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What I Learned From Running Ultra-marathons and Running A Business

Shane Naugher

TH-Night.jpgIt is somewhere between 2:30 and 3:00am and the glow from my headlamp is starting to play tricks on me as I am trodding down the gravel trail.  It's at this point in the race that your mind wanders.   Between the exhaustion and the pitch black dark that only has a tunnel of light shining for about 15 feet in front of you, you get a very surreal feeling.  You see shadows that morph into animals, and as you meet other runners going out as you are coming back in, the faint lights in the distance can seem miles away when they are within feet of you.  With my mind already wandering, it hits me... there are so many similarities between running an ultra-marathon and running a business.  I can't believe I haven't thought about this before, and man... a cheeseburger sounds really good right now.

Why Run 100 Miles?

People have asked me over the past few years, "Why on earth would you want to run 100 miles in a single day on purpose?".  I always respond with something snarky like - "Eh... what else do I have to do" or "Yeah... it's not the smartest thing to do" .  The reality of it is - It's the thrill of doing something that no one believes is really possible.  And... its the challenge of setting a goal, mapping out the process to get there and then executing on the plan.  I could just as easily be talking about "Why on earth would you want to run a business and deal with all that stress and headaches?"  The challenge and thrill is similar for both .

What Does It Take to Run 100 miles/Run a Business?

At the core of each, all it really takes is the desire.  Not just the casual, "Hey it would be neat to do this" desire, but the "I want to do this almost as much as I want to breathe" desire.  Once the desire is there, then the hard part... outlining the plan and path to get where you want to go.  In a 100 mile race, it begins with - What is the goal of the race...to set a personal record?  To finish in under 24 hours, or simply to finish?   Running a business has been the same... what is our goal... do we want to just build a lifestyle business, do we want to set a business record by exceeding previous years, or do we want to be the best in the industry.  In ultra-marathons I have always had the goal to finish in under 24 hours and in my business with DaZZee we have set the goal to be a WORLD CLASS Managed Services Provider.

Once the goal is defined then it just comes down outlining the plan to get us there with specific milestones, and a detailed action plan all along the way.  In ultra-running this involves mapping out a training plan on a calendar to establish some key milestones along the way to gauge progress and ensure you arrive at the race sufficiently trained but also avoiding overtraining which can result in injury.  Along the way you need to plan for periods of recovery.  I have found that in 100 mile training I can train hard for about 3 weeks and then need a recovery week to recharge.  Running a business is exactly the same, I can run really hard for weeks at a time, as long as I have some periods of recovery thrown in to recharge.  Both ultra-running and running a business require long hours, and that can take a toll on personal and family life.  A lot of the time it requires getting up before everyone else or staying up after the family is in bed to get the necessary time required.  Thats where the balance needs to come in to allow recharging and reconnecting.

However a plan without execution is just a dream.  I heard that from a mentor in the IT services industry and it hammers home the reality of execution.  I am a numbers guy.  I love to look at a target, map out the trajectory it will take to get us there and then back into the KPIs and milestones to measure how are are progressing towards that goal.  But the numbers won't do the work for us.  We have to have the discipline to make sure that the most important items are absolutely addressed consistently.  In the day to day operations at DaZZee we use quarterly "Rocks" from Geno Wickman's Traction methodology.  These are the items that we MUST do, and then we fill in around them the things we would like to do.  It's a great way to make sure that most important items are absolutely addressed and you don't fall victim to the busyness of life and work.  Then we structure our dashboards and KPIs around the "Rocks" that we must accomplish each quarter to constantly measure how we are doing towards those.  The concept applies to ultra-running.  Before beginning a training plan towards a race, I always map out the timeline that I have to work within, and the goal I would like to accomplish in the race.  Then I work backwards to detail out how many miles and what type of miles I need each week.  In ultra-running one of the most important parts of the training (at least for my approach) is to make sure I have back-to-back long runs each week, those are the "Rocks" for the week.  Then I fill in the rest of the week with some semi-long runs as well as some faster paced runs to meet the goal.  Some times life happens and between our kids schedules, work, school or just normal life "stuff", I will miss a run.  It's not the end of the world, but it helps to make sure that no matter what, I keep at least the back-to-back long run somehow.  The same thing goes on the business side.  Even though we set the quarterly rocks at the beginning of the quarter, the plan may have to be altered throughout the quarter depending on what jobs come in, what the industry is doing, staff additions etc.  But the discipline to make sure that no matter what the quarterly rocks are met is critical to insure the success we want and our clients deserve.

Wouldn't It Be Easier to Take Up Golf/Have a Normal Job?

The short answer to both of these is yes... it would be easier.  However it has been said that anything worth doing in life requires hard work and effort.  One of my most favorite quotes is from Dean Karnazes - one of the more notable ultrarunners - "Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness".  For me that is an eye opener.  When I look back, some of the most exhilarating times in my life happened when I had to struggle and work hard to achieve a result.  In 100 mile races, your mental state can change on a dime.  You never know what the day will give you until you line up at the starting line.  Since, for most of the field, our race time will be close to a full day or more, the weather is a huge component.  It can start out below freezing in the morning, warm up and be humid in the afternoon and then be rainy with cold temperatures over night.  Your stomach can be your best friend or your worst enemy in these races.  If you keep up on your hydration and eat something at regular intervals thoughout the day, you will do great.  However if you start getting a bout of nauseousness, things can go downhill quickly.  I have never had a race in which I didn't have at least one bout of nauseousness and it can totally derail you.  You want to stop eating all together and sometimes even want to stop drinking anything.  The key is having someone to help keep you on track and accountable and someone that will force you to eat and drink.  In ultra-races the folks that keep you on track are called your pacers.  In addition to helping make sure you are taking in enough fluids and food, they also are there to help keep you on pace to hit your desired goals.  The pacers job is to keep you focused on the goal at hand and push to meet or beat it.

In business, once again there are some very similar parallels.  You never know what the economy is going to do, what your vendors are going to do, what new competitors are going to come into the market and how technology is going to change over the course of the year.  Being able to adapt quickly and most importantly being able to stay laser focused on the is the most important thing you can do.  In our business I was fortunate enough a couple of years ago to get plugged into a peer group of Managed Services Providers from across the country and Canada.  We have a weekly accountability call to keep everyone focused, and then once a quarter we meet in person to go over progress and numbers and exchange ideas.  They are my pacers in the business to help make sure I hit my goals and in the timeframe I commited to.

Is It Worth It?

In business as well as ultra-running the answer is a resounding YES!  There’s nothing like going over our quarterly review with our team and being able to say we hit the targets we wanted to and in ultra-running crossing that finish line so exhausted that you can barely walk to the car but internally you feel a sense of accomplishment that simply can’t be explained or conveyed until you have done it.  Being able to go to work on a daily basis knowing that we are making a difference and improving other businesses and allowing those employees and owners to spend better time with their friends and family is incredible.  All the late nights at the office working on creative solutions to our clients issues, all the early mornings on the treadmill at 4am to get a couple of hours in before the kids are up and the daily responsibilities begin... it’s all worth the end result you get to achieve.  Until you have felt the thrill or overcome the doubts to get across the finish line, it’s hard to explain.

Never Again

I am so tired.  I run with my eyes closed getting a semi-sleep experience until I stumble over a section of rock on the trail.  I know that once we run through the tunnel that is roughly a football field long that just on the other side there is an aid station where I can get some warm food.  The weird thing is that I am already getting into some lights and

TH-Finish.jpgvolunteers but I never actually ran through the tunnel.  My buddy that is running with me laughs when I ask where the tunnel went.  He says how could you have run through that thing and not known??  I must have been totally out of it because I can’t remember anything
resembling a tunnel in the pitch black darkness.  I get to the aid station and see my wife and get some warm food.  I still have another 15 miles to go and all I want to do is crawl 
in a warm bed and sleep.  I tell my wife that I am never doing one of these 100 milers again... no way.  She laughs and tells me to hurry up and get finished with it so she can get out of the 30 degree temps and get some much needed sleep as well.   About 8 hours later, after we have crossed the finish line and gotten a shower, we are on the 5 hour drive home.  I nod off every so often, but in between naps I look over to my buddy and ask... so... let’s sign up for the one in March.  And so it begins... again.

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