Waxing Gibbens, continued

Now that you’ve been invited into the shimmering nightmare of fallacies, wishful thinking, statistical chicanery, and ad hoc nonsense that is Richard Gibbens’ “Power Running” world, I’ll lurch and stagger through my own swamp of words toward finally addressing the specific factual and reasoning errors he makes in addressing Jonathan Beverly’s aforementoned article.
For those not interested in reading Jonathan’s piece, “30 Years of Marathon Training,” here’s a summary. Jonathan proposes that despite the advent of better shoes (and worse ones), widely available sports drinks, GPS units, heart monitors, and so on, the core principles involved in training for a 26.2-mile footrace have probably not changed much, given distance running’s executive simplicity (“Here A; there B; you get there from here”). He looked back at 30 years’ worth of RT articles about marathon training, virtually all of them aimed at runners who are experienced but not elite, to look for common elements and themes. He notes that the four elements of training given the most priority remain the same: mileage, long runs, speed work and tapering. He then explores how specific recommendations in each of these areas have changed.
Richard Gibbens has an incessant compulsion to dismiss the importance of running a fair amount in order to improve at it, so it is not surprising that in his analysis he focuses exclusively on the “mileage” section of the RT article.

I’ll include excerpts from his write-up, and my comments about these, in a subsequent entry, because believe it or not I’m still not going to finish with this today. But for now understand that Gibbens’ treatise, as usual, consists of a listing structure assembled from faulty assumptions and inept cherry-picking built on the same crumbling foundation he always places first: his two-step certainty that because differences in innate talent exist, there also exists a neat correlation between the speed a given runner may ultimately reach and his or her optimal training load, and furthermore, that for “average” runners this optimal training load is far, far lower than 99.9% of the running population practices and understands.
The best thing you can say about Gibbens’ gibberish is that it quotes Jonathan accurately, and this is hardly cause for ignoring the usual furious quote-mining and cherry-picking. It’s also no reason to skim over the fact that the RT article not only fails to support Gibbens’ premises, but doesn’t even address them, for much the same reason that modern astronomers haven’t reported their findings about watery firmaments the Kingdom Of Heaven: Events and things that have not been or cannot be observed – and Gibbens is notoriously fond of just such entities – do not provide a substrate for anything other than, say, desultory long-winded ridicule.
Without understanding anything about running, you can see why Gibbens’ thesis – that people equipped to ultimately be unusually good at something are the only beneficiaries of working especially hard at getting to their peak – is problematic. I could never play the piano like Elton John, but this doesn’t mean that I could become the best piano player I could ever be with less practice than Sir Elton took to ascend to his much more remarkable level of proficiency.
Gibbens ignores important andintuitively obvious psychosocial factors at work in this. Someone who is especially talented at running (or piano-playing, or poker, or funambulism, etc.) is also more likely to and enjoy – or at least perceive the availability of – external rewards beyond the reach of the midpack rabble, with the result being that people willing to set aside several hours a day to prepare for sporting contests are generally those who can win or come close. Similarly, Elton John probably grew to enjoy playing the piano even more once he found he had more or less mastered it, meaning he was much more likely to spend time doing it (i.e., “train hard”) than someone like me, who was once pleased as could be to have mastered the keyboard solo from Led Zeppelin’s “All Of My Love” in less than a full day. So there’s a clear, if unquantifiable, inherent stratification process at work when it comes to improving at any life endeavor that yields pleasurable returns.
But this has nothing to do with physiology, and there are, in fact, plenty of working stiffs out there who can and do put in a huge amount of training simply because they enjoy finding out how fast they can become. There are, in fact, more of these people logging 70, 80 or more miles a week than there are elites doing the same thing, merely because there are so many people running slower than 2 ½ hours for the marathon than there are people running faster. But they rarely grab media attention, so you don’t hear much about them, especially given that even elite runners garner little attention in the U.S. (On that note, check out this story about a 47-year-old Scottsdale nephrologist who took up distance running three years ago and now has a shot at representing his native Belize in the Olympics.)
What Gibbens appeals to, or hopes to create, is a rich-get-richer, poor-get-poorer scenario wherein those who aren’t especially swift to begin with might as well give up and not train nearly as ardently as top-caliber runners. That this reflects his own experience and throw-in-the-towel mentality is evident in Gibbens’ “About” page, where he describes experiencing injury after trying to increase his mileage (despite his fascination with numbers, he doesn’t specify what “low” or “high” describe in relation to his own training) and apparently concluding as a result that what didn’t work for him must not work for very many people at all. Since that time he’s embarked on a quest to superimpose his own shortcomings on everyone else – ironic, given his own drum-beating about vast differences in runners’ innate abilities.
Finally, I must call attention to the opening sentence on the same “About” page: “How can you know if the things I write are true? After all, I could just be some crackpot on the internet.” This would be like a YEC advocate including in its mission statement, “Why trust what we tell you? After all, me might just have been brainwashed as children into taking scripture literally.”
Specifics on this stuff to come.

  1. #1 by jim on January 25, 2007 - 11:08 am

    Isn’t Richard’s favorite self-description “The world’s fastest slow guy”? Maybe he’s really the world’s smartest moron.

%d bloggers like this: