - or 2 kilometers - for a Sunday morning jaunt. But this is the dead of winter, and some runners apparently have too much time on their hands.

So a few members of the large, very active Howard County Striders have been debating exactly that concept in recent days - specifically, the lengths of a 5K course in the Atholton area and the 2K course in Ellicott City's Burleigh Manor subdivision, off Centennial Lane.

While dickering in a friendly way via e-mail about a few hundred feet has been, for sure, part of the chat, so too have been two gizmos. Which should you trust to decide a correct length, high tech or old tech?

As background, this debate occurs mainly because some runners have taken to wearing Global Positioning System devices, which have plummeted in price from military secret to pop "toy." Thanks to 24 space satellites, their ground stations around the world, and electronic ultra-miniaturization, these devices can tell you where you're standing on this planet within mere meters.

Using one to calculate how long a running course is, though, turns out to be another matter.

It started when a runner asserted that a recent race on the Striders' Atholton course was short, according to her GPS "watch" - 3.07 miles, or about 194.5 feet short of the advertised 5K.

That's maybe 13 to 20 seconds short, depending on one's pace, estimated Karsten Brown, a musician who loves this kind of stuff and drives up regularly from Front Royal, Va., to run with the Striders.

Several writers offered other measurement theories, ranging from applying comparative times for other 5K courses they have run to trusting a car's odometer while navigating the roads.

Len Guralnick, who administers the weekly Striders races, observed that long or short, at least "one thing you can count on, [our courses] will be the same every time you run them. The courses have been in existence a very long time."

But Guralnick also added: "Since the GPS has become so popular, I get weekly comments about course length accuracy."

And several club members with scientific bents dissed the GPS equipment as a determiner of distance in favor of a not-quite-so-old-tech way of certifying a course's length - using a carefully calibrated, bicycle-mounted device called a Jones Counter.

Turns out that the Striders own a Jones Counter, but, said club President Phil Lang, don't use it for their weekly courses, although they apply it to their more seriously competitive events, such as the Metric Marathon, Women's Distance Festival and Clyde's 10K.

Point is, the Jones Counter has been used to certify marathon distances in six Olympics dating to 1976. That's credibility, you satellite lovers. You can buy such a counter, one of the more arcane pieces of sports equipment you will ever hear about, from a California maker who bought the rights from the inventor's son.

So we figured, let's play on the Internet a bit, see whether we can find Jones the Inventor of the counter named after him in 1971, and ask about his device compared with GPS when it comes to validating distances.

From Binghamton, N.Y., where Alan I. Jones, engineering Ph.D and one-time avid runner, is a research scientist for the State University of New York after 26 years as an IBM engineer, we got a quick reply that we're donating to the Striders' debating society.

"As GPS technology became more readily available, I looked into its possible use," wrote Jones, also inventor of a widely used, computer-based scoring system for running races and triathlons. "However, GPS just doesn't have the accuracy to do the job. I thought that Differential GPS could, possibly, do the job. DGPS is very complicated.

"I checked with some researchers who use it ... [but] recently, an investigator in Australia did some careful studies comparing the Jones Counter with GPS and DGPS. ... This study makes it very clear that even DGPS cannot be used."

Measure that.

Call the writer about anything you wonder about in the Howard County amateur sports scene at 410-332-6525, or send e-mail to lowell.sunder land@baltsun.com.

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