October 13

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What Ineos 1:59 Challenge and Eliud Kipchoge Teach Us About Teamwork

By Ralph Varcoe

October 13, 2019


If you’ve read my book, Accelerate Personal Performance, you’ll know I run a bit. Mostly to stay in some sort of acceptable middle-aged shape. I still carry one too may Chicken Tikka Masalas around my midriff, mind you, and my blood is around 20% proof. I’m no athlete. These days a 7 or 8km run is about all I can manage, and completing one of those will have me telling anyone who cares to indulge me that I deserve a medal, and a rest. It doesn’t wash at home. ‘Stop sweating all over the kitchen and pull your weight.’ I crash back down to earth with a hefty thud, retiring for a brief shower to contemplate how much of a running god I am with splits of 4:52 per km. Many things are best contemplated in a brief shower, though apparently my definition of brief is not shared with the rest of the household, or, it would seem, the world.

4:52 per km. For a whole 8 of them. Hero.

As I emerged from my shower yesterday morning, still with the warm glow of Saturday morning's street-pounding, I switched on to watch Eliud Kipchoge run 42.2km in under 2 hours. Absolutely mind boggling. To achieve that feat he’d need to average 2:50 a km. What? I literally feel like I’m about to have a seizure trying to get my head around that number. For me that would be like sprinting. And he would do that for 2 hours! Someone get my inhaler. I’m not sure I could physically get this temple (!) of a body to move at that speed for even 1km, unless aided by wheels and an engine.

Eliud Kipchoge is an amazing athlete. He burst onto the scene in 2003 as a junior and won himself a silver medal in the 5,000 metres at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. But, despite being quick and a previous medal winner, he was left out of the Kenyan team for the London games in 2012. He changed his focus to long distance, a move that paid off and was rewarded with a gold in Rio in 2016. In 2018 he took a full 2 mins 20 seconds off the marathon world record set 10 years earlier, finishing in 2:01:39. People wondered whether sub-2 hours was achievable. The 4-time London Marathon winner worked with Nike in 2017 on an attempt which took science and planning to another level. On an empty course in Monza he ran the distance in 2:00:25. Bugger!

Step up Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Ineos which funded the attempt with £15m and military precision.

While the planning from a large team went on for many, many months in preparation for 12th October 2019, Kipchoge himself only trained for it for 4 months. His training camp in Kenya, at altitude, is the perfect place to get into peak condition. Sharing a small room with another athlete and having to do his share of chores, he eats the Kenyan equivalent of porridge twice a day. Maybe this is why he is so grounded and can focus on the goal so easily. I get a bit upset if my steak isn’t quite ‘saignant’ enough and god forbid anyone asks me to share a room with a colleague on a work trip! This is clearly why I never made it as a marathon runner. And the rest…

It sounds incredible that to shave only 1 minute 40 seconds off a distance of 42.2km would require a whole team, but that is what it took. A large team at that. Kipchoge needed to average 2:50 per km. His record breaking Berlin marathon was run at an average of 2:52.35. He had a car with laser guides and a phenomenal number of pacemakers, made up of former olympic and world record holders. 41 people ran with him to make sure he kept the pace steady. 9 teams of 7 kept him company on the day, with some runners doing more than one leg.

Their job — to enable a gifted athlete to achieve something never done before. No-one will remember their names (apart from diehard running fans, those involved in making it happen, and their families). They had one job — to create a world-first and allow someone else to take the glory. In truth not one of them was capable of doing what the great man did yesterday so it is right and proper that he takes the glory.

But in equal truth, there is no way that the great man could have become the fastest human over the marathon distance, breaking the elusive 2 hour barrier without all of them playing their part.

No matter what each person’s part was, they were one unit. Their goal was the same. To make history. I talk about the story of Mike Golding’s team in the BT Global Challenge where everybody’s role was as important as the next person’s, from the galley slave to the helm, to the trimmers and navigators. Without any of them doing their job to 100% of their potential the team would have failed.

And so too for this momentous occasion. A pacemaker crowding Kipchoge, or tripping, and it would all have been over. The pace car not being metronomic with its speed. The coach handing the great man his gels and fluids could easily have misjudged the speed and distance while on his bicycle. Everyone played their part to perfection and it paid off.

One team. One goal. One achievement to celebrate. And given how down to earth Kipchoge is he will see his success as their own.

Does it matter that this is not a world record marathon time? Not one bit. He has proven that the human form is not limited to running the distance in more than 2 hours. Just as Roger Bannister proved that it was possible to run a mile in under 4 minutes (3:59.4 to be precise), also with the aid of pacemakers, so the record started to fall shortly thereafter. Within a month it had dropped to 3:57.9. The current record is 3:43.13. Why? Because suddenly it was possible to believe that the limit doesn’t have to exist.

Will we see an official marathon world record at under 2 hours in the not too distant future? I reckon it’s a dead cert.

And all because of extreme talent supported by the most flawlessly executed team work. Great things happen when the team fires on all cylinders.

Let me know what examples you have of great teamwork in action in the comments below.

Ralph Varcoe

About the author

For over 20 years, Ralph has run sales and marketing teams across large enterprises and smaller start-ups, at companies such as Orange, Tata Communications, Virgin Media, Spirit Ai and others. He brings a wealth of experience in personal and professional development with a laser focus on enabling people to achieve more than they thought possible. He's a published author and musician with a passion for creating - be that change, the right solution, exciting campaigns, the right environment for customers to succeed, or podcasts, videos and written content.

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