Malcolm Gladwell on Alberto Salazar and Pain

When I was 13, in 8th grade, I ran myself to the point of exhaustion for the first time. I was out of shape after a summer of hanging out, but I faced my main rival and I dearly wanted to win on my home cross country course, which finished around a field in front of my school’s football team and a bunch of parents. I held first until a few hundred meters from the end of the race, but then barely finished, collapsing and staying down for quite a while—20 or 30 minutes—before I started throwing up. That race inspired in me a real terror of pain and it ruined me for the rest of the year.

Earlier today, as I was puttering around before leaving for a run, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s article in this week’s New Yorker, “Slackers,” about Alberto Salazar and pain tolerance. (The article is partly based on Salazar’s and John Brant’s recently released book, 14 Minutes. I did a short interview with Salazar about the book for Outside, and I’ve worked with John on a couple occasions.)

Gladwell’s leading anecdote comes from a youth cross country race in which he went to the well and won:

I remember the panic of not being able to get enough air into my lungs. I had done what everyone always says you are supposed to do as a human being. I had given my all. And I realized that what everyone says you should always do was so painful that I never wanted to do it again.

That one race, six weeks into Gladwell’s career, appears to have ruined him as a competitive runner permanently. His idea, teased out from an economic theory about corporate decline (with a mention of Tyler Cowen!) is that really good runners are able to move beyond the fear of pain, and that extraordinary runners embrace pain.

That’s probably true to an extent, but I don’t think Gladwell has the story exactly right. One race at 13 wasn’t the end of my career, and I doubt it needed to be the point of decline in Gladwell’s. Instead, I suspect that what happened to me and to Gladwell—who, notably, was also relatively unfit and young in when he collapsed—wasn’t typical of the pain most distance runners experience.

More broadly, I don’t think Gladwell is describing the pain of elite racing as it is performed by highly trained elite runners. For them, I think, pain is secondary to a greater fear of losing. They develop an ability to disassociate that I didn’t have as a kid. If in 8th grade my experience of running was fully the experience of pain, it was perhaps because it was my first experience of pain.

That changes. Running hard becomes more mechanistic, like redlining a car—how fast can I go before the rev limiter pops and I have to slow down. (I suppose Tim Noakes’s central governor theory might contradict me here, but if I understand Noakes correctly, the brain’s limiting function steps in below the level of cognition, so the pre-absolute-fatigue slowdown he observes would be unconscious.) In other words, sure, good runners deal with pain well, but I’m not sure pain tolerance separates the good from the best. Elite runners race a lot. They get used to it.

If you’re able to read lightly the parts about “slacking,” in “Slacking,” it is a fine piece of writing and a fine piece of writing about running. The pace of the article is notably excellent, even for the New Yorker. And I’m finding that the magazine’s attention to Salazar, which was beginning to strike me as overdone, appears more and more justified the more I read—maybe not justified if you live primarily in the world of running, which has a proper skepticism of many of his ideas—but as a legitimate subject of magazine profiles. He’s interesting. So, recommended.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *