O Log - Alabama and Four Seconds

[16-Jan-05] 

    Day 1 was middle distance; about 8% climb over 4.75K. I think they did a good job hitting the WT. I found the course mentally and physically demanding. I'm not sure I had a good race, but I'm happy with my placing. The saving grace of my race was that I didn't make any navigational mistakes. That always seems to be good. OTOH, it was one of the more choppy, no-flow races I ever remember having. I would call it running scared. Scared of making a mistake, scared of running down the wrong spur or reentrant.

    Day 2 was classic distance. I felt the course was appropriately set, for the most part, and was fun and challenging. The forest was fantastic. Unfortunately, there was a mishung control, and while my competition seemed to have the courage to simply press on without punching upon encountering the feature, I spent some time looking for the thing, and eventually found it, up a couple lines and about 150m away.

    I decided, for the first time, to file a written protest over a race. I'm not particularly sure why, as these things generally bounce off me. (for example, there was an A meet last spring where at least 3 controls were mishung, and I lost a ton of time, and I let it go). In this case, I think it was just too many things too close together (mishung at DVOA champs, mishung in Brazil, rankings miscalculated) that I just didn't feel like letting it slide this time.

    I filed the most benign protest possible, asking for an SPW, and if for some reason that could not be offered, the protest would automatically withdrawal itself. This was the wording Blair Trewin used at the APOC middle, and I know how I would have felt had that race been thrown out, especially, since in this case, they rehung the thing in the middle of the race, meaning only the early people were affected.

    Well, I had to leave, and as I write I don't know if my protest was upheld or if I was listed with a hideous time, and I guess it does bounce off in the end, but I was glad I filed it, because it allowed me to think about all this in much more detail than I otherwise would have.

    ***

    When Blair protested in APOC, SPW was not offered, they either had to throw out the course, or let his result stand. Thus his protest withdrew itself as he, like me, didn't want the race thrown out. I remember thinking how stupid that was.

    But now I see the other side. The SPW creates an unfairness. All of my competitors had a chance at an excellent ranking day (especially since they fixed the problem), whereas I did not have that chance (aside from the opportunity to press on without punching, a dubious proposition at best -- but the principle here holds -- just imagine the problem is a badly mis-registered map (and I don't know about that either, my #2 does not circle a feature at all -- but I lost no time there)). So I've fallen behind in a putative rankings race; the only fair remedy is to level the playing field and throw out the course.

    Now, this seems akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and putting fairness above common sense. And, having thought about it more, I still would not ask for the race to be thrown out. My mother was fond of saying life isn't fair, and she was usually right. But, it is saying that the sport as practiced in the US is putting enjoyment of the participants above fairness, as I think most would agree that this less fair solution is preferable.

    But at some level, things do get serious. In the Olympics, for example, if certain unfairnesses affect a runner, even if that runner was from the Duchy of Grand Fenwick and had no chance of placing, they will throw out the race and re-run it if that runner's protest is upheld. Socially, fairness is higher on the trump chart in the Olympics.

    This line drawing problem gets interesting when you start to think about the US WOC selection rules, where a portion of the score could be based on rankings. Is WOC selection serious enough for fairness to move up the trump chart? Were I WOC material, could I legitimately gripe and ask for the race to be thrown out, as my competitors have gained this slight advantage (remember, only 4 seconds decided the team roster a couple of years ago, so no advantage or mathematical anomaly is too trivial to consider).

    My answer is probably. My real answer is to suggest that the rankings not be used as part of the WOC team selection criteria, and I will possibly propose this change for the '06 selection rules, to see how others feel. The more I thought about this, the more problems I thought of with the rankings. Those who can afford to travel more, and race more, get the advantage of every other race being thrown out after a certain number. While among top runners this advantage may be slight, it is certainly probable that it is there -- and shows where USOF's goal of encouraging participation by allowing drops of races to better ones ranking also sits higher than fairness on the trump chart.

    Another problem is that rankings are determined, in part, by how much the top people beat me (and others, of course). If runner A shows up at race A and beats me by 10 minutes, while runner B shows up to race B and beats me by 20 minutes, because I made a 10 minute error in race B, runner B gets a better score, all other results being equal in both races (A does not race at B, and B does not race at A). How fair is that to runner A? Total luck. Could decide the WOC roster (remember only 4 seconds).

    One solution might be to use a more robust ranking system, such as the WRE system (where only "R" runners count) -- the analogue would be to simply calculate relative rankings for WOC possible runners rather than the entire field. This would not eliminate mathematical anomalies and this sort of luck, but I think it would make it "more fair", that is, reduce the probability that luck determines the roster. But I still favor throwing the rankings out and deciding the whole thing in selection races. That way, any luck there will be observable and containable.

    Well, I'm glad I protested -- it allowed me to explore this whole line of thought where otherwise I would not have. Whether or not it is valuable or not I guess is questionable, but at least it is interesting to me.

    But, there's more. The mind really wanders when there is nothing else to do on a flight. The short/long/sprint format at A meets presents the opportunity to produce another sort of anomaly in the rankings. Sort of an unintentional cherry picking. Some runners have been accused of cherry picking their races to get better rankings -- that is, choose to go to A meets only in home terrain where they train (I personally find this charge dubious, thinking Occam's Razor, perhaps they go to local A meets because they live near the venue). What if there is unintentional cherry picking in choosing which races to run in the different disciplines?

    There is possibly a trend to "run up" for the shorter formats, and run age for the long day. Older runners may perform relatively better at the short, technical day, rather than the long, physical day. Moreover, if the short day is shorter than their age class on day 1, and they run their age day 2, they will be less physically drained for the day 2 race than their competitors who ran their age both days. By running 21 say, on only the short day, the possibility exists to produce an artificially high ranking than if one ran 21 in all formats.

    Of course, I don't assert anyone does this on purpose, I figure people run the course they want. In fact, I used to do the reverse, run my age on the short day, and 21 on the long day, in hopes that my age on the short day was longer than the short 21 (because I like running in the forest). Doing so probably helped my ranking (as I'm stronger on long races). The point is not to accuse anyone of anything since I'd be guilty myself, but to point out interesting ways (to me) that the rankings could produce anomalies (and possibly be gamed). Those who know me know I love geeking out about this stuff, and more importantly, it allows me to try to put some coherent thought behind my suggestion that the rankings should be dropped as a team selection factor.

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