Friday, June 26, 2009

boiled frogs and lions

James Fallows has his quixotic struggle against the boiled frog cliche. In solidarity, I am now taking arms against the stupid, mendacious, cruel "when the sun comes up, you'd better be running" so-called motivational running quote, not for the first time. My hope was that it would vanish into well-deserved obscurity. Now, in Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run, comfortably placed on the bestseller lists, he attributes it to Roger Bannister. That attribution is creeping into the internets too, for example at the ironically-named factsleuth site.

Here's the quote. "Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle - when the sun comes up, you'd better be running."

I cannot prove Roger Bannister never said it but am entirely convinced that no-one can prove he did say it. Sir Bannister is a scientist, on the evidence of his life and 'The Four-Minute Mile' a careful thoughtful man, who would not knowingly say a false thing. The entirety of this farrago of nonsense is false.

Let me break it down: Gazelles don't wake up in the morning, because they don't sleep at night. Lions don't wake up in the morning, because they hunt at night or early in the morning before sunrise. Lions don't run down their prey, instead stalk it and then pounce, like a domestic cat writ large and terrible. In the morning when the sun comes up, the gazelles may safely graze around the lions, who are probably lounging happily near the carcass of last night's dinner. The time to worry is when the sun goes down, and running won't help you then.

A bravura performance by whoever wrote this, a whole paragraph without a single true fact. I saw it first on a motivational poster in a Fortune 500 company office, its natural habitat. It was doubtless composed by some ignorant cubicle corporate drone in a flop sweat, fabricating motivation for other wage slaves; to sell posters to executives who think talking on the phone and tinkering with spreadsheets qualify as work.

In terms of running quotes, it's a blight and an excrescence. The facts matter. Falsity must be opposed at every level. If you take falsity as your token in small things then how will you resist its blandishments in the large things ? Even on the surface level, perhaps it's just me, but I don't find inspiration in the fear of starving or being eaten. Terror is a fine goad and entirely appropriate to most corporate cultures, but fear is not why I run. If you want inspirational running quotes, Sir Bannister's book is a good place to start. On running as a child: "I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed". Power and beauty: this sounds ridiculous if you don't run, still it is neither more nor less than the truth.
There, I feel better now.

A few notes on Born to Run (whoops, wrong Born to Run, but I think we should acknowledge prior art). Of course I enjoyed the book, it's about running after all so I am bound and determined to interest at the very least. The first few chapters took me aback with their overcaffeinated, Outside magazine neo-gonzo, jaguars-ripped-my-flesh kind of prose. Fortunately it settled down after that, but as a whole it seems a pastiche of magazine articles roughly stitched together. Many of the articles were interesting, though. The standard of research is often poor, as in the misattributed quote that started me off.

Another fact check - a Dr Bramble is interviewed, who says that according to New York marathon times, sixty-four-year-olds are competitive with nineteen-year-olds. This seemed wrong to me. I know my times at sixty-four (when I get old, and losing my hair, many years from now) will be a lot slower than I was running at 19. Checking with the WMA Age-grading calculator, using a 21-minute 5k, that performance at age 19 is roughly equivalent to the same time at... age 35. At age sixty-four, that performance is roughly equivalent to a 17-minute 5k by a nineteen-year-old. The same proportions apply to marathon times. Thirty-five seems a bit young as well so the truth may yet be somewhere else: still it shows not much effort going into finding facts. The WMA calculator uses world age group records as one of its inputs. Looking at the NY Marathon results for 2009, Dr. Bramble's numbers are confirmed: top 3 for 19 and under have times 2:55 to 3:09, top 3 for 60-64 are 2:58 to 3:04. Looking at world age group records, 19 is 2:10, 64 is 2:42. That rather makes a nonsense of the NY marathon times, and the whole contention that sixty-year-olds can compete with the young guns.

Another age-based calculator that uses world bests only, can be found here.
The study on which it is based finds "the estimates show linear percent decline between age 35 and about age 70." That only addresses the aging side of the equation though. Also, I'd contend that using world bests only has an inherent bias. Most runners reach a personal peak after five to ten years of consistent training, and it's very rare that this peak can be sustained for more than a few years. Look at the list of world bests for the marathon, linked above: there aren't many names that appear more than once, those that do are not far apart in time.

The WMA calculator also uses age-grading factors from the Masters Track website, motto: "older, slower, lower". I can get behind that.

The mysterious Caballo Blanco has a website where some later history of the Great Race can be found. It is sadder than the story in the book of course.

The story of Louis Liebenberg was fascinating. He was studying philosophy of science in the early 80s at the University of Cape Town when he had an epiphany about the origins of science, believing that tracking animals was the motivation for the scientific method. I took that same course in 1979. The professor was an eccentric who would show up, talk rapidly and eloquently throughout the lecture, then stride out of the room in mid-sentence on the pip of the hour. No epiphanies for me, though I did get a lot of running done, mostly in the forests on the slopes of Table Mountain.

1 comment:

Scott Carpenter said...

(Hey -- followed you home from Scott Rosenberg's post about blogging.)

I was annoyed to see the frog story used by some guy on the Daily Show recently. While I might have agreed with whatever he was arguing, his use of the myth turned me off. (I wouldn't mind it so much if people would acknowledge that it's not true when mentioning it.)

Re: running -- as a fairly new runner, I *do* love to be out when the sun comes up, but I agree with you that I'd rather not have fear of starving or being eaten as my motivation!