What Marathon Running Taught Me

I ran my first marathon in September this year, in beautiful Tauranga. It was one of the big-ticket items on my bucket list and with a milestone birthday approaching, it felt like the right time for the challenge.

I’m not a natural athlete by any stretch of the imagination. I was what you would call an “inside kid” growing up – preferring to bury my nose in a book or get into trouble, rather than play sport or get active. Exercise and the outdoors are reasonably new passions to have entered my life, since joining the ranks of other 20-something millennials concerned about my own mortality.

Training for the marathon was one of the most valuable and rewarding experiences of my life. I learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of, and it coincided beautifully with the work I’m doing in strategy, change and resilience.

Oprah Winfrey has reportedly said that marathon running is the perfect metaphor for life, and I’m not one to argue with Oprah. On that note, here are my top 17 lessons on strategy, change and resilience.

Lesson 1 – Your Goals Should Scare You A Little

Anyone who’s had a conversation with an MBA scholar between 1985 and 2005 will be familiar with the acronym BHAG. For those that aren’t, I mean a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Choose a goal that makes you feel uncomfortable and uncertain of its possibility.

I started running about 5 years ago, nothing serious, and was thrilled to progress from 5 through to 10km. Before setting my marathon goal in late 2017, I’d run two half marathons (slowly!) – one in 2014, and the other in late 2015. A marathon though, felt impossible. It felt even more impossible when I put myself out of training for 2 months, only 2 weeks after setting my goal, thanks to a horrific ankle sprain!

If your goal feels like a done thing from the outset, it’s probably not big enough. Or, in the words of J. Cole ‘If you ain't aim too high, then you aim too low”

Lesson 2 – Sacrifice Short Term Wins for Long Term Progress

I read an interesting piece about Olympic athletes and the impact of a four-year training schedule recently. It turns out that one of the most challenging things about a four-year training goal is managing interim performance goals. Elite athletes will use events like world championship as a ‘B’ event – where they don’t perform to their absolute best, but instead stay on track to meet their longer-term goal.

For the amateur marathoner, the lesson in this is that you can’t, and shouldn’t, run your longest or fastest on every run. Oftentimes, potential short-term victories need to be compromised in pursuit of the larger goal. Playing the long game is important – in running, in business, and in life.

Lesson 3 – Celebrate the Journey

While playing the long game is important, this doesn’t mean toning down the celebrations for important milestones. Short term wins are important indicators – they’re victories in their own right, and they need celebrating. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of seeing milestones as paling in significance to the larger goal, but this serves no-one.

You should be proud at every point in the journey – because these demonstrate growth, and lots of small victories create a foundation for big wins. I vividly remember how I felt the first time I ran 25k, 30k, and 36k. My first 10k under 60 minutes. My first k under 5 minutes. These were personal bests, whether I was training for a marathon or not, and I celebrated those accordingly!

Lesson 4 - Comparison is the Thief of Joy

Don’t spend one second worrying about anybody else’s progress, and spend even less time feeling like shit in comparison. The only person you should be racing is Yesterday You. Old You. Slower You. Comparison is a surefire way to feel inferior, so don’t bother with it.

I’m not advocating a lack of situational awareness. You want to see what the usual process is? Learn lessons from other people’s struggles? Be inspired and have someone else to look up to? Brilliant. But when comparison leads to a negative judgment on your own accomplishments, trouble starts.

My Instagram feed is full of running people doing running stuff. It’s easy to look at these bronzed, 6-pack, model types running fast as hell and use that as fuel to bring my own achievements down. But there’s no power in that – I think they’re amazing, and I think I’m amazing too. End of story.

Lesson 5 – You Win or You Learn

A workshop attendee quoted this one at me recently and I love it. Failure is a learning opportunity and a loud and powerful signal. It’s an excellent sign you need to do something differently – and you can choose to view it this way, or get discouraged and put the long-term goals down.

“Failure is an event, not a characteristic”

When I found myself dehydrated after a long run and out of training for a week I felt like a real dick. However, the lesson I learned has more than made up for that week of shame and I would not take dehydration and recovery as seriously as I do now without it! Failure is an event, not a characteristic – treat it like one. Which leads me to my next point…

Lesson 6 – Shit Happens

Sometimes, it’s not failure or a lesson that lands in your lap. Despite your best efforts, unexpected obstacles or challenges are going to throw you off at some point, especially if you’re on a long journey to a big goal.

Nicholas Taleb talks about being ‘antifragile’ – taking adversity and becoming stronger and better for the experience. This resonates strongly with me, and supports the huge body of knowledge on post-adversarial growth. As soon as I started using this lens, my whole attitude to training changed and I found myself enjoying and even cultivating obstacles.

Headphones died with 10k to go? Fantastic, now I can run headphones or not! Pissing down with rain? Fantastic, now I can run in the rain. Terrible blisters? Wonderful, now I can boost my pain threshold. I’m writing this in an airport lounge where my already late-night flight is unexpectedly delayed by 40 minutes (and I was already here an hour early to coordinate drop-off times with the kids!) I just sent this message to my husband “Awesome, flight is delayed so I can get some great writing done in a comfy spot.” Embrace the volatility – you’ll be stronger for it.

Lesson 7 – Capabilities Work in Systems

Building running capability alone is rarely enough to get to the finish line injury-free. If your most important moving parts aren’t strong and working properly, something will eventually break – and when it does, recovery will be more difficult than it needs to.

I learned this the hard way (see Lesson 1) early in my training. I suffered a terrible ankle sprain, which was exacerbated by my lack of core strength and a build-up of tension in my calves. Building back required more than running – it meant physio, weight training and massage. Not only did I need to be strong and agile to run again, I had to build other supporting capabilities like speed and hills (despite running a flat marathon at a slow pace). My adaptive systems grew stronger, my running improved and I started to understand that, like most things, spot training is largely ineffective.

According to Paul Leinwand, the world’s most successful companies know that capabilities work together in systems. A coherent, aligned focus that builds strength across complementary skills and processes is an evidence-based formula for success – whether you’re planning a career, developing commercial strategy for Walmart or trying to run your first marathon.

Lesson 8 – Commit and Be Consistent

I’ve always been one to makes snap decisions. All or nothing, I make big calls and throw everything at it until something else takes my fancy. I got away with that behaviour when I trained for shorter runs – alternating between total inactivity and intense short-term effort, doing just enough to get over the finish line. For marathon running, this wasn’t going to cut it. I learned the power of continuous, incremental effort and I’m officially a convert.

It’s a long game, remember – so you don’t have to be perfect every time. A missed long run, occasional late night or week off due to sickness was irrelevant in the scheme of things, because I put months of consistent effort in.

The real lesson in this for me was how much I was capable of doing against my own will. The discipline of putting on my shoes and getting out the door was reinforced every time I overcame a bad day. Excuses and roadblocks are everywhere – bad days, hectic schedules, sniffly colds, troublesome kids and scheduling nightmares. Ignore the flattering selfies and triumphant finish line photos - training is rarely a glamorous effort. But once you genuinely commit to getting the job done in any circumstances – not just the ones that work – your resolve strengthens and becomes self-fulfilling.

Lesson 9 – Create the Conditions for Success

Everything you can do to make it easy to stay on track will make a big difference. I blogged about this recently in the context of organisational resilience. Wanting to do something is admirable – but setting yourself up to make it easy is smart. Little things make a big difference, like laying out running kit the night before, going to bed early, eating well, planning ahead and getting the right gear.

Setting a goal is the first step – but in many ways, it’s the easiest. Putting the time into creating the right conditions to achieve your big picture goals pays dividends – and equips you with the right patterns, habits and behaviours to consolidate that success, one step at a time.

Lesson 10 – Coherence is Everything

Total alignment is the best strategy. For running, this means living a lifestyle that supports marathon training. Living life as an early-morning runner and late-night party animal is not easy or sustainable, so why try? Living in coherence with my goal meant living and breathing it – making choices at every step of the way that reflected my commitment to being a marathon runner.

I had to align every element of my system to my new identity – eating like a runner, sleeping like a runner and partying (or not!) like a runner.

Paul Leinwand talks about this in relation to business too – the most successful companies can demonstrate coherence from top to bottom, organising their resources, processes and systems to reflect the big picture. Walk the talk.

Lesson 11 – It’s All in Your Head

Running, like most things that matter, is a mental game. Training your body is one thing, but the real battle wages internally. The right self-talk is often the only difference between bailing out and completing a gruelling run. Time and again, I found myself running an internal dialogue that went a bit like “Sure, you feel like you can’t go any longer. But you felt like that 2k ago, and you’re still alive. You can sure as hell do another 2k!”

We can be our own worst enemies – especially when things get tough and we enter unknown territory. But as soon as we let the doubt or fear creep in, we’ve lost the battle. Anything that is worth it is rarely easy. The good news is that discomfort is necessary and empowering – it’s the zone where progress happens. So being ready for that battle and having the mental grit to push yourself over the line will pay off at every point in the future.

Lesson 12 – BAU Doesn’t Stop

When I decided to run a marathon, my commitments didn’t change. Professional athletes are able to dedicate their schedules to training, but amateurs are not. Kids need feeding, jobs need attending to, the house needs looking after and the rest of the world ticks on. Just like organisational strategy, this means making space. Going into any big goal without some intentional trade-offs is a recipe for burnout.

I had to sacrifice social time, family time and personal time to train for a marathon – this is the cold, hard reality. I did my best to mitigate these trade-offs by training as early in the morning as possible, tying in meditation and audiobooks to my running and planning runs in and around family time. But I pretty much gave up reading books, watching TV and sleep-ins for the 10 months that I was training.

Like Steve Jobs famously said – focus is not about what you say yes to, it’s the 1000 things you have to say no to. What are you saying no to?

Lesson 13 – Plan, Plan, Plan

Plan religiously - and then throw it all out the window on the day. Nicholas Taleb’s tale of the Thanksgiving turkey tells us that the past is only useful until it isn’t. I would start fervently tracking the weather forecast for my Sunday long run on a Thursday, noting the predicted temperatures, wind direction and wind speed, and planning my runs accordingly. 100km gusts from the north? Rain in the afternoon? All of these things meant a change in the kit, route, timing and strategy for my run.

“Preparation beats prediction every time”

Forecasts are rarely accurate. Sometimes they are close, sometimes they are miles off. Sometimes I felt like a preparatory genius, coming back to my car to find a banana and change of dry clothes waiting after running in showers that the radar saw coming, or pulling a snaplock sandwich bag out of my pocket to keep my phone dry. Other times I ran hot runs in the wrong direction with a rain jacket around my waist, or got caught up the coast into a strong headwind. The reality is almost irrelevant – because the real value comes from the planning itself. Like the turkey, we can’t predict the future – but we can prepare for any eventuality. Preparation beats prediction every time.

Lesson 14 – Plans B, C and D

Stay flexible and adjust your course as the conditions require. If your first plan doesn’t work, you may need a new one. If that doesn’t work, you may need another one!

When I decided in October 2017 to run a marathon, I was aiming for the May 2018 Hawkes Bay International Marathon. Until I became injured in November and was lucky to recover in time to run the half in May. My next goal race was the July 2018 Wellington Marathon. Except a setback with my ankle in February made that impossible. Finally, I set my sights on the September 2018 Tauranga International Marathon. A tough quarter of constant travelling for work almost ruled that one out too, but by that point I was in so deep, I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

Adjusting course, pushing out timeframes and changing deadlines is not a sign of failure or weakness. It’s a sign of flexibility and determination in the face of real life. I decided early on that getting wedded to a particular date or race was not going to be helpful for me – it only led to disappointment when life got in the way. The important thing for me was achieving my goal, and reaping all the personal and physical development along the way. Accountability, performance and timeliness do not have to mean rigidity – quite the opposite.

Lesson 15 – Slow Down to Speed Up

Recovery and planning are important as the big days and achievements. My recent video on this struck a real chord for Mental Health Awareness Week. Without the recovery time, breaks and space, we burn out. Running for hours at a time is only beneficial if we allow our muscles the chance to repair and our adaptive systems the opportunity to replenish and improve.

Constant, grinding slog is the perfect recipe for physical and mental breakdown – at work, at home and in training. Make no mistake, our minds and bodies seriously benefit from doses of stress – but only if we give them time to adjust and refresh. Sometimes it’s hard to take training breaks, drop volume back or make some space to reflect, but for sustainable progress and development, it’s non-negotiable.  

Lesson 16 – It Takes a Village

You didn’t get here alone. Personal success is rarely a one-person event, whether it feels like it or not. I might have done the hard yards with marathon training, but without the support and flexibility of my family, I would have found it extremely difficult to make it work. My husband was my biggest supporter - picking me up and dropping me off from remote locations, tying weekend long runs into family brunch events, throwing three kids in the car to roadtrip to Tauranga, listening to me go on about running… the list goes on.

I crossed the finish line to three beaming kids holding up supporter signs and have never felt more grateful for my support crew than I did at that moment. This photo sums it up: I’ve got the medal on, but this was a team victory.

My support crew - Tauranga September 2018

Lesson 17 – Done Is Better Than Perfect

I’m sure there’s more insight I can share on this process – in fact, I’m almost sure that I’ve missed something critical. But if I spend the next few weeks obsessing about this post, it’s never going to get published. So my final lesson is this: done is better than perfect, every time. The only run you regret is the one you didn’t attempt – and this goes for pretty much every other aspect of our lives. Perfectionism is the enemy of progress – and I’m not the only one who thinks so. I had some terrible runs in the 10 months I spent training – slow, uncomfortable, or just ‘off.’ But every run fed into my fitness and  capability, meaning every run (even the crappy ones) made it possible to take my training one step further.

Facebook has ‘Done is Better Than Perfect’ plastered all over headquarter walls, because they know that in business, software development and pretty much everything else, obsessing about getting things ‘just right’ can seriously hold us back from taking action.

With that powerful thought in mind, I’m going to wrap this up.

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