I’ve been thinking a lot about Eliud Kipchoge’s history-making sub–2-hour marathon. Although I’m not a runner, I’m a student of human performance. Athletic feats tend to offer us many rich lessons that we can apply to life off the field.
I’ve got three for you.
(A little plug: If this sort of thing resonates with you, I did 100 episodes of My Circus Life, a weekly live-stream show in which I applied lessons from my weekly trampoline practice to life and business. Some of those are written up as blog posts here ).
The attempt to break the 2-hour mark in the marathon distance has been a thing for a while, with several sneaker companies backing efforts to make it happen. When I read this, I immediately thought of Roger Bannister, who broke the 4-minute barrier in the mile on May 6, 1954.
The first time I ever heard of Roger Bannister was in the context of a lesson on possibility. At the time, the 4-minute barrier in the mile was elusive, and the myth is that most believed it was impossible, until Bannister did it.
His record stood for only 46 days before Australian John Landy broke it. Then others went on to break the 4-minute barrier.
Did humans suddenly figure out the magic formula required for the feat? Was there a shift in evolution?
What changed was the mental model. Seeing that it could be done unlocked the 4-minute mile from the prison of impossibility.
Lesson 1: It Only Seems Impossible Until Someone Does It
Few people dream of something that doesn’t exist. Most of your goals and desires are based on what you see others have. Most people cannot envision something that has never existed before.
Once we see what’s possible, it becomes easier to attain it.
That’s a lesson we learned from Roger Bannister, and it’s a lesson we can learn from Eliud Kipchoge. But that’s an old lesson. You don’t come here for the lessons everyone else is sharing.
I’ve got more. 😉
The Long Struggle to Break 2-Hours in the Marathon?
First, some context.
In the sixty-five years since Roger Bannister’s achievement, over 1,400 men (they’ve all been men) have broken the “4-minute barrier” in the mile distance.
According to Wikipedia, the 4-minute mile has become the standard for male professional middle-distance runners in countries that use imperial units. The record for the mile has been lowered 17 times in sixty-five years, and currently stands at 3:43.13, set by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj, in Rome in 1999.
American Steve Scott has run 136 sub-four-minute miles, more than any other runner.
High school athletes and athletes over 40 have broken the 4-minute barrier.
In short, among runners of a certain caliber, the 4-minute mile is no big deal.
In theory, at a pace of a 4-minute mile, 26.2 miles would take 104.8 minutes, approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Yet, while the 4-minute mile has become a standard for professional runners, they struggled to break the 2-hour mark in the marathon. Not even 1:45. 2 hours. Even with an extra 15 minutes over the 4 minute mile pace, has been a big deal.
What explains this?
Let’s start with the obvious:
Lesson 2: Theory Is Not Practice
Theory is not practice.
In theory if you lined up your ideal conditions, you’d get your ideal result. In practice, it doesn’t always work out that way. Unknown, unpredictable, and/or uncontrollable factors arise (these are not the same thing).
Life is not a controlled experiment in a lab, but a constantly shifting landscape that we navigate with the resources available to us on any given day.
This is especially true with anything we do that involves the body and the nervous system (so, yes, everything we do), because they are influenced by factors we don’t see and of which we are unaware.
Beyond this is another lesson, and this is the one that holds most relevance for us in our day-to-day lives.
Lesson 3: What’s Possible vs What’s Sustainable
There’s a difference between what you can do one time, or once in a while, and what you can sustain.
A 4-minute mile is clearly possible. In fact, it’s beyond possible; it’s now a standard. For a certain class of runner, running a mile.
But a 4-minute mile pace is not sustainable for 26.2 consecutive miles. In fact, only one person in history has been able to sustain that pace for two miles.
Daniel Komen of Kenya is the only individual to run two miles in under eight minutes. He accomplished this feat twice — in 1997 with a time of 7:58.61 and 1998 with a time of 7:58.91.
Of course, you might reasonably say that a runner will take a different approach to run a distance of one mile versus 26.2 miles. They are different types of races, demanding different energy output.
And, yes, that’s the point. It’s a lesson we might find obvious in the context of running, but that we often find less obvious in the context of life.
The Takeaway For You
Life is more like a marathon than a mile. If you want your results to be sustainable, you must invest the time and patience. This means working at a sustainable pace. What that looks like for you will be different from what it looks like for others.
Of course, we all have seasons in life when we need to adapt our rhythms and step up our pace. You can do anything for a short period of time; that’s why it helps to know what’s possible.
And it’s also important to catch yourself when that season extends past its time. One reason people suffer from burnout and exhaustion is because they’re trying to run a marathon at a 4-minute mile pace.
If you want to build a practice and results for a lifetime, you must pace yourself accordingly.
If you’re interested in building practices that are sustainable for life, join the interest list for the next cohort of The Ritual Revolution, in which I teach how to create space for your best work in a sustainable way.