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The Madness of the NCAA Mile

The Madness of the NCAA Mile
Ben Enowitz

“I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”
—Sir Isaac Newton

After Isaac Newton lost a fortune in the South Sea Bubble in the early 1700s, he said, “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but, not the madness of people.” Newton is referring to the irrationality of the stock market, but just as easily could be describing the typical championship mile race.

Often the mile turns into a tactical affair, with many runners running slowly in the pack, perhaps racing against their self-interest as they cater to the true kickers. The Enowitz Calculator understands this strategy and weights the speed of each miler more heavily than his strength to endure the rounds. With the race run at the high altitude of New Mexico, it is likely “sit and kick” will be the strategy of choice for many of the finalists. However, this may not be the case given that Lawi Lalang is in the field.

Lalang took the NCAA mile field by storm last year. He went out fast (1:59 through 809 meters) and finished faster (1:53 for the final ~800 meters). In fact, the top two 5k runners, Lalang (13:08 PR at the time) and Ryan Hill (13:27 PR at the time), turned out to be the class of the field when all was said and done, running 3:54.74 and 3:55.25 to finish 1-2 (both under the existing meet record). Lalang and Hill bested speedier milers and those doubling back from the DMR such as Austin Mudd, Robby Creese, Tyler Stutzman and Michael Atchoo. Even more surprising, was the collegiate record holder and defending champion, Chris O’Hare, finished way back in 7th.

The beauty (and frustration when trying to create a model) of the mile is that if they ran the race six different times, it is likely that there could be six different winners. If this were the case, predictions and models would be no more accurate than rolling the dice and the Enowitz Calculator would be northing more than an effort in futility. Nevertheless, we march forward.

A quick refresher on the Enowitz Calculator:

What we try to do:

Quantify the seemingly unquantifiable. For example, there are no formal statistics for being a good kicker or being a “big race” runner. However, we can create proxies for these variables using one’s finishing place at conference races, margin of victories / margin of losses, historical performances in championship races dating back to high school and a number of other variables.

What we do not try to do:

Predict which runners will make the finals. For example, the calculator may think a runner will perform well if he makes the final, but due to the different dynamics in the prelims, he may not even make the finals (prelims go out slower than finals and are different based on the fact that runners can qualify on time, thus giving 2nd heat runners an advantage). The calculator does takes into effect that fact that some runners in the final will likely be tired from the prelim rounds or from running the DMR / 3k the night before, but does not try to predict winners of these preliminary rounds.

In the theme of “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (or maybe “Running, Fast and Slow” by the dependable, but unheralded author who goes by 3X), I will make predictions based on well thought out analysis i.e. “The Enowitz Calculator” and then compare the predictions to my gut reaction picks i.e. “The Scout”.

NCAA Mile Picks
Place The Enowitz Calculator The Scout
1st Rich Peters – I have to admit that I am a bit surprised the Calc would pick Peters. However, maybe I should not be. In any other year a 3:57 miler who just broke the 1K collegiate record (2:18.55) would likely be the favorite. Lawi Lalang – Defending champion and Collegiate record holder. Despite coming into this event a bit tired as he goes for part II of his historic triple, he has enough strength to front run to a victory.
2nd Lawi Lalang – The defending champion and collegiate record holder (3:52.88) is in the race. Sounds familiar, right? Yep, Chris O’Hare had the exact same credentials last year, but finished 7th. If Lawi isn’t too tired/impacted by the altitude, then the Calc thinks he should run away with the title. Mac Fleet – One of the best Championship racers since his high school days in San Diego. Can he get an indoor mile gold to match his 1500m title from outdoors? The answer would be a resounding yes if this were most years, but he happens to be running against one of the all-time greats.
3rd Mac Fleet – The fact that Fleet is ranked 3rd shows the depth of the field. The Calc says that Fleet, the defending 1500m outdoor champ, would be the winner in almost any other year. Jeremy Rae – Similar rationale to Fleet. Rae can close with the best in the NCAA and seems to have the fitness this year to stay near the front of the pack. Rae should be one of the 'best of the rest' behind Lalang.
4th Anthony Rotich – Rotich is the 2nd seed, but is a bit discounted since he ran the time at altitude. Well guess what, the race is at altitude and he has the strength to make it through the rounds feeling fresh. The Calc is more uncertain about Rotich’s finishing place than any other runner in the field. Rich Peters – Scary to think that a guy who has run 2:18.55 could be this far back. Peters has been in a couple of championship races by now and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was standing on the podium on Saturday.
5th Jeremy Rae – Winning a DMR title at NCAAs and running 3:57 means something. Almost a shoo-in for a top 3 finish in most years, but he is a bit hurt by this year’s depth. Jordan Williamsz – It is almost criminal that a guy who has run 3:56.84 solo this year is this far back. However, I am not a fan of running on over-sized tracks.
6th Will Geoghegan – 7:51.57 for a miler is no joke. But the fact that he lacks an Ivy League title hurts the Dartmouth runner. Matt Hillenbrand – Hillenbrand could be a huge dark horse if he makes the final. He has proven that he can sniff the tape better than most.
7th Sam Penzenstadler – This has been a breakout year for Penzenstadler and he could make a splash at his first NCAAs. His loss to Rae at the Meyo mile sets him back a bit according to the Calc, despite his impressive speed. Matthew Gillespie – 3:58.48 / 7:52.24 is legit. However, he hasn’t won enough races to prove he can beat the five runners in front of him.
8th Izaic Yorks – Great closing speed, but will he have the ability to kick against the top dogs after having to run hard in the prelims? Anthony Rotich – Again, I am bit skeptical of altitude conversions, but an 8:21 steepler is elite.
9th Jordan Williamsz – The Calc seems to be discounting the Aussie who is the 3rd seed based on his 3:56.84 SB. Lack of proven endurance and fatigue from the DMR may hurt the Villanova sophomore. Will Geoghegan – Geoghegan, like Gillespie, has run fine times of 3:58 and 7:51, but came up short in the Ivy League Championship. With the only school to have multiple runners in the race, we could see Dartmouth use team tactics to take control of the race.
10th Matthew Gillespie – The Calc historically loves Iona runners. However, Gillespie is missing the closing the speed to crack into the top 5. Sam Penzenstadler – Huge breakthroughs this year, but missing experience on the big stage.
11th Michael Williams – Coach Vig knows how to prepare milers for championship races, but Williams is a bit overmatched here. Steve Mangan – Winning Heps is a pretty big accomplishment since 25% of this field comes from the Ancient Eight. However, this is Mangan’s first season of indoors (had skied for Dartmouth the last couple years in the winter) so he comes in a bit green (pun intended).
12th Matt Hillenbrand – Double SEC champ, but unfortunately that does not historically come with the same significance as someone who accomplishes the feat in one of the distance powerhouse conferences. However, the Calc sees a lot of variability around Hillenbrand and thinks he could sneak into the top 5. Izaic Yorks – I love Yorks on paper, but a bad showing at MPSF makes me a bit skeptical.
13th Steve Mangan – The Ivy League champ can kick with the best of them, but can he do it off a fast pace? Although he has a seedtime in the mid 3:58s, it came from a conversion time run at the Dartmouth track. Elmar Engholm – Engholm is a bit under the radar, but is another strong steepler, who like Rotich, could make a splash.
14th Isaac Presson – Presson is the last miler to make it to NCAAs with his 3:59.23 seedtime. A good mix of strength/speed, but he is up against a very strong field. John Gregorek – Nice range from the 1k to the steeple, but a big step up in competition here.
15th Elmar Engholm – Engholm certainly has the strength to make it through the rounds, but speed reigns supreme and unfortunately, he seems to be lacking. Michael Williams – One of the few runners in the field who already has a national championship (DMR 2013).
16th John Gregorek – The Columbia steepler is the beneficiary of the Dartmouth track conversion and is not yet proven on the national stage. Isaac Presson – You have to rank someone last. Unfortunately, Presson gets the nod this year.

Comments

  1. Jeez, when will we learn. Lalang has tremendous aerobic power. The more things change, the more they remain the same. It was Arthur Lydiard’s contention that the runner with aerobic power will always be fresher late in the race than the speed-trained athlete. Cam Levins, anybody? Peter Snell?

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