30 August 2014

Not As Level As Expected

Life isn’t fair, but sometimes you slough that off and appreciate the goodness that is. Back in May, I wrote of two races which presented what couldn’t have been a more stark contrast: one by runners, for runners; the other a charity fund-raiser that saw the runners as a handy source of cash. Through the power of Almighty Marketing, not to mention the appearance of the governor and other notables, the charity ball out-drew the runners’ race by about nine to one. Bad news, right? Well, maybe not. First, it was a good cause. Good for them. And second, on any given day there are a lot more people at the mall than there are on the summit of Mt. Adams (or pick your favorite non-road-accessible White Mountains major peak), but I’ll take Mt. Adams. That’s just the way life goes. And let’s face it: Mt. Adams would get a little crowded if it were the other way around.

As you’d guess, I skipped the charity run, and targeted the Level Renner ten kilometer as the next stage of my twelve-step racing rehab, my first middle-distance outing since May. I expected a strong field to help push me a little closer to the exit ramp from my racing doldrums. The field certainly materialized; the doldrums were only partially vanquished.

The hundred and one people who ran “on the Level” in Brockton a couple of Sundays back (may have fit on two school buses, but they would have been very fast buses. Don’t confuse field size with field quality. This race wasn’t your garden variety duffer five-K; it ran more like one of the Grand Prix series. I thought about trying to relate to you how different this was from its contrasting contribution-collecting counterpart, but that science got nerdy (read: boring) quick. You can suffer through it as an appendix, and an inflamed one at that, below. For now, I’ll just say that the level of competition at this race made it easy to get my butt kicked, but the organization and operation of the race made that butt kicking a highly pleasant experience – hats off to the Level Renner guys!

Let me start you off with just a little bit of nerd data: twenty-one of the one hundred and one racers ran sub-six-minute pace, and another twenty-two came in at sub-seven – nearly half the field in total in a range that most people would label as fast. Could be they were inspired by being in Brockton, the City of Champions according to its welcome signs, where running fast can be good for your health? (Sorry, Brocktonians, you know I’m kidding…really, the venue was delightful.) Or could be that those who follow Level Renner are clearly a self-selected group of competitors, and without the mighty arm of marketing (and no visiting governors), the masses just didn’t show? Bottom line is that the lack of the masses did nothing to diminish the quality of this event. And frankly, that lack made parking a lot easier, too. All the better with both Dearest Daughter the Younger (who ran) and Dearest Spouse (who got some nice pics) along for the fun.

I admit that I was fooled by this one. I looked at the course and saw two loops, an inner and an outer, around reservoirs in a relatively flat part of the state, and judged that it must be a relatively easy course, right? Looks perfectly in alignment with the “Level” part of the organizers’ name, right? And I was rather wrong on that count. This was not as Level as expected. There was only one hill, and it wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t something you could ignore, either. In a fit of either evil or genius or both, they managed to work this hill into a two-loop course a total of three times by diabolically placing the start at the very bottom – so you’d hit it when you weren’t yet in your stride – and positioning the finish at the very top – so you’d hit it when your tank was on fumes. With that on the day’s menu, the ascent in the middle hardly mattered.

I had no illusions about what I could pull off. In jest, but tinged with obvious reality, I offered up my concession and congratulated rival EJ on adding a win to his column well before the gun. Catching him wasn’t in the cards, nor was coming close to my two-year-old best, but I did single out as a stretch goal the time that would translate to an eightieth percentile, or ‘national class’ (take that label with a grain of salt) performance in the age-grading tables.

The irony is that the Grand-Prix-like field, the likes of which have spurred me to some of my best performances in the past, wasn’t much of a factor this time. My relative slow-down from a year back meant they were largely out of range in no time. But there was in fact just enough of the right competition to keep the motivation flowing.

There’s a funny thing about racing. If you’re alone on a sparsely populated course, you’ve nobody to egg you on, and it’s easy to consciously or sub-consciously ease off. But conversely, if you’re in a huge pack, the competition loses relevance. With people passing and being passed constantly, there’s no reference as to whom to key on or how to pace. The most competitive situations, in my experience, are when it’s you against one or just a few others. There’s a non-verbal language that seems to flow between such small groups that says, “Game on!”

Once our adrenaline dragged us up Hill Iteration One, the sub-six guys were already gone and I settled into just that sort of small group. Around the first loop, hitting Hill Iteration Two, my pacers seemed to swap out as if planned; the guy I’d been hanging onto fading suddenly, being replaced almost as suddenly by the woman who’d eventually take the female runner-up spot – not a bad consolation when the women’s winner was an Olympian. Yeah, it was that kind of field.

Through three miles, that eightieth percentile stayed in reach, though just barely. That goal and a stubborn refusal to break contact with my new pacer were balancing the agony of racing rather nicely, until mile four clocked in an inexplicable twenty seconds off pace. Knowing the level of detail of the organizers, I had a hard time buying the likelihood of a course-marking error, though I’d later hear similar reports from others. I chalked it up to mid-race sag and a few more ups and downs than perhaps I’d been aware of. But suddenly, eightieth percentile was a long shot at best. Even when miles five and six dropped right back to target, that twenty seconds was forever.

Still, I had my pacer, my competition, my reason to keep pushing. She being seventeen years my junior (a detail worked out later, though it was pretty obvious at the moment), obviously ridiculously fit, and still ten yards out front, it was only the irrationality of the race-fogged mind (and the stupidity of the competitive middle-aged male) that told me to make a run for her. Wearing my finest trademarked Death Warmed Over face and grunting loud enough to scare off any center-city Brocktonites from our lovely west-side park, I ground past her on Hill Iteration Three – thank you, Upstate New York upbringing for putting hills in my blood – and held her off while careening the last five hundred feet to the line…

…Which I crossed nineteen seconds off the eightieth percentile. I had to settle for seventy-nine-point-something, not quite what I’d sought, but still my best age-graded race since the Repair & Clot Saga. But with that last burst, it was a moral victory. Another step of racing rehab notched.

[Final note: I’m glad a couple of my Greater Boston teammates are head-shaver types. Makes my considerably-more-visible-every-year scalp look almost fashionable in this warm-down shot!]

Appendix: A Tale of Two Races’ Fields

Thinking about the differences between the Level Renner 10K and the “Charity 5K”, I was curious how to compare the fields of two races on two courses, two days, two distances. Here’s some thinking and a little math. You may find this interesting or painful.

To compare courses, short of a topology study, I just applied basic judgment. Every course is different, so an exact comparison isn’t possible. But assuming both were measured accurately (a stretch, but appears true here) and knowing both, the charity run’s described as fast, while the Level course wasn’t as level as expected but was still quick, neither stood out as being a significant factor. And the weather was fine on both days, so I set that potential factor aside as well. This then leaves the simpler question of how to compare a 5K to a 10K. There are several methods, two of which I use here, and it turns out they came out pretty much in the same place.

The simplest method is to use a pace predictor such as the one on the Runner’s World web site. This tool doesn’t take into account age or gender, but simply reports expected times in various events based on what you ran in any given event. A slightly more complicated method is to use the age grading tables, which are statistical compilations of bazillions of races. By this method, you start with a performance in a certain event, and based on age and gender, determine the Performance Level Percentage (PLP) for that race, or how it stacks up to the thousands of race times upon which the tables are built. You then take this PLP and plug it in to see what that same level of performance would produce in a different event. The advantage here is that you can run it multiple times across a sampling of ages and genders to better represent the span of abilities. I ran both methods, and as it turns out they come out pretty much in agreement with each other. That means either that the world is in harmony (or more likely that these two methods are, in fact, built on the same statistical data), or it is rigged, but that’s for you to decide.

Using the PLP method, a 40-year-old male running the 10K at 7-minute pace produces a PLP of 65.4. That PLP plugged into a 5K for the same competitor a 6:43 pace. Since the world isn’t all 40-year-old men, I re-ran the process for a sampling of ages and genders running the 10K at 7-minute pace and came up with an average equivalent 5K pace of 6:47. The pace predictor came up with a little more aggressive prediction of 6:43. For my pseudo-science, I’ll go with 6:45. Running the same age-grading procedure for a 10-minute pace 10K yields an equivalent 5K pace of 9:41. And in this case, the pace predictor agrees spot on.

There is one more factor. Calling these paces equivalent is charitable to the 5K since many of those who run the five wouldn’t or couldn’t run the ten. But to keep it simple, we’ll just ignore that.

Now let’s look at the races. At the Level Renner ten-kilometer, a pretty astonishing 42.5% beat seven minute pace, a group we’ll call the fast zone, and 90% beat ten-minute pace, what we’ll call the mid-pack, leaving only 10% in the plodders. But at the charity race, only 4.5% hit the equivalent fast zone, and 42.5% – ironically the same percentage of fast zone at Level Renner – ran the mid-pack standard. The remaining 57.5% plodded their way through 5K.

This comparison isn’t intended in any way to sound elitist. I’m not judging runners based on pace ability (Proof: certainly mine has slowed in the last year!). Your DNA has a lot to do with whether you’re a twelve-minute guy, a seven-minute guy, or Meb Keflezighi. More participation means more healthy people, period, and that’s a good thing. But it is interesting to compare the fields and get a feeling for the different nature of these events. And it makes you feel better when you barely cracked the top third at the race you ran, to know you would have hit the top 2% at the other place.

Enough nerdism for today. Get out and go for a run.

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