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How Long Is a Pace?

by Silent Doug

When out in the field searching for a letterbox, it's often not the complicated clues themselves that trip you up, but one single word that can completely thwart your efforts. It's the word "pace," and the definition of the word is the subject of some debate in the letterboxing community. Depending on whom you ask, a "pace" is either one step or two. It's not hard to imagine how far off track you could end up if your definition doesn't match that of the individual who created the clue.

One insight as to the length of a pace comes to us from the historical origin of the word itself. Roman soldiers trained and marched in "paces," and each pace was a double step about five feet in length. A Roman mile was 1,000 paces, or, in Latin, "mille passuum" -- which is the origin of our word "mile."

If you look up "pace" in the dictionary today, you won't find any resolution to the debate. A pace is variously defined in the American Heritage Dictionary (Fourth Edition) as:

  1. The modern version of the Roman pace, measuring five English feet. Also called geometric pace.
  2. Thirty inches at quick marching time or 36 at double time.
  3. Five Roman feet or 58.1 English inches, measured from the point at which the heel of one foot is raised to the point at which it is set down again after an intervening step by the other foot.

In the face of these contradictory definitions, there will likely never be a consensus amongst letterboxers about the length of a pace. That leaves it up to letterbox planters and seekers to individually make sure that they don't unnecessarily contribute to the confusion.

For example, when including paces in a clue, letterbox clue writers should also include their definition of a pace. The distance covered by one pace can vary greatly from person to person, depending on their age, size and agility. Many letterboxers indicate in their clues if the paces were taken by a tall or a short person, for instance, to give the seeker some idea of the distance of a pace.

But the terrain can also affect the distance of an individual's pace, particularly if the area is hilly, rocky, muddy, uneven or snow-covered. Because a pace can be so vastly different based on conditions and personal factors, it's a good idea to avoid using a pace (or a step, for that matter) as a precise unit of measure. Instead of relying on the letterboxer to match your stride exactly, direct a letterboxer to take a certain number of paces in a particular direction to point them towards a unique landmark. As long as they reach the landmark in an approximate number of steps as indicated in your clue, your box won't be impossible to find.

If you're using paces or steps in your clue as exact measurements, you should provide finders with the opportunity to calibrate the distance of their pace to yours. This can be done simply in the field by selecting two distinct landmarks (a tree, a large rock, a fencepost, a stone wall) and counting the number of paces it takes for you to walk between them. Make sure they're at least a dozen or so paces apart so that you're using a good walking stride. Now, provide that information in your clue. When letterboxers attempt to find your box, they can walk between the same markers and compare their stride to yours. If they took 30 steps to travel the distance that you covered in 24 steps, that letterboxer will know to adjust their stride a bit longer whenever you provide a number of steps in the clue.

Remember, there are two existing definitions of a pace, and it's a clue writer's decision whether to use the term or not, and whether to define a pace as one step or two. But it's the responsible thing for clue writers to let readers know their definitions of a pace if they use the word. Letterbox seekers should always read through the clue before leaving home and resolve any questions first. If you're stymied by a clue out in the woods, you might need to count off the clue using a double-step pace (or vice versa).

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