Last week, in a conversation with his fellow running geek David Epstein, Malcolm Gladwell ventured an opinion on the nature of athletic greatness. As he saw it, longevity mattered more than peak performance. “I’m inclined to give someone who spent ten years as one of the top ten runners in the world the nod over someone who had one year at number one—and no other year of comparable excellence.” Hear, hear! As far as Gladwellian provocations go, this one seems fairly uncontroversial to me. Indeed, a value system that prizes persistence and durability over flash in the pan brilliance feels especially appropriate for a pursuit like distance running. It makes sense to celebrate athletes who have been very good for a long time—athletes like Kenyan runner Edna Kiplagat.
The results speak for themselves: 24 marathon starts in 12 years. Six victories. 14 podiums. Wins in New York, London, and Boston. Two World Championship gold medals. Zero DNFs. To my knowledge, Kiplagat is the only able-bodied athlete who has made the podium in five out of the six annual World Marathon Majors. (The sole outlier is Berlin, where she finished fourth in 2018.) Ever since she announced herself as a top-tier World Class distance runner by winning the 2010 New York City Marathon, in her NYC debut, no less, Kiplagat has almost always been in contention. There are few other runners who have demonstrated such a knack for keeping themselves within striking distance in the brutal late stages of the marathon, when the lead pack has splintered and everything becomes a test of pure will. Earlier this year, Kiplagat finished fourth in Boston in a course PB time of 2:21:40. For the record, she is 42 years old.
This weekend, Kiplagat will once again return to Central Park, the scene of her first major triumph, to take part in the 50th anniversary edition of the New York Mini 10K. Although she is unlikely to contend for the win in such a short race, she didn’t want to pass up the chance to return to a city that has been good to her over the years.
I spoke to Kiplagat earlier this week, hoping to glean some sage advice from one of the all-time greats. If all goes well, I will also be a runner in my forties before too long. Maybe I could learn something. Here are a few takeaways from our conversation.
Maintaining Speed Is a Must
Kiplagat has been competing internationally since 1996, when she represented Kenya at the World Junior Championships in cross country and on the track. In the latter competition, she won a silver medal in the 3000 meters. A quarter century later, she still knows the value of occasionally moving down in distance and getting out of her 26.2-mile comfort zone.
“10K is a short race for me, but it gives me an opportunity to test my speed,” she says of this weekend’s Mini. “My next marathon will be sometime around November, so I still have a lot of time to prepare for something short. Preparing to run a 10K, I knew I had to reduce my mileage and concentrate on speedwork. I know it will be a competitive race, but I am happy to come and be challenged.”
Embrace the Race You’re In
Given Kiplagat’s impressive track record in World Championship marathons and on courses like Boston, I had a preconceived notion that she’d have a clear preference for championship-style, unpaced races. (To be honest, I was half hoping that she would affirm one of my personal biases in favor of the format since I’ve long maintained that having pacers in the marathon is detrimental to fair competition.) But Kiplagat, who set her marathon PR of 2:19:50 at the 2012 London Marathon, doesn’t have any particular aversion to races that are engineered to be fast from the gun. As she put it to me: “It’s true that most of the races I’ve run have been championship races and hard courses, but I don’t mind going to races with pacemakers. I always try to train my mind to be ready for anything.”
It Helps When You Aren’t Only Competing for Yourself
The fact that Kiplagat has never DNF’ed in a marathon is all the more impressive considering that professional athletes often have a greater incentive to step off the course when things aren’t going well. Why wreck yourself for no prize money? Kiplagat was the only African runner in the women’s elite field at the infamous 2018 Boston Marathon to soldier on all the way to Boylston Street, finishing ninth on a day where the majority of pro runners dropped out in hypothermia-inducing conditions. “I always try to finish the race even if it doesn’t go well,” she says. “I always tell myself, if I drop out, I will have disappointed my training partners, my team, and especially myself. So I always have to finish, because then I will know I have exhausted everything which I have prepared for.”
The Best Masters Runners Don’t See Themselves as Masters Runners…
When Kiplagat ran 2:21:40 this year at Boston, she improved her own Masters (40+) course record by roughly three and a half minutes. (For what it’s worth, the open U.S. women’s course record, set by Shalane Flanagan in 2014, is 2:22:02.) When I asked her about this, Kiplagat told me that she had “not even thought about competing as a Masters athlete.” Intellectually, she says that she understands that it’s a blessing to still be competing at this level in her forties, but it’s not something that enters into her consciousness while competing. “I don’t want to put it in my mind because I want to stay strong,” she says.
…But They’re Also Not in Denial
However, despite not thinking of herself as a Masters runner when she competes, Kiplagat says that she has definitely changed her approach to training as she has gotten older. The difference, she says, is most pronounced in how she manages her recovery. “I remember when I was in my thirties, I could compete in a marathon, take just one week for rest and then, already in the second week, I would be starting my preparation for the next race,” she says. “Now, it takes me three weeks to one month for recovery. And if I do any speed work, I take at least 48 hours to recover. If I feel like I need an extra day for the next workout, then I don’t force my body.”
Racing Well Starts and Ends With Mindset
As Kiplagat sees it, even when you’ve had a perfect training cycle and are in impeccable physical shape, so much of race day success comes down to, as she puts it, “how you wake up” and “having good spirits on the day.” That might sound like a kind of endurance sports mysticism, but it’s hardly a secret that the most successful athletes need to have some measure of psychological equilibrium in order to succeed. For her part, Kiplagat seems to have the “good spirits” thing figured out. She always comes off as the most self-assured athlete in the field, even when she’s racing against world-beating Olympic champions or runners who are half her age. Of course, Kiplagat has every reason to feel confident. She’s been here before.