What I Learned While Running the New York Marathon

When?I stated on this blog that I was hoping to run the NY marathon in under four hours, I was hoping that my public commitment would spur me on.? And it did.? Sort of.? I ran under four hours – 3:54:59 to be precise – which I’m thrilled by.? So score one for Ian Ayres and?the value of public commitments.

But I think I could have run faster, and my public commitment is to blame.? You see, at mile 20, I realized that I was on target to beat my goal – “all” I had to do was run six more miles at a moderate clip, and I would be a sub-four hour marathoner.? The only thing that could prevent me from getting there was if I “hit the wall.”? So rather than running the last few miles hard, I ran them cautiously, doing whatever I could to prevent my legs from blowing up.? If a runner could play defense, then I was playing it.

There’s an economic lesson here.? I respond to incentives, and the incentive I set up was to beat a specific goal.? But that’s different than committing to run my best race.? And this led to the perverse result that I slowed down over the final miles, rather than running hard.? By picking a specific target, I distorted my incentives, and those incentives led to a good outcome (a sub-four-hour marathon), but prevented me from striving for an even better marathon.

So today the runner in me is left wondering if I could have beaten 3:50. And the economist in me is left wondering how to set incentives that don’t distort effort.

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  1. DaveyNC says:

    Having been in sales most of my life, I can tell you that as you approach quota, you slow down ever so much. The trick is to set your “internal” quota beyond what your company expects out of you and then stick to it.

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  2. Dennis Jonesd says:

    Of course, you will never know what would have happened had you not been cautious over the last few miles. You could as easily have not finished. Then you would be asking yourself why you were not content to be sub-4 hours. Next time out you can try (even though conditions and course may be different), thinking that you have it in you to run faster.

    Good luck

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  3. Greg says:

    Being in accounting for companies I have seen hundreds of different bonus and comission plans. The best are graduated incentives. Target number is say 100K.

    Actual Results % of bonus earned
    Below 75K 0%
    75K 75%
    80K 80%
    85K 85%
    90K 90%
    95K 95%
    100K 100%
    105K 105%
    110K 110%
    115K 115%
    etc etc

    Probably top it out at 125%. The company has a number they want to hit and the employee still has a reason to do better. Otherwise the employee will stop trying when he hits 100K. Especially if it is a quarterly incentive. He might actually push business into the next quarter when he hits 100K if there is no incentive to for over 100K.

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  4. Vic says:

    “Good is the enemy of Great”
    For you under 4 hours was good enough, but what would have been “Great”?
    I think this is also an example of how easy it is to settle for Good rather than Great.
    Instead set 2 goals, “Good” and “Great”. Know what’s Good Enough but also set a “Great” goal and incentivize yourself to that!

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  5. Kevin says:

    In running, the race is largely determined before the gun sounds. Did your self-imposed four-hour-goal make your train harder before race day? I’m betting it did, although you’re the only one who can tell for sure.

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  6. Jim Pike says:

    If you had kept going hard after mile 20, you could have totally broken down at mile 25. You can only know that if you do it.

    So your only options are to achieve gradually more difficult goals or to fail once in a while.

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  7. Calvin Graham says:

    Except your goal of running a sub-4h marathon was still more improtant than running a sub 3?h marathon – you would rather fail to hit to hit 3:45 and come in at 3:47 than turn in a time of 4:03. Therefore you were doing your best to achieve all goals once you factor reward and risk into the equation. This is why companies don’t invest their R&D budget at a casino to potentially get bigger rewards. What? The banks? Oh…

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  8. Joe D says:

    I recently completed a hundred-mile bike ride (“century”). Although it wasn’t a race, I had a target time that I missed by about twenty minutes, significantly less than the total time I spent at the water/food/toilet stops along the way (oh well). My incentive for the last fifteen miles was slightly different from yours: the faster I rode, the sooner I would be free of that infernal instrument of torture! But the time spent at the stops was all about “defense,” making sure I was sufficiently hydrated and fueled to even complete that sort of endurance test.

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