Playing the percentages

November 13, 2001 (

We all try to evaluate our performances in some meaningful way. With triathlon having so many variables it's sometimes difficult to judge performance objectively. Even comparing times from year to year on the same course you have to try and account for wind, air and water temperature, road surface, where the swim buoys are set, drafting a bit or more or less, etc.

Recently I've been doing some summaries for a few of the athletes I work with and I've been trying to find some way different ways to look for improvement from race to race. One of the ways I've looked at my own performance over the years is how I did in relation to the top women. In the 80s it was a bit easier as there was very little drafting, so pack tactics didn't enter into things much. It was a pretty straightforward TT. Most of our races took around 1:50 and the top women finished about 10-12 minutes slower. Even if my wife (Erin Baker) won a race in the 80s she needed to be within 10 or 11 minutes of Mike Pigg or Mark Allen or Greg Welch to be happy. That was one of her yardsticks to gauge her performance.

I recently read a report on the comparisons of the world records in running from 100 meters to the marathon. It was taken from Eamon Condon's running news website. Here's the list for you to see what I'm talking about:

100 meters 9.79 10.49 7.2%
200meters 19.32 21.34 10.5%
400 meters 43.18 47.6 10.2%
800 meters 1:41.10 1:53:28 12.6%
1500 meters 3:26.00 3:50.46 11.9%
5000 meters 12:39.36 14:28.09 14.3%
10000 meters 26:22.7 29:31.78 11.9%
Marathon 2:05:42 2:18:47 10.4%

Makes for interesting reading. Normally we think of men having a bigger edge in shorter events that are more related to explosive speed, but this clearly shows that there must be more to consider when predicting how men and women will compare in any given event. It's not all about strength, power or speed. That 14:28 for 5000 meters doesn't look all that impressive in that line-up, does it?

But women haven't been running the 5000 meters at world class level for very long. Ndereba's marathon time looks quite appropriate, too, in this line-up. The nice thing about comparing running times is that technique and mastering of equipment are not substantial factors.

Comparing the times of the winners of some of the important end-of-season triathlons helps judge which athletes raced well. Since all of the fields are very competitive and there's money at stake its safe to assume the winners were going hard and having a pretty good day.

IM Florida
Spencer Smith 8:21:30 9:16:40 9:21:40 9:26:42
Katja Schumacher
IM Hawaii Actual +9% +10% +11% +12% +13%
Tim DeBoom 8:31:18 9:17:19 9:22:26 9:27:33 9:32:39
Natasha Badmann
L.A. Triathlon Actual +9% +10% +11% +12% +13%
Chris McCormack 1:45:43 1:55:10 1:56:17 1:57:20 1:58:24 1:59:27
Nicole Hackett
Treasure Island Actual +9% +10% +11% +12% +13%
Mark Lees 1:59:21 2:10:05 2:11:17 2:12:29 2:13:40 2:14:52
Michellie Jones
Noosa Actual +9% +10% +11% +12% +13%
Paul Amey 1:47:59 1:57:42 1:58:47 1:59:54 2:00:58 2:02:00
Lorretta Harrop
Laguna Phuket Actual +9% +10% +11% +12% +13%
Courtney Atkinson 2:30:37 2:44:10 2:45:41 2:47:11 2:48:41 3:00:12
Joanne King
X-Terra Maui Actual + 10% + 12% + 14% +16% +20%
Conrad Stoltz 2:28:48 2:43:41 2:46:39 2:49:38 2:52:36 2:58:33
Anke Erlank

The results from X-Terra Tahoe were very similar to Maui, so its a bit tempting to suggest that all the tough top women scratching for a living in triathlon get on their mountain bikes and take a crack at the X-Terra races. Perhaps it shows that Conrad is pretty fast too.

An 8:04 IM by a man is 10% faster than an 8:52:24, 11% faster than a 8:57:14 and 12% faster than a 9:02:05. So its not too hard to guess that the women's records will likely fall in the next few years.

So there's some numbers and I hope it gets some discussion going. Hopefully more coaches and athletes will use formulas like this when examining performance. I think it's a pretty good basis for comparison. Often I hear someone say that they know they raced well when they were close to so-and so, or placed well in their age group. But in my experience age-groupers don't race as consistently as the pros. I always knew I was relatively stronger in the hills not only by how I compared with other men, but by the larger than average gap to the top women. I also knew my 8:31 in Kona wasn't all that flash. I always sucked in the heat.

I think it would be great to come up with an age-graded chart as well. Then people of all ages could compare their times with historically consistent barometers. For instance, it would make it easier to compare my 9:15 in Brazil with Joe Bonness' 9:11 in Florida.