In honor of Global Running Day on June 1, I did an email exchange with my long-time running pal, David Epstein (author of RANGE: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World and The Sports Gene).
David also has a newsletter, Range Widely—which you should subscribe to as well if you haven't already, since it is much better than mine. Here’s our conversation: our favorite moments in running history, a debate about what makes someone “the best,” an intergenerational race challenge, and loads more.
What is the greatest race you’ve ever seen?
MG: This is a nearly impossible question to ask a track and field fan because, of course, the nature of obsessive fandom is that you develop the ability to find what is special and fascinating in any race. I love basketball, for example, but not enough to watch lots of basketball games. But when I listen to the Bill Simmons podcast and hear him—and his guests—talk endlessly about basketball, I realize that it is really really hard for them to watch a game and not find something in it they love. I’m the same way about running. When I was a kid, we didn’t have a television. And so even though I subscribed to Track and Field News and read it religiously, I had never seen any elite running live. But then we happened to be over at a friend’s house when the 1978 Commonwealth Games were on, and I convinced my parents to let me stay and watch the men’s 10,000-meter final. Brendan Foster won in a cakewalk: objectively it's a boring race. But I was already in so deep that I was riveted.
Anyway. What’s my favorite race? I’m going to say Matt Centrowitz Jr.’s victory in the men’s 1500 meters at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. You will remember this I’m sure, David. It was an absurdly slow race. They basically jogged for the first two laps—which made it agonizingly suspenseful. (The first lap was 66 seconds, which means that I could have kept up, at the advanced age of 58!) The runners were all in a huge clump. Who would break away first? Centrowitz ran an absolutely perfect race: hugging the rail, never losing his cool, and turning away challenge after challenge while running a blistering final lap. I’ve never seen such a tactically impeccable performance. As an added treat, one of my all-time favorite runners—Nick Willis—somehow snuck in for third, with such a stealthy move up the rail in the final 50 yards that I sometimes I re-watch that race just to marvel at Willis’s moxie. That race was a very good reminder that the reason we watch running is for the competition, not for the time.
DE: I definitely do remember that race. He was the first American to win the Olympic 1500 in more than a hundred years.
I don’t find this question as impossible as you, even though I have a long list of races that gave me goosebumps: Des Linden winning Boston in 2018 in the windpocalypse—
MG: I remember that! There have only been two times that I’ve cried while watching a race. Both times were Boston Marathons. Meb Keflezighi’s improbable victory in 2014, at the age of 39, when a whole posse of runners—all much faster than him—didn’t bother to chase him when he made a break, thinking he could never win. And Des Linden, coming down the final stretch, in the pouring wind and rain when the only way you could even think of finishing was if you were from another planet.
DE: Or Michigan, as it happened…
MG: I’m tearing up just thinking about it!
DE: Are we going to cry?? I think we should, because if somehow Des sees this she might make fun of us and it’ll probably be hilarious. She’s very good at the Twitter.
But back to my list of goosebump races: David Rudisha in 2012, leading an entire Olympic 800 in a world record 1:40.91; Alan Webb running the first sub-4 mile indoors by an American high schooler—I was there pounding on the track. And of course Michael Johnson’s 19.32 200 meters at the 1996 Games, and Bolt’s chest-beating 100-meter win at the 2008 Olympics.
But the top for me is the men’s marathon at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The temperature got up to mid-80s and it was running-through-clouds humid. I was just standing along the course and my shirt was plastered to my back. Marathon season is fall for a reason!
In those bananas conditions, Sammy Wanjiru bolted from the gun; unheard of in a marathon for someone who actually goes on to win—which he did in Olympic record time. At various points along the course, he would look at his watch and then speed up; his watch didn’t even work, he just did that to mess with competitors. And when other runners tried to draft behind him, he started zig-zagging. Zig-zagging in the marathon! Runners were dropping like flies with heat exhaustion, and by the end of the race Wanjiru had reduced the second best marathoner in the world nearly to walking.
I think Wanjiru was as mentally limitless as athletes come. Two years later, at the Chicago Marathon, he did something I’d never seen, and haven’t since: he got broken in the middle of the marathon, and came back to win. He wasn’t even well trained, as he’d been sick, and—I later learned—he’d been drinking a lot. He really only had a few weeks of prime training.
Unfortunately, two years later I was in Kenya for Sports Illustrated, reporting on the strange circumstances of his death in a fall from his roof. I don’t expect to see anyone race quite the way he did again.
Who is your favorite runner?
MG: That changes all the time. As a kid, running in the late 1970s, I idolized the British distance great Brendan Foster. (See above!) Then he retired and I adopted Steve Ovett, the British middle distance legend. And so on. These days I think the answer is the Scottish runner Laura Muir, who runs with such ferocity and verve that I can barely speak when she’s on the track. (Her thrilling silver medal at the Tokyo Games behind Faith Kipyegon was, far and away, the highlight of the games for me.) Now I know what you’re saying. Does Malcolm only like UK runners? No! I went through a long Donald Quarrie stage (look him up!)—
DE: When I visited Jamaica to watch the national high school championships—greatest and most raucous track meet in the world, by the way—I heard people use Don Quarrie as an expression. Like: “I left that place as fast as Don Quarrie!”—
MG: And then for a time the screensaver on my phone was the Kenyan miler Asbel Kiprop. I even kept him through his doping conviction! And only replaced him when my daughter was born.
DE: If that’s not love, I don’t know what is. And if you haven’t shared that you have a daughter publicly before, then you sort of buried the lead there.
MG: Her mother is an amazing runner. My daughter has very long legs. Let’s just say I have high hopes.
DE: I’m suddenly concerned that you’re going to be the dad at an elementary school track meet yelling at an official about a lane violation. But aside from your favorite runners, who do you call the greatest runner ever?
MG: Oh man. I’ve always believed that longevity is as important a marker of greatness as peak performance: so I’m inclined to give someone who spent 10 years as one of the top 10 runners in the world the nod over someone who had one year at number one–and no other year of any comparable excellence. (It’s why I consider Paul Simon the greatest rock musician of his generation, by far: he was musically relevant from the 1950s to the aughts.) So how about Merlene Ottey? If you’ve never heard of her, I offer you the first paragraph of her Wikipedia page:
I mean, come on…
DE: I agree that she makes Tom Brady look like a spring chicken. At age 50 she would’ve won the 100 at almost any state championship in America. That said, I think you’re putting too much emphasis on longevity. As great as she was, none of her nine Olympic medals are gold, and her only outdoor world records are age-group records. When we’re talking greatest ever, there are a lot of people to pick from who have Olympic golds and world records.
MG: But that’s my point! You’re buying into peak-performance bias. Explain to me why we believe that the person who is the best, for a moment, is somehow more worthy of our adulation than someone who is very, very good for a long time. Matthew Centrowitz won Olympic gold: he triumphed on the biggest stage in the world. But he doesn’t even belong in the same conversation as, say, Nick Willis, who never won gold but nonetheless was a threat to win every big race he entered for a good 10 years.
DE: Peak-performance bias?! Don’t give it a name like that because you’re making it sound like a problematic cognitive bias that some Nobel laureate exposed. I don’t suppose your blatant longevity bias developed in your 50s, did it? I’m suspicious. I don’t disagree with your Centro/Willis point, but you’re weighting the longevity factor too heavily. That’s fine for adulation. I am utterly amazed by Merlene Ottey. But in the sport that places more emphasis on world records than any other, I don’t see how you can pass right over the many prolific record breakers.
But to hearken back to one of the two runners who made you cry, Des Linden is my favorite active runner. Not only because she’s tough as titanium screws, but she’s also arguably the Don Quarrie of runner humor. And as long as we’re excerpting Wikipedia pages, this from Des’s page:
Because of course.
My favorite all time runner, though, is also the one I call the GOAT: Haile Gebrselassie. When I was a kid I wanted to be either an astronaut, baseball player, or Carl Lewis. I played football, basketball, baseball in high school, and only got into track late. And, of course, I thought I was a sprinter, but ended up running the 800 in college. I don’t think I even knew that was an event before I started running it. So just as I was getting interested in middle distance and distance running, Haile was shattering records, and I was hooked. He set 27 world records! From 2K up to the marathon.
But beyond that, he was racing in a way I’d never seen before. He’d break into a full sprint at the end of a fast race. I remember when he set the 5,000-meters world record, he ran the last lap at like 3:45-mile pace. That just opened my mind to what people can do.
I also liked that I’d see him on a starting line, smaller than everyone, and the only one with an ear-to-ear grin. I recall an American runner commenting on that, saying something like: “Yeah, I’d be smiling too if I knew I was about to kick everyone’s ass.”
MG: Not to mention that utterly charming thing he would do with his right arm (kind of like Bruce Kidd, decades ago)—slightly askew, which he always said was because he used to run to school as a kid and hold his books in his right hand.
DE: I actually met him a few times, and he was delightful. I bumped into him at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing in 2008, just after tearful defending champ Liu Xiang dropped out of the 110-meter hurdles with an injury. Haile goes, in the nicest way: “Why he is crying? It’s just sport!” Here’s a really weird thing, though: I was just now looking at his Wikipedia page, and I’m next to him in one of the pictures! I’m looking down, taking notes while he’s talking. Crazy; I didn’t even remember I’d ever met him in New York until I saw this picture.
What is your favorite running memory?
MG: There are many. But it would have to be one time when I went for a run, somewhere unknown, and it turned out to be magical. This has happened to me many times. But most recently I was in Porto, Portugal, for a conference, in a big hotel on a drab commercial strip. I went for a run down a busy highway, thinking this was better than nothing… and stumbled on this weird, beautiful, ancient park with soft running trails that ran for miles, with big pine trees and crumbling stone walls and rolling hills and the smell of damp moss in the air. Magical.
DE: That’s primal and beautiful, love it. Meb Keflezighi—the other Boston winner who made you cry—once told me that beyond competition, running is just a great way to experience the outdoors. I totally agree.
Nonetheless, my favorite running memory is indoors. It was running a leg of the 4x800-meter relay that set our university record, and it was on the anniversary of the death of my grandmother—my dad’s mom—who I never met. My dad flew out to Boston at the last minute to see it. It was personally meaningful in a lot of ways: doing something cool with friends; going from walk-on to record-setter; and on a meaningful day.
What were your thoughts after the first time we ran together, back in 2014?
MG: The first time we ran together I killed you. The next 20 times we ran together you killed me. My thought after that first time turned out to be accurate: this will never happen again.
DE: Haha. I’m not sure that’s totally true. But you “killed me” is an understatement. I tried to jog home and my knees were buckling, so I had to sit down on the curb for a while. Nothing like sitting on the curb in Brooklyn, telling passersby that you’re ok, to motivate one to get in shape. But more importantly, when we were running together, you entered a Merlene Ottey phase and ran 4:54 in the mile in your fifties.
What lesson have you learned from running that transfers to the rest of your life?
MG: Training is all about faith and patience: you go for a run one day and the next—and over and over and over again for weeks and months—in the hopes that one day you will be able to race as fast as you could possibly race. And—more often than not—that’s exactly what happens! I think we all need reminders that if you persist at something difficult, something of value will result. Running does that for me.
DE: For me, I think it’s the idea of setting short-term, actionable goals. For years I set time goals. But those didn’t really help me, at least in the 800. The race is done, and you look at the clock, and you either got it or didn’t. If you didn’t, you’re sad. If you did, you’re happy. So what? It didn’t help me get better. Eventually, I ditched that, and made actionable goals for experiments. “Move with 350 meters to go this time,” or “Run the first lap under 54.”
MG: I love how casually you drop the “run the first lap in under 54 seconds” bit, as if that is something the rest of us can easily duplicate.
DE: Dude, didn’t you run a 4:05 1500 (equivalent to a mid-4:20s mile) when you were 14?? A quick Google says you did, despite the wind resistance from your hair. Obviously there were many years where you could’ve done that. But anyway, I try to take that same goal-setting approach with other projects. Set actionable, short-term goals and experiments, not just an end goal.
What event would you add if you were the emperor of track and field?
MG: If I were emperor, I would add way more relays. Relays are to track what doubles is to tennis; a form of competition that manages to be both less prestigious than individual events but way more entertaining. And I would get way more creative. So imagine a mixed 4x800 relay, where the combined ages of the participants have to equal 110. Or cannot exceed 80. Each team has to figure out its own optimal solution to the age constraint! How fun is that?
DE: That’s hilarious. And videos from Penn Relays of 100-year-olds running always go viral, so for your 4x800 I vote for having at least one team that has a 101-year-old and three 3-year-olds—just for intergenerational diplomacy, and viral video.
MG: I’m 58. You’re 41. My daughter is nine months. Your son is how old? Three? We could compete in the under-105 category, as long as you are comfortable with one of the legs being a commando crawl.
DE: I mean, you’re the emperor, you could require one commando crawl leg for every team. I can’t compete with your suggestion, so as vice emperor I’d take your new relays and move them indoors. Like you said with relays, indoor racing is less prestigious, with the shorter track and banked curves, all the pushing and shoving and fans right on top of the runners. Maybe it’s a problem for track that we’re saying that some of the most exciting events are the least prestigious.
What are your favorite running spots, one country and one urban?
MG: This is easy. My favorite country run is the Ashokan Reservoir, just outside Kingston, NY. Halfway through, you think you are running around a Norwegian fjord. Favorite urban run is the trolley line trail in New Orleans, ending up with a loop around Audubon Park. It’s particularly special on a nice, muggy New Orleans day, where there’s no mistaking what part of the world you’re in.
DE: I learned the hard way that you’re impervious to humidity. I think my favorite country run was around Te Anau in New Zealand—also major Norwegian fjord vibes. On that trip, I also ran the steepest residential street in the world.
Urban is tied between Rock Creek Park in DC, and “The Tan” running path through Melbourne. Pros stop by to try to set Tan records, so there are poles with clocks, and at the end a list of records.
MG: I ran the Tan when I was last in Melbourne! Making the Tan top 10 is a huge deal in Australia. I’m waiting for them to put up masters categories. :)
DE: That’s a great idea. Running is a sport with a rich history, and it’s cool to know whose footsteps you’re running (or plodding) in.