Could you break the word record for the marathon after just four years of serious training? Dennis Kimetto recently ran the marathon in 2:02:57, 26 seconds faster than anyone else in history. Here is some footage from his incredible run.
Looks pretty much like some guy jogging right? Although he doesn’t appear to running that fast, he is keeping a pace that most people could not reach even at full sprint.
Ever time yourself in the 400 meter dash? Dennis ran the first quarter mile of the race in about 75 seconds. The average fit young athlete could have followed him this far, but at the price of a paralyzing oxygen debt that made further movement impossible. Dennis repeated the same 400 meter pace, without rest, another 100 odd times.
Even top collegiate middle distance runners would have had trouble saying with Dennis for more than fifteen minutes. And here's yet another way to conceive of his incredible speed endurance. He ran 26 miles in a row at an average pace of 4:41.
My point here, in case you are not getting it, is that Kimetto has physical abilities that are almost inconceivable. Did I mention that he had malaria just a few months before the race?
So how did Dennis develop this incredible endurance? Obviously practice matters, but Kimetto's story suggests the incredible importance of genetics. He is a member of the Kalenjin tribe of Kenya, whose five million members have won an incredible 40% of the top honors at top level distance races since 1980. David Epstein, author of the Sports Gene, puts things in perspective:
There are 17 American men in history who have run under 2:10 in the marathon. There were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011.
Are these Kalenjin just practicing harder? You know, putting in those 10,000 hours? Do they put in 20,000?
Here's an amazing fact suggesting it's not all about practice. There is no record of Kimetto running a competitive race prior to 2011. Only four years ago, he was a subsistence farmer running about four miles a day. Former world champion Geoffrey Mutai spotted Kimetto running like a gazelle through town and invited him to join his training group. Within a few short years, Kimetto beat everybody.
Kimetto's extraordinary story is an example of a "natural experiment", which (when properly documented) can produce data that is sometimes more interesting and informative than what you can gather from a Pubmed search.
For example, only a few years ago, people were seriously debating whether natural talent was really an important factor in sports performance, or whether it was all a matter of putting in "10,000 hours." Recently there have been some formal papers which completely demolish the 10,000 hour rule, but the evidence has always been out there if you knew where to look.
You can find examples of absurdly talented performers everywhere, who can perform feats way beyond the capacity of non-superhumans, no matter how many hours they practice.
Do a Youtube search for "amazing display of [insert any skill] by a five year old" and you will find unlimited examples of young kids doing things it takes most people a lifetime of practice to accomplish. Savants, prodigies, freaks, local legends, Bo Jacksons. If you spend time watching sports, music, dancing, or drawing, you will see the outliers and have no doubt about the role of talent in their performance. Guys like Kimetto are often the exceptions, or "black swans" who disprove what we think is a rule. Take note!