Kenyan Runners and Creative Outliers

Sunday Letter | #335

I recently finished Alex Hutchinson’s Endure, a pop-science book spined along attempts in 2016 to break the two-hour marathon barrier. To give you an idea of how pop-science it is, the jacket has an adornment (I’m sure there’s some cover-design term for this) that’s styled to look like a Pulitzer sticker … but is actually a blurb from Malcolm Gladwell. Sneaky.

Anyway. This bit, about the pacing patterns of world records at one-mile, 5K, and 10K races, reminded me of my first high school cross-country race:

After a quick start, the record breakers would settle into a steady pace until the final stages of the race. Then, even though they were running faster than they’d ever run before, and their oxygen-starved muscles were presumably awash in a sea of fatigue-inducing metabolites, they accelerated.

Endure has much to do with bodily intelligence, with the way we can unconsciously read our bodies’ signals and pace ourselves in a long race, or Antarctic trek. (If you’re interested in this subject, I also recommend my pal Drake’s excellent volume, Perception).

Hutchinson spends the entire book poking, in the context of endurance sports, at the idea that our bodies are machines with set inputs, outputs, and breaking points. He talks about placebo and belief in overriding what only seem to be limits, and comes back to “pacing” toward the end of the book with this anecdote about Canadian marathoner Reid Coolsaet, who regularly trained with East African runners in Kenya:

Even in training sessions, with nothing but pride on the line, [Coolsaet] noticed that Kenyan and Western runners had markedly different mentalities. The Kenyan up-and-comers would simply run with the leaders – often international champions – for as long as possible, then drop out or start jogging when they could no longer keep up. Coolsaet and other foreigners, meanwhile, would maintain a steady but sustainable pace. At one point, he took some friends to watch the famous weekly fartlek workout in the hills around the town of Iten. More than two hundred runners streamed past them, raising a cloud of red dust from the dirt roads; about a third of them had dropped out of the workout before the halfway mark.

You know how much I like a comparison of cultural mentalities! Hutchinson goes on:

After hearing enough of these stories, I finally started to consider the obvious question. Given how good the Kenyans are, should I be emulating their racing style rather than laughing at it? If you execute a perfectly paced race, that means you effectively decided within the first few strides how fast you would complete the full distance. There is no opportunity to surprise yourself with an unexpectedly good day: you’ve put a ceiling on your potential achievement from the moment the starting gun fires. As a result, this approach may produce better results on average, but it is less likely to produce dramatic outliers: jaw-droppingly fast (or slow) times.

I read this and thought about the creative risks one takes as an novelist, aka endurance artist(?) I feel as though during this pandemic, I myself been poking at my pre-pandemic writing routines. I’ve been more uneven in terms output, in average number of words. But as far as creative breakthroughs? Outlier books? I’ll offer this: It’s been a fecund time for story ideas.

Some of these ideas will undoubtedly sputter. Maybe one or two will, keeping with our analogy, finish the race. It’s hard to say quite yet. But when I hear anecdotes like the one in Endure, my gut tells me this: I’d much more enjoy running like a Kenyan.