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Comparing Race Times, PR’s, and Others Results

A recent discussion with some friends around groups and training teams comparing race times got me thinking a bit about how most of us glance at race times we see on the Internet and make broad assumptions about one’s athletic capability, training plans, or race execution.  The same also applies to how we attempt to evaluate our own race results.  And despite the timing, last week’s comments directed at me in this post were actually not the driver of this post, as it’s been one I’ve been slowly working on for a while.

imageSee, with triathlon being a combo dish of three sports it is interesting in that it makes it rather difficult to accurately compare times across different races – especially when the differences are small.  Sure, you can easily make broad athletic generalizations between a 2:10 Olympic distance finish time, and a 3:15 Olympic distance finis time – assuming comparing normal days.  But when you try and compare say… a 2:03 Olympic Distance finisher to that of a 2:15 Oly finisher, it becomes far more difficult.

Complicating the matter even more is if one were to look at the above example – 2:03  vs 2:15 – those are in fact vast differences in athletic capability between two athletes on the same course.  Now if you apply those same differences to your own PR’s – how (if at all), do you differentiate between two Olympic distance races when you break your own personal record?  So let’s look at what drives time differences across different races.

Course Shortcomings and Overextensions:

The simplest driver is differences in course length.  Now I’m not talking about comparing an Ironman to a Sprint, but rather comparing two events of the same type.  Despite how many races advertise themselves an ‘International’ or ‘Olympic’ distance course – I’ve found that that vast majority of them use some liberty with the term (intentionally), especially on the bike.  For example, let’s compare some races over the past year or so that I’ve done with respect to actual distances (remember, Olympic distance should be 24.9 miles):

A) Escape from Ft. Delaware: 24.7 miles
B) Rumpus in Bumpass: 24.0 miles
C) St. John’s International Tri: 28.0 miles
D) Nautica NYC Triathlon: 25.5 miles
E) Tidewater International Triathlon: 21.0 miles
F) Rev3 Knoxville Oly: 25.8 miles (2010 was 25.8, 2010 is closer to 24.9)

(Note: I validated these distances against a sample set for each race on uploaded files to Garmin Connect from other racers.)

Now, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with a unique distance race, after all – the podium doesn’t care about the distance.  The challenge comes though when once glances at a time (or boasts about a time) for a distance that’s simply inaccurate.  For example, for me to look at my 2:04 Tidewater time from last year and say “Yup, I’m a 2:04 Olympic Distance athlete”, would simply be inaccurate and misleading.

But the inverse is also true.  If I were to look at my St. John’s times (aside from the three flats), I would incorrectly assume I was a far slower cyclist than I actually am because I had to bike an extra three miles.  And that’s before we talk about running an extra half a mile for the 6.5 mile run course.

In fact, if you look at the above listing – the vast majority of races were over/under by nearly a mile.  I’ve always found it funny that in triathlon the bike leg can get away with being so far off a standard.  After all, what would happen if you went out to run a half-marathon and it was 13.9 miles instead?

Now, the bike leg is just one challenge.  We’ve also got the swim distances.  Out of all the three legs the swim is the most notorious for being off, mostly due to race organizers not taking the time to accurately measure buoy placement.  As I’ve long since said – in this day and age of handheld GPS devices, there’s really no excuse for this.  Nonetheless, I’ve swam courses that were clearly far short…and ones that were far long – slicing or adding minutes to ones time.

And let’s not forget transition, or transition times.  Last weekend my transition times were measured solely when I was within the small fenced in transition area where the bikes were – which is why they were sub-1 minute.  Whereas other races measure them from water exit to bike mount line.  Even more, some races have half mile plus transition runs (looking at you NYC Tri).  All these elements add up.  How long does it take you to run 750 yards + normal transition, versus how long does it take you to run 50 yards?

Course Terrain Variations:

Assume for a moment though that we do have two even length courses with the exact same distances for all three events.  Now they’re comparable, right?

Well, if it weren’t for Florida they might be.

Florida is the great place if you want to set a PR.  The most famous of course is Ironman Florida.  Typically speaking folks will be between 20 and 60 minutes faster at Florida due to the pancake flat bike and run courses.  Oddly enough though, that didn’t apply to me, as my Ironman Canada time was basically the same simply because me and long term aero position doesn’t get along.

IMBikeelevation

The same is true of shorter events as well, and that applies to both the bike and the run.  Even within the same geographic region, for example, the run at the Nation’s Triathlon is pancake flat – whereas the run at the nearby Giant Acorn triathlon is moderately rolling.

And don’t think the swim is exempt, not all swims are flat!  Take the Nautica NYC Triathlon for example.  This is a one way swim downriver.  Depending on the time of day, the current can be incredibly strong.  So strong in fact that the swim times for top athletes are often in the 11-12 minute range.  How do you compare that against an event that may be upriver for a portion, then back downriver for another portion (Nation’s Triathlon)?  Or a flat and calm reservoir (lots of triathlons)?

Weather/Training/Other Factors:

Last but not least is the whole host of reasons why someone may perform at a given level at one race, but a different level at another.  For example – weather.  Some athletes may do better in colder races while others in warmer races.  Some races may have an outright monsoon while on the bike leg – which most certainly affects bike speeds for that race.  And we don’t even want to talk about wind…

Additionally, some athletes may treat certain races on their schedule with lesser importance than other athletes.  Most athletes have an ‘A’ race or two, with other races along the way they may not fully taper for.  This is true for everyone from age groupers to Olympic champions.  This doesn’t of course mean that you can’t take pride in beating someone on race day, as a race is a race.

There are of course endless other reasons why someone may do exceedingly well at one race and poorer at the other.  But don’t overlook the obvious: They simply may be better trained for that race.

So what does it all mean?

When you start looking at all the details that make up a triathlon, you find that the answers aren’t as black and white as a simple finishing time.  For running races it’s far easier, primarily because most races have a well measured and adhered to distance.  In general one can compare a handful of 10K race results and get a rough idea of one’s running capability with a quick check of an elevation graph.  This is much more difficult to do with a high level of accuracy in triathlon.  Generalization yes, but basing performance on a single data point: Not really.

The point being – when you look at times, be sure to understand the courses – otherwise you might be giving yourself false impressions of your competition…for better or worse.

And when looking at your own results – be sure to balance ‘making excuses’ for a given race with objectively looking at a race result and its individual components and determining how you fared against competitors on that day on that specific course, versus previous results that may be years old on different courses with different conditions and different training/racing objectives.  Sometimes when you dig a little, you might surprise yourself.

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12 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    excellent post Ray. The comment referred to tho did raise an interesting point, about can an athlete be objective about their relationship with their coach.

    Dan

    Reply
  2. Ann

    Totally agree.....I don't bike or swim and am fairly new to running but I can comment on longer distances then what was advertised. My first 1/2 marathon ended up being 13.54 miles according to my Garmin. After the race the FB page of the Martian Invasion apologized. The 1/2 turn around was placed in the wrong spot. My Garmin was spot on all the way to the turn around so I knew.....that extra .4 miles about killed me but it did make me extra proud of myself for comleteting it! It was not a big deal to me....well at the time it was. :-)

    Reply
  3. yucko@alum.mit.edu

    Great post, Ray.

    As a fairly new triathlete, setting PRs isn't important to me...my main goals still tend to congregate around "make fewer mistakes this time, especially these three: X, Y, and Z" or "try out a new hydration strategy of...".

    But I am getting to the point where I can analyze and see how I'm doing on each leg (relative finish to others in my AG). For instance, it's clear that my running is my real weakness--my "run place" is far below my overall place as well as the swim and bike place. While I could set up a goal such as "run the 5K two minutes faster," I also realize that the bike leg really sets up the run. I could probably shave two minutes on a 5k by making little effort on the bike.

    So, do you think it is realistic to say something like, "for each race this year which I also did last year, I want the combined bike-plus-run time to improve"?

    Or how do you manage to set and pursue a single-sport goal (e.g., improve on the bike) without sandbagging or crippling the other leg or legs?

    Thanks, alan

    Reply
  4. True, there's a lot of variables in comparing one race to another or one person to another.

    Maybe because I'm not that good, I just tend to look at my place in individual parts as well as overall placing to see strengths and weaknesses. Ie. when I made a top 50 for my run, I know I passed a lot of people during my run and could not be caught, but not surprised that my 2:17/100m swim pace is disturbingly weak.

    IMO, there are too many variables when comparing to others - age, peak training etc. on or off days, so I look at trend data. My place in races has been steadily climbing, ie top 3% up from top 14%.

    Reply
  5. Really good points. I tend to compete in a few key races year-after-year and then compare performances. I try to pencil in new races too, but take an educated guess as to how well I did and then journal about it.

    Whether we like to admit it, as athletes, we know if we are giving it our all or holding back some.

    Journaling is a great tool (as long as we are being honest).

    Reply
  6. I am new to the triathlon world but have enjoyed your blog for awhile

    I did a 21 hill climb.....crank the kanc if you are interested in checking it out-it was my first time so I can't compare but I overheard another rider saying the "atmosphere was heavy" so times were going to be slower.....never mind the downpour of rain ...I never get caught up in times etc but when I heard that comment I had to laugh

    Reply
  7. Terry T

    Hi Ray,
    With respect to you, I believe you have completely missed my original point. My point is #1 how can an athlete objectively judge the performance of their coach on a year to year basis ? #2how can an athlete objectively judge their own development and performance on a year to year basis ?
    The challenge lies in "bromance" and having a tight relationship with a coach as you do and also the fact that you have publicly stated his awesomeness. You have failed to discuss the multiple ways one can judge progress and development, instead focusing on things not to do.Perhaps, the only objective solution to this is garnering an 'outisde' opinion free of emotion.I believe your posts reflect the challange of coming up with an objective opinion without hurting anyone's feeling. Our mind becomes very very defensive.
    Coach's get fired all the time ...if we are paying them hard earned money, they better be getting us faster....so for now lets inspire someone to come up with a procedue of objective testing.

    Reply
  8. Weather can make such a difference - we did Chicago Triathlon last year in 30C+ degree heat. The pros were 10mins slower and most of the 8,000 competitors struggled to run the 10km. Guys much better than me could barely walk. I managed to plough on and did 2h31m. Nearly broke my 2h30m target, but in those conditions it felt like 2h20m race!

    Distance is also a head scratcher for me - I've done so many 4km sprints and 9km olympics :-)

    Reply
  9. Terry T (Chicago)

    Hey Ray,

    If Ironman Boise 70.3 doesn't go well, than my suspicions are correct...the 'hard to imagine' may have to become reality....New coach for Ray.....I think its time Ray, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt....

    Terry T

    Reply
  10. Dan J

    The USAT rankings system could be useful here. By doing a lot of number-crunching, it ranks each person's time against a notional baseline. This factors out things like variable distances, weather, etc. It does depend on having a large enough sample since it is a purely statistical application. But I have found the results track pretty well with my self-assessment of performance.

    You do not have to be a USAT member to use it. (Well, technically you bought a temporary membership with the race registration.)

    Write down your results though! They are only available for the current season. For past seasons, only overall rankings are available, not individual race results.

    Reply
  11. Kenny Roberts

    Due to the many variables mentioned it is impossible to make comparisons even with events held on same course on different years. I am a V45 competing in Sprint and Olympic Tri and have managed 1:03 and 2:05 for these . But I think the most accurate way to rate your performance is to calculate your percentage position in each discipline and overall. E.g if you finished seventh out of 100 V45 swimmers you have 7 divided 100 = 0.07 X 100 = 7 % Regularly analysing this will indicate consistency ,improvement or then opposite ! It is useful that if a disparity on one or two of your disciplines (e.g swim 15% - for me! ) it would be best to bias more training time swimming.

    Reply
  12. Greg O'Reilly

    Good points made in respect to comparing times for sure. Added points I have come up with for local races. Depends who shows up on race day, if the faster racers do not show up that day I have finished way up in standings.
    Also most racers are amateurs and have very busy lives. You have no idea if the guy beside you just finished a 12 hour shift or had the week off to be fully rested. This might seem obvious but how many people do not think about it when looking at results.

    Reply

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