Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Are Distance Runners the Smartest Runners?

The 2011 NCAA Capital One Academic All-American Men's Track & Field teams were announced yesterday, and 44 track and field athletes were recognized for their superior academic achievements. According to the official press release, to be eligible for Academic All-America consideration, "a student-athlete must be a varsity starter or key reserve, maintain a cumulative G.P.A. of 3.30 on a scale of 4.00, have reached sophomore athletic and academic standings at his/her current institution and be nominated by his/her sports information director."

When one examines the list of academic over-achievers, one is struck by the skewed distribution by event. This list of 44 NCAA Division 1 Academic All-Americans is dominated by distance runners. As the list below reveals, fully 26 of the 44 members of the men's Academic All-American team are distance runners. On the other extreme, only 4 of the 44 can be categorized as sprinters (three of these 4 are primarily 400 meter hurdlers, and only one -- Darius Law of the University of Charlotte -- specializes in the flat 200/400 sprints). Interestingly, there are also more combined events athletes among the academic stars than one would expect, given their relative numbers on typical track and field squads.

What might explain this result? Does distance running require a degree of discipline above and beyond that required of runners competing at shorter distances? To make this argument, one would assume that the discipline and hard work required to be an NCAA Division 1 distance runner would translate well to the classroom, resulting in good grades. That argument, however, seems to assume that sprinters are somehow less disciplined and hard-working than distance runners, a perverse variation on the theory that sprinters are somehow "born" while distance runners are "made." Following that logic, one would be forced to argue that the "making" of a quality distance runner lends itself more directly to the "making" of an outstanding student.

Of course, perhaps there is no causal chain involved at all. Perhaps some sort of self-selection process is at work. Could it be that already smart high school kids are somehow more inclined -- should they join the track team -- to opt for the distances than for the sprints? After all, the stereotypical body-type of the nerdy high school geek looks embarrassingly similar in the mind's eye to the typical high school freshman on the boy's cross country team. This tongue-in-cheek suggestion surely has no basis in reality, does it?

In any event, here is the list for consideration:


First Team
Philip Adam Rice Decathlon/Throws
Bjorn Barrefors Nebraska Decathlon
Miles Batty Bringham Young Middle Distance
Peter Bolgert Marquette Distance
Tim Burns Loyola (Md) Distance
Nathan Corder Alabama Distance
Chris Derrick Stanford Distance
Ryan Foster Penn State Middle Distance
Elliott Heath Stanford Distance
David Klech Oregon Decathlon/Hurdles
Darius Law Charlotte Sprints/200-400
Chris Lemon Dayton Distance
Lee Ellis Moore Mississippi Sprints/400H-400
Scott Roth Washington Pole Vault
Miles Unterreiner Stanford Distance

Second Team
Eric Bailey Oklahoma Sprints/400H-400
Will Barry Texas A&M Distance
Hillary Bor Iowa State Distance
Matt Carey Rice Distance
Alex Federinko Duquesne Jumps
Nicholas Gordon Nebraska Jumps
Kevin Johnson Massachusetts Distance
Barnabas Kirui Mississippi Distance
Scott Krapf Illinois State Distance
Matthew Lemon Dayton Distance
Nate Polacek Nebraska Pole Vault
Cody Rome US Naval Acad Distance
Jamie Sandys Arizona State Decathlon/Jumps
Jareb Stallbaumer Kansas Jumps
Michael Zajac South Carolina Throws

Third Team
Andy Bayer Indiana Distance
Ed Bonnevie Delaware Distance
Adam Dailey Nebraska Sprints/400H-400
Dominic Devaud Maryland-BC Decathlon
Ben Engelhardt Arizona State Distance
Matthew Gibney Villanova Middle Distance/Distance
Tyler Hitchler Nebraska Throws
Daniel Howell Utah State Distance
Ben Jasinski South Dakota St Jumps
Elliott Krause Wisconsin Distance
David Moore Tennessee-Chatt Distance
Ciaran O'Lionaird Florida State Distance
Marvin Reitze South Carolina Pole Vault
Dan Sloat Rice Middle Distance

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