Marathon Racing

It seems that sport analogies are often used to try to describe what happens on project teams. Software development efforts are equated to a race. As one who dabbles in foot races and triathlon, I couldn’t help but start to think about analogies between projects, teams, and those sports.

The sport analogy that most often comes to mind for me is the sport of marathon running. I have raced in four marathons; Chicago one time, and Detroit three times. Like software projects travelling the marathon distance of 26.2 miles requires a nontrivial investment of time and energy for preparation and execution. Also, to complete an endurance event like a marathon, there are several distinct phases.

This article lays the foundation for some later posts about specific aspects of the race analogy.

Wait for it…

Leading up to the race, I think about strategy, have written down my expected pace, and am anxious for the race to start. Despite a desire to just start, you can’t start until it’s time. Racers wait in holding pens and chat with one-another, loosen up, and anticipate the starting gun. Ceremony marks the approaching start. There is music, weather updates, last-minute course information, and ultimately, the National Anthem.

3, 2, 1…

Once the race commences, there is even more excitement. Crowd support is typically strong at the beginning of the race. The cheers of the crowd lift the spirit as you leave the starting pens and move out onto the course. The race has officially begun.

The first half

The first several miles are pretty enjoyable. If I’ve been realistic about my pace, it’s pretty easy to meet or exceed the pace that I set out to run. The miles tick away, 1, 2, 3, 4… I feel good. The excitement of the new race is still there. Aid stations are available, and despite not feeling like I “need” fluids, it’s a good opportunity to momentarily slow down, hydrate, and check my pace. Then, back to running…

As the middle of the race approaches, I continue the mental math, doubling my mid-race time and starting to get a better feel for what finishing time I expect to have. Thirteen miles down, thirteen to go. If I have prepared properly for the race, I still feel good.  I appreciate the aid stations more and more as the race goes on. In addition to the liquid, it helps to take in a little bit of solid food as the race goes on.

The next quarter

Somewhere over the next six to eight miles, the race starts to feel like real work. The legs start to feel tired, and the anticipation for the next mile-marker builds. It can become a challenge to keep up the pace from one mile to the next. The support of the crowd often thins during these miles. The encouragement that was present at the start and middle of the race becomes less frequent. As mile 20 approaches, the race becomes a mental game, knowing that my training has prepared me for the full marathon distance.

The last quarter

The miles in the low-twenty seem to be the most challenging. The effort to continue increases, and it’s not unusual to have a burning sensation in my legs.  The amount of relief that the aid stations provide diminishes, and it becomes a struggle to go on.

It is also over these miles that the anticipation of the finish line builds. The purpose of all the training and all the previous miles has been for the purpose of completing the whole distance. It is also over these miles that it is encouraging to match the pace of another runner. What can be an individual event can transform into a cooperative game of mutual  encouragement.

The finish

The finish line is the ultimate checkpoint. There is celebration, review of the events that have transpired since the beginning of the race some hours before, and a realization that the most significant milestone of the day has been reached. Ironically, it is also at this point when the discussion of the next event crops up. The finish isn’t as much an end as it is a launch point for the next big thing.

Future posts

As I created this entry, I was tempted to digress into discussions of aid stations, multi-discipline events, sustainable pace, technical debt, and cooperative aspects.  Look for those in future posts. If analogies came to mind as you read through this, feel free to share.

2 thoughts on “Marathon Racing

  1. Chuck

    “A runner is a miser, spending the pennies of his energy with great stinginess, constantly wanting to know how much he has spent and how much longer he will be expected to pay. He wants to be broke precisely the moment he no longer needs his coin.” -John Parker, Once a Runner

    In my experience with projects and races, real pain is experienced when you spend too much money in the early stages and have nothing left for the end!

    1. Dan Neumann

      As the nephew of a much more accomplished endurance athlete (130+ marathons and many races that were longer), I laughed at the quote. Indeed he is frugal. Thanks for sharing.

      I’ve had the pain of spending too much energy in a race, and in projects, too. Teams that were excited to start become weary. While race routes are typically well marked, there is no guarantee on a project that you are running in the right direction. I like agile approaches partially because of the close interaction with the customer. The customer helps the team keep moving toward the proper end goal.


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