Runners Book Club: Range (and a discussion about Grit)

There are a lot of similarities between running books. For instance, the majority of the running books I’ve read have started in the midst of a grueling race, some mountain trek, or a long distance sufferfest, before doing the literary equivalent of spiking the camera and saying “I bet you’re wondering how I found myself here,” and flipping back through time to track the author’s running journey to that transcendent point of pain. I have enjoyed plenty of books which follow this style, and I don’t hate it by any stretch of the imagination, but I needed a change. This is how I ended up reading Range by David Epstein.

Tiger Tale. 

The title of Range is self explanatory. Author David Epstein is here to deliver an entertaining and detailed thesis on how generalists are criminally underrated when compared to the rejoiced specialist, with a series of well written tales from across an appropriately wide range of fields. 

His first case compares the tale of Tiger Woods to that of Roger Federer, teeing it up with them meeting for the first time in 2006, when they were both at their peak. 

Tiger Woods took to golf from a young age, showed enormous promise, and relentlessly practised with the help of his father until he became the number one sportsman in the world. It is a story which paints a simple picture – practise makes perfect. Focus makes perfect. Determination makes perfect. Do these things from a young age and you can be the best. Encourage your child to do these things and they can be the best. 

Or, Epstein suggests, perhaps not. Roger Federer, who at his prime was also arguably the number one sportsman in the world (and who has enjoyed an incredibly long time at the top of his game) was in fact shown the path away from tennis by his parents. As a child he played and practiced many sports, until eventually, even to the reluctance of his mother and father, he fell into his niche. To add to this point in a runner-specific way, Norway’s track dominating Ingebrigsten brothers (coached by their father) also played and competed at a number of sports in their youth before moving on to the top level of the athletics world. 

Epstein develops this thought, and posits that hyper-specialists like Tiger Woods only really thrive in equally specific environments – those which can be labelled Kind. These are environments where the rules of the game are clear for all to see, where consequences, outcomes, and performances can be measured and practiced with specificity. Outside of these Kind environments is where generalists shine. In these so-called Wicked environments, where the rules are never so clear, where outcomes can be influenced by any number of unforeseen factors, it is those who have a wide range of experiences, and a willingness to go beyond the realms of their speciality, survive and thrive. 

Grittiness.

Forcing a young athlete to abandon football, swimming, or tennis, in favour of athletics, even if they have a clear genetic predilection for endurance, is foolish. The Tiger Woods School of Training is not going to work out for most people, and in any case the story goes that it was Tiger, rather than his father, who chose to focus so heavily on golf. If it had been the other way around, as I imagine it often is with parents trying to live vicariously through their children, it probably wouldn’t have worked out.

I think we know that though. A parent forces a child into a specialism, the child develops an amazing talent, and then gives it up as soon as the parent has to relinquish their control to their child’s maturity. 

Beyond that I think there is something even more interesting to think about, and that is the concept of grittiness. It is something we all crave as runners; a fire, a nastiness, a brutal instinct which means you never miss a training session, never fail to finish a race, never give in, never, never, never. 

That last bit is a Winston Churchill quote, and as Epstein points out it is usually only quoted as such, without the ending:

‘…except to convictions of honour and good sense.’ 

In life, but particularly in running, we can be guilty of giving in to the sunk cost fallacy – the thought that after committing so much time, effort, or money to something, it would be foolish to pack that thing in before seeing it to the finish line, without giving any thought to how much more it might cost you to get there or, if giving up and moving on is actually ‘good sense.’ 

This is obviously a thin line. There is an element of grittiness necessary to running. However, becoming a really good runner is a long term commitment. Ending a training session early, choosing not to race, having an extra rest day, those aren’t the things that you would naturally associate with being a good athlete, but from all those running books that I’ve read I know for sure that is not the attitude of many excellent Kenyan runners, for instance. If the session isn’t working they drop it, rest, and nail the next one.

Dropping out of a workout might be physically easier, but it can mentally hard for us to self-justify, even if we hardly ever do it. The problem as I see it comes from our culture, where we have been conditioned to revere Godly Athletes: ultimate warriors who sacrifice everything to be at the top of their game, who practise, practise, practise, who never give in, never, never, never. It is entertaining to these athletes in action, in an Olympic final for instance, or to peak behind the curtain when watching something like The Last Dance, but it is harmful to try and replicate the mythos of these athletes in our own training, as how often do we hear about their off days? Do they not have off days? Do they trully never, absolutely never, give in?

The Last Dance answers that question for us. Michael Jordan might have had that mythical grittiness, but did Dennis Rodman? Fair to say he was also pretty good, I would be thrilled to be the Dennis Rodman of running (if anyone has a suggestion for who is the Dennis Rodman of running please tell me) but he also definitely did not hit every session on his plan. Also, was Michael Jordan good because he never missed practise? Or was Michael Jordan just really damn good at basketball? Could he have missed one, two, three sessions? Could he have missed a whole season to play baseball, come back, and still be the best?

What I’m saying is, you can miss a session. You can, when it makes good sense, give in. You might not feel good about it, but you can. You can have a spell where you’re more interested in 5-a-side than you are in racing 5ks, if that’s what feels right to you. All we have to do is make the decisions which keep us in the game at large, the decisions which keep us happy, motivated and, most importantly, healthy. A fit runner beats an injured one every time. A runner who runs will always beat the one who stops running because it gets boring, or painful, or obsessive. Sometimes we have to make decisions which won’t be particularly inspiring in the biographies of our lives, which might not be retold in the annuls of our sporting history, but if they’re the right ones then it doesn’t really matter. The inspiring stories will come in time. 

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