Altitude problem*

The sport of track and field is not an exact science. Patrick Casey’s performance three weeks ago is a perfect example.

Casey ran a 4:04.44 mile at Montana State University’s invitational on Jan. 29. But because Bozeman is at nearly 5,000 feet of elevation, an altitude adjustment brought Casey’s time down to 3:59.16.

That time is low enough for an MSU and Big Sky Conference record. But only MSU will recognize it.

That’s because Casey’s effort, while impressive, isn’t officially a sub four-minute mile. It’s the equivalent to one. So Scott McGowan is alone in being the only Montanan to go under four.

Casey belongs in the same conversation, but his mark goes down with an asterisk.

The MSU record that Casey broke was also set at elevation – Miguel Galeana ran a 4:01.86 in 1998 – and is thus an altitude adjustment. The Big Sky record of 3:59.99 belongs to Weber State’s Jeremy Tolman, who just got under four in 2001, and was done at sea level during the NCAA meet in Fayetteville, Ark. No asterisk required.

The Big Sky will not recognize Casey’s, or any other athlete’s, altitude-adjusted time for conference records, a point MSU head coach Dale Kennedy plans to bring up at the BSC annual meeting this summer.

As for Casey, he wants to get under four legitimately – without the asterisk. He should get his chance at NCAAs next month in Fayetteville and says his only concern this weekend at the Big Sky Championship in Bozeman is running at or under the equivalent of 3:59.10 to reach the automatic qualifier for NCAAs. (The men’s mile is scheduled for 2:35 Saturday afternoon; Casey is currently ranked 11th in the nation, which should get him into the NCAAs regardless of what he runs at the Big Sky meet).

Altitude adjustments are in place in order to level the playing field. Without them, “the kids at altitude would have to be so much better than everybody else in the country in order to hit that qualifying time at altitude,” Kennedy told me.

In other words without AAs, a kid like Casey would have to run what would amount to be a 3:53.8 in Bozeman to make it to the NCAA meet. AAs also keep athletes from having to travel to sea-level meets in order to hit qualifying marks.

So Casey’s 3:59.16 goes down as a provisional qualifying mark for NCAAs, but not as a legit sub-four.

“I tell my family and friends I ran it (under 4 minutes), and they’re always like, ‘oh, it’s altitude adjustment,’” Casey said in an interview last week. “But I don’t think a lot of people understand how much harder it is to run at altitude.”

The adjustments are just one gray area in track and field, especially indoors. Some schools, like MSU, have a banked track. Some have 220-meter tracks. (MSU’s is 200). Some have 300-meter tracks and some have flat tracks. (MSU’s meet on Feb. 19 was done on a flat surface).

When I lived in southern Vermont six years ago, Williams College’s track was 160 meters.

And because of all the differences, adjustments are made to scale times to a 200-meter track.

It can be very confusing, even for an interested fan.

“It’s a tough sport to follow because you have all these different things going on,” Kennedy said. “Right now, they’re treating banked tracks and 300-meter track as the same. They’re really not. You can run quite a bit faster on a 300-meter track.

“There’s so much of this kind of thing going and that people are confused or frustrated and just give up. It’s hard for people to follow.”

Adjustments aside, Saturday’s mile should be a good one to watch. Casey has run 3:59-plus (AA) twice on his home track with little competition. That will change with Northern Arizona’s David McNeill and Jordan Chipangama, who both run at 7,000 feet at their home school, in the field.

McNeill, a six-time All-American for cross country and track, is ranked first in the nation for 3,000 meters after running 7:47.52 at the Husky Classic earlier this month. His time broke the facility record at the University of Washington and is a school record as well. Just last week, the Australian set the NAU mark in the 5,000 (13:39.32).

This weekend, McNeill is expected to run the 3,000, the distance medley relay (an event MSU is ranked first in the Big Sky) and, yes, the mile. McNeill was second at last fall’s national cross country championships and is ranked second in the Big Sky for the indoor mile (4:01.14).

Chipangama, who is from Zambia, is ranked third in the Big Sky for the mile (4:01.75) and is a former junior college national champ in the 1,500.

Casey is looking forward to the opportunity.

“I’ve always thrived on competition,” he said. “I’ve done a lot better when something’s on the line like that. I’m hoping that those two NAU milers can push me enough to get that automatic qualifier and get me tuned up for nationals.”

The mile should be a sight to watch. The best part is that there will be no adjusted times to worry about – at least not until the race is over – and no different tracks to compare. Just three guys going all out, hopefully pulling the best out of one another, for four minutes.

Or maybe for a little less.


1 Response to “Altitude problem*”

  1. 1 Jason
    February 25, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    Thanks for the awesome article. I think Pat Casey deserves more attention for what he brings to the sport and for what he brings to MSU.

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