Is scarcity and discomfort good or bad when it comes to marathon running?

I have recently been reading a book, called Kings of the Road, by Cameron Stracher, about the golden period of marathon running in the US, around the late-1970s and early ‘80s.

This period followed on from the publication of Jim Fixx’s book The Complete Book of Running, and witnessed Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and later Alberto Salazar pass the crown of the world’s best marathon runner from one to the other in succession.

The decade-long dominance started with Shorter’s Olympic gold in the marathon at the 1972 Games in Munich and probably ended with Salazar’s win at the Boston marathon in 1982, when he raced Dick Beardsley in what became known as the Duel in the Sun. At the end of that race, Salazar was rushed into hospital and received 6 liters of water intravenously. Despite being ranked as the number 1 marathoner in the world that year, he never really recovered and was unable to race to the same level again.

(l to r) Rodgers, Salazar & Shorter at the 2013 Honalulu marathon
(l to r) Rodgers, Salazar & Shorter at the 2013 Honalulu marathon

One of the things that really interests me about this period, was what motivated these three men to train and race in the way that they did. Everything you hear about them suggests desperation: 180 mile weeks, 200 mile weeks, training through injuries, running in every condition imaginable, living in absolute poverty due to the restrictions on earning imposed by the American athletics bodies. Why were they so driven? The answer is complicated, as with all things psychological. And I am not qualified to give a definitive answer, but my opinion is that there was a scarcity of luxury and love that they were driven by.

Scarcity is the mother of determination

Shorter revealed in an interview in 2011 that his well-respected father was a drunken tyrant at home, who mercilessly beat his children with the buckle end of his belt and raped his young daughters for seemingly trivial reasons. Rodgers felt deeply that he was an outcast from society, having applied for conscientious objector status to avoid the draft in the Vietnam war. Salazar grew up in an aggressive and revolutionary household dominated by his father, an over-zealous refugee from Cuba who was driven by hate for Castro and the regime he installed there.

It seems to me, then that certainly in these cases, discomfort – both physical and psychological – was the fuel for their extraordinary focus on the marathon and their physical and mental ability to ignore pain.

However two new books seem to oppose one another on the benefits or otherwise of scarcity and discomfort.

The benefits – or otherwise – of discomfort

In his new book, Hunger In Paradise: Beat The Hell Out Of Complacency, author and philosopher Rasmus Ankersen argues that the biggest challenge when it comes to achieving success and fulfilling potential is comfort. He applies his thinking about the importance of battling complacency to the world of business, in the same way that Jim Collins did in his book From Good To Great. But Ankersen’s argument is equally true for marathon runners. After all, is that not the reason that in the countries that used to dominate marathon running – the UK, Italy, Sweden, the US, etc – there has been such a marked decline in performance? As Cameron Stracher write in the epilogue at the end of Kings of the Road

In the end, running fast is not about fame or fortune. It’s not even about winning. It’s about pushing the human body to the limit, testing our endurance, finding the will to triumph when the black maw of defeat engulfs us.

Why bother with all of that, when you have a perfectly comfortable life with myriad distractions like work and TV and computer games and expensive shops and restaurants?

Do east African runners benefit from discomfort?

Discomfort is what the Kenyans and the Ethiopians and the Moroccans who are dominating distance running have in abundance. The alternative to training hard and consistently from the moment they are old enough to run followed by racing harder than anyone else before them is… nothing. No jobs, no education, no welfare state. Nothing.

The counterpoint to this argument, though, is made in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, in which they argue that the spiral of poverty is actually deepened by the rash and badly thought out decisions that poor people make.

In this book the authors argue that poverty or scarcity acts like blinkers, creating tunnel vision where decision-making becomes haphazard and illogical. Where actual measurable intelligence is depressed to the same degree as it is by missing entire nights of sleep, just by contemplating further loss.

Is discomfort good or bad for runners?

So which of these two positions is right? Is Ankersen right in arguing that scarcity (as opposed to comfort) is required for greatness? Or are Mullainathan and Shafir right to say that poverty itself diminishes people’s ability to think clearly and make decisions that will help lift them out of the situation they are in?

I think that both are true.

In the case of America’s greatest marathon runners, Shorter, Rodgers and Salazar, their lack of comfort was the driving factor that sent them on a trajectory towards marathon greatness. But I would argue that their single-mindedness was also detrimental in the wider scheme of things: Salazar drove himself to the verge of death on at least two occasions whilst racing and indeed was clinically dead for 14 minutes when he suffered a heart attack on the Nike campus in 2007. As Stracher notes in Kings of the Road, Shorter and Rodgers “walk like men twenty years older”. They seem to have been blinded to the dangers of pushing themselves ever harder.

And in east Africa, poverty is most definitely the driving factor when it comes to the seemingly endless stream of exceptional runners dominating distance running. But the story that we see – runners like Gebrselassie, Wilson Kipsang, Paul Tergat, David Rudisha  and many, many others – only represents the successes. All of these runners have pushed their bodies to the absolute limits to attain the levels they have and the road to those successes are littered with those who tried and failed. So in that way a lack of comfort is the same double edged sword that created and broke greatness in the US 40 years ago.

Conclusion: does it matter?

Why does this matter? Well I suppose in one sense it doesn’t: who really cares that in running terms, whilst more and more people are participating, less and less people are actually getting better at running? But I do also think that in the UK and the rest of the ‘first world’ where there are huge problems associated with a complete absence of scarcity, we could do with finding ways to motivate ourselves to be more active and push the boundaries of what we are capable of achieving physically. For me, running is the most natural activity we do. In an ironic up-turning of the normal way of thinking, it may just be the people who have less comfort, that will end up being the ones who have the most precious things of all: health and happiness.

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