There are scant few occasions when one can use definitive, non-hedging words like always, never and zero-chance.
In assessing Ms Gina Kolata’s recent NY Times piece on how champion-athletes are champions because they are able to push past pain more than most, I can confidently invoke such certainty. Certainty that this notion is utter nonsense. Not possibly, or perhaps, or maybe, just pure and simple nonsense.
Her thesis is a common one: that elite level athletes are fast, not because of their genetic endowment, but rather their extraordinary ethos, a work ethic which allows them to train harder, focus more and push through pain longer than the rest of us. This idea was beautifully illustrated in the old Lance commercial where the voiceover asks (as he rides in the pouring rain), “What am I on?â€¦I am on my bike, busting my ass 6 hours a dayâ€¦What are you on?” As if the ability (or available free-time) to ride that much would morph one into an alpine climbing specialist or Tour de France champion.
Since this thesis is commonly held, there must be compelling evidence.
And Ms Kolata’s evidence isâ€¦drumroll pleaseâ€¦drool. I am serious.
As quoted in her piece, Mary Wittenburg, the president and CEO of NY City Road Runners, said (on the the traits of elite marathoners)
They can keep going at a level of effort that seems impossible to maintain.
â€œMental tenacity â€” and the ability to manage and even thrive on and push through pain â€” is a key segregator between the mortals and immortals in running,â€ Ms. Wittenberg said.
You can see it in the saliva-coated faces of the top runners in the New York marathon, Ms. Wittenberg added.
â€œWe have towels at marathon finish to wipe away the spit on the winnersâ€™ faces,â€ she said. â€œOur creative team sometimes has to airbrush it off race photos that we want to use for ad campaigns.â€
|Perhaps some drool there?
So the proof that mental fortitude is the key to elite-level athleticism is that champion marathoners often require airbrushing of their photos because of saliva-coated faces. They press themselves to the drooling point.
And this nonsensical reasoning is reinforced by Ms Kolata’s coach, Tom Fleming, a former elite runner himself, who says that he knows the reason he was so fast: that his mentality was “I will do whatever it takes to winâ€¦I was willing to have the worst pain.”
Hmm. What if my mentality willed me to dunk a basketball, or bunny-hop barriers?
Ms Kolata is fit and trim, and a fantastic writer to boot, but undoubtedly, if she enters a few more running races, or races her bike in local cyclocross races, or visits a middle-school cross-country meet, she will see that the ability to push oneself to drooling has nothing to do with performing at an elite level. Elite athletes have in no way cornered the market on exhaustive drooling.
Sure, all of us can improve on our best performances. The formula is so simple: do longer efforts to build an aerobic engine; do sustained efforts at threshold to improve lactate tolerance; do repeated brief efforts of maximal power to foster anaerobic power. Never do all of these in one session. Rest bunches in between, eat well, sleep well and don’t worry too much about success. Do all this and you will get fasterâ€”but know, there our limits, and for most they are way closer than the sky.
Mental focus and a strong constitution may separate elite athletes from themselves, but what separates elite athletes from us regulars is not in our heads, rather it is in our lungs, hearts, legs and A-T/C-G base pairs.
1:22 half-marathoners can no more will ourselves to 1:08 half-marathoners any more than offensive lineman can will themselves to quarterbacks, or bloggers to best-selling fiction writers.
Go as fast as you can. Feel it, savor it, love it. It’s life. It’s good, whatever your speed.