From Running Marathons to Running a Business

A year ago, right about now, I was on top of the world. Literally.


Finishing the 2016 North Pole Marathon was a dream come true, but it also represented the end of my journey to complete The Marathon Grand Slam (a marathon on all 7 continents and at the North Pole). From the time I set that goal until I finished it was just over six years, and the lessons I learned throughout that period taught me what I need to know to run my own company today. My book about that goal, CROSS THE LINES, devotes a chapter to “26.2 lessons I learned running marathons,” and there are some that really stand out when it came to starting and running a small business. There are many things you learn in your personal life that can help you in your professional life.

1. A goal is essential, but accountability makes it happen
It’s easy to set a goal, but it’s also easy to get distracted or frustrated. What got me to start running and follow through with it was telling people I had signed up for a marathon; once the word was out, I would have looked bad if I quit. I did the same thing when I set the Grand Slam goal. Finding people whom you do not want to disappoint, whether friends or family, can keep you from disappointing yourself, and I have been lucky to have a group of friends whose opinion really matters. Now, when I set business goals, I tell those same friends what those goals are, so someone other than me knows and will be watching for the results.

2. Creativity leads to new ideas, innovation turns them into reality
Being open to new ways of thinking and coming up with original ideas does not do you much good if you cannot figure out how to bring those ideas to fruition. Deciding to run the Grand Slam was certainly a new idea for someone who had never been athletic before, but I needed to figure out new ways of doing things to make it happen. Getting into better physical shape was the most obvious challenge, but I also needed to find ways to schedule my time better to allow for proper training; handle my finances differently to make sure I could pay for this adventure; travel comfortably yet cheaply to races around the world; and, balance my personal interests with my career. All of these new ways of doing things have been invaluable as I started my business, and they have reminded me that any new idea I come up with needs a plan and processes to be successful.

3. You do not control everything, so focus on what you can control
When we arrived at the North Pole last year, we expected to be there for about 36 hours. But Mother Nature had other ideas, and a crack in the ice that cut across not only the marathon route but also the runway meant we would be there for four days. There was nothing I could do about it, so while the camp staff focused on building a new runway, I focused on acclimating to the running conditions. Coming from Bangkok, I’d had no chance to run on snow and ice since the Antarctic Ice Marathon 18 months earlier, so I used this opportunity to put on my running gear and take advantage of the extra practice time. Now, when faced with circumstances outside my control, rather than worrying about them I instead put my effort into controlling what I can, allowing me to minimize the impact on my business of the bad things or take fuller advantage of emerging opportunities.

4. Valuable skills come from unusual places, so look beyond job titles when hiring.
The things I have learned from running — not just the skills like planning and budgeting, but also things like increased self-confidence and better risk management — don’t really come through on a resume. When hiring, we tend to focus on the skills and experiences accumulated in a candidate’s professional life, without considering what they learned in their personal life that can be valuable. When you are looking to add staff, think about what you really need, then look at more than just job titles and degrees. Do you need people who are comfortable taking risks and who can manage them well? Find someone who climbs mountains for fun. Need someone who can take a few resources and turn them into something great? People who volunteer with non-profits do that all the time. Look at how experiences beyond the workplace and classroom have shaped the candidates you are considering.

5. Going alone is easier in a group
Distance running can easily be one of the loneliest sports, but even when people run races individually, they are others from whom they can learn. When I started running with the New Balance Runners in Singapore a few years ago I realized I would push myself faster with them than when I was training alone. From other runners there I learned more about pacing, hydration, nutrition, and ways to overcome challenges in different climates. Now that I operate a business, I get ideas from others in my informal network of fellow business owners, or from people at MeetUps, Chamber of Commerce sessions, or at co-working spaces. LinkedIn has become a knowledge-sharing tool rather than a job-finding tool. No matter how smart you are, there are lots of other smart people out there, and you can learn a lot by connecting with them even if you work on your own.

When it comes to learning and development we often embrace the 70-20-10 idea, where 10% of learning comes from classes, 20% comes from mentoring and coaching, and 70% comes on the job. Expand your definition of “on the job” to include the things you do in your personal life, and you will be amazed at how many more valuable lessons you can learn.

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