Science Is Right, Always. (Always!…Always??)

I firmly believe there’s this intangible thing–something that may in fact be unique to humanity as a species–that the field of science is unable to put its finger on.

Yes, scientific study can discern answers to quite a few “how” questions on the inner workings of the universe and everything in it; the “what’s” and “where’s” of it all as well.  But one deep seeded source of tension, within the community itself as well as between the ‘believers’ of the religious and the scientific, lies in the “why” of it all.

Despite what may seem overwhelming evidence to the contrary, why do we continue to believe as we believe? Why do we still seem able to accomplish the impossible? To maintain that elusive shred of hope when confronted by the disastrous? Why are we able to do more, see more, be more, than it seems we ever should?

What follows is an article written by Lauren Fleshman, U.S. Track & Field Champion in the 5000 meter, on why you sometimes shouldn’t listen to science…

My junior year of high school, a top-20 two-mile time in the U.S. earned me an invitation to an all-expenses-paid camp at the Olympic Training Center in San Diego. It was a huge honor, and the purpose was two-fold. First was to expose Olympic hopefuls to the resources and research that contribute to world-class performances. And second, to subject us to a number of tests to determine our true potential and find the diamond among us: the future Mary Decker. This camp wasn’t Romanian-gymnast serious, but it was pretty serious, and as the second-fastest runner going in, I couldn’t wait to see how I stacked up against the nation’s best 16-year-olds. Scientific confirmation of my greatness awaited me. The only challenge would be hiding the data so the other girls wouldn’t hate me.

So what happened? Science dropped a big steamy one on my dreams.

My 25-hour-a-week job at In-N-Out Burger gave me a huge fail in the nutrition department, and skin-fold tests told me my skinny frame was actually made of American cheese and extra crispy fries (animal style).

While girls around me were cart-wheeling about their Kenyan-strength hemoglobin and hematocrit counts, my bloodwork came back borderline anemic.

The ultimate test awaited at the end: the treadmill. With our noses pinched by clothespins and tubes inserted into our mouths to control and measure airflow, we would run our guts out on an ever-increasing incline until we were on the edge of collapse. Our fingers would be pricked along the way to track certain markers in our blood, and we were not to stop until we were at our maximum heart rate and effort. Translation for overachieving 16-year-olds: near-death. Falling off the back of the treadmill and pissing yourself at the end was the only way to ensure that you maxed the test.

Having failed almost every other measurement at camp thus far, I was certain that the treadmill test was where the evidence of my potential was hiding. Based on the magical VO2 max number we would receive, handy charts would show us what times we could hope to run one day, if we were lucky. And yet, as they handed out our results (and we inevitably began comparing), I quickly learned that my potential was mediocre. I was no champion. I was the worst girl there.

I’ll never forget how devastated I was. I tried to find the positive. Maybe they just saved me from wasting a bunch of time living through disappointment. I had other skills to fall back on that had promise: academics, guitar, yo-yo. I needed to talk to my coach to reassess my goals of being state champion, much less one of the fastest women in history. I mean, now that I said it out loud, it was a ridiculous thought in the first place.

“Lauren, it’s just science,” said my coach, who was there with me. “You ran faster than almost every girl here a couple months ago.”

“Yeah, I must have gotten lucky,” I retorted.

“It’s not luck. You’re talented. You can’t measure that.”

“Well, what’s the point of all those tests if they don’t mean anything?”

“They are useful, but they don’t mean everything,” Coach DeLong said. “Life is not a math equation. Neither is running.” And coming from a coach/math teacher obsessed with splits, that almost convinced me. Almost.

I called my dad from my dorm that night, as I would continue to do in times of doubt from dorms and strange hotels around the world for the next 15 years, and Frank’s take on the whole thing was the magical push that turned me around.

“You are a scrapper! A FLESHMAN,” he proclaimed in a volume that required me to yank the phone two feet from my ear and then cover it quickly to avert the attention of strangers. “You can’t measure the freaking HEART of a FLESHMAN!”

MY DAD MIGHT NOT know much about running, but he is an expert when it comes to heart, and I lived my first 13 years being measured on nothing but heart. Since running is one of the most quantifiable sports you’ll find, it’s easy to lose track of where the magic happens…Because of this natural love affair between running and numbers, we can be led to make one of the biggest mistakes of our running life: quantifying (and thereby limiting) our potential.

If I had taken that Olympic Training Center data to heart, I shudder to think about what I would have missed. Being a state champion and national high-school runner-up. A scholarship to Stanford, where I met my husband and my best friends and where my nameplate hangs on the Wall of Champions. I would have missed out on 10 years and counting in my dream job: traveling the world competing for my country, and attempting to write semicoherently about it.

Since that confusing week at the Olympic Training Center, there have been several more opportunities for science to evaluate my potential, and each time I held my breath that the results would magically change. But according to science, my 5-K potential is 35 seconds slower than what I’ve actually clocked. And therefore my accomplishments since then can only be due to some sort of inexplicable wormhole interfering with the orbit of the planet Venus during my conception. So despite having a college degree in science and human performance, when it comes to running I have decided to say, “Eff you, science.”

Quantifiable data is a valuable tool, but that’s all it is: a tool. If you are going to make an Excel spreadsheet in your mind, you better include a big “mystery column” at the end, because in this column live all the things that science will never measure. Your passion. Your spirit. Your competitive fire. Your lion’s heart. Embrace the mystery column. Respect it. Maximize it. There is immeasurable power in the unmeasurable.

Lauren is a pro runner with Oiselle and cofounder of Picky Bars. She won the 5000 at the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships in 2006 and 2010, and she’s represented the U.S. at the World Championships three times. She made her marathon debut in 2011 with a 12th place finish at the New York City Marathon. Despite an IT band injury that left her barely able to train, she made the 5000-meter final in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Track Trials.  You can read the Runner’s World article, and others, here.

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