Whenever we see or experience something that challenges our expectations, we search for a reason. How did I accomplish that feat or why did this happen to me? In this weekend’s marathons extravaganza highlighted by Eliud Kipchoge breaking two hours for the marathon, the temptation by all those who witnessed it is to search for an explanation.
The easy answer is a narrative that some will grasp on to it was a mental breakthrough. That upon running 2:00:25 in an exhibition, that the zen master of running, Kipchoge, had the confidence to breakthrough. Some in the media or lay audience will elevate the narrative, by claiming that the sub-2-hour marathon was thought to be impossible. This same narrative played out when Bannister broke four and has stuck around for decades. (And while a select few thought this in Bannister’s case, they were outliers. A man had already run 4:01 for the mile, no one truly thought it was impossible. Just as with Kipchoge.)
There is little doubt that Kipchoge is a once in a generation talent. Someone who has mastered a race distance that has flummoxed generations of elite athletes before him. He exudes the quiet confidence that every young runner should seek to imitate. There is no doubt that an immense level of dedication and work-ethic mixed with amazing god-given abilities is the reason Kipchoge is the world’s greatest.
But that’s not the question we’re seeking to answer. The question is how does someone who is already the greatest, go from 2:03 to sub 2:00. The easy answer is to default to his mentality, the hard answer is to dive into the nuance.
Just as with Bannister, having the right mentality matters, but no more so than having the right training, nutrition, pacing, and so forth. When we look at Kipchoge’s breakthrough race, the same story unfolds. There are a variety of factors that influenced the breakthrough. From pacers and drafting at a level that transcends anything ever experienced to shoes with three carbon plates to optimizing nutrition, the course, and more. How much does each contribute is nearly impossible to delineate. But understanding the complexities of performance is something that we should all attend to.
The simple story is appealing. Whether it’s in explaining how a man ran under two hours for the marathon, or why you did or didn’t get the latest job you applied to. Humans are rationalizers and explainers. We have to go against our natural urge to accept the simple explanation and challenge ourselves to dive deeper. To find the nuance. To understand the true cause.