Insights and Inspirations from how Sir Dave Brailsford led the INEOS 1:59 Team to break the 2-hour marathon
One of running’s three great barriers
On the 12th of October 2019, on a misty Saturday morning in Vienna, an athletic spectacle of historic proportions was about to unfold. Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya ran 26.2 miles in a once-inconceivable time of 1 hour 59 minutes 40 seconds, a milestone once believed to be unattainable.
The sub 2-hour marathon was one of running’s three great barriers. The first, a sub 4-minute mile, was achieved in 1954 by Britain’s Sir Roger Bannister, on a wet and windy day at Oxford University’s dusty cinder track. The second, a sub 10 -second 100-metre sprint, was credited by hand-operated stopwatches to American sprinter Jim Hines in 1968, helped by the high altitude of the Mexico City Olympic games. Another fifteen years elapsed before his compatriot Carl Lewis matched that feat using automatic timers and no environmental assistance. Yet the third milestone, completing the 26.2 miles (42.2 km) of the marathon in under 2-hours, remained on the horizon until Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya and Sir Dave Brailsford of Team INEOS came together.
I was curious to understand what it is that Sir Dave Brailsford does to consistently lead teams to achieve audacious world’s best performances and what ideas and inspiration business leaders can draw on when leading and inspiring teams in business.
Where others had failed despite magnificent attempts
In 2017, Nike brought Eliud Kipchoge, the world’s fastest marathoner, an eight-time major marathon winner and three-time Olympic medallist together 30 of the world’s best runners in a heavily invested and orchestrated event to break 2-hours.
Nike left no stone unturned to Beak 2. They developed a new running shoe called the “Vapor Fly Elite” for the attempt. The Monza automobile racetrack was chosen for a combination of its low altitude, calm weather conditions, and short lap length. A pace vehicle displaying a large clock of the race time and projecting green lasers onto the ground to indicate where the lead pacemakers should be at all times to shield the key athletes in an attempt to reduce wind resistance. In promotion, Nike even created a documentary with National Geographic to promote the event and their shoes. Despite the best efforts of Kipchoge and the team, Eliud finished the race in 2:00:25 and said he had given 100% effort.
Sir Dave Brailsford & Team INEOS 1:59
The mastermind behind the team that broke the 2-hour barrier was Sir Dave Brailsford, the Principal of Team INEOS cycling, who served as CEO on the INEOS 1:59 Challenge.
Brailsford was knighted by the Queen in 2013 after helping to transform Britain into a dominant cycling nation from a country with a history of only a few victories. Brailsford then turned his attention to conquering the highest level of professional cycling, the Tour de France. Within 3-years, Brailsford successfully led his team to dominate the sport of cycling, with Team INEOS (formerly Team Sky) racking up eight Grand Tour victories to date including the first British treble with consecutive victories in the Italian, French and Spanish tours.
Unlike Brailsford’s success in leading British Cycling to Gold at the Olympics and Team Sky and now Team INEOS to multiple Grand Tour victories, in breaking the 2-hour marathon, Brailsford was tasked with bringing together a large and disparate team of more than 100 people in a very short period of time. It is reported that Brailsford was called in from leading Team INEOS Cycling Team to spend 5-months leading a project that proved a triumph of human performance, science and technology.
Brailsford’s first action
Brailsford’s first action was an audit of where was the project, how is it looking and breaking down all the performance elements of what was required to break 2-hours and achieve the goal set by the Team of 1:59.
Create a small team and co-determine the main goal
Brailsford after understanding the baseline, created a small management team from across the INEOS federation of teams where expertise could advance the towards the challenge. The team identified the need for a clear separation of focus between the performance to break 2-hours and the promotion of the event itself. One group was established to focus on performance and another focusing on the event. Brailsford with the team clearly agreed that performance was in the lead. It was clear that the goal was 1:59 and everyone’s focus and efforts, including the team organising the event and promotion of the event, was directed to this end.
Widen the circle of engagement
Brailsford then brought together experts that would contribute to maximising every area the project team identified was required to achieve. The 1:59 Team drew on world’s leading experts in meteorology from the America’s Cup team, aerodynamics and human performance from Team INEOS Cycling team, strength and conditioning from INEOS Football Teams, as well as experts from motor racing (RML) to fine tune the electric pacing vehicle, to Professors of camber and corners from the University of Colorado to investigate the impact of corners on running speed vs running in a straight line. These experts examined every element that prevented the Nike Team and every element that would lead to success. Brailsford was using his template of finding small incremental gains from multiple areas to have a mighty impact.
Key idea & inspiration: Brailsford widened the circle to include others to strengthen the plan and to enrol others. Brailsford provided a clear north star of 1:59 and the focus of ‘performance’ was determined by the team through Brailsford creating the space for the team to co-create and own the plan.
Attention to details and the aggregation of marginal gains
Kipchoge needed to run 26 seconds faster than he did in the Nike Breaking 2 event to break the 2-hour barrier. That is 0.36% faster over the course of the 26.2 miles. This was a significant challenge at Kipchoge’s elite level – so every single detail matters.
The selection of Vienna as the location for Eliud Kipchoge’s INEOS 1:59 Challenge was the culmination of an extensive worldwide search of more than 29 locations that started with a map of the world and ended with a pinpoint in the Austrian capital.
The team of experts assembled by the INEOS were armed with spreadsheets of data, scientific information and invaluable learnings from Kipchoge’s previous sub-2 attempt at the famous Italian motor racing circuit of Monza in May 2017. All of this information was processed and scrubbed from the list one by one until The Prater, the historic park in central Vienna, was the last name remaining. Finding the right location was important element yet only one of many elements that were examined to run 1:59.
Attention to details add up
- Clothing for best Thermoregulation and aerodynamics
- Shoes for maximum performance and lightness
- Camber, inclines and declines and the city of Vienna spending a lot of money resurfacing the road to make it be as even as possible with the feel of a track.
- Collaborative local city and management (Vienna)
- Best time of the event for low pressure and temperature
- Location for the best weather (wind or rain), best air quality, within 3 time zones of Kenya, and less than 200 mt altitude
- Pacing team of over 40 world’s top runners, who can consistently run the 4:34.5 per mile were brought together to block the wind and set the pace
- Wind tunnel testing of more than 100 different running formations resulted in the V formation to create the best aerodynamic conditions for Eliud
- Rehearsal and practice of the pacing and V formation
- Training preparation of the pace runner and Eliud
- Eliud’s support training team and home training environment
- The best marathon event team (London Marathon Events)
- Ability to have supporters lining the route and creating a positive atmosphere
- Timing and laser guidance systems
- Best electric car tuned for precision down to 0.1 km/h by a leading motor racing team
Key idea & inspiration: Goal clarity; Brailsford’s relentless and yet straight forward focus on performance vs. an event or promotion, made it very clear for everyone involved in the project that they were expected to everything possible to achieve 1:59.
Cooperation & Collaboration
The 1:59 Team believed they had most of the clever answers on WHAT needed to be done, yet Brailsford and his Team understood that the key to achieving 1:59 would be in HOW every element of the plan would be executed by more than 100 people, many of whom were coming together for the first time and work disband after the project ended.
Brailsford used classical elements from successful project management to ensure those involved knew what was expected of them, where my jobs starts and finishes, who to go to solve issues, agreed on ways of working, e.g. The Monday 1:59 call held at 1:59pm every Monday. Yet Brailsford also understood that a hyper level of communication between the team would be key to make history. In the very first Team 1:59 all hands meeting, Brailsford invited everyone to come together to connect with each other in the room and to share who they were, what they do and what achieving 1:59 meant for them personally.
Brailsford invited the group to share one-by-one with the group how they as an individual were connected with the Team 1:59 mission ‘What is your personal connection and what would take for each person’ as Brailsford said, ‘to be all in’ and ‘commit’ to high performance.
Through this connection exercise, Brailsford created the conditions for each of the Team 1:59 to get to know each other and to connect with what 1:59 meant to them and what it meant for others on the team. He moved the team beyond their individual contribution to what the team could achieve together.
INSIGHTS & INSPIRATIONS
- Brailsford did an audit (Diagnosis) of the program and created a small experienced leadership team to determine the big picture
- Quick to establish clarity in the mission and that it was a performance led project. This enabled clarity throughout the 1:59 Team.
- He brought a mindset and expectation to the team of always looking to find that edge to get that edge to go faster
- Brailsford brought together experts from around the world and created the atmosphere and environment for them to collaborate and cooperate together
- The team was very clear on their roles, the expectation from them and who they needed to connect with…
- He created an environment where the people involved (more than 100) could express openly what the project meant for them personally and how they wanted to commit in order to be ‘all in’.
- Brailsford encouraged the team to focus on communicating between the team.
A globally recognised commercial executive with extensive, operational, commercial and complex large-scale business transformation expertise. Valued for innovative strategic thinking, ability to partner with business leaders and engage teams to successfully realise transformational and sustainable change. Executed several international transformations, post-merger integrations, restructuring and commercial transformations in leadership positions, transforming employee engagement, customer experience and business performance.
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- Interview with Sir Dave Brailsford, Leaders performance podcast interview (Dec 2019)
- Team INEOS 1:59 website
- Pub Med 2019: A Randomized Crossover Study Investigating the Running Economy of Highly-Trained Male and Female Distance Runners in Marathon Racing Shoes versus Track Spikes.
- The Economist; Can the marathon’s two-hour barrier be broken? (2017)
- New York Times ; Eliud Kipchoge Breaks Two-Hour Marathon Barrier (Oct 2019)
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