The short answer is “yes.”
But there are instances when races are short, or long, so let’s get down to the bottom of it.
First of all, what is “short” and what is “long” when it comes to a race course?
“Short” is anything less than the advertised distance. “Long” is anything more than 10 meters over a 10,000 meter course. Accurate courses, therefore, are between an actual exact distance to slightly long – and by slightly, I’m talking about an extra 5 meters for a 5,000 meter (5k) race.
This, however, is really nitpicky. Unless you are a finely tuned pacing machine, you may not notice a course being long or short. But if it’s me and I run a 26:30, I’m going to just beleive that the course is accurate and I’m getting super fast! Unless a course is advertised as “USATF Certified” (more on this later), I’m actually okay with it being a little off, up to a tenth of a mile per 5k. This is my own personal rule, but I think if you’re creating a sweet course that happens to be a little more than 1/10th of a mile off, let’s say 3.4 miles instead of a true 5k, call it a 3.4-mile race. It might seem better for marketing purposes to call it a 5k, but honestly that’s just lazy – just be honest and everyone will be happier!
Next, how do you even set the course?
Typically, a race organizer will test out possible routes using a Garmin, smartphone app, or online service like RunningAhead. Smart race organizers will meet with local permitting authorities to figure out which roads are options; but that’s not always feasible. This type of measurement can work, but a race director should perform several measurements using multiple devices, if possible. These methods are “good enough” for a race to be sanctioned by the USATF. “Sanctioned” means that a race has demonstrated the minimum standards of course accuracy and intention to adhere to specific safety guidelines, and can be insured by USATF. This is different from “Certified.”
To certify a course, you must use what’s called a Jones Counter. This calibration tool attaches to a bike with which is ridden on the shortest possible route of the course. This means that if a runner can run a tangent for a more efficient course, the bike should take this route. For this reason, it’s usually best to measure a course at around 6 AM on a Sunday – when the roads are empty. Now, you can’t just go measure the course … you have to first use a specific calibration course – a known distance – to determine how many “counts” there are per meter. That is why USATF maintains a list of persons in each region that can measure a course for a race organizer.
So why are courses short or long?
This is not a straightforward answer. It is usually due to manual error – either on the part of the race organizer or sometimes a well-meaning volunteer.
It is my personal opinion that anyone charging money for a race must provide an accurate course. Therefore, if the race organizer hasn’t measured the course using one of these methods, they should disclose this in race information (website, race flyers, etc.) very clearly.
A volunteer, however, may be told to “put the turnaround cone in front of the light pole by the big oak tree.” This is not reliable. There might be multiple light poles, or that big oak tree could have been transformed to a stump. Hopefully, the race organizer will have marked the turnaround with spray chalk or placed the cone themselves. Even so, a volunteer may place the turnaround incorrectly; or even be asked by flaggers or law enforcement to move it. This situation, while not perfect, is forgivable from my point of view.
Occasionally, there are other situations, like a path being flooded or some unexpected road construction or unsafe circumstances, that require a course change. I recall one friend telling me about the time they ran a 28-mile long marathon due to a huge road closure caused by police activity. That race, although extremely long, was prepared with communication on the course and extra medical personnel at the finish line. (Note to race organizers: you should have both a communication plan and a logistics plan should this happen to you.)
Finally, does it really matter?
It does, if a race is advertising that it is “USATF Certified.” But if it’s a 5k that you are running for fun, for fitness, and to challenge yourself, things will be fine if it’s a little short or a little long. Hey, you can count it as a new PR! And for those of you who are “in it to win it,” just remember, everyone is running the same course.