I used to run a lot. I’ve also biked a lot, both on the road and off-road.
Some friends and I went to see the Tour de France in 2004. We brought our bikes and rode many of the big climbs that are featured in the race.
We didn’t watch every stage but the ones we watched were inspiring. You’re able to get close enough to the racers as the go by that you could reach out and touch them. So you really get an appreciation of how fast they go.
I saw this short pondering by Malcolm Gladwell about what he calls the “Kipsang Number.” It’s an idea my friends and I have considered too, but we didn’t make it as concrete as Gladwell and his friends did. Get ready for a beat down. Have a look:
I watched the marathon and was struck (as I always am watching marathons) by the same dumb, obvious point: they are fast. It’s worth dwelling on this a moment. Back when Wilson Kipsang set the world record (which was then promptly broken), my running friends and I came up with the “Kipsang number,” which represented how long could you keep up with Wilson Kipsang while he was running twenty-six miles. I am a devoted runner and my Kipsang number is less than a mile. If I’m lucky, fourteen-hundred metres. You are a really good runner, and I’m guessing your Kipsang number is two miles. The average, healthy, athletic, American, twenty-two-year old varsity athlete in a sport other than track probably has a Kipsang number of between 400 and 800 metres. To recap: you could keep up with him for a quarter of a mile, then you would collapse in exhaustion. He would keep running at the same pace for another twenty-six miles.
The author of the article on the Kipsang Number related the idea to cycling too:
My cycling friends and I often ponder a similar number when out on group rides: on a flat road, how long can you bike at the speed that professional cyclists ride at in the flats in the peloton? Or how long can you hold the average speed of a professional climbing expert like Nairo Quintana on a cycling climb?
This would be a fun charity event, either on the track or in cycling, to invite average Joes to try to keep up with Kipsang or a strong pro cyclist for as long as possible, and soon as you fell behind, you’d be eliminated.
You wouldn’t last long.
The pros aren’t training for health reasons. It’s their job. They’re humans with special abilities that have been selected for, by racing. Once they’re at the pro level their abilities, training, and often chemical enhancements make them unapproachable by regular people who train for fun and health.