Mr Big Data

Ken Young: king of run­ning stats

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents -

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.’

HARD DRIVE

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.

DE­TAILS MAT­TERS

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.

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