Eliud Kipchoge: Showing us that limits are all in our heads

This weekend between trainings and coaching calls I devoted an uninterrupted two hours of my attention to something I don’t often do: sitting on the edge of my seat infront of the television. I was watching history being made as 34-year old Eliud Kipchoge, simply the world’s greatest marathon runner, ran his second attempt at breaking the two hour time for a marathon distance. As someone who has never called myself a “runner” I was watching this not necessarily as a sport enthusiast, but in awe of the mental power required to push beyond what has always been seen as a limit to human ability.

Achieving a goal happens in the preparation beforehand

Eliud is a world-class athlete and has been for many years. Before Saturday’s accomplishment he had already set the world record and won the London Marathon four times—an impressive track record of dedication, training and accomplishment. His attempt two years prior was also pre-empted by months of around-the-clock training and nutrition, but ultimately his result was just over the two hour mark. When asked what he changed this time around, Eliud and his team responded that the training didn’t change. As a devoted consumer of motivational books (his favorite is Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”), the answer was much simpler: the training didn’t change, the mind did. While his team doesn’t list a psychologist, Eliud has said himself that putting this goal in his heart and mind is what allows him to believe in his physical ability. Interview after interview I’ve heard Eliud talk, in his rather succinct way, about his dream to show others that humans have no limits. This dream in something much bigger than him is motivation that synchronizes the heart, the mind and the body towards one goal.

Coaching an individual to expand their mental limits

One key person in Eliud’s training was his coach, Patrick Sang. He’s quoted in interviews saying that “mental strength and positivity are what sets Eliud apart” from other athletes. “His belief is no human is limited, and he wants to actualize that belief. He’s done it before and he is leading us in this again.” (Quoted from an exclusive interview with the Olympic Channel) He continues, “For an athlete to succeed, hard work pays off, as does trust in the systems that support you. But over and above that, you know, it taught me that what the mind has set to do – if that person believes holistically on the mind and follows the mind – the limits are elastic. You can stretch those limits.”

Executing his plan meant running at 2:50 per km for the entire 42 kms. With the exception of the pacers coming in and out in intervals, this meant that the race was a steady pace. From time to time after the one-hour mark I noticed Eliud’s face light up with a smile and I couldn’t help but think “how is he smiling right now? Is he feeling good?” It turns out that Eliud uses this technique when his body is feeling pain. That’s right, his body feels pain and he projects a smile across his face. Similar to self-talk techniques I often use with my clients, Eliud is most likely doing this to re-assign an emotion to the pain his body is feeling, allowing him to push beyond what might have stopped him.

New limits

The emotion on Saturday that Eliud excited across the world is hard to put into words. Broadcasters were comparing his achievement to the day we stepped foot on the moon. He may not have physically left earth, but he certainly went somewhere deep within himself to show us that barriers are self-imposed. As history shows us, we will be seeing others in the coming years repeat his sub-two hour time. Why hadn’t others done so sooner? Because it couldn’t be seen. It hadn’t been done, so it was off-limits; beyond the limits of our abilities as humans. But now it’s possible, he just did it. And that, my friends, is how we evolve together: Overcoming our boundaries so that others can overcome them too.

What barriers are between you and what you want?