Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

"Boston Marathon: An Unfair Disadvantage": fair conclusion, wrong reasoning

Hal Walter has posted a thorough defense of the idea that the net elevation drop of the Boston Marathon course is not configured in such a way as to offer an advantage, and that as a result, the the route's being ineligible for world records is unfair. Mr. Walter's blog post reviews a study published last week at PLoS One by Dr. Phil Maffetone and colleagues.

I agree the Boston course per se isn't as fast as the layouts in Berlin, London and elsewhere (says the guy whose lifetime personal was set at Boston, natch). But the points the authors raise do not by themselves support the idea that the Boston course is slower by as much as it seems to be or that it should become record-eligible.

From Mr. Walter's post:
The Boston Marathon has been ineligible for records since 1990 due to International Association of Athletics Federation’s rules regarding the course’s net elevation loss and point-to-point format, but researchers have now proven what seasoned marathoners already know — the route offers only what could be considered an unfair disadvantage. 
In fact, their findings confirm times on the Boston course — the world’s oldest annual and most popular marathon — are typically slower than those on other Abbott World Marathon Majors courses, including London, Berlin, Chicago and New York, courses that are all record-eligible. 
The study, led by researcher Philip Maffetone and published by PLOS One, cites race times of the top-10 male and top-10 female finishers of all races in the WMM for the years 2005-2014. London and Berlin were shown to be the first and second fastest courses, respectively, for both men and women, while the top finishing times of men and women at Boston were shown to be typically slower than all other venues. 
In 2011, Geoffrey Mutai ran a 2:03:03 winning time at Boston. At the time it was the fastest marathon ever run, but not eligible as a world record due In an editorial that accompanied the study, Maffetone and Paul Laursen wrote, “With years of finish-time data, the IAAF appears to have arbitrarily set rules regarding elevation and point-to-point being associated with a performance advantage, rather than use existing scientific data.” And that, “This has led athletes, coaches, scientists and others in the sports community, who have known for years that the Boston Marathon is a relatively slow course due to the uphill segments and the steep downhill grades, to refer to these rules as flawed.”to IAAF rules. However, according to this new study, the high variability of Boston finish times suggests that Mutai’s run may have been an outlier, likely produced by perfect conditions such as a tailwind and optimal temperatures, rather than course topography.
First, comparing the fastest times at Boston to the best performances on record-eligible courses is misleading for a simple but perhaps easily ignored reason: world-class runners have little incentive to run super-fast times at the Boston Marathon precisely because the course is ineligible for world records. Races such as Berlin, London and Chicago, where world records have been broken numerous times, offer cash bonuses as well as pacers to help shepherd record efforts, and the Dubai Marathon ponied up a $250,000 WR bonus at its most recent race in January. People systematically chase world records every spring in London and every fall in Berlin, and various other races annually follow their lead on offering pacers and time bonuses.

Boston does offer $50,000 bonus (or did in 2017) for dipping under the official world-record times, and a $25,000 bonus for breaking the course records. But for anyone to specifically chase 2:02:57/2:15:25 (or 2:03:02/2:19:59) would be a reckless sporting decision. For one thing, such a runner would almost certainly require a tailwind, something that obviously cannot be counted on. For another, he or she would likely get zero pacing help -- there are no official "rabbits" at Boston owing, again, to its not being record-eligible. For a third, how would one reliably map out a pacing plan on a course that rolls as much as Boston's does? And for a fourth, such a runner could not go on to officially claim the mantle of "world-record holder" thanks to IAAF rules.

So because the win at Boston is worth $150,000 -- twice as much as the time bonuses alone -- and because chasing a marathon win in a group is a far safer proposition than chasing a marathon record essentially alone, it would be unusual for an athlete to try to run impressively fast there.

Second, in the context of breaking records, the author appears to ignore a more obvious issue despite own claim that "Mutai’s run may have been an outlier, likely produced by perfect conditions." This is akin to saying that the longest home run in history was an outlier, produced by an rare combination of pitch velocity and the force and trajectory of the batter's swing. All world records are by definition outliers. That's why we celebrate them (or shake our heads at the drugs presumed to have enabled them, or both).

It is clear that fast elite times on the Boston course correlate nicely with tailwind, cool-temperature years, and that fast times in the absence of significant following winds don't happen. But because of how we view records, we want these outlying performances, however impressive, to be replicable. If a 2:04:00 on Boston course is worth only around a 2:04:30 at Berlin 19 years out of 20, it still would not do to have a 2:04:00 neutral-weather effort turned into a 2:01:30 ratified as a world record, because a loop course can never offer this chance, once-every-so-often guaranteed boost.
In an editorial that accompanied the study, Maffetone and Paul Laursen wrote, “With years of finish-time data, the IAAF appears to have arbitrarily set rules regarding elevation and point-to-point being associated with a performance advantage, rather than use existing scientific data.” And that, “This has led athletes, coaches, scientists and others in the sports community, who have known for years that the Boston Marathon is a relatively slow course due to the uphill segments and the steep downhill grades, to refer to these rules as flawed.”
This paragraph is actually flawed, because it presumes that the chief reason for Boston being declared record-ineligible lies in its net elevation drop. It's really the start-finish separation that is the key issue here. A net-downhill course with uphills might not be optimal for everyone, and may not produce fast times for the majority of people. But no one runs slower with the wind at her back.

The study authors discuss courses with a significant drop and courses positively affected by weather as if these are distinct; technically this is true, but it would be difficult for obvious reasons to find many marathons that possess a significant net drop without being largely or entirely point-to-point.

A final observation: Most point-to-point net-downhill courses undoubtedly produce faster times than loop courses do. Boston, with its rolling nature and early-middle-late downhill punishments, may be an exception to this in neutral-weather years. But if the IAAF got rid of its prohibition against downhill courses just to let Boston off the hook, it would be opening itself to a range of possible world-record absurdities. The Boston Marathon is the only World Marathon Major that is point-to-point downhill at the moment, but it doesn't mean another can't be added at some point.

In summary, I agree with Maffetone and his associates that the Boston Marathon course is not intrinsically fast. But I think the idea that it should therefore be considered record-eligible is a bait-and-switch -- albeit, perhaps, an incidental one. One can't just ignore the weather outright and focus only on one reason for the ineligibility, and one also can't ignore how that ineligibility has itself led to slower times being run at the event.

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