[This is the second part of an article using ultra marathon running to explain sizing. You can read the first part here: The Best Ultra Marathon Runner in the World Helps Explain Why Size Matters]
In the first installment, we established that smaller is better when it comes to estimation and sizing. We used Camille Herron (holder of nine ultra marathons distance world records) to illustrate that as volume increases velocity, confidence and predictability decrease. Below is a table with her personal bests (several of which are world records).
Risk enters the race
One aspect that most people forget about when sizing is risk – and an important factor here is that as size increases, risk increases exponentially. Anyone, regardless of their current state of fitness, can start a one kilometre race highly confident that they will make it to the finish line within a reasonably small variance of their time estimation.
The exponential increase of risk
However, there is no one who can stand at the start line of the 90km Comrades Marathon with 100% confidence of finishing. In 2019, Camille Herron herself had to pull out around the halfway mark with a hamstring injury. Another former winner, Shaun Meiklejohn, is the undisputed king of longevity and consistency at Comrades with the remarkable record of being the only person with over 30 sub-silver (7h30m) finishes. Yet even he had a DNF (did not finish) at the 2018 event when he tore a hamstring with less than 30 kilometres to go.
I asked Shaun about the only blip on his Comrades record, “I was on track at 60km for a 6:43 but my hammie had been feeling tight from early on in the race which was strange as I had a great build up and no hint of what was to happen. My hammie tore at Winston Park and I decided that it was too bad to try push on so I made the toughest decision ever to call it a day.”
The good news is that very few of the big challenges we face in our personal and professional lives are like running an ultra marathon – where, like Shaun Meiklejohn, you can be on track two-thirds of the way to a record breaking 30th silver medal finish before tearing a hamstring and getting a “Did Not Finish”.
The exception that proves the rule is Barry Holland with a record 48 consecutive Comrades finishes (he’s on the inside lane to become the first human to successfully complete the same ultra marathon 50 times). I asked Barry about his confidence levels at the Comrades start line, “Lining up for Comrades I have never once in 48 runs felt that I would not finish. I have always believed that you have to trust your training and I have always done enough to ensure that I got home. I have not always been totally confident that I would achieve the time I set out to run but bailing Comrades has never been in my vocabulary.”
However, even the man with the most Comrades finishes admits he was very lucky to come away with another medal in 2022. Holland’s preparation was far from ideal with two bouts of “smack me down” Covid and a debilitating heart condition diagnosis, Artrial Fibrillation, that required Cardioversion (a process in which your heart is shocked back into rhythm).
Having successfully negotiated the race build-up risks, Barry navigated to the first third of the race before realising, “I was in trouble and it was going to be a long day. For some reason I have still not fathomed out, I started to cramp (I haven’t cramped in decades).” A sudden calf cramp resulted in a nasty fall and Barry took a second tumble as a result of “sheer exhaustion when I was battling to control my legs and just couldn’t stay upright when I was trying to stop on the side of the road.”
A battered and bloody Barry Holland thought, “All was lost and that I was heading for a dreaded DNF” but credits Dolphin Striders clubmate and friend, Warwick ‘Wozza’ Taylor, getting him to finish Comrades #48 with less than 20 minutes to spare. “Warwick went above and beyond anything a runner and friend could possibly expect. His calmness was nothing short of remarkable. There is not a shadow of a doubt that if Wozza had not been by side last year there would not have been a 48th medal!” It looks like the power of paired work also applies to ultra marathon running.
Whilst pre-race Covid, torn hamstrings and mysterious cramps are difficult to predict they have to be contended with when they arise for ultra runners. When you are running shorter distances these risks become irrelevant or insignificant.
There are of course risks that are obvious and easily avoided, like don’t eat seafood or curry (and definitely don’t eat seafood curry) the night before a marathon. Despite this, some people do need to learn these lessons the hard way – in my early days of running I remember running a half marathon after eating a Chillie Whizz Burger at Chuckleberry’s. Let’s just say I ended up getting badly burnt (pun once again intended). However, there are many other unknowns and subtle risks that can have a significant impact.
One of these is the environment in which you operate. You will see that Camille’s PB chart that we looked at earlier has two marathon entries. The “still very fast but significantly slower than her personal best” time of 2:48:31 is in fact the Guinness World Record for the fastest marathon in a superhero outfit (achieved at the 2012 Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa, Oklahoma dressed as Spiderwoman). After the race Herron was quoted as saying, “It was one of the wildest things I’ve ever done! Much tougher than I expected. I was hitting 20+ seconds [per mile] slower than what I’d expect, right off the bat, and I couldn’t seem to go any faster.”
The lesson here is to make the environment in which your teams work as pleasant and conducive as possible for optimal performance. It also says we should stop forcing employees to wear silly outfits if you want them to perform at their best (in the corporate environment a silly, sub-optimal outfit would be a jacket and tie).
How big is a marathon?
We normally think about size simply being volume when in reality it is volume plus risk. There is a difference between how ‘far’ a marathon is (which has a definitive answer – 42.195 kilometres) and how ‘big’ a marathon is. Compare the two race profiles below.
On the left you have the Border Masters Marathon in East London. I ran this race in 2019, here is my route description, “The Border Masters Marathon is pure, unadulterated marathon running erotica. Nothing but feathers, tender caresses and light tickles; A gentle frolic as you work your way down from an altitude of 600m to a sea-level climax. This marathon is light petting, PG-rated first base action all the way. There are no quad crushing downhills – just a long, gradual, tantric drop to home base (and a very soft landing) at Feathers in Beacon Bay. There are a couple of minor uphills along the way but nothing that will leave any marks or bruises the next day. No safe words required. This is a race that treats you well, is guaranteed to leave you with a smile on your face and will respect you the next morning. I make this the easiest marathon in the country.”
On the right you have Surrender Hill Marathon in Clarens. I also ran this race in 2019 and it inspired a slightly different route description, “One should always be wary of marathons with the word ‘hill’ in the title – and the Surrender Hill Marathon only enhances this reputation. It’s a gruelling route that takes you close to 2,000m above sea level over a profile that looks like a crab-claw knuckleduster. Surrender Hill is a mountain with two peaks that you get see from both sides on the out-and-back route. Each climb sucks the life out of your lungs whilst each plummet smashes the spring out of your step and annihilates your quads. For those that haven’t thrown in the towel after 35km of constant jabbing, the final 7km is one solid uphill body blow. The nastiest, steepest climb is reserved for the last 2km, a final knock-out punch to endure before you get back to Clarens and can say you’ve ‘conquered Surrender Hill’.”
Border Masters and Surrender Hill are both exactly 42.195 kilometres in distance but you would expect to run substantially slower at Surrender Hill. Same distance, different size. The lesson here is to ask “what is the terrain like” before estimating. I have run my “Exercise exercise” with thousands of people but never once has anyone asked me “what’s the route like” before providing what they believe is a confident estimate.
Are you starting with fresh legs?
Another consideration that is often forgotten is, “Are you starting with fresh legs?”. Now hopefully if you tackle either of the above marathons you would do so on fresh legs after a good night’s sleep but what’s happened beforehand is another major risk factor. The easiest way to illustrate this is with the photo below which I took during Comrades – just 42 kilometres to go. Those of us who’ve been there can emphasise with the runners in picture who look a lot like the cast of The Walking Dead, slowly lurching towards Pietermaritzburg. The 45 kilometres they’ve covered to get to that point will have a significant impact on the ‘size’ of the remaining marathon.
If you and your teams are fatigued by stress and overwork, they will perform far below their potential and their risk of ‘withdrawing from the race’ (i.e. resigning for another position) dramatically increases.
None of us can control the weather
One final example from Comrades to illustrate the potentially massive impact that risk – and specifically risk factors beyond our control – can have on performance is the graph below. It shows the finisher percentage at every Comrades held this millennium (that’s the percentage of runners who crossed the start line and managed to earn a medal).
Normally the finish percentage is in the high 80s and occasionally breaches the 90% mark but there is one big anomaly. In 2013 almost half of the runners that started the race failed to finish. What happened in 2013? The short answer is, “the weather”.
The day started off fairly cool in Durban but the temperature quickly rose into the 30s. At the same time there was a gale force headwind that sapped the energy from the aspirant ultra runners and quite literally blew a huge portion of the field away. None of us can control the weather. The result is that in 2013, only 55% of those that started were able to finish the race – and the vast majority of these runners did so substantially slower than their predicted time.
A further lesson here is that we need to adjust our plans rather than sticking to unrealistic goals when the conditions are not in our favour. Many Comrades runners stuck to their original race plan in 2013 rather than adjusting early to a slower but more realistic pace and ended up with a DNF rather than a different coloured medal.
As stated in the Agile Manifesto, “Respond to change over following a plan.” Plans are important but our ability to adapt to what happens after the starting gun fires ultimately determines whether or not we are able to realise our goals and earn our medals.
John Lennon eloquently stated, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Mike Tyson paraphrased him more bluntly with, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Whether it’s life making other plans or Mike Tyson punching you in the face, breaking life’s big tasks into smaller chunks will reduce the risk and help you to get fast feedback on whether your big, long-term goals are realistic or need to be adjusted.
If you enjoyed this article
Here are some other articles in the ‘Life Lessons from the Road’ series:
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