It’s a marathon not a Sprint

It’s a marathon not a Sprint

The phrase “It’s a marathon not a sprint” is fairly common, but currently the metaphor from Scrum (and don’t start me talking about the rugby metaphor, as an ex-tighthead prop) is a sprint.  We’ll I’ve not been happy with the Sprint metaphor for quite a while.  The little nagging voice has now become a shrill shout.  So how could we change the metaphor to a more reasonable one for ‘sustainable pace’.  What would it look like if we took a marathon as the base metaphor rather than rugby (ugh!) and a sprint?  Well I haven’t ran a marathon, even though it’s on my bucket list and I have run 10Ks in my youth, so I had to go to others who had, for inspiration. 

A short investigation, and I found some discussion on how to run the race.  What I heard was one reasonable way to run was to split the race into two or three stages and warm up to your best pace over the early stages then start to push the boundaries and maybe take some ‘risks’ during the middle stage and then look towards doing what it takes to completing the run in the last stage of the race.

For instance, Nick Arciniaga in his blog entry 4 strategies from a pro to run your best marathon  suggests to break the race down was into segments, for instance, into a 20 mile section and a 6.2 (like a 10 K race).  His favoured breakdown is into three segments: the first is a half marathon where he hits his comfortable pace, the next is a 10 mile segment, where he pushes himself and takes some risks, and the final stage depends on how well he’s feeling, the aim is to get to the end so if it’s been tough he goes into survival mode, but if it’s going well, he puts it all on the line and then ‘put everything you have towards the finish’

If we mirror this to a project, then we could say that the first half of the project is pacing and getting to race speed, the next section, is stretching and pushing to get as much done, and the final push is either to get as much as you can and push to the end or, consolidate and get just enough done to ‘survive’.

For most of us, 3 months, or 12 weeks is as far in the future that we can realistically plan, so this is how I would map out a 12 week ‘marathon’ using the strategies above:

  • First half, 6 weeks, is getting to ‘race’ pace

  • Next 4 weeks is stretching, getting as much as you can done

  • Final two weeks is either hell for leather ‘leave it all on the track’, or consolidating to wrap up

I’ve said that I dislike the sprint (and Scrum) metaphor, but small iterations with feedback loops are a extremely powerful.  But if we’re using the marathon metaphor what would we call them.  I must admit, I did like the ‘fartlek’ term that I came across while researching, but it’s a training term.  But I noticed that runners use ‘splits’ to time themselves.  So if we’re continuing the metaphor, I’m liking ‘splits’ for a name. 

What about the ‘ceremonies’?  Again a term I think is a little misleading.  Well, planning, product review and process reviews (aka retrospectives) are all clear, and reasonable and sort of fit into a marathon metaphor.  A runner, will have an aim for the split – a plan; a review of the time – a product review, and maybe a small process review, how’s the race going.

So what about the daily standup?  Again, that’d link to the continuous self-examination that a runner would do as they run.  They’d reassess their pace with the terrain and any change in the weather.

As I was reading through this, one thing did strike me.  Most marathon runners, train long for a marathon, even first timers are encouraged to take months building up as they go from couch to a marathon.  They would go into the marathon then with experience of running, having done fartleks maybe

(see I can’t ditch that wonderfully evocative name as an English schoolboy who remembers looking up ‘fart’ in the dictionary in primary school and sniggering with glee at the definition – ‘a small explosion between the legs’ – back in the room.). They would know their timings for their splits before they run the marathon.

All good for an established team (even a team of 1) working on a project that they have some experience with.  But what about a new team, or a new project or product.

Well again, I looked to the marathon metaphor for help and found a couple of articles by runners who’ve gone straight into a marathon with no real training.  One that stuck in my mind was How to hack a marathon if you aren’t a runner – Andrew Gertig.  What I liked about this was his 10 tips. 

  1. Don’t plan on running the whole thing
  2. Take 4 Advil an hour before the race (Not recommended by physicians, but it’s what we did.)
  3. Take a walking break at every mile marker
  4. Eat half a banana whenever you see one
  5. Take two waters at ever water station
  6. Eat no more than 3 Gu energy packs because our stomachs didn’t like them
  7. Take bathroom breaks
  8. Walk every hill
  9. Meet interesting people and use conversation to kill the pain
  10. Put bandaids on your nipples to prevent bleeding 

For me that’s split into a couple of groups:

  • Preparation
    • bandaids, Advil, not planning on running
  • Race pacing
    • walking every mile, water at each station, bathroom breaks, walk every hill
  • Energy/food
    • banana, water, not loads of Gu packs
  • Support
    • meet interesting people

How does that equate to working on a new project?

  • Preparation
    • What can you do to reduce the ‘pain’ of the marathon?
    • What is the minimal ‘pace’ for the project?  Don’t make plans for doing much more than that?
  • Race pacing
    • How can you take a break after every ‘milestone’?
    • How can you take care during challenging stages?
  • Energy/food
    • How can you keep up the energy of the team?
  • Support
    • How can you get support from others during this time?

This exercise started as a small experiment in metaphors out of a niggle with a current metaphor (sprint and rugby).  It’s still an experiment and I will be playing with the marathon schedule and splits for my own 12 week ‘programs’.   But I would also be interested to hear of any other experiments, either with this, or other metaphors.

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