Eliud Kipchoge is known chiefly for two things: winning and breaking records. He has won eleven of the twelve marathons he’s raced (finishing second in the only one he didn’t win). In 2017, he made the first formal attempt to cover the marathon distance in less than two hours, shocking the running world by coming up just 25 seconds short, and two years later he tried again and succeeded, covering 26 miles, 385 yards in 1:59:40. While this feat doesn’t count as an official marathon world record, Kipchoge owns that mark too, having clocked 2:01:39 in winning the 2018 Berlin Marathon.
In light of these facts, you might assume that Kipchoge is extremely focused on numbers and trophies, but he’s not. “I believe in a philosophy that says to win is actually not important,” he said in a 2016 speech at the Oxford Union. “To be successful is not even important.” What isimportant to Kipchoge is self-mastery, for which running marathons serves as a vehicle. “Only the disciplined ones are free in life,” he told his audience in the same address. “If you aren’t disciplined, you are a slave to your moods. You are a slave to your passions.”
When Eliud Kipchoge talks about running—not just in this instance but in general—he sounds more like a spiritual leader than some dumb jock. “It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles,” is a proverb attributed to the Buddha. Substitute “marathons” for battles and you have another Kipchoge quote.
There’s nothing unique about Kipchoge in this regard. Endurance racing is a spiritual experience for many athletes. Indeed, it’s almost impossible for a spiritually sensitive person to experience endurance racing non-spiritually, which is why spiritual leaders including Sri Chinmoy, an Indian-born advocate of meditation and running influential in the U.S. in the late 20th century, have promoted it even to nonathletes. “The inner running and the outer running complement each other,” Chinmoy wrote. “For outer running, we need discipline. Without a life of discipline, we cannot succeed in any walk of life. So when we do outer running, it reminds us of the inner running.”
With the proper attitude, any activity—eating, gardening, you-name-it—can be undertaken as a spiritual exercise. But endurance racing is unique in that its spiritual aspect is almost inherent, so that even people who don’t initially pursue it for spiritual reasons end up doing so. Why is this?
Recent science guides us toward an answer to this question. It is evident to any athlete who has ever done an endurance race that the experience is challenging both physically and psychologically. In the past, exercise scientists believed that the limits athletes encountered in endurance races were physical in nature, and that the psychological challenges associated with approaching these limits were mere epiphenomena. The idea was that mechanistic factors such as lactic acid buildup in the muscles and depletion of muscle glycogen fuel stores prevented athletes from going faster and farther than they did. But we now know that this is not the case. While physical limits do exist, they merely constrain performance instead of limiting it directly. The limits that athletes encounter directly when racing are psychological.
What makes endurance racing different from sprinting is that, in a endurance race, the fastest way to get from the start line to the finish line is not to go as fast as you can. No human is physically capable of sustaining a true 100 percent effort longer than about 45 seconds. Therefore, in longer events, athletes must pace themselves, which means holding themselves back to a speed that can be sustained for the full distance. And pacing is done consciously, through a combination of cognitive and perceptual process.
In particular, pacing is a form of predictive processing, where athletes continuously estimate the highest level of output they can keep up from their current position the finish line, adjusting accordingly. These estimates are based on perceived effort (or the athlete’s sense of how hard they’re working relative to maximum), past racing experience, and conscious knowledge of the amount of distance or time remaining n the race. Relying on these cognitive and perceptual factors, the athlete seeks to avoid 1) reaching exhaustion ahead of the finish line and 2) reaching the finish line before the point of exhaustion.
It’s important to note that when athletes do miscalculate and reach exhaustion ahead of the finish line, it is seldom because they have hit a hard physical limit like glycogen depletion. Rather, it is because they have reached the highest level of perceived effort they are willing to tolerate. They may feel physically incapable of continuing, but in fact they aren’t. Carefully designed studies have demonstrated that, at the point of quitting any type of endurance test, athletes always possess reserve physical capacity.
The psychological limit of perceived effort tolerance is no less real than the physical limits it protects athletes from ever actually encountering, but its nature is different. Imagine a row of weights arranged in order of increasing heaviness. Your task is to lift each weight in turn until you get to a weight that is too heavy for you to lift. When you do reach this point, there’s no doubt about it. You either can or can’t lift the next weight in the sequence.
By contrast, maximal perceived effort, similar to maximal pain tolerance, is mutable. This was shown in a study performed by Australian researchers and published in Pediatric Exercise Science in 2013. Thirteen children between the ages of nine and eleven years were asked to run an 800-meter time trial on three separate occasions. Because this was a novel distance for the kids, they were expected to improve their times over the three time trials through improved pacing strategy. And they in fact did improve, but not through improved their pacing strategy. In all three time trials, the kids started too fast, slowed significantly, and then sped up again toward the end. Their performance improved, rather, simply because they ran harder. In the first time trial, they ran as hard as they felt they could, and it hurt. But in the second one, having a bit of experience under their belts, they felt they could push a little harder and hurt a little more, and in the final time trial, knowing the second trial hadn’t killed them, they felt they could push harder still and hurt still more.
Experienced and highly motivated endurance athletes are capable of tolerating levels of perceived effort that are almost indescribably unpleasant. Because of this, and because the psychological limit of maximum tolerance for perceived effort is fuzzy, endurance athletes tend to find themselves in a special state of consciousness in the late stages of races. It’s essentially a shouting match between two distinct inner voices representing disparate aspects of the self. One voice, representing the instinctive desire to avoid discomfort that we all possess, is begging the athlete to quit, or at least slow down, while the other, representing the factors that motivated the athlete to pursue a goal that cannot be achieved without discomfort, is ordering the athlete to press on. Ambivalence occurs routinely in everyday life, but the internal dividedness athletes experience in the crisis moments of races is uniquely pure and intense.
Spirituality means different things to different people, but self-mastery is foundational to all spiritual paths. To live on a spiritual plane, whatever this may mean to you, is to live in accordance with your highest values, and this requires that you cultivate the ability to subsume your “lower” impulses to these values. In short, it requires self-mastery.
For millennia, humans have used tools such as fasting and meditation to pursue spiritual growth through self-mastery. These tools serve to foment a state of internal dividedness that presents the spiritual seeker with an opportunity to work at self-mastery. Traditionally, the inner battle that occurs during fasting or meditation is conceived of as being fought between flesh and spirit. From a scientific perspective, the battle is actually between different aspects of the mind rooted in different parts of the brain. The main battleground is an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is active in resolving ambivalence. Studies have shown that the ACC is exceptionally strong in both meditators and endurance athletes.
Both endurance athletes and meditators also score high on tests of inhibitory control, or the ability to override impulses through conscious restraint (a task that is handled by the ACC as well). Inhibitory control is not self-mastery itself, but it is one mechanism by which self-mastery operates.
One key difference between endurance racing and traditional spiritual tools of self-mastery is that endurance racing is competitive. It’s tempting to assume that the competitive drive stands in opposition to spiritual experience, and it certainly has this potential. For some athletes, racing is an largely expression of ego. But for others, competitive goals are merely a pretext for pursuing self-mastery. It’s a well-proven fact that athletes are able to push harder in a competitive context than outside of it, and the harder an athlete pushes, the greater self-mastery he or she attains. This is precisely why a spiritually sensitive athlete like Eliud Kipchoge who doesn’t believe that winning is important tries so hard to win.
Another key difference between endurance racing and traditional spiritual tools of self-mastery relates to the role of the body. In some spiritual traditions, there is a tendency to derogate the body and instinct. One of the reasons endurance racing appeals to me personally as a spiritual endeavor is that it celebrates our embodiment and places biology and instinct in the service of the quest to live in accordance with our higher virtues. Endurance racing certainly isn’t for everyone, but as a spiritually sensitive person who enjoys having a body, I’m very glad it exists!