Only obligation is to tell it straight"
I like to think that the third track on Drake's 2018 album Scorpion was referencing the ongoing debate in the running community surrounding altitude conversions in the NCAA.
No? That's not what he's saying?
Well, let's just say it is.
The conversation happens every year. Someone runs a fast time at altitude, they earn a generous conversion, and the nation suddenly becomes more divided than any presidential campaign we've ever seen. It's happened every year since I started covering the sport in 2014 and it will likely continue for the foreseeable future.
So why do critics and internet trolls hold so much disdain for altitude conversions? There's no concrete answer, but it's easy to understand the perspective for some of their reasons.
"They never run those times when they're NOT at altitude!"
"The conversion cuts off too much time!"
"They use those times as PR's! They never truly ran that time!"
Let's break down these arguments one by one in an attempt to gain some clarity...
They never run those times when they aren't at altitude
Let's take a step back and rewind to the indoor track season of 2015, the unofficial (and arbitrarily assigned) birth of the altitude debate.
Cristian Soratos was a senior at Montana State. Prior to the beginning of that indoor track season, the Wildcat veteran had modest personal bests of 1:51, 4:06, and 8:27. His resume was respectable, but he was far from a legitimate contender on the national stage.
However, that all changed on January 16th, 2015 at the Montana State Open. At 4900 feet of elevation, Soratos opened up his season with a mile time of 4:05.18. When you throw in the flat-track conversion, Soratos was given a mind-boggling mark of 3:56.87.
Soratos was promptly ripped apart as nearly everyone doubted the legitimacy of his conversion. How could a guy who ran a season best of 4:11 less than one year ago suddenly become one of the most elite milers that the country has to offer? For many, it just didn't seem plausible.
So what did Soratos do? He proved the haters wrong. The MSU ace went on to run an unconverted 3:55.27 to win the Husky Invite and later finished runner-up to Edward Cheserek at the Indoor National Championships.
After his dominant victory at Husky, the narrative changed quite a bit...
We could on for days with these kind of examples. Dani Jones ran an altitude converted time of 4:32 in 2017. Are we doubting her now? What about Diego Leon, another Montana State stud who ran a converted 3:57 mile last year only to run 13:39 (unconverted) for 5000 meters two months later? And those are just mile times were talking about...
Conversions cut off too much time
In fairness to the critics, this one might hold some merit. Still, even if it does, the difference has to be marginal. If the conversion did cut off too much time, wouldn't we see an exorbitant number of athletes race at altitude? Wouldn't a majority of national qualifiers be run at altitude? If so, the incentive would be too high to race elsewhere...
Let's take a look at the top 16 men's milers and women's milers for each indoor season since 2010. In the past nine years (not counting 2019) 23 out of 144 men had altitude adjusted marks on the NCAA leaderboard (~16%).
For the women, that number is far lower. Only 5 out of 144 women have had altitude adjusted times on the NCAA leaderboard in the past nine years (3.5%). In fact, five of those years held no altitude adjustments at all. More so, there were actually more flat-track conversions (10) than altitude conversions in that time period.
In total, less than 10% of the guaranteed mile spots to Nationals (using the current qualifying system) were altitude adjusted times.
When altitude debates come up, we often point out the men's times...but why? The answer is simple. There is a smaller sample of top women with altitude converted marks and a smaller sample doesn't support the criticism against these conversions.
Despite the overall numbers, it's important that we recognize trends. A majority of the 28 total altitude marks were run in 2017 and 2018. For the men, 13 of the 23 converted times (56%) came within the past two years. For the women, 3 of those 5 also came within the past two years.
It may be too early to determine whether or not these recent spikes in altitude adjusted marks are legitimate trends, but it is something we should observe over the next few years.
They use their altitude conversions as PR's
Does it happen? Probably.
Does it happen often? Probably not.
You know that one friend who constantly says "I'm a sophomore by credit hours" when they're actually a freshman? That's pretty much the equivalent of altitude conversions. It might be true on paper, but almost no one will take it seriously.
I'll let Matthew Baxter, a recent Northern Arizona graduate, explain...
The thread is more far extensive, but the point is clear. No one uses altitude conversions as their legitimate personal bests.
Nonetheless, there may be some sympathy when it comes to national qualifying. The runner who competed at sea level and earned a faster finishing time is likely frustrated that someone is going to Nationals with an altitude conversion and didn't actually ran faster than them.
Running is the purest form of competition that mankind has ever known. For many traditional fans, adding an algorithm into the mix feels somewhat unreliable and at a very basic level, it's easy to understand their rationale.
Regardless, we have come to a day and age where the math and science is irrefutable. It is harder to race at altitude and athletes need to be compensated for the lack of oxygen, plain and simple.
There's a reason why Joe Klecker's 3k time of 8:01 was converted to an NCAA #1 mark of 7:48. It takes jaw-dropping fitness to run that fast at 5000+ feet of elevation. The same can be said for Geordie Beamish who ran 4:06 in Flagstaff (6900 feet of elevation) and earned a conversion of 3:57.99 (also NCAA #1).
There will likely never be any agreement about conversions, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn't really matter. The collegiate elites will toe the line in March and conversions won't make a difference between who wins and who loses.
At the end of the day, the best of the best will rise to the top.