EERO, EPOR AND THE 577R ALLELE


It did me good to read that Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta’s success in winning seven Olympic medals in cross country skiing was likely due to a genetic mutation that increased his oxygen carrying capacity 25-50%.  He wasn’t the only Finn who was this fortunate.  I wondered at the time why Americans never were on the podium in those events.

It also did me good when I read in Outside about a man who could hold his breath six minutes—yes, six minutes— and used that skill to dive to tag threatened hammerhead sharks.  A comment was even made by Laird Hamilton that this man was unique.

Hamilton, one of the great big wave surfers, is unique, too.

It did me good to read that virtually every Track and Field star has the 577R allele in some form, enabling them to do things that the rest of us can’t.  It isn’t a matter of training harder, as some have told us, or “mental toughness”; nope, it’s genetics.  Now, that doesn’t mean one can’t train and improve.  There was evidence that Lance Armstrong improved his muscle performance 8 per cent through training.  Unfortunately for the sport, he improved it another smidgin by taking drugs, although he was far from alone.  All Tour de France riders are genetically exceptional, and at the top of the top, a fraction of a per cent advantage matters.  Some argue that genetic mutations don’t make for a level playing field. Well, we aren’t all created equal.

For years, reading about all these guys and gals who could do everything from surf to big wall climbing made me feel inadequate, despite my wondering that these skills were genetic.  Now it’s clear.  You either are born that way or you aren’t.  Nurture is essential, mind you, but nature creates a few special people every generation.  I am not one of them and never will be.  On the other case, I’ve never taken performance-enhancing drugs.  I was drug-free.  Maybe there is a genetic mutation for that, too.  Or maybe good nurturing teaches one not to cheat.

For most of my life, I tried to play sports well.  I am competitive.  But I have a modest ceiling.  My medal in 1966 for the third place 400 yard freestyle relay at the Delaware state swimming championships was my being a moderate size fish in a puddle, since Delaware, besides being the first state, is the second smallest.  I played baseball but never thought to try out for the team.  Basketball? I played third string in the city league, although one fabulous day I hit 20 free throws in a row at a schoolyard.

In cycling I was in the top 14% of the El Tour de Tucson 109 mile finishers.  That meant I placed about #736.  I trained long hours and had done all the right things; my result wasn’t bad, but hardly noteworthy.  In only one sport—skiing—was I good, and that was because I started young, took lessons, and had a lot of days on snow.  I was an excellent technical skier, but I couldn’t race well.  As a kid, I dreamt of being a pro baseball player; I never once dreamed of being a top skier. I was neither.

I feel better knowing that when I watch a track meet, or a good basketball game, I am watching people with chromosomal genetic code that I and nearly all others do not have.  More importantly, I understand the pain of those who train and train and train, but they didn’t have the right 577R allele to be part of the U.S. Olympic Team.

I feel better knowing that I was right when I argued with my cycling friends that it was genetics that made top riders.  All the training I did made me better and faster, but I reached a low asymptote.  I do believe I have a slight genetic advantage for endurance. I did a 200 mile bike ride once in just over 12 hours. In the 2002 Cochise County Classic, I was part of a small group that had our own support, and from mile 100 to mile 160, the end, I was pulling at the front two-thirds of the time, stamping out a solid pace, seven riders in my slip stream,  as we finished in about 8 hours, averaging 20 mph.

I was sixth out of 20 finishers.  Not even podium.

I was right when I argued that if I could be a top cyclist by training, anybody could multiply three digit numbers in their head, the way I do, simply by training.  That stopped most arguments, because people knew then that my skills were genetic.  Sure, I practiced math a lot, but I had this stuff in my genetic code from day 1, just like Yo-Yo Ma and cello;  Laird Hamilton in big wave surfing, Chris Froome in cycling, or Stephan Curry in basketball.

We should celebrate these people, and we do, paying them good money and cheering for the the ones we like to succeed.  No doubt they eat right, they train right, they do everything they can to reach their potential.  Some do it better than others, and they are household names.

I no longer feel inadequate when I read about these people who grace the articles in Outside, Sports Illustrated or Golf Digest.  I am reading about genetics, what how random mutations can positively affect performance, and—I think—to a lesser extent what training does.  Training is what we can control, and allows us to do reasonably well, be it learning a language or hiking up a mountain.  None of us will be noteworthy except maybe in our small group.  Nope, it is the mutations who make the stars, the names we know.  They work hard, to be sure, to separate themselves from other stars, but they are in a league of their own.

Now all we need is a mutation that leads to idea generation that would fix the rest of the human race, so we wouldn’t trash the planet and drive ourselves to the brink of extinction, which we will.

Maybe it’s time for better nurture.

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