With spring around the corner and St. Patrick’s Day excitement in the air, yesterday was the perfect day for a run. I set out around noon, running up from Cobble Hill along the water to Brooklyn Bridge Park. As usual, the journey involved paddling up a stream of baby carriages and well groomed lap dogs. Mid way through my run a thought popped into my head. Why is it that athletes today are so much better than athletes 30 years ago?
Presumably nothing significant has changed in the DNA or genetic makeup of humans in the last 30 years. If that is true, why are football players, baseball players and soccer players so much better at their sports today than their antique counterparties? Why couldn’t a 1970’s football player train himself to be as psychically dominant as football players today? Certainly if any running back from the NFL today were transported to the 1970’s he would be an unfairly dominant player – they’re simply bigger, faster, and more agile.
It seems that there is a weird rule that it is only possible to be a little bit better than everyone you see around you. Looking at the below chart of mile-record times by year – you can see that there is a relatively straight line regression of mile times from 1860 to today. Each year people get just a little bit faster. But why does it have to be just a little bit? Could the runner who set the 1980 world record of 3 minutes and 50 seconds have run that same time if he were alive in 1910? Are the improvements over time due to better training methods, or is there something hard coded into humans that really only allow us to be marginally better than everyone else around us?
As I was forming this thought in my head like a ball of clay, I noticed a middle aged female runner wearing a florescent purple shirt pass me on the running path. From her bright shirt, I instantly recognized her as the runner who I had just passed a mile or so back. She was now running significantly faster than she was running when I passed her earlier. It was as if her pace quickened to catch up with me.
As she strode past me my body instantly reacted. A shot of adrenaline surged into my muscles and my pace quickened to keep up with her. Without even thinking about it I continued to pace with her past my street down toward Red Hook pushing a 7-minute pace to eventually pass her as we approached the entrance to the Battery Tunnel. As I passed her, I turned off onto a side street to run home. One half block after I turned, my muscles tightened, my breaths became shallow and the wind that had propelled me down through Carroll Gardens had gone completely out of my sails. I ended up walking home.
This episode makes me wonder. What are humans truly capable of? It seems to me that there are all sorts of secret pockets of human potential closed tightly inside each of us behind locked doors. The only key that’s needed to unlock this potential is seeing someone in a florescent purple shirt do it first.