Further Ruminations on Grit (And an Unscientific Study Proposal)

AJWs TaproomA couple months ago I received an email from Kevin Schraer, a doctoral student at Grand Canyon University in Arizona. Kevin told me that earlier in the year as he was bouncing around the room trying to come up with a dissertation topic he happened upon AJW’s Taproom and my column on Grit from back in January. Upon reading the column he was so intrigued with the concept that he decided to devote his research to it. At the time he had no idea what the specific dissertation topic would be but he knew he wanted to write about Grit.

From there he got in touch with Dr. Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania and they began exploring topic ideas. Given that Duckworth had, through her Grit Scale Instrument, determined the importance of Grit for West Point Graduates, Special Forces candidates, spelling bee champs, and gifted teachers, Kevin knew that she could help him find a topic. He decided to focus his exploration on one key question: Can Grit be taught, learned, and developed or is it more of an innate characteristic? Kevin was zeroing in on a classic nature vs. nurture dilemma. Ultimately, he chose to focus his research on education at the high school level and, at present, is engaged in a thorough research exercise to determine the answer to his essential question.

Subsequent to receiving Kevin’s correspondence, I began to think about what ultrarunning could teach us about Grit. As I discussed in the January column, I firmly believe that Grittiness is more common in long-distance runners than in your average person in society, but I also wonder whether Grit is something that can be learned, nurtured, and developed through ultrarunning and, if so, are there ways that ultrarunning can be used to develop Grit in non-runners?

When I think about my own personal situation, I am quite certain that ultrarunning has made me gritty. Prior to beginning my running career in the mid-’90’s, I was decidedly less gritty than my score on the Grit Scale suggests I am now. In fact, when I think back to my youth, I was a bit of a wuss! That said, conversely, I know many people who are in the sport today who basically came out of the womb gritty. Has ultrarunning made them even grittier or is it just the natural place for them to be?

So, in this context and based on the fact that I do not have the time or the inclination to commission an actual scientific study, I thought we’d try a non-scientific Grit study right here on iRunFar. Here’s the idea:

To participate, please begin by thinking back on your life before you began running long distances and rank yourself on a “Grit Scale” of 1-5 (1 being total wuss, 5 being Chuck Norris tough guy). Then, pick a time in your running career when you feel like everything clicked. It could be in a race, a training run, or even something in your life outside of running. How gritty were you in that moment (1-5 scale)? Finally, how gritty are you right now (1-5 scale)? Enter your ratings in the comment section below the column and if you could also provide a bit of narrative context to your ratings as well as a very short running bio (how old you are, how long you’ve been running ultras, etc…) we can compile the data and come up with some unscientific, but perhaps enlightening, conclusions about grit, ultrarunning, and personal development.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week
Bells Best Brown AleThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from one of my favorite breweries and one that’s been recommended in this space before. Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery has been pumping out great beer for a while now and their Best Brown Ale is a great choice for these shortening days of autumn. A toasty, malty brown ale with a super-smooth finish, Best Brown Ale is a nice complement to a warm bowl of chili around a crackling fire.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)
AJW spelled things out pretty well. Get to it!

There are 38 comments

  1. Jim

    Hmmm…well I won't go as far as a wuss but running in college I was mentally weak so I wold score myself a 2 then. I just started ultras a couple years ago and am currently 38 yrs old. Prior to this I was doing a few adventure races where things sort of clicked but depending on teammates, you didn't or weren't able to push as hard pending skill levels. Here it was around 3. Then moving into the trail running and ultimately the ultra trail world, I think I am at a 4 with aving to rely on oneself to log the time on feet in training and pushing through the mental blocks during a race. It is when I enter and feel I gave it my all in a 100 miler will I feel I have hit a 5 the Chuck Norris tough guy level.

  2. Joseph

    As a youngster I would rank myself a 3-4, however as I got older the types of risk- such as jumping a bike over a truck-that I would take have declined. So.. I currently limit my risk to sky diving, and running down steep mountains. I would still consider myself a high 3 to middle 4. Something else that is unique to trail/mountain running is the way up is not that daunting, however the route down is where your True Grit surfaces.

  3. Ethan

    I'd have a hard time assigning myself a number…how objective can I possibly be? But if I have to, I'd say three or four. I'm not sure this is any different than it was before I started formally participating in ultras though. One thing I'd like to pitch in though, is that I felt my grittiest earlier is year during my first 100 not because everything 'clicked' but because things went so wrong. Dead quads meant a death-march (we're talking sideways and backwards on the downhills, of which there were many) for the last 30+ miles to finish. It was painful (for both my legs and my ego) and disheartening, but I'm glad I did it. If I ever deserved a 5, it was then. Conversely, if I'm having a good race I feel like I can run for hours effortlessly, which doesn't feel to me like it requires grit so much as an ability to enjoy being out on the trail.

  4. Roel

    Interesting to think about…

    Over 20 years ago, I practiced decathlon, pretty much hating all distances longer than 400m. Long jump, javelin, hurdles, discus… OK! 1500m, aaarrggghhh. After 5 years of being a couch potato at university, I slowly picked up running and orienteering again (up to 10K), later got sucked into Adventure racing (up to world championships in Portugal, 900K over 6 non-stop days). But then because of 2 kids gradually moved into ultratrails (incl UTMB and stuff). So now I don't leave the house for training runs of less than 10-15K.

    But has it made me grittier?

    For me, all the events required sacrifice, the right mindset and perseverance, irrespective of the distance. Whether it's a 100 meter sprint or a 100K trailrun, it's simply the logical progression of your training efforts. So, I don't think Killian has a higher Chuck Norris level than Usain.

    But for the outside world, it's very different. (Almost) everybody can run a 100 meter, running 100K is simply crazy. So the outside world would probably see my carreer from decathlon to ultratrails as moving up the grid ladder. I don't…

    1. Anonymous

      I suspect I do not fit your mold as an ultra runner as I am not. But I have developed grit over my lifetime. I started out as a 1'. Started running when I turned 40'. Ran for 25 years, doing about 10 races a year. The racing made me find more grit. So I guess I became a 3. I then found cycling and have been finding grit on the bike. A bike tour of Death Valley, and the climb out of the valley, produced more grit. A first in my age group, 70 and up, in a sprint triathlon this past week end produced a bit more grit. I hang out with ultra people and just purchase a pair of hodas to see if I can find another source of grit. Over the years I have thought about grit on any number of occasions and I do believe it is the essense of most of the things we do for exercise. Next adventure for me is can I become an ultra runner in my 70's. just another thought is doing vinyasa flow yoga 5 days a week can increas your grit level.

      Ray

  5. Kevin Schraer

    Hi Andy! Thanks for promoting grit, and of course thanks for my dissertation topic! Here's a little info regarding grit that folks may find interesting:

    Grit is defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). Grittiness has been determined to be the most reliable predictor of educational attainment (Duckworth, 2006), high grade-point average (GPA) scores, United States Military Academy completion at West Point (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007), teacher effectiveness (Duckworth, Quinn, & Seligman, 2009), Scripps National Spelling Bee rankings (Duckworth, Kirby, Tsukayama, Berstein, & Ericsson, 2011), and financial savings (Duckworth & Weir, 2011).

    Stay Gritty,

    Kevin

  6. Jim Skaggs

    Hi AJ,
    Hmmm, when I was a kid I would have to say I would have been about a 1 or a 2. I wasn't encouraged to really push at anything I did. I think that increased as I got into high school swimming. I had to work hard to make the team. So maybe a 3. After highs school I reverted back to a 2, college, kids, career, etc. Then I ran my first 50 mile, then 10 years later my first 100. That was probably a 4-5 just for the shear insanity of thinking I could actually do it. Over the past 10 years of ultras, I think it's varied between a 3 or a 4, depending on my level of dedication and perseverence at the time. It is the classic nature vs. nurture debate. I do think gritiness is genetic, but I also think that to a certain level it can be taught. For a middle of packer like myself, I think it's taught, for frontrunners such as yourself, I think it's genetic but needs to be brought out. Just my $0.02 worth. Good article and I wish I could get some of that beer. I love a good ale.

    Jim

  7. Digby

    As a fine upstanding English gentleman am I am entitled to enter this discussion of "Grit"… reminds me of John Wayne. Sure, I am gritty, was gritty and am getting grittier and greyer by the day. Now at 42 I hope to reach the grit status of people like Marco Olmo who are truly gritty and gnarly.

    I always admire the griitiness of mid to rear pack runners rather than the front runners. They (we) are the ones who often stick it out for the sheer hell of it, when its getting really messy and there is no chance of glory. However much I admire Killian and other young guns or elites, they are blessed with talent and speed, but I always take my hat off to the guys who struggle over the line. Over here a stroke victim took 6 days to walk a marathon, he truly suffered and boy does he have grit.

    I will get out for a run, put some glass in my socks and then come back and decide where I lie on the grit scale>

  8. Ed Cacciapaglia

    My grittiest run was probably Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 (MMT) in 2006. I was reasonably well-trained but I had a mid-race melt down due to constipation and was sitting on a rock at the top of Bird Knob 54 miles into the race thinking I wish my GD stomach would clear. When everything finally broke loose, I went from 86th place at the Bird Knob and Picnic Area Aid Stations to a 49th place finish. I rank that one a 5 on the Grit scale. My self ranking overall is a 4.5. I have only quit a race twice, MMT 2007 & 2009. 2007 was due to peeing blood at mile 84 (a did nothing fatal drop), but 2009 was purely a crash and burn quit at mid-point. Recently I've had a couple of bad races where I had to dig deep to finish due to pain or cramping. That grit is what gets you to the finish line when everything is not working. Grit should not be confused with talent though on some days Grit will carry a marginally less talented runner to a top finish over a more talented runner. A prime example of Grit is Caroline Williams finally finishing MMT-100 in 2010 and Vermont 100 in 2012, DFL both times.

  9. Buzz

    Good topic Andy. I have three personal observations:

    First: To finish a Hundred requires, a) Physical toughness; b) Spiritual strength. You need to be fit to win but not to finish.

    Second: For me at least, this trait was born, not made. At a public talk someone asked me, "how do you not quit during those really long runs"? The question stumped me … I didn't know what to say … to not finish had never entered my mind as a possibility.

    Third: Maybe because of #2 above, I do not particularly value this trait. I've intentionally stayed on the periphery of the ultra scene for the past 20 years, ever since it occurred to me I sort of sucked as a runner, as an athlete, sometimes as a person … I accomplished certain things simply because I was really tough ("grit"). Right then I decided I didn't want to be tough anymore. It's vital for ultrarunning, but too much of a good thing arrests development of other aspects.

    1. Jason

      This is an interesting response. Would love to hear more about the way toughness (or is it also stubbornness or even selfishness – each common traits among ultra runners) arrests other aspects of life.

      Does grittiness make us really good at some things but not others? Is it all about us? I wonder how grit correlates with things like compassion and empathy? I know that as much as I love a day of running in the mountains, or the accomplishment of completing a tough race, part of me feels guilty about the toll it takes on my family and other valuable things in my life…

  10. KenZ

    I was a 4.5 in my youth. Now I'm more of a 3. Ultrarunning and gritting out 100 is tough, but (respectfully) not THAT tough compared to much in this world.

  11. Troy Shellhamer

    Youth- No Grit, 1

    Mid Twenties- began running and Ultrarunning career- Grit 5(willing to endure personal permanent injury to accomplish finish of each race. -luckily without much lasting damage)

    Thirties- after 8 years of running- Grit 4- willing to destroy self during race as long as no threat of injury which would take longer than several weeks to recover from…(In it for the long haul, "running for life" as the main goal

  12. Andy

    Great topic, AJW. As a psychologist, I'm all about nature v. nurture, tools for bettering oneself, and the need for grit to succeed in various endeavors. Of course, the nature/nurture thing is far from simple: those who are born grittier are likely more drawn to ventures (e.g., ultrarunning)that reinforce the grit, so it's self-fulfilling. Hard to bump up the grit level unless one is open to experiences that will do that. Sometimes grit can be learned unintentionally (e.g., end up unwittingly in a "if it doesn't kill you it makes you stronger" situation), but it's gonna be hard to trick folks into an ultramarathon — especially when you can DNF at any point.

    The data: age 48; running about 14 years, running ultras past 2+ years (but with prior history of 100-mile bike rides, epic long day hikes, etc.); pre-ultra grit rating = 3; grit rating at TNF Bear Mtn 50m this year when I was re-born the last 12 miles and dropped my pacer = 4; grit rating at UROC 2011 when I slogged through miles of horrendous nausea, fatigue, and pain = 5; and now = 4. Not sure that ultraunning has made me that much grittier (yet), but ask me after my first 100 next year!

    (BTW – research results will always be better with a more sensitive rating scale, e.g., 0-100)

  13. Jeremy

    I think I was more gritty when I was a kid, probably in the 4-5 range. I couldn't stand to loose and would do everything I could to win. Ultra-running may have mellowed me out a bit. Last weekend I was running in 4th place at Firetrails with 4 miles to go and a guy put an aggressive move on me and I just watched, I knew if I went with him, it was going to be an ugly finish. The 10 year old me would never have let that guy pass. I would give myself a 3 for that race- it was one of my best performances with a nice PR, but it was not gritty. Something about ultras is that it teaches you to look forward in time and plan out, reduce risk as much as possible, and increase the probability of success for your given goal. This does not seem very gritty to me. I am 32, and have played competitive sports all of my life, but only in the last 3 years have gotten serious about my distance running, the last two in ultras.

  14. art

    I would rate myself a 2.5

    though others in my life might rate me higher, this survey seems to be about self perseption.

    One of the things that attracted me to ultras – 100's especially, was a chance to raise myself up on the grit scale.

    It hasn't worked. I've always been a 2.5 , still am , and probably always will be.

  15. Capn_Q

    Prior to becomming a runner – 5

    (I was a commercial fisherman in Alaska during college)

    At that "Aha" moment – 4

    (finally accepting stormy weather and doing that long run in inclement weather)

    Now – 3

    (I just began running ultras, and I'm determined to find/exceed my limits after becoming a bit soft as a professional)

    As always, a very interesting topic AJW, thanks for pushing the conversation!

    Q

  16. EdP

    I think that "grit" rises and fades depending upon the level of passion/commitment one has or does not have for a particular goal, as well as the statistical relevance that goal has to the entire field. As a back of the packer my goal/passion is to finish, but for a lot of the "elites" their goal is to win or at least make it to the podium. Once that goal is out the window it surprises me to see a lot, on a relative basis, grit fade from top runners. So assuming one has trained properly, just finishing seems to require less grit than placing let's say in the top 10. So if the odds of acheiving my particular goal are stacked in my favor vs. the elite's, how can my level of grit be meaningful? I mean in a field of 100 where 60 finish and I finish 60th can my grit be a 5 and the winner be a 5? If so, what use is the scale, does it transfer to anything else in life? So as for me I consider myself to be pushing a 2.5 but winner's and those close to the top, 5+. I think this topic calls for smarter people than me to reach a workable conclusion.

    1. Andy

      You're smarter than you think. To really have an intelligent discourse or conclusion calls for what we social science folks call an "operationalization" of grit. What the hell is it and how do you define it? Apparently the research shows that it does transfer to other things in life, but among ultrarunners probably does not differentiate those on the podium from DFLs. Again, from the research side, we're talking about a "truncated range." Does height predict success in basketball? Not if you look only within the NBA.

  17. Scott S

    Prior to ultrarunning (and prior to many years of martial arts training), I'd peg myself at 2.5 on the grit scale. Now I'd give myself a solid 3.5. If things go as planned at my first attempt at 100 miles at the Javelina Jundred next weekend, then perhaps maybe 4.0. Mini Bio: Years of martial arts training (Tae Kwon Do and Judo) helped to prepare my mind and body for the benefits that can come from hours of physical training. I'm very new to this ultrarunning sport having just completed my first marathon (and mini ultra) at Pikes Peak last fall, while running less than 2000 miles per year.

    1. Scott S

      And another thing, I rode thousands of miles on my bike as a teenage, culminating in a 630-mile trip with a buddy before my senior year in HS; I think that took a little grit.

  18. kpf

    Liking this vein.

    Sure grit is good and often supplies the needed push. I often wonder though, f it is too much me. Even just an 8m night run after the kids are asleep the guilt seems ever present.

    1. Marco G. Denson

      yes the guilt, the guilt. I would be a better runner if I was an irresponsible father and husband and spent more hours training. But then I would be a very unhappy runner.

  19. Andrea

    I worked as a commercial river guide in college. We rafted in ALL weather (still do though not commercially). I thinking jumping into class 6 rapids to catch the raft as it went down, guiding tourists through class 4 & 5 rapids, sleeping under the stars for months at a time constitutes gritty. :-)

    I'd still be doing a lot of outdoor adventure sports if I didn't have young kids. Now my "grittiness" consists of long runs out in the river canyons of the Western States trail.

    1. Kevin Schraer

      Hi Reid. Yes, I'm using the Grit-S for children. It has been validated and accurately measures grit with just eight items.

      Kevin

  20. Drew

    Great subject! I've been thinking about what it means to have "grit" a lot over the last 8 months. been dealing with IT band and calf issues while training for an ultra. And now after sipping on an Islander Pale Ale from Maritime Brewing (slightly hoppier than I like out of a pale ale), I get to rant.

    I grew up a coach's kid and played football in high school and college as well as baseball, and ran track in HS. So there was no making up excuses, you didn't try, you DID! I was an undersized safety but would take on anybody so my grittiness then was probably around a 4-4.5.

    Then I became a ski bum in Steamboat Springs. I skied and smoked a lot of weed. I did some crazy shit (some would say stupid). My grittiness was down around 2-2.5 with episodes as high as 4.5. Sometimes you had to pull your shit together to pull off a big cliff, like a 25-50 footer.

    Now I'm with family and kids and running trails and ultra's. Doing what I can to keep that spark from dying out. Been running ultra's for about 2 years now. My grittiness is somewhere around a 3.5 I know what it takes to get through a hard event but have just started running super long runs, so we'll see if I can pull it together when I need to in a longer ultra. I've only gone as far as 50 miles so far.

    cheers,

  21. Marco G. Denson

    As Kevin Shraer defined it "Grit is defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals". I grew up in the a desert town in Baja where the temperature would go up to 115-120 degrees Farenheit in the middle of summer. I would play soccer in the dirt soccer fields when the weather would cool down to 100. We would drink a lot of water straight out of the hose. Yes I drank the water. Life was harder in many other ways. I had grit back then higher than Chuck Norris. I inherited my Grit from my mother who grew up in a farm in Missisippi. She came back to the U.S. and brought us kids along with her. My younger siblings and I went to school learned English, went to college, and then to graduate school. Grit is part of our heritage. Now running a hundred miles takes a lot of Grit, both my brother and I run ultras but we feel at home with challenges like that. We are not used to life being comofortable. The first time I heard about WS100 I went to see the finish in 2006. I saw the first place guy colapse 10 yards before the finish. We all know that sad story now. When I saw Graham Cooper come in later and cross the finish, I knew I had to run WS100. I wish I had discovered Ultrarunning in my 20's.

  22. Brian Robinson

    Most people would say I have level-5 grit. Barkley finish, Calendar Triple Crown, etc. But wait. If grit is the inner strength to do the impossible then it's important to grade on a personal scale. Elites win mostly because they're exceptional runners, not because they're gritty. Maybe they should get props for training – that takes time, but race-day is just one day, even 100 miles. That's not grit IMO. Another shortcut to apparent grittiness is single-mindedness. Autism and OCD take single-mindedness to extremes. IMO such a person isn't really gritty, or at least has the same unfair advantage as the elite runner. Perhaps the survival advantage grittiness conveys explains the existence of autism and obsessive compulsive disorder.

  23. MW

    I like this question mentioned here, much more. Is it primarily innate grit that brings people to ultrarunning or ultrarunning that enables individuals to develop their grittiness? It would seem that grit as discussed here, is really a developed trait.

    If you expand your point of view, it would be easy to agree that indigenous peoples who essentially "work" each day to ensure their survival, as hunting for food or building sufficient shelter, have a high degree of grit. Therefore, the thesis is that the circumstances we face in life offer the opportunity to avail one's grit. To dig deeper would be to question what stimulates those of us living in modern environments to pursue opportunities to be gritty. There is clearly a genetic link for "Sensation Seeking" behavior, which might be viewed as a corollary to gritty behaviors.

    As is often the case, it seems to be a bit of both (Nature and Nurture). Without the underlying biology it might be viewed more like coercion than teaching, to those without grit-DNA, to become an ultrarunner.

    —–

    3-Pre-distance Running Grit (Current view of). Big into sports, e.g., pickup games of tackle football as a kid, undersize in stature but not in mind.

    2-Grit rating for athletic event where everything clicked. State mountain bike race in where I finally made the podium, felt in control the entire race, had energy in reserve. SEEMS GRIT AND A "PERFECT" PERFORMANCE WOULD BE INVERSELY RELATED?

    5-Current Grit. Finishing an ironman dehydrated with abdominal pain for the whole marathon, running a tough marathon with 8 miles as my longest run and finishing under 4hrs and cramping quads (undertrained) throughout the last 20 miles of my first ultra (50K) has me feelin pretty gritty these days.

    12-years I've been a distance runner. 7-marathons starting in 2007. 1-ultra, 50k in 2011. 39 yrs old.

  24. Joe G

    These comments are hilarious – reading about how tough everybody thinks they are. All while being "modest" and not going above 4.5! Way to keep it real.

  25. Reid L.

    Maybe an interesting little paper would be to compare the grit of those who run 5Ks to those who run ultras. What do you think? You think the psychological literature would be interested? Or maybe the sports science literature?

    What do you think?

    Cheers,

    Reid

  26. Doug K

    started at a 1, back down to 1 again..

    at age 14 a wuss level 1, started training for a 600km relay race, schoolboy team. The teachers gave us a training schedule, I was amazed to find at the monthly team selection runs I was the only one who had actually stuck to the schedule. So maybe up to a 2 at that point. First run of all was 3k, had to stop and throw up at halfway then walked home. Last place out of 20 in the first selection run, 6th at the final run. Training works, who knew ?

    36-hour relay next year, 48-hour the year after that. In university a 24-hr relay and started running the 56km Two Oceans as soon as they would let me, age 18. Ran 11 of them, worst a 5:16 with ITB when I couldn't bend the knee for the last 20km, maybe got up to a 3 or so there. Seems to me the grit shows up when things go bad, don't need grit to race when all is eupeptic..

    Quit ultras due to neuromas in both feet, took up short-distance triathlon. Grit score to 3 or so in a couple of hot humid qualifying races at the middle distance (olympic distance), a mere 2 hours or so of endurance.

    Now it takes all the grit I have just to keep work and family going, race level grit is down to 1 or less..

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