Running a marathon might not be an exact science, but measuring the course is.
Organizers of the Naperville Marathon started taking to bicycles this month to begin measuring and certifying this year's 26.2- and 13.1-mile routes so the marathon can count as a qualifier for the prestigious Boston Marathon.
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The second annual Edward Hospital Naperville Marathon, planned for Nov. 9, will not follow the same course as last year's inaugural race, so organizers with Naper Events LLC, have to map a new one.
Race Director Craig Bixler said the new course has been charted using computerized maps to calculate the correct distance. But even more exact measurements using a device called a Jones Counter attached to a bicycle are required to gain Boston qualifier status.
"In theory, when we finish the course, it can be accurate within 3 inches," Bixler said.
Starting at Naperville Central High School on Hillside Road, runners this year will head south on West Street and Book Road almost to 95th Street before circling back toward the high school, where half marathoners will finish their race. Marathoners then will run through several central Naperville neighborhoods west and east of downtown to complete 26.2 miles before also finishing at the school.
Bixler and volunteers Tom Minichiello and Jerry Allanach of Naperville started the course certification process early in the morning May 18 near Herrick Lake Forest Preserve, where a stretch of Herrick Road already has been measured and certified to be 500 meters -- but things didn't go exactly as planned.
Bixler and Minichiello attached the Jones Counters to their bikes to see how many clicks the devices would register in the 500-meter distance. That number was used to calculate how many clicks the counters should read after one mile. Organizers hoped to certify the 13.1-mile half marathon route May 18 and return later to finish the remaining distance of the full marathon.
The course certification process conducted through USA Track & Field involves a lot of cycling and a lot of math, but marathon organizers created a spreadsheet to do much of the multiplication for them.
"That information gets fed into a spreadsheet that we've developed that then tells for each bike how many clicks of the Jones meter equals one mile," Minichiello said.
Certifying a course allows only a small margin of error -- .08 percent -- of deviation from the number each Jones Counter should read at every mile. If numbers on the counters come back outside the acceptable range, the measurement process must begin again.
Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened May 18, which means organizers will have to tackle the process again from scratch.
Failing to certify the route on the first attempt does not mean the race will have to start or end at a different location. It might just mean tire pressure changed in the bikes Bixler and Minichiello were riding. Or it might mean they didn't take the shortest distance around a curve or they had to swerve too far to avoid parked or oncoming cars.
"It was a very cool morning, and it warmed a lot," Bixler said. "The biggest challenge is probably traffic."
Minichiello said May and June are optimal months to measure the course because daylight begins early when few cars are on the roads. Plus it leaves plenty of time to get perfect measurements before up to 7,000 runners compete in the late fall race.
"We'll be here a few more times to get the whole thing done for both the half and the full. There's daylight at 5 a.m. this time of the year," Minichiello said. "It's important to get out here early."