Issue #13 - The Importance of Supporting Roles
Being the (Best) Water Bottle Holder
A new world record was set in the marathon a couple of weeks back. History's greatest athlete at that distance, Eliud Kipchoge (37), completed the Berlin course in ideal conditions in just 2:01:09 (4:37/mile pace...OMG!), beating his own previous record. As a feat of human performance, this is an exceptional outcome.
Kipchoge's name and time are what have rightfully received the lion's share of media and public attention. However, as I think about the achievement, there are few of us who will ever achieve something similar in our own fields and so the lessons may be less useful than in analyzing the performance of his team, and one member in particular.
At each of the 13 aid stations during the race, there was an enthusiastic and very determined man, poised in anticipation as Kipchoge flew by, ready to hand him his water bottle. Each successful handoff was followed by an emphatic fist pump by Claus Henning-Schulke, the 56-year old volunteer who has served in this role for Kipchoge during two previous races, including his 2018 world record-setting run.
Think about the importance of this job. At Kipchoge's level, every fraction of a second counts and in-race nutrition is an essential component of any attempt at the world record. His bottles are packed with a customized and very specific mix of electrolytes and water, enough to keep delivering energy to his body so that he can maintain his pace without upsetting his stomach and slowing him down. If he were to miss a handoff and the opportunity to consume his nutrients, he'd be toast. Similarly, and more likely, if the transfer were anything less than perfect, Kipchoge would lose vital time. While he cannot control things like the weather or the condition and topography of the course, choosing a partner to deliver his water bottles is firmly within his control and it is clear he is careful about whom to trust to serve in this role.
Henning-Schulke has to fulfill his role to perfection. This starts well before the race by practicing with Kipchoge. In their case, they use a vase with a tulip inside it.
You have to imagine they are running along [at] more than [13 mph]. You have to keep eye contact. Does he see me? I shouted at him because he was moving in an inner tunnel. Then you present the bottle to him. He grabs it and the handing of the bottle has worked. It makes me happy every time.
Once the handoff has been made, Henning-Schulke isn't done. He uses a bicycle to get to the next aid station, navigating more than 3 miles while weaving in and out of traffic at over 25 mph--he has to beat Kipchoge, after all!--in order to get settled and ready for the next transfer. Getting stuck behind a truck or striking a pedestrian would be catastrophic. By the end of the race he's exhausted and, if all has gone well, the public will have paid no notice to his efforts.
Most of us will never support a world-class marathoner. But, we do have regular opportunities to support the other champions in our lives. And we can bring the same intensity, dedication, and enthusiasm to those whose journeys we are supporting as Henning-Schulke does for Kipchoge. As a subordinate, we can work to anticipate our team's and our leader's needs and meet them, much like racing from aid station to aid station. We can prepare relentlessly and in coordination with the person or people that we want to help succeed, creating our own version of passing tulips in vases at high velocity. And we can pump our fists every. single. time. our efforts lead to a successful outcome, no matter how small and trivial it may look to others, like the "simple" passing of a water bottle to the world's greatest human distance runner as he edges closer and closer to the mythical sub-2 hour marathon.