Blown away: Boston had a huge tailwind. It’s not physics!

Well, actually it is. But one need not invoke complicated physics to understand that an unprecedented 21-mile-an-hour tailwind at the Boston Marathon last Monday fueled unprecedented times. The top four men — Geoffrey Mutai, Moses Mosop, Gebregziabher Gebremariam, and Ryan Hall — were all ridiculously far under the previous course record of 2:05:52, set last year by Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot. Mutai and Mosop ran close to a minute than Haile Gebreselassie’s world record of 2:03:59. Geb-Geb and Hall ducked under Cheruiyot’s mark by a similar amount despite getting demolished in the last third of the race.

The Boston course is not eligible for world records because of both its 140-meter elevation drop from start to finish, a loss of 3.32 m/km (the maximum permitted is 1.0), and the fact that the start and finish are separated by more than 50% of the 42.2-km race distance. (This hasn’t stopped the BAA from lamely clamoring for an exception.) The numbers turned in over the race’s 115-year history tell one thing with utter clarity: Only in tailwind years is the course fast. In 1994 there was a net tailwind of something like 11 mph, and that year Cosmas Ndeti shattered the course standard by running 2:07:15 with an improbable second half of 1:02:15. The elevation drop itself does not seem to help runners’ times, up front partly because there are no official pace-setters (because of the no-world-record-potential issue) and from top to bottom because of the nasty configuration of the climbs and descents.

There are no mysteries here at all. The runners a week ago gained an indeterminate but huge amount of time because of a following wind that, had the marathon been a point-to-point track event, would have exceeded the allowable limit for records by a factor of about five. When a strong wind is behind you, it helps you run faster. Amazing but true.

On the site of the race host, the Boston Athletic Association, there’s a bunch of bullshit that looks as if it was written by a 17-year-old fanboy that attempts to mitigate or deny the effect of the wind (“It’s too easy to dismiss the times as due solely to the aiding wind. There are still 26.2 miles to cover, still the Newton Hills to confront and still a hoard [sic] of the most intimidating competitors in the world to handle”), but that’s to be expected.

What’s more depressing, though scarcely a shock, is the number of poorly informed comments about this by people with no horse in the race. There’s this analysis, which falls on its face in an almost William-Craig-like way by making “the 2011 Boston Marathon was not excessively aided” its premise. What the fuck does that mean? That the athletes didn’t just take the MBTA into town instead of running?

But the most flagrant denigrations of rational interpretation are found on the very-high-traffic message board at Letsrun.com. This is a board more or less filled with people who are never going to push any neurosurgeons or NASA engineers. Because it is so popular, the statistical tendency toward the mean pushes the average intelligence of visitors toward the population average, and this is not good. Most are college-age and male, which means that the ones who aren’t actually drunken idiots are compelled to write as if they were. Arguments are legion; the “moderators” delete posts, portions of topics and entire topics with the predictability and consistency of young children, which is not surprising.

There have been multiple threads in the past week addressing the general issue of the fast times and whether they helped as much as “some people think.” People think all sorts of things, but because this is Letsrun, those who don’t agree that the times were significantly aided appear determined to establish that they really weren’t aided at all. Oppositionalism trumps basic sense. Naturally, because Ryan Hall ran under the American record and Letsrun is populated primarily by Americans, the wind discussion centers on him, as if he was any more or less the beneficiary than other elites. Whatever vestigial brainpower the site’s visitors might possess is clearly checked at the virtual door here.

Check out this topic. It was started by someone who thinks that the pack runner’s didn’t enjoy a wind advantage, like the elites did. His evidence for this is a bunch of far-fetched and plain bad mathematical and practical assumptions — standard fare. Then it was off to the races, as it were. There was some reasonable input and some stupid shit about the wind advantage being negated for the pack runners because of runners following closely behind them. There’s no real need to get into a discussion of fluid dynamics here. What matters is what, so far, only one observer touched on — that the difference between a good and a bad race for mid-packers is far, far greater than the difference up front. If someone runs 2:03 instead of 2:06, it’s monumental and represents the difference in most major marathons between first and about fifth. If the same man in 2:06 shape runs 2:09, he’s way off his game. If someone runs 3:03 or 3:09 when in shape to run 3:06, it is not, from a statistical standpoint if not in that runner’s view, much of an anomaly, especially at Boston, where the late climbs and descents can turn race that’s foundering for mundane reasons into a nightmarish hobble. At the non-elite level, vagaries are multiplicative. It’s no more complex than that,

The following two posts are, I think, at the opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum. The second actually comes from a different thread.

Try this. What ruins people at Boston is the 1-2 punch of the downhills out of the gate and then the other downhills at ~21 miles (and you can add the descent at 25K if you like). The effect of the hills is like radiation poisoning; once you’ve overdone it by opening up your stride too much in the first 20-30 minutes of the race (depending on your pace), the effects of the pounding, while not yet evident, are irreversible and WILL show up later.

Now, elite runners can almost outrun this effect, because even if they shit the bed they’re done in well under 2 1/2 hours. Not so for the sloggers. When sloggers get the boost from the tailwind, it pushes them down the hill just as it does faster runners, but they still aren’t fast enough to outrun the mechanical damage thus incurred. Someone who in theory might go from 3:30 to 3:20+ thanks to wind alone is going to still get badly beat up starting at about two hours in, right at that shitty downhill leading into Newton Lower Falls. Sure, they haven’t burned any more glycogen in taking advantage of the wind early on, or gotten more “tired,” but being shoved along still puts a big strain on the chassis even if the engine’s not taxed.

So this, in my view, is why the sloggers don’t get quite the same boost from the wind *at Boston* as the elites do.

In terms of downhill races and sloggers vs. elites in general, the sloggers actually gain *more* of an advantage than they elites do as long as the race is short enough to render mechanical pounding a non-issue. Look at the Millennium Mile up in New England every year. The fastest guys are usually 4:00-4:10 types on the track who pick up perhaps 10-12 seconds from the hill (not counting wind, which can obviously go either way). If the 6:00 milers got a similar percentile boost, they’d gain about 15-20 seconds. But it’s clearly more like 30, and the peoplle who can’t break 7:30 on a track are almost a minute faster. The explanation? Fast runners are already mechanically very efficient and moving close to as fast as they would if not limited by fitness, whereas the sloggers might be just as “fit” by cardiopulmonary metrics, but don’t have the drivetrain to get it done. So they can fall down the hill to greater relative effect than can runners who are already smooth machines.

This, on the other hand, is just as sad mess:

Hall ran sub-2:05, wind-aided or not. He was beaten by almost two minutes. BUT he beat some East African badasses, to, and by more than a minute. Why didn’t the wind help them?

If not the AR, this remains the all-time American best. It beats Robert K. Cheriyot’s stunning then-record of 2:07:14 by two minutes and 17 seconds. It beats last year’s even more stunning sub-2:06 by almost a minute.

There is simply no way not to applaud Hall–self-coached, often mocked–for his American-best performance today. Yes, he got beat, by an even more remarkable performance on a difficult course. But he has done pretty much he said he was going to do. He’s the best we have right now. He delivered a career performance in a big, unrabbited race.

There is simply no way that he can’t NOW be considered one of the top three, perhaps top two, American marathoners of all time. I don’t care who you boot out of the top two–Shorter or Rodgers–but I’m afraid that one of them needs to go. Probably Boston Billy.

That is a remarkable achievement.

In case you don’t see the problem, it’s that someone determined to paint Ryan Hall’s race in as glowing a light as possible is babbling like an infant as a result. (For what it matters this same poster has done this countless times in the past.) It ignores the fact that Ryan Hall (who did run a fine race, adding another 4th to his 3rd in 2009 and 4th from last year) finished even further behind the winner than he usually does when he runs well in a marathon. The whole thing portrays the mammoth effect of the wind as a “maybe” or even a “so what.” It includes a factoring in of how Hall is perceived or how he prepares himself, as if this has any bearing whatsoever on the results. It historicizes Hall’s effort in a startlingly incompetent way. You almost can’t fit more stupid into five paragraphs.

Anyway, no one gives a shit, but I like to start the week with a flourish of positivity and evince my undying respect for the brainpower of my fellow hominids.

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