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Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Mar 13, 2009


It's that time of year when college basketball fans become bracketologists: predictors of which 65 teams will be selected to participate in the NCCA tournament and which will win each game in the six rounds thereof. Nobody ever gets it all right, and the so-called experts' predictions are seldom more accurate than the average casual fan's. There are so many factors that may influence the outcome of any game that it's impossible to account for all of them. As Malcom Gladwell suggested in Blink, a hunch is often more reliable than a prediction based on exhaustive analysis.



An analogy can be drawn between bracketology and racetimeology, or the inexact science of predicting how one will perform in an upcoming race. It's usually easier to predict your own race results than it is to win an NCAA tournament pool, but it is also usually more difficult than it seems it ought to be. That's because human exercise physiology is incredibly complex, so it's impossible to account for every factor that may affect your performance in the next race. Even as you stand on the starting line. Sometimes even after you've already started!



Nic Bideau, Craig Mottram's recently jilted coach, put it well in an interview I conducted with him last year: "You should know from your training what is generally reasonable, but there's a black box between the training and the performance. In other words, you put what you do in your training into this black box and then in the race it comes out as a great performance not."



I'm racing a 10K tomorrow (Saturday), and because I ran a 10K on the same course just a few weeks ago, you'd think I might have a very good idea how fast I will be able to go, but I don't. My time in that last race was 33:36. My goal for tomorrow is sub-33. Between then and now I ran a half-marathon in 1:13:15, which equates to a 32:55 10K according to . And that half-marathon course was tougher than tomorrow's 10K course. So you'd think my goal was safe.



But my training has not gone especially well since the half-marathon. I've had dead legs lately. Even after two very easy days of mini-tapering my legs do not have that springy feeling they had before the half. Thus I'm left knowing that I probably could run a sub-33 10K, but having serious doubts about whether the version of me that posseses that potential will be the version of me that shows up on the starting line.



The real mystery in racetimeology is not your finish time, really, but how you will feel after the first mile or two at your goal pace, because it's this feeling that really determines your ultimate finishing time. Exercise scientists are currently engaged in some fascinating research on the complex mechanisms that determine this feeling. They have not gotten nearly far enough to make an exact science of racetimeology.



At some point you just have to step forward and make a call, so here goes: 32:55 on the nose.



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