Out There: Maybe She’s Born With It

Not everyone was born to be a runner, but that doesn't mean they can't excel in the sport. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

Susan Lacke learns the average runner can still become a fast runner—even if they lack the genes.

I’m surrounded by naturally talented runners 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I fell in love with a man who has never experienced life with body fat, almost all of my colleagues at Competitor were born with a pair of race flats on their tiny baby feet and most of my training partners have been racing since the timed mile in middle school gym class.

You know what I was doing in middle school? Inventing reasons to get out of running the timed mile in middle school gym class.

Running doesn’t come naturally to me. I wasn’t born with the lungs, the knees or the body type of a marathoner, yet here I am.

Don’t get me wrong: I love running, in spite of my middle school self. I’m just not inherently good at it. When it came to athletics, I got thrown into the shallow end of the gene pool. Upon taking up the sport five years ago, I was told consistency and hard work would get me to a place where I could at least hold my own with the “natural” runners. I still haven’t gotten there. Some days, I feel like I never will, no matter how many hills I run or mile repeats Coach Dude makes me do.

Stupid genes.

I envy the naturally talented runners around me, who inherited a baseline capacity for 7-minute miles and a body immune to the injuries plaguing the common runner. I respect their talents tremendously, and know they work just as hard as I do on the track and the trails. But I envy them nonetheless. They got the good genes.

Again, stupid genes.

What about those of us who love running as much as the ones who have been athletic since birth, but just can’t seem to get it right? What about those of us who just aren’t cut out for this sport, but do it anyway? What about those of us wearing arm floaties in the shallow end of the gene pool? Should we (and our slow genes) just give up on ambitious goals and sign up for nothing but fun runs?

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I asked David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, for his take. He’s one of those crazy-fast “natural” runners, but with a keen understanding of the interplay between genetics and athletic performance.

“We may like to focus on Tiger Woods, who started playing golf when he was a toddler, but the typical path to the top is that of Steve Nash, who didn’t own a basketball until he was 13 and wanted to be a soccer pro, or Roger Federer, whose parents basically forced him to keep playing badminton, basketball, and soccer before focusing only on tennis.”

But those athletes were still relatively young and naturally gifted when they began their sport, I argued. Wasn’t their baseline set pretty high already? The average amateur runner in our sport starts in their 30s or 40s, usually bringing a set of not-so-great genes and decades of poor lifestyle choices.

As it turns out, they can still be great. The first step to improving as a runner, surprisingly, doesn’t involve a single workout. Epstein says it’s more important to recognize training, like genes, should be unique to each athlete. Every athlete has strengths, but most tend to ignore them while focusing on weaknesses and limitations.

“The point is to think about who you are,” asserted Epstein. “Not just to follow a training plan blindly, but with every training cycle you do, keep a journal and reflect on what works for you. The more you think this way, the more likely you will be able to find the training that you have the best response to, whether or not it is as good as the next person’s. This is about improving yourself as an athlete, so you can’t worry about the next person too much anyway.”

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And with that, I realized something very important: Deep down, I was still the same girl I was in middle school. Only now, instead of trying to get out of the timed mile, I was using my “stupid genes” as an excuse for why I would never become a faster runner. The more I tell myself “running doesn’t come naturally to me,” the more I believe it. Sure, I probably won’t be an Olympic runner, but I certainly don’t need to banish myself to fun runs forever, either.

Perhaps Epstein was right—what would happen if I stopped lamenting the genetic cards I’ve been dealt, and instead figured out the best way to play my hand? I’ve spent so much time and energy trying to catch up to the “naturally talented” runners, I’ve failed to recognize I have a few natural talents of my own. I’m not sure what they are yet, but they exist, and I’ll be damned if I don’t find them.

I may not have the lungs, the knees or the body type of a marathoner, but there must be something, or I wouldn’t be here.

I can’t wait to discover what it is.

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About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman triathlons, and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). In addition to writing for Competitor, she is a featured contributor to Triathlete and Women’s Running magazines. Susan lives and trains in Phoenix, Arizona with four animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, a pinscher and a freakishly tall triathlete named Neil. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke

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