Aptitude Versus Achievement: A Running Metaphor

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?

There are 5 comments

  1. sberk4

    Perhaps your most salient point, AJW, is that "creating a single test to measure both aptitude and achievement is fleeting at best and perhaps impossible." For one thing, the interplay between the two is too powerful and complex to parse apart easily. (More eloquent and philosophically inclined people – working with vastly more data – have made this point better: e.g., Eric Grossman's long-running attempt to convince readers of his blog that "willpower" is a fallacy.) The alchemy of aptitude PLUS achievement may be what makes it possible for "ordinary people to do extraordinary things" at 100-mile races. (Not to mention the equally wonky, though slightly less mystical realm of race tactics: just because Pam Smith ran 28:58 at WS in 2012 doesn't make her a "plugger;" it just makes her a once-hypothermic person who was held at an AS for 4 hours. Dom Grossman may have had the potential to run 17:34 at Angeles Crest last summer, but a few bushes got in the way. Does that make him any less talented or apt?)

    Personally, I'd love to see more discussion of such matters in the Taproom posts. I'm huge fan of the interviews, and they'd be a great venue to discuss aptitude versus achievement with top runners.


  2. @Baristing

    A false dichotomy, or at least one that's impossible to make. And relative besides. On the world stage, Brian Sell was a "plugger", because he was "slow" for an Olympic marathoner. But the dude was an Olympic marathoner. Clearly that takes some measure of talent. But, it also took 150 mile weeks. I dare say most people would discover a deeper well of talent than they imagined with such volume. Which is basically the point: It takes both. And the truth is, most people – myself included – will never train smart/hard enough to discover how talented they are.

  3. andymxyz

    not a false dichotomy at all! While the very best may be both Naturals and Pluggers, we are not all the very best! So, to the extent we achieve at all, it is because we are more of one or the other. Nice column AJW! But were you being tongue in cheek about the Jade's "modest" 7.4 ABV?

    1. @Baristing

      More of one or the other, sure. But that implies a spectrum, which we all surely rest somewhere on. A dichotomy is an either/or proposition, which this is not.

      1. andymxyz

        Fine, if you want to be hyper-technical. But if that's the game we are playing, I'd point out that AJW never said there was a "dichotomy" between Naturals and Pluggers in the running world. So those commenters who say it's a "false dichotomy" are attacking a straw man. :)

        1. @Baristing

          I'm not trying to be too sensitive, but he did use the "two sides of a coin" analogy. The title uses "versus". The call for comments says "Are you a natural or a plugger?". Clear examples of a dichotomy being struck. As much as anything, though, I was responding to the call for comments, not AJW specifically. Am I a plugger or a natural? Is anyone? Again, I'd say no. Everyone is both, to some extent.

          1. andymxyz

            I am quite certain that AJW would agree that there is a spectrum. I didn't read anything in his post to suggest otherwise. If others read it as suggesting a pure either/or division… Well, I guess we read it differently.

            Sounds like a good discussion to have over a beer!

          2. Meghan Hicks


            To be clear, the question in the Call for Comments is mine, not AJW’s. Any dichotomy you pull from the Call for Comments questions has been imposed by me and not AJW. :)

            1. @Baristing

              Yeah, I know. I'm not referencing him specifically, just responding to the call, as it were. And the topic in general, more broadly.

  4. astroyam

    Sometimes the 'Pluggers', that we might think of as having little talent, do actually have a talent that's not obvious at first, the presence of very efficient slow twitch muscles. These are the folks who CAN, with training, do 150 miles a week, because each mile is efficient from a chemistry standpoint. Certainly we don't recognize these people on the playground growing up, because that favors the faster kids.

  5. Andy

    Virtually all dichotomies are false. You know, "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who say there are two kinds of people, and those who don't." And of course, the best always have natural talent *and* a plugger mentality to bring it home.

    I love this post, Andy. While it's true that it is awe-inspiring to watch the gazelles and marvel at their speed and endurance, the great thing about ultrarunning for us mid-packers and Pluggers is precisely that it is "a venue in which ordinary folks can do extraordinary things." Where else can one be DFL or, even worse, DNF (as I did at Miwok a couple weeks ago at TV#2) and still be adulated for great achievement? If you train and toe the line with good spirit and energy, it's an A every time.

  6. ClownRunner

    I've always thought of myself as a Mid-Pack Plugger (and sometimes a back-of-the-pack Muggle :)

    When you've got size 14 Clown Feet, a pot belly, no cartilage left in your ankles, and way too many mountain neuroses (not to be confused with neuromas), then it's difficult to perceive yourself as a Natural.

    I've always loved the grinder types out there on the trails. But I'm also in awe of the Naturals, the fluidity and speed and agility is inspiring.

    As long as there is a love of running and being in the mountains and out on the trails, doesn't much matter which type you are.

    Accept your limitations, and then push on a bit farther!

  7. @SageCanaday

    I'm with the school of thought that defines different types of intelligence (i.e. interpersonal, linguistic, quantitative, creative etc.) that of course standardized tests in the US don't always reflect. In distance running there are different types of what some would call "natural talent" (i.e. high Vo2max, durability, muscle fiber ratios, mental fortitude, etc.). But using an SAT score or race result as a metric for aptitude (vs time spent studying or miles-per-week spent training as a possible metric for achievement) doesn't seem to accurately reflect a dichotomy IMHO.

    In college we had a saying: "In high school you think you are smart and fast, but when you get to college you realize you are dumb and slow." I ran with (meaning behind) guys like Brian Sell and of course he had a decent Vo2max and running economy/mechanics, but his biggest "natural talent" was probably his durability-mental fortitude. He could crank out 150 miles a week for months on end (often averaging sub 6min per mile pace for all miles each week) and not get injured or overtrain. That kind of training would shatter most of us. Guy was tough as nails and dedicated as hell!

    That being said, a person running 150 miles per week vs a person running 100mpw (or even 50mpw) doesn't always mean the former is "training harder or trying harder" than the latter because we don't know the relative intensities of those miles or the time constraints/other life stresses of the lower mileage runner. There is also something to be said about the efficiency of training (or to complete your metaphor the time spent studying). More is not necessarily better if it can yield similar results. There is smart training and there is reckless training…and likewise study habits can be optimized. It's all about individualization and doing the best with the body (and time constraints) that you have.

    There is no doubt in my mind that "there are champions everywhere" (quote from Arthur Lydiard) and if more people had the time and support to train like me or Tony or Dakota or Frosty that we'd see a lot more course records falling and competitive depth in races. I could very well be out of a job!

    But most people don't have the supportive network of sponsors to train at a level that allow them to even scratch the surface of their potential… To me there is huge spectrum from the Grinder to Plugger and to even draw a line between one or the other as a separate category would be to generalize. Ultimately we all just try to make the best of the time (and body) that we have and find some sort of equilibrium.

    1. fealitall

      Interesting post, I just finished reading a couple articles related to this very subject. One's here: http://www.adventure-journal.com/2014/05/is-talen
      Bottom line: Talent is bunk. Hard and smart work is everything. "But nobody wants to hear that…"

      Attitude's another component that makes a difference between one racer (or test taker) and another. Kind of a different topic but if you run enough you come across people who just seem to transform into another animal when racing compared to their training (as well as the opposite). The same could be said for test taking.

      I like the "champions everywhere" recognition Sage (an accomplished runner) makes here. I know am doing what I can expect to do given what time/resources I have. If I could get a massage and a few more free hours a week (less work) more "talent" could be developed.

  8. Sarah

    AJW, as the mother of a 10th-grade daughter and 7th-grade son and as a trustee at a secondary school, I just want to say I really appreciate whenever you draw connections between your work as a Head of School and ultrarunning. I'm a big believer in the growth mindset, and my kids and I are more pluggers than naturals, and I will never put much stock in either the SAT or ACT being good predictors of success in life. I seriously think you should pitch a column for the NAIS (Nat'l Assoc of Independent Schools)!

  9. UltraSlow

    To sidestep the whole dichotomy discussion, I am definitely a Plugger. Having a discussion over semantics seems to miss the whole point of what AJW is saying as everyone probably knows what he means. Running is somewhat unique in the fact that anybody can toe the same start line and race with the world's best at certain events. This causes gnashing of teeth by some and accolades from others. Achievement is a large range of possibilities even in something as small as one race. Win, top 10, AG place, sub 24hr or make cutoff could all be a huge achievement based on the individual. 12.6% odds turned into a trip to Western States this year for me. My achievement potential? It’s a time goal – Sub 30. Which puts me solidly in the Plugger camp. Although, a 28 hr 100 miler will always beat an unprepared 2:55 marathoner who doesn’t finish the 100…

    Set goals for yourself and go after them. Tim Twietmeyer has said that just because someone didn’t win the race doesn’t mean they can’t be equally proud of their accomplishments and execution. Crossing the finish line in Auburn will be cause for celebration for me. Laugh at me because that’s what a plugger would say or give me a high five because I achieved my goal. I’ll see you at the next race regardless.

    Here’s to achievement!

    Handy tip – If you think there’s no way in hell you’ll get drawn in the WS lottery, still refrain from saying something like “If I get drawn in the lottery, I’ll wear a tutu for the whole race”.
    A glow in the dark black tutu with skulls….

  10. totops1

    Great post!
    I totally agree when it comes to highlight that usually the "Plugger" are the ones that stick to ultrarunning forever. I'd rather be a Plugger and stay in the sport as long as possible instead of coming one day, kick a**, set PR and be gone the next day. Continuity and longevity is one of the pillar of ultrarunning for me.

  11. irunfarcomments

    I began running 4 years ago at age 40, started on trails in January and am gradually progressing toward my first 50 miler. What I really appreciate about AJW's post and the ultra community in general is the extraordinary warmth with which all abilities are accepted and even "celebrated" as AJW says in his post. I grew up as an athlete at the top of my field in another sport and experienced a very prominent culture of superiority among the best and a extremely deep separation between those who were routinely on the podium and those who were more middle. With running I'm now in the middle and back with a constant eye on cutoff times and it is tremendous to feel camaraderie with all runners, including those who may have set the CR in the same race I just ran. It's quite a unique characteristic of this community and I feel very lucky to have discovered it. I find that it amplifies my own sense of celebration of those in the front without any sense of bitterness at their talent (or lack of my own). I love ultra running and so put in the work to persevere through the hills, rocks, roots and weather and it really matters knowing that veterans like AJW appreciate that I"m there. So, thanks AJW.

  12. sharmanian

    10% talent, 90% hard work. I don't think there's anyone excelling at anything (admittedly a relative concept) who doesn't work very hard at it. Someone like Kilian has huge talent but if he didn't work hard at training I don't think we'd know who he is.

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