Marathon of the Mind

It’s hardly unusual for a college cross country runner to compete in a marathon. But what  made Jarrett Felix’ first marathon different was that he did it while sitting in a classroom.

It was less about Prefontaine and more about pre-calc.

Felix is a nine-time placewinner on relay teams at Centennial Conference track and field championship meets. He earned a bronze medal with the indoor 4x800 team in 2011.

Felix is a nine-time placewinner on relay teams at Centennial Conference track and field championship meets. He earned a bronze medal with the indoor 4×800 team in 2011.

Felix, a two-year co-captain on the Muhlenberg cross country team and a member of the track and field team, “ran” in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition in December. Administered by the Mathematical Association of America every year since 1938, the Putnam is a 12-question, six-hour test generally considered to be the most difficult math exam in the world.

And when the results came in a couple of weeks ago, Felix got some good news: Out of about 4,000 undergrads who took the test in the United States and Canada, he finished in the top third.

“It was a little intimidating because the median score is zero,” he said. (For those not as mathematically inclined, that means that more than half the people who take the test fail to score any points.) “I just wanted to do a little better, and I got a double-digit score.”

The whole process started with Dr. Daniel File, a visiting assistant professor of mathematics, who had taken the Putnam exam as an undergraduate at Ohio State. It had been a while since anyone at Muhlenberg had taken it, so File asked his colleagues for names of people who might be willing to try. Felix, a double major in mathematics and economics, was recommended.

Felix has competed in many races as a Mule, but his only previous foray into competitive mathematics had been with the LVAIC math team – a group of students who compete against other schools in the Lehigh Valley once each fall – the last two years. He did some practice sessions with File, and on “race day,” he sat alone in a classroom in Trumbower Hall for three hours, then took a lunch break before returning for three more hours.

“It’s not a specific type of math on the test – it’s problem-solving questions where you have to use the skills you’ve developed,” he said. “There was some probability, one of my better areas, some set theory, some really complicated uses of calculus.”

This is one of the questions on the exam Felix took, reprinted here with permission of the Mathematical Association of America. Please submit answers in the comments section below - first correct one gets a free yearly subscription to Mule Sports Daily!

This is one of the questions on the exam Felix took, reprinted here with permission of the Mathematical Association of America. Please submit answers in the comments section below – first correct one gets a free yearly subscription to Mule Sports Daily!

The test is divided into two sections, A and B, with six questions apiece. The first question in each is usually the “easiest,” and they get increasingly more difficult after that. There are some questions that no one gets full credit on (each question is worth 10 points, with 10 for a complete solution and one for the beginning of a solution).

“I really focused on A1 and B1, and pretty much spent as much time as I wanted on those to write out the answers as best as I could,” said Felix, an eight-time (soon to be nine-time) member of the Centennial Conference Academic Honor Roll and Phi Beta Kappa inductee. “After that I just picked out ones I thought I might be able to solve. I read all the questions at least to see if I could work them out.”

Jarrett FelixFelix, who plans to pursue a career in actuarial sciences following graduation, hopes that he will be a pacesetter for future Muhlenberg students.

“It was a cool experience,” he said. “I wish I had gotten started a little earlier, because the more I was practicing and the more different types of things I saw, the more confident I got. I really liked it – it was unlike anything I’ve done in the classroom. After taking the actual test, I was mentally exhausted.

“Now that I’ve done this, hopefully others in the department will take the test in the future.”

For more information on the Putnam Competition, please visit this site: http://math.scu.edu/putnam/index.html