Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Question: Who is New Zealands BEST trail runner?
Answer: I don't know.

This is far easier to speculate then it is to prove and chances are you probably have the correct answer already.  It's probably something like Phil Costley, Sam Wreford, Jono' Wyatt or possibly another ultra fit club runner yet to destroy their road shoes with muck and mud.  So immediately we see a problem with the measure.

Next problem is actually the question itself.  If you create a massive computer to calculate the answer, and it's 42, but it's unclear exactly what the question is, you're going to have a bad time.  Some might say 'a world of problems'.

But what's the question?

The best trail runner?  Over what distance?  What terrain?  What is 'best'?  Is it the person that's raced the most?   The person that has had the most wins?  Beaten the most people?
I didn't define the question until I had gotten some way toward an answer.  I looked at the results having spent countless hours on calculations, I had a think about what I had created and came up with this:

In recent years, who are NZs fastest trail runners?

I now had what I felt were fair results for that question and since that is what you're here for, I'll give you them now:

1 Vajin Armstrong
1 Ruby Muir
2 Martin Lukes
2 Victoria Beck
3 Sjors Corporaal
3 Fleur Pawsey
4 Grant Guise
4 Deb Nicholl
5 Kerry Suter
5 Vanessa Haverd
6 Daniel Clendon
6 Sarah Coghlan
7 Jacob Roberts
7 Michelle Hyland
8 Chris Morrissey
8 Annika Smail
9 Tane Cambridge
9 Piret Klade
10 Graeme Taylor
10 Jean Beaumont
11 Nick Hirschfeld
11 Klaartje VanSchie
12 Thomas Reynolds
12 Helen Gillespie
13 James Kuegler
13 Jane Harper
14 Bryn Davies
14 Lesley Turner Hall

There follows a lot of words explaining the data and how it was constructed.  If you're reading this and you haven't closed your browser calling 'bullshit' stay tuned while I go on to explain how this all came about.

Before we start mining into the data I would at this point like to draw your attention to a similar piece of work that has already been undertaken this year by south island trail runner and statistician, Matt Bixley.  If you're not familiar with that extensive piece of work it included a massive amount or races and basically boiled down to a head-to-head 'battle royal' comparison.  If you beat someone, you are better than that person.  Seems simple enough.  But is it?
Remember that awesome 80's movie The Highlander?  Matt's result was basically that, only the movie had a start and a finish whereas this ranking system was a 'who has the most heads in a bag when the music stops'.  The winner, by the way, was Chris Morrissey.  And "fair enough!" many would say.  Chris is a VERY accomplished trail runner.
But wait on, I've beaten him.  Like 5:2 or something.  Surely I.... bah, who cares.
It was a very informative piece of work and if you want to know who might win in a trail 'fight to the death' I suggest you go seek that list out.  Matt is a spectacular cruncher of numbers and the answer he arrived at is almost certainly more correct than anyone else could ascertain given the same raw data to work off.  My problem was with his question:  If all trial runners had swords, something something, there can be only one!!

It didn't give me the result I wanted to see because it was an answer to a different question.  Lets just say we have 2 different results for 2 different things.

More about my question.

In recent years, who are NZs fastest trail runners?
Recent is 3.  I started looking at results and initially I had hoped to factor into the rankings the proximity that people have run to course records but a number of problems arose as I started to do this.

  • Courses change.  Sometimes they move the start, sometimes they detour a section, often the track is just upgraded.  Or perhaps one year was a chaos weather bomb.
  • Freaks ruin it for everyone.  If someone ran the course 20% faster 10 years ago it becomes a difficult and inaccurate yard stick to measure this years athletes off.
'Fastest' is a word that also requires some clarification and I probably don't have the space here to paste the calculations I required to define this.  Suffice to say it was as uncomplicated as I could make it.  As with most things the answers are generally staring you right in the face and overcomplicating things is likely only going to confuse you and send you down the wrong path entirely.


I knew what I was looking for so I only needed a defined amount of data to work off.  If I was compiling a collection of the coolest classic cars I wouldn't buy every single classic car ever made the get to work ranking them.  I would start with the DB7, the E-Type Jag, the Shelby-500. I'd go to the auction houses and get the 50-odd coolest classic cars and get to ranking them.
N.B, I wouldn't be sending them down a drag strip to work out in a one-on-one which one is better.  That would be the job for another car magazine to do.
In addition, I would build in a factor to ensure the E-type's reputation wasn't completely ruined because Margret Thatcher once sat in one.

For this reason I needed less than 20 trail races spanning the country to get a good representation for trial runners.  Generally these are the most hotly contested races, the ones with the biggest fields and the best runners.  I tried where possible to keep them evenly distributed geographically to ensure all regions were well represented.

To be considered eligible as a 'trail runner' you needed to have run a certain number of races.  Unfortunately for some of the fastest men and women in the country this meant they did not feature in the results.  I had a lot of problems with this to be honest.  Someone like Phil Costley who is probably NZs fastest trail runner isn't included because in 3 years of racing he has only completed 2 local races.  There are other runners that don't show up for very similar reasons and my only hope is that they will front up to an important race and give us all a hiding.  To be clear, I don't for a moment think myself slower than only 4 other men in NZ.  There isn't enough rows in my spreadsheet to rank myself against all the truly talented runners lurking in harrier clubrooms or in the bushes around Galatea.
If they haven't raced at one of NZ's more prestigious trail races they just wont show up on this ranking list.  No more need be said of this though it's likely much more will.

Scientific Method:

My university years are some way in my past but I do remember a few things.  Something like this:

Before I started working on this I had a theory that the top ten men in the country would probably go along the lines of Vajin, Marty and Sjors somewhere near the top, myself somewhere in the midfield with GG, while Chris, James and Nick rounded out the top 10.  So I wasn't terribly surprised to arrive at the results I did.  I believe that if you rounded up all those guys (in, or near their top form for the last 3 years) and set them off on an average trail run (like Kauri), you will get the result I have provided above.  Remember this list is a factor of 'fastest performances in the last 3 years'.  Runners at their recent best having a good day.

Write her a list, bitches love lists.

As I have mentioned I more or less got what I expected but that doesn't mean I'm right.  Ruby Muir is good. She is very very good.  Is she the fastest?  Probably.  But somethings aren't quite right with the women's list.  In most part to the fact that fewer women race and the don't travel as far to do so.  Not only dem bitches be crazy but it appears dem bitches be lazy.  After hours and hours of working through the data I found that I even had to account for this problem in my final calculations.  So the women have been worked out slightly differently than the men folk and not being as well versed on the fairer sex I can't say with certainty how accurate those results look to those in the know.  Lesley TH should probably be significantly higher up the order than she currently is having smashed almost everything all year though for her it seems she's peppered the wrong race calender.  A real shame because her real potential isn't at all measured well here.  The clear fix for this is the future.

The Future! (where's my freakin' hoverboard?!?)

Because the scope of this has been restricted it will be easy for me to maintain.  Given I have a fair cover of the better/biggest races in NZ the accuracy of these results will only get better with time as runners like LTH and Coughbroughurgh accidentally enter something of significance and do the damage they're capable of.

In Closing

It's not perfect.  I know that.  It's not even close to perfect.  It is however a pretty good answer to the question I posed as I understood it.  Plenty of room for debate.  I welcome it.  If you believe me miles off I encourage you to take to your MS Excel (or OpenOffice Calc) and get to spreadsheeting!


  1. There will never be a perfect answer to come from this imperfect dataset.

    Do you include someone like Richard Ussher - who crushes mortals in trail running sections of adventure races?

    What about Daniel Jones? He turns up for a few weeks a year (in the school holidays from Kentucky) wins everything by a Kenyan-margin and disappears back to the States again.

    And then there's Anna Frost. Is she the best female trail ultra. runner in the world right now?

    Matt, after Tarawera and Northburn are done, lets BLUP the shit out of this.

    Cheers, PC

  2. Agree PC. MK-II of this is already in the pipes. This is a great starting point but an imperfect solution to a very complicated problem. I'm looking for the best runner in NZ and not the best NZ runner otherwise I will need to factor in international races just to include those elites overseas. If Frosty or Jono were to race in NZ they'd certainly feature in the results MK-II. I'd need to explore the Dan Jones problem a little. He raced a lot 4 years ago then very sporadically after so I'm not sure he has been captured by this. One of the requirements for qualification in the list is to have run a certain number of races. I think this is fair enough, to call yourself a trail runner I don't think having done 1 trail race is qualification enough. I wouldn't call myself a wine conisour havin drunt jus dis 1 bobble...