Science as an endurance sport

A few days ago a friend referred me to an article in the New York Times on the Barkley Marathons, a highly secretive and physically brutal ultra-marathon that takes place in the rugged mountains of Tennessee. With 100+ miles, unmarked trails, and no race support, it is a race that is designed to induce failure. In it’s present form, only 12 people (out of 800 racers) have finished it under the time limit of 60 hours.

One of the things I found interesting was a comment in the article from the race organizer, where he said, “most Barkley finishers had a background in science or engineering and all but one had an advanced degree.” That’s interesting, I thought. What is the connection between distance running and science? Commence speculation.

I have to admit that I’m a little bit biased, since I am both a runner myself (though not of the ‘ultra’ type) and a physics graduate student. I would like to think that runners are all just very smart people, or that scientists are all bad-asses. I’ve known enough runners and enough physicists to know that I can’t make those generalizations.

I posed this question to a friend of mine (also a grad student, and a runner in high school). He thought it might be that nerdy types prefer fringe sports, like ultra-running or ultimate frisbee or curling. There might be something to that. As the NY Times article comments, some of the Barkley veterans are a little miffed that the race is getting any coverage at all. They’d prefer that it stay secret and out of the mainstream.

But I think there’s more of a connection. I think that there is something in the personality of people attracted to distance running that brings them to science as well.

It might be the case that a person pursues endurance sports and scientific research for the same reason: because it is difficult, and they don’t know if they are up to the task. Runners who have pushed into the ‘ultra’ category of racing have likely done so because they have found that typical runs, on the order of a few miles, no longer provide enough challenges. “I wanted to test my limits,” one of the Barkley’s competitors says. “The Barkley is good for that because pretty much no one can finish it.” This seems to be in line with advice from Albert Einstein,

“One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”

Wolfgang Ketterle, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics, agrees that there are some commonalities in the type of people who enjoy science and running. On the similarities of the two, he says

“I think both running and science reflect certain character traits. I have endurance, patience, and ambition. I’m willing to work hard toward a goal, to push myself and overcome limits. Running and science both let me express these traits. Also, this is one set of skills that made me successful in both science and running.”

So challenging oneself is a large part of the draw. But running can also provide an outlet for anxiety and a way to move beyond the stress of difficult work. Alan Turing, the highly influential mathematician, and one of the fathers of computer science, was an avid runner. He said, “I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard.” Running for him was a release valve, a way to move past the cloudy thoughts of a busy mind into clearer thinking. He is said to have come up with the basic idea of the computer while pausing in a field during one of his runs. Ketterle finds that running fulfills a similar role:

“When I run, I think about everything—physics, family problems, plans for the weekend. I haven’t made any big discoveries on a run, but it does give me time to think through problems. Some solutions are obvious, but they are only obvious when you are relaxed enough to find them. Running is like decompressing and cleaning up your mind. Your body is busy and your mind is free.”

So running may provide a way to step back from the rigors of analytic thought and allow ideas to coalesce in a different frame of mind.

This all just speculation, of course. There are many endurance athletes who choose not to study science or engineering, and there are many scientists and engineers who want nothing to do with athletics. In the end, maybe all we can say is that some people find running and scientific work to be very complementary. I know I fall into that category.

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