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Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Who’s the Greatest Athlete of All?

Once upon a time the term GOAT was a term of derision to describe someone who underperformed under pressure. The player who fumbles the ball, the kicker who misses a field goal, the batter who strikes out, the golfer who misses an easy putt.

But today, the term stands for Greatest of All Time. This is the player who stands alone in that Pantheon of Greatness, the player who has no comparison.

These debates about who is a GOAT are typically held in the mahogany-paneled faculty lounges of ivy-covered educational institutions, in the musty biker bars in rural America, in the blue-collar watering holes of our industrial cities. There are strong opinions, there are little data, but at the end of the day, comparisons are very difficult and ephemeral.

Ben Hogan in the 1950s was arguably one of the greatest players of all time especially when we consider the primitive golf clubs he used. To some extent, a duffer today can “buy” a respectable game with golf balls and clubs manufactured by aeronautical engineers in the setting of a few lessons and a little bit of practice.

The Great Ones Stand Alone

But there is one sport in town where the greatest of all time clearly stands alone and has no peer: Eliud Kipchoge. His name is barely recognizable except for that tightly knit insular community of distance runners. But here is why he is the best in the world and why we need to pay attention to learn from him.

He has won 10 world-class marathons such as Tokyo and Berlin and these races bring to the starting line the fastest marathon runners on the planet especially because of the exorbitant appearance fees and sponsorships. A runner from some impoverished African country who wins one of these premier events is essentially set financially for life. These events are comparable to winning on the PGA tour.

Kipchoge has the fastest time in the world and did not blink under the glare of Olympic publicity and in fact won the gold medal in two Olympics—a feat that no one else has duplicated. He also was the first individual to break the mythical two-hour barrier in the marathon although this was a carefully orchestrated event.

But now for the rest of the story.

In almost every sport there is a seminal event, an iconic contest that defines the career of a performer. Winning the Super Bowl, winning the NBA championship, becoming the world heavyweight champion, winning the Masters golf tournament, and, as a jockey, winning the Kentucky Derby.

So when it comes to the running community, medals and world records are nice, but the ultimate prize albeit somewhat disputed is to win the Boston Marathon.

This is an iconic race held every April in the rolling punishing hills between Framingham, Hopkinton, and downtown Boston. Unlike some races, which are relatively flat and are essentially a 26.2-mile all-out sprint, Boston is a highly nuanced technical race. The hills occur at the worst time in the race, the weather can be unpredictable, and the glare of publicity can wither the most durable performer.

Let us set the stage for this year’s Boston Marathon. The fastest runners in the world, primarily from Kenya, appeared. There was no Olympics on the near horizon so these elite runners could focus their brutal training regimens on Boston. Most have mapped out a meticulously orchestrated six-month training program leaving nothing to chance.

The start of the race was electric. There was clearly an expectation of the fastest Boston Marathon and a tribute to the anniversary of the tragic terrorist bombing ten years earlier. But it was not to be.

Kipchoge stumbled home in sixth place several minutes behind his countrymen who won the race. How did this catastrophe happen? What can we mere mortals learn when an icon has an off day?

What Went Wrong?

Let us dissect the race as has been done by the exercise physiologists, the sports psychologists, the medical people, and the running communities.

  • Kipchoge had previously not run the Boston Marathon and was seemingly ill prepared with the occurrence of hills at the 18-mile mark and, as far as we can tell, did not walk or run or drive the last several miles of the race in preparation, which some world-class runners do to get a general feel for the terrain.

  • We also understand that he did not seek the guidance from experienced runners who had run the race. His thinking may have been, “I am the best in the world, I have all these records and medals, I really would not need the input of others.”

  • Unlike in his previous victories, he took the lead and had a very fast first half of the race so there was little left in the tank for the toughest part of the race, the hills toward the end. In most world-record performances of distance races, the first half of the race and the second half of the race times are relatively close. His was a blistering first half and a slower struggle during the second.

  • As the lead runner, there was no one from whom he could draft to decrease the pressure of the wind and there is an added psychological burden on the pace setter.

  • It does not appear that he acclimatized to the cold, damp Boston April, and it was in these kinds of conditions that he ran his slowest races.

  • He missed his vital hydration bottle handoff at one of the water stops. Every elite runner has a special concoction just for them.

  • He was loudly criticized by the media for not being available for the expected post-race autopsy. Sponsors, race directors, and other officials contributed greatly to his appearance fees. His spokespeople did share a carefully manicured review of the race, which acknowledged some sort of upper leg injury. But it was a hollow apology. This written apology seemed contrived and out of character for a performer who was fit, maniacally focused, in the game, and ready for a herculean effort. He did not seem to be “all in.”

When Failure Is Not an Option

Although you and I may not be running the Boston Marathon, we will certainly have circumstances where we are expected to perform: a sales meeting, a new product presentation, a musical performance, a surgical operation, computer coding, teaching a class, landing a 737, preparing a culinary masterpiece, opening a small business, or installing electrical wiring or construction. The stakes may be high, failure is not an option, and maybe our careers are on the line.

Whatever your profession or task at hand, the risks are real, you must perform.

In these circumstances, which each of us will undoubtedly face, we need to be fit, we need to be focused, we need to be informed. And we need to be humble and reach out and seek the advice and the wisdom of those who have been there before us.

The choice is ours.

Edward T. Creagan, MD, FAAHPM, is emeritus professor at the Mayo Clinic Medical School, and author of two award-winning books: How Not to Be My Patient and Farewell: Vital End-of-Life Questions with Candid Answers from a Leading Palliative and Hospice Physician. Follow his daily stress tips on Instagram @AskDoctorEd.

Image from Wix Media.

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