Art and Running

menu-spacer.pngBear with me for this little essay.  It starts out off topic but I promise it will get around to saying something about running and racing.  The inspiration was a story on the radio that got my attention the morning of February 27th.  It got me to thinking more broadly about the role of chance or luck (good or bad) in our passions.

The Role of Chance in Art and Running

Chance and Success in the Arts

NPR’s Morning Edition ran a fascinating story that said volumes about the role of chance in most aspects of our lives.  The segment is Good Art Is Popular Because It’s Good.  Right?  It’s only eight minutes long and well worth a listen.  Meanwhile, I will briefly summarize the research study that looked at the role of chance in popularity of music.

Matthew Salganik, a Princeton professor, wanted to find a way to measure how much of success should be attributed to the inherent qualities of a successful thing (e.g., a work of art or a piece of music) and how much was just chance.  When a specific painting or song becomes popular, is it because the work is special?  Or is it often true that, for some essentially random reason, a group of people decide that the work is really good and their attention attracts more attention until there is a ground swell of people who believe the work is special mostly because all the other people believe it is special.

This is a question that has been argued for years.  It’s a hard question to settle with real world observations because there’s only one version of reality.  The brilliant idea of Matthew Salganik was to create a set of identical online worlds filled with the same works of art and then get thousands of people randomly assigned to each world to chose which they liked best.  Would the same works rise to the top in each world or would some other factor determine the outcome?

The Experiment
Salganik created a website that randomly assigned 30,000 teenagers into nine identical virtual worlds.  Each of these worlds exposed the teens to 48 songs from unsigned bands that were totally unknown to the teens.  After listening to the songs, the teens could download the ones they like best for free.

In the control group the teens could not see which songs their peers were downloading so there was no social influence.  In the other eight, the teens could see which songs had been downloaded before, so they knew what other people in their group thought was good.

The Results
Different songs became popular in different worlds.  And the differences could be quite striking.  Salganik cited the example of one song that was the number one download in one group and 40th of 48 in another group.  In different groups the processes of social influence and cumulative advantage played out in different ways.

Conclusions
Additional studies by Salganik suggest that quality does have at least a limited role in the success of works of art:

It is hard to make things of very poor quality succeed – though after you meet a basic standard of quality, what becomes a huge hit and what doesn’t is essentially a matter of chance.

The Takeaway
It has been demonstrated with controlled experiments that chance plays a large role in success in the arts.  This could be a source of encouragement to garage bands everywhere… with a little luck you could make it big despite the world being filled with garage bands that are about as good as your band.  Maybe one of your YouTube videos will get a million “likes” someday but until then, keep your day job. 

What about the role chance plays more generally in our lives?  I like what Salganik says,

I think that if you believe that there’s a large role for chance in the outcomes that people have and the kinds of success that people have and also the kinds of failures that people have, it changes how you treat other people.

Salganik believes it makes you treat them better.  His statement also reminds me of a favorite song from the Sixties that readers of a certain age may remember:  There But For Fortune.

Chance and Success in Running

Thanks for bearing with me as we took a brief look at the role of chance in determining outcomes in the world of music.   I believe that running is perhaps the most (small “d”) democratic of sports.  And, while chance does play a role, its effect is minimized by uniquely objective way in which outcomes are determined in running.

Barriers to entry are almost non-existent.
Reminder when you took your first run as an adult?  My first runs in 1973 were on the sidewalks of the neighborhood where I lived in Atlanta.  I ran wearing whatever I had around our apartment… some casual shoes (probably low top Keds), shorts and a t-shirt.  I was a pretty fit bicyclist at the time but I didn’t know a thing about running.  I remember starting at what I thought was a running pace.  But, of course, it was closer to a sprint and I had to walk with a memorably awful side stitch within a few minutes.  But, I kept at it, learned to start slower and gradually became a runner.  I learned a little from reading Runner’s World and from an older friend who talked me into joining him in running a marathon.  The first time I pinned on a race number was for a 20 mile race about a month before the marathon.  We did it as a very controlled training run and it was the farthest I had run at the time. 

1974-p-bowl-finish.jpgThe 1974 Peach Bowl Marathon in Atlanta was the first time I actually raced and was ecstatic to finish.  By then I had some running shoes I got at a sporting goods store and wore my cycling shorts and jersey.  Historical Note:  In the photo I’m about to be handed a tongue depressor marked with my finish place.  That’s how the timers kept track of the finish order in those early days before bibs with pull tabs.

My point here is that there are very few barriers to becoming a runner.  You don’t need a special playing field or court or course… you can run almost anywhere.  No matter where I have lived in the last 40 years, most of my runs have started right outside the door of my home. 

You don’t need expensive equipment or have to join a team… with the possible exception of buying some appropriate shoes, you can get by with what you’ve got.  You don’t have to join a team or have a playing partner to pursue our sport… you can go run anytime on your own schedule. 

You don’t have to have a coach to become a pretty good runner… back in early 70s most of us “just ran” and, if we didn’t get injured, we became pretty good runners.  Coaching might have saved us from some injuries and from the over-training that came with our simple-minded obsession with mileage (trying to rack up 80 or 90 or 100 miles every week).  Even the free training plans you can find online today give today’s beginning runners a huge advantage over those of us inspired to start running after Frank Shorter’s 1972 Olympic Marathon victory.

Distance runners are made, not born.
To be a good sprinter, you need to be born blessed with an abundance of fast-twitch muscle fibers.  Coaching and training put a polish on the talent a sprinter is born with.  Distance runners are another matter.  Runners with very ordinary talents can, through years of the right training and smart running, become capable of impressive feats.

A personal example:  In a Phys Ed class at Georgia Tech in 1964 I ran a mile time trial in 6:22.  That put me in about the middle of the class and no one asked me to go out for the cross country team.  At the time I was untrained but reasonably thin, making that mark a plausible untrained baseline.  In 1976, with seven years of un-coached endurance training (four years cycling and three years running), I ran 20 miles at a 6:14 average pace (twenty times farther and slightly faster than my untrained baseline).  In 1982 I ran my 100k Personal Best: 62.14 miles in 8:00:21 (7:44 average pace).  My time was good but far from exceptional.  My point is to use it as an example of the remarkable extent to which training can increase the distance you can run and even the distance you can run reasonably “fast” without being blessed with exceptional talent.

Everyone is welcome to toe the starting line in most events. 
Running, especially distance running, is a remarkably open sport.  We all know that local road races are open to anyone who pays the entry fee.  There are also local track meets, cross-country races and trail races that are open to all-comers.  Whether you just want to try the event or think you can run with the “Big Dawgs,” you are welcome to give it a try.

Even at a Regional or National Championship level, the barriers to entry are almost non-existent.  Many events require no more than USATF membership and an entry fee.  For example, in 2005 when the USATF National Masters Cross Country Championship was held in Genesee Valley Park, Paul Kato organized a couple of GRTC teams to run in the event.  We didn’t win anything but we sure had fun.  And I’ve run in eight USATF Ultramarathon Championships over the years… the only barrier to racing with the best in the nation was the travel expense.

Winners are objectively determined. 
They don’t award style points in running.  Winners finish first or score the most points in a series of races. For example, who were the champion runners in the just completed Freezeroo Series?  Answer:  Under the best of four race scoring rules, Kenny Goodfellow and Jen Malik were indisputably the champions.  Think you are a better winter racer?  You had your chance to prove it this year.   Better luck next year.

Event records are objectively determined. 
Courses are certified and times are accurately recorded.  Who holds the event record for the Rochester Marathon?  Answer:  Scott Bagley (2:19:07 in 1986) and Kare Cossaboon-Holm (2:53:56 in 1985).  Think you are a better marathoner than these two Hall of Fame members?  Prove it.  Registration is already open for the 2014 Rochester Marathon.

Chance plays a small role in success in running. 
Runners are, I think, remarkably in control of their own destiny in our sport.  Yes, if you want to be a championship athlete, you do need to pick the right parents AND train hard.  But if your goals are more modest – if you want to have fun, get faster and run farther and maybe be competitive locally in your age group – your hard work in training will be rewarded abundantly.