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What does it take to run the impossible marathon?

Posted: 27th November 2019

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Posted on 27th November 2019 in Blog, Building self belief, Goals, Olympian insight, Personal goals

Author: Chris Martin

At the first Olympic Marathon at the 1896 Athens Games only one athlete broke the 3-hour barrier, and that was at a shorter distance of around 25 miles.

Over the last 120 years, the speed at which runners complete the race has steadily increased until the 1969 where Derek Clayton ran the time in 2:08:33. His record stood for 12 years. Since then there have been incremental improvements to the world record until the 2018 Berlin Marathon where it was broken by 1 minute and 18 seconds with a time of 2:01:39.

The same runner who broke that record Eliud Kipchoge, has been on a quest to break the 2 hour barrier and on October 12th 2019, he crossed the finish line in Vienna, in 1 hour 59 minutes and 40 seconds, becoming the first human in history to run a marathon in under 2 hours. Although his unbelievable achievement will not count as a world record, because it was not an official race, in doing so he broke a barrier many people had considered impossible.

To put the race into context, he ran for 26.2 miles at a pace of just over 13 miles an hour, a speed most treadmills don’t even reach. To look at it another way, his average pace for each 5,000m (5km) was 14:12. To put that into perspective, only four Parkruns in history have been run in a quicker time in the 15 years and 51,363,611 runs since Parkrun began and Kipchoge ran at that pace for 8 times the distance[1]. The current 5,000m record, held by Kenenisa Bekele, is 12:37. So how did Kipchoge manage to shave nearly 2 minutes off his own world record, and what can we learn from his incredible feat?

He set himself a “Crazy Goal”

Kipchoge’s goal of running a sub 2-hour marathon was considered crazy by many. But after the race he said “From the first kilometre to the last kilometre, I knew I had it.” When asked how he accomplished the feat he said:

“when you work hard, when you actually concentrate, when you set your priorities high, when you actually set your goals, and put them in your heart and in your mind, you will accomplish, without any question.”

Setting yourself a stretching goal is important, especially if you want to achieve great things. But it’s equally important that the goal is achievable. If there was anyone in the world who running an “impossible marathon” was possible for, it was Kipchoge. He already held the world record for the marathon and has come first in every official marathon he has ever raced, except one in 2013 where he finished second to Wilson Kipsang, who in that race set a new world record himself of 2:03:23.

Not only that, but Kipchoge had attempted to break the 2-hour barrier before. In 2017, he teamed up with Nike to break the 2-hour mark at a race-track in Monza, Italy. He managed to break the current world record, but fell just 26 seconds short of his crazy goal. That’s just 1 second per mile. After the failed attempt his was quoted as saying “the world is only 25 seconds away”.

In order to achieve his crazy goal, he not only needed to train hard (running around 140 miles a week in the run up to the race) but needed to figure out the factors affecting his performance and set about finding ways to make “his boat” go even faster.

Focus on performance and not results

No stone was left unturned in the quest for the impossible marathon. The venue, the weather, technology and conditioning were all analysed to create the perfect conditions for a world first time. The attempt took place on an avenue in Vienna’s Prater Park. For centuries this was a hunting ground for Austrian emperors and princes. The organisers chose the venue because of 90% of the course is straight, and has only 2.4m of elevation change for its entire length. Much of the course was tree lined to shelter the runners from the effect of any wind.

Nike provided Kipchoge with special footwear which feature a thick sole and an embedded carbon fibre plate designed to return energy back to the runner. Nike research says these give an improved metabolic efficiency of 4 per cent over the next best Nike racing shoe. Since their introduction these shoes have been used to break both the marathon and half marathon world records.

Throughout the race a vehicle drove in front of Kipchoge projecting the necessary pace on the ground using lasers. This ensured that they never fell behind the required speed throughout the race.

He worked effectively with the people around him

In order to achieve this feat, Kipchoge used rotating teams of 5 pacesetters, 41 elite runners in their own right, including five-time Olympian Bernard Lagat, and the three extraordinary Ingebrigtsen brothers, from Norway to run with Kipchoge. Teams interchanged every 5 kilometres to ensure he was able to maintain the required pace throughout the race. They also ran in a reverse v formation, to shelter him from the wind (this was one of the main factors preventing the record from becoming official) .

“one hundred per cent of me is nothing compared to one per cent of the team” Eliud Kipchoge

On his first attempt in 2017, there were fans waiting to cheer him on at the finish line, but the majority of the race was run in silence, with no encouragement from anyone. In Vienna, things were different. It’s estimated 120,000 fans lined the streets on 12 October, cheering Kipchoge along in a deafening roar.

Off the track there was a team ready to support him throughout the race. There was a cyclist who would pedal alongside Kipchoge at regular intervals to provide him with hydration and nutrition. Following on from Monza sports scientists theorised that he had run low on fuel towards the end of the race, which is why he fell short of his goal. In Vienna, his used bottles were sent to a nutritionist for in-race analysis, to ensure that he got sufficient fuel as and when he needed it.

He built the belief needed to achieve his crazy goal

His long-time manager, Valentijn Trouw, said there was a huge change in Kipchoge’s thinking since his first attempt at a sub-two-hour marathon in 2017. Before that race, Kipchoge’s personal best was 2:03:05. He was being asked to run more than three minutes faster than he had ever done before. Before that attempt, he was more anxious than normal. “In Monza, everything was new to him, and this time he knows what to expect.” At the “start of his training (for Vienna), he was confident. That’s the biggest change.”

Building belief that you can achieve something, especially something that has never been done before is not easy. Before the Olympic Final in 2000, Ben and his crew, built their belief by creating an evidence wall of all the things they had done before that proved they were capable of achieving their goal.

How can you emulate Kipchoge and achieve your own crazy goal?

One of the most common reasons people fail to achieve their personal goals is because they set themselves ambitious targets without figuring out the path they need to take to make it happen. Kipchoge’s goal was ambitious, but he and his team figured out down to the smallest detail what they would need to do to make it happen.

During our Crazy Goal Workshops we take the time to help clients figure out what their overarching goal should be. But we place equal, if not more, emphasis on breaking the goal down into concrete, control, and everyday layers. This ensures you know exactly what they need to do to make the boat go faster and achieve their goal.


[1] https://www.redbull.com/gb-en/eliud-kipchoge-sub-two-marathon-in-numbers

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