Mal­colm Glad­well Rides A Bike... ...But He Doesn’t Have To Like It

AN AVID CY­CLIST TAKES ON THE BEST-SELL­ING AU­THOR AND AVOWED RUN­NER TO SEE WHOSE SPORT REIGNS SUPREME.

Bicycling (South Africa) - - Inside - By Tom Van­der­bilt

GO TO ANY BIG UR­BAN PARK - New York’s Prospect, or Lon­don’s Rich­mond – and you will see two groups of wiry peo­ple in syn­thetic fab­rics: cy­clists and run­ners. Cy­clists will of­ten be found clus­tered in packs, as much for con­ver­sa­tion as wind block­ing, spin­ning by at 30km/h. Run­ners more fre­quently ex­er­cise alone, at a frac­tion of the speed, ear­bud cords trail­ing from their heads like some in­sec­toid ap­pa­ra­tus. Tem­pers oc­ca­sion­ally flare when one party crosses into the ter­ri­tory of the other, but usu­ally the scene hums along with the quiet en­ergy of shared pur­pose.

As an ac­tive cy­clist – more than 56 000km in seven years – I would re­gard run­ners, as I whizzed by, with curiosity. Their faces of­ten seemed con­torted in pain, their mo­tions some­times un­gainly, their pace plod­ding. I could al­most feel the blunt force trau­mas rip­pling through their bodies with each step – as I glided by, cush­ioned by car­bon fi­bre, rub­ber, and Ital­ian leather. One run­ner in par­tic­u­lar in­trigued me: an older man, bare­foot, with his hair cropped short and his face frozen in a serene mask, giv­ing him a monk-like as­pect; ap­pro­pri­ate, I thought, given the pen­i­ten­tial na­ture of his en­deav­our. I would pass him many times, run­ning against my di­rec­tion, and our eyes would meet briefly. What did he make of me, I won­dered – did my pur­suit seem as un­ap­peal­ing to him as his did to me?

On the sur­face, lit­tle would seem to sep­a­rate cy­clists and run­ners, high in aer­o­bic fit­ness, low in up­per-body strength. Yet I of­ten have the sense that cy­clists are from Venus and run­ners are from Mars (or vice versa). One does one, or one does the other.

Cy­clists do not go out of their way to dis­abuse oth­ers of this no­tion. On Strava, when rid­ers post a run, it is not un­com­mon to see com­ments like: ‘Is your bike bro­ken?’

What puts some­one on the run­ning or cy­cling path? A lifestyle choice? Pure ac­ci­dent? Dif­fer­ing per­son­al­ity cor­re­lates (as a psy­chol­o­gist might say)? Dodgy knees, or fear of a high-speed crash?

All this spec­u­la­tion was merely aca­demic to me un­til one day late last sum­mer, when a friend emailed to ask if I wanted to run the New York City Marathon to help raise funds for his bike ad­vo­cacy group. I in­stantly dis­missed it – why would I want to run 42.2km when I could scarcely rouse the de­sire to run four?

“C’mon, you’re fit,” he ca­joled. That’s right,

I thought, I am! That I was ‘bike fit’, not nec­es­sar­ily ‘run fit’, did not trou­ble my con­science, for my ath­letic van­ity had been awak­ened. I said yes. I was cross­ing to the other side. I was go­ing to be­come a run­ner.

It didn’t take long for my new re­la­tion­ship with run­ning to turn dys­func­tional. Mid­way into my se­cond run, I felt some­thing give way in my left calf; the sen­sa­tion felt like tear­ing a baguette in half. The mus­cle tight­ened, pain flooded in. So be­gan a sor­did dance of rest, seem­ing re­cov­ery, and rein­jury.

Hop­ing to sal­vage my flag­ging marathon hopes, I booked an appointment with New York Univer­sity’s Sports Per­for­mance Cen­tre. On a ca­pa­cious floor brim­ming with di­ag­nos­tic equip­ment, tread­mills, and a view of the East River, I met Heather Mil­ton, a clin­i­cal spe­cial­ist ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­o­gist. She put me through a bat­tery of tread­mill tests. My take­away from her find­ings: ba­si­cally, I was run­ning like a cy­clist. I was ‘over­strid­ing’, my ca­dence was too low, my trunk was lean­ing. “You’re squeez­ing your shoul­der blades to­gether,” Mil­ton said. “It’s us­ing a lot of en­ergy.” My calf mus­cles were tight, my core strength lack­ing. The sole piece of good news was that my VO2 max, or the amount of oxy­gen the body can draw upon dur­ing vig­or­ous ex­er­cise, was high for my age. Cy­cling had gifted me that.

And then, one day, I heard the writer Mal­colm Glad­well talk­ing on Lance Armstrong’s The For­ward pod­cast. Glad­well, known for books like The Tip­ping Point and Blink, which have helped pop­u­larise once ob­scure re­search from so­cial sci­ence and psy­chol­ogy, was an ac­com­plished run­ner in his youth and has re­cently re­turned to the sport. A few years ago, side­lined from run­ning with an in­jury, Glad­well had taken up cy­cling; and, he told Armstrong, he found it ex­cru­ci­at­ing. Where he had once viewed cy­clists with ‘slight dis­dain’, he was now ‘in awe’ of how dif­fi­cult it was. “Je­sus! What you guys go through!” he mar­velled. He com­plained of not be­ing able to break 30km/h on rides of 30km. “And I’m a sub­five-minute miler.” Lis­ten­ing to his tor­ment with the sport and his dis­be­lief that any­one would ac­tu­ally do it for plea­sure, I re­alised with a start that he was echo­ing my ex­act thoughts about run­ning. What if, I won­dered, we could ride and run to­gether, try­ing to see into each other’s pain, and pos­si­bly learn to en­joy the other’s pre­ferred sport just a bit more? At least, that’s how I pre­sented it to him. With the in­ner zeal of a con­vert, I was hop­ing, of course, that af­ter hear­ing my spiel and be­ing shown The Way, he would slap his fore­head and won­der aloud where cy­cling had been all his life.

ON A PLEAS­ANT SUN­DAY morn­ing I met Glad­well at his house in pas­toral up­state New York. Over a cup of tea, I asked him about the dis­mis­sive­ness I’d de­tected to­wards cy­cling in his con­ver­sa­tion with Armstrong. “Just a run­ner’s dis­dain for any­one who’s not a run­ner,” he said, smil­ing. He’d lumped cy­cling in with ski­ing – sports that are ‘ul­ti­mately more about the equip­ment than the ac­tiv­ity’. Compared with run­ning (‘put on a pair of shoes and go’), in his early cy­cling days he was struck by how much at­ten­tion was paid to gear. He thought of his fel­low rid­ers: “Are you a rac­ing-car driver or an ath­lete?”

Glad­well had a point. I have spent en­tire rides talk­ing about gear ra­tios, or the ques­tion of disc brakes, or the virtues of a cer­tain power me­ter. Cy­clists say the ideal num­ber of bikes to own is ‘N+1’. Run­ners tend to ditch their shoes once they’ve ac­cu­mu­lated a few hun­dred kays of use.

We spirit­edly de­bated the mer­its of our cho­sen ac­tiv­i­ties. “The time com­mit­ment [of cy­cling] is so bizarre,” he said. “Where you’re on your bike all day? I just find that un­fath­omable.” Run­ning is more ef­fi­cient, I’ll give him that – data that Strava pro­vided me shows cy­clists spend on av­er­age 161 min­utes per week on ac­tiv­i­ties, run­ners 70. But I coun­tered that I could eat break­fast

at home, have a mid-ride cof­fee in the coun­try­side, and be ex­posed to a wide range of land­scapes, even mi­cro-cli­mates, dur­ing a sin­gle ride; my av­er­age run didn’t take me out of my own neigh­bour­hood. In cy­cling there was ad­ven­ture; in run­ning, rou­tine.

I pressed this theme of run­ning’s lack of plea­sure. De­scents – in cy­cling, the sweet, oc­ca­sion­ally ter­ri­fy­ing re­ward to a chal­leng­ing hill climb – were, in run­ning, just an­other form of pound­ing on your knees. Glad­well coun­tered by de­scrib­ing a favourite nearby route, when he’s on the last kilo­me­tre, slightly down­hill with splen­did views, with 12km un­der his belt, his heart set­tled down, all sys­tems hav­ing checked out: “It’s su­per­fun. It feels effortless.” Sci­ence, how­ever, has largely found it’s harder to get to that ‘effortless’ stage in run­ning than cy­cling. Re­search has shown that sub-max­i­mal run­ning ex­er­cise in­duces a higher oxy­gen up­take – and, prob­a­bly, en­ergy ex­pen­di­ture – than cy­cling at the same in­ten­sity. One study found more ‘mus­cle dam­age’ from in­tense bouts of run­ning than cy­cling.

We could have gone on all morn­ing, but the time for talk­ing was done. We donned cy­cling kit and headed out onto a se­ries of back roads, which quickly pitched up­ward. Built like the Colom­bian climber Nairo Quin­tana – 23kg lighter than me – Glad­well should have dropped me on the hills. I not only held firm, but be­gan drop­ping him. In the spirit of con­struc­tive feed­back, I sug­gested he was mov­ing too much on the bike, rock­ing back and forth up mi­nor climbs like Al­berto Con­ta­dor on a fe­ro­cious Alpine as­cent. “You’re wast­ing en­ergy,” I said, think­ing back to my own clenched back in run­ning. He was also in too high a gear; in­stead of a high­ca­dence spin, he was mash­ing ped­als be­yond his mus­cu­lar ca­pa­bil­ity. His de­scend­ing needed work (he’d warned me in ad­vance), though it’s hard to ex­plain ra­tio­nally why some­one should feel con­fi­dent go­ing down­hill at 70km/h on tyres less than 2.5cm in width.

We had a some­what sub­dued trip back to the farm­house. He had the air of some­one who had just been to an un­com­fort­able doc­tor’s appointment. “I will suf­fer to­day,” he had told me ear­lier, and I didn’t feel like ask­ing him to un­pack his suf­fer­ing.

He perked up as we switched into run­ning gear. I had been ex­pect­ing a nice eight-kay gal­lop, but he an­nounced we were go­ing to do up­hill sprints – on the same gravel roads he’d hated on his bike. “Hills, para­dox­i­cally, will teach you how not to suf­fer while run­ning,” he said, Yoda-like. We walked to the base of the climb. With a start, he was off, bound­ing with a high gait, like a spring­bok. I tried to keep up, but was al­ready flag­ging at the mid­way point, bent over by the end.

Over lunch, we each talked of how hard the other’s ac­tiv­ity had been. “I won­der what it is,” he said, quizzi­cally. “We have these po­lar op­po­site at­ti­tudes to­ward these ac­tiv­i­ties.” We were both rea­son­ably fit in­di­vid­u­als, so what was go­ing on? First, it was clear that the ‘train­ing speci­ficity’ of each sport had adapted our bodies to its par­tic­u­lar de­mands. I con­firmed this the­ory with Dr Michael Joyner, who runs the Hu­man In­te­gra­tive Phys­i­ol­ogy Lab at the Mayo Clinic. With run­ning, “you’re turn­ing your legs into springs,” he says. “Peo­ple’s feet are on the ground for less than a tenth of a se­cond – we’re be­com­ing large kan­ga­roos.”

When you ride, by con­trast, “you’re pro­duc­ing force for much longer pe­ri­ods of time”. A run­ner on a tread­mill may have a heart rate up­wards of 180bpm. Put them on a bike, Joyner says, and “their peak heart rate will be, like, 150 – they’ll stop be­cause of local fa­tigue”. In other words, their legs give out long be­fore their heart and lungs do. Which is ba­si­cally what was hap­pen­ing to Glad­well.

I was find­ing al­most the op­po­site prob­lem: my heart rate was soar­ing, higher than in cy­cling, even though my legs felt good. My heart was telling me that I hated run­ning; Glad­well’s legs were protest­ing his cy­cling. Later, we compared our Strava ‘suf­fer scores’, which are based on heart-rate data. On pa­per, Glad­well ac­tu­ally hadn’t ag­o­nised much on the bike. In fact, his score was not only less than mine on the run, as you might ex­pect, but also on the bike. “That’s weird,” he ad­mit­ted. “I would have thought it was far higher.” Glad­well had more to give on the bike than he knew, but his mind was telling him no. And what was for me a not un­sub­stan­tial ef­fort felt like a walk in the park. Our brains, more than our bodies, were telling us dif­fer­ent sto­ries about how much pain we were feel­ing, for rea­sons that are not yet un­der­stood. Part of the prob­lem, as physi­cist Alex Hutchinson, PhD, writes in his book En­dure: Mind, Body, and the Cu­ri­ously Elas­tic Lim­its of Hu­man Per­for­mance, is that it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble – for now, any­way – to study the brains of peo­ple ex­er­cis­ing suf­fi­ciently hard to hit the red zone. But, he adds, “whether the brain plays a role in defin­ing the limit of en­durance is no longer in doubt; the de­bate now is how.”

Glad­well and I agreed on one thing about run­ning: an an­tipa­thy to­wards marathons. “It’s the most un­pleas­ant idea I’ve heard of in my life,” he said. “I re­gard that with as much pleas­ant­ness as an 80-kay bike ride.”

AS THE WEEKS WORE on, I du­ti­fully ticked the boxes on my run­ning cal­en­dar. While I laboured on the side of the road in the park, I would watch with long­ing as my Ly­cra-clad co­hort sailed past, chat­ting ami­ably. Still, with my new tech­nique I was find­ing it eas­ier go­ing. My body was slowly adapt­ing to the dis­tances, to the pound­ing.

One thing I didn’t suc­ceed at was con­vert­ing Glad­well. Cy­cling kays on Strava, 2018: 0. While he may have had a new re­spect for cy­cling, he just didn’t have the love.

As for my marathon, I heaved my­self across the fin­ish af­ter four and a half hours – ap­prox­i­mately the me­dian fin­ish­ing time in an age of wider marathon par­tic­i­pa­tion (i.e. more ca­sual run­ners like me). I took it as a moral vic­tory. The next day, even though I could hardly rise from a chair, I got on my bike and did a quick 25km, like I was try­ing to prove some­thing.

Glad­well had more to give on the bike than he knew, but his mind was telling him no.

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