Thursday, June 14, 2007

Racing With Rabbits is No Drag

Jesse Squire over at The Track & Field Superblog proposed some ideas for streamlining and improving the USATF VISA Tour points system. His main thrust was "a new method based mostly on competition" that would "give athletes points based on place." His argument is that "running for time instead of competition destroys competition in favor of time trialing."

I can appreciate his argument. It's one made often by track and field purists. I just can't hang my hat on the phrase "destroys competition." I commented on his post:

Good ideas. You've got to admit, though, that organized "time trials" do have their place — especially in the middle-distance races — and are what produce most world records. There's nothing quite like watching a race that has a couple of world-class runners being paced by a couple of knowledgeable rabbits. Those type of "time trial" conditions are what allow us to be treated to a world record like the exquisitely paced Mile world record by Hicham El Guerrouj. In fact, Roger Bannister's historic first sub 4 would not have been possible under competitive conditions. Only by being paced by Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway was Bannister able to pull off his historic feat.

Squire replied to my comment:

In my opinion, organized time trials have destroyed the sport. The GP circuit almost never has a competitive finish in races of 1500m or further. Unless someone is on WR pace, they are so boring as to be unwatchable.

In 1954 there was some debate as to whether or not Bannister's record should have been approved, and in ensuing years Bannister himself began to wish it hadn't happened the way it did. In the early 60s he predicted rabbitting and time-trialing and thought it would ruin the competition that makes the sport interesting. I think he was right.

This is precisely why NASCAR and the PGA have changed their formats--to keep their championships up for grabs right until the very end.

Squire is arguing from the point-of-view of track and field purists, who want to keep track and field uncomplicated and honest. Track and field, they say, should be about running faster, leaping higher, throwing and jumping farther. It's an admirable point-of-view, and one that has my full respect, but it seems to me that a purist attitude tends to constrain innovation, creativity and potential. I just don't think there's a "right" or "wrong" answer to the question of whether or not "running for time instead of competition destroys competition in favor of time trialing." There's room in track events for both types of races. Here's why:

The main argument purists make against organized time trials (OTT's) is that they are somehow not an "honest competition" because they change the nature of a race from a pure competitive effort (the first man to the finish line wins, on your mark, get set, go!) to more of a staged (and supposedly artificial) event. An argument could also be made that a pure, competitive race lends itself more to tactics than to an honest effort and ensures that the fastest kicker, not the fastest racer over the entire distance, will win most of the time.

A runner who lacks a kick knows that the only way he can win is to employ a front-runner tactic, that is, to run as sort of a rabbit who has no intention of quitting the race thus forcing the kickers in the race to run a faster pace than they would like to run. The strategy is to "blunt the kick" of the speedster in the last lap. In a competition among athletes of equal talent, that kind of tactic works only in the rarest of occasions. Why? Pure and simple: front-running requires that a runner encounter the full force of drag at the front end of a slipstream. In other words, the front runner is, in effect, cutting a path through the air and using 6% more energy over a given distance than the runners who are drafting behind him.

Let's say two runners of equal ability (same PR, same "kicking" speed, same level of fitness, same level of psychological preparation, same VO2 max, same pre-race diet, rest, everything) run in a 1500m race, but one of the runners drafts while the other runs from the front. Who would win? The runner who drafts would win just about every time because she has used 6% less energy than the front-runner. The only time the front runner would win is if something out-of-the-ordinary happens during the race, say the other runner's shoelace comes untied so she trips and falls, something like that.

Now let's take the exact race scenario but introduce a couple of rabbits into the equation. Both of the aforementioned runners of equal ability are now safely tucked in behind the rabbit, so they are not only of equal ability, but now they are expending the same amount of energy. When those two evenly-matched runners reach the final lap, that last lap is going to be so tightly contested that it's going to cause a swell of excitement in the grandstands. Can you see how this would be a much more exciting 1500m race than the first one?

Now let's take the same 1500m race, but change the scenario around just a bit. Let's make it an Olympic final this time, so there can be no rabbits. Let's introduce one kicker and one front-runner who has no kick whatsoever. Other than the difference in speed, everything else is the same as it was for the two runners in the previous scenario. The front-runner's only chance in this race is to try and determine the right time to muster up the courage to run from the front.

He is presented with a dilemma. He is using 6% more energy than the kicker so he can't go to the front immediately or else he will lose his head of steam and lose the race in the end. On the other hand, he can't wait too long to move to the front because he won't have blunted his opponent's leg speed so he would get outkicked. Let's say he chooses the exact right time and he moves out neither too or early nor too late. He opens a gap between himself and the kicker and maintains that gap until 200m from the finish line. At that point the kicker begins his drive for the tape and begins closing the gap. But who will win? It may be a photo finish!

I've just set up an extremely exciting race that is the track purist's dream scenario. But it is certainly no more exciting than the previous scenario. As you can see, there is room for races with rabbits and races without rabbits. That's what I love about the sport.

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