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.


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.

Dennis Jonesd

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


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.



"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!


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.

Jim Pike

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.

Calvin Graham

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...

Joe D

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.


When running the marathon you will always be wondering "whatif". A better way to structure a bet is to have the baseline bet (ie 4 hours), but then have an incentive if you beat that, say for every minute you were under 4 hours, everyone who bet against you donates $10 to a charity of your choice. Also, for every minute you were over, you pay $10/minute to a charity of their choice.


Next time make a bet. If you finish over 4 hours, you pay $2 for every extra minute. If you finish under 4 hours, you get $2 for every minute you save. You would've made slightly more than $10. However, I'm guessing that if you had pushed yourself, and if these rules had been set, you would've ended $30 richer.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

What I learned from running a marathon:

The fastest marathoners are not men, not women or the young...it is the handicap on racing wheelchairs. A mid competitive woman parapalegic is faster than the best male runner in the world in speed.

Running down hills can be more painful than running up hills.

There are the elites and then there are the rest of us. Some of us with world class training, life long commitment, and bottomless funding will NEVER be elite. It may be genetic, just like NBA basketball.

A lot of the race after 10 miles is mental and personal drive. And you can really tear up your body if you don't listen to its warning signs of pain.

Gummi Bears are considered a healthy power snack.

Heat is a greater foe than cold to a athlete. Athletes shed outer wear all along the trail...Good stuff for finders-keepers.

Sneakers can look normal, but their resilent bounciness can be all spent. Use new shoes. And New Socks.

More women run marathons than men. I think they run out of fear of weight gain and cameraderie. Men seem to run for fitness and are more solitary.

People run in packs especially gathered around a timed pacer...he/she is their motivation and their leader. They are time zombies. Free your mind and your body will follow.

Marathons are a media driven running party on foot. It is surrounded by advertising, marketing and data mining for future marketing. You will get packets plugging the next marathon.

Marathons are unhealthy if people think exercise is something you do once or twice a year, instead of everyday. Better to walk 2.6 miles everyday for life.

Ever notice, there are more marathons, more people running, more health food trends, more vegetarians, more exercise programs, and more active mass participation events in the past 30 years, BUT AS AMERICANS WE KEEP GROWING MORE OBESE. The fastest people in the history of the earth!

Perhaps marathons cause obesity?


Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team


FASTEST--with qualifications.

Christopher Strom

As an amateur endurance athlete, I completely agree with and understand the distortion effects of specific time goals.

On the one hand, committing to run a specific time will usually result in your running that specific time, but falling short of what was possible for you in that race.

On the other hand, it is impossible to commit to running your "best race", because no matter how careful you plan and how hard you try, you will always make minor errors that will cost you time.

I think the solution might be to set goals based on efforts rather than on outcomes. This is especially difficult because while outcomes are easy to measure, efforts are not.

My goal in racing is to manage my energy resources as carefully as I can - food intake, hydration, and effort - in order to keep both my energy intake and output constant and to be nearly utterly spent at the finish. In short, I want to leave everything on the course.

I prefer this approach it forces you to pay careful attention to your body and how it is reacting to the race and to make adjustments based on your body's needs, rather than on an arbitrary number. Everyone has slow days and fast days, but if you can focus on effort rather than results, you should avoid underperforming.



"how to set incentives that don't distort effort."

I'd have thought the POINT of incentives was to distort effort.


About one hour into Nobel Prize winning economist Robert C. Merton's MIT free iTunes lecture 'Observations on the Science of Finance in the Practice of Finance' he says you 'should just assume you're doing the right thing'. Therefore I think you should also just 'assume you're doing the right thing'.


Justin, with the benefit of hindsight you probably should'nt have slowed down. But the problem as I see it was more one of risk management than lack of incentive. You could have improved on your time, but alternatively you could have blown out before the end.
I had the same time target (sub 4-hours), and I neither slowed nor sped up deliberately in the last few miles. However, in the last 3/4 mile I really ran out of puff. Had I pushed harder from mile 20 I would have folded sooner.

trader n

I've used a similar bonus scheme with my employees.

An employee is given a bonus for reaching a certain quota (or return) but there is not bonus above a certain level.

This means there is no incentive to take on unreasonable risk at the hope of scoring a big windfall. My stated goal to to get a good return and not lose money - not make as much money as possible.

Your goal was to run under 4 hours, not run as fast as possible with the risk of failing badly (hitting the wall or quitting).

Robert E. Johnson

There was one year when I thought I might run it in under four hours. I passed the halfway point at 1:45 so it looked plausible. I never pace myself. I am always running as fast as I can with the result that I just keep running slower and slower. At 4.2 miles out the time was 3:15:00. I was running about 11 minute miles at that point and hurting badly. "Man-O'-man this is going to be a squeaker". As an aside, at this point in a marathon the ONLY thing that keeps one going is the thought that you'll do anything to get this thing over with; even keep going. I kept going.

In the Park the bystanders were yelling "Only two more miles" and you want to just shoot them because even the next ten steps are questionable. I start throwing my arms forward harder step figuring, they don't hurt yet and maybe I can pick up an extra eighth of an inch with every step.

Out of the Park now. Only NYC marathoners appreciate how heading west on 59th street involves mounting a significant hill. Into the park again and you can feel the explosion of ecstasy starting to muster inside. Round the slight bend and up there is the finish oh the finish.

Then it was done. 3:59:51



How much time, and therefore value of that time, are you spending second-guessing a fairly good decision instead of appreciating your result and moving on to something else?

And notice that you gravitate toward nice, round numbers. Why not bet that you can do it in 4:02:37 or 3:55:41?

Ronald Calitri

Perhaps there was a lack of preparation resulting in sub-optimal strategy. Surfacing this is a good sign that skills will bear improvement, beyond the model expressed. Consider the model: effort (trying harder) results in velocity. It is however, a knife edge. If there is too little effort, psychological factors will have left reserves of physiological performance untapped. Too much effort, and one or another physiological threshold will have been passed, resulting in reduced velocity. The model employs two instruments: endorphin feedback to promote effort, and pain to diminish effort.
Because of these perceptual limits, the model state of knowledge about running speed is based on a calibrated mixture of reward and punishment. Mental effort is diverted from acquisition and analysis of internal and environmental data towards the control regime whose energy requirements are lower, but whose uncertainty is relatively great respecting the actual sources of positive or negative signals. As meditation objects while running, one might consider whether making solutions up out of whole cloth requires greater expenditure of energy in the brain than the normal glial process of processing stored information. In other words, hit the stacks and fill up the head before emptying it.