Aptitude Versus Achievement: A Running Metaphor

A discussion about aptitude and achievement in trail and ultrarunning.

By on May 16, 2014 | 22 comments

AJWs TaproomAs a lifelong educator, I have spent more than my fair share of time pouring over standardized-test results and working with students and families on issues of academic performance. In the 21st century world of high-stakes testing there is, of course, vigorous debate over the value and purpose of tests such as the SAT and the ACT but there is clear evidence that creating a single test to measure both aptitude and achievement is fleeting at best and perhaps impossible.

For decades, educators have used IQ testing and other baseline measure to determine innate cognitive ability and teachers the world over have created assessments and evaluative tools to measure achievement. For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of this dichotomy is where we place our values. Some institutions place high value on innate cognition while others tend to value achievement. From my perspective, I am most interested in the discrepancy, in both directions, between aptitude and achievement.

On one side of the coin there are the ‘Naturals,’ those kids who seemingly came out of the womb with superior cognition. These are the four-year-old violinists and preadolescent chess masters. On the other side of the coin are the ‘Pluggers,’ those kids who have to work twice as hard for half the reward and who succeed, or attempt to succeed, in spite of their cognitive challenges.

In long-distance running, I see examples of Naturals and Pluggers all over the place. For us, rather than high-stakes tests, we have tests of genetic makeup and races against the clock through which we determine innate talent and ability. Then, we have good old powers of observation and experience to find the Pluggers. There is no doubt in my mind that the ultramarathon scene is filled with these Pluggers. You know who they are, they are often the ones grinding out the miles late in the day and training harder than everyone else. The ones arriving at the Placer High School track less than an hour before the cutoff. And, the ones who stay in the sport for decades. I love these people and am pleased that we have a venue in which ordinary folks can do extraordinary things.

Certainly, I often sit in awe of the Naturals as they bound across the mountains with the ease and grace of gazelles. However, for my money, I want to celebrate the ultrarunning Pluggers in much the same way that I celebrate those kids in my school who have to work harder than everyone else just to graduate. They are the ones who get straight A’s on the test of life!

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Foothills Brewing Company JadaThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Foothills Brewing Company in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Their Jade IPA is a fruity, summertime IPA with a modest 7.4 ABV and 86 IBUs. The thing that is most enjoyable about this sweet sipper is the slight resiny edge that adds to the fruit. All in all, a great beer!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Are you a ‘Natural’ or  ‘Plugger?’ Explain why you think this.
  • Who are some examples of Naturals in trail and ultrarunning today? And how about those Pluggers? Who do you see working just a little bit harder to get to the same place as some Naturals?
Andy Jones-Wilkins
Andy Jones-Wilkins finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.