Author extraordinaire and self-described "running junkie" Malcolm Gladwell has taken some interesting perspectives on sports in his time, such as comparing football to dogfighting and defending the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Those ideas, among others, have sparked plenty of conversation in his bestselling books and in The New Yorker, but they remain relatively unproven, supported by anecdote but sparse on hard stats. Now, though, we can put those ideas to the test, using Gladwell as an example himself.
This Sunday, Gladwell raced in New York's Fifth Avenue Mile run, finishing in a time of 5:03. That's a sterling pace for a 50 year old, one that fits him 11th among the 164 racers in the 50-54 age group, good for the best 10% of his age group. But we can't really understand Gladwell's time unless we understand how he himself would interpret it. Below, an analysis of Gladwell the runner by Gladwell the thinker.
10,000 Hour Rule
As one of Gladwell's most well-known ideas, the 10,000 hour rule from Outliers argues that any expert spent about 10,000 hours of practice on their skill in their path to success. That theory has its detractors, though, so take it with a grain of salt.
The codified idea of practice-makes-perfect finds some support in Gladwell's long history of running. He competed in races in his Canadian youth, and even had a running rivalry with future Canadian champion Dave Reid, hilariously documented in the picture at right. He ran competitively until the early years of college, and since then, "I’ve been running for the last 20 years at a very low level. Two or three times a week. Now I’m running more," he said in an interview with Runner's World last month. He later added that those runs venture about six miles, so at that pace he'd run just a bit over a half-hour.
So let's calculate his total practice time in hours: about a half-hour per run, times 2.5 times running a week, times 52 weeks a year, times 20 years. That comes out to about 1,300 hours. And that doesn't include his recent increase in running, nor his time in middle, high school, and college. So we'll venture to say his total time running is a few times that, probably in the 4,000 hour range.
That's not enough time to become an expert, certainly. But it does seem like enough man-hours to run a 5:03 mile. If he keeps practicing and puts those hours in, Gladwell could get under 5-minutes, a pace that would make the 10,000 hour rule seem even more credible. If a 50-year-old man can get to that time with practice, what can't humans do at 10,000 hours?
Did Gladwell use performance enhancing drugs to get back to running after an injury in college? Probably not. But if he had, Gladwell the thinker probably wouldn't judge Gladwell the runner too harshlt. Gladwell has made several comments supporting doping to recover from injuries. "That’s the part of doping that I find the hardest to think through, injury recovery," he told Runner's World. "If I got carpal tunnel and couldn’t type, would I take a drug so I could get better sooner? Totally." That would essentially excuse a runner who dopes in order to enhance his running time. No, that doesn't tug at our Chariots of Fire heartstrings. But Gladwell has a point.
At the base of every Gladwell article is his attempt to idea-ize everything that happens, to put it all in the context of a larger point. And with running, Gladwell does just that, particularly in his Runner's World interview, marveling at the idea of running in general. "It seems to me so implausible that a human being can run at a relatively swift pace for a long period of time. I remember as a kid finding that so fascinating." And that fascination has led to a staff position at The New Yorker. So there.
The most curious thing to be learned, though? That Gladwell stretches the truth a bit. "I never race anymore," he told Runner's World. "I know every time I say this at workouts, people are sort of like, 'What? You don’t ever race?' I never race." Actually, Gladwell does race. He races pretty well, in fact.
(Old running photo via gladwell.typepad.com)