Monday, October 8, 2012

Specializing vs. Generalizing: An Interview with Marcus Taintor

Marcus Taintor entered the world of ultramarathons about a year ago. On August 30, I met with Taintor, a resident of Duluth, Minnesota, to interview him as a counterpart to my mid-August interview with Britt Ringstrom. In a future post, I will share further reflections on the subject of specializing versus generalizing.

Exercise History

“When I was younger,” Taintor began, “my three brothers and I were into working out a lot. We did lots of pushups and situps and lifting weights—stuff like that.” At the time Taintor was about 11 or 12 years old. “I remember being in sixth grade and getting up in the morning and doing 100 pushups.” He dabbled in different sports, such as hockey, in junior high and high school, but never seriously.

“When I was 18, I got into running a little bit. I had always liked going out in the woods and wandering around.” Taintor’s older brother did a road marathon, which inspired him to run a Twin Cities marathon, but he didn’t run much after that. Before the marathon, he did a few shorter races. His high school didn’t have track or cross-country, so he always ran on his own. At 18, he also started working construction and steelwork. He would lift weights for a couple hours after a day’s work. “I weighed the most then,” he said, referring to his muscle mass.

About five years ago, Taintor quit steelwork and went to Alaska for a while, where his only exercise was hiking around. After a year, he moved back to Duluth and got back into running another year later.

Currently, Taintor focuses almost exclusively on running. He let his gym membership run out in 2011. A certified mechanic, he keeps some muscle tone by working on cars, and he occasionally bikes, but those are his only cross-training activities. When I asked if he prefers to do one thing at a time, whether running or lifting weights, he replied, “I guess I like to focus on something as a form of release.” 

Marcus Taintor

Choosing Long-Distance Running

When asked why he has chosen to concentrate on long-distance running for the foreseeable future, Taintor responded, “It’s not one definite thing. It’s fun to see how far you can push yourself, I guess. I really enjoy it. I love being outside and I love being in the woods. There’s kind of a community, too, with the ultrarunners. I like that.” He added, “It’s fun to be able to cover as much distance in one day as most people can hope to cover in a camping trip. Some days I’ll just make a goal like ‘I’ll run from one side of Duluth to the other.’”

Taintor likes the practical aspect of long-distance running. “Races give you an excuse to see another state park, to observe something you normally wouldn’t see and in a short amount of time. Something that would normally take a week to hike.”

Sacrifices and Bonuses

One sacrifice Taintor has experienced with long-distance running is the amount of time it requires. His average daily run takes one or two hours, and on the weekends he usually runs five to six hours at once. “Obviously I’ve lost a lot of muscular mass,” he added, but he feels “fine with it.” When he told me that some people have poked fun at him for being skinny, I asked if that bothers him. He said, “A little bit, I suppose, but it’s mostly just annoying.” He said  people think he’s crazy for running such extreme distances, an attitude he also finds annoying at times.

As far as unexpected bonuses, Taintor said, “I’ve had a few runs where I’m completely euphoric. It’s hard to explain, but you do get runner’s high sometimes. I can eat as much as I want,” he added, “but that’s the way it’s always been.”

Advantages of Specializing

When I asked Taintor what advantages he sees in specializing in a certain form of exercise, he responded, “Running has more value to me right now. I was having an easy time getting burnt out going to the gym.” However, he noted, “I think it’s better to be more well-rounded. I should probably do more swimming and stuff like that. A lot of times, if I feel like I’m getting injured, I do switch it up.” Still, Taintor had a 100-mile race coming up at the time of our interview, and the only way to train for that is running long distances, he said. He would like to do an Iron Man competition next year. 

Wear and tear from the trail

I knew Taintor had read my interview with Britt Ringstrom, a CrossFit athlete, as well as my post on admiring your body when you exercise, so I steered the conversation to those subjects. “Sometimes it seems like [CrossFit athletes] are showing off a lot,” Taintor remarked. “It seems more like vanity—the ads are focused on ‘Look what I can do—I’m flipping a big tire over’ or whatever. I don’t think it’s a terrible thing all the time to like how you look. But it’s hard not to dip over into vanity.” Taintor made it clear that he has nothing against CrossFit in general. “I know people that do both CrossFit and run ultras, which I find very inspiring.”


Taintor is not a true specialist counterpart to the generalist Ringstrom, in that he doesn’t do (or want to do) all running, all the time. Still, Taintor said, “I’d like to stick with running because I enjoy it. I’m still kind of new to the whole ultrarunning experience, and I want to keep with it to see what it’s like. I still haven’t had a race yet where I was like, ‘Oh no, I can’t finish it.’” He then explained his view of running as “one of those things where it’s kind of limitless, so it’s hard to know when you reach [your limit].” When I asked if he meant that it’s hard to answer the question “When is enough enough?” he said yes. “With the 100-k race I did,  I felt so good at the end that I didn’t want to finish running.”

The comment from this interview that struck me the most in relation to the specializing/generalizing dichotomy was “It’s fun to see how far you can push yourself.” Exercise generalists can push themselves, of course, but to be well-rounded they cannot push themselves too far in any one direction without sacrificing other areas. Taintor seems drawn to testing his uppermost running limits, to discovering where the breaking point is. I have to admit that it seems like an exhilarating pursuit.

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