Breaking the two-hour mark in the marathon ranks right up there with the greatest individual sports achievements of all time. And while Eliud Kipchoge’s achievement is something no one reading this will ever come close to duplicating, we can all benefit from the process he implemented that led to his incredible result.

To put Kipchoge’s achievement in perspective, he ran 26.2 miles at an average pace of 4:33 per mile. That’s more than 13 miles per hour! I went to college on a track scholarship and in one of my best races, I ran three miles, indoors, at an average pace of 4:41 per mile. So on one of my best days, I couldn’t even match what he did for three miles, let alone 26.

Working first with Nike, then Ineos, Kipchoge had a team of specialists who spent many millions of dollars creating the perfect setup to break the elusive two-hour marathon mark. Kipchoge’s first attempt at breaking the mark with Nike fell 26 seconds short in 2017. Ineos took over as his lead sponsor, with Nike still actively involved, and the mark finally fell on October 12, 2019 on a cool day in Vienna, Austria.

Achieving such a big goal required a new way of looking at how to solve it. Historically, Nike’s work on increasing human performance focused on making incremental gains. But this project required a different approach.

Since they had a defined outcome—break two hours in the marathon—Nike was able to reverse-engineer the process. According to Brad Wilkins, the director of NXT Generation Research in the Nike Sport Research Lab as quoted in Runner’s World magazine, Nike asked, “What do we need to understand scientifically? What are the problems that we need to solve?”

5-Step Process

In the buildup to the first attempt in 2017, the Nike team outlined the following five key areas that needed to be optimized or improved for an athlete to break the two-hour mark. Here are those five keys along with how you can apply each of them to massively improve your personal and business performance.

1. Athlete selection. Nike started with a list of several hundred distance runners, narrowed it down to 18, then had those 18 visit Nike HQ for additional testing. Testing included physiological tests plus conversations that were designed to tease out the intangible “x” factor that would be necessary to achieve such a huge feat. This intangible “x” factor was some combination of mindset, personality and attitude that would ensure the athlete doesn’t wilt, but rather thrives under pressure. Ultimately, Nike chose three athletes to attempt the first sub-two-hour race in 2017, while Ineos went with just one runner—Kipchoge—for the October 12, 2019 attempt. In the buildup to the second attempt, Kipchoge told Runner’s World magazine, “My mental preparation for taking on such a challenge is just as important as my physical preparation. I need to internalize in my heart and my mind that I can run a sub-two-hour marathon. I have no doubts.”

Business corollary: people selection. You must have the very best people on your team, period, end of story. When I hire someone, they go through a deep interviewing process including an exhaustive behavioral and motivation assessment designed to show their natural style and how they perform under pressure. And for existing team members, I have a very simple rule. If I can’t rate a person at least an 8 out of 10 in terms of overall performance and value to the organization, then I respectfully help them find a new home that’s better suited for them.

2. Course and environment. A typical marathon snakes its way through the streets of a city and includes hills and turns. Nike wanted a very controlled environment that maximized the opportunity for a successful outcome. So the first time Kipchoge tried to break the two-hour mark, he ran on a Formula 1 track, while the second time, he ran on an “arrow-straight avenue” that minimized turns. In the second attempt, a group of five pacesetters formed an open-V formation in front of Kipchoge to break the wind, and they were kept in proper formation by following a pace car that shot a green laser line marking the way. Two more runners trailed Kipchoge and the combination created a bubble around him that aerodynamic experts predicted would shave about one minute off his time.

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