The Tinman effect
Approaching one's lifetime ceiling at an earlier age doesn't imply failure on anyone's part, and may have no major downside
Beginning sometime in the past decade, more and more male high-school runners have started punching through the amorphous boundary separating eye-opening prep times from bona fide national-class track performances. And while this has been happening on the girls’ side for decades, with young female superstars tending to be farther into the right tail of the performance distribution—owing, it seems safe to presume, almost entirely to females’ earlier and differential physical maturation—the number of girls who get really fast in high school has risen, too.
I’ve touched on the idea that while the typical high-school runner—elite and otherwise—used to graduate with at most four years of competitive running experience, the proliferation of organized middle-school and youth programs starting in the 1990s has gradually slain the old-school idea that kids should not compete seriously until at least their mid-teens. The belief that serious racing at a young age was a high-probability path to “burnout” (a concept that, like racketeering and spirituality, no one has ever satisfactorily defined) was founded on a smattering anecdotes about noteworthy specimens who never thrived as adult runners, not on any kind of empirical observation of how well-monitored kids who clearly enjoy the sport progress after taking up competitive running at, say, 11 or 12.
For practical purposes, enough time has passed so that the equivalent of this empirical data is in. Numerous current professional runners, along with a few who are already old enough to have retired after long and productive careers, have histories of having reached excellence at ages once considered to foretell a “too much, too soon” outcome with near-certainty.
Assuming that, in general, there is no physical downside to a prodigy with proper guidance aiming as high as possible at every competitive stage, what would be the reason for not doing it? If being a top-rate junior is well correlated with future success, why not chase it? (The question “What if a kid wants to be the fastest kid ever and isn’t necessarily looking beyond that?” is also valid, but outside this discussion.)
Tom Schwarz, better known as Tinman, has experienced some burps in his professional life lately. Schwarz’ decades-long, monomaniacal approach to human running performance has by all accounts seen him progressively spread his attention across his growing number of coaching and academic enterprises too thin, and unfortunately, drama and ill will have ensued in accompaniment with a variety of unfortunate but necessary separations. But Schwarz’s most evident focus has long been on high-school athletes, most notably Drew Hunter, whose bevy of high-school exploits include running 3:58 and change for the mile indoors and out as well as breaking 8:00 for 3,000 meters indoors. (Hunter has hardly fizzled as a pro—3:35, and 7:39 and 13:17 show undeniable progress—but overall, things clearly stopped working, and the fact that it took as long as it did for the news to reach Letsrun stands as the most unlikely achievement in American running of 2021.)
Expanding and building on this experience, or at least the first parts of it, Schwarz has created a “team” of elite junior runners scattered across the U.S., all of them boys (the best and perhaps only good choice for this experiment-of-sorts, in my opinion). In some cases, he’s begun working with them individually as freshmen, maybe before. When he sees and gets himself connected to talent, he does everything he can to develop it as rapidly as possible within the constraints of what he sees as a given kid’s reasonable limitations.
But apart from these targeted developmental efforts, more kids are running damned fast times than ever before, even controlling for the Dragonfly effect. While precisely quantifying such a thing is impossible—any chosen bounding criteria are arbitrary—it’s not hard to appreciate what it means when, among many examples I could choose, two dozen boys and the same number of girls have cracked 9:00 and 10:30 respectively for 3,200 meters before the end of April in a non-Arcadia Invite year.
Then there’s Hobbs Kessler, the Michigan kid who ran a 3:57.66 mile indoors and notched a sub-8:40 two-mile in March. It’s kids like Kessler, Hunter and Alan Webb that I’m homing in on with this article—kids who are just so fast as teenagers that it’s unreasonable to expect them to really improve their times a whole lot beyond high school. And there may not be a long-term cost in this approach as long as the athlete accepts this and the results remain appealing.
Rather than light up this article with more dazzling examples of needlessly sublime tweets and early teens, I’ll try to illustrate what I’m getting at with a graph, mainly because some mountain runner in northeastern Massachusetts craves them.
The Y-axis represents running proficiency, while the X-axis represents age. The green and blue lines represent the career arcs of two runners who ultimately attain the same, world-class level and stay there. (It’s best to imagine these as “best-fit” lines generated from scatter plots, rather than envision as how anyone’s career actually progresses; the world has yet to see the athlete whose more granular graph doesn’t have troughs to match the peaks on either side.)
The horizontal lines, which I doubt are visible to most readers over 55 or anyone browsing on a phone-like implement, represent slightly but critically different levels of performance. The bottom one is commensurate with times that are unquestionably elite at the open level—good enough to reach national championships, say—while the top one represents someone capable of reaching a World Championship or Olympic final.
The runner represented by the blue line is, or at least used to be, typical of an American distance runner who winds up retiring as a standout among standouts, like Matt Tegenkamp. He might start running cross-country in ninth grade and find himself under 9:00 for 3,200 meters by his junior year. If all goes well, he gets into the 13:20 range for 5,000 meters as a collegian. After four or five more years of (mostly) avoiding injuries and steady, though less dramatic, improvement, he gets close to or maybe even under 13:00. He then may split his efforts between the roads and the track, keeping his career at the same superior level until his mid-thirties.
The runner represented by the green line is more typical of a top-class Tinman-coached runner. He usually starts running and competing before the ninth grade. He may threaten or break 9:00 as a sophomore, even without Dragonflys. With them, he is probably as likely as not to run a sub-four mile in high school. He might not be capable of qualifying for the USATF Open National Championships, but it’s not much of a gap.
Here’s what I’m pondering: Is really anything bad about a kid who “over-trains” his way to 3:55 in high school, considering that, like every human alive, he’s destined to see no real improvement after a 3:45 mile if he gets there at all? Again, unless you accept my premise that kids can do this and not only survive but later thrive for many years as pros, you’ve already slammed the door.
But if you haven’t, consider the benefit of spending a higher fraction of your career, and your life, as a truly world-class runner. It makes for a great story every time some “untalented” kid who runs “only” 4:20 in high school makes an Olympic team, or is still partly beer-bloated upon graduating college, only then making the dramatic jump runners crave. But it also keeps this athlete from having as complete a running career as he might have otherwise—provided, that is, that he’s psychologically capable of handling everything that comes with being a sub-four high-school miler.
Say a kid starts running at 12 or 13 and competes well until he's 33 or 34, with a few typical setbacks but nothing career-limiting. He shows great promise at the end of grade 8 by running 4:30 for the 1,600 meters, and when he retires, he's run a 3:50 mile or its equivalent.
If a coach like Tinman gets this character early, he follows a “green” path in the graph above, perhaps dropping to 3:55 or 13:40 the time he leaves high school; otherwise, he follows a “blue” road to the same eventual level, with high school times more like 4:05 and 14:40.
In the case of a highly motivated competitor, does it really make sense at any time to intentionally slow down his closing the gap between his current running level and his ultimate ceiling? Look how much more of his career Mr. Green spends above both the national-class and world-class levels than Mr. Blue does by “not wasting good time.”
The younger you are when properly maxed out, the longer you can theoretically hold it before age inevitably wears you down. Looking at the sheer number of Africans who have had great careers at both the junior and open levels (and I’m confident that not every single really fast African junior is an age-cheat). Paula Radcliffe was great as a teenager. Again, like I said, I’m done listing examples, as the art of selecting massive outliers and saying, “Everyone should imitate these fellas!” quickly grows precarious
I asked some experts about this, and after not getting the answers I liked, I found some other experts who, while not exactly in agreement, didn’t put up much of a fight. In the end, this convinced me of my own brilliance, which generosity alone compels me to share with the groveling rabble. None of the preceding sentences in this paragraph are true, but it’s how some of my “colleagues” operate, and I don’t want to be that one guy who breaks ranks and upsets anyone.
Alan Webb is sometimes treated as an example of someone who didn’t fulfill his ultimate promise. He didn’t turn out to be much of a tactician, and he may be one of those types I hinted at above who was not entirely impervious to the pressures of high expectations. But anyone who runs 3:53 in high school and still takes off almost seven seconds is hardly a failure, and Webb had a number of other fine moments as a pro.
This gives me an excuse to highlight the progression of a ninth-grader in Massachusetts named Marcus Reilly. He’s the son of a couple of 1990s Providence College standouts who has been competing since the fifth grade and winning age-group championships since the seventh grade. As an eighth-grader in the forgotten winter of 2020, he ran a 2:27.56 1,000 meters. In November, he broke the world one-mile record for 14-year-olds with a 4:12.77. A week ago, he ran 1:53.35 for the 800 meters.
I obviously have no idea where this lad is headed. But his mom coaches at her alma mater, and there is absolutely nothing about the entire situation that signifies anything besides a kid with his head on his shoulders and a love of competition. It is very easy to contrast this with any number of scenarios that exude palpable clouds of dysfunction to observers who’ve been around long enough to spot red flags. That’s two stupid metaphors in one sentence, a special gift to subscribers and anyone who reads to the end of my articles.
I titled this “The Tinman effect” because Schwarz is strongly associated with a number of extraordinary high-school boys, but regardless of the extent to which Schwarz’s career has influenced other high-school athletes and coaches to aim just as high, it’s a phenomenon much bigger than him. As the years pass, I think we’ll* see a shift away from the “too much too soon idea” as more of the nation’s most gifted kids are matched with people who can properly develop those talents, and, I expect, more of them elect to bypass the NCAA and become pros as soon as their performances are good enough to land them solid contracts.
This might have been more confusing than usual, so one last time: Is there a fundamental drawback to entering the top competitive ranks sooner if it doesn’t mean leaving them sooner? And is the unwritten avoidance of this practice—assuming I’m not imagining the whole thing—based more in unwarranted fears than in demonstrable facts?