Course changes – good or bad?

Guest Post by Tim Twietmeyer

Hey, Craig says all the really smart ultrarunners read his blog (he needs something to bring up the average IQ of the site). So, I present the question to the brains of the sport – do runners really care if a 50k is exactly 31 miles? I ask as last weekend the Way Too Cool race lengthened the course to make it a “true” 50k. It’s nice to know you’re running the right distance, but in making the course change, it throws out all the great historical times that have been run on the traditional course. It’s a total reset on all the course records that have been set on the old course. There have been some REALLY fast times on that course by some great runners like Ann Trason and Uli Steidl and Carl Anderson and Rich Hanna and a few others. So, if you had your choice would you like to see the same course year-in year-out or would you rather ensure that the course is a true distance and change accordingly. Let the juices flow.

BTW, I hope Craig and Andy Three-names carried Meghan’s gear to her car and bought her dinner after she dropped a royal Smackdown on those boys at WTC. Nice work Meghan! Glad I’ve moved to an age group above her.


  1. Tim,

    I would have preferred that WTC stay the same. And it was unfortunate that we runners were notified at such short notice (two weeks). Several of my friends had a goal of breaking 4 hours. They find out two weeks before the race that it is no longer possible. And many of us use WTC as a measure of where we are in terms of fitness for Western States. I think we all knew that WTC was short but who cares?

    That said, I wouldn’t want to generalize and suggest that all races stay the same. There may be many different legitimate reasons to change a course. Where’s Waldo was measured after the 2006 race at 66.37 miles. We spent the next few months brain-storming on how we could make the course closer to 62 while not losing any of the character of the course. While we considered the 5 years of records and splits, we decided there were many good reasons to shorten it and we did:

    1. We didn’t need people out there the additional miles. As it is we still have people struggling the last few miles in the dark. Shorter is better.

    2. We weren’t listed on any of the top 100km times thus the race was not benefiting from exposure that it might be able to get. Now that the times are faster we are beginning to make the lists.

    3. We were planning on submitting a bid for a USATF championship and while a trail course can’t be certified we had issues with continuing to call it 100km when we knew it was 66+. I wouldn’t have wanted to submit a bid for a 100km race when we knew the course was 108km.

    Whether changing the course had anything to do with it, Where’s Waldo is now filling to capacity. We never filled with the long course. In the end, I believe our changes actually improved the course which I think also made it easier to justify with those folks that didn’t like us making changes.

    Is the new WTC course better or just more accurate? I personally don’t think the course is any better.

  2. Oh well..geez, now that I know Cool is really a 50K — I’ll enter, I’ve been holding out for that very reason! Maybe it will fill in 2 minutes now. I like to know how far I ran so I can gauge my effort and fitness, which also means I’d like to the course to stay the same from year to year so I can gauge my effort and fitness.

    I think the race should be called what it is with a best guess measurement, so for the sake of Cool.. leave the course intact, call it WTC and if any asks tell ’em it’s 30 miles or whatever it is. For example, here in the Midwest we have the Clinton Ultra…it’s 33 miles.

    1) It’s more okay if the course is a little long rather than short…for example, I’d hate to complete my first 100 then to find out it was 98 miles long.

    2)I have seen runners argue on blogs for days about whether a 1/2 marathon course was 13.100001 or 13.090001…do we really want to be like them?

    3)If ya really wanna know, run track. Even that isn’t a sure bet, we had a small private college in Oregon that had a track that was 4 meters long for years….it stayed that way until a new coach wondered why all the distance records were from the early 80’s…good thing he changed it too..because Nick Symonds went to school there and may have never been discovered as a talent.

    4)I know of an ultra in Oregon that changes course almost every year, that’s frustrating.

    5) Like with Waldo, I can’t talk smack because I never ran a finishing time on the original course. For the sake of USATF, it makes sense what Craig did.

    I think ultra runners like to know how far they ran and tradition more than calling a race the next round popular distance for sake of a t-shirt.


  3. Well, I could not disagree with Craig more. I want to know what I run in a 50K. I should have a good argument as my time was 4:00 flat. This would have been a sub 3:50 in past and much better for my ego… but who cares, it wasn’t a 50K! It would be irrelevent to use it as someone’s PR. I had never heard anyone say it was short in the psat… just fast. If it is an unknown (as it was in the past), I’d say great, as many ultras are not exact. However, once it is measured, I want to run the distance. I wouldn’t want to run 95 miles at WS and I don’t want to run 29 at Cool. Part of ultras is the distance and in such a “benchmark” race, I think it is important that the distance is accurate.
    The old times and records on the course are, of course, impressive but also on a short course. Its time to turn the page and let new records to be set on a accurate course. For instance, it will really be something to see a woman break 4 hours on that course.
    Anyway, just my two cents.
    I love history but I also love accuracy!
    Rod B.

  4. @Rod Bien – It is currently not possible to certify a trail course. There are no standards. Even using a wheel which is arguably the most accurate method, you still can’t guarantee that you are running a specific distance. If you really want to claim accurate PRs you better go to certified road courses, or as CB suggests, to a track. Can you imagine pushing a wheel up or down Ball Bearing hill? How accurate can that be?

    Oh, and you can say you heard it from me first when Miwok is revealed to be less than 100km. No, I have no proof or inside information. Just my gut feeling like I had with the original WTC course.

  5. In Julie’s defense she contacted Uli to find out his opinion on the course change – Uli thought it would be better to change.

    Rather than jump to conclusions, wouldn’t it be better to find out why Julie elected to “change” the course?

    Paul DeWitt asked Julie why on Friday, here’s her response:

    The “new” course that we ran Saturday is really the “old” Cool Canyon Crawl course when it all began. When it changed to WTC the person marking the course inadvertently took a wrong turn off the road – call it a shortcut if you will.

    Craig, why did you pursue waldo to be the 100k USATF championship? Great course? Great venue? Probably both, right? Same reason WTC needs to be exactly 31 miles – to be sanctioned so that one day it may serve as the 50K trail championships. Great course! Great venue!

    Now we all have reasons to go back to WTC – to test our fitness with our “new” splits laid down this year.
    Scott Jaime

  6. I can’t possibly disagree with anything Twiet said. Craig, AJW – where’s my dinner?

    Seriously, I agree with Craig and CB. To equate any 50k trail run with another is not so meaningful as comparing one’s times over the years. If I run sub-4:00 at McKenzie and 4:23 at WTC – did I have a major slow down? It’s apples and oranges. I prefer to gauge my fitness by running the same course, accuracy be damned. If I want to know how fast I can run a 50k, I’ll go to a flat road race. If Western States trail is 95 miles, I don’t care – I just want to know if I can get from Squaw Valley to Auburn faster than the year before. I am not going to compare my 100k road time with my Where’s Waldo time, but I sure hope to get faster at both.

    I feel like now we can’t chase down the old course records.

    I am not passing judgment on Julie – I think she put on a very good event.


  7. I don’t really care whether the course is exactly 50K, or 100K, or 19.6 miles, or whatever (I’m lookin’ at you, Meissner!), but I do want to know how long it really is and how far it is from aid station to aid station. When I run a race, I want to be able to know what pace I can run on different kinds of terrain.

    If Cool wants to “correct” the course, that’s their business. But don’t call it a 50K if it’s not a 50K. Or at least if you do, put a big asterisk next to it and make it clear that it’s really 30.3 miles or whatever.

    I think Meissner does this right with the Peterson runs. He clearly states that they are not really 30K and 60K.

    If an RD can’t be bothered to get out on the course with a wheel, I’m less likely to enjoy the race, thus less likely to enter.

  8. Thanks to all for the comments and to Twiet for the guest post. I enjoy the discussion of bigger issues.

    It’s obvious we got a wide range of opinions with respect to course accuracy and change. If nothing else I hope we RDs will take away from this that course changes shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sure, an RD can do whatever they want with their race, but history means a lot to many runners. We (RDs) would be prudent to think about the pros and cons of changing a course, thus losing history, before doing so. We should talk to many people, including those that have dissenting views or will make us think about things we haven’t. We should talk to the course record holders, the long-time loyal runners which we all have whether they are back, middle, or front of the pack, the first-time runners, the past RDs.

    If after that exercise we decide to make changes, I think we’d be prudent to give runners advanced notice of such changes. Ideally, we should advertise the course when runners sign up for the race. Sometimes that won’t be possible – fire, ownership or permit issues, etc – but giving runners a chance to decide whether they want to run the new course before they pay money would make the change easier to defend. It would also give them a chance to provide us feedback. If someone does complain about the change we’d then be in a position to defend it.

    Just a word on constructive criticism. I have been accused many times in my life of being too critical. If you know me, you know that I’m more critical of myself than anybody else. But the reason I am is to improve. I want our sport to be as good as possible. Our sport is growing like mad. We have lots of issues to address. I would hope that readers of my blog would feel free to speak their mind. If you want to comment anonymously that’s fine with me.

    Blog on.

  9. Hi everyone,

    Personally, I’d like the course to remain at the new distance of 50k. Obviously WTC is a hugely successful race and it will be around for years (decades) and the new course will become the defacto standard over time. I know this does impact the “current generation” who would like to compare their times year on year as a measure of fitness but I’d prefer the standardisation of the new distance at 50k.

    BTW, as a first-time race director I had the embarrassing problem of some runners GPS units measuring my event at 86km instead of my originally measured 80.3km. Is a wheel the gold-standard for measurement on trails? The trails are similar to Cool but with even more twists, ups and downs and greater tree cover to a GPS may not be the most accurate. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Cheers, Paul Charteris

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