Back in March 23-year-old Tyler Andrews set a blistering new world record for the treadmill half-marathon, scorching through the distance at the Marathon Sports store in downtown Boston in 1:07:17. Catching his breathe he sets out here his thoughts on the age-old question: Is running about being naturally gifted or is it all about hard work?
I think there’s a paradigm that to get to a high level in athletics, the most important thing is picking your parents well. While there’s certainly some truth in this, I think that a lot of people write themselves off because they don’t run world-class times in school.
I was part of the majority of high schoolers who was not running sub-4’10, winning Footlocker/NXN, being recruited by top D1 coaches, etc. So, to answer the question – I was not always fast. I didn’t start running until senior year of high school, where I was a really only a ‘decent’ runner relative to the very small pond that was our league, but nothing worthy of college attention.
Running did, however, grab my attention pretty quickly. Thanks to our new high school coach who really connected with me (and, incidentally, is still coaching me now as a professional). He instilled in me this idea that training and hard work is what makes a great runner and – partly because I was so new to the sport and didn’t have any way to judge my own ability – I believed him unquestioningly. I honestly had no idea how good I was relative to anyone outside our league. All I knew was that I was doing well in our races, beating most of the kids on our team, and getting better every week.
I think it was this improvement that really grabbed my attention at first. I had always been under this false impression that everyone is born a good runner or a bad runner and Jon (my coach) both told me and showed me through my own improvements that, with hard work, I could get better.
Now, looking back, I’m not sure how I think about the question of what some people call ‘natural talent’ vs. ‘hard work.’ I think there’s a misconception that this issue is black and white – that people are either born as Kenenisa Bekele and never have to work hard or they have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and bust their hump to see any improvement. I think the truth is that most people are somewhere in the middle. Yes, guys like Farah and Bekele certainly have physiological advantages that they were born with (high natural VO2max, well-proportioned bodies for distance running, etc…), but these guys also work incredibly hard. Farah doesn’t just wake up in August and win two Olympic medals without training! I think it’s important to note this difference between a natural ‘talent’ and a natural ‘advantage’. I like “advantage” more because it implies that they have attributes that may lead to success, while talent implies that they’re simply talented without any work.
When I think about myself, I think about how a huge part of the ‘natural talent/advantage’ is really talking about the mental ability to put up with hard work and delayed gratification. My body isn’t the same as Mo Farah’s, but one thing we may share is an extremely strong sense of self-determination and willpower (and I fully acknowledge that it’s ridiculous to compare myself at all to a guy like Farah. Just reaching for an example!). I think that people who get to a high level of athletics must have a combination of both some natural physical advantages (what one might call talent) and mental advantages (what some call hard work, or more accurately, the mental ability to get through that hard work).
When talking to younger runners, I always try to express how important those mental advantages can be. I think I’m the perfect example of someone who has improved significantly over the years mostly due to putting in a ton of work and having faith in long-term development. If I had been told about the paradigm where every “good runner” runs super-fast in high school, I’m not sure I’d have kept with it. I want to stand as an example to all those younger runners to say that you never know how far you can go until you push yourself to the point where you stop improving. So, keep going; keep chipping away and never doubt that you’ll be able to get there with enough work. If you have the mental fortitude to stay motivated, you’ll amaze yourself by how far you can go…
Tyler Andrews is a director of and group leader for STRIVE a program that combines community service and athletics; it organises summer service trips for high school and college students in Peru and Kenya where participants have the opportunity to continue serious athletic training at altitude in beautiful places while also contributing to valuable, real-world projects. Find out more about Tyler and the STRIVE at strivetrips.org