Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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10,000 hours: The Saga of Hayden Smith

I want to do a final post on the idea that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice can make anyone world class at anything.   This follows the recent posts on the general topic of talent and some of the nuances or even urban legends about the so-called 10,000 hour rule.   To do this I want to tell you the story of Hayden Smith who is the cross country coach at Albion College.


Hayden Smith 1.0

The first version of Hayden happened in the late 1960s when he competed for Albion.   He was a 5’8”, 145 pound sprinter/jumper who could run the 100 yard dash in 10.2, long jump 23 feet and high jump 6’5”.  In an e-mail he told me his best time for the 220 yard dash was:


“23.1……always faded because it was too far!”


Hayden graduated from Albion in 1970.


Hayden Smith 2.0

The second version of Hayden emerged in the early 1970s when he began to teach and coach at Flowing Wells High School in Tucson, Arizona.   For some reason he decided to start running long distances.  In 1974 Hayden ran his first marathon.  Here is the progression of his personal bests along with some notes about his body weight over that time.

 Date               PR             Weight (lbs)            Site     

12-01-74          3:14:30            142                  Culver City

02-15-75          3:01:54            142                  Tucson

06-14-75          2:56:13            140                  Palos Verdes

12-20-75          2:49:43            138                  Fiesta Bowl

06-20-76          2:47:05            138                  Toledo

12-11-76          2:40:26            138                  Fiesta Bowl

12-10-77          2:38:20            136                  Fiesta Bowl

02-18-78          2:32:30            135                  Tucson

12-02-78          2:31:44            135                  Fiesta Bowl

04-16-79          2:30:37            135                  Boston

09-09-79          2:26:28            133                  Eugene

12-01-79          2:26:10            134                  Fiesta Bowl


While Hayden was getting better and better over the years he was part of an informal group of about 10 people in Tucson who all had personal bests for the marathon under 2:30.  The group lasted until the early 1980s when people either started running less, moved away or got into other sports.  From time to time true elites with times near 2:10 like Ed Mendoza, Thom Hunt and Don Janicki would train with us.   More frequently Blair Johnson and Nick Martin, who both had personal bests of around 2:15, ran with us.


Most members of the group had a history in endurance sports and broke 3 hours the first time they ran a marathon, frequently off minimal training.  They then got better quickly and in a year or two were running near 2:30 or faster.   By contrast Hayden showed a slower start and a five year progression to a sub 2:30 time.  During those years he was averaging between 80-100 miles per week of running or more, doing hard core interval training, and long runs in the mountain trails around Tucson on Sundays.  In other words Hayden was training the way elite runners were at the time and still do!  He was also regularly running shorter road races.  Hayden continued to train at this level through most of the 1980s and ultimately he broke 3 hours 55 times.  However, his personal best is from 1979.


If there is anyone in the world who has spent 10,000 hours of deliberate practice at anything it is Hayden Smith.


Hayden vs. 10,000 hours?

Hayden is a great example of both the power and limitations of the 10,000 hour concept.  First, he became a truly accomplished distance runner in spite of the fact that he started out in what might be called “fast twitch” sports where he was also way above average but not great.  So, Hayden got good at distance running even though it was probably not exactly where his “natural talent” lied.  Second, no matter how much he trained his upper limit was still a long way away from world class.  That was true for all of the other members in the group as well.   Everyone found a talent barrier somewhere in the 2:20 to 2:30 range no matter how hard any of us trained.


So, when anyone tells you that talent doesn’t matter don’t believe them.  And, when anyone tells you the practice doesn’t matter don’t believe them.



3 Responses to “10,000 hours: The Saga of Hayden Smith”

  1. January 20th, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Cliff H says:

    I have always the idea that 10,000 hours turned you into an elite athlete to be nonsense. But what I thought I knew, and you don’t quite say, is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 hours of dedicated and smart training is what it takes to push yourself to be your best. I thought the idea was that you could “learn” things much faster, but if you truly wanted to perfect them, there is no substitute for the mental and physical acclimatization that comes with practice of that magnitude.

  2. January 21st, 2014 at 10:49 am

    Joey Keillor says:

    Taking Hayden’s summarized training schedule at face value, it’s possible that Hayden could have also achieved better marathon times with bouts of less training at some point. Not world-class, but better. The reason being that for many people, hard training tends to grind them down over time, leading to a plateau caused more by smoldering fatigue or training interruptions due to injury/illness. Hard training is important, no doubt. But so it training not so hard. Knowing when to do what is the “art” or “zen” of training/coaching. From anecdotes I read about East African runners, they are much better than Western runners at sensing when to go hard vs. chill.

  3. August 14th, 2017 at 9:32 am

    Ultramarathon an Trail Running Daily News | Monday, Aug 14 says:

    […] story about the power–and limitations–of the 10,000 rule by a guy who started as a sprinter and jumper and ended up as a […]

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