Business agility has recently become a big buzzword in the corporate world. If you work for a large corporate there’s a good chance that you are currently part of a ‘business agility transformation‘. These are characterised by consultants throwing Japanese words around like ninja stars in a pot-noodle eastern* and lots of talk about sprinting and scrumming.
* as opposed to a spaghetti western.
The good news is that sprinting is really easy – even if the last time you did any running was in PE class at school when you were forced to. Everyone can manage a sprint: It’s a short burst of energy, after which you’re doubled over gasping for breath and can’t run any more.
The bad news is that sprinting won’t get you very far. It’s unlikely that anything worthwhile in life can be achieved with a short sprint. In running as in life, the real challenge is running long distances over hostile terrain and torturous conditions.
It’s a jog, not a sprint! The best way to cover long distances is to get your pacing right and run at a consistent speed. Let’s look at a few examples to show you exactly what I mean.
We’ll start with one of the most incredible athletic achievements in recent times – Eliud Kipchoge’s sub two-hour marathon feat. The post-race press release stated, “Kipchoge ran a consistent pace set by the electric timing car and the pacemakers of 2:50min/KM throughout the race with every single KM split being between 2:48min/KM – 2:52min/KM.”
In actual fact this is not quite true as the diagram below, where I’ve added the average pace to the published five kilometre splits.
Kipchoge did indeed run an incredibly even pace for the first 40 kilometres but after that he sped up, running the last 2.2 kilometres at a blistering 2:45 average. Had Kipchoge started off at this pace he definitely wouldn’t have broken 2 hours – and he probably wouldn’t even have finished. Kipchoge got his pacing just right and became the first human to break the two-hour mark.
Although this was not an official world record (since it was run in contrived, non-competitive conditions), studying Kipchoge’s official marathon world record splits (2:01:39 at Berlin in 2018) will highlight a similar pattern: incredibly even pacing. Regardless of whether you want to run your best or the world’s best marathon time, the key to success is running at an even pace.
That’s all good and well for marathon running – but does the same hold true for ultra runners? Taking a look at the results from Comrades suggests that it does.
Below is a table where I’ve plotted the time and pace of the first 30 men at the most recent Comrades (run in 2019). The Drummond “halfway” timing mat is not precisely at the halfway mark, with the result that the second “timed half” of the Comrades Up run is about 700 metres longer than the first.
Not one of the first 30 men was able to run a negative split (running the second half faster than the first half). The two that came closest – and the only two to run a “negative pace” (where the average per kilometre speed was faster over the second half) – were Edward Mothibi and Bongmusa Mthembu who finished first and second respectively.
I painstakingly went down through the men’s elite field until I eventually found the first true negative split: 83rd placed finisher, Englishman Steve Hobbs, who ran the second half 4m27s quicker that the first*.
* I spoke to Hobbs after the race and plan to write a separate article about his approach.
In most years, the winner of the Comrades men’s race is the runner who gets his pacing right and runs even, or slightly negative, splits.
Let’s switch to the ladies race where the 2018 run of Ann Ashworth provides perhaps the most powerful illustration of perfect pacing.
Ashworth entered the 2018 event without a gold medal top 10 finish in her previous seven starts. She was such an outsider for the victory that a rival club manager objected to Ashworth being part of the elite press conference as “she was not a legitimate contender for the title.”
The graph below, plotting the top 10 ladies finishers, shows just how the 2018 ladies’ title was won – and is a great example of a perfectly executed race plan.
There is only one runner who gets progressively faster as the race evolves and that of course is Ashworth (represented with the gold line) who obliterates the field over the last quarter of the race. Compare Ashworth’s splits to those of her competitors over the Pinetown to Mayville split. Bear in mind that there is the small challenge of Cowie’s Hill during this section.
Whilst the rest of the field slows down substantially, Ashworth maintains an even pace. She’s already got 70 kilometres on her legs at Pinetown but is able to run the last half marathon at well under 4 minutes per kilometre.
Just how fast was Ashworth running over those last 21 kilometres? A relative comparison illustrates it best: In the entire field, only two runners ran this segment faster – men’s winner and third place finisher Bongmusa Mthembu and Steven Way.
We’d all love to run as fast as Eliud Kipchoge and Ann Ashworth but the reality is that most of us have to settle for a more sedate pace. However, whether in life or on the road, if you are aiming to achieve anything more substantial than the journey of a few hundred metres – getting the pacing right is the best way to cross the finish line in the shortest possible time.
At the start line of the marathons and Comrades in our professional lives, sprinting off as fast as we can is the worst possible thing we can do. We need to be realistic about our jogging pace, stick to it and diligently jog towards our goal. There’s a time an place for sprinting – and that’s only when the finish line is in sight.
Other articles in the ‘Life Lessons From The Road‘ series
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