In Defense of Altitude Conversions

By Kyle Merber

January 26, 2022

Did you think last year was a fluke or something? In his first race back on the track since qualifying for the Olympics, Yared Nuguse immediately reminded everyone that he’s one of the best middle distance runners in the country. After a controlled first half on home turf, the Notre Dame senior opened things up to run 3:54.46 — a new personal best and the fastest mile in the world this year. Surely that means it’s also the fastest time in the NCAA, right? Well…

The Northern Arizona Skydome holds a 300m flat track that sits just below 7,000 feet. Altitude aside, for an oversized track it’s not particularly quick, with extended straight aways and tight turns. That said, the mile at the Lumberjack Team Challenge was set up as a sub-four attempt — something that’s somehow never happened in Flagstaff! Considering the number of elite athletes that have lived and trained at such elevations, you’d think somebody would have done it by now, even if by accident.

But no! In fact, no athlete has ever officially broken the barrier above 6,000 feet. Kip Keino still holds the record for highest to ever do it; way back in 1967 he ran 3:59.5 at 5,889 feet in Nairobi.

Receiving marquee billing for the assault on sub-4 at ~7k was NAU alum and current HOKA athlete Luis Grijalva. Although the Guatemalan Olympian has never broken four minutes before, his 1500m best of 3:35 converts to well below, and after the decorated career he’s enjoyed thus far, he’s clearly someone who is more than capable.

But sitting just off the opening pace of 1:58 through 800m and waiting in the wings until the final 200m was the current Lumberjack, Nico Young. Compared to the Newbury Park version of himself, collegiate Young is almost unrecognizable. His form has really smoothed out, as the hills of Buffalo Park are inclined to do. And while he may be better known for his 5000-10000m abilities, Young’s name currently sits atop the NCAA descending order list for the mile — 4:02.89 3:54.07!

If you’re new around here, let me explain: it’s harder to run distance races at altitude because there is less oxygen in the air. In a world where the 16th fastest athletes automatically qualify for the NCAA Championships, it’s important to create a level playing field in that process.

Depending on how high the track sits and how long the race is, a formula is used to calculate an equivalent time at sea level. Anything above 3,000 feet is considered altitude — and just as the charts may assist races 800m and up, time is actually added to races 400m and below (since it’s easier to sprint in thin air). Schools at altitude may not have the resources to exclusively compete at sea level and therefore most coaches accept these adjustments as a necessary evil in a world of topographical disparity.

Controversy over, right? Well, every few years a race will be run up on a mountain somewhere and the conversion will irk the newest group of sea level-trained college kids.

Admittedly, I was one of them once. I remember Pat Casey’s 4:04 getting converted down to 3:59 in 2010 and calling bullshit. It happened again in 2014 when Anthony Rotich’s 4:01 magically became a 3:55…and then he won the NCAA title for UTEP. The same thing happened in 2019 when NAU’s Geordie Beamish ran a 4:06.9 (on the same track as Nico) — that apparently translates to a 3:57.9. Eyes rolled, but a 53.5 final 400 to win NCAAs silenced the criticism.

But my all-time favorite public outcry for an altitude conversion was in 2015 when Cristian Soratos ran 4:05.18 in Bozeman, Montana. But those circumstances opened up a whole other can of worms because not only was Soratos’s run at 4,800 feet, but it was on a flat 200m track, which is worth even more bonus points! His “3:56.8” was validated a month later when he ran a 10-second personal best to win the Husky Invite in 3:55.2. Unfortunately, unlike so many of these low oxygen boys, Soratos didn’t prove his doubters wrong via an NCAA title, but he did do this instead, and that was probably worth more money anyway.

All this is not to say that Nico will beat Yared at NCAAs — it’s likely they won’t even race. But it hopefully gives Young’s mark some credence and encourages the skeptics to respect altitude conversions a bit more. These aren’t completely fabricated numbers that put sea-level athletes at a disadvantage.

And let’s quickly address the potential counterpoint that athletes who live and train at altitude deserve a different conversion than those who don’t. Maybe that’s true. But basically, those are the only athletes who are affected. There simply aren’t many — any? — teams whose coach is regularly flying athletes from sea level to altitude for the weekend in hopes of fast times and friendly conversions. I’d suggest if you’re trying to game the system, then Dartmouth’s almost perfectly circular flat track is probably a better option.

Photo by Justin Britton/@justinbritton

Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.