I’m a runner. Not a professional runner, but one whose dedication to the sport means that I am training for a marathon, putting in 10 hours a week toward what has become an unpaid part-time job.
I should be good at this by now. Popular research tells me that if I put in 10,000 hours or 10 years of training, I can become a master at anything. I have been running since 2006 and, for the last 14 weeks, have pushed myself through hill work, 800-meter repeats, core workouts and double-digit long runs in preparation for the upcoming New York City Marathon. Still, I’m not anywhere close to becoming a master. I’m not even close to qualifying for the Boston Marathon and will, most likely, be beat by at least 25,000 of the more than 50,000 runners competing on Sunday.
Whether it’s being born into a short and stocky frame, the unique makeup of my muscle fibers, or just not having a high tolerance for pain, I was not born into a body that was meant for distance running at any sort of speed.
That’s not just an excuse, either, according to a recent study out of Grand Valley State University. There, researchers looked at three different groups of athletes: 15 Olympic champions in the 100- to 200-meter races; the fastest 20 male sprinters of all time; and individual sprint qualifiers for the 2012 NCAA national champions. Within each group, they found that the runners were all fast before they really started formal training. Out of the 15 runners in the Olympic champion group, 10 of those sprinters had not participated in organized sports of any kind before they were recognized for their talents.
“One of the assumptions” of the 10,000 hour practice model “is that everybody starts out on an even plane and that there are no individuals who are gifted,” said Michael P. Lombardo, the lead author of the study and a professor of biology at Grand Valley State. “From my perspective as biologist, that completely denies everything we know about the interaction between genetics and environment.”
To put it another way, he says, look at height. “A small proportion of the population will be very short. A small proportion of the population will be very tall. Everybody else will be in the middle somewhere.” The same idea can be applied to things like visual acuity, finger dexterity, the ability to memorize long lists and, yes, the ability to run very, very fast.
Most people, like myself, fall somewhere in the middle (the median marathon finishing time for women in 2013 was 4 hours, 41 minutes, 38 seconds, according to Running USA.) My fastest marathon time, run in 2013, was 4 hours, 19 minutes, 7 seconds. While things like hill repeats and tempo runs can make me faster, there is no amount of work that will make me an Olympian. The best I can do is find the peak of my own ability.
When Brendan Cournane, a Chicago-based running coach, ran his first Chicago Marathon in 1985, he finished in just under five hours. Ten years later, he knocked his time down to 3 hours and 18 minutes in the same race.
“It was through training and dedication and natural ability from my ancestors,” he said. After that, though? Despite that surge, he’s only been able to shave another two minutes off his time since. When he was running most in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he had to face facts: “I realized that I was probably not going to be able to break three hours in the marathon,” he said, citing the same things that brought him down to that 3 hour, 16 minute mark: genetics, age and life circumstances that keep him from running 80 miles a week.
“It’s more nature versus nurture, but within limits,” he said. “All of us are blessed with a certain amount of fast twitch and slow twitch muscles. If you are a slow twitch person, you can do some drills to train and get faster but you’re never going to be an Olympian.”
When head coach Ben Rosario recruits athletes for Northern Arizona Elite, his team of running professionals, he thinks about these things, too. Specifically how far nurture has already taken someone with extraordinary natural talents.
“The PC answer is to say well, they have to be motivated and all those sorts of things, but they have to be talented. We all have physical capabilities,” he says. He will consider factors like previous performances, but “I have to judge what I think their high-end potential is physically.”
Within that small range, he sees athletes who have already maxed out, especially those who have run for the best NCAA teams in the country where they “get to go to all the best meets and they get to train with all these amazing athletes and they get to go to Stanford and run in perfect conditions at night in a straight line.” If they are still ranked the fourth to eighth person on that team, he is less likely to recruit them because they are already close to their potential. There is not much more he can do for them versus someone who was good but at a smaller program, and is already that fast and has a higher ceiling to reach.
Figuring out what that ceiling is, though, isn’t easy, especially for an amateur. I have a job, a dog, family, friends. How much time and effort am I going to dedicate to training and how much to living a rich, full life? I want to keep eating cheese and keep drinking beer without thinking that it will wreck my race weight. Especially the cheese.
But there is always a chance that this time, another gear will kick in and I’ll get another five, 10, 15 minutes faster, as I did when I ran the New Jersey Marathon in 2013, cutting 16 minutes off my personal record. I don’t know if I can top that performance, but I will continue to charge up hills and run endless laps around my high school’s track, because even if I’m not trying to hit my ceiling anymore, I can at least try to brush it.
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Rachel C. , PhD
Research Scientist Consultant @ U-VIB
PhD, Doctor of Philosophy in Counseling
NREMT-P (National Registry of Paramedics)
– 911 Medic for over 15 years
– Scientist for over 7 years
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source: WELL by Jen A. Miller