Phillip Rocha Was Right About That Mt. SAC Course Record

Arcadia's Phillip Rocha won the Mt. SAC Division 1/2 Boys Teams Sweepstakes race on Saturday morning, running 14:24 to miss the course record by one second. After the race, he said things that made people on the internet mad. Those people are wrong and bad. Here's what he said:

"Just like Austin [Tamagno] last year [when Tamagno ran 14:23 for the course record], I didn't have any competition, I was leading from the start. If I had competition, I think I would have gotten that record fairly easily. Because that's a soft record… That's really a soft record. I almost did it by myself, so you can kind of extrapolate on that…

When I tell you that the record is soft, it's soft. Ammar almost ran 14:23 with no competition just like I did. You gotta compare. You can't just say "Oh, 14:23, he's the greatest ever," when there are guys who could have done that easily with [better] competition. If Eduardo Herrera was here, if Austin was in my race--he's taking the ACT or SAT--if I had the competition, it would have gone down fairly substantially."

It's hard to argue with what he's saying here! Squint a certain way, and Rocha's comments are, #wellactually, the essence of humility--that holy grail of internet commenters and smarmy social media users everywhere.

Smarm, threats of violence, etc.

1. These grown men commenting on Facebook are wrong. Rocha's not shouting "AUSTIN'S COURSE RECORD IS WEAK AND I COULD EASILY BREAK IT;" he's whispering that he's not good enough to break the course record without some help.Though he used the wrong record as an example--Ammar Moussa's 14:24 came in a race where he only beat Elias Gedyon by two seconds--the larger point stands up. (Correction: Moussa won his race by 20 seconds; Gedyon ran his time in a separate race.) Many of the all-time great Mt. SAC times in the last decade have come in blowout races. Tamagno's 2014 record came in an eight-second win (over Rocha!); Diego Mercado's 2005 14:24 came in a fifteen-second win; Brandon Bethke's 2004 14:30 came in a thirteen-second win; Mark Matusak's and Tim Nelson's 2002 and 2003 14:33 were both five-second wins.

That represents half of the top twelve times run at the invitational since 2000. (I excluded pre-2000 times out of a burning desire to avoid getting in the weeds of the unbearable course length debate) Rocha isn't saying that those dudes' performances are soft. He is saying that they did something that he is not capable of--running to their max without great competition.

An even more obvious point that Rocha didn't make about the relative doughiness of the course record is that hardly anyone not from California has ever raced the invitational! Of course the record is soft--the best athletes from 40+ states have stayed out of Walnut for the last seventy years.

The record is soft.

2. Arguing about stats is an OK thing to do on the internet. Arguing about the right way to enjoy sports and talk about athletes is a much better thing to do on the internet, and Softghazi is a perfect case. Why would anyone want the athletes they root for to be boring brandbots? Which of these scenarios makes caring about a sport more enjoyable?

-Athlete with military haircut misses record, gives post-race interview where he looks at his feet and mumbles about the great respect he has for his competitors.
-Athlete with Trumpian haircut and Westian confidence misses record by one second, then looks dead into the camera and repeatedly calls that record soft.

Again, I think that Rocha's point was actually pretty nuanced. But even if it were as simple as that, sports are richer when athletes unleash their arrogant inner monologues rather than veiling them behind cliches about execution and being blessed. (By the way, this is a pretty good example of why athletes do devolve into cliches--a constant fear that if they say what they're actually thinking, the media will distort their words and make them a target of criticism. I don't think we did that this weekend--the video provides the full context of Rocha's comments--but it's always worth considering.)

And most elite athletes do have that arrogant inner monologue. They're not like you and me; they genuinely believe that they are the best in their fields, no matter what the data says. There's tons of research showing that great athletes externalize failure ("There wasn't enough competition") and lesser ones internalize ("I wasn't good enough") it. This Radiolab episode provides a perfect example of how high-level athletes think differently than the common man does: swimmers who showed a higher capacity for self-deception posted faster times than ones who were more honest with themselves.

When stud athletes go on seemingly delusional rants--when Sydney Segal says that she's one of the most talented athletes that God has ever created--they're betraying the massive confidence that helps make them the best. They're being themselves. Sports are more fun when athletes get to be themselves.

3. You know what else makes sports more fun? Beeves. (The correct plural form of "beef.") Particularly beeves that are documented with subtweets.

"Some people." Twitter fingers have come to high school cross country. What a time to be alive.

This article has been corrected.