No Pain, No Gain

Here is how Malcolm Gladwell defines “slack” in his latest New Yorker (7/30/12) essay: Slack--the gap between what is possible, under conditions of absolute effort, and actual performance--is unavoidable. We all want to try our hardest, every time. But we can’t.”

As an example he compares his experience as a high school runner with that of the early nineteen-eighties distance runner Alberto Salazar. Gladwell gave up competitive running when his fear of what it takes to be among the best grew too overwhelming.

By contrast, Salazar who not only faced the same fear, but almost died from all-out running on two occasions concluded just the opposite.

In his memoir l4 Minutes Salazar writes that he felt “exhilarated” even after doctors thought he was dead after collapsing at the end of the 1978 Falmouth Road Race, “one of the premier road races in the world,” as his temperature reached 107 and was rising.

“My thrill ran deeper; I had learned something from death. I had learned, through the agency of my lifelong prayer, that I wasn’t afraid of death. I realized that this made me different from the people walking by me in the street. More important…it made me different from other runners.”

Gladwell claims that between 17 and 24 Salazar ran on average 105 miles a week (that’s 15 miles every day, through winter storms and blistering hot and humid summers), missing just eleven days of running in that seven-year period. I imagine he wasn’t just running, but running hard during each one of those miles.

Did it take its toll? Yes, according to Gladwell, who claims most “elite distance runners can maintain their form into their early thirties. Salazar stopped competitive racing in his mid-twenties.”

Was that because he pushed himself beyond his limits? While it is surely associated with the way he ran, the only way he could run and win, it is impossible to know if that was the reason he reached his peak comparatively early.

Consider an alternative: Most great distance runners run gracefully, without any apparent effort, almost naturally, like a cheetah racing across the African savannah. In contrast, Salazar “shuffled like an old man,” struggling with everything he had to keep running at full speed.

While Salazar obviously had enormous desire and great talent, it was always accompanied by pain. “The pain of running is like the pain of drowning,” he said. “A kind of weariness sets in and you lose the will to fight. What I could do is simply push myself through that exhaustion.”

Is that kind of pain necessary to be a champion runner? Is it necessary to be superior in any sport or human endeavor? Clearly not. I have no answer to how necessary it is for an elite distance runner.

But I do know that most long-distance runners have said they reach a point during a marathon where they believe they can’t go on any longer, but if they do, they will usually push through that state, get their “second wind” and resume running as before.

Salazar believes his acceptance of pain can be attributed to his father’s deep faith in Catholicism and the demands he placed on Salazar to keep going no matter how painful or exhausted he was. “A Salazar never quits.”