How to be an Elite Marathoner and Work in GIS

By Directions Staff

Paul Peterson might seem to be a regular GIS practitioner, but he’s also among the elite runners who have qualified to compete in the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials in Houston on January 14, 2012. His qualifying time is 2:17:35. As we go to press, he is closing down his company, Marathon GIS, and will join EDM International in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he’ll continue to do race course mapping among his other duties. Directions Magazine asked Peterson about the connection between his career in GIS and his passion for running.

Directions Magazine (DM): Marathon GIS does GIS mapping for marathon, half marathon and relay courses. How did you get into that niche? Which came first, running or GIS?

Paul Peterson (PP): Running definitely came first. I’ve been running competitively since junior high, and ran on my high school and college teams. In contrast, I did not pursue GIS in college, as I did both my bachelor’s and master’s work in geology. During my master’s program, I took a couple of GIS classes, and also performed quite a bit of photogrammetry and GIS raster analysis in support of my thesis (Gully Erosion of Archaeological Sites in Grand Canyon). When I graduated and it was time to get a job, no one was hiring in geology, but I had a connection at a local GIS consulting firm…and have been immersed in GIS full-time since then! Best move I ever made.

Marathon GIS started in 2004/2005, after I had been working in the GIS field for a couple years, and had been studying cartography a bit. I had noticed that there was a huge lack of good maps for marathons and other running events, as well as a lack of good maps contained in hiking trail guides. So I started making my own maps for upcoming races, hikes, backpack trips and trail runs, for myself and my friends. After I while, I thought, “Hey, why not make money doing this?” And thus a business was born. I started with a $300 Manifold Systems 6.0 license, and then added ArcGIS and Adobe Creative Suite to my quiver when business picked up. It’s truly a niche, and to this day I still don’t know of anyone else who specializes in endurance event mapping. Even throughout the recession, the running and racing industry has absolutely boomed, and I benefitted from that a lot, as my clientele grew.

DM: Does running help your GIS work? Does your GIS work help your running? How?

PP: I think it does, at least indirectly. Mostly, I think that the exercise and breaking up the day with a run or two is really beneficial in clearing my mind and getting rid of stress. It’s hard to sit, look at a screen and click with a mouse for 8-10 hours straight, and doing a noon run really breaks the day up and relieves eye and back fatigue. If something is bugging me, by the time I’m done running, I’m usually over it. And I can think of several times where I was getting stuck on the logic of some scripting (python or SQL), but was able to work through it in my head during my run.

GIS has helped my running, as it’s helped me “scout out” race courses and prepare for the turns and elevation changes for a given route. Making a nice map is often part of my pre-race routine. GIS can also help compare one course to another, and determine difficulty.

Example elevation profile comparison

DM: What's a "normal day" when you are in training? That is, how do you balance work, training and a family?

PP: I have a wife, and two children (ages 1 and 3), all who covet my time… and my first priority is them. Combine that with work and it is definitely in my best interest to keep my running “footprint” to a minimum! A typical day during heavy training would look like this: Get up 5 a.m. Brew coffee. Go downstairs and begin working (I work at home). Work for a couple hours, and then help my wife make breakfast (and eat) when the kids wake up. Get the kids fed and dressed, then work for another hour or two. Around 10 a.m.-11a.m., I’ll go for my first run, usually 8-10 miles. Finish the run, eat lunch with the family, then finish out the day of work, usually another 4-5 hours. Then go for my second run around 5 p.m., usually about 5-6 miles with one of the kids in the jogging stroller.

When training hard, I usually get in 90 to 100 miles in 6 days (I usually take Sunday off). Working at home obviously helps with this, as I don’t have anycommute time, and every minute helps. And since GIS is sedentary and indoors, it’s a pretty good job for handling high-mileage training! Although I don’t have time for naps (like the pro runners do), sitting at a computer is about the next best thing. I think if I did not work a day job, I could handle more training, probably up to 130-140 miles/week, but I figured out a while back that 90-100 miles/week is what I can handle and still have time for family and career.

DM: What are the main challenges of mapping running courses? That is, what GIS problems do you run into that might be different from someone mapping parcels? Or maybe they are the same?

PP: One challenge is just getting the mapping to be very accurate, and to match what is truly “on the ground.” Most running courses are certified with a measuring wheel, from shoulder-to-shoulder (using tangents), and it’s very difficult to replicate the exact mile posts and distances when digitizing over an aerial photo or with a GPS. I can usually calibrate and do some linear referencing tricks if I need to. Aerial photo interpretation can also be challenging, particularly if the route goes on trails in thick wooded areas. GPS data can be handy for these harder-to-map areas, although they are no panacea for obvious reasons.

The cartography can also be challenging, as many race courses double back on themselves or do multiple loops, which can be difficult to depict. The maps need to read well, be beautiful to look at, and also be spatially accurate. It’s actually a tough combination, kind of a delicate balance at times. Lastly, sometimes making an accurate elevation profile can be challenging. Many of the race courses in the western United States go through steep mountain canyons, and digital elevation models (DEMs) can be erroneous in these areas, and introduce weird elevation spikes. And then in urban areas, most DEMs do not model man-made structures, such as bridges, overpasses, highway ramps, etc. In an urban race, there may be several of these kinds of features, and it always looks suspicious if the profile shows a sudden 100-foot elevation drop where a large, flat bridge should be!

DM: What are the latest enhancements you offer or that your clients request for their course maps?

PP: GPS units, whether they are wrist units or dash-mounted vehicle units, or smartphones, are becoming ubiquitous, and more and more people are asking for the route data, especially for the fast-growing overnight adventure relay races. Fortunately, a GIS-based mapping approach makes data sharing and conversionpretty easy, and I can quickly convert any route and associated features to GPX for KMZ format for “use by the masses.” (I recommend QGIS for this.)

The resolution of DEMs has become astoundingly good in the last 10 years. It used to be that a 10-meter DEM was the best you could do, but I’ve found 3-meter and even 1-meter to be more and more common in urban areas. This really helps my elevation profiles, but especially makes a hill-shaded basemap just pop off the page. Lastly, the number of the Web mapping options has really increased in the last few years. Most of my clients are small organizations that would never swing for ArcGIS Server, and I don’t have the programming expertise to do anything open-source…but Google Fusion Tables combined with the Google Maps API has really opened new worlds to me. It’s nice to be able to offer a nice, functional Web map at a low cost. As more Web map options come online, I’ll definitely keep exploring them, and make them available.


Fusion Tables-based map for Ragnar Relays. (Click for larger view.)

Published Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Written by Directions Staff

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