By now we all know that running talent only goes so far and that, with hard work, smart training, and a lot of patience, most of us can become pretty darn fast. But no matter how hard we work, our genetic talent does dictate the absolute upper limit of our potential. That upper limit is the best we can possibly be if we perfectly trained and did all the ancillary stuff we should do.
Most of us reading this, even if we had access to the best coaches and training facilities, and did everything right, could never compete with the world’s best runners. Sure, many of us could become very very very good runners, but we could not be among the very best. At that highest level, that’s when talent makes the difference. But what is running talent?
In a quest to find out, I read David Epstein’s The Sports Gene, a riveting, often first-hand, investigation into this question. Epstein travels the world to seek out some of the world’s best athletes to identify what they have that the rest of us don’t. He doesn’t limit his query to runners, but nevertheless his findings are informative.
To fully appreciate the genetics of sports talent though, Epstein looks to the migration of humans from Sub-Saharan Africa out into the rest of the world. He follow genetics experts who travel the globe collecting DNA samples and hunting for specific genes. He follows anthropologists explaining performance in models of human adaptation. In this search across the world, Epstein tries to answer the age old question: are the best athletes born that way or are they like you and me, working their entire lives to make it to the top?
The sports world once thought, laughably, that the best athletes would be found among average people. Over time, we’ve seen that, far from average sizes and shapes dominating, specialization rules. For some sports, the particular special characteristics that dominate are obvious. For example, one out of every six young men in the US that is over seven feet tall plays in the NBA right now. Other specializations are not so obvious. Major League baseball players have eyesight so keen, it approaches the theoretical maximum of human eyeball performance. Sometimes the specialization lies in gene mutations and other times in evolutionary adaptations to climate or circumstance.
Which brings us to running. East Africans, mainly from Kenya and Ethiopia, now dominate distance running, but is that merely genetics or a combination of climate, terrain, culture and genetics? If we look at world class runners from other parts of the world, they share similar traits with East African running stars: small and slight in stature with relatively long legs. Does that mean if you have short legs, are larger than tiny, or otherwise don’t “look like a runner” that you’ll never get anywhere in the sport?
The Sports Gene did not answer the very pressing question of why it is that a 5’ 8” Brit and not a 4’ 10” Kenyan holds the women’s marathon record. That Brit, Paula Radcliffe, who is relatively very tall and lanky and not at all like a tiny Kenyan, holds the world record in the marathon by a lot. She proves that “runner genes” are unnecessary, or that she has some other genetic attribute allowing her to overcome her large stature, or that she found a way to train or enhance her performance such that she was able to run her 2:15 marathon.
But Paula’s world record despite her height is not the best example for why you, who may not be tiny or East African or have long legs, have potential to run far faster than you think. For this let’s go back to the Sports Gene, where Epstein tells us about dogs. Yes, dogs. He went to Alaska to learn about the dogs who pull the winning Iditarod sleds around 350 miles through some of the harshest winter conditions on the planet. Curiously, it is not the fastest dogs that pull the winning sled. Instead, the winners are always the dogs that are bred to love running so much that they would run a hole through the Earth just because.
What do you think? Can enthusiasm overcome a lack of genetic talent?