Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Malcolm Gladwell vs. LeBron James, yes; LeBron sub-4:40, no

Malcolm Gladwell is an essayist and provocateur of sorts. He likes to look under society's hood to see if the things we too often assume are responsible for success (or failure) are really the driving forces at work in these people and situations. (He reminds me of the Freakonomics crew, or maybe it's the other way around.) I've read The Tipping Point and Outliers and enjoyed them both. I don't agree with everything Gladwell says but I usually like how he says things. He has a podcast too. And he's a dedicated runner.

LeBron James is one of the best basketball players of all time, a fact you already knew unless you just landed here from another planet (not an unfair guess on my part, since a number of my regular readers clearly spend a fair amount of time thinking, plotting and living in places other than Earth).

Now, as Chris Chavez reports for S.I., Gladwell wants to race James over a mile.

I would love to see this match-up. So would Chavez, who engages in some bizarre reasoning:

Take a second to think that there are hundreds of high school kids who break five minutes for the mile. There's plenty of high school soccer or basketball players that can hop on a track and run about 4:50 for the mile without any sort of endurance training. A very good high school runner can run 4:20 or faster and is a very average athlete by general metrics. James is arguably one of the best athletes in the world and so 4:40 should be no problem.
This is one of the more senseless syllogisms I've seen in a while, and I think that the normally quite sensible Chavez is more interested in having fun with the whimsy and the what-ifs than he is in being realistic here. It translates to "LeBron is a great athlete, and 4:20 milers as a rule aren't actually athletes; therefore, LeBron can get fairly close to 4:20 in the mile." (Ignore the entirely unsupported "There's plenty of soccer or basketball players who could run about 4:50" argument.)

I would guess that LeBron James would be lucky to run under five minutes for a track mile. At my most generous and stoned, I'd give him close to 4:50, rested and with ideal pacing and given a month to prepare specifically for the event.

I could point out that the fastest time by a decathlete in the 1500 meters at the recent World Champs was 4:22.62, equivalent to about a 4:44 mile, and, I think, safely leave the argument. But what fun would that be?

Runners are acutely aware that 5:00 is hardly an extraordinary time, probably close to the average personal best of high-school boys who compete for four years and put in some decent year-round training effort. But it's still pretty quick by everyday standards. And while James is undeniably in fantastic physical shape, he's also 6' 7" and 250 pounds and far more of a fast-twitch guy, factors that work against him in a mile race. He could probably run under 50 seconds for the 400 meters with little to no specialized training and flirt with 2:05 for the 800 meters toward the end of the NBA preseason, when he's presumably at his fittest and not worn down by the rigors of the 82-games-plus-playoffs campaign.

For further reference: Anyone remember those ABC Superstars shows from the 1980s? They would bring together athletes from various sports and have them face off in various competitions. One of these was the 800 meters. Carl Lewis, in the prime of his career in 1986, ran 2:10. World heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield ran under 2:10. Beach volleyball impresario Karch Kiraly ran 2:06. Hall of Fame NFL wide receiver James Lofton managed a 2:03.83. (Source of these times.)

I realize these guys were probably not going to the well for these play-acting "races," but they were very competitive people and weren't just mailing it in. And wide receivers are probably the most aerobically fit, quickest players on a field (along with defensive backs). Hell, even fitness king Herschel Walker only ran 2:15. There's no reason to suspect that James could better these guys in an 800, and for a larger individual who is far more reliant on speed than endurance to crank out two laps, a 2:10 probably translates to no better than 5:05-5:10 at best for a full mile.

Who knows, maybe 4:40 actually tracks LeBron's capabilities nicely and I'm the one who's way off. But I've just never understood this reasoning, and I've seen it a lot: "You don't have to be much of an athlete to be a good runner; therefore great athletes can easily become good runners."

The first part is true but the second is a non sequitur. You don't have to be much of an athlete to win a fart-lighting contest, but this wouldn't make a professional sports team a favorite to win a fart-lighting tournament. Unless it was a hockey team, of course. Men's or women's, your pick.

Anyway, Gladwell is 53, James 34. I'd love to see this but the chances it'll happen are probably close to zero.

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