Is leading a race stupid? Some 1500m championship data
‘Tis the season for championship track racing — and with it, the annual moaning about slow, tactical middle-distance races. At both the U.S. and Canadian national championships last weekend, the men’s 1500-metre races went very slowly (until, late in the race, they suddenly started going very fast). On the message boards, people started the usual criticisms of everyone who didn’t win, saying that they should have taken the lead and made the race faster from the start — much like Christin Wurth-Thomas did in the U.S. women’s 1500m. (The fact that Wurth-Thomas, who had the fastest seed time, was passed by three women in the final straightaway and thus failed to qualify for the World Championships, seems lost on these critics.)
Anyway, as I always do, I got sucked into the debate too, in a thread on tnfnorth. Given that USATF results now offer complete splits for every lap of every race, it’s possible to do a much more detailed analysis of tactics than it used to be. Out of interest, I looked at the three semifinal heats of the USATF men’s 1500m. There were three intermediate splits (at 300m, 700m and 1100m) taken in each race, which means a total of nine intermediate leads recorded. Seven men filled these nine leading spots; none of them qualified for the final.
Of course, this data didn’t convince anyone. Just a fluke, they said. So I’ve decided to take it a bit further. I looked back at World Championship results between 1997 (the earliest year for which intermediate leaders are listed in the results) and 2009 (the most recent championship). Here is how the first-lap leaders (after 400m) fared in the 23 quarter-final heats of the men’s 1500m in that timespan:
As expected, there’s a full range of results — leading the first lap doesn’t guarantee either success or failure. But there’s a pretty pronounced tilt toward the right-hand side of the graph. Indeed, 35% of first-lap leaders managed to either hang in the top six or take their race out fast enough to get a time qualifier. In contrast, 65% failed to move on to the semis.
Now, the tactics in qualifying races (where the goal is simply to place within the top N) are obviously different than those in finals (where the goal is to place as highly as possible, with every place counting). There’s not as much data for the finals, but here they are nonetheless:
Let me emphasize that race tactics are enormously complicated, dictated by the individual’s physiology, psychology, abilities relative to the rest of the field, weather conditions, and so on. I have beliefs of varying strengths regarding many of these factors — but I don’t believe this data answers any specific questions. It does, however, give a snapshot of how all these factors play out in the real world when they’re mixed together. And it suggests (to me, at least) that taking the lead during the first lap of a championship men’s 1500m race rarely ends well.