By Andy Jones-Wilkins,
CTS Ultramarathon Coach
Several years ago, I received an out-of-the-blue email from a team of researchers from the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania. They had apparently picked up my name from Ultrarunning Magazine and were interested in having me participate in a study on something they were calling Grit.
What is “Grit”?
Led by Professor Angela Duckworth, the team was conducting a study to test the theory of innate versus developed talent, and the impact of deliberate practice and hard work on success. The team created a set of questions that were used to assess an individual’s grit and distributed them to various individuals who were perceived to have a high level of it. That, it turned out, was why they came to me.
Simply defined, grit is a psychological trait that allows some people to work harder more frequently, and to give up on tasks less frequently. In addition, gritty people tend to be single minded about their goals, are often obsessed with certain activities, and are more likely to persist in the face of struggle or failure.
After their initial research, Duckworth and her team developed a very simple 12-item “Grit Scale” used to determine grit.
This simple scale allows individuals to assess their own grittiness by rating themselves in a series of situations. Duckworth and her team took this scale on the road and her work has been featured prominently in the mass media over the past few years.
One of her most interesting conclusions is that perhaps our most important talent is having a talent for working hard and for practicing, deliberately and for many hours, even when the practice isn’t fun.
Grit and Ultramarathon Running
Which brings me to ultramarathon running. Having been around the sport for 25 years, I have come to the conclusion that ultrarunners have, by default, more grit than the mainstream public. But, is the reverse also true? Are naturally gritty people more inclined to be ultrarunners? And, is grittiness a better predictor of success in ultras than physiological talent?
When looking specifically at the elite runners in the sport, I am curious as to whether those individuals are likely to be more gritty than their middle-of-the-pack counterparts? It would seem to be a logical extension of the concept. However, having observed finishers at major 100-mile races it appears to me, at least on the surface, that those runners who spend all day and night at war with the cutoffs may have as much or more grit than anyone. Finally, I can’t help but wonder if grittiness becomes a more significant factor in ultra success as the events become longer and/or more extreme?
People develop grit out of a blend of innate ability and acquired experience. Ultrarunners who’ve been in the sport for a while have, invariably, experienced failure. Out of those failures, grit develops and the memory of the experience lingers in the athlete’s mind, both during racing and training. Furthermore, observing the sport from the outside, simply getting out there day after day, even when the desire to not to is strong, invariably seasons the runner to hardship and develops that athlete’s “grit muscle”.
Clearly, this groundbreaking work has potential impact across the spectrum. In fact, I have wondered how well we teach grit in my school and if we provide an environment in which it can be nurtured and developed. Clearly, ultramarathon running is a natural-grit laboratory. Perhaps if a bunch of ultrarunners took the grit scale test and we tabulated the results in some semi-scientific way, we might determine the degree to which grit matters. I have a strong hunch it matters quite a bit.