I know this blog has taken on a bit of a "German Fernandez man-crush" feel this past week, so this will be my last post about German and his amazing double. And it's not really about his double so much as how to understand his double from an Optimal Training standpoint. So there.
"I think the more interesting question [about German] is: What does it mean? What are we to make of such astonishing prowess?
Here's my answer: Great distance runners are born, not made. Corollary: Training is vastly over-rated.
I've found that these aren't popular positions. It's considered much more American to believe: Dream big, work hard, and go for the gold. But there's little evidence to support the primacy of the hard-work approach for distance runners. Sure, Fernandez trains hard. So does Ryan Hall, Kara Goucher, Kenenisa Bekele, Paula Radcliffe, Haile Gebrselassie, and every other world great you can name (including the aforementioned Webb, Ritzenhein et al). What else does everyone else on this list share? They were all teenage running sensations; they were born to run.
Fast teenagers don't run fast because they have great coaches. They might be lucky, or not, in the coaching department. A bad coach can destroy a great talent, but a good coach can't create one. Nor do fast teens run fast because they have completed tens of thousands of miles of super-secret workouts aimed at their lactate threshold or vo2 max or 98 percent of their max heart rate. Most just run what they can, and race themselves into shape. They beat others because they have extraordinary talent for distance running.
I don't wholly disagree with Amby. 99.9% of the world can't run as fast as the people mentioned above. And by can't, I mean can not. Not physically capable. The best of the best of the best have a rare combination of talent, passion, discipline and opportunity that others simply can't match. Of course, if you asked me to tell you who could and who couldn't, I'd have no idea. If I'd looked at Steve Prefontaine and been asked to judge whether he'd be as good as he was on the world level, I'd probably have said no because he was chunky and short and I inherently doubt people with bushy mustaches. And I'd have been wrong. And quite frankly, if you'd asked Steve Prefontaine, I think he'd have had just as much chance of being wrong, too, whatever he answered.
And I also agree that training is vastly over-rated. It's why this isn't a blog about workouts and mileage and pacing strategies. All that stuff is secondary. If you look at the 50 best distance runners of all-time, you'll find 50 different training programs. But you'll find one constant: a combination of passion and discipline that surpasses what most people are willing (or able) to put into the sport. The super-secret workouts? Those are just icing.
So I don't wholly disagree.
But I do take exception to one thing he writes, and it's something I've written about with regards to chess great Bobby Fischer previously. Amby writes, "They were all teenage running sensations; they were born to run." By "born to run" he means "freaky talented." But what is it that defined whether or not they were "born to run"? Was it the fact that they were successful that proves they were incredible talents? Or was it their passion for the sport and willingness to train intensely?
To put it another way, to say someone is born to run because they are successful is like saying that it rained because the ground is wet. In most instances, it probably was rain. But you can't see an effect and prove the cause.
Dathan Ritzenhein ran 100-mile weeks in high school. So did Donald Sage. Alan Webb ran ridiculously intense speed training sessions. Ryan Hall ran 10-mile tempo runs. Haile Gebrselassie grew up running 10k to school and back every morning. And who knows what Kenenisa Bekele, Hicham El Guerrouj, etc., did growing up and/or in their training. We all know it has to be insane.
But what actually made them successful? Was it their talent, or the work they did? My good friend Jon Rankin didn't do that type of training in high school. And he wasn't sensational. But then he started training like those guys and now he's on the cusp of making an Olympic team. Am I arguing that he's not talented? No, he's a freak. But all that freaky talent didn't mean anything until he got passionate and disciplined. Nobody even knew he had this talent until he got passionate and disciplined.
Again, it's the combination of talent, passion, discipline and opportunity that matters. Amby's right that the best of the best have talent. I'm not refuting Amby's message so much as trying to change the emphasis. Amby's main message isn't to "not work hard" anyway. It's ultimately that if you find you don't have world class talent, it isn't the end of the world. You can still be happy and productive and live a wonderful life. In that regard I totally agree.
But if you are watching German run 4:00.29/8:34.23 and thinking you want that to be you... And if you've got the passion and the discipline and the opportunity to go for it... And if you have even a smidgen of a hunch of a feeling that you've got the talent, then I say this:
Dream big, work hard, and go for the gold.