Leadership Lessons from Running Ultramarathons


The first thing you should probably know is that I don’t really consider myself a runner. The truth is I’m not particularly good at it and honestly I don’t enjoy it all that much.  Well, ok I like it a little bit.  But this aversion is probably due to the fact that I grew up as a competitive swimmer and played water polo in college, where running was usually presented as a form of punishment doled out by my coaches.  Plus I have flat feet, so really I have no business running long distances.  But for some reason I turned to running when I hit my mid-thirties to help shed some weight and slowly but surely, became a fairly proficient runner. And now that I’m approaching my late forties, I realize that I have grown to actually enjoy running (a little) because it clears my head, reduces my stress, and has actually taught me many important lessons in life, business and leadership.

The following are some of those realizations as I progressed from a newbie, who could barely run 2 miles without stopping, to a fairly well-rounded endurance competitor having completed multiple marathons, adventure races, ironman triathlons and more recently, ultramarathons.   For those unfamiliar, an ultramarathon is defined as any running race that’s longer than a marathon (26.2 miles).  Actual distances can vary but most “ultras” cover 50 km, 100 km, 50 miles or 100 miles, but some can be much longer.  All I can say is that the human body is pretty remarkable, but as you venture into the longer endurance events, one discovers that the mental aspect is what really determines whether one finishes or not.

A Culture of Belief

In ultramarathons there are several “aid stations” where small troops of volunteers, often in very remote areas, greet the runners that successfully complete key sections of the race. Not only are these stations important and necessary for things like water, food and first aid, but they allow runners to know where they are on the course, understand how far they’ve gone, and assess how far they have left to go.  Perhaps even more important to the runners than the physical aid and the information provided is the emotional support from these kind volunteers.  The simple warmth of strangers greeting you and showering you with encouragement is an incredible thing.  As leaders it is important that we organize the necessary support along the way, gather information on where we are, while establishing a finish line.  But perhaps most important is that we must always encourage and create a “culture of belief” in our organization that our people can accomplish ANYTHING.

Create Your Own Momentum 

In Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he writes that “pain is inevitable but suffering is optional”.  In the world of ultramarathons, the only certainty is that you will at some point in time, face pain, and probably uncertainty as well as self-doubt.  The key is to persevere because with every down, there is an up (even if you can’t see it).  As you can imagine there are many emotional swings that you will go through in a race that can last 10, 12 or even 24 hours.  And what I have found to be so fascinating about all endurance sports is this mental realm.  You cannot shortcut the physical preparation for these challenges. It takes discipline, hard work, and certainly sacrifice, but the mental aspect of an ultra is where I’ve learned some of my greatest lessons.

In my second ultra, deep in the mountains of Idaho, there was no doubt that I was in pain as I journeyed towards mile 30 after ascending almost 10,000 ft of vertical climb.  In this particular race, I was severely under-prepared for the terrain and the physical demands of a race at altitude, and truth be told I didn’t train nearly enough for it. But at a certain stage of the race I simply decided that I could either let the pain and uncertainty of finishing overwhelm me, or I could focus on the things that could perhaps propel me forward.  And so I embraced the moment and told myself to smile.  I took in the unbelievable beauty of the terrain that I knew so few had the opportunity of experiencing and I set my mind on simply getting to the next tree, rock and eventually the next aid station.  If I could make it to one station, I’d gather myself and refocus on getting to the next one.  Accomplishing one small goal provided me with enough momentum that I could, just maybe, make it to the next one.  In business and in life, we will always face obstacles, many of them unforeseen. There is 100% certainty that we will at some point face disappointment, heartache and set-backs.  But we also have the ability to “decide” whether to allow the pain to turn into suffering, or embrace it and focus on the tasks that can pull us forward. Break up large goals into smaller ones so that you and your team can carry your own momentum forward. 

Take Risks and Embrace Your Failures

There’s an old saying in downhill skiing that “if you’re not falling, you’re not skiing hard enough”.  The message here of course is that you won’t progress to become any better unless you get out of your comfort zone.  It’s important to dream big and not be afraid of failing.  In Good to Great, Jim Collins calls them “BHAGs” or Big Hairy Audacious Goals.  But whatever you call them, simply dare to be bold and be sure to make some of your goals downright scary.  In the real world, you don’t always win, but that’s ok as long as you learn from those failures.  Jack Welch once famously said, “we reward failures… to do otherwise would only squelch daring.”

Let’s be honest, failing sucks and nobody likes to fail. But the key is to try and look for lessons in our moments of failure.  The race in Utah was one of those moments for me.  Shortly after limping into the 50km aid station of the 100km race, I was told I missed the cut-off time.  I was almost relieved that I didn’t have to run any more, but once reality set in that I DNF’d (did not finish) I was deeply disappointed in myself. This was only my 2nd DNF in any endurance event and the first that didn’t involve a mechanical failure.  In other words, I simply failed.  Upon introspection I knew I didn’t train nearly enough and I greatly underestimated the difficulty of the terrain.  But perhaps more importantly, my ego allowed me to think that my past performances would make up for any lack of preparation.  This is why sometimes failing is necessary. It keeps your ego in check. And as much as I despise it, failing helps me to refocus and re-evaluate the things I did wrong so that I can approach them differently next time.  As we all know business involves taking risks. But we shouldn’t always make them small and calculated just so we can say that we “won”.  If we want to change the world we need to take big, bold and yes, sometimes scary risks.  As leaders our job is to create the environment where taking risks is ok and people are not afraid to fail. 

Surround Yourself with the Right People

When I finished my first half marathon I was ecstatic but I couldn’t fathom running a race twice that distance.  Knowing how I felt at the finish line, the idea of turning around and running another 13.1 miles was simply unimaginable at the time.  I felt exactly the same way when I finished my first half ironman (70.3 miles).  I couldn’t put my head around the idea of doing a full ironman. Swim, bike and run for 140.6 miles? No way!

But over time, as I continued to do more and more races and got faster and more fit, the “idea” of going longer became possible in my mind.  An important reason for this was that not only was I making progress as an athlete, but I was also beginning to meet other people who were more experienced, more accomplished, and “had been there and done that”.  I also began working with an elite level coach and started trained with people that were flat out better than me.

Being exposed to all these individuals allowed me to not only elevate my game, but it allowed me to have the confidence that completing an ironman or ultramarathon was in fact a real possibility.  Surround yourself with the right people, both socially and professionally.  Those who can challenge you and those who can help you become a better version of yourself.  Find mentors (coaches) who can give you guidance and support while also instilling the confidence that you can succeed.  

Share The Gift

The Comrades Marathon (which is a little over 56 miles long) is perhaps one of the most famous ultras in the world with over 12,000 participants running between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. I was drawn to this race not because of the sheer size but because of the fact that it has a strict 12-hour time limit.  If you miss the cut off even by one second, you don’t get a medal. You don’t even get recognition for finishing the race.  The cruelty and at the same time the incredible humanity of this race is what captivated me.

Unlike other endurance events where it’s typically a very solemn and lonely endeavor, Comrades feels almost like a team event.  Hundreds of thousands of spectators line the highways three deep for nearly all 56 miles of this race and the runners themselves often breakout into singing “Shosholoza”, a traditional South African folk song.  The pure emotions of this race can literally lift you up and carry you (as I would later experience).  The strict time limit isn’t just at the finish line either as there are 5 checkpoints along the way where if you don’t make it in time, your day is done.  There is literally a bus that sweeps the course picking up people that don’t make the checkpoints in time…  and trust me, you don’t want to be on that bus.

As I neared mile 50 I was physically hitting the wall.  But every time I felt I needed to walk or slow down, the strangers that I had been running with simply would not let me fall behind.  They encouraged me to keep pace while the “bus” loomed somewhere behind me.  This happened several times, where I thought I was completely broken, but strangers lifted me back up.  As we approached the final 2 miles and the national stadium in Durban was within sight, the runners surrounding me broke out into singing “Shosholoza” once again.  It nearly brought me to tears as we glided through the stadium comfortably under 12 hours.  I sincerely do not think I could have finished my first ultra if it weren’t for those fellow runners.  The human spirit can conquer just about anything and just as I have experienced in pushing the boundaries of my physical endurance, I believe we can also have the same impact on those we work with.    So share the gift, every single day.

“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person… he believed in me.  He believed in me when I failed and he’s the one person that when I didn’t measure up, told me – you’re gonna make it, I know you are…”     – Coach Jimmy Valvano


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