Mr Big Data
Ken Young: king of running stats
The moaning in the next room starts low and guttural, then becomes sharper, louder. A while later, a bearded man in granny glasses emerges. Patrick Harestad is a structural integration therapist in Arcata, California, and I’m in his waiting room.
The door is ajar, so I can see the man inside attempting a downward-facing dog. Japanese tattoos cover Ken Young’s 74-yearold body; otherwise, he’s covered only by threadbare early-1980s running shorts.
‘How’s he doing?’ I ask Harestad, who’s work focuses on lengthening and repositioning the body’s fascia.
‘He’s beaten himself up pretty bad,’ he says. ‘On the other hand, he’s in mind-blowing shape for someone who has run almost 140,000 miles.’
Young joins us. He’s 5ft 8in and a shade under 10st, with wispy white hair, matching moustache, wire-rimmed glasses and a somewhat unfocused gaze.
Every fortnight Young makes the fourhour round trip from his home in remote Petrolia to Arcata, which is 280 miles north of San Francisco. His appointment with Harestad is the main reason for the journey, but he won’t make the long drive for just one purpose. Young multitasks throughout his waking hours because ‘doing one thing at a time is a waste of time and energy’. Not a moment is frittered away. He executes forays based on logistics and analysis. ‘The world is full of chaos and I’m a born planner, an organiser,’ he says. ‘I try to make sense out of things and look for an underlying structure.’
This innate drive for order, precision and accuracy, combined with his passion for running, has made Young the undisputed king of road-race statistics. It’s a field he more or less invented 45 years ago and he’s still the leader, still the hardest-working, still the most fastidious and still trying to impose exactitude on a sport that has mushroomed during his lifetime. In the running world, Ken Young is Mr Big Data.
Without Young, running would have far less recorded statistical history. Those passionate debates on the relative merits of athletes, events and eras that pervade all sports demand collated facts to provide ammunition. In running, only Young and his Association of Road Racing Statisticians (arrs.net) have all the answers.
For over 40 years Young has spent 55-60 hours a week sorting through road, track, cross-country and trail-race data, and organising it with a software program he wrote for the task. At first, he worked nights and weekends around his job as a university professor; since retiring two decades ago, the task consumes most of his waking hours. If he’d been paid £15 an hour for his labours, that would amount to about £1.8 million. He hasn’t received a penny.
Young manually enters about 2,000 new results a week, gathering the basic info from ARRS members, some elite runners and about 150 global correspondents. He then checks for anomalies in runner identification, gun and net times, event dates, and distance between start and finish lines. ‘I’ve worked with Ken for almost 40 years and he has always used the best science in his recordkeeping,’ says Marty Post, statistician for the World Marathon Majors. ‘His methods have a single goal: to ensure the integrity of top performances.’
From an early age, Young proved both more intelligent – and noticeably more obstreperous – than his peers. When a primary school teacher told his class that larger numbers couldn’t be subtracted from smaller ones, Young disagreed. ‘Even then I could imagine negative numbers,’ he recalls. ‘I decided she was an idiot, so I stopped taking her seriously.’ Later he committed himself to misspelling all 20 words on the school’s weekly test to make a point about how ridiculous he felt the test was. ‘I’d like to think that the first word out of my mouth was “Why?”’ he says.
What he did love was meteorology. He had been studying weather maps since his early teens and delighted in rearranging the data, looking for seasonal patterns in rainfall, storms and the like. He studied chemistry at Arizona State University, then earned a PHD in geophysics, with a minor in statistics, from the University of Chicago.
He’d also loved running since he was a kid and was a promising athlete, but gave up after his first college cross-country season because of a heavy course load. His hiatus ended in the late 1960s, after he read Dr Ken Cooper’s pioneering work Aerobics. Aside from – and for Young, more important than – preaching the health benefits of running, the book contained tables and points to measure one’s progress. For a hypercompetitive maths nerd, the approach was irresistible, and before long Young was racking up points. In 1971, he began a daily run streak which lasted 15,179 days (41 years); in 1972, he recorded a then world amateur record for the indoor marathon (2:35:52) and set an American record for 40 miles on the track that still stands (4:08:30); and in 1974, he ran his marathon best in Boston (2:25:46).
While studying in Chicago, Young met influential coach Ted Haydon. Haydon staged a six-mile handicap race each summer, but he wanted a more objective method of assigning handicaps, so in 1971, he asked Young for help. Young realised the solution would be simple if he had enough data. So he wrote to Runner’s world (US),
asking them to forward race results. Soon he had several full cardboard boxes to go through. Using keypunch machines, he entered the data onto computer cards and later wrote a program in the early computer language Fortran to make sense of the times and distances and generate rankings. In effect, he devised ‘equivalent running performances’ of the kind that became widely available on the internet 30 years later. You know the sort of thing: who’s faster, a 43:00 10K runner or a 3:17 marathoner? Young worked out this kind of thing long before anyone else.
Without accurate courses, races mean nothing
As with his running streak, once he started with the stats, Young didn’t stop. He never thought to ponder the size of the task, the lack of payment or the (then) dearth of interest. He simply saw something he could fix. ‘The data was such a mess and I had a penchant for creating systems,’ he says. ‘ Runner’s World published annual marathon rankings, but I knew there were lots of road races that weren’t marathons. They needed attention, too. One thing just led to another.’
He’s been at it ever since, organising results, disseminating them in his newsletter, Analytical-distance-runner, which he puts out 48 times a year, and travelling thousands of miles to unearth microfilm archives for missing race results. He also supported course-certification efforts from the very start. As Young will tell you, without accurate courses, race times mean nothing.
In 2003, Young and a global crew of likeminded statisticians and record keepers banded together as the independent and all-volunteer Association of Road Racing Statisticians. The group has no official standing. It’s simply better at what it does than anyone else. Young likes to call the ARRS a ‘leaderless organisation’, the only type he can tolerate. In truth, he’s the group’s brain, central nervous system and conscience, and is well known among an influential group of top runners, race directors and running media.
‘Ken and the ARRS have revolutionised the way road running is tracked, both researching records back over 100 years and also going global,’ says British colleague Andy Milroy, a founding member of ARRS. ‘Ken is the conduit that keeps the data flowing. ARRS has identified male marathon records from some 210 countries and female marathon records from more than 180.’
The ARRS database includes more than 1.1 million performances from nearly 214,000 races. What do those performances reveal? World records, naturally, from 3K to 24 hours; single-age records, such as the best half marathon by a five-year-old boy (Matthew Feibush, 3:02:58) or an 80-yearold woman (Betty Jean Mchugh, 2:04:19); and more than 300 results for Australian great Ron Clarke, who passed away last year. And that’s not even a surface scratch. ‘ Without Ken, we wouldn’t have many of our records,’ says Donald Lein, chair of USA Track and Field masters long-distance running committee. ‘And we wouldn’t be able to do age-grading [which allows comparisons among ages and genders from different race distances]. The running community is in debt to Ken for his years of selfless toil.’
Beyond basic hard data, Young has built analytical tools that are found only at arrs.net. His Race Time Bias (RTB) ranks the world’s fastest, record-eligible marathon courses based on times recorded by runners in the ARRS database. The
RTB puts Paris and Berlin top. Another tool measures ‘Most Competitive Road Races’, those events that have gathered the strongest fields; the 2013 London Marathon tops the all-time list.
Young, a believer in the primacy of headto-head competition, has also devised an innovative Competitive Ranking System for grading runners based on their finishing position within a race. It ignores an athlete’s best times, only measuring where he/she finishes in direct match-ups with other elite runners.
Here’s how it works: based on good recent results, a runner (let’s call him ‘Improving’) makes it into Young’s system and reaches a ‘competitive point level’ (CPL) of 2,715. He then races against ‘Champion’, who has 2,810 points. If Improving beats Champion, he gains a substantial number of points. If, however, Champion beats Improving, Champion gets few or no points because he is expected to beat Improving.
Other factors affect points exchanges between Improving and Champion. For example, more points are awarded for longer races, such as marathons. Also, if Champion doesn’t compete for several months, he loses points.
Young recently started compiling data on how well CPL predicts race outcomes. In the first 340 races he examined, the CPL leader won 45 per cent of the time and finished in the top three 79 per cent of the time. So if you ever start betting on major marathons, head to Young’s website.
After his Arcata errands, Young drives me to his home in Petrolia. It’s only 56 miles, but a two-hour drive because of its location in Mattole Valley, in the heart of California’s ‘Lost Coast’. Named for its remoteness, there’s no cable TV, limited mobile phone reception and lots of space between neighbours.
We catch our first view of the Pacific on a mile-long stretch of narrow road with an 18-per cent drop Young calls ‘The Wall.’ To celebrate, he shoves his Subaru into neutral and I feel my back press against the seat. ‘Don’t worry,’ he assures me, ‘we’ve got no cops out here and almost no other cars. If you see two others, that’s a traffic jam.’
Young discovered Petrolia, a community of about 300 people, nearly two decades ago. He had recently retired from the University of Arizona, where he’d taught and conducted research since 1974. It took just one visit to plot a life change. ‘I had grown to find city life abhorrent,’ he says. ‘As soon as I saw the Mattole Valley, I realised this was the kind of place I had always wanted to live.’
His house, on a dead-end street with just three other homes, is dusty and cluttered. Everywhere you look are piles of yellowing cardboard boxes filled with old, processed race results. Stacks of unprocessed results sit on his desk awaiting his perusal. There’s a towering structure of bottles for pickling beetroot and the bathroom cabinets are piled high with canned food.
Rural living satisfies Young’s values of self-sufficiency and community. He grows much of his own food, has solar panels on the roof and every winter makes his own salt by evaporating seawater on his wood stove. The second value, community, appears a contradiction, but Young scoffs when I ask if he could be considered a hermit. ‘Out here, we might not live close together, but our lives are interconnected and we take care of each other. When I broke both wrists a couple of years ago [after tripping during a run], I had people dropping by to help me every day.’
Young is an active member of the community. He’s been an unpaid running coach at local schools and started the Mattole Self Sufficiency Project. He also personally funded the first minting of silver coins called ‘petols’, which some local establishments accept as currency, though more residents have bought them as either a precious-metals hedge against inflation or simply to support the Lost Coast’s quirky, independent ethos.
In 2012, an injury ended the run-streak Young began in 1971. In 2013, he started another, and I joined him for a five-miler on Day 543. At the end of his drive, we turn right, run 20 metres, then whirl 180 degrees to continue in the opposite direction. I’m too bemused to ask why, but I later email Young for an explanation. It comes back far too dense and technical for easy explanation, but the essence is this: ‘I wanted a course that finished at the driveway, with mile splits that were accurate to within a metre.’
'I'm going as hard now as I was 30 years ago'
Young is clearly feeling the effects of his recent physical therapy, but it doesn’t stop him aiming high. ‘I’m aiming for sub-15s,’ he announces. ‘There’s no guarantee of a tomorrow, so I figure I should put myself on the line every day.’ Young was racing half marathons in 2:10 before he fell while running in 2015, breaking a rib and twisting a knee. This didn’t interrupt his streak, but running has been hard since.
I ask if he’s worried his push-the-pace strategy could cause more injury. ‘ What’s the alternative?’ he spits back. ‘To have your tissues soaked in formaldehyde and preserved in a lab? No, thanks. Not for me.’
Young holds himself to high standards and demands the same of others, which often pits him against the establishment. In 1981, when Alberto Salazar and Allison Roe set world bests on a certified New York City Marathon course, race organisers were jubilant. Young took a different stance, advocating remeasuring the course to ensure it was accurate. He says his recommendations fell mostly on deaf ears and over three years passed before a record validation was conducted. It found the 1981 course to be 157 yards short. As a result, neither Salazar nor Roe appears on the ARRS list of marathon world record holders.
Young adds that the New York course fails another ARRS requirement, established in the mid-1980s, that dictates the acceptable distance between start and finish lines. At over 30 per cent of the 26.2 miles, the distance between New York’s start and finish is too great.
This ARRS rule cuts to the heart of road-race record keeping. Maintaining records for track distance events is easy: the races are flat, they start and finish in the same place and the wind is cancelled out (except in sprints). On the other hand, road races can start and finish anywhere. Should someone be allowed to set a record by running down a mountain? Reasonable minds would say not. But those same minds could not agree on a solution. What about courses like the Boston Marathon, which is both point-to-point (an advantage in times of tailwinds) and a net downhill? When Joan Benoit ran 2:22:43 at Boston in 1983, was that a world record?
Problems like this were made for Ken Young. He ran statistical analyses on courses with varying amounts of net drop and found those that fell more than one metre per kilometre gave runners an advantage. He also created a computer model to estimate the effects of wind on performance. From that, he concluded point-to-point courses should have a start/ finish separation that was no more than 30 per cent of the total race distance.
Young’s solutions were so airtight that most races and record keepers accepted them. But he’s not popular in Boston, where the course drops 3.23 metres per kilometre, and the start and finish are 91 per cent apart. When Geoffrey Mutai ran 2:03:02 with a tailwind at the 2011 Boston Marathon it wasn’t considered a world record. Since then, Dennis Kimetto has run 2:02:57 on the record-eligible Berlin course, where the start and finish are roughly two per cent apart.
In 2002, more than 30 years after Young began his work, the International Associations of Athletics Federations (IAAF) finally took enough interest in road running to adopt rules for record-keeping. Young’s system was the most precise and widely acknowledged, so the IAAF put it to a vote. It failed. The IAAF decided road races could have start and finish lines up to 50 per cent apart. ‘It was political,’ says Young. ‘There was an influential Japanese delegate on the committee and he wanted to protect several Japanese courses. If a sport wants to be serious about record-keeping, it should use an independent body.’
With a mile of our run to go, Young quickens the pace. ‘ We’re a little over 15s,’ he says, glancing at his watch, ‘but we can still dip under if we push a little.’ And so we do, returning to his drive, and not a metre further, just inside 75 minutes. Young heads straight for his training diary – sheets of lined paper filled with stats and comments, along with cryptic markings and Japanese characters (two years as a US Air Force meteorologist in Okinawa in the 1960s gave Young a lifelong fascination with Japanese culture – hence his body ink). I ask why he doesn’t use some form of digital storage, as he does with the world’s biggest and most important trove of running data. ‘My personal running data means too much to me,’ he replies.
At 8pm, Young peruses his ARRS to-do list. He has already spent two hours working in the morning, and several more in midafternoon. He’ll keep going until midnight, maybe 1am. In total, it’ll be about half the hours he usually works. First it’s emails. He has messages from race directors, the media, global correspondents and 65-year-old grandfathers wondering where they could set an age-group 15K record. ‘I can never keep up,’ he sighs. ‘Computers and the internet have made this job so much easier, but the number of races and runners has grown exponentially. I’m going as hard now as I was 30 years ago.’
Soon Young moves on to the serious stuff, the record-keeping. He burrows from file to file to verify times, course distances, records for different countries, dates of birth and which of the running world’s two David Kiplagats just ran that fast time.
Few dream of a lifetime in data entry. Young certainly never did. Yet here he is. ‘It took me a long time, but I eventually realised that this is my life path,’ he says. ‘Some higher consciousness directed me here. I’m good at it, it feels right and I’m helping people set high goals and go after them. I’m doing what I was meant to do.’
DOG’S LIFE The story of Gobi the wonder dog
Young’s body art and training diary reflect his love of Japanese culture
Surrounded by race results in his home office
He lives alone, but Young is no hermit: ‘City people don’t know anything about country living’
Young created ‘petols’ as a hedge against inflation; sales of the silver coins have topped US $150,000.