Monday, June 27, 2011

Is a 3:47 1500 embarrassing?

The men's 1500 (video here at the American national championships was won this weekend in a time of 3:47 by Matt Centrowitz, a time that a handful of high school students in America run every year. After watching a race that started out in 65 and 2:11, many on LetsRun expressed their disgust, noting that the women's 1500 was actually faster through the first 800.

Others responded by pointing out that a race which closed in about 1:50 for the last 800 with a half dozen runners in contention until the final 100 metres and a thrilling head-to-head sprint decided only in the final 50 metres is actually very exciting. Races are made to be fun, the argument goes, not to have fast finishing times. It's hard to argue with that if you've ever seen a rabbited race on the European circuit where the winner runs a very fast time in what is essentially a time trial.

Of course, the ideal race would have been a reasonably fast race that closed in a very fast time, such as the 1500 at the Athens Olympics, which closed in about 1:47 for the last 800 after going out in 1:47 for the first 700. Nevertheless, when watching a race, what's probably more interesting is the racing itself than the time. I don't know of anyone who would want to watch the world record race in any distance over 800 metres, but most of us would probably watch the Beijing Olympic marathon again.

Try comparing this to another sport. A 3:47 1500 at a national championship is a bit like a 1-0 baseball game in the baseball playoffs, but a 3:47 with a 1:50 for the last 800 is like a 1-0 baseball game that was unbearably dull up until the eighth inning. We would rather get a game that was thrilling from the very start, but it's not like the 3:47 was evenly-paced, with laps of 60, 62, 60 and then a 45 for the last 300 with only two runners in contention.

For people who are supposedly serious about running, it'd be useful to actually watch a race rather than just look at the results and head straight to LetsRun. A football fan who complained about a 13-10 game wouldn't have much of a leg to stand on if he found a tense back-and-forth game between two strong defenses to be boring. He would, however, be justified in yawning at a 13-10 game between two lousy teams where one team jumped off to a 13-0 lead, didn't get another first down, gave up ten points in the third quarter, and then held on in a scoreless, unevenful fourth quarter.

As an aside, the Canadian national track and field championships were also this weekend. The results were slow as they always are, but anyone who expects a championship race to be fast doesn't know anything about time. To return to football, it's like caring about the yard-per-attempt of a quarterback in the Super Bowl.

What was painful, and always is unfortunate, is how few people participated in the distance races. I know that there are reasons for this, but it is abysmal if a grand total of eight people, six men and two women, participated in the 10,000. Six women finished in the 5,000 and, most shocking of all, there were just ten women in the 1500, which (according to the results) went straight to a final without any rounds. That means a grand total of eighteen women participated in those three events.

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