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March 16, 2017

Meet the man who measures and marks tracks for a living

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably run on a track. Hell, you’ve probably run on many tracks. Logged untold quantities of lifetime miles on tracks. Maybe thrown up on tracks. Lied down on tracks after workouts, then brushed off the little granules of track that stuck to your skin after. Competed in and watched countless races on tracks.

But have you ever really contemplated tracks? Not their material or feel. Not how time seems to move at a crawl when you’re running on one. Not how much they cost to put down. No, I’m talking about this sort of contemplation:

When you walk onto a track after a run, jog up to the starting line, and time yourself for a few 100-meter strides, how do you know you’ve run 100 meters? There are markings, of course. But why do you trust the track’s markings?

Your trust isn’t misplaced. This line of questioning isn’t meant to shake that trust. It’s just to remind you that behind every triangle, line, curve, bend, etc., there is a person. And in thousands of cases worldwide, that person is a Midwestern man named Wayne.

“Most people think, ‘oh a track’s like a basketball court, how can you have a business doing that?’ They don’t understand that tracks have all these minor variations; there are differences in the lengths of the curves and the straightaways, lane widths can vary… even something like whether there’s a curb or not changes the measurement,” he says.

Meet Dr. Wayne Armbrust. For over 40 years, his company, Computomarx, has been ensuring the accuracy of lane markings for tracks, using an automated computer program he first wrote — and has since modified and added to — while a PhD student in physics at Ohio State in 1975.

An Ohio-native, Dr. Armbrust started running in junior high school and continued with the sport in high school and college. He got his bachelor’s degree in physics from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

“I was just an average athlete, but I really liked it, so started coaching at while I got my masters degree at Case, then moved on to coach at my old high school after that,” Armbrust says.

Dr. Wayne ArmbrustFrom there, he worked as a volunteer coach at Ohio State while working toward his doctoral degree, then he became the head coach of the Ohio Track Club, which set in motion a series of pretty fortuitous happenings.

“Somebody on the Club, who was also on the board of directors at a private school in Columbus, called me one day about a problem they had with their new synthetic track,” he says. “It was more or less finished, but they didn’t put enough money in the budget to stripe the thing! So they asked if I would help. I’d never measured a track before, but figured I could figure it out, by looking at the rule book. I’d just started learning computer programming for my dissertation, and so I wrote a simple program. It worked! And it got me thinking, ‘hey maybe I can make some money on this,’ since the program would work for other tracks too.”

Dr. Armbrust’s timing was impeccable. Not only were there new tracks being built and in need of accurate markings all over the place, there were tons of existing tracks being re-lined from imperial to metric distances.

“When we first started running metric distance, and tracks were being converted from yards to meters, most people were still doing the calculations by hand, and some people were even still trying to measure metric distances in feet and inches… just all sorts of errors..”

And no track was spared from these sorts of inaccuracies.

“One track — I’m not gonna tell you which one — had the marks off, and they ran the NCAA meet there,” Armbrust says. “You could tell just by looking — certain marks are always supposed to be together and on this track that wasn’t the case. I went up to the host coach after and told him and he wasn’t too happy.”

Since the early days, he’s played a hand in the veracity of roughly 1,500 tracks, across 15 countries, all 50 states and Puerto Rico. (Check out the list. Chances are you’ve run on one of Dr. Wayne’s tracks.)

But despite the breadth of his impact on the physical aspect the track world, Dr. Armbrust laughs when asked how many of the track’s Computomarx has been involved with he’s actually visited. “I’ve been to maybe 50 of them,” he guesses. “But since I’ve done over a thousand of them, those are probably all coincidental visits.”

Nowadays, Dr. Armbrust gets between 100 and 200 requests per year to help out with track markings, despite his main method of advertising being word of mouth.

“I do a little bit of advertising too, in a few trade publications,” he says. “I have a website that comes up pretty quick if you search for ‘track & field consulting.’ I suppose I oughta advertise more. I’ve sponsored a club [The Computomarx Track Club] to wear a jersey with my logo, but I don’t know if anything came from that. But ultimately there’s only a finite number of companies that build tracks, and I have a good relationship with them.”

But he’s not just the creator of a computer program that can churn out 100% accurate schematics for painting a track, which to his knowledge, is the only such program that has fully automated those notoriously finicky steeplechase courses (try to take splits for a 3K steeple at Franklin Field, then do it again at a meet at Stanford and let know how that goes for you). He’s also a member of a highly exclusive club that you’re probably not even aware exists: PhD physicists who have coached Track & Field Olympic Trials qualifiers, in his case, a list that includes shot putter Steven Albert, high jumper Andy Gilmore,1971 NCAA Decathlon Champion Ray Hupp and 3:50 miler Tom Byers.

But he’s coached pretty much every event.

“I was a long sprinter,” Armbrust says. “So for the field events, a lot of my coaching knowledge comes from physics, rather than experience,” he offers, explaining his preference for coaching jumps and throws. “Distance events, they’ve got nothing like the technical challenge that comes from the pole vault or the hammer, where no two motions you go through are the same.”

When he’s not coaching, or working with track-builders, he’s officiating track meets hosted by the University of Missouri – just as long as he doesn’t have an athlete competing.

You might expect a man who loves the sport of track and has found himself comfortably wedged into an untouchably niche cottage industry adjacent to said sport, would at least feign surprise over just how he found himself there. After all track and field tends to attract some of the most notorious employers of the “aw shucks, I dunno” response in all of sports. Dr. Armbrust’s explanation for his present standing is refreshingly honest and in perfect alignment with his generally pragmatic outlook.

“I planned on being a physics professor, it just didn’t work out very well. When I went through the system, there was a surplus of us. I mean, I taught at four different colleges, but never had a tenure track position. I guess I just didn’t want to become such a one dimensional person as was required to become a professor, when it got down to it. I still converse in the subject at the highest level but I haven’t published or taught anything in quite a while.”

And that’s alright by him. Between Computomarx business, coaching, and officiating, the sport keeps him plenty busy.

“At my age most people are slowing down. I’m speeding up!”

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