Boston, Speed, Competition and Human Performance

The Boston Marathon course is known for its hills: up and down. It’s long been considered one of the most challenging of the big races, not where you’d imagine anyone setting a world record.

All that changed this week with Geoffrey Mutai’s marathon win on Monday. His 2:03:02 time is the fastest marathon ever recorded. It won’t necessarily count for the official world record because Boston’s course ends slightly lower than it starts — a no-no for the official rules. But it’s close to a minute faster than the existing record (run on a much “faster” course in Berlin). The really fun part? Mutai obviously wasn’t pushing that fast in a vacuum. If everyone else was running a slower race, he would have too. He finished only a few seconds before the next guy. As American Ryan Hall is quoted in this ESPN piece, “I was out there running, and I was thinking to myself, ‘I can’t believe this is happening right now. I’m running a 2:04 pace, and I can’t even see the leaders.’ It was unreal.” In any other year, Hall’s 2:04:58 would have won, and set a course record. This year, it only got him a fourth place finish.

What are we to make of all this? We live in a competitive world. There are close to 7 billion of us on this planet, and as people specialize in things and devote oodles of hours to training, learning from everyone else through history, we are learning just how intense “world class” can be. With 7 billion people, there is probably a lot of innate talent out there. What separates the people at the very top from the rest is having both the innate talent, and the hours spent training, seeking out coaching, and always working to get better.

I take from this what’s usually considered a very mushy sentiment: do what you love. It’s boilerplate graduation advice (“find your passion!”) but here’s why it matters. To get even close to world class in a field these days, you need to be thinking about it constantly. You need to be musing over problems in the grocery store line and coming up with solutions in the shower. If you don’t love the stuff of your work, you won’t do that. You’ll do your job, then come home and think about other things. Which may be fine. But in an increasingly competitive world, that may not be enough any more. There is definitely a business case for going into a field that you are absolutely obsessed with.


4 thoughts on “Boston, Speed, Competition and Human Performance

  1. What is says to me is that we need community – a context to do our best, and the challenge of rising to the stakes others set. So much of American iconography is about the rugged individual, but people are never successful alone – they need a community to support them.

    1. @Laura- though it’s an interesting mix between community and competition. Many of the world’s best runners train together in the same high altitude places and in some cases even live together, but on the course you want to win. Because marathoning is so long and so intense there’s even a trade-off between competition and community during the race. Someone takes the lead to spur the pace on, then trades off with someone else. The idea seems to be to drop the slower runners from the pack and then only go as fast as you need to until the last mile or so, then go all out to battle to the finish line…

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