The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

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And Then We Pick: On Ed Caesar’s ‘Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon’


For the epigraph to his brisk, entertaining book on professional marathon running, Ed Caesar chooses a passage from Julius Caesar (no relation): “There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…” Brutus’s speech sets the mood well enough, though considering what transpired at the recent Berlin Marathon, Caesar might have also looked for a quote from the same play’s punning cobbler, a “mender of bad soles.”

About 10 miles into that September Berlin race, the insoles of Eliud Kipchoge’s running flats began to slip out the back and flop around. It looked as if two neon appendages had sprouted out of his calves — perhaps some revolutionary technology designed by Nike to reduce wind drag? Despite this freak occurrence, Kipchoge won the race in a time of two hours and four minutes flat, just one minute or so slower than the world record (2:02:57) and a mere four minutes from breaking the two-hour mark. Surely the latter is within reach barring a similar wardrobe malfunction?

Not exactly. The two-hour marathon, 26.2 miles run at 4:35-per-mile pace, won’t be accomplished anytime soon, which Caesar, a journalist, acknowledges implicitly in the title: Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon. Elsewhere he calls the land beyond the two-hour barrier “the Narnia of Distance Running.” Seconds don’t come cheap in elite racing, and the two-hour marathon, at least when Caesar was writing his book, was still 218 seconds away:

What’s 218 seconds? It’s a pop song; a long commercial break; the time it takes to soft-boil a small egg. In marathon terms, however, those 218 seconds are a lifetime.

To produce a solid, let alone world-record, performance, everything has to go exactly right. The best marathoners usually compete only twice a year at a handful of fast, flat marathons (Berlin, London, Dubai). If a runner has an off day, if it’s too hot, cold, windy, rainy, if the pacers, who are world-class runners themselves, don’t hit their assigned splits, or if, say, a shoe disintegrates, then the attempt has to wait another six months.

Fear not, though; our best scientists are on the case. The Sub2hrProject in Newcastle, England, has been “launched…to ‘identify and nurture’ a runner who could break two hours within the next five years.” Mike Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology, calculated in a 1991 paper that “given ideal conditions, and the ideal runner,” a 1:57:58 marathon was possible. (And that’s without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs.) Joyner based his prediction on physiological factors, while David Martin and Holly Ortlund used the historical correlation between the 10,000-meter and marathon world records to predict that the first sub-two-hour marathon would occur between 2029 and 2032. I can’t imagine the pressure that the world’s best marathoner will feel in 2032: If not for personal glory, break two hours to defend the honor of predictive statisticians everywhere!

I agree that the time will eventually fall, if only because, as with the 1950s pursuit of the four-minute mile, fate has conspired to align an arbitrary distance with a tempting target: just imagine having a “1” in front of your marathon time. If this logic sounds faulty, so be it, for even in such a hyper-regimented sport, there is an element of the irrational in distance running. As Caesar writes in one of his uncharacteristically overwrought moments: “Human beings are more than hearts and lungs and legs, and the quest for virgin territory more than a battle of swift feet.”

Caesar devotes a chapter to the always colorful history of the marathon (always more fun reading about than running). He starts with the hemerodromos (i.e., running messenger) Pheidippides’s fatal journey from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C., the best “creation myth in sports,” up through 17th-century England, where Samuel Pepys chronicled “endurance races taking place between the servants of the rich” around Hyde Park, an OSHA violation if there ever was one. For the 25-mile race run at the first modern Olympics in 1896, a Greek financial backer offered his daughter’s hand in marriage “for any local man to cross the finish line in first place.” (A Greek, Spyridon Louis, did eventually win, but he opted for “free meals and haircuts for life” instead of the daughter.) The first man to cross the line of the 1904 Olympic marathon in St. Louis hitched a ride from miles 9 to 20; a forbear of Rosie Ruiz, who in 1980 would hop on the T and emerge to “win” the Boston Marathon. The actual winner in St. Louis, Thomas Hicks, downed on course a “cocktail of brandy, egg whites, and strychnine,” an early version of the nauseating energy drinks widely available today.

The modern marathon distance — twenty-six miles, three hundred and eighty-five yards — was established at the 1908 Olympic Marathon so that the royal family would be optimally positioned to watch the start at Windsor Castle and the finish from their royal box in White City Stadium. They were treated to quite a race between an Italian pastry maker, Dorando Pietri, the American Johnny Hayes, who trained on the cinder track on the roof of Bloomingdale’s, and a South African named Charles Heffernon, who was leading with two miles to go before he cramped up after drinking a glass of champagne. (Brandy and strychnine is one thing, but champagne is just unprofessional.) Pietri took over the lead, then collapsed during the final lap in the stadium and was disqualified for being dragged across the finish line. A tough blow for the Italians, who would have to wait until 2004 in Athens to win an Olympic marathon; there Stefano Baldini prevailed after the leader, Brazil’s Vanderlei de Lima, was tackled by a defrocked priest with four miles to go. Sometimes the sport seems governed by Murphy’s Law.

Caesar also gets us up to speed on the current state of the marathon: “Since 2002…not only had two minutes fallen from the world record, but the distance appeared to have changed genre” from a “pure endurance event” to a “speed-endurance event.” Apart from this shift, the model whereby an elite runner spends the first part of his career on the track before moving to the marathon seems to be evolving. Haile Gebrselassie, the great Ethiopian champion, did just that, dominating at the 5,000- and 10,000-meter distances before becoming the first man to break 2:04 in the marathon, at the age of 35. Gebrselassie believes that track work in his 20s laid the foundations for marathon success in his 30s (“If you cut a young tree for timber, you cannot succeed,”) though the 25-year-old Gebrselassie might have had a greater potential for running faster.

Major marathons generate and pay out big money, which isn’t to say that the elite marathoners are stars. Caesar describes the average, presumably Western viewer tuning in to watch the start of an elite marathon:

What you see is a parade of gaunt, lithe black men with low numbers on their vests, arrayed in the lurid uniforms of shoe companies. Their names are as good as indistinguishable, and their stories mysterious.

Caesar attempts to remedy this by profiling Geoffrey Mutai, one of the marathoners leading the charge to lower the marathon record. He couldn’t have chosen a nicer — and faster — guy, even if the humble, soft-spoken runner doesn’t quite pop off the page. We first see Mutai trying to get in the zone before the 2012 Berlin Marathon by summoning “the Spirit,” or what the French cyclist Jean Bobet described, in typically sensual Gallic terms, as la volupté: a state of “speed and ease, force and grace.” The Spirit does arrive, and he wins.

Mutai is from Equator, a town in Kenya’s Rift Valley perched 9,000 feet above sea level. He is a Kipsigi, “a subtribe of the Kalenjin, part of a Nilotic family of tribes who emerged from the Nile Valley centuries ago, and who now utterly dominate distance running…the most extraordinary sample of geographically concentrated dominance in any sport.” Caesar outlines some of the cultural and genetic explanations for their success: Kalenjin runners have a comparatively active childhood and tend to be “extremely slender below the knee;” their diet is “nearly perfect for an endurance athlete;” they were born at altitude but have sea-level ancestry, an optimal combination for heart and lung efficiency, as David Epstein pointed out in The Sports Gene; and the financial rewards are enormous. Caesar also mentions but pays less heed to evolutionary arguments about Kenyan prowess, from the more plausible — cattle raiding conferred reproductive benefits on the swiftest over long distances — to the absurd — painful Kalenjin circumcision rituals “bred toughness” over the centuries, culminating in an athletic population capable of producing a specimen who can run endless 4:40 miles without flinching.

There is much debate about each of these explanations, but Caesar sees Kenyan dominance as a numbers game. A combination of genetic and socioeconomic factors has created the right conditions for world-class marathoners to emerge: “Of the hundreds and thousands of men and women who attempt to have careers as professional runners, these particular athletes play the music of their lives most sweetly.”

Mutai was one of 11 children, overcoming an abusive relationship with his father and a bout of teenage drinking to dedicate himself to the sport. He left Equator to train alongside a group of self-coached runners in the remote village of Skyland (Kapng’tuny), this during a time when the region was beset by violence stemming from the disputed 2007 Kenyan presidential election:

On long runs, the athletes didn’t know whom they would meet. The marathon runner Wesley Ngetich was killed during the violence by poison arrow. The world marathon champion Luke Kibet was severely injured when he was struck by a stone.

Mutai himself narrowly escapes being attacked by a machete-wielding mob just two months before his first international marathon in Monaco. Caesar effectively captures the bemusement that Mutai feels when transported from this alternately ascetic, roiling environment to the Riviera: “Mutai found the place ridiculous. People in Monaco drove their cars in tunnels and treated their dogs in hospitals…Here he was, in this odd place where rich mzungus [whites] lived crushed together, and he had a chance to change his fortunes.”

Which he does. Mutai wins the race and goes on to become a world-class marathoner. In 2011, led out by the front-running American Ryan Hall and pushed by fellow Kenyan Moses Mosop and a strong tailwind, he produced the fastest marathon ever run at the time, 2:03:02. (Though the challenging Boston course, for officious reasons not worth getting worked up over here, is not world-record eligible.) Even after raking in prize money from subsequent victories in Berlin and New York, he continues to retreat to a small cottage with no running water and three roommates during peak training periods, heading out up to three times a day — between naps — to run on “God’s own racetrack: the dirt roads of Skyland.”

This may sound crazy to the millions of Americans forced to listen to their coworkers droning on about their marathon training, but Caesar could have gone into more detail about Mutai’s workouts. Unlike the pair of books by Chris Lear on collegiate runners (Running with the Buffaloes and Sub 4:00), Caesar doesn’t delve too deep into the specifics of the training program, but rather outlines the building blocks — long runs of around 20 miles that get progressively faster and hills, lots of hills, which “[stay] in the legs longer” than track work. Another staple is the “fartlek,” a Swedish term meaning “speed play” that has been reliably making me giggle for decades. (It involves a continuous run alternating between faster and slower paces.)

Really though, the Kenyan training strategy is simple: “We start slow…and then we pick [go fast].” And perhaps we’re overcomplicating what’s needed to run a two-hour marathon, such as devising new shoe technology or constructing a sheltered course with a more forgiving surface than asphalt. Why not cover the first half in one hour or so, and then, in the lapidary parlance of these extraordinary athletes, pick? Easier said than run.

Father’s Day Books for Dads Who Actually Read

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Let’s say there’s a father in your life. Maybe you’re married to him. Maybe you’re his child. Maybe he’s just a buddy of yours. Last year, on Father’s Day, you bought him a tie in his favorite colors. The year before that, it was a calfskin wallet, which you’ve noticed he still hasn’t used. This year, with Father’s Day just a week and a half away, you’re leaning toward buying him a bookstore gift card because he likes to read, but you don’t know what book to get him.

Resist this impulse. For a lot of busy dads, a store card is less a gift than a chore, one that can be skipped. (Don’t believe me? Take a peek in his sock drawer, upper right hand corner, just behind that unused calfskin wallet: Yep, a small stack of unused gift cards.) More importantly, a gift is a way of telling someone that you value them, that you know them a little better than they realized, and few things do this better than a well-chosen book.

Below are book suggestions for 11 different kinds of dads who read. These suggestions assume that the fathers you’re shopping for have read most of the more popular books about the topics that interest them and may be looking for something new. Most of the books on this list are in paperback and should cost less than $20.

1. Big Game Book Hunter Dad
A certain kind of man views his bookshelves the way a leopard sees bleached bones on the veldt—as evidence of past kills, the larger the better. Hence, the popularity of the Doorstop Novel, the 500-, 600-, 700-page social novel or family saga. Every year publishers lavish splashy advances on the latest epic that might appeal to that most elusive of literary beasts, the middle-aged male fiction reader. A few years ago, that book was Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Last year it was Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, which, not so coincidentally, has just been released in paperback in time for Father’s Day.

Both are solid novels, and brag-worthy kills for the Big Game Book Hunter in your life, but for sheer ambition neither can touch Phillipp Meyer’s cowboys-and-Indians epic, The Son. Meyer’s nearly 600-page Western contains three overlapping narratives, but the most gripping is that of family patriarch Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by a Comanche raiding party in 1849 and raised as the chief’s adopted son before returning to white society. A particularly fearless reader-hunter will want to pair Meyer’s tale of the settling of Texas with Canadian writer Joseph Boyden’s equally audacious novel The Orenda, a fictional retelling of the bloody clash between French missionaries and local Huron and Iroquois tribes in 17th-century Canada.

2. Literary Fiction Dad
He’s read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. He’s braved the languors of the Las Vegas chapters of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. He’s read Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides. Why not branch out, see a little more of the world? In recent years, American readers have been treated to a bumper crop of first-rate literary fiction by immigrants from around the globe. If the Literary Fiction Dad in your life is open to reading women, he may want to try Americanah by Nigerian-American writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, or The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, an American of Bengali heritage. Among male writers, Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born writer raised in Australia and educated in the U.S., wrote a gripping collection of stories, The Boat, in 2008, and Chinese-American author Ha Jin, has turned out a steady stream of novels and story collections, perhaps the best of which is War Trash, set in a POW camp during the Korean War.

But the Big Kahuna of American diaspora literature is Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has a legitimate claim to the title of best American novel of the new millennium. By turns hilarious, tender, and harrowing, Oscar Wao follows an overweight, Dominican-born sci-fi nerd in his search for love and the secret to survival in his cursed homeland. Diaz’s plot and characters are riveting, but the real pleasure of Oscar Wao is Diaz’s narrative voice, which combines slangy, high-velocity prose with penetrating insight into the political black hole that is the Dominican Republic.

3. Big Bad Noir Daddy
Here’s a pro tip: To find a smart, well-written crime novel by a guy for guys, search the roster of writers for David Simon’s cable series The Wire. George Pelecanos, who was a writer on all five seasons, has somehow also found time to crank out 20 crime novels in roughly as many years, most of them set in and around Washington D.C., and focusing, with bracing honesty, on the sorry state of race relations in our nation’s capital. The Cut, from 2011, is as good a place to start as any. Another of Simon’s writers, Dennis Lehane, based out of Boston, runs hot and cold, but his 1998 novel Gone, Baby, Gone is a nicely twisted bit of noir, and 2001’s Mystic River would qualify as a work of literary fiction if a child didn’t die in the early pages.

But the top thoroughbred in Simon’s stable, and arguably the finest American crime novelist at work today, is Richard Price. His books are structured as police procedurals and feature his famously razor-sharp dialogue, but Price is at heart an old-school social novelist in the mold of Charles Dickens and Émile Zola. His novels grab you by the ears and drag you into the hidden corners of modern America populated by immigrants, the poor, and those who prey on them. His latest, The Whites, written under the pen name Harry Brandt, offers a riveting look inside the minds of New York City police detectives who live their professional lives chest-deep in depravity and injustice. Price’s 1992 drug-dealer novel Clockers, later made into a Spike Lee joint, is another must-read.

4. Politically Incorrect Dad
He’s inappropriate. He can’t control his appetites. He sweats a lot. His sense of humor is, well, different. But underneath all the layers of gruff and odd, beats a well-meaning heart. Meet Milo Burke, unlikely hero of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel The Ask.

Milo is a husband, a father of a young child, and a seething mass of misdirected grievance. “I’m not just any old hater,” he says early on. “I’m a hater’s hater.” In the opening pages, Milo loses his job wrangling donations for a third-tier university in New York City after he insults the talent-free daughter of one of the college’s wealthy donors, but is offered a chance at redemption if he can reel in a sizable gift from a rich college friend, who has, mysteriously, asked to work with Milo. Lipsyte specializes in the humor of white-male resentment, and when he misses he misses big, but The Ask is a tour de force of verbal pyrotechnics and shibboleth-skewering social insight.

5. World War II Buff Dad
Big fat books about honorable wars are to grown men with mortgages what Call of Duty video games are to 10-year-old boys: mind-travel devices granting sedentary, suburban beings vicarious access to a world of danger and heroism. As with video game franchises, the options for quality reads about the Second World War are quite nearly boundless. For a broad overview, there’s Max Hastings’s Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, but World War II was so huge and so complicated that it can be wise to take it in pieces, using, say, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers as a window onto the American war effort in Europe orLaura Hillenbrand’sUnbroken to gain a finer-grained understanding of the Pacific Theater.

A middle-ground approach that can satisfy the Big Game Hunter impulse while also offering a sharply observed portrait of the conflict that helped create the modern American military is Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, which focuses on the American war effort in Europe. The three-volume set, An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and Guns at Last Light, span a collective 2,349 pages, making it a prime trophy for anyone’s shelves. But Atkinson shifts so effortlessly from the panoramic to the close-up, giving the reader a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, account of what it felt and sounded and smelled like to be an American soldier at battle with the Axis powers, that trophy-hunting readers will be compelled to eat what they kill.

6. Civil War Buff Dad
Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is practically a novella compared to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, which clocks in at a mammoth 2,968 pages. Everything in Civil War historiography is big. James McPherson’s single-volume history, Battle Cry of Freedom, consumes 952 pages. Ken Burns’s TV documentary The Civil War spans more than 10 hours of airtime. And that’s not even touching on the vast shelf of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee or the rich scholarship on individual battles or lesser-known generals and leaders.

This is Big Game Hunter territory, and if the dad in your life is new to nerding out on Civil War minutiae, you may want to shell out for the first volume of Foote’s epic, Fort Sumter to Perryville, a comparatively slim 856 pages. But if you are looking for new perspectives on the era, check out T.J. Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. As its subtitle suggests, Stiles’s biography frames the legendary bank robber not as a Robin Hood of the Wild West, but as a disaffected Confederate Army veteran bent on reviving the Lost Cause by any means necessary. Stiles writes well and is a scrupulous scholar, but he is also a gifted storyteller who reaches beyond cardboard outlaw stereotypes to bring the James boys to life on the page.

7. Business Maven Dad
If the dad in your life goes in for business books, you can’t go wrong with Michael Lewis. Like his fellow bestseller-list regular Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis is perhaps too faithful to the journalist’s dictum to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, but he is a superb shoe-leather reporter and over the years Lewis’s eye for the big-picture truth has been unerring. His best book is probably The Big Short, about the 2008 financial collapse, but his 2014 book, Flash Boys, about computer-directed high-frequency trading, is also excellent.

But anyone who reads business books will already have a shelf full of Michael Lewis. If you want a different take on American business, look for Beth Macy’s Factory Man, about John Bassett III, heir to a once-powerful North Carolina furniture-making company, who took on cheap imports from China and won. One longs for Lewis’s tale-spinning prowess in some of Macy’s background chapters that drag under the weight of her too-earnest reporting, but Bassett, the would-be furniture baron, is a colorful figure, and Macy’s core message, that a smart, driven factory owner willing to take some risks can beat offshore manufacturers at their own game, more than makes up for the book’s flabbier passages.

8. True Crime Dad
Perhaps no section of the bookstore is more heavily stocked with schlock than the one devoted to true crime. For every classic like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Dave Cullen’s meticulously reported Columbine, there are dozens of sensationalist gore-fests written by the likes of Ann Rule and R.J. Parker. Good true-crime writing should do more than pile up the bodies. It should use crime to shed light on an underside of a society, teaching us the unspoken rules of the world we live in by telling the stories of those who break those rules in the most aberrant ways.

Few recent books do this as well, or as hauntingly, as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, about the murders of five prostitutes buried in shallow graves along Long Island’s South Shore. Lost Girls is an unsettling read because the murders remain unsolved, but Kolker provides a fascinating look into the shadowy world of Internet escorts. Unlike prostitutes of an earlier era, modern sex workers can connect with their johns online, eliminating the need for pimps or brothels. This means the women can keep more of their earnings and are freed from what is often an abusive and controlling relationship, but as Lost Girls illustrates, this freedom costs them the physical protection of a pimp, making them especially vulnerable to violence.

9. Sports Nut Dad
>As with true crime, the sports book genre breeds schlock. How many books on how to straighten out a golf shot can one man read? A good sports book, like a good true-crime book, should go beyond the details of its subject to make a larger point about society or about athletic excellence. Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about the subculture of high school football in Texas, does this. So does Andre Agassi’s surprisingly engrossing autobiography Open, about the trials of a man who succeeds at a sport he has come to hate.

To one degree or another, all sports books try to answer the question of what makes a great athlete tick, but in The Sports Gene, David Epstein takes this question literally, using science to explore mysteries like why Kenyans win so many marathons and what it takes to hit a major-league fastball. The book’s message that there is no one path to athletic success may trouble the sleep of those Little League dads dreaming of turning their eight-year-olds into future Hall of Famers, but Epstein’s intelligent use of sports science, and his willingness to embrace ambiguity, makes for absorbing reading.

10. Vinyl Collector Dad
The return of vinyl records has emboldened a generation of Boomer and Gen X dads to haul their high school LPs out of the garage and give them pride of place in the living room. But they need something to read while they’re listening to all those dinged-up copies of Kind of Blue and Exile on Main St. Launched in 2003 and now published by Bloomsbury, 33 1/3 is a series of more than 100 short books about classic albums, ranging from Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones (No. 53, by David Smay) to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (No. 73, by Joe Bonomo). Each book in the series is by a different author, mostly music critics and musicians, with the occasional novelist like Jonathan Lethem (No. 86, the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music) thrown into the mix.

Some books in the series put the focus on the music while others take a more biographical or social-historical approach. One of the titles, No. 28 by John Niven, on The Band’s Music from Big Pink, is written in the form of a novella, telling the true story of how Bob Dylan’s one-time backup band created its iconic 1968 album from the perspective of a fictional observer. Overall, the series skews heavily toward Music White People Like, though acts like Public Enemy (No. 71, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, by Christopher Weingarten) and J Dilla (No. 93, Donuts, by Jordan Ferguson) do occasionally appear.

11. Aspiring Writer Dad
If you want to take the how-to route with your Aspiring Writer Dad, your best bet is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. While Lamott’s reflexive (and, to these ears, highly calculated) hippy-dippy whimsy can grate, she is a gifted teacher and her chapter on writing shitty first drafts is justifiably legendary.

But giving an aspiring writer Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is like buying a pocket dictionary for a college-bound high school graduate: It’s a cliché, and he’s probably got six copies at home, anyway. If the aspiring writer in your life is, like most aspiring writers, already up to his ears in well-intended advice, switch gears and give him Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, a gossipy insider’s history of how the sausage gets made in New York publishing. In this dishy corporate biography of the publishing firm Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has published everyone from T.S. Eliot and Roberto Bolaño to 1950s diet guru Gayelord Hauser, Kachka serves up enough sex and intrigue to keep the lay reader turning pages, but the book is fundamentally the story of how one headstrong publisher and a handful of talented editors struggled to maintain an independent publishing vision in a rapidly consolidating industry.

Image Credit: The Athenaeum.

Game Six: On the Sport of Writing

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A confession: sometimes, when I can’t seem to muster my prose past some insurmountable stretch in a manuscript, I utter the words “Game Six.” Some writers, in this situation, smoke tobacco. Other writers smoke stuff that is definitely not tobacco. I’ve heard of head-banging and tea-drinking and all manner of ball-squeezing. But for me, the trick is the greatest game in the history of the Detroit Pistons.

Dial it back to the 1988 NBA Finals, Lakers vs. Pistons. Going into Game Six, the Lakers are favorites to win. They’ve got legends Kareem Abdul-Jabar, James Worthy, and Magic Johnson. They’ve got the kind of reputation where one of the least regular things in the world, an NBA Finals win, seems the natural outcome for them. Detroit? Well, they’ve got a few passive aggressive contact maneuvers and ambition. Just a few years ago, they were one of the worst teams in the league, but by Game Six in 1988, the Pistons lead the series 3-2, meaning if the Pistons win the game, they take the championship victory for the first time in history.

It’s a close game. Captain Isiah Thomas scores 14 points in a row. There’s the possibility of a playoffs win tingling in his fingertips, and in the order of the court, an aperture seems to open, one through which the Pistons might prevail to become the country’s best professional basketball team. Thomas passes the ball to shooting guard Joe Dumars and takes an awkward step. Just one. But one wrong step can end careers. The aperture closes quickly. Thomas goes down, and sprawled on the floor grabs his shin, as though he might hold his right leg together. He limps to the bench with the help of the Pistons’ trainer.

Except Thomas is not a guy who can sit idly watching his team squander a shot for the title, even if he has a sprained ankle. So seconds later, he returns to play. The rest of the game seems unreal. Sneaker rubber chirps across the court like injured birds. Thomas dogs toward the ball with a hiccupping stride, shoots, scores, shoots, scores. At the end of the quarter, he’ll have taken 25 points for the Pistons on a sprained ankle, setting an NBA record. It’s the most awing performance in Pistons history, the kind of game where somehow, no matter how arbitrary the rules, as foolish as devoting one’s loyalty to one team may be, and in spite of one’s better judgment telling you that pro athletes earn millions for what can only be called recreation, you might find yourself levitating with the confidence that the human will can manhandle any physical limit. Then the Pistons lose, by one point, on Kareem Abdul-Jabar’s final free throw. Thomas’s best is glorious, but it isn’t enough.

And this titanic insufficiency is exactly what I consider when I write, because the athlete’s work is the writer’s work. This comparison may offend those of Cartesian mind-body division persuasion, but sport and fiction are both vocations requiring incredible efforts, imbued with the potential for real beauty, and perhaps offering little utility. Try to explain what’s so important about writing a novel, and what you’ll end up with is not so far from those offered by ye of muscular bent: It’s inspiring. It manifests happiness. It interrogates limitations. It’s for its own sake. It makes us feel less alone. It illustrates the human condition.

More importantly, writers and athletes are both in the business of narrative. As any sports fan will tell you, winning is not what makes a great game; the outcome is mostly irrelevant to the grace of the sailing pass, the coy swish of the net, the steam engine hook sending a fan of glittering sweat from the dumbstruck face of a falling opponent. Yes, we know from the beginning that Humbert Humbert will be found out, but, oh, how those sentences dazzle! The coiling clauses, the bubbling rhythms, the promiscuity of meaning — that is the material of literature. No writer writes merely for the ending, just as no player is simply in the game to see themselves on the other end of the clock. Their jobs aren’t to answer, “What happens in the end?” but “How does the story unfurl?”

Not that ending isn’t a consideration. I don’t know a single writer who loves the idea of writing unfinished manuscript after unfinished manuscript ad infinitum. In fact, I think that that’s most writers’ primary fear in media res. But a book doesn’t appear fully gestated, and it isn’t formed any better by getting it over with. If that were the case, A Farewell to Arms would read in its entirety: We loved and she died anyway. The Hound of the Baskervilles might be: A mystical dog isn’t killing people. The Pulitzer would go to the most outstanding Tweet. Congratulations, Werner Twertzog.

What we see instead from writers is something like a game played with language. Of course when you’re writing, the occupational hazards don’t include facing elephantine men whose primary directive is weaponizing 300 pounds of flesh against you to bone-crushing effect; writing, though it may not always seem so in workshop, is not head-to-head competition. But what authors often do find is that when they’ve written themselves into the corner, they’re looking for the holes where they can pull an agile maneuver. They’ve got a vocabulary of plays, and there’s only one combination they’ll orchestrate for the forward drive. Often, the most spectacular moments are the ones where the constraints seem impossible to work through.

Nicholson Baker’s debut novel, The Mezzanine, takes the form of a single lunch break escalator ride. The narrative doesn’t derive tension from a single challenge or imminent threat. Nor is there a particular adversary. In other words, several years ago, Baker found himself in the complex choreography of composing a novel, one bounded by two floors, and he was going to need some fancy fucking footwork to make the narrative move. So he planted the body on the moving escalator to push his narrator forward through time, all the while the mind splintering into branches of thought — and footnotes — that pivot back in time even as the narrator continues up, up, up. In a 2011 interview with The Paris Review, Baker considered his writing process in strikingly athletic terms:
It was totally absorbing, the feeling of being sunk in the midst of a big, warm, almost unmanageable pond. I could sense all these notes I had, all these observations I’d saved up to use, finally arranging themselves in relation to one other.
Baker’s syntax reveals some ambivalence about his own agency. He could sense, but it’s the observations that arranged themselves. It’s almost as though he cannot quite take credit for his work. The novel is one part the sense of the writer and one part some alchemical miracle stepping one word beyond another, as though preparation has met luck and spat out a slim volume of genius. It’s the kind of statement that could make a lot of aspiring writers push their wheelie chairs back and reach for the good stuff, because, in moments of doubt, it’s easy to wonder the extent to which the lottery of talent muscles out studiousness.

Can every writer be a Nicholson Baker? Can every athlete be an Isiah Thomas? I don’t know. But what I can say is that in both the athletic and literary worlds, interested parties find themselves asking whether the ratio for a successful career skews more toward aptitude or labor. Francine Prose begins her nouveau classic Reading Like a Writer by asking, “Can creative writing be taught?” It’s a question familiar to those following the ongoing M.F.A. debates and one that inverts that of David Epstein, who asks in his book The Sports Gene, “Do ‘sports genes’ exist at all?”

When we consider these questions, fiction and athletics suddenly become arenas where fate and free will grapple in a confusion of twisted limbs. To call a book a work of genius is to marry it to destiny, the kismet of the extraordinary mind. We rarely, however, call an esteemed novel a work of assiduousness, even as we urge students of writing to dedicate themselves to craft considerations. Perhaps because the mind is less visible than the slight frame, we’re less likely to say that a decent prose stylist probably won’t cut it as a writer than to tell a really good defensive lineman that he may not have enough body mass to carry out pro ball-level hard hitting.

While drafting my novel The Hopeful, which, coincidentally, considers whether grand resolve can overcome mediocre ability, I sometimes did wonder if I was deluded to believe I could write a book or just doing what anyone might: working my ass off until I had a manuscript to show for it. In a way, my problem was also that of my protagonist Ali, a young woman who, after an injury, is unsure whether the betrayals of the body have disqualified her from her dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete. Ali wishes to return to the world of competitive figure skating, a sport, like literature, of individuals rather than teams — and one in which the triumphant performance requires the demonstration of both technical facility and artistic merit, a realm where most people fail. In figure skating, an athlete attempts to learn maneuvers she may or may not be capable of performing by throwing herself into the air, falling, trying again and again, and maybe never succeeding. She’s invested not in the agony of defeat, but the agony of hope. And wasn’t I, too, as I wrote, throwing myself on the page to find out whether or not a novel would land?

There was the moment I got to page 40 and didn’t have a clue what my character would do next. There was the period where I decided to cut up a chapter and insert sections throughout the novel as flashbacks but couldn’t see how without sinking the narrative momentum. After the first draft was complete and the middle still felt flaccid, I pondered whether the whole scheme had been an enormous waste.

In his essay “Digging the Subterranean,” Charles Baxter notes that the board game Careers gestures toward a fundamental strain of narrative. The players are meant to choose which life goal they most desire: money, fame, or love. The part where everyone trips up is that you aren’t rewarded for points won in other realms. Want money and instead receive love? You lose. Want love and not fame? You and Taylor Swift both. “To ask for certain outcomes in life and to get another result,” he writes, “is tragic or comic or some combination of the two, depending on where the observer is standing…These discrepancies are at the core of many great stories, and myths.” This was the center of my novel. Ali wants to be an elite athlete, but she’d be much more successful if she just played to her skills, became a litigator or something more cerebral. It occurred to me that life would be an easier and more champagne bubbling existence if I took a job as a pharmaceutical rep instead of writing something that would only maybe one day be a novel. I was possibly situated in a losing round of Careers.

But this is where Game Six really factors in. Perhaps it’s Pollyannaish, but I do believe that that night in 1988, Isiah Thomas returned to the court with his gimpy ankle not for the win or big coin or fame but because he loved basketball. It’s easy to fantasize about the published book or the championship victory, and it’s easy to believe that whatever handicaps we suffer, whether the blocked mind or the swelling sprain, are too difficult to circumvent. Yet, I didn’t start writing to publish a novel, even if that’s what ended up happening. I started because I liked the late-night game of turning sentences, plowing clauses to the top or bottom to vary effect, whispering paragraphs to listen for the caught rhythm and assonant glide. So when the story goes flat or the words snag, I don’t convince myself I can knock out a novel or bribe myself with imagined printed books. I think of Isiah Thomas in ungainly pursuit of baskets, throwing that orange globe, hands hanging like autumn’s last leaves from raised wrists, not quite enough and rapturous.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Noah Silliman.

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