Eliud Kipchoge, the Olympic marathon champion, gave an address last November at the Oxford Union Society, a 200-year-old institution that touts itself as the “most famous debating society in the world.” Though there was no debating as such, attendees nonetheless got to hear two distinct perspectives on marathon running.
The first came from Kipchoge, winner of seven consecutive world-class marathons (and counting), who gave listeners some insight into his training philosophy in his characteristically understated style. The odds-on favorite to win the London Marathon in April spoke with quiet authority about the importance of consistency and discipline before ceding the lectern to David Bedford, the one-time world record holder in the 10,000 meters, who said he was certain that Kipchoge would retire as the “greatest distance runner the world had ever seen.”
For his part, Bedford, who is the former race director of the London Marathon, told the story of his own foray into running 26.2 miles. It was 1981, on the eve of the first-ever London Marathon. A few years retired from professional athletics, Bedford was six pints into the night when someone bet him 1,000 pounds that he wouldn’t run the marathon the next day. This prompted Bedford to “change his lifestyle immediately,” by “moving from beers to piña coladas.” The next morning, things went well for about half the race, but eventually Bedford had to adopt, as he puts it, “a different running style.” Despite being caught on live television puking into a gutter, the former world record holder rallied and won the bet.
Two athletes. Two different approaches to the marathon. The reader is invited to draw her own conclusions about which approach she prefers. For our part, we thought it made more sense to parse Kipchoge’s speech and subsequent Q and A for kernels of wisdom. (No offense to David Bedford.)
“Only the disciplined ones are free in life. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods. You are a slave to your passions.”
“To win is not important. To be successful is not even important. How to plan and prepare is crucial. When you plan very well and prepare very well, then success can come on the way. Then winning can come on your way.”
On thinking positively:
“Pleasure in what you are doing is what puts perfection in your work—that’s a quote by Aristotle.”
“I’m confident to say that if you want to grow in a profession, consistency is the key…I’m strict about my work goals and training. When I miss one [workout session], it’s like missing a discussion with your classmates, where six people are discussing a subject. If I miss one training, then I will not sleep well.”
On “mental fitness”:
“Mental fitness plays a big role during competition. If you don’t rule your mind, your mind will rule you. That’s the way I think about this sport.”
On race strategy:
“In the marathon, the first half is just a normal run. At 15 kilometers, 20 kilometers, everybody is still going to be there. Where the marathon starts is after 30 kilometers. That’s where you feel pain everywhere in your body. The muscles are really aching, and only the most prepared and well-organized athlete is going to do well after that. I’ll go with the pace, but after 30 kilometers, I’ll change to my own pace. And if you’re ready to follow me, then we can go together.”
“Become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Accept change.”
On believing in yourself:
“I believe in what I am doing. To run a big marathon and win takes five months. When I’m on the starting line, my mind starts reviewing what I have been doing the last five months. I believe in my training, and I treat myself as the best one standing on that line.”
On managing pain during a marathon and how even the best marathoner in the world has a tough time the next day:
“When I have a lot of pain, I try to confuse my mind to forget about the pain and think about the distance. I don’t want pain to be in my mind, because I’d really lose focus on running. After winning, you won’t have that pain, but it comes later. The marathon is hard; the second day, you don’t go up or down stairs.”
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