Here’s a dumb thing you hear pretty often: “he’s got so much talent – if only he used it!” That same idea has many, equally misconceived, manifestations. Like the idea that some people lack talent but make up for it with hard work. I guess we have Descartes to thank for the dualistic thinking that continues to generate faulty notions about what happens with endurance athletes.
In case you missed my attempts last year to comb through the phenomenology of long distance running, don’t worry, I intend to keep beating that horse at least through August 2010. That’s when I’ll once again throw myself to the wolves that gather in eager anticipation of my imminent breakdown in the last 30 miles of a 100 mile race. This time my target is set on the Burning River 100, the site of this year’s national championship. Unlike the athletes of other sporting contests, ultrarunners cannot pretend to be uplifted by their events. We are routinely humbled and in fact (and ironically), have to embrace our own powerlessness to ever perform very well.
OK, let’s take this one sacred cow at a time. Untapped talent. Huh? So where is the talent stored? You want to say “the legs,” don’t you? But that’s just a metaphor for the body, right? And you want to say that the talent is tapped by the mind, don’t you? And where is the mind? Oh, it’s just sort of floating between the synapses, I guess, of the body. Yes, I’m making fun of the position that says mind and body are separate. And really, is it tenable? We line up and run a race to see what we can do. If someone does more poorly than expected, we are tempted to attribute that to poor mental performance. Conversely, if someone does better than expected, we might talk a strong mental performance – as in, how much they seemed to want it. Is this a good way to look at things? Is it true?
Have you heard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve greatness? Based on a study of violinists at Berlin’s academy of music, those who practiced more were better. And those who practiced 10,000 hours were great! Before you start plugging away at your yet unmet dream of joining the orchestra, though, let’s break down the experimental design. This is a classic case of correlation not proving causation. Yes, the study established that hours practiced correlate to virtuosity. It did NOT prove that practicing causes virtuosity. It might just as well be the case that a third (unmeasured) variable causes violinists to practice more and become virtuosos.
One of my favorite hobbies is to explore new areas for training routes. Part of it is that I like to learn new terrain, and then to share that knowledge with others. Several times this tendency has culminated in a running event (“race”) on a course that I have mapped out. Case in point: I’m set to return to my hometown in Kentucky next month for “Louisville’s Love’n the Hills 50K.” Thankfully others have picked up directing duties and this year’s event is led by Cynthia Heady. I “discovered” Jefferson Memorial Forest, the venue for the event, just south of town when I was beginning my ultrarunning career. (Several ultrarunners in the area had been there for some time before me: Javier Cendejas and Brenda Gutman come to mind.) When I moved to SW Virginia my hobby found plenty of space to expand. The nearby high country has yielded many training loops (see picture) and combined with the trail mecca of Damascus was the inspiration for the Iron Mountain Trail Run.
Runners of these events will, of course, follow well marked (!) tracks. The early stages of exploration, however, can be a messy business. I’ve written previously about some of my forays into the woods. Many ultrarunners can relate to the training run that starts with modest ambitions in a new area and ends, many hours later than expected, having learned much more than we thought we wanted to know! I’m still alive though, and still compelled to try out new routes.
My compulsion to explore is part of what makes me a good ultrarunner. It also makes me put in a lot of hours on the trail. It may seem like I cause myself (?) to go run new routes, thereby put in more hours, and thereby become faster at running trails. I doubt that is a good way to look at it, though. Why can’t my need to explore, and my running proficiency, just be me? If I didn’t have that particular attribute I wouldn’t be as good. Period. The ability to tap your talent, in other words, is your talent. Talent is not somehow separate from your mind – it is your mind. The person who grinds out mile after mile, even if they seem lead-footed compared to their peers, has a good talent – namely the motivation to run! The person who seems quick-footed, but doesn’t put in the miles, lacks an important talent. The violinist who is motivated to play 10,000 hours has a very important talent for becoming a virtuoso. And let’s face it; we are only going to put that kind of work into something that is paying off. Those who don’t see the payoff will stop practicing sooner, and end up with fewer hours practiced.
Maybe another kind of dualism would be helpful here. There are two of “me.” One is the subject writing to you. He thinks, plans, sets goals, and starts races. He decides stuff. He is the one who evaporates like the fog on my sunglasses about 2/3 the way through an ultra. The other of me is the only one left to finish.