The increasingly parochial observations of a casual runner in his fifties. Was "serious" about "the sport" until personal and sociocultural inevitabilities prevailed.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Dear adults in the Runner's World editorial room

Last week, an article about the difficulty of breaking four minutes for the mile at high altitude and centering on an event at which I was present appeared on the website of Runner's World, the magazine that seems to boast the highest circulation among the few remaining print publications of its type. The article seems to have been published without any editorial oversight whatsoever. As in, the RW site, or part of it, functions as the author's personal blog, or did for the purposes of this mess. Another possibility is the editor who was supposed to review it was somehow compromised, maybe by a massive blow to the occiput to conclude a hilarious backward fall on roller skates after being drilled in the face by a love rival; I'm leaning toward higher-probability scenarios such as the author being the editor, or the transparent inattention and mail-it-in work ethic that appears to predominate wherever enough people congregate in an effort to produce a fitness periodical. Especially if enough of them are under 30.

With this post representing yet another opportunity to provide my jaded middle-aged perspective on the innumerable troublesome issues with contemporary running journalism (and facts per se as a matter of general relevance), I probably don't need to again explore the possibility that the entire running world, including you, me and everything actually not included in the set of things in the running world, is utter misery incarnate and in urgent need of violent dissolution by the most apocalyptic means imaginable, because we still owe Jesus more than the U.S. owes others. I could even suggest that without the existence of Alex Hutchinson, who is so much better than the rest us who have ever tried this have ever been, shows just how awful we are by showing that even the good ones sit in a cluster a solid delta behind Alex, and as result should either immediately strive to improve or immediately quit. As true as these things may be, though, they're hardly important, since I, like you, am weak and lack the means to do anything historically influential and downright vivacious such as amassing and constructing the necessary implements of doom without forgetting something important, like a trustworthy jackknife.

I could even offer a bland aside about how people's basic choices about how and where they seek and find their running and other information (or at least ideas) and how much they're willing to pay for it (note: This variable is "null" except in cases of extreme drunkenness or stone credit cards), but for whatever reason, magazines focusing on endurance sports are about as much of a growth industry as asbestos and saccharin, with Outside and Runner's World well outside of the top 100 in U.S. circulation and lagging behind various magazines you've surely never heard of. Runner's World's circulation is less than it was a dozen years ago, and the outfit appears to be trying to survive by selling even more garbage to naive and deluded readers than before, not that I would observe such a thing in a dry analysis like this one; Outside, like a number of companies, may be trying to expand its brand by focusing on things like Outside TV. Either way, the startling number of de facto place-holders who are now contributing to and employed by online and even print running pubs may represent a proxy for the incipient failure of whole components of businesses. If running articles are still being recycled after 20 years in circulation (like this "2016" example, published in print and online in 1999), demand for fresh content is obviously low, and what would original content outside of hi-tech product reviews even look like? Apparently like the story I decided to review over a period of days, not at the expense of work, but at the expense of 24, which is worse. RW is now putting its stuff behind a paywall, which is funny because if it's inaccurate or useless as a randomly chosen personal blog, it's basically worse than what you can see for free because of all the ads, every one of them a grotesque eyesore. And, yeah, I was going to link to the sources of some these claims, and maybe I went back and did, or will, but I decided to close all of those shimmering tabs instead because they were harshing my mellow.

More to create an interesting writing exercise for myself than out of some moral imperative, I will try point out the worst of the flaws in the article itself, with minimal editorial commentary to match this terse introduction, aiming for the perspective of a fact-checker who knows next to nothing about distance running and was ordered only to list the most glaring errors and biggest pieces of missing information. I know won't succeed in this, and will instead veer off into the weeds multiple times, as always, because bitching is just so easy. I will look this over when I'm done and maybe excise some of the more acidic output, and then I will remind myself that no one, no one at all, is listening, except for four distinct people who are madly pushing pins through the eyes of voodoo dolls who all look like someone who lives in my house.

But like I said, time to focus. This actually gets a little wonky, as Paul Krugman might say. (He writes for a bigger newspaper than this one.)

The just-over-700-word piece, if nothing else, signals its frailty at the outset.

"For elite track athletes to run a mile in less than four minutes, conditions need to be just right."

No. Demonstrably and intuitively not. In fact, for truly elite mid-distance male track athletes to not break four minutes in an earnest and coordinated effort, it would require not just imperfect but adverse conditions. This is not so much a grievous error as signal that the writer is both lazy and uniformed in general. (I didn't even look at the author's name because I don't want to feel bad. It looks like something my mom would write, but I'll forgive her if that turns out to be true.)

Buckle up.

"And on Thursday evening, August 15, at the University of Colorado’s Potts Field in Boulder, Colorado, they pretty much were."

No, they pretty much weren't. The weather was nice (I was there), but part of "conditions" includes the fitness of the athletes in the field, and no one had any intention of trying to break four minutes that night. That would require roughly 3:54 fitness, which we might fairly call "world-class," and while the Mile High Mile had some fine local studs, it didn't feature, or intend to feature, world-class talent.

"Conditions" in my bedroom right this moment are perfect for a threesome (for example, the bed is as free of dog-hair as it ever gets, which isn't very; I'm also very stoned) but I think the executive management team must have dropped the ball on that project.

Also, this one's pickier, but "University of Colorado’s Potts Field in Boulder, Colorado" is right out of the Department of Repeated Redundancies Division, and would be flagged as yucky by any New York Times copy editor who doesn't own a pair of roller skates.

"Bright lights illuminated a decent-sized crowd who had their eyes on the elite men and women who had shown up to run the Boulder Road Runner’s All Comer’s meet, which was ending with what organizer Todd Straka had dubbed the 'Mile High Mile.'"

I'm not dealing with the endless cascade of pronouns and subject-verb mismatchings and misplaced apostrophes here, but its content aside, the construction of this sentence seems purposefully inept. At least capitalize "meet" in the middle of that grammatical Hindenburg. I know the idea is to try to make information available to the faces of the world's slavering goobers as quickly as possible sometimes, but this wasn't a time-sensitive story. A cynic would get the notion that getting content online, per se, is more of a priority for these outfits than the content of that content, but my Occam's razor was vaporized the last time I walked into an A.A. meeting and listened to thirty seconds of pained, unreasoning noises.

More to the point, though, even had this been a meaningful story, and written in delightfully Hitchens-esque prose, it would have been torpedoed by the weight of both its misinformation and its missing information.

"It was an idyllic scene for a summertime track meet. Idyllic, even, for a sub-4:00 mile."

I'm starting to think a high-school student or college intern wrote this. I don't even know why "even" is here unless it's because the writer thinks that "ideal" and "idyllic" are synonyms, which is likely. I bet I've committed that faux pas myself, though I'd guess it's been a couple decades. I'm old, by the way. That doesn't automatically make me righter than others, but it means I'm accumulated a lot of debris, most of it toxic, and am kind of old.

"Except, of course, for the fact that Potts Field sits at 5,360 feet of elevation."

Yes, it does, above a plane 100 feet below sea level. The listed altitude of Potts Field is 5,260. (If you actually came here to learn anything about the mathematics of altitude's effects on running, bookmark that.) A typo, surely, but the physiological difference is significant when you're splitting hairs. And this is supposed to be the "gotcha" sentence.

"Since Roger Bannister first broke the four-minute barrier in 1954, it has become more common for someone to surpass the mark..."

What does this mean? More common than no one at all doing it, or more common that just Roger Bannister doing it? I guess my editorial thoughts on this are: There are far better ways to emphasize that a once-unthinkable feat, while still impressive and usually sufficient to command a pro contract for a collegiate runner, has become commonplace in professional athletics. Maybe I'm taking the piss too much here.

"...(544 American men have accomplished the feat as of August 5). None, however, have done it on Colorado soil."

This is imprecise and leads to the conclusion that while no American man has ever broken four minutes on Colorado soil, or even on a track built on some of that soil, someone from another country may have done it. Again, a simple proofread by the writer, let alone by whoever ultimately dispatched this literary spasm into the public domain, would surely have caught this and most of the things I'm complaining about here.

"A handful of sub-4:00s have been broken in other high-altitude states: some in Albuquerque, New Mexico (which sits at about 5,000 feet), and one in Provo, Utah (4,549 feet). Tabor Stevens, 28, who ran for Adams State University, clocked the fastest men’s mile time in the state of Colorado, 4:01.27. University of Colorado runner Dani Jones, 22, owns the fastest women’s mile time in the state, 4:36.05, which she ran indoors in 2018."

At this point it becomes clear that the writer, despite noting that different cities at "high altitude" do not all lie at the same altitude, is treating the effects of altitude as a de facto binary phenomenon: Above 4,549 feet, the mile is impeded by a given amount and below that not at all. This is about the only reason I can come up with for the omission of the elevation data for La Junta, where Stevens ran his 4:01.27 (about 4,175') and the indoor facility at C.U.-Boulder, where Jones ran her 4:36.05 before me and a decent-sized crowd (5,370').

And, despite my commitment to stay firmly on task here, I think it's time for a digression, courtesy of HTML straight out of the Carter administration.

You can see from this page that it's possible to calculate the percent cost for each track event at a given altitude. The NCAA starts counting at 3,000 feet, which means that only one college east of the Mississippi River, Appalachian State University (3,683'), is considered altitude-affected.

The 800 meters, at least for people who can run it in under two minutes or so (i.e., about 0.1 percent of the running population, tops, and about 99.9 of NCAA D-I mid-distance runners), only takes a hit of about 0.62 percent (six tenths of one part in 100, for my fellow Americans) at Potts Field compared to sea level. At the same elevation, empirical data has shown that the fall-off in 1500 meters/mile (or more accurately, four- to five-minute races) is 2.44 percent, and in the 3,000m, 5,000m and 10,000m, the differences are 2.78, 2.99 and 3.55 percent.

If you graph these data, you find that the drop-off is quasi-linear if you drop the 800 and essentially linear from the 3,000m to the 10,000m.

Pct decline vs. race distance in km, Potts Field (5,260')

Obviously, you could do this for any HA location on this list and find the same pattern, with the absolute percentage values of each event shifting up and down with increasing and decreasing elevations. But what if you hold the event constant and play with the altitude instead? Here you find that the performance decrease appears to be linear. For example, in the lowest city on the NCAA list, Billings, Montana (elev. 3,124'), a 9:08 3,000m at sea level becomes a 9:14.36, a modest 1.16 percent difference. In Gunnison, Colorado, the highest college track town at 7,703', that same performance translates to a 9:36.71, a 5.24 percent drop-off.

Pct decline vs. altitude in ft, 3,000m run

(For the curious, as some would have to be to have found themselves inside this oddly colored box, the y-intercept of that handily generated linear regression equation is at about 1,960'. Below that altitude, blame other things besides the air, or at least its location, for your failures.)

This finding scales with the knowledge that the partial pressure of O2 in Earth's atmosphere falls linearly with increasing distance from Earth's surface, but there's no assurance from this alone that this would translate into a linear human aerobic-based work output decline with increasing elevation. Evidently, it does, at least in this range.

Shortly before Jones ran her 4:36.05, Emma Coburn ran 4:38.08 on Western State University's indoor track in Gunnison (7,717') to break the previous mark of 4:39.05, set by and at someone and some location whose identities seems to have escaped that portion of the Internet I am capable of quickly drilling into. Emma's mile thus "becomes" a 4:26.33 at sea level while Jones' translates to about a 4:29.25. That's a considerable difference, especially given that C.U.s oversized indoor track is intrinsically faster than the normal 200m one at Western State.

I would not have expected an article of this time to explore the topic at anything close to this level of detail, but since Jones' record was mentioned, it seems like a note about Coburn's nearly contemporaneous and comparable mark at a plainly more taxing altitude might have been included even had a comparison between the two records been deferred.

Given that this is about the sub-four Colorado mile, though, perhaps the article's most notable omission (although really, who the hell cares; this is a completely irredeemable verbal production, and by "this" I mostly mean my own blog post at this stage) is 2017 a race in which three C.U. athletes came fairly close to breaking four minutes. In that post, I calculated that Ban Saarel, Joe Klecker (who still has eligibility remaining) and Zach Perrin hold the fastest known "effective" miles in the state with translated marks of about 3:55.55, 3:55.78 and 3:56.31, with Stevens' coming in at 3:57.40. (I might have lowballed the La Junta track by a hundred or so feet in that analysis, any downward time adjustment to account for this would be meaningless.)

Also, while there is no obvious reason for the inclusion of Stevens' age in the first plave, while he is 28 now, he was 23 when he ran that 4:01.27. If I saw the sentence "Kevin Beck, 49, took a catastrophic blow to a face during a recess dodgeball game," this would be true, assuming one is operating in 1981. And I more than got my revenge.

The articles continues with a power quote.

“'It’s the lack of lack of oxygen,' Mark Plaatjes, the 1993 world champion marathoner who’s now a retail store-owner and a sponsor of the Mile High Mile, told Runner’s World. At altitude, 'You’re basically redlining and you’re not getting aerobic power. It’s anaerobic. You have so much less oxygen available.'"Plaatjes noted that sprinters actually have an advantage at altitude because of the lack of resistance in thin air. But for any race over two minutes, altitude produces a negative effect." 

This is all very solid information, but the writer does nothing with it. Maybe the idea is just to make a very smart guy state the apparently obvious. I guess the facts that less oxygen is available for breathing at higher altitudes and that less oxygen creates slower times are not as widely embraced as I believed, along with people's reflexive ability to perceive that races run in Colorado represent a nexus of these two considerations.

"As cited by coaches like Jack Daniels, who has studied altitude training and racing for years, 'the slight benefit a runner gains by moving through the less-dense air at altitude does not make up for the loss in aerobic power caused by lower amounts of oxygen being delivered by the blood to the exercising muscles,' Daniels wrote in the third edition of Daniels’ Running Formula." 

If I have to explain what that's awful, you can't have gotten this far without skimming and don't actually care.

"Still, the question remains: Why have there been sub-4:00 miles in other high-elevation states, but not Colorado? Plaatjes thinks that the extra few hundred feet Boulder has on Albuquerque may be a factor." 

This is not a waste of a question. After all, if it's been done at similar high-altitude places but not in Boulder, which is a little higher than those places, what might the essential difference be? Plaatjes more than "thinks" the few hundred feet of elevation difference is part of the reason, but he's right not not over-emphasize them. As noted, it would take the equivalent of a 3:55.5 in Boulder to accomplish it. That's within the reach of a number of Americans and a slew of East Africans who not only can run 3:55 in their sleep in a paced effort, but don't typically lose all of the 2.5 percent or so low-altitude natives do (and the same goes for most native, in my experience. If only more East Africans could be born in Colorado.)

“'We don’t have any air here, which is most of it,' Straka, who is a masters miler, told Runner’s World. 'And the air is dry.' Plus, added Straka, multiple other factors come into play in order for the four-minute mark to be broken. For one, runners have to be race-ready and focused on the mile in their training cycle. Secondly, they have to have companions—a deep field is crucial for setting the pace and allowing the eventual winner to draft before kicking it in.

"What will it take for all those things to align? 'Big money. Fame and fortune,' Straka said. 'Brands asking their athletes to do it, that kind of thing.'” 

Todd is more than a "masters miler." In 2017, at age 50, he ran a 4:26.39 mile to get within 1.4 seconds of the listed world age record. He's also lived in Boulder for a long time and spends much of his time thinking about and analyzing running in a useful way. I therefore have nothing to add to this, other than the fact that a well-paced race would be key. You can recover a little bit from an overzealous first lap in a sea-level mile, but even for finely tuned world-class specimens, that's not the case here in Boulder.

[Smash your goals with a Runner’s World Training Plan, designed for any speed and any distance.]

Any speed, any distance. I want to run 100 miles an hour all the way to the moon.

At the Mile High Mile, as expected, the four-minute barrier stayed intact. The first place male, Matt Giannino, finished in 4:15:16, while Janelle Lincks took the women’s title in 4:44.08. Both runners were happy with their races on Thursday night, smiling while explaining that running that fast at altitude left them with “locked up” legs, and “a sweet headache.” 

“Everything’s hurting,” Gianinno said after the race. “It’s good though.”

They were fun races to watch. The men's pack passed 1200 to go in about 67 seconds and the leaders hit the bell lap in 3:15+, so the idea among the runners was never to attack four minutes. The women's race turned out to be the thriller, with the pace being more even for the two that survived it and the race coming down, from my perspective 30 meters up the infield, to some point between four laps into the thing and the finish line.

Now that I think about it, powered by untold amounts of second-hand pot smoke from my own soot-encrusted lungs, maybe they could host a "1,500-meter-high 1,500 meters" for women to have a shot at four minutes themselves. Maybe, if I remember, I will suggest this to Todd himself. I bet he's already thought of it.

"Who will be the first to go sub-4:00 in the Centennial State, and when will it happen? Lee Troop, an Olympian who also coaches in Boulder and is the race director of the Pearl Street Mile, told Runner’s World he thinks it will happen within the next few years.

“'We’ve got some outstanding high school kids around here running 4:04, 4:08, 4:10,' Troop said. 'They’re gonna be the guys in the next five or eight years that’ll come out here [and break 4:00] on a night like tonight."

I think Lee is right, and one reason I believe this is that Lee himself has a great deal of influence and could probably single-handedly arrange for a near-slam-dunk attempt by this time next year. If he has his eyes this closely on the area scene (and Cole Sprout, just entering his senior year at Valor Christian Academy in the Denver 'burbs, has indeed run a 4:04.19 at sea level already), he's probably thinking of applying more torque to the necessary levers.

Anyway, besides these cursory comments, I think the state of running journalism is perfectly commensurate with a sport that's been degraded throughout the 20th century at every entry point. Coverage is a joke (an enjoyable one, though); road races have been turned into expensive, roving costume parties where accurate courses are more likely a fluke than the result of planning, and getting to and from their start-finish areas as well as avoiding their relentless marketing efforts is nigh impossible; and boys who have chosen for whatever psychologically defensible reason to exist as girls (no veneer of DSD 46,XY is required for this round) are running as girls and are being defended in court by an organization I respect against "harmful attacks," i.e., noise from the sides of the girls being displaced from championship races thanks to this nonsense. On that last one, I actually see a very clear path between Donald Trump being an asshole of unprecedented magnitude (with or without his title included) and the pushback against the presently unmodifiable fact that Trump is president being predictably overzealous and, in many cases, arguably as stupid as anything Trump was proposed. This is Newtons' third law of motion as applied to social dynamics: For every dimwit force F that accelerates a mass of morons toward extinction, there exists in nature a force –F equal in magnitude and opposite in direction sufficient to accelerate the antagonists of those morons in the direction of equally dangerous stupidity at the polar extreme.

And hey! This post and its topic wouldn't be what they are without evidence that, as abysmal as this piece unfortunately is, it was worse at one point. According to a comment below the article, the original version of this article included this sentence:

"Aside from American Jim Ryun’s amazing 3:54.8 performance at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico (7,340), no other sub-4:00 mile has been recorded above 5,000 feet."

Jim Ryun famously ran 3:37.89 to take the silver medal at the 1968 Olympics in the 1,500 meters in Mexico City, held at 7,349' elevation. In theory, this cost Ryun about nine seconds, but the idea that he could have run 3:28 at sea level is far-fetched at best (remember, Kip Keino beat him by nearly three seconds). Some people not born and raised at higher elevations are phenomenal altitude responders, and Ryun, a Kansas native, appears to have been one of them.

However, the 1,500 meters is not a mile. Ryun's time converts to (1.0799)(217.89) = 3:55.3 for a full mile. Notice that the author and the person correcting the author in the comments get wrong answers for this, all of which means that the universe remains in perfect dynamic equilibrium.

Addendum: Since it's relevant, and since I am also mostly relegated to recycling things, I'll note a series of articles (about 2,400 words in all, which read as one article) I wrote on high-altitude training for Competitor (R.I.P.) eight years ago. Those articles (Part 1, Part 2 (hail Lize Brittin!) and Part 3) now live on Podium Runner, with a revised date of publication of 2013. Podium Runner is a new production with a new, and highly competent, editor in former Running Times (R.I.P.) editor-in-chief Jonathan Beverly. Always end on a high note!

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