The Elite Mindset

The 2017 Berlin Marathon was supposedly too wet, the road too slippery and the heat and humidity too high for fast times. No one told that to the elite runners who still went out to attack the world’s best time. The winner, Eliud Kipchoge, refused to be overcome, either by the conditions or by his fellow competitors. He still managed to win the race despite the environmental, physical and mental challenges and he only missed the world record by 35 seconds, finishing in 2h3m32s.

Prior to 2000 it was the pure endurance runners who turned to the marathon. They generally thought that they would not be competitive in shorter races. It was also the path of older track runners trying to extend their careers. A fast time was considered to be between 2hr8 and 2h12. The training was long and intense. Today, much younger and faster men and women are standing at the start. A good example is the second-place getter at Berlin, Guye Adola. They arrive fearless of the distance, the conditions and the other competitors. Their training still involves long and intense training sessions. It also involves years of training and racing. The difference is that the structure and approach of their programmes has changed substantially.

This new era seemed to begin on a very hot summer’s day at the 2008 Bejing Olympics. The marathon winner, 22 year old Sammy Wanjiru, attacked the course right from the gun. Previous runners had tried similar tactics but Wanjiru kept challenging the pace to the end. The next April, at the 2009 London Marathon Wanjiru ran splits of 28m30 (10k), 1h1m36 (half) and 2h5m10 for the win. In the same month, 12 other runners also broke the existing world marathon record. They did it in multiple marathons across the world. Running 5 minute miles (2hr 7m) was no longer a barrier. The new standard was soon to become 3 minutes per km (2hr4m).

Such performances should change the approach that athletes take towards the marathon distance. Reading about top marathoners and how they train and even trying to emulate the essence of their programmes should give every runner courage to also attack the distance. The event no longer has mystique or aura. It is no longer a distance to fear. Modern marathon training is hard but it is clinical. The marathon race is no longer an event that you hope to finish, but one where you have an achievable time and plan based on your training.

Through his teenage years Sammy Wanjiru was winning cross countries, 5000m, 10km and half marathons. His Olympic marathon performance did not surprise those around him. While Eliud Kipchoge is not young he has certainly done the miles in training and gained a lot of experience from his 20 years of racing. He has won World Championships and Olympic titles and also come within 25 seconds of being the first sub two-hour marathoner. Likewise, Guye Adola ran a sub 60-minute half marathon in 2014. Top athletes – young or old, don’t just appear out of the blue. They have all served their apprenticeships over a number of years by running hard and fast for shorter distances as well as longer 10km and half marathons. They all follow modern training philosophy and each year get progressively faster.

Recently a top New Zealand athlete emailed me and commented about one of my previous blogs – entitled "Keeping It Simple". In it I stated that 20th place in the 1985 Huntly Half Marathon, ran a time under 69 minutes. If running the same time today, that same athlete could have won the race 3 out of the last 5 years. In the email I was informed that the Huntly course had changed from 1985 and that the weather over the last few years had not been conducive to fast times. My response was to remind him of the Wanjiru, Adola and Kipchoge performances. To get faster times over the half and full marathon you need a modern and incrementally progressive training programme. To move towards the elite mindset, you have to be patient and do the work over a number of years. The training should not only make you faster it should teach you to overcome the distance, the other athletes, the course and the elements.