13 June 2012

It Just Doesn't Matter

All the engineering, calculating, pondering, supposing is well and good, but at the end of the day it’s the time on the clock, and the rest just doesn’t matter. Tonight that proved true yet again, as yet again I find myself foiled on a goal.

It’s been nearly four years since I pegged my five kilometer personal best. That was on a course that I helped design, so I know it was accurate. Measuring it today with online satellite photo tracing pegs it within a hundredth of a mile of five clicks, the error being on the long (safe) side. Oh, and a minor detail, the last tenth of a mile is net downhill from the start, a bonus for nabbing a few extra seconds. Result: a personal best that’s stuck for a long time.

Make that a personal best that I have a vendetta to demolish. And I know I can do it. Four weeks ago at Bedford, I did it en-route to a twelve-K. Knocked at least ten seconds off that best mark, probably more depending on how you extrapolate, but since there was no official five-K split, nor was it even marked, it just doesn’t matter. Doesn’t count.

Tonight the opportunity availed to take another stab at it. Having passed on joining my Greater Boston brethren for the Newton 10K Grand Prix event this past Sunday due schedule commitments, I figured I’d come out of my post-Buffalo shell by popping into a local five-K that conveniently appeared only a small detour from my week’s business travel. Said local five-K advertised itself as flat, fast (assuming a train didn’t arrive and stop the whole thing mid-race as apparently happened last year), USATF certified, and last year’s results indicated the field would have plenty of fast guys to key off. As a bonus, it started with a lap and a half on the track, a perfect way to gauge early pace. Sounded to me like an excuse to take a stab at that circa-2008 five-K mark.

By now you’d think I’d know better than to expect to pop out of car after six hours of driving and run fast. Fatigued and winded on the warm-up, I fashioned in my head Excuse Number One. And I haven’t done any track work or really anything faster than tempo pace since Buffalo, and very little even at that clip, so to think a PR five-K was in order, well, I fashioned that in my head as Excuse Number Two. One of the guys I ran my warm-down with post-event laughed and reminded me that real distance runners always have plenty of excuses.

Excuses aside, it wasn’t a bad outing. Getting the body moving was far more of an effort than I’d hoped, and while that first lap clicked in ahead of needed pace, by the mile mark I’d settled down to ordinariness. There were enough fast guys, but none nearby to really inspire dropping it into the next gear, so I settled for holding on to a pleasingly consistent, though certainly not spectacular, pace for the remainder. True, the end result was twenty to thirty seconds behind the crushing PR I’d envisioned. But it was only six seconds off that 2008 downhill four-years-younger mark. And for winning the forties age group I walked off with a funky hand-made ceramic mug, hopefully not laced with lead-based glaze (I will inherently trust them). All in all, it was a decent, though not exceptional, evening.

Then it gets interesting, because I am at heart an engineer, and I cannot stop myself from fiddling, measuring, calculating, pondering, mashing and re-mashing until the numbers turn blue. Why bother, you might ask, if the course was USATF certified? Well, having been a race director, and having seen how the USATF measurement system works, where, for example, they prefer a bicycle measurement device, subject to the ability of the rider to go in a straight line, over a wheel, very easy to control and generally very accurate, I’m always curious. I saw how the USATF measurement stretched my local ten-K considerably over the wheel measurement I’d personally made with utter loving care.

Not being one to carry a wheel in my trunk (other than the one I’d slap on the car itself if needed), the only real weapon in this endeavor is the trusty online satellite photo measurement web sites, explicitly a no-no in the USATF book. But truth be told, they’re pretty accurate if you’re careful with your tracing – this is easy to test by tracing out your local track. And so I traced, and traced, and traced some more. And the result surprised me, because it came out not just a hair long, expected with the inaccuracies of the trace and the built-in margin of error in the USATF methodology, but quite a bit long. Even after double-checking and looking hard for discrepancies, well, gee, ain’t that a hoot. If that trace was right, adjusted, tonight would’ve been a big PR, on the order of fifteen seconds or so.

Next, I pulled up the USATF course certification map to verify what I’d measured matched what we ran. And here I found another surprise: the race director had started the race from a point notably further back than the hard-measured point on the map. Only a hundredth of a mile difference to be sure, but that one I could take to the bank as real. At my pace, that buys an adjustment of a whopping four seconds, which would still leave me short of that elusive PR, but would make it my quickest five-K since that long-ago day. Four seconds is four seconds, right?

And then we get to the quandary, the ethical questions, the ‘whaddayagonnadoaboudit?’ point. I have a longstanding policy of basing my personal race rankings on the most accurate measurement I can come up with. But typically I don’t adjust when it’s a certified course, unless I know there was some absolute discrepancy. So I’ll take the hundredth of a mile error in the starting line, and I’ll take the four seconds, and I’ll take the best-since-way-back-when, and plug that result into my ever-growing table of race results. But beyond that, all the pondering, positing, prognosticating, and prevaricating, well, it just doesn’t matter. The time on the clock is the time on the clock. No matter how I slice it, I can’t call this that PR I so heartily seek. Even if I think in my heart of hearts that it was real. It just doesn’t matter. The quest must go on.

But hey, the mug is really nice, and it was a fun time, plenty of nice folks to warm up, warm down, and chew the fat with, and there was free pizza afterward, so does it really matter?

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