Noah Hoffman’s Progress

Like everyone else in the world (seemingly) I enjoy Noah Hoffman’s blog. Apparently he gets a little bit of a hard time for how often he posts, but I think it’s pretty remarkable how much he shares about his training and racing. A lot of athlete blogs will, quite understandably, shy away from sharing some of the lower points during their season. So I was struck by Hoffman’s post following the Sochi 50k in which he was quite open about questioning whether he should remain in the sport at all.

Part of the reason I found it interesting was that for a while now I’ve felt like Hoffman hasn’t been making much progress, and based on what I read elsewhere I don’t seem to be in the majority on that front. Obviously, as a fan of US skiing, I root for him, but form my very distant vantage point looking only at race results, I haven’t seen much sign of the dramatic improvement we’d like to see.

For instance:

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This is all of his major international results. So you can see why I’d be puzzled by comments suggesting that his results have improved dramatically. Clearly the last two seasons have seen more good results, but his typical race hasn’t improved all that much, if at all.

Hoffman had an excellent race this past fall in what FIS now calls the pursuit at Kuusamo, and that certainly was noteworthy. But I’ve long felt that you can’t really generalize much from those pursuit races since so many skiers alter their pacing in response to the overall standings. Clearly Hoffman had a good day; I really wish he’d had that effort in an interval start race since that would be a much clearer signal of his ability.

Another example was the Sochi 50k, a race that Hoffman professed some disappointment with. He skied with the leaders nearly the whole race and had some bad luck near the end with a broken pole. On the other hand, by his own description he was basically toast with 5k to go and said that nearly everyone was leaving him behind. In the end he finished a little over a minute off the pace, or about 1.07% back. To say that a minute out in a 50k is pretty good is a bit misleading here. The fact is that modern mass start races (for the men at least) are essentially medium intensity cruisers with several kilometers of mad sprinting at the end.

I often joke that we might as well simply put the whole field on stationary bikes for a set period of time and then have them do a mass start 5k. A little bit more than a minute out in a 5k race doesn’t sound quite so good.

So you might say that I think that percent back in mass start events isn’t necessarily indicative of much. If I had better split data, a more informative metric would be a skier’s pace over the final 5% of the race, not their overall percent back.

Regardless, let’s try to take stock of where Hoffman is. I collected all top 30 men’s results in major international mass start, skiathlon and interval start races (so, yes, I’m dropping those misleading “pursuits”) over the past four seasons. For each person I calculated their median mass start percent back and their median interval start percent back. Here are the results, separated by whether they have ever achieved a top 5 result (in either type of race):

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One thing this makes clear is that 1.07% back in the Sochi 50k is actually one of his better results, but it’s also clearly not been the rule. His other two strong mass start results were both held in North America.

All this isn’t meant to just rag on Hoffman. I genuinely hope he succeeds (if you don’t already count was he has done a success). But I was struck by his post-50k blog as being remarkable honest and clear eyed about his progress, which isn’t something I feel like we see very often expressed in public. I also think his coaches are right: he’s got at least two more Olympic cycles in him, and that’s a lot of time to work with. But I can’t say that we’ve seen a dramatic improvement in his race results…..yet.

How long will Freeman and Randall remain on top?

Kris Freeman and Kikkan Randall have been basically the top US skiers for quite some time now. (I’m sort of brushing Andrew Newell under the rug here, mostly just due to time contraints. I’ll do a follow up on him next week.)

Freeman has been more or less unquestionably the best US male distance skier for what seems like forever, and Randall has been fairly dominant domestically in both distance and sprint events. How long can this last? Not forever, of course. Nothing lasts forever.

But it seems like the shift may happen sooner on the men’s side than the women’s. Here’s what I mean:

This shows the head-to-head results of Freeman against a handful of the better US men’s distance skiers in recent years. Certainly, Freeman has way more wins (above zero, in the pink) than losses (below zero, in the blue). But the gaps are generally narrowing.

Now, there’s a big caveat here in that I can’t say much about whether Freeman is getting slower, or these guys are getting faster, or even if Freeman is getting faster but these guys are getting faster faster. (That made you think for a second, didn’t it?) Or maybe they’re all getting slower, and Freeman is getting slower faster. (See, now I’m just having fun messing with your head.) The point is that these are just relative comparisons, not absolute ones.

In any case, what does the similar picture look like for Kikkan Randall? Read more

Noah Hoffman’s Pacing

I was interested (rather than offended) to read about Noah Hoffman’s pacing strategies in Sunday’s classic WC race. I have a limited supply of data on split times (what I do have is thanks to Jan over at worldofxc.com, though) so the following data is definitely incomplete.

Hoffman seemed determined to not start too fast, something that apparently he does quite often. Since pacing interval start races is so much different than mass start or pursuits, we’ll only look at his splits for interval start races. I only have split times from a total of eight WC-level interval start races for him (of varying lengths). Here’s a simple graph showing them all together, with Sunday’s race highlighted with the black dashed line:

This is a very crude representation of split times, where I’ve simply plotted how fast Hoffman skied each timed section compared to the field. So, for example, the y-axis means he had the 20th fastest, 40th fastest, etc. split time on that section.

In order to compare races of different length I’ve converted the x-axis from raw kilometers to a percentage of the total race distance. (This may be dubious, since pacing strategies will be markedly different in a 15k versus a 30k. However, these data consist of two 10k’s, five 15k’s and only one 30k, so I think we’re on fairly safe ground.)

Certainly Noah’s first split was slower than his subsequent splits on Sunday. And it was the 3rd slowest initial split of the eight I have. But it seems to me like he proceeded to ski the rest of the race fairly consistently, rather than gradually accelerating. At least, until he faded a bit on the last section.

This is in contrast to several of the other lines here that begin with fairly quick initial splits, but by mid-race he’s clocking only ~60th fastest time on each section or so. So whatever he did seemed to work.

I should say that I’m fairly cautious about my ability to analyze split times. I’m sure the coaches are keeping more detailed data on this sort of thing than I have access to. But it’s interesting, nonetheless.

Davos Recap

North Americans

Each weekend seems to be an interesting mix of results for the North Americans. Starting with the women (Davos result circled in blue):

Compared to this season, that was an off day for Kikkan, but compared to last season that was pretty typical. Part of me wonders if she dialed it back a bit late in the race when she knew she wasn’t feeling strong to save some energy for the sprint. But as you can see from her graph, if that’s going to be her “bad” race this season, she’s going have a strong set of results this year.

I’m very cautious about jumping on bandwagons when someone pops a good race or two, but Holly Brooks is beginning to convince me. That’s three good (and one OK) distance results in a row now. More importantly, I like the direction her trend is heading. It’s still early, so it’ll only take a few mediocre races to flatten that trend out, but so far it looks promising.

You can’t deny that Liz Stephen has had some strong results so far this season. My only concern is that they have all been roughly where we’ve seen her topping out before. Can her good days inch up towards the top ten?

As for the men: Read more

Hoffman & Stephen In Seefeld

Christian Hoffmann

Christopher Tassava chimed in with another request, regarding the news this week about Christian Hoffman’s 6 year suspension. Since I did post looking at who stood to gain if you removed Andrus Veerpalu from past results, he wanted to know what it would look like if we did the same thing with Christian Hoffmann.

It turns out in this case that the beneficiaries aren’t nearly as concentrated on a few individuals, so I’m going to pick and choose who I highlight here. Removing Hoffmann from the results would impact the winner in three instances. One is of course the famous 2002 Olympic race, in which the “official” second place finisher was Mikhail Botvinov,  so let’s just call that new podium Skjeldal, Piller Cottrer and Bjoerndalen. For the other two, it would have meant regular WC victories for Teichmann and Sommerfeldt.

Ultimately, I think Piller Cottrer and Skjeldal would have the biggest complaints, since they also would be bumped up from 4th to 3rd on at least one other occasion. Alexei Prokourovov would also have gained two 3rd place WC finishes, but the rest were split between a range of skiers.

Moving back to the top ten, we can turn to an American, Carl Swenson, who would have notched two more top ten results. Vincent Vittoz would have picked up three additional top ten results.

As for scoring WC points at all, we can identify a few North Americans again: Carl Swenson would have picked up WC points on two more occasions, James Southam (once), Donald Farley (once), Stephan Kunz (once) and reaching way back, Marcus Nash (once). At this level, the list of names is an eclectic mix of the famous (Piller Cottrer, Elofsson, Hjelmeset, etc.) to the not so famous (Diego Ruiz, Kay Bochert, Peter Michl, etc.).

In all, 90 different skiers would have gained an additional top 30, top 10 or victory. That includes several other skiers also suspected or convicted of a doping offense. Maybe during the off-season I’ll attempt a more complete assessment that attempts to remove every single skier possibly connected to doping, but that’s a bigger project.

Seefeld

Some of the other US skiers skipped the sprint relay to do a FIS race in Austria on Sunday, and by all accounts skied fairly well. Liz Stephen rather handily won the 5k freestyle, and Noah Hoffman finished 3rd, 9 seconds ahead of Kris Freeman.

But of course, comparing Hoffman to just Freeman is risky, since any one skier can have an off day. So let’s see how that result compares to his past results against the entire field:

So, remember that positive, higher values indicate better performances for Hoffman. Up is good.

The blue dots are from this particular race in Seefeld (notice only two are below zero, corresponding to the folks who beat him). You can see that this is more or less in line with how he’s fared against these skiers in past seasons. Perhaps a little better, but not dramatically so.

As for Liz Stephen, here is the equivalent graph for her race: Read more

New Zealand Continental Cups

Hey, the first international ski races of the 2011-2012 season took place recently in New Zealand! They are officially FIS sanctioned races, but my impression is that they have a bit more of a training camp time trial feel to them. The Americans, Canadians, some Russians, and then an assortment of Japanese, Korean, and locals (Australia + New Zealand) are spending time down at the Snow Farm. The fields are small, no one is in top form and probably everyone is treating them as training rather than a ‘serious’ competition.

But heck, let’s (over) analyze them anyway, just for fun. These will be very short, narrowly focused posts on these races. The men did a mass start 15k classic race (no Russians). I suppose it’s interesting that Newell finished second, which is nominally pretty good for him in a distance race, but of course it’s hard to read much of anything into that. I’m generally more interested in the younger skiers. Take Noah Hoffman, for instance:

This graph shows how Hoffman has fared against these specific skiers (a subset of the folks in the New Zealand race) over time. The New Zealand race is in red. That appears right in line with how he fared against Freeman last season, so that’s a good sign. In general, he’s been faring better against Newell over time, but this particular race was a bit against that trend. Given that Hoffman was about as far behind Freeman as he normally is, I’d guess that’s evidence for this being a strong race for Newell rather than a weak one for Hoffman.

The corresponding women’s 10k classic mass start was interesting for data nerds like myself. It consisted of Justyna Kowalczyk and only 5 others (it’s possible other folks raced who don’t have valid FIS licenses, so they won’t show up on the official results) from Japan, Korea and New Zealand. Obviously, this made for a somewhat uneven field. Kowalczyk won by around 4 minutes.

This immediately gets someone like me wondering how that margin of victory stacks up historically. In this case, second place finisher Sumiko Ishigaki was ~13% back. That’s the third largest percent back by a second place finisher that I could find in a FIS sanctioned women’s race (out of 2691 total). That means that I found two races with larger margins between first and second place!

One of them is impressive, but plausible, being another instance of a tiny field. The other, the largest, is so outlandish that I spent a while trying to decide if it wasn’t in fact an error of some sort. I’ve mostly decided that it must be a mistake and the winning time was really 34:32 not 24:32. Perhaps a reader will fill me in on the details…

US World Cup Split Times

Visualizing split times is trickier than it seems. You have data from an array of different situations that arguably aren’t terribly comparable. We all know that mass start and pursuit races play out very differently than interval start races. It may also be difficult to compare split times from a Tour de Ski prologue to a 50k. Add to all this the fact that each race will record their splits at different points in the race, even for races of the same length, and you’ve got quite a jumble of information. (Once again, I’m using split time data kindly supplied by Jan at WorldOfXC.com.)

Still, we can do some stuff with this: Read more

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