Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Great Debate

When Geoffrey Mutai crossed the finish line in Boston on Monday in a time of 2 hours, 3 minutes and 2 seconds, he unwittingly ignited what will be the most hotly debated topic for some time to come:

What makes a world record, a World Record?

And since it's been a question for many people lately, why, specifically, are times from Boston not eligible for World Record consideration?  Well, ask and ye shall receive.  Here are the requirements, as specified by the IAAF, for marathon world record consideration:

1) The length of the race must not be less than 42.195km, and the uncertainty in measurement cannot exceed 42m (<0.1%).  26 miles 385 yards and 42.195 kilometers differ by about half an inch, and 26.22 miles is generally rounded down to 26.2 miles (the difference being about 6.6 feet).  IAAF-certified courses are intentionally lengthened by 1 meter per kilometer to ensure proper measurement, which amounts to an extra 46 yards over the distance.

2) The route must be marked in kilometers.  This means that while there can be mile splits, there must also be some recognition of kilometers (generally each 5km, if not every 1km).  For IAAF-recognized lesser distances, such as 20km or 30km, marathon runners can be credited with a world record if it is established during the course of a marathon in which the competitor completes the race (such as a 20km record en route to the half marathon WR, or a 30km en route to a marathon world record).

3) Net elevation loss between start and finish cannot be greater than 1 meter per kilometer.  Boston's starting elevation in Hopkinton is 145 meters, and at the finish in Copley Square it is 5 meters, a net decrease of 140 meters, or roughly 3.1 meters per kilometer. 

4) Start and finish must be within 50% of the total race distance, if a straight line between the two was drawn.  In a marathon, that distance is obviously about 13 miles.  At Boston, as the crow flies, the distance between start and finish is 23.5 miles (90%).  For USATF consideration (in other words, for American Record purposes), that distance is even shorter at 30% of the total race distance.

The Boston Marathon does not adhere to the two big ones, which means it is not eligible for World Record consideration (so Mutai's time will not count as a World Record, nor will Hall's time count as an American Record).  But, as was the case on Monday, these rules are in place to prevent "artificially" fast races.  The point-to-point nature of Boston, depending on weather conditions, can lead to a tremendously fast race if there is a tailwind, or can lead to a slow race if there is a headwind.  Certainly an argument can be made that Boston is traditionally a slower race than London, Chicago, Berlin or Rotterdam - which are (with the exception of Rotterdam, although that is shifting) considered the Major Marathons.  New York, the other major, is generally regarded as the most difficult of the majors, and will likely not see any World Record times coming from it, but it does adhere to the guidelines so if one were set there, it would count.

On the Science of Sport blog (easily accessible from the right hand side of ours), they did some further analysis into the potential effect of the tailwind in Monday's race.  I say potential, because realistically, it is almost impossible to measure the true effect on the race.  The only tangible statistic we can go by is the average winning time at Boston, particularly as it compares to the individual competitors' personal bests at traditionally faster courses.  The conclusions made by these Sports Scientists is that, with a 16mph sustained tailwind on Monday, the effect could have led to a 2-3% decrease in energy, or increase in efficiency (half empty/half full), which would have directly led to times being 3-4 minutes faster over the race distance.

THE TAILWIND HAS NO RELEVANCE ON WHETHER THE TIME CAN BE CONSIDERED A WORLD RECORD, which is important to note.  At least, no direct relevance.  By virtue of the "point-to-point" rule, a tailwind has an indirect relation, as in other races where the start and finish are relatively near one another, wind benefits would essentially be negated. 

Ryan Hall is a great example, as many have pointed out already and as we have discussed ourselves.  Ryan Hall has run Boston three years in a row now, going from 2:09:40ish in 2009, to 2:08:40ish last year, to 2:04:58 this year.  We all know what it's like to have to work for personal bests, and that we reach some level where improvements are measured in seconds, not minutes (unless your name is Beef, circa 2008 to 2010).  I watched Ryan Hall run a 1:03:50ish half marathon on what was not a terrificly slow course just one month ago in New York.  I can dismiss bad days for what they are - we all have them.  But how is it then, that one month later, on what the masses generally agree is a "hard" course (and twice the distance), did he average 1:02:30 per half, and more importantly run a 1:01:57 first half and 1:03:01 second half?  This represents a 1 minute 15 second improvement over his previous personal best (London, 2008) and a near 4 minute improvement from his Boston 2010 time.  I find it hard to believe that an established runner of his caliber is able to make an improvement like that, especially given his past year of training, racing and coaching changes.  It doesn't take away from his remarkable time, and he can still say he has a PR of <2:05 now.  Similarly, are we to believe that in his marathon debut, Moses Mosop (2nd) ran the 2nd fastest time ever, by almost a minute? 

I may be in the minority, but I do not subscribe to the opinion that Boston is automatically "harder" than other races because of 3-4 hills at a "crucial" stage of the race.  The fact is, the first half of that race is almost entirely downhill, and the hills do not begin until mile 17.  From mile 21 to the finish, it's almost entirely downhill again.  There are arguments that the significant downhills can be as brutal as any uphill, and leave your legs beat up as you enter the famed Newton Hills; I wouldn't disagree with that.  But I think that, at the professional/elite level, you are going to be prepared for that, and the ease with which the leaders powered through the hills on Monday (1:01:57 first half, 1:01:05 second half for the winner), showed no indication of being battered EVEN THOUGH they went through the half below WR pace.  The reality may be that flat courses are faster, given relative winning times over the past few years, but I don't think that means Boston is any slower of a course.  I think if anything, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot's winning/Course Record 2010 time of 2:05:xx was more impressive, given that he was running into a slight headwind, and that he soloed to utterly devastate Robert Cheruiyot's (the elder) previous Course Record.

I've written a bunch now, and don't want to make this post any longer than it already is, but I find this topic pretty fascinating right now, and I want to write a few other posts about WR progression, gender, motivation and what to expect in the fall marathon season - so I will save those for other posts.  I figure it gives you all something to read OTHER than just race results, and at the very least I anticipate the comment section getting pretty hot.  I'm interested in others' opinions on this, so sound off.  And if you don't have privileges to comment, but want to, send me an email or something and I'll hook you up.

As a final note, digging around a little more and you'll find that this is exactly why IAAF did not recognize Marathon World Records for a while, simply noted them as World Bests - because there is no way to compare one course over another. 


28 comments:

alyssa said...

My 2¢ on a couple points:

-Is Boston a "harder" course? I would say no. I think it requires different training and a different race plan - just like with any course. Different doesn't mean a substantial difference in difficulty. That being said, if I want to make one of my long runs harder, I go to Patterson Park at the end of the run. If I want a long run to feel easier to me, I'd run the hills in Patterson Park first. So...yeah.

-What makes a WR a WR? I'd subscribe to the same point as I did with the Westminter MSM. A mile is a mile --> 26.2 miles is 26.2 miles. If the fastest time to run that distance is done on a net downhill course, so be it. Then anyone trying to run a WR should go run that downhill course. We might find that flatter is faster anyway, etc. Either way, we're racing distance, and distance is distance, no matter the slope. Personally you may get more satisfaction from racing a decent time on a harder course - then cool, that's your jam. You just may not get a WR.

RM said...

The distance is the distance, this is true, but would you then be willing to accept a 100m WR on a track that slopes downhill, with a tailwind? It's similar to the Wheeling Mile Dusty was telling us about, 3:39 is the course record (fastest mile ever run) but the course is more kind than even Westminster.

I think there has to be some sort of statistical regulation, otherwise we wind up with all sorts of asterisks. As in baseball, there are a million different arguments regarding home runs. Old ballparks were bigger, making it harder to hit home runs. Pitchers are better today. Hitters are juiced.

So we know wind-aided times on the track are ineligible for WR consideration, and that wind is allowable up to 2.2m/s I believe. If you luck out and get an allowable wind reading of 2.1m/s, then that's the way it goes. This is true of course only for long jump/triple jump events, the 100m and 200m. Above that and any wind would work both for and against you.

Maybe the best thing to do is to go back to "world best" and not call it a "World Record" for road races. I will still personally consider this 2:03:02 as the fastest time ever run, but I will also know that the conditions went a long way in helping that.

People like us, who are generally quite knowledgeable about the different races and specifically, annual conditions and times and whatnot, will understand that assertment. I'm not going to sit here and tell Dave or Seth or Suzanne that their PRs "don't count" because it was a fast day (separately, as we discussed last night, I actually feel that the benefit of the tailwind is diminished for those surrounded by more people than for the few leaders). Everyone still runs the same distance, has still worked hard for their result and is still subject to the same good day/bad day scenarios that all marathoners face.

But, for WR purposes, the regulations are the regulations. I think changing them now, after the fact, is not the right thing to do, because they would essentially be saying "wow you ran pretty fast, and we want to see this time stick". Every racer goes into Boston knowing that any record will be unofficial, regardless of the conditions.

Additionally, it is for this reason that I cannot in good conscience accept Ed's 4:05 as our new Road Mile record, and Diane's has an asterisk (because, at 4:40, we can reasonably assume that she would have run faster than the previous record of 7:11). However, I am contemplating just having separate records for this mile thing, until someone runs another road mile which will fit into the guidelines I am apparently now going to have to establish (for instance, I do like how GRC has requirements for record purposes, including member must have been wearing a GRC singlet at time of record).

Similarly, the conditions Sunday have me torn for registering Berdan's 10k as our team record over Kip's 30:09, because the day was very, very quick. But for now it stands.

fbg said...

@alyssa: I think the point of having world records (or any running records) is so that we can compare performances between people who didn't race against each other directly, so standardization is absolutely required. A flat course is the easiest standard to have. Without rules that make courses relatively comparable, general records lose all meaning. Every course will always have its course record, though.

@Ryan: To me, the most reliable way to figure out the conversion factor (even though it's still not very reliable) is to look at the people in the race, like you did with Hall. Based on his history, Mutai probably would have run close to 2:05:00 on a standard course like London, and Mutai is very likely a stronger runner than either Cheruiyot, putting him at a maximum time of ~2:05:30 on a normal Boston day. I'd posit that +2:00 is a decent conversion, which is reasonable for Hall, too, who probably had his best Boston run this year, but it was not quite as quick as his London debut.

Seth said...

In terms of the world records, I feel the the regulations are fair and necessary.

Now to share little of my race experience as a pack runner. I am glad you recognize the fact that tailwind has far less benefit to those in the masses. I started in the middle of corral 5 (~4500th place) and passed around 4000 people throughout the race. Needless to say, there was no option to run the tangents and my GPS had my distance at 26.45 miles (I know there is some error in this measurement). I was cut-off badly at least a half dozen times and was constantly looking over my shoulder before merging. So, for me, I believe everything evened out. Of course, I do not believe I would have run the same time on a bad weather day all with all things the same. Lesson being, have a qualifying time in the ballpark of your goal time (I dropped 20+ minutes).

I know, as you already stated, that this post is aimed at the elites and world records. I just wanted to make it clear that the 115th Boston was not automatically an easy PR course for everybody.

///MM said...

Hall is a giant in that picture. Just dragging all that extra weight around compared to the rest of the pack is impressive.

Ben said...

I think the standards make sense. The reason they don't specifically call out wind is that it would be impossible to come up with a workable way to measure wind for an event lasting over 2 hours with courses that usually change direction. Do you place wind instruments every mile and then find the average? Not workable - so, they have a rule that basically says point-to-point races that are go the same direction for most of the race are restricted from being considered a world record. Seems fair to me.

As for downhill races - i don't think they should count either for world records. If that restriction was removed then you would have a world record that was completely about the ability for someone to handle the technical challenges of descending a very steep hill rather than aerobic capacity etc.

alyssa said...

For what it's worth, the WR 100 mile *is* a track record. Maybe it's because in ultras/trail running you just accept that every course will yield different results and that if you want to run the fastest times you have to go to the fastest courses, I have trouble letting go of this. And I know that if I want to compete with that record, I too would probably have to go to a track.

I agree that standardization allows people to see where they measure against those they can't directly run against....But maybe we should do away with that in an effort to encourage (or force) the best of the best to get together on fast courses and REALLY see what records they can set.

Dart said...

Great topic. Great post. Great comments.

Isn't this why we have "road" mile and "track" mile records, etc...

Regardless of the regulations, my days of a sub-sub-sub-less than elite runner speak this:

My 100k PR is GEER '10. It climbs (and decends) over 5,000 meters vertical, but it's still a 100K. It's my only 100k. If I run another one, track, or up Mt. Everest & back down, I'll still measure my PR as the fastest one.

Boston '07 was the best shape I ever entered a marathon (until I ran Miami '11). I was in sub-3hour shape @ Boston '07, and with a sustained 20+mph headwind, 50+mph gusts, cold and rain, I ended up 3:09:59 in the Noreaster. This was 21 seconds slower than my qualifier in which I was much less fit on an easier course in Frederick MD. Frederick was a cool crisp day beginning @ 37deg & frost, finish around 45deg & sunny. I always regarded Frederick as my PR, but just told you the asterisk in conversation.

Boston '08 I ran 3:23:xx, and I ran 3:08:47 @ Baltimore '08 for my then PR... But, I never looked @ Boston '07 as my PR, simply because I was more fit & got handed mother nature. Baltimore '08 was my PR.

What about temperature? I historically run much faster in cold weather... But the 100k reached 90deg mid-day. Miami full reached into the 70's... Boston '07 was in the 40's but felt absolutely misearable...

What about the barometric presure reading? What about the crowd support? Maybe the Air Force Fly Over wasn't loud enough?

Maybe from now on we should run with a challenge flag?!!

Zero - nice comment. Short & Sweet, and completely off topic!

Ben said...

alyssa - what would a "really" fast course look like? I'm imagining a 30% grade side of a mountain covered with a foot of sand or maybe snow so nobody get's hurt. Instead of running - it would really be about who is the best at bounding down a mountain - it would have little to do with what we think of as distance running.

As for the wind - what if the wind on Monday had been 30 mph instead of 15mph? and the wind never was that strong again? You would have a world record based on freak weather instead of talent. Does that make sense?

alyssa said...

It might have little to do with what Ben thinks of as distance running.....but try telling the dude who set the Kilimanjaro speed record last year that he really set a record for "bounding up and down a mountain."

fbg said...

Alyssa, it sounds like you think there can be only one list, like The Highlander. Just because a race isn't on The One List to Rule Them All doesn't mean it isn't good; it means only that it's hard to compare the time to a time from the majority of races.

Oh yeah: that guy's time on Kilimanjaro sucked. I ran faster on my tempo run the other day.

Ben said...

Barf - you are right that there are 100's of environmental factors that can influence time in a race and it's impossible to figure out how many seconds each factor may have impacted the final time - however, that doesn't mean that there shouldn't be a few basic rules. Really I think the IAAF did a pretty good job of keeping it simple - there are a heck of a lot more rules for a beer mile than a marathon world record.

Besides, everybody knows what the rules are ahead of time - if you're looking to break a WR you go to Berlin or London or chicago - if you're looking to win the marathon with the greatest history you go to Boston.

RM said...

This is what I like to see! I go away for a little while and come back to many, many comments.

Ben, I got your message and will give you a shout back tonight, that was real funny the message you left.

BUT, in reality, as much of a weiner as I think Ryan Hall is/can be, I would wholeheartedly credit his aggressive racing with the course record - and the guys in 1st and 2nd did too, apparently. He set the tempo, and unlike if someone like Brian Sell had gone out and tried to do that (or Kim Smith, god bless her heart), the contenders probably would have let him go, and run more of "their" race for the first half. But with a legitimate contender in Hall taking the reins, they had no choice but to follow. I always respect aggressive racing, because you gotta run fast to run fast. One of these days he'll catch the right day and maybe get a W.

Ben said...

I know i'm ranting at this point - but I want to bring up a couple of other examples of when rules are needed. Mechanical devices shouldn't be allowed in your shoes(springs etc), people with disbilities shouldn't be able to compete with what are basically bionic legs, and people who are not clearly female (as defined by the medical community) should not be able to compete against females.

In each of these cases I think we would be getting to far away from the history of the sport - and we would be rewarding innovation (who designed the best legs or shoes or drugs) or individuals who are so unique in a particular advantage that it would be a stretch to call it a "competition".

Dart said...

This thread is great! We need blog post records. I give this at least top 5

Dart said...

And the other 4 go to bashing Collin... sike!

Ben said...

as for Ryan Hall - I don't think he runs out front to "run fast" - I think he runs out front because he "likes the way it looks" as he admitted in the interview. He rationalizes what is basically a vain act by saying that the energy he gets from being in front might help him win. I know he's a great runner - but it reminds me of those jerks who sprint the first 100m of a race because they apparently are attention starved. If Ryan Hall really thought he could win the Boston marathon he wouldn't act that way. He didn't run that way at the 2008 trials - a race he actually won. What race has he won where he's run from the front in the first mile? He seems to have convinced himself of something for which he has no proof.

fbg said...

ZING!! And Ben comes in with a double-dip atheist slam!

Ben said...

Ryan Hall is religious? I had no idea.

fbg said...

He's not, but the angel inhabiting his body is.

RM said...

New poll on the upper right hand side of the blog!

THE KRIS said...

whatever the answer to this debate may be, you most definitely cannot retroactively change the rules.

fbg said...

...or can you??

A new poll!!

RM said...

This has been the seriously best week of blogging ever.

Interesting story, Kris was 2nd place to Pheidippides in the first ever "marathon", and felt he would have won if it hadn't been net downhill from marathon to Athens. As such, Kris was the driving force behind the rules, such as the point-to-point rule, the downhill exclusion, and the race distance being at least 42.195km (the original distance was short at 23-24 miles)

THE KRIS said...

they say living for thousands of years is the best revenge.

JAR said...

How about this poll: Will Desiree Davila be a continuing force on the USA marathoning scene for many years to come OR will these be her 15 minutes of fame and she'll never be heard from again?

Andrew Jaffe said...

thanks for the "circa 2008-2010 beef" shoutout!

Andy G said...

Nerds...