The Secret to Running a Faster Marathon? Slow Down

how-to-improve-your-marathon-timeOn Wednesday, January 26, I ran 10 kilometers through a forest in Kaptagat, Kenya, with Eliud Kipchoge, a few of his friends, and some of the scientists from Nikes Breaking2 project. It was 4 pm and still blazing hot. We were at 8,000 feet of altitude. The atmosphere was jovial. Philemon Rono, a relentlessly cheerful athlete known to his friends as askari kidogu—Small Police—cracked jokes at my expense for at least the first 20 minutes. To be sure, little could have been funnier than me, a very hot 6-foot-5 British man, sweating next to Rono, 5 feet 31/2 inches of pure runner.

All of a sudden, our curious-looking gang went quiet. Having lost a couple of hard-breathing scientists on the way out, casualties to the altitude, we turned around at halfway. For a brief period, with the sun muffled by an avenue of dense trees, nobody in the group said a thing. The pace gently increased from around 5 minutes per kilometer to a little north of 4:40 per kilometer. All you could hear was the hi-hat beat of sneakers on dust and the straining bellows of an outsized mzungu attempting to hang with the Olympic marathon champion.

It was during this period that I reflected on the happy fact that I was not dead. Kipchoge has run whole marathons almost twice as fast as we were moving at that moment. Why had he chosen not to crank up the pace? Why hadn’t he killed us? Kipchoge is polite to a fault. Was he simply humoring his guests? When we returned to his training camp, another possibility emerged. This was a recovery run, and Kipchoge really does take his recovery runs that slowly. The data the Nike science team analyzed from his GPS watch shows that the kind of run he had done with us was exactly the kind of run he would have done anyway.


The thought remained with me. The previous day, at a dusty athletics track, I’d watched Kipchoge and his training group run 12 repetitions of 1,200 meters at roughly world-record pace for the marathon. (Kipchoge later told me it was an 80 percent session—hard but not crazy.) The day after our jog in Kaptagat, I’d watch the same group scorch 40 kilometers—or 25 miles, nearly a whole marathon—in 2 hours, 17 minutes. That, too, was real work. But on Wednesday in between two intense days, Kipchoge had ambled his way to 20 easy kilometers, jogging in the morning and evening. Meanwhile, at his camp—a simple plot next to fields with cows, containing two tin-roofed bungalows, with no running water and long-drop toilets—he and his friends had spent their non-running time performing chores, listening to the radio, sleeping, and drinking gallons of sweet, milky tea.

I knew Kipchoge was fast. I didn’t understand how slow he could be. This, I thought, might be a moment to learn something.


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