Thursday, April 21, 2011

"Both/And": the science and soul of running

I was inspired by the tremendous running by friends, elites, and virtual training buddies in Monday's Boston Marathon. The event was a perfect storm of marathon geekery, as Americans Desi Davila and Ryan Hall ran well, a world's best was run, and there was that wonderful tailwind that added a little twist to everything.

The tailwind has been analyzed now for a few days. Two accounts of the effect of the tailwind stand out for their excellence. They each capture a side of the sport--its "double barreled" nature as William James would have put it.

The first is from the always reliable Science of Sport blog. I encourage you to read it. They argue that the wind gave the top runners a 3-4 minute advantage. In particular, the scientists there do an excellent job of talking about their method of analysis, which is actually historical, rather than "empirical." Philosophers, take note!

The second analysis I will copy here below. It was written by the anonymous poster "kudzurunner" on the letsrun boards.

Great discussion! Real wisdom from the elders. Thanks Hodgie-san and Tom D. Thanks, too, Malmo, for the deep drill-down in your statistical analysis. A little more patience with the idiots, as you're (immensely) fond of calling them, might be a good thing. But you're good with the numbers, and this is a great thread. 
Meta-analysis?
1) The tailwind played a large and undeniable role in the results. As someone once said to the whore in an old locker-room joke, "We've already established that. We're just arguing over the price." (A man asked a woman if he'd sleep with her for a million dollars. She smiled and said "Sure, baby." He then asked if she'd sleep with him for $25. She sneered and said, "What do you think I am, a whore?")

1a) But the precise advantage conferred by the tailwind--3:40? 2:30? "somewhere between three and four minutes"--is and will always be a matter of debate. (The idiots will always be wrong, of course.) And Mutai and Hall, among others, are clearly invested--as brilliant creative artists often are--in minimizing the effects of the environment (in this case, the tailwind-help) and focusing on individual initiative and achievement. Forgive them. There's a method in their madness. God help you if you just don't get this point. Somebody in the next town who gets it is having a good damned time--and running faster times than you, too.

2) Boston has proved itself, over many decades, to be a slower-than-average course, despite the net altitude drop. This is why very few WRs have been set there. The hills are part of this--or have traditionally been assumed to be a part of this.

3) This year's results on the "slower-than-average course," which include a world-best (but not WR) and American-best (but not AR) create a huge interpretive mess: the perfect storm for professional marathon kibbitzers. This one will be argued for the next hundred years.

4) 90%+ of those making arguments for one interpretation or another tend to work from either/or rather than both/and logics. Nobody, for example, has suggested that the tailwind--the knowledge on the part of Hall and the other front-runners that the tailwind would be with them the whole time--might have contributed to a throw-caution-to-the-wind strategy that enabled better-than-average results. (Malmo's statistical regressions, for example, fail to allow for such an effect.) In other words, it might be a good idea to remember that the word "inspire" derives from the Latin root "to breathe." Great runners aren't just aided physically by the presence of a tailwind; they're inspired by that wind. They're goaded--as Hall was--into taking risks; into trying for more than they've ever tried for.
Both/and. Allow it. It feels good.

And of course the full moon occured at 4:44 AM on Boston Marathon Monday. A perfect storm, indeed.

Thanks to all the Boston runners for their inspired--and inspiring--performances on Monday!

3 comments:

  1. Very good! I've been posting similar things on a few forums myself.

    I am sure out of the men's elite field their were definitely 4-6 athletes that were at far better fitness than they have ever been before AND when they heard about cool temps and a favorable wind the day before, I'm sure they were chomping at the bit.

    Mutai and Mosop didn't break any 2 hour barrier on Monday, but their race may be that little psychological advantage that helps push the fall marathon times lower than anyone would have expected. I can't wait for some more world best times in October!

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  2. One of my professors ran a nice PR on Monday. Re the tailwind, he said, "I was running 10 secs/mile faster than goal pace, but it didn't concern me because I knew it was the wind."

    -Shad

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  3. I think that race has initiated more debate and enthusiasm than any in the last several years. Sure pumped up all the runners I know.

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