The Sports Gene

Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

by David Epstein

The Sports Gene

Hardcover, 338 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $26.95 | purchase

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Book Summary

Epstein looks at the roles of both genetics and training in athletic success and argues that both are equally necessary components of athletic achievement.

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Excerpt: The Sports Gene

Pam Reed was up on top of the parking garage at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, again. Her flight out of New York City was delayed, and she was never one for sitting still. While disgruntled travelers jostled for electrical outlets and cushioned seats, their bags trundling behind them, the fifty-one-year-old Reed popped in her earbuds and headed for the top deck of the parking garage.

She breathed in the thick summer air. Reed stashed her luggage in a corner and started running. Immediately, a placid calm dripped through her body. For a good hour, she ran around and around in tight circles, each lap no more than 200 meters. It certainly wasn't because she needed the fitness.

Just the previous day, Reed had finished the U.S. championship Ironman triathlon in New York City in 11 hours, 20 minutes, and 49 seconds, good enough to qualify for the world championship in Hawaii. A week before that, she participated in a relay race in which her leg consisted of eight continuous hours of circling a track. Two weeks before that, she spent 31 hours running en route to becoming the second female finisher at the 2012 Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race that starts in Death Valley, and that Reed has won, twice.

Reed's flight out of LaGuardia eventually left, and the next week- end she completed the Mont Tremblant Ironman in Quebec in 12 hours, 16 minutes, and 42 seconds. The weekend after that, she had "only a marathon," she says, never mind that it was through the Tetons, in her home of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

This isn't some masochistic running binge, it's life for a woman who once ran three hundred miles without sleeping, and in 2009 spent six days running 491 laps around a drab one-mile loop in a park in Queens.

When she was an eleven-year-old in Michigan, Reed was smitten by her first sports love while watching the 1972 Olympics on TV: gymnastics. "I was obsessed," Reed later wrote in her autobiography, The Extra Mile. "I practiced gymnastics every minute that I could, in the basement, off the couch, wherever I happened to be." In high school, Reed turned to tennis, and, as usual, threw herself into it the way a Navy SEAL throws himself out of a plane — with gusto. Part of her training was a minimum of one thousand sit-ups a day. She went on to play varsity tennis at Michigan Tech. When she later moved to Arizona — she owns and directs the Tucson Marathon — she worked as an aerobics instructor so that she could have access to the health club's pool. Naturally (for Reed), she fell in love with her second husband as the pair trained together for an Ironman triathlon. Reed has often wondered about the source of her relentless drive to be in motion.

Her father was tireless. He used to rise at 3:30 a.m. to head to work at an iron mine, and when he returned home in the afternoon he would go straight to building an addition to the house or tinkering on the car. According to family lore ("absolutely true," Reed says), her grandfather Leonard once got into an argument at a family gathering in Merrill, Wisconsin, and stormed out in a huff. He kept walking. The entire three hundred miles back home to Chicago.

"Running for three hours every day might put some people in the hospital," Reed writes in her book, while noting that she finds peace of mind in extreme activity. "I am certain that not running for three hours every day would very quickly make me ill ... While nobody's forcing me to do this, it's not really a choice, either. There's something in my nature that makes it really hard for me to sit still ... being temperamentally attuned to perpetual motion makes me pretty uncomfortable on long car trips or in sedate social settings." (Reed's son Tim contrasts himself to his mother: "I only like to run for maybe two or three hours max.") One of Reed's current goals is to set the women's world record for running across America, which she plans to do at a pace of two marathons a day.

"When I don't do this," Reed says — and by "this" she means running three to five times a day — "I feel horrible. I had C-sections, and three days after them I was running ... It's who I am. I totally love it. As I get older, I have to say, I can sit still a bit longer, but it's not comfortable."

Reed astutely ponders whether she might be the human version of the rodents from an experiment at the University of Wisconsin in which mice bred for voluntary running were restricted from running, and then had their brain activity measured. Brain circuitry similar to that which is active when humans crave food or sex, or when addicts crave drugs, was activated in the high-running mice that were denied the chance to run, and they became agitated. The researchers presumed that when the mice were deprived of running their brain activity would decline. Instead, it went into overdrive, as if the mice needed exercise to feel normal. The longer the distance a particular mouse was used to running, the more frenetic its brain activity became when it was made to sit still. As with Garland's mice, these rodents were genetic junkies for exercise.

From The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein. Copyright 2013 by David Epstein. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Group.

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