Distance Makes the Head Grow Stronger


On Sunday at the Berlin Marathon Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya broke the world record running 26.2 miles in 2 hours 1 minute and 39 seconds. The 33-year old Olympic Champion from Kenya smashed the previous world record by an astonishing one minute and nineteen seconds. He averaged a blistering per mile pace of 4 minutes and 38 seconds over the course.

Even if you don’t care about distance running, you have to admire this feat of human performance. When you consider that as the world record gets lower, it becomes harder to break, especially by a wide margin, Kipchoge’s almost 80 second improvement magnifies his achievement. On Sunday Kipchoge broke the world record time by more than any man in the last 41 years.

The record is even more impressive when you consider that he ran the last 10 miles by himself! At the elite level, pro runners have “pacers” who run short segments of the race to keep the pro guys on track. In Berlin Kipchoge went out so fast that his pacers couldn’t even keep up. 2 of the 3 pacers dropped off early and by the halfway mark all of them were gone. This only seemed to spur the Kenyan on, as he picked up speed in the second half.

Kipchoge’s dominance is no surprise. Going into Sunday’s run, he had won 9 of the last 10 marathons he’d entered since 2013, including the 2016 Olympics. He was also one of the 3 runners selected by Nike in 2016 in an experiment designed to attempt a sub 2-hour marathon.

Lots has been written about the mentality of marathon running. Most people have heard of “hitting the wall” during long endurance activities. This is the sudden condition of total fatigue that overwhelms runners typically in the second half of long runs. The condition is part physiological (depletion of glycogen stores) and part mental (allowing negative thoughts to overwhelm the mind).

Legendary distance runner Haruki Murakami famously wrote about the relationship between pain and the mind stating, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you think, ‘man this hurts, I can’t take it anymore’. The ‘hurt’ part is an avoidable reality, but weather or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself”.

To understand the importance of the role of the mind in distance running, we need only look at a recent study of 10km racers in the US. Researchers found that an in-ordinate number of runners finished their races just below milestone times. In other words, the highest percentage of runners finished their races just before the 40, 45, and 50 minute marks. The researchers suggested that knowledge of a milestone time motivated more runners to push through any resistance to beat the time. This research also seems to support the importance of goal setting in competition, as awareness of a goal in the mind can push the body beyond its comfort zone.

Kipchoge provides yet another example of an elite athlete who understands the importance of the mental side of their craft. He has been quoted as saying, “Marathoning is not about the legs, it’s about the heart and the mind”.

Kipchoge is also a practitioner of positive self-talk. After the race on Sunday he told reporters, “I had a great belief that I would run a world record and I continuously told myself that”.

Kipchoge’s performance serves as an inspiration for athletes everywhere and proves the power of building both the craft and the mindset to achieve remarkable feats. His confidence also appears to be contagious, as his biggest sponsor Nike released this commercial the day before his run:

The sub 2-hour marathon all of a suddens doesn’t seem that far out of reach.

The Study:
Cushman, D. M., Babu, A., Marshall, B., & Rho, M. (2016). The Motivational Influence of Milestone Times on 10-km Running Performance. International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport16(2), 602–611.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s