Hugh Jones has certified the Yas Marina Circuit and ensures the runners at today's 10k run go the distance
The man who measures up to the task at hand
If it did not seem impolite the matter would probably have come up earlier. On one occasion it seems to have done so. "I suppose it's quite nerdy," Hugh Jones said in an interview four years ago. "But it's very cool to us."
Nerdy is too harsh, cool probably a bit too much; obscure and essential hits a better note for what Jones does. He is an international racecourse measurer, among the best in the world at what he does, measuring out marathons and other long-distance road race tracks.
He has just been in Abu Dhabi, where he measured the course at the Yas Marina Circuit for the Adnic (Abu Dhabi National Insurance Company) Yas Run today. That is now the first 10km certified course in the Gulf.
Race courses do not measure themselves. When someone runs 26 miles and 385 yards of a marathon, it had better be 26 miles and 385 yards. Everyone from runners and fans take that as a given. Jones does not. That is his job and it is tempting to conclude that, without him, and others like him, the edifice of long-distance running may come crumbling down.
"The whole point of measurement is – this is a very basic thing – there's no such thing as an exact measurement," he said. "There is always error. If you measure something twice, you'll never get the same [length] or it is fortuitous if you do."
The process itself, he says, is simple. It is also beautifully basic in a world where we might understandably expect the process to be digitised, or automated. It is the "calibrated bicycle" method.
"Basically there is a device called the Jones Counter - nothing to do with me - which measures fractions of a revolution of a bicycle wheel," Jones said. "Put the counter in the front fork, and the spokes drive the finger which dials up numbers on the counter. The trick is just to transfer those numbers into distance."
The Jones Counter is named after its inventors Alan Jones and his son, Clain, who was nine years old in the 1970s when he helped develop it. Although in principle the system was first used in the 1920s, it was only after this invention that it gained currency. Until then, one of the more common methods was using car odometers and those readings were often wildly inaccurate.
The International Association of Athletics Federations and the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races handbook for the Measurement of Road Race Courses (not nearly as ominous as it sounds) says that the counters "have a gearing through which they register 260/11 counts (23.6363) for each revolution of the wheel. Because the circumference of bicycle wheels normally used in measurement is about 2.1m this means that each count represents approximately 9cm on the ground."
The calibration comes from riding the bicycle back and forth four times along a "calibration course" of a known length (ideally of 500m). Then, the number of revolutions of the wheel on the counter is recorded for each ride and an average distance calculated; the number of revolutions to cover an entire race will be compared with this standard, to measure the total distance.
There are variables in these great labours of accuracy. The bicycle must ride as straight as possible along the calibration course, the tyres must be firmly inflated and a constant riding posture maintained. Over the whole course, the bicycle has to measure the shortest route, a conglomeration of sticking closest to edges and getting the angles right on winding roads. In measurement, temperatures have to be accounted for.
"The steel tape [used to measure the shorter calibration course] is accurate at 20°C and 50 Newtons tension," said Jones. "You just have to take a temperature reading to find out if you have to correct the distance. At 30°C, over a 400m calibration course, there might be a 5cm difference. It's not a lot but the key is that the calibration course is the building block of your measurement. Everything depends on getting that as accurate as you can."
A degree of error is acceptable because it is inevitable. That degree in road racing has been standardised at one metre per kilometre. "You add one metre to the equation, so you're measuring out 1001m for every kilometre," Jones said. "But that actually means, given that the accuracy is plus or minus 0.1 per cent, you're measuring between 1,000 and 1,002m - that is 1,001m plus or minus one metre. What you crucially know is that it is not less than one kilometre and that is what all road race measurement is based on: the distance you run is not less than the advertised distance. In practice, it will always be over, but you can't be sure how much over."
Theoretically then, a marathon, as the handbook allows, can be 42m in excess, but no more.
Jones was a distance runner of pedigree himself (like all good long-distance runners, he doesn't see the point of treadmill running). He became the first Englishman to win the London Marathon in 1982, won the Stockholm Marathon twice, participated in the 1984 Olympic Games and finished third in the New York City Marathon in 1981.
"I was always interested [in measuring] just from being a runner. I did measure a cross-country course in 1976 but using the old method, like surveyors of India, with a surveyor's chain. That is pretty accurate. I always knew I was going to do it."
He has measured courses across the world and the Yas Marina was the second Formula One circuit, Silverstone in England the other. "That is far inferior to this one, an old-style one continually trying to improve itself but nothing like this facility," he said.
For a man who has measured the Everest Sky marathon, Yas was a fairly straightforward measurement, done over two days. The first lap, of nearly 5.4km, will be the main circuit track. The second enters the pit lane and takes a shorter route.
There was one glitch, which required a bit of triangulation, which is about all the detail we should get into. "In this case, we found the total course length to be roughly 128m short from what was first guessed," Jones said. "We had to add 64m per lap. To do it conceptually is quite easy, but in practice requires trial and error, so we were mucking about for a while to get it right.
"Measurements can be difficult because of conditions or complexity. Complexity is often the result of configuration and traffic conditions, where the direction of measurement has to be changed to ride with the traffic. In physical terms, the Everest Sky marathon was quite tough, as it was at 4,350m altitude and on rough ground. The 2007 World Championships course in Helsinki was a little difficult because we had to contrive an exact 10km lap."
But over the past decade or two, the accuracy of measurement has become less of an issue. "The key thing is that courses change," said Jones. "It's rare that the course is held on the exact same course year to year, so they have to remeasure. The challenge now is not the technical bit but the administrative side of keeping track of different courses and the changes."
Ultimately, politeness must be breached. Even though measuring appears to combine the meticulousness of a surveyor, the logic of a mathematician and the indefatigability of the runner, is it not a little bit nerdy?
"The basic qualities required are the ability to ride a bike and use a pocket calculator," Jones said. "And to think logically about the process being followed and how to apply in particular circumstances. The basic point is that measurement does demand nit-picking attention to detail, and that is generally what people think of as 'nerdy'."