A conversation I had last Sunday with a runner friend got me to thinking: Is speed the ultimate--and only--test of a runner's talent and ability? My friend was more or less saying that speed is the key ingredient of being a competitive runner. As such, he said, any runner seeking to be competitive should adopt a training regiment focusing on speed--200s, 400s, 800s, etc. in addition to the 1600s I run every Wednesday (except for this week, since I feel basically like crap).
To the extent that whoever runs the fastest time crosses the finish line first, I suppose speed does matter quite a bit, and any runner looking to improve should be on the track and do tempo runs. But, as speed is a relative concept (as I explain below), I would argue that one could be an excellent, even competitive, runner without possessing a lot of speed as we think of it today. For example, there is a world-class ultrarunner out there--a runner who has won the biggest events in the sport--whose marathon PR is 2:38. I'd love a 2:38 marathoner PR--don't get me wrong--but one might expect a faster time from a guy who's won 7 consecutive Western States 100s, the Badwater Ultramarathon, the Spartathlon and a host of other big ultras. If you think Scott Jurek possesses less talent than, say, Ryan Hall, who is probably the best American marathoner today, I would challenge you to explain why you think that. Hall is a speedster, Jurek an endurance monster. How can the talents of one be more superior than those of the other?
In the world of ultra running, one can win the biggest 100-mile race of all--the Western States 100--averaging 9-minute miles, including aid station stops. The great Valmir Nunes won the 2007 Badwater--and set a new record--averaging 9:20 miles. Whereas in a big marathon like Boston or New York, the winner will have averaged 5-minute miles or even less. I realize I am probably in the minority in saying that I believe winning Boston or New York is no more impressive than winning the WS100 or Badwater, even as Boston and New York occupy a far larger stage than the WS100 or Badwater ever could. Until we see world-class marathoners show up at the WS100, Badwater, Spartathlon, etc. and dominate on a consistent basis, it's unfair to say elite ultrarunners aren't as talented as elite marathoners.
Running talent comes in many forms. Society views speed as the ultimate reflection of running talent because speed is fun to watch. Who doesn't love watching Asafa Powell burn it up on the track? But speed comes in many forms. A runner may consistently win 400-meter or 800-meter events, yet fail at 5000 meters. A runner who consistently wins 5000- and 1000-meter events might fail in other distances. A world-class ultrarunner might lack world-class talent for the above-mentioned races, yet excel in 50- or 100-mile races because they possess enough speed to cover the distance faster than anyone else on the course that day.
Which brings me to my ultimate argument. Just as lightening-fast speed is a show of talent, so too should extreme endurance reflect talent. This may start a huge argument, but I would venture to speculate that there are many, many world-class marathoners out there who might crumble in a 100-mile race because they simply don't know how to run anything short of blazing fast, or maybe their body just isn't built to handle the long haul--just as a Ferrari would cross town in record speed but be a terrible vehicle for a cross-country drive.
Sure, I'll grant you that if a world-class marathoner trained for years to compete in 100 milers or 100Ks, they'd probably do well. I seriously doubt Bill Rodgers, for example, would have finished middle-of-the-pack at WS100. But who's to say he'd have won? We saw in Alberto Salazar's Comrades finishes what a world-class marathoner can do in ultra races. But I think Salazar was the exception because clearly most world-class marathoners don't go on to ultras. Some would say they don't go on to ultras because there's no money in it. That may be true to a point, but it would be short-sighted to say it's the only reason. World-class marathoners run not only for the money, but also because they love to run and win. A world-class marathoner won't find much interest in a sport in which they don't believe they could be highly competitive. Which is to say just because you're a great marathoner doesn't mean you'll be a great ultrarunner, and vice versa.
Who's really to say the big-time ultrarunners of today and recent years--people like Scott Jurek, Karl Meltzer, Eric Clifton, Valmir Nunes, the great Yiannis Kouros, Tony Krupicka, Hal Koerner, Michael Wardian, my friend Mark Godale, and others--possess less talent than the big-time marathoners? Whereas the big-time marathoners can cover 26.2 miles in less than 2:10, these guys can go 100 miles in less than 16 hours, which few people in our society could barely even comprehend. How's that not just as impressive, and just as much a show of God-given talent?