“You have to have the absolute arrogance to think you can run a mile faster than anyone that’s ever lived; then you have to have the absolute humility to do it.”

-Herb Elliot

In the early, early days of marathoning, mustachioed athletes started at frightening speeds, hoping to break their opponents early then jog to the finish. Despite the best times falling slower six minute pace per mile, races often began faster than five minutes a mile.

The 1908 Olympic Marathon started out like any other– a pack of prizefighters shot out of the stadium, weaving through London as the group dwindled. The American, Johnny Hayes, and the Italian, Dorando Pietri, hung back, however.

The London sun shone– the race had begun at 2:30pm on July 24. Most runners fell victim to dehydration and dropped out. Halfway through, Dorando noticed the distress of his opponents, and took off to catch the leaders. Johnny maintained his own pace. By twenty miles, Dorando made it to second place. At twenty four miles he overtook the leader. The surge cost him though, and as he entered the Olympic stadium he turned the wrong way then fell, then stumbled towards the finish, fell again, stumbled some more, then fell twice before a doctor helped him limp across the line. Despite finishing first, the judges disqualified him for receiving outside aid.

Then along comes Johnny Hayes, unaware of the drama and debacle, and sails through the line in second. To his surprise, he received a gold medal.

Runners would not race if they weren’t ambitious, but ambition can be dangerous at the beginning of a race. It is not dangerous because it will take you to your limits– success only comes from testing your limits– but because it will take you to your limits too early. Then you lose the race. Start with humility, and save ambition for the final stretch.

I’ve raced dozens of half marathons. Sometimes I get to the starting line in great shape and I think “I’m going to run my fastest time ever.” Sometimes I get to the starting line in worse shape than I had hoped, and I think “Let me just try and run 1:18.” Without fail, if I go into a race trying to run a personal best, I will run 1:18. If I go into a race and try to run 1:18, I set a personal best.

Humility does not mean selling yourself short, or not trying your hardest. Humility means patience; it means placing yourself into a position to do your best, rather than trying force it.