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Marathon movers

04 July 2019, 7am

When you think you’ve run a short course you don’t usually go to the lengths that Alan Jones did to find out. He devised the key tool – the Jones Counter – by which races could be measured to a high degree of accuracy. Today the counter is universally used by measurers all over the world

An eye for detail

Although accurate measurement of road distances had been practised for cycling time trials as early as the 1930s it involved the cumbersome process of counting spokes every time a reading was recorded. Calculations could be fiendishly complicated.

In 1971 Alan Jones made a ground-breaking improvement by designing a counter which, once used to calibrate the bicycle wheel (by riding over a base line of known length), recorded numbers that could be directly converted into distance.

Alan Jones recalls: “In 1970 I ran in my first road race – advertised as ‘20 kilometres’. While I didn’t run a fantastic time, I knew it was faster than seemed possible. I did a rough calibration of my car’s odometer, and then drove over the course. I found it to be about 11.4 miles instead of the 12.4 it should have been.

About this time an article appeared in Runner’s World explaining how to measure a course. Up until this time I had never heard of Ted Corbitt (the pioneer of road race certification in the US).

A friend, Tom Young, gave me a revolution counter used in an IBM machine to record the number of hours of use. I figured I might be able to use this somehow but needed a way to revolve it as the wheel turned. I went to a bike shop and looked through a box of old odometer gears. Odometers wear out faster than the gears so the proprietor was developing a collection of them. I found one that I thought I could hook to my counter. By filing the circular shaft on the counter into a square cross-section, I was able to attach it to the gear which was then slipped over the front axle of my bicycle.

Tom and I measured off a half-mile calibration course. I rode the bike over it a few times to get a calibration factor and then measured the course we had laid out (which was 12 miles long).

I sent Ted Corbitt my data [but] he wrote back asking if I had stretched the tape to a tension of 10 pounds. I hadn’t; I was really discouraged. Next spring we modified the course to 20km, This time we stretched the tape and did everything right. At that time Ted did not require a re-calibration after the measurement but I did one anyway since it seemed like a good thing to do. The “before” and “after” runs were not in good agreement. The difference resulted in a discrepancy of 30 yards (27.4m) over the entire 20km. Ted again turned me down. I did it once more and this time got good agreement between the two calibrations: Ted finally certified the course.

Five months later, in October 1972, Ted wrote to me for a “description of the mechanism” I used to measure the course. He said that Veeder-Root was no longer making the counter he was providing [which gave one count per wheel revolution]. One had to count the number of spokes beyond the last strike to get an accurate measure. What Ted wanted was a complete description so that someone else could duplicate what I had done.

I got Veeder-Root’s catalog and found a counter similar to the one I had used. It cost $6.50 but required a minimum order of $50.00. The dealer said he would combine orders. After three months my counter was in. Meanwhile I was looking for a gear that I could mate to the counter. I finally found a Stewart-Warner bicycle odometer in a store. It looked like it would do the job. I now filed the shaft of the counter square, cut some of the thread off of the gear where the flexible shaft is attached, and lashed it all together with soft steel wire. Now anyone could make a counter like ours.

But Ted replied: “If you are interested in putting together about 30 counter assemblies with all work done and ready to install, then proceed and let me know when you need money. The counter should have at least five figures, more if possible.”

I really didn’t want to get involved with this so I asked my son, Clain – who was nine years old – to help. The assembly was really too much for him but he was able to do a bit of the work and I paid him $1.00 for each one. As time went on Clain took over more and more of the business. I mailed the first counter to Ted on 29 September 1973. By the end of the year all 30 counters were gone (for $8.25 each). But even before then Ted wrote to ask me to put together another 30 counters.

On 5 January 1974 Ted sent me the first certification application done with a Jones counter (other than my own). [Gradually] business picked up. Clain got a telegram in the spring of 1976 from the Montreal Olympics asking for four counters. He sent them but got no reply or payment. It took two more letters before he finally got a telegram reply, an apology, and a check. We went to the Olympics and watched the marathon from the street. In 1983 Pete Riegel, in Measurement News, reprinted an article that gave details of the [Montreal Olympic Marathon] measurement which confirmed that one of Clain’s counters had been used.

The business took off in 1978 because Jim Fixx, in “The Complete Book of Running”, mentioned the counter. As Clain approached college age I told Ted Corbitt that we should look for a person to take over the business. Finally Allan Steinfeld bought the business on behalf of the New York Road Runners Club. The Los Angeles Olympic Marathon was measured by 13 volunteers and all of them used the Clain Jones counter.


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