Malcolm Gladwell: Slack and the art of exhaustion

From The New Yorker:

ABSTRACT: THE SPORTING SCENE about distance runner Alberto Salazar and the notion of “slack.” For the first half of the nineteen-eighties, the greatest distance runner in the world was Alberto Salazar. Great distance runners are graceful: they float, landing lightly on their toes and snapping their calves back so that their heels almost touch the tops of their hamstrings. Salazar shuffled like an old man. Salazar’s greatness lay in his desire. Describes the 1978 Falmouth Road Race in which Salazar almost died from his effort to win. Four years of spectacular athletic achievement followed. Then, in 1994, after an absence of almost a decade, Salazar returned to competitive running, to compete in the Comrades ultramarathon, in South Africa. Salazar had never run an ultramarathon. He trained in the cool of Portland, not the swelter of southern Africa. He decided that he wanted to average a six-minute-and-fifteen-second mile. He won, of course. For most of us, slack—the gap between what is possible, under conditions of absolute effort, and actual performance—is unavoidable. We all want to try our hardest, every time. But we can’t. Tyler Cowen, the author of “An Economist Gets Lunch,” argued recently that, out of the dozens of restaurants in Washington, D.C., that aspire to be first class, only five to ten really are at any given time. A restaurant can be great for its first three to six months—as the chefs and the owners strive to make the best possible impression on diners and reviewers. But, “once these places become popular, their obsession with quality slacks off,” Cowen writes. This notion of slack is part of what we take as normal and natural about the world. Social and economic mobility, in any system, is essentially slack arbitrage: hard work is a successful strategy for those at the bottom because those at the top no longer work so hard. Tells about Salazar’s father, Jose, who escaped from Cuba to Miami in 1960. Salazar could have had a longer career had he pushed himself less. A moderate Salazar never would have come so close to death at Falmouth. But it was the miracle of Falmouth that freed Salazar to run with such abandon. (“I no longer doubted my toughness.”) A moderate Salazar might have run happily and successfully into his thirties. But a moderate Salazar might never have won the New York City Marathon three times. “The pain of running is like the pain of drowning,” Salazar said. “A kind of weariness sets in and you lose the will to fight. What I could do is simply push myself through that exhaustion.”

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