“Does size matter?” is probably the male equivalent to, “Does my bum look big in these pants?” And if you have to ask either question, it’s highly likely that you don’t really want an honest answer.
Size always matters – no surprise there but, in this article anyway, it’s probably not quite in the way that you think. As for potentially the more controversial part of the headline, who is the “best ultra marathon runner in the world”, I am going to make a case for Camille Herron.
Camille currently holds no less than nine ultra marathon world records and world bests. She is also the only person ever to win all three of the IAU’s ultra distance events (50k, 100k and 24-hour world championships). Rightly or wrongly, in South Africa you are only considered a “real runner” once you’ve completed Comrades and, taking this conviction one step further, only someone who has won Comrades can lay claim to being the planet’s best ultra runner. Camille checks this box with her 2017 victory.
This is an impressive set of achievements but what cements Camille Herron’s name at the top of my all-time list is that she drinks beer as part of her in-race nutrition plan. Yes, this is a lady who is able to drink beer and break world records at the same time. That for me is the ultimate realisation of self-actualisation. Amateurs participate in the beer mile, the truly elite break world records on beer 100 milers.
Aside: After her 2017 Comrades victory, I asked Camille whether beer formed part of her race day nutrition (it did) and which brand of beer could claim credit for her triumph. The answer was “two bottles of Jack Black Lager.” As a passionate consumer of quality beer, I naturally included “two bottles of Jack Black Lager” amongst my energy gels for my next Comrades. Fourways Road Runners have a number of support tables along the route and, as you can see from the photo below, I stopped for a delightful beer break at Camperdown (around the 65k mark). Although I thoroughly enjoyed the beer, I don’t think it did anything for my finish time!
As part of my day job as an Agile Coach in the software development world, I do estimation training with teams (and also try my best to train managers on how estimations should be used correctly). Included in the training is what I like to call an “Exercise exercise”. This is where I ask everyone to complete their estimated time to cover an escalating series of distances together with their associated confidence and comfort levels.
You can see the results for an “average” ultra runner in the above table. As you’d expect, an increase in volume (kilometres in this case) results in a drop in average speed, confidence and comfort. Everyone, even if last time they did any running was when they were forced to do so by a sadistic physical education teacher at school, can provide a one kilometre estimate but only experienced runners can give estimates with any degree of confidence for the longer distances. However, even very experienced ultra runners will drop their confidence and comfort levels as the distance increases.
After I had run this exercise a few times (pun definitely intended), I thought I should see whether the same logic applied to those with better than average running ability. Therefore, I dropped Camille Herron an email and she readily obliged. Her personal bests across the various distances are listed below. As you can see, it doesn’t matter whether you are an average runner or the best ultra marathoner in the world, as size increases speed decreases.
The key lesson here is that if you want to complete the ultra marathons of life faster, more comfortably and more predictably, then you should break them into smaller chunks. The good news is that most big tasks, even if they look like ultra marathons on face value, can be broken into much smaller deliverables and unlike an ultra marathon, you can “save game” at continual checkpoints so that you can return to them later.
Here are a few practical examples, some of which I recently faced:
- I am speaking at a conference in March and estimated I’d need to create 30 slides to cover the topic. ‘Getting out the door’ to start my 30-slide run seemed daunting. But breaking the task down into sections, and in some case single slides, made completing the slide deck much more manageable. I also received a nice dopamine hit sense of accomplishment each time I finished a slide and could ‘bank that kilometre’.
- I procrastinated terribly over writing this article. It took me weeks to start writing but when I broke it into sections and tackled a small chunk every time I had a short gap, like “let me just write about drinking beer and breaking world records”, the mental writer’s block evaporated.
- When running a marathon or longer, I’ll break the race down into 10km chunks. I’ll “forget” about the full distance and only focus on the next 10km (this is incredibly effective when combined with a Jedi-mind trick where I tell myself that I get “fresh legs” every 10km). I also have a tough “Four Heinous Hills” training run which I break down into each of the hills rather than by distance.
- When dealing with something virtual like software development you can always break items down to very small pieces of fully built, fully tested code. It might take months to cross the finish line and earn your medal by releasing a new product or solution but you are getting continual feedback on your actual progress by delivering in small chunks.
Trying to deliver complex software initiatives in large batches is like running an ultra marathon without distance boards and route markers. If you want lots of variability and elaborate, disaster-filled war stories, then tackling life challenges as ultra marathons is the way to go. For those of us who want to comfort, confidence and predictability this is one case where smaller is definitely better.
Here’s the second part of this article detailing how risk impacts size: Life Lessons from the Road – Risky Business
Here are some other articles in the ‘Life Lessons from the Road’ series:
If you’d like me to talk at your conference of meetup you can get hold of me at firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Running Mann: