Eliud Kipchoge

In a recent post of mine—one that, like a number of my recent posts to this blog, dealt with the subject of pacing in running—I concluded with the following observation: “A masterful pacing performance like Scott Fauble’s 2:08:52 finish at this year’s Boston Marathon, which he achieved with dead-even 1:04:26 first- and second-half splits, are as marvelous to behold as a perfect golf shot, and the science behind such feats is truly mind-blowing.”

As a writer, I am endlessly surprised by the things certain readers get hung up on, and I was more than a little surprised that a few readers got really hung up on the above-quoted sentence. One commenter labelled the statement “controversial,” adding, “No way even split in Boston is optimal.” Another asserted that “even splits may very well be the scientifically ideal way to run a race but it’s just common sense that that isn’t the case with a hilly course.”

I’d like to take this opportunity to address these criticisms, not for the sake of winning an argument but to help runners like you better understand the important skill of pacing. Now, I will concede that I probably should have given an example of masterful pacing that was less vulnerable to being challenged than Scott Fauble’s even-split Boston Marathon, especially given that my purpose in adducing this example was not to provide empirical support for my main argument but simply to convey my appreciation for the beauty of expert pacing. But I chose Scott for a reason, and I stand by my claim that his pacing performance at this year’s Boston Marathon was masterful.

What made it masterful? First, as his 5K split times throughout the race attest, Scott avoided “bad” miles—those throwaway slow miles that have an outsized negative impact on finishing times. On all marathon courses, both flat and hilly, the runners who run the fewest miles at a pace that is slower than their average pace for the race as a whole come closest to winning at the end. While it is not optimal to be rigidly consistent with pace in a topographically interesting marathon like Boston, statistical analyses of pacing data from the Boston Marathon have shown that the least consistent pacers fare the worst, not just generally but also with respect to their own historical standards, and the most consistent pacers fare the best. Scott is now the fifth-fastest American finisher of the Boston Marathon in history, and he owes it partly to his choice and ability to pace the course with remarkable consistency.

The second reason I consider Scott’s pacing execution masterful is that he moved up from 22nd place at the halfway point of the race to 7th place at the finish. All of the fifteen athletes Scott passed in the second half ran positive splits (meaning their second half was slower than their first), in contrast to Scott’s even splits. I’ll delve deeper into the specifics of the Boston Marathon course profile in a minute, but the point to be made here is that, when my Facebook friends say that even splits in Boston are not optimal, what they are inferring is that a positive-split pattern is preferable in this particular event because the second half of the course features more climbing and less descending than the first. But if we accept this definition of “optimal,” then the fifteen runners Scott passed in the second half of the race did it “right” and Scott did it “wrong.” Which is absurd!

The third reason I consider Scott’s pacing execution masterful is the way he finished. I know Scott well, having trained with his team for thirteen weeks in 2017. He’s as tough as they come, and can dig deeper than just about anyone else in any race. Watching his beautifully ugly stretch run down Boylston Street put a lump in my throat, for it was clear he was digging as deep as he ever had, carving himself hollow in the hope of catching one more runner (the fading Albert Korir of Kenya—another positive splitter—who finished just two seconds in front of Scott) before it was too late. Try as he might, though, Scott wasn’t really able to kick per se, or lift his pace much at all, as far as I could discern. But he didn’t lose steam either, as Korir and the fifteen runners he’d overtaken had done.

This is the part of pacing skill that can’t be measured. If thirty-plus years as a runner and twenty-plus years as a coach and student of the sport have taught me anything, it’s that, when a runner is giving absolutely everything he has to give in the last part of a marathon and he neither speeds up (much) nor slows down in relation to the entire rest of the race, that runner his paced himself masterfully.

Grab some popcorn, I’m just getting warmed up.

Now, to the course. Much is made of how much tougher the second half of the Boston Marathon course is than the first half. Too much. Both halves are net downhill, with the first 22 kilometers dropping 72 meters and the last 20.2 kilometers dropping an additional 61 meters. Both halves feature uphill portions that go against the overall altimetric trend, although the lion’s share of the elevation gain does fall in the second half. So, while the second half is indeed tougher than the first, it’s not drastically so. When I emailed Scott Fauble to request his take on Boston, he said that, for an elite male racer like him, an even-split race like the one he ran equates to a 20- to 30-second negative split on a flat course like Berlin’s or Chicago’s. In other words, for a sub-2:10 guy, the second half of Boston’s course is 20 to 30 seconds slower than the first. That’s it.

I think most of Scott’s fellow elite Boston veterans would agree with this assessment, and if they’re right, then given what we know about optimal pacing in flat marathons, running even splits in Boston is in fact optimal. History shows us that, on a flat marathon course, a 20- to 30-second negative splint tends to yield the best final result among elite racers. The current men’s world record of 2:01:39 was set by Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge in Berlin in 2018. He covered the first half of that race in 1:01:06 and the second half in 1:00:03, a 33-second negative split. Logic tells us that if a 20- to 30-second negative split is optimal in flat marathons for elite racers, and if a 20- to 30-second negative split in a flat marathon is equivalent to even splits at Boston, then even splits must be close to optimal in Boston, at least for top finishers.

By now my Facebook friends are beginning to sweat a little. “One example doesn’t make a pattern!” Fair point. Even most elites run positive splits in Boston. But most elites run positive splits in every major marathon, including flat ones. That’s because most elites race for position, not for time. They stay with the lead pack as long as they can and then they blow up. Or not. The most successful elite performances in Boston, as in every other major marathon, follow an even-split or a slight negative-split pacing pattern. Forget Scott Fauble. Geoffrey Mutai’s Boston Marathon course record of 2:03:02, which I witnessed from the media center back in 2011, resulted from splits of 1:01:57 and 1:01:05. The women’s winner that year, Caroline Kilel, split 1:11:30 and 1:11:06. Even in the rare year when a runner solos to victory off the front, as Meb Keflezighi did in 2014, we see the same pattern. Meb’s splits that year were 1:04:26 and 1:04:21.

Growing desperate, my Facebook friends move the goalposts, pointing out that what’s true for elite runners isn’t necessarily true for other runners. Scott himself expressed a similar caution in our email exchange, writing, “I don’t think you should take any lessons from a pro race on pacing.” But whereas Scott was talking about the difference between racing for position and racing for time, my Facebook friends, in their desperation, are suggesting that even splitting is unrealistic in Boston for nonelite runners.

I know from personal experience that this suggestion is baloney. I ran my first Boston Marathon in 2009, covering the first half in 1:19:45 and the second half in 1:59:25, finishing in 3:18:10. Oops. When I ran my fourth and final Boston Marathon ten years later, I’d figured out the race and gotten a lot better at pacing marathons generally. My splits on that occasion were 1:27:25 and 1:26:43, and I finished in 2:54:08. Hooray for me. But that’s not my point. My point is that I’m not Caroline Kilel or Meb Keflezighi—there’s nothing special about me. Any runner who is well prepared and who understands the course can pace Boston similarly and reach the finish line quicker for it.

Credit: Kevin Morris Photographer

When I asked Scott Fauble if he could have done anything differently pacing-wise in the 2022 Boston Marathon that might have gotten him to the finish line quicker, his short answer was “probably not.” His longer answer was this: “I could have gone out faster. But the danger of that in Boston is because the second half is harder you’re risking losing a disproportionate amount of time on the hills if you go over the line. And more specifically, at Boston the last 5 miles are some that you absolutely have to take advantage of so I think it’s better to hold back and make sure you still have your legs coming home.”

This, folks, is what it means to understand Boston and how to run it! My Facebook friends’ take on the race is far less nuanced. It’s basically, “First half easy. Second half hard. Even split impossible.” But where these guys see only black and white, Scott and I see shades of gray. Take Heartbreak Hill. Despite the scary name, that thing is little more than a glorified speed bump, rising 91 feet over half a mile. If not for its placement in mile 21, it wouldn’t scare anyone. Sure, it doesn’t feel like a speed bump on tired legs, but only runners who don’t come prepared or who don’t heed Scott Fauble’s advice to “hold back” are slowed much by it. In 2011, Geoffrey Mutai’s fastest 5K split of the entire race (14:12) came between 30 and 35 km, a segment of the course that covers three of the four biggest climbs, including Heartbreak. Not only was Mutai not slowed down by those ascents, he sped up on them! And again, you don’t have to be Geoffrey Mutai to glide over these hummocks. In 2019, I covered mile 21 in 6:42, just 4 seconds slower than my pace for the race as a whole.

It’s beyond the scope of a single blog post to say everything there is to say about pacing the Boston Marathon, or pacing marathons more broadly, or pacing in general. My modest goal here is to impress upon you how much more subtle and nuanced is the art of pacing than folks recognize. Squinty eyes see only dyads: fast/slow, hard/easy, up/down, first part/last part. The reality of pacing is far more textured, in multiple dimensions—kinesthetic, perceptual, affective, cognitive. My message to you is this: If you want to find yourself walking up Heartbreak Hill, listen to my Facebook friends. But if you want to finish your next race, and the one after that, and the one after knowing you couldn’t possibly have done any better, as Scott Fauble did at the 2022 Boston Marathon, then do yourself a favor and read my full take on this important topic, ON PACE: Discover How to Run Every Race At Your Real Limit. Or read this free sample chapter and then decide if I know what I’m talking about.

There’s a moment in the film It Might Get Loud, a 2008 documentary centered on guitar heroes Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White, that has stuck with me over the years. It’s the part where Jack is discussing the rationale behind his minimalist musical style, and in so many words he explains that making things harder for himself artistically forces him to become more resourceful in the creative process, thereby enabling him to come up with stuff he would never have come up with otherwise.

There’s a deep human truth embedded in this mindset, which is that with constraints come opportunities. When something is taken away from you—like, say, your ability to train and compete in groups because of a viral pandemic—it is natural to regret the loss. But the most resilient among us quickly pivot from focusing on what we can’t do to what we can do, and that’s exactly what many athletes are doing in response to the current crisis. If you’re open to turning the lemon of coronavirus into lemonade, here are four potential ways to do so.

Augment Your Home Gym

The day I learned that the health club I’m a member of would be shutting down, I went online and bought a 45-pound kettlebell. It was the one piece of equipment I felt I needed to perform at-home strength workouts that were just as effective as the ones I normally do at In-Shape. (I already had a Swiss ball, a pair of 35-pound dumbbells, TRX straps, resistance bands, and slide disks.) It doesn’t take a lot of dough to create a home strength-training set-up that is in no way limiting compared to what can be done in the gym. If you don’t already have all you need to do challenging and well-rounded strength workouts at home, take this opportunity to fill the gaps.

Expand Your Healthy Cooking Repertoire

By coincidence, my sister-in-law Jennifer gifted my wife and me with a delivery of Hello Fresh! meals three weeks into the shelter-in-place period here in California. In case you’re not familiar with the service, Hello Fresh! home-delivers fresh ingredients and original recipes for meals that customers then cook in the comfort of their own kitchen. The timing couldn’t have been better for us. With more time to cook and with restaurants closed and trips to the supermarket being risky, we recognized Jennifer’s thoughtful gesture as a great way to not only survive the pandemic but turn it into an opportunity. I’m not trying to sell you on Hello Fresh! specifically, but I am trying to sell you on the idea of using this challenging time to expand your repertoire of healthy homecooked meals.

Bone Up on Your Sport

If you enjoy reading, the natural thing to do when you’re stuck at home more than usual is to accelerate your reading rate. And if you’re an endurance athlete who likes to read, a great way to make productive use of extra time at home is to educate yourself about your sport. I’m mainly a fiction guy myself, but I recently enjoyed and learned a lot from Tait Hearps’s and Matt Inglis Fox’s charming little book Eliud Kipchoge, which describes the authors’ experiences inside an elite Kenyan running camp in the summer of 2017, and next up for me is The Athlete’s Gut by Patrick Wilson.

If I may make a somewhat self-serving book recommendation (and I may, because this is my damn blog), consider preordering a copy of Running the Dream: One Summer Living, Training, and Racing with a Team of World-Class Runners Half My Age. I wrote it in the hope of entertaining, inspiring, and edifying my fellow runners all at the same time, but I’ll let you judge whether I pulled it off.

Build Better Sleep Habits

For as long as I can remember, I have utterly refused to compromise on my sleep. I get eight-plus hours a night year-round. But most adults in the U.S. and a lot of other places are chronically underslept, and endurance athletes, being busier during the day than most adults, are even likelier to sleep too little. This isn’t good, because endurance training increases sleep needs and exacerbates the costs of under-sleeping. 

Chances are the current health crisis affords you more time to sleep than your normal lifestyle facilitates. If you’re among the majority of athletes who don’t sleep enough, take advantage of this opportunity, not just by sleeping more now but by doing so with a view toward establishing a new routine that you can carry forward after this nightmare has passed. And, for that matter, be sure also to carry forward the Jack White mindset that with ever constraint comes the potential to discover new ways forward.

Runners are goal-oriented by nature. It goes without saying that the pursuit of goals requires planning and a certain degree of control. It’s difficult to pursue the goal of, say, lowering your half-marathon PB if you don’t have a specific half-marathon event on your calendar and if it’s beyond your power to put one there.

The ongoing COVID-19 (aka coronavirus) outbreak has placed runners all over the world in a position where they are unable to do much planning and they have less control over their path forward in the sport than they are accustomed to. This semi-helpless situation is the source of a great deal of anxiety for many. As a runner myself, I am in the same situation, and not only that, but I’ve been quite sick (and yes, I’m about certain it’s COVID-19, though I’ve been unable to get tested) for the past three and a half weeks, hence even more helpless and unable to plan. To cope with my unhappy circumstances, I’ve been channeling my inner Kenyan, something I’ve done when dealing with setbacks and uncertainty ever since I spent time in Kenya five years ago, and I encourage all runners to give it a try—starting today.

Runners in Kenya

During my time in Kenya I was profoundly struck, and ultimately quite humbled, by the easygoingness of the people. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that nothing ever rattles or worries a Kenyan. Throughout my two-week stay in the country, few things happened on time, just about everything that could have gone wrong did, and no one minded. I was most impressed by Francis, the driver who was hired to transport my group from place to pace. One night, on our way back to Nairobi from Iten, we hit a traffic jam caused by a tractor trailer and a bus that had gotten stuck side by side on a narrow bridge, creating an impassible barrier. Smiling his ever-present smile, Francis hopped out to join the scrum of men discussing possible solutions to the conundrum, a discussion that was remarkably devoid of acrimony. From my distant vantage, they might as well have been talking about the weather.

Eventually we made it to the other side of the bridge. But the next day, our van broke down in a remote area. Francis’s smile never faded as he went through a multi-hour process of trying and failing to get the vehicle repaired so we could complete our journey. Eventually, the leader of our group hired another driver and Francis was left behind to continue dealing with the situation, still smiling.

The rest of us had been back in Nairobi for 24 hours when we saw Francis again, looking like he’d just won the lottery. I asked him how his misadventures had ended and he proceeded to explain that he never was able to get the van fixed, or at least not properly, and he got home by driving 30 mph the whole way—the highest speed the vehicle could sustain without falling apart. I pictured myself in the situation he’d just endured, and what I pictured was a wild-eyed man pounding the steering wheel, barking four-letter words, and visibly shaking from an endogenous cortisol overdose. 

Kenya’s runners share the broader culture’s laissez-faire attitude. This attitude is well captured in Tait Hearps’s and Matt Inglis Fox’s little book Eliud Kipchoge, which describes the authors’ experience inside an elite Kenyan running camp in the summer of 2017. The authors were shocked by how every run was loosely scheduled, few began at the originally scheduled time, and many were compromised by rain, poor roads, and other vagaries of the environment. And yet, they write, “None of this inconsistency and unpredictability appeared to perturb the athletes. They were habituated to it, and it appears not to be a part of the culture to be stressed or rushed in Kenya. Whenever they received bad news about new developments they never complained. They would pour another cup of chai, and keep chatting amongst themselves.”

Hearps and Fox go on to note, “This relaxed attitude and loose structure, although somewhat difficult to work with from our point of view, is quite refreshing once one adjusts to it.” I would add that, not only is the mellow Kenyan disposition refreshing for the openminded outsider, it’s also extremely healthy for and helpful to those who possess it. Their near-total immunity from anxiety enables the runners of Kenya to cope more gracefully with setbacks in training than most runners do, keeps them from wasting time and energy on vain efforts to control the uncontrollable, is a major reason they almost never choke in big races, and makes the whole athletic journey more enjoyable and less stressful.

When I left Kenya, I did so with the conscious intention of taking a piece of the country with me, on the inside. In moments when I catch myself slipping into a state of anxiety in response to some contretemps affecting my running, I make a conscious effort to call upon my inner Kenyan—to essentially do what Eliud Kipchoge would do in my place. Never have I needed this tool more than in the present COVID-19 crisis, not only because I’ve been stripped of my ability to plan out my running future but also because I actually have the virus (or something very much like it), and have been stripped of my ability to exercise, my fitness, and my health. It sucks, but after a brief initial pity party, I’ve been coping with a fair degree of poise, and I’ve done so simply by refusing to allow myself to worry about the future, as the people of Kenya seem to do instinctually.

As chance would have it, I’m currently reading the autobiography of Katherine Grainger, a legendary British rower. There’s a particular passage in the book that has supplied me with an additional tool to use in my effort to handle my present situation like a Kenyan, and I highly recommend you give it a try as well. Katherine herself learned this tool from Chris Shambrook, British Rowing’s team psychologist. In a meeting between Chris, Katherine, and her coxless pair crewmate Kath Bishop ahead of the 2003 World Championship final, Chris offered the rowers an image to use to keep their thoughts in the present moment during the race. Katherine writes, “Chris described having a trampoline at the finish line, turned on its side so that any thought that jumped to the finish or the outcome was immediately bounced back to the present moment we were in.”

I love this image, which an athlete can use whenever future-directed thoughts cause worry or frustration. So, the next time you catch yourself feeling anxious about the uncertainty of your immediate running future, do two things: Picture a tipped-over trampoline and ask yourself, “What would Eliud Kipchoge do?”

The concept of peaking in endurance training goes back many decades. It’s essentially the art of timing your next big race to coincide with an ephemeral highpoint in performance capacity that is achieved through careful manipulation of training load and sequencing of training stimuli. A critical belief (or assumption) underlying the practice is that endurance athletes are only able to achieve the very highest level of performance possible for them every several months, and actually attaining this level requires that we plan and execute our training just right. Failure to get it just right will result in peaking too early (reaching a fitness highpoint before race day and subsequently becoming “overtrained”) or arriving at the start line with room still left to get fitter.

But is peaking really a thing? In other words, is it actually true that peak performance potential is only possible in a handful of 24-hour windows each year, and that traditional methods of peaking are the only way to each these highpoints? I’m not really sure, honestly. 

One thing that is certain is that performance potential does tend to reliably increase as training loads increase (assuming adequate recovery) and as key workouts become more race-specific. It is also certain that athletes can only increase their workload (or train above a certain threshold) for so long before their fitness stops increasing and their performance drops due to excessive fatigue. These two facts would seem to require that athletes who wish to perform at the very highest level they’re capable of in certain races stick to a traditional approach to periodization.

There are, however, some noteworthy examples of athletes who defy this tradition without apparent consequence. One example is marathon world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge, whose training practices have been widely shared on the Internet. In analyzing them, American running coach Steve Magness was struck by how they flouted certain rules of peaking—particularly in their lack of a gradual increase in workload of a multiweek pre-race taper. “He appears to simply get in a groove and stay there,” Magness writes.

One thing that is not captured in the training logs Magness analyzed is Kipchoge’s conscious awareness of where he is in his training in relation to the race (in this case the Berlin Marathon) he’s training for. When athletes know that a race is far away, they tend naturally to hold back a little in training, preserving motivation for when it’s really needed. As race day draws closer, they allow themselves to go deeper and deeper into the pain cave in key workouts. In this way, a training program that may appear unchanging on the surface may in fact be progressive.

In short, peaking appears to be largely a psychological phenomenon. Further evidence of this comes from a 2010 study in which it was reported that runners at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point exhibited no significant increases in fitness measures over the course of a cross country season, and yet performed better in late-season races. Also, a 1981 study found that pain tolerance increased markedly in national-class swimmers over the course of a season, a possible sign of increasing motivation levels.

Another thing Magness observed in Kipchoge’s training is that, while the workload was heavy, it wasn’t extremely heavy, noting that “there ae very few mind-blowing workouts.” Kipchoge himself has said of his training, “I have been doing all things at 80 percent.” In this way I see Kipchoge not as an aberration but as part of a growing movement away from traditional periodization at the elite level. I was first awakened to the concept of what I now like to call the “always-ready” approach to training periodization by professional triathlete Meredith Kessler. When I interviewed her for Triathlete a number of years ago, Meredith said to me in reference to her training, ““I can drop in an Ironman at any time of the year if I want to. I’m even-keeled the whole year. I don’t have an off-season. I don’t really even taper. It never feels up or down. When [coach] Matt [Dixon] tells me, ‘You have a 10-day block,’ I look at it and say, ‘That looks like the same thing I just did.’”

I used the always-ready method myself in training for last year’s Ironman Santa Rosa, and it worked very well. The key is to find a level of training that’s high enough to allow you to perform at close to peak level whenever you please yet low enough that it’s more or less indefinitely sustainable. Of course, no serious athlete wants to perform at close to peak level in their most important races, but the always-ready approach is not about lowering the bar. To compete at a true peak level using the always-ready approach, all you have to do is A) rely on your conscious awareness of when your next big race takes place to enable you to take advantage of the psychological dimension of peaking and B) increase your training load for the last several weeks before event.

In my case, I found a groove at a training volume of about 16 hours per week, which I was able to sustain for many months without any sign of impending burnout. In the last six weeks before Santa Rosa, I gradually bumped this number up to 21 hours per week, tapered one week, and raced feeling fit and fresh. I’ve since used the same approach to enjoy a successful fall/winter “season” of running events ranging in distance from 5K to 100K. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the already-ready approach to periodization is “better” than the traditional, peak-focused approach, but I do believe it’s a legitimate alternative. If you want to give it a try, be prepared to experiment a bit before you find your personal maximal sustainable training load. And one final thought on the subject: Even with the always-ready approach, I think it’s necessary to take a break from serious training at least once a year, as I’m doing right now thanks to a mystery illness whose symptoms include a dry cough and shortness of breath. . .

The latest edition of the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism features a study that will be of interest to any runner seeking to perfect his or her race fueling practices. Conducted by scientists at the University of Bath and the University of Nottingham, the study compared the performance effects of consuming carbohydrate in small doses at high frequency and consuming an equal amount of carbs in one big lump at a crucial juncture during a treadmill run to exhaustion.

The subjects were six well-trained runners who ran as long as they could at a moderately high intensity on two separate occasions. On one occasion, the runners consumed 5 grams of sucrose every five minutes until they had taken in a total of 75 grams. On the other occasion, they consumed 75 grams of sucrose in a single dose 75 minutes into the run. Now, I know what you’re thinking: What runner in their right mind would gobble 75 grams of carbs all at once? Of course the first fueling protocol is going to yield better performance! But from an abstract physiological perspective, there’s no reason to make this assumption. That’s because the body of a well-trained runner stores enough carbohydrate to last more than 75 minutes at a moderately high intensity. So, in theory, the runners were getting that big lump of sucrose in time to preserve their ability to keep going at the same intensity.

Nevertheless, your assumption is correct: On average, the subjects lasted 105.6 minutes when given small, frequent doses of carbs compared to just 96.4 minutes when they had to wait 75 minutes for one big lump. But not all of the runners benefitted equally from the “carbohydrate drip” fueling approach. The researchers found that performance was most positively affected in those runners whose rate of stored carbohydrate use was reduced the most by frequent carb intake. This finding suggests that glycogen sparing was the mechanism by which frequent carb intake improved performance. But other research has shown that consuming carbs also boosts endurance performance by reducing perceived effort, so I’m sure this was a factor as well.

Granted, there is quite a bit of space between 5 grams of carbs every 5 minutes and 75 grams of carbs after 75 minutes. In the real world, runners are more likely to consume a gel packet containing 20 to 25 grams of carbs every 30 minutes or so. It would be interesting to see how this real-world fueling schedule compares to the carbohydrate drip approach. My hunch is that the closer a runner can get to a continuous, slow infusion of carbs during a race, the better. That’s why, when I take a crack at running a 2:38 marathon on March 29th, I will practice my version of the carbohydrate drip approach.

Here’s how it works: The Modesto Marathon (which is the event I’m competing in) has 13 aid stations, or one every 2 miles, give or take. I will grab a cup of Gatorade at each of them. Between aid stations, I will sip from one of two small flasks (as pictured above) containing a mix of Hammer Gel and water. These sips will be small and frequent—every 5 minutes or so. Between the Gatorade and the Hammer Gel I will take in 160 grams of carbs over the course of the race, or approximately 60 grams per hour. By executing this fueling plan, I should get more out of this amount of energy intake than I would if I took in the same amount in larger, less frequent doses, thanks to both glycogen sparing and a reduction in perceived effort. I have also found that the carbohydrate drip approach minimizes the GI discomfort that commonly attends energy intake during intense and prolonged running. What’s more, with the flasks I don’t have to worry about carrying sticky empty gel packets in my hand until I reach the next garbage can.

I should note that I am treating Modesto as a kamikaze marathon, meaning I intend to sustain my goal pace (6:04 per mile) until I reach the finish line or keel over. There will be no adjusting the pace based on how I feel as in a normal race. This makes it effectively a time-to-exhaustion test not unlike the one that was done in the study I described at the beginning of this article. It’s also the same strategy Eliud Kipchoge employed in his two sub-two-hour marathon attempts. Wish me luck!

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 is important 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.

Endurance racing is a spiritual experience for many athletes.

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.

Difference between endurance racing and traditional spiritual tools

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!

Exercise scientists have two basic ways of measuring performance in their studies. One is a time trial, where subjects are asked to cover a specified distance in as little time as possible (or cover as much distance as possible in a specified amount of time). The other is a time to exhaustion test, where subjects are required to sustain a fixed work rate (speed or power output) as long as possible.

In the real world, most runners approach most marathons as time trials. In my coaching role, I generally advise runners to take this approach because it offers the best odds of a satisfying outcome. The idea is to choose a time/pace goal that is challenging but realistic, start the race at this pace, and then make adjustments along the way based on how you’re feeling. The advantage of this strategy is that it limits the risk of hitting the wall. When a runner is even slightly too aggressive in the early part of a marathon, he is likely to slow down precipitously in the later part and consequently fall not seconds but minutes short of finishing the race in the least time possible—if he finishes at all. To avoid “wasting” a marathon (not to mention the months of preparation leading up to it), a runner must be a little conservative, choosing a target pace that he’s very confident of being able to sustain for the full distance and relying on a fast finish to avoid leaving time on the table if it turns out that the target pace is a tad too conservative.

This fall, Eliud Kipchoge will make a second attempt to break the hallowed two-hour marathon barrier. He got very close in his first attempt, covering 26 miles, 385 yards in a time of 2:00:25 in Italy in 2017. Of necessity, Kipchoge approached this bid to make history not as a time trial but as a time to exhaustion test. Aided by a phalanx of pacers, he set out at 4:34.5 per mile (1:59:59 pace) and held on as long as he could, which turned out to be about 18 miles, at which point he began to slow involuntarily, despite his best efforts to hold the required tempo.

In his second sub-two bid, which will take place in late September or early October, Kipchoge will take the same approach, as indeed he must, for such an ambitious goal cannot be achieved in any other way. Avoiding the wall is not a concern, because anything short of sub-two is failure. Whether Kipchoge hangs on almost all the way and ends up clocking an excruciating 2:00:01 or blows up at 35K and literally crawls to the finish line, the two-hour barrier will remain in the realm of the impossible for the time being. Thus it makes no sense for Kipchoge to adjust his pace as he goes based on how he feels. If 1:59:59 (or better) is indeed possible for him, he will only get there by forcing himself to hold that 4:34.5/mile pace no matter what.

My (possibly politically incorrect) term for a marathon that is run as a time to exhaustion test is kamikaze marathon. Inspired by Eliud Kipchoge, I have decided to run a kamikaze marathon of my own this fall. A sub-two-hour marathon being slightly out of my reach, I will attempt to sustain a pace of 6:04 per mile as long as I can in the context of the Pacific Northwest Marathon on September 21. The fastest pace I’ve ever sustained for the full marathon distance is 6:05 per mile, at the 2017 Chicago Marathon. I was 46 years old then and am 48 now, a difference that is far more consequential as it relates to performance decline than is, say, the difference between 36 and 38. What’s more, I spent the summer of 2017 living in Flagstaff and training with Northern Arizona Elite, a huge advantage that I will be lacking this time around. In consideration of these facts, I think I’ve got about as much chance of achieving my goal as Kipchoge has of achieving his, which is to say close to none. But that’s the whole point of a kamikaze marathon. You choose a goal time that you think is probably-not-definitely impossible for you and go for it! If you plan and execute appropriately, there’s about a 90 percent chance you will implode painfully in the late miles of your chosen race and a 10 percent chance, give or take, that you’ll achieve something special that you would not have been able to achieve with the usual time-trial approach.

So, what do you say—are you in? Before you blurt, “Hell, yeah!”, understand that Kamikaze marathons are appropriate only for seasoned marathoners who don’t mind possibly “wasting” a marathon. But if you fit this description, do consider joining Eliud Kipchoge and me in running a kamikaze marathon this fall. Put some thought into coming up with a time/pace that is probably-not-definitely impossible for you and then find an appropriate event. (I chose Pacific Northwest because the course is net downhill and mostly flat and the weather is reliably perfect every year—oh, and because my brother Josh is running it). Also consider recruiting a pacer who can easily run the time you’re hoping to run. Tommy Rivers Puzey, a 2:16 marathoner, has agreed to serve as my pacer (though there’s a chance he’ll have to bail out at the last minute due to sponsor obligations).

If you accept the kamikaze marathon challenge—and I hope you do—be sure to share the journey (Strava, Twitter, etc.) as I will be doing in the months ahead. Let’s make this a thing!

Recently my brother Josh sent me a link to an article on the John Templeton Foundation website that I found quite interesting. Titled “Sanctifying Everyday Difficulties: Motivational Consequences of Sanctifying Difficult Experiences,” it concerned the work of Daphna Oyserman, a professor of psychology at USC.

Oyserman has spent a number of years studying ways in which concepts of identity can be harnessed to supply the motivation needed to do hard things. Quite unexpectedly, these inquiries led her to observe that some of the most successful overcomes of difficult experiences regard them as ennobling—which is to say, as something that helps them become better versions of themselves or makes their lives more meaningful or brings them closer to God.

As unscientific as this idea may sound, we all know people who function in this way. Indeed, it has been my own observation that great endurance athletes tend to bring identity-based motivations to their sport. A quote from six-time Ironman world champion Mark Allen comes to mind: “The shorter races are a little more physical. Once you get into the longer races, it become more a test of you as a person on top of a test of you as an athlete.”

This is how many if not most (maybe all) great endurance athletes see their sport: as a means of testing and refining what they’re made of. They raise the personal stakes of competition far above the level of just trying to achieve goals and get better. For them, the ultimate failure is not falling short of particular outcome goals but falling short of their personal character standards in the pursuit of such goals.

Of course, everyone who takes up endurance sports is looking for a challenge. Relatively few athletes, however, consciously frame their chosen challenge the way the great ones do: namely, as the whole point of the undertaking. “To win is not important,” marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge said in a 2018 address to the Oxford Union Society. “To be successful is not even important. How to plan and prepare is crucial. When you plan very well and prepare very well, then success can come on the way. Then winning can come on your way.”

Kipchoge and his ilk see no separation between sport and life, between athlete and human. How they handle themselves in the heat of competition matters to them every bit as much as how they handle themselves in the difficult situations they face in everyday life because both types of challenge reveal who they really are. “Only the disciplined ones are free in life,” Kipchoge said in the same address. “If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods. You are a slave to your passions.” As an athlete, Kipchoge does nothing less than strive to perfect himself. Monks talk the same way about their own efforts at self-mastery, for they’re doing the same thing.

To some athletes, Oyserman’s difficulty-as-sanctification approach to sport may seem like taking a mere game too seriously. I get it. Some of us prefer a moderate challenge—something less than a quest for ennoblement. If you’re in it mainly to enjoy being outside or doing something positive with friends, Kipchoge’s talk of discipline and slavery may come off as rather intimidating.

Having said this, though, let me just add one caveat, which is this: It’s a mistake to think that athletes who put everything on the line when they race are bleeding all the fun out of endurance sports. To the contrary, it’s the athletes who pin all their hopes on achieving goals such as breaking 3:30 in the marathon who more often end up disappointed. Whereas athletes who instead use endurance sports as a vehicle to become a better version of themselves are all but destined to succeed because seriously trying to evolve as a human being is pretty much all it takes to succeed in doing so.

Make that two caveats. The second is this: It’s a mistake also to think you have to be a great athlete to pursue sanctification through endurance sports. I know this because I’ve done it myself. As a young runner I failed to measure up to my personal character standards in a way that has haunted me ever since. When I got back into running (and branched out to triathlon) in my late 20s, I came to regard endurance sports as a means to transform myself into the man I want to be. Not long afterward, a personal challenge far more difficult than any marathon entered my life. Only then did I begin to appreciate that the value of the self-work I did as an athlete extended beyond the racecourse.

If you’re interested in my full story, check out my forthcoming memoir, Life Is a Marathon. It makes the best case I know how to for approaching endurance sports with the difficulty-as-sanctification mindset.


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