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In Memory of Ken Young

I'm very saddened to hear of the passing of Ken Young, founder of the Association of Road Racing Statisticians. If you're not familiar with Ken or the ARRS, Amby Burfoot's 2016 piece on him in Runners World, The Endless Toil of the Big Data Guy, says everything you need to know. Back in the early days of JRN, Ken was one of several industry people to contact me after I published JRN's first hit article, 397 Under 70 Minutes: The 20th Ageo City Half Marathon. He wanted verification of the results and, seemingly having missed Ageo before, asked me to research its history and past results.

That soon led to me transliterating results from Japanese road, track and cross-country races for him on a weekly basis, results otherwise unavailable to the outside world except for some already covered by Japanese contributors Ken Nakamura and Shigenobu Ota. For the last 10 years I've spent about 10 hours on average every Sunday night and Monday morning, sometimes Tuesday, sometimes Wednesday, processing these results and sending them off to Ken for inclusion in his database and weekly email newsletter The Analytical Distance Runner. This has helped inform my understanding of and shape my thinking about the position and strength, past, present and future, of Japanese distance running, plus having the bonus side benefit of majorly improving my kanji reading, especially the esoterica of Japanese name readings.

Ken contacting me was also perfectly timed for the rise of Yuki Kawauchi and to help me understand exactly what Kawauchi is achieving. Quite a few of Kawauchi's more memorable international races, not least of all last month's freezing cold Marshfield New Year's Day Marathon, were ones I found in the searchable version of the ARRS database and suggested to him. They never would have happened without Ken. In this and other ways I came to rely on Ken's work in my own on an almost daily basis. That all came to an abrupt halt in mid-December when he suddenly went off the grid, as it turned out to have what ultimately proved a fatal brain tumor removed.

We never met in person, but we came to become what I'd like to think were friends. We had our share of arguments over things like his outdated insistence on counting pacers in marathons as having DNFd when doing his competitive rankings and race competitive levels, and what I still feel are flaws in his RTB analysis of races when applied to ekidens and in particular the Hakone Ekiden, but while he never budged he always took a calm and respectful tone.

A few years ago he asked me for help with some personal issues related to his time living in Okinawa while in the military, and I was happy to do what I could. I last heard from him Friday night, when he contacted me again for help wrapping up loose ends in Okinawa. "I'm getting weaker every day," he said. I wrote back right away, but a few hours later he was gone. I don't know if he read my response but i'm going to try to follow through with his last wishes.

Last summer a Japanese athletics colleague who I likewise only know online suddenly disappeared. I was able to get in touch and find out that he or she, probably he but I don't know for sure, had been hospitalized in serious condition. A few months later he/she thankfully returned to action, but their absence made me realize how much I had come to depend on what they did. That's even truer in Ken's case. It's really easy to take things like the ARRS and @soutaro_t, the most essential Japanese athletics feed and one you should all follow if you're on Twitter even if you don't speak Japanese, for granted and to forget that they're the life work of one person who's doing it because it needs to be done and they're the ones who care enough to do it. And that it's all done the second they're gone.

Despite the immense impact of Ken's work on road racing and athletics around the world detailed in Burfoot's article, Ken's idiosyncratic nature and lack of interest in monetizing his work mean that the ARRS database, the world's most comprehensive and accurate, has come to a complete stop with his passing. Over the last year or so he saw the writing on the wall and took steps to start trying to secure funding so that it could continue after he was gone. That kind of funding has yet to materialize, and despite the efforts of some of his colleagues it'll take someone influential stepping up for the database to continue. A large part of human unhappiness stems from our inability to recognize that what we perceive as the way things are is only a still frame in a fluid sequence of motion and change, but given the impact that Ken's ideas and work had on all of us in the running industry, this is one case where someone's work and legacy deserve to live on far beyond them.


CK said…
This is a touching obituary and enhanced for me by the reflections on your own communications and journey.
The value of the non-monetised endeavours of a few handfuls of obsessed athletics statisticians cannot be overstated. Without them the world of athletics would be seriously incomplete and overspeculative.
"It need[ed] to be done and [Ken Young was] the one who care[d] enough to do it." Maybe a succinct epitaph.
Liam Riley said…
Very sad to hear about this. I've been feeding corrections to Ken and the ARRS site for several years. The most recent one will sadly go unread. Ken's unerring dedication, and decision to make the fruits of it freely available, is something that the world will truly miss.

I've used his work every week for several years now in writing Wikipedia articles, using it to build stories about runners and races who never graced the front pages but contributed greatly to the sport and community. Lots of this simply would not be available for people to read about were it not for Ken.

I have a keen interest in keeping his work available, so if you could share updates about that situation that would be great. Ken's work should be celebrated and it would be a shame if the loss of the man led to the loss of his vision.

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