TullyRunners -  Article


Losing Interest in NXN - One Guy’s Perspective

by Bill Meylan (July 3, 2011)


Why am I losing interest in NXN?? ... This article has been modified several times to make it shorter and hopefully, more "comprehensible" to fans of high school cross country ... It’s harder than I thought ... I removed some detailed statistical stuff in favor of simply noting some personal conclusions ... I decide to discuss just two factors for now, (1) the Portland Meadows mud-pit and (2) NXN is becoming like Footlocker.

The "Losing Interest" part refers to a waning desire to evaluate the NXN teams which is very time-intensive ... Basically, handicapping NXN is no longer "fun" or even that interesting for various reasons (as noted, two factors are discussed here).

This is NOT an article intended to bash NXN ... I am fan of NXN and the concept of a national meet ... Nike should be applauded for the time, effort and money involved in producing NXN ... and I encourage high school runners to participate in post season XC races such as NXN and Footlocker.

Take advantage of NXN and Footlocker while they still exist ... And for those who have the opportunity to run both (especially those capable of qualifying in both), "Just Do It" ... Remember, "once in a lifetime" opportunities are rare.

I wish Footlocker Northeast would change the date of their meet to the Friday or Sunday after Thanksgiving (instead of the Saturday which conflicts with NXN-NY-NE) ... Give runners the opportunity to compete in both if they so choose ... I think a fair number might do so ... But this will never happen.


Some Background Stuff ... To understand the “losing interest” part, you need to understand some background info ... My interest in evaluating NXN races started for just two reasons:

(1) the Fayetteville-Manlius boys were invited to the initial NXN in 2004 (known as Nike Team Nationals (NTN) at the time) ... FM had a chance to win ... and FM is only 20 miles from Tully, so there was a local interest in Syracuse and central NY.

(2) I help with the Tully XC and track teams (because I like these sports at the high school level) ... I’m a horse-player (I bet on horse races) ... In the late 1990s, I realized it was possible to modify the concept of horse speed ratings to high school cross country (these ratings allow different race tracks to be compared to each other in terms of speed) ... I had been "speed rating" NY State XC on TullyRunners.com for several years, so why not apply it nationally to NXN and let people see it (That was a Mistake ... Informing the general population about the existence of human speed ratings is dangerous ... I tried using Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine to go back in time and change it, but I failed).

If the FM boys were not part of the initial NXN, I would not have evaluated it ... The Saratoga girls were also part of NXN 2004, but I knew they were much-the-best with no evaluation necessary ... I evaluated NXN 2004 out of curiosity and a local interest.


Horse-Players Take Things for Granted

An example to illustrate one point - I was with several horseplayers (who know virtually nothing about high school XC, except that I’m involved) ... we were looking at a TV screen showing Portland Meadows in December, and I noted the XC race that would take place in the infield ... They laughed and asked who I was betting ... For grins, I asked them "how they would approach such a race?" ... Quick response from one guy, "What's the track bias on that muddy mess?".

Experienced horse-players are keenly aware of Track Bias ... my friend may know zero about high school XC, but he knew (took for granted) that something called "track bias" might determine who wins and who loses in that muddy goop ... Some race tracks favor front-running horses (horses forwardly placed in a race) and some tracks favor closers (horses that race from the back) ... This is known as track bias ... The track itself favors one type of running-style over another creating a "bias" ... Horse-players need to know how strong or weak the track bias is on a given day (it can vary due to weather or other reasons).

My favorite example of track bias is Vernon Downs years ago when the surface could actually get muddy (rather than the wet rock dust of today) ... Closing horses had trouble winning on dry fast days, but when the track turned muddy, closers started winning magically (and cashing tickets was fun) ... In 1977, Seattle Slew was attempting to win the thoroughbred Triple Crown but needed to win the Preakness Stakes at the Pimlico race track ... Pimlico had a well-known track bias that favored front-runners (the inside lane of track next to the rail was firm compared to the softer outer-part of the track); unknown to most people at the time, the Pimlico grounds crew arrived at the track at 3am on Preakness day and plowed-up the inside lane removing the track bias which could have hurt the Slew's closing style against his major "front-running" competitor who had drawn the rail position (the rail was now softer for the competitor and Slew won); some guy on a tractor may have helped Seattle Slew win the Triple Crown.

Track Bias Summary ... Horse-players take for granted that the race course itself will determine how well some horses race.

Other Things Horse-Players Take for Granted:
 ... Some horses race well in mud and some don't
 ... Some horses race better on grass than dirt (and vice versa)
And excellent trainers have limited success trying to fix these "natural" occurrences.

Ask any horse-player the following:
 ... Does it matter if the race it run on the dirt or turf course??
 ... Does it matter if the track is muddy or not??
 ... Does it matter if the Kentucky Derby is run at Churchill Downs or Portland Meadows??
Of course it matters.

High School XC:

"It's the Same for Everybody, So Stop Complaining" ...  When people complain about the NXN conditions at Portland Meadows in December, or use the conditions as an excuse for poor performance, it's fairly common to hear remarks such as "It's the same for everybody, so it doesn't matter" ... followed by words of encouragement like "Toughen-up cry baby" or the ever-popular "Suck it up cupcake".

As a horse-player, I know that every cross country course presents potential advantages and disadvantages to certain types of runners ... For example, some runners excel on hills (some runners are natural "mountain goats" and some improve the skill through training) ... Some runners are just better naturally in mud than others (it's just the way it is) ... For high school cross country during the season, I rarely give this type of "advantage/bias" stuff much consideration ... but Portland Meadows in December??

Portland Meadows in December is an Entity Unto Itself ... The reason is:  The muddy conditions border on extreme ... For analogy purposes, let's consider a couple of other "extreme" possibilities ...How about a 5K up the top section of Pike's Peak? ... or 5K in Death Valley? ... Well, the Fayetteville-Manlius Girls would probably win anyway ... But do you think the order finish behind them might be a bit different than at Portland Meadows??

How about something "not-extreme" at a nice location? ... Say, Pepperdine University California at a course none the CA teams have raced at (so they don't have that advantage) ... Let me pose this question, "If NXN was held at Pike's Peak, Death Valley or Pepperdine, would any team have an advantage?? ... My answer would be Yes ... I tend to think of it as a "natural" advantage thing.

I removed a lengthy discussion about this "natural" advantage thing, but here's one scenario to consider ... Would runners who train on hills at altitude have an advantage at Pike's Peak over sea-level runners?? ... I'm sure the sea-level runners could train at altitude for a while and level-the-playing field, but it doesn't happen overnight.

In regard to advantage, it does not matter where NXN is run ... Somebody will have an advantage ... and that means somebody has an advantage at Portland Meadows in December ... My problem with Portland Meadows is that the muddy conditions border on (or are) extreme, and extreme conditions lead to extreme advantages (good or bad) year after year after year ... For the vast majority of high school XC during the season, this "natural" advantage thing is minor or not-worth-considering ... I find it unfortunate and disappointing that the "National Meet" includes something like this.

Is it the Same for Everybody?? ... No - Not if somebody has an advantage ... And being literal with "it's the same for everybody" - many muddy courses deteriorate with use (e.g. the course gets "chewed-up" by the runners in the previous races) ... If that's true, then the runners in the back-half of one race are running on a course that was chewed-up by the runners in front of them in the same race, and that's definitely "not the same for everybody" ... That might suggest that teams "forwardly placed" at muddy Portland Meadows might have an advantage on teams running near the back (because it's not the same for everybody, literally) ... Note this "literal" advantage thing is different than the "natural" advantage thing.

That's my only complaint with Portland Meadows (believe it or not) ... Portland Meadows is a great location logistically ... near Nike headquarters, major city, airport, parking, indoor facilities, view of the race, and most importantly, located at a race track ... If they allowed pari-mutuel wagering, my interest might increase.

One last point ... the Arcadia CA guys showed it is really possible to "toughen-up" (they were 20th in 2009 and 1st in 2010), but it's much easier to "toughen-up" when you're the best team in nation) ... Unfortunately, some runners and teams are not capable of "toughening-up" significantly no matter how many cupcakes they suck-up at Portland Meadows ... Sometimes extreme conditions are just "too extreme" ... Conclusion of horse-handicapping 101.

Relation to Losing Interest in NXN? ... It's interesting to handicap races with statistics (at least for me) ... But as a horse-player, I know that statistics become secondary when certain major factors emerge (such as a significant track bias) ... This means the course itself is a major player in determining results, and perhaps as important as the ability of the runners themselves ... I might "love" that occurrence when betting serious money on horses, but not so with respect to high school XC.

In addition, the variable weather and mud at Portland Meadows in December renders the course useless for any kind of serious benchmarking with respect races times such as course records, best team average, etc ... Sometimes those are interesting numbers to know.


What?? - NXN is Just Like Footlocker??

NXN wanted to acquire some Footlocker attributes and it has succeed ... Unfortunately, one of those attributes is something I don't particularly like ... and with respect to NXN, it is a huge negative and a reason my interest is waning in handicapping NXN in any serious manner.

One anomaly "stuck out like a sore thumb" when I first began rating Footlocker regional races ... A significant number of runners perform at a much lower level at Footlocker regionals than during the season ... Didn't really surprise me once I thought about it because the season was coming to an end, these runners had no "team concerns" about scoring well, they were "enjoying" one last XC race and participating in a national event ... Nothing wrong with that at all ... Conversely, a few runners have "career-best" performances, and some qualify for Footlocker Finals ... Understanding this specific scenario allows these races to be speed rated effectively, but require some adjustment.

Now the "problem I have" occurs at Footlocker Finals ... Ever notice how the order-of-finish (within each region) is often quite different at Finals compared to regionals?? ... Now I'm a horse-player and I realize different courses yield different results, but without going into some boring statistics, let me say that "something else is going on", and here are some brief observations...

Footlocker regionals are qualifying races ... some top runners only run fast to qualify (as long as they finish in the top ten, that's good enough; and that's perfectly fine and understandable) ... some runners go all-out to qualify because Qualifying is the Main Goal ... Performance at Footlocker Finals is secondary, and even forgotten, in lieu of making it to Finals and having a good time ... I'm sure all qualifiers want to perform at the highest levels at Finals, but that's not what happens ... In my opinion, a fair of runners simply go through the motion of running the race, perhaps due to lack of motivation and focus, contentment from qualifying, knowing they have no-shot to win, or some other reason (some runners probably don't know it's actually happening to them, but these runners earned the right to perform like that if they so choose).

But as a handicapper who likes to play with statistics and predict the outcome of races from top-to-bottom, this type of behavior "takes the fun out of it" ... and that leads to a "Lack of Interest" in spending any significant amount of time in evaluating the entire field of runners because I don't want to spend time guessing which runners will be "mailing in their performance" ... I stopped handicapping Footlocker Finals (top-to-bottom) a number of years ago ... However, I did spend about 15 seconds handicapping the race this year to predict the likely winners (I decided on Aisling Cuffe and Lukas Verzbicas) ... And I did enjoy watching the web-cast and not handicapping the race top-to-bottom.

As a side-note ... Obviously there are other reasons for poor performances such "just a bad day", couldn't handle the pressure, etc. ... Sometimes it's the race course itself or maybe it's the location ... San Diego seems like a perfect location, but for some runners who suffer from stress-asthma or allergies, the air quality (pollen count, foreign pollutants, etc) affects them adversely without proper acclimation - e.g. some runners from the Northeast where the onset of winter has lowered the air temperatures and removed the pollen ... this "excuse" does explain several off-performances that I'm aware of (trivia to be forgotten 101).

Enter The NXN Regional Qualifiers

NXN is become more like Footlocker ... and I bet you know where this is going ... but I'm calling it the way I see it.

The NXN Regional Qualifying races started in 2007 ... I agree that head-to-head racing is the fairest method of determining the auto-qualifiers and pool of potential at-large selections ... the NXN regional meets also provide an opportunity for many runners to take part in a national event and experience another high school XC race (this is good).

But, like Footlocker regionals, these races require runners to travel (long distances for some), induce expense, and run yet another hard race ... Therefore, Qualifying is the Main Goal & the End Goal for some teams ... the reward is a trip to Portland, Oregon and all the festivities involved ... the race itself in Portland is just one of the "festivities" and a number of poor race performances are the result ... I can't really blame these teams because they earned the right to come to Portland Meadows, so why not have "fun in the mud".

.... { Examples & additional discussion deleted }

Combined Lack of Interest Factors

  • Portland Meadows in December is an entity that fosters advantages and is a major factor in determining the outcome

  • Qualifying is the Main Goal & the End Goal for some teams

There is some overlap in the two factors above ... Both are negatives with respect to handicapping with statistics ... Despite this, the raw statistics entering NXN do an OK job (on their own) in predicting the outcome top-to-bottom ... But is it worth the time and effort??




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