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Running for Resilience

Running for Resilience

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William Thomas

I have had a lot of good days in life, but there was one day where I was on top of the world. Literally.
Finishing the 2016 North Pole Marathon was a dream come true, but more than being just a single race, 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 achieved it was just over six years, and the lessons about resilience that I learned along the way taught me a lot about pushing past obstacles and recovering from setbacks. 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 comes to dealing with change and overcoming obstacles. It’s a good reminder that there are many things you learn in your personal life that can help you in your professional life.

1. Set specific goals

I only started running at age 42 with the idea that “I want to be in better shape.” While that sounds like a good goal, in reality it’s hard to measure. How do you know when you’re in “better shape?” When you lose a kilo? Or maybe 5? Or how about if your resting heart rate is a little lower… but how much is enough? There’s not really a definition of “better shape,” so it’s hard to know when you achieve it, and it’s equally hard to come up with a plan for doing so.

Saying “I want to be able to run a marathon” and later, “I want to complete The Marathon Grand Slam,” gave me clear and measurable goals that led me to make changes in my exercise, nutrition, and sleeping habits so I could achieve them.

When you set goals for yourself, you need to give yourself a clear Finish Line if you want to make sure you keep moving forward. Without a defined goal ahead of you, obstacles can be very discouraging. The lack of clear milestones along the way makes it hard for people to recognize how to change course and get around a challenge, leaving you more likely to give up.

Pro Tip: If you want to be resilient while working towards a goal, you first need to know what that goal is.

2. A goal is essential, but accountability makes it happen

Once you have set a goal, it’s still easy to get distracted or frustrated, especially if you’re leading a busy life. What got me to follow through on my plan was telling people I had signed up for a marathon; once word got 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.

When you set business goals, don’t keep them a secret. Make sure everyone in your organization knows what your strategic goals are and understands how they contribute to them.

Pro Tip: Consider sharing your personal KPIs with your peers; failing to meet them could make you look pretty bad, so knowing that others are watching can encourage you to make whatever effort is needed to hit your metrics.

3. You do not control everything, so focus on what you CAN control

When we arrived at the North Pole for the North Pole Marathon in 2016, we expected to be there for about 36 hours. Mother Nature had other ideas, though, and a crack in the ice cut across not only the marathon route but also the runway. As a result, we ended up being 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 Southeast Asia, I’d had no opportunity 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.

Pro Tip: We all have a finite amount of available time, so spending that time on things you cannot control wastes the opportunity to affect those things that you can. Focusing on things you cannot control stops your forward progress, while doing what you can allows you to move somewhat farther ahead. By advancing even a little bit, you may open up some opportunities that did not exist before, opportunities that could help you get around your problem and keep moving toward your goal. If nothing else, you can reduce your stress level but cutting back on worrying about things, and instead doing something constructive.

4. Change is a marathon, not a sprint, so pace yourself

At the end of February 2009 I flew from my home in Washington DC to run the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon. The temperatures in Washington, where I had been training all winter, were often down to freezing when I went out in the morning, but on race day Hong Kong’s temperature was in the 20s. Midway through the race I started seeing some symptoms of dehydration, but I kept pushing myself. I finished the race, but made the mistake of lying down soon afterwards, and before I knew it my muscles had all frozen up and I was being taken to the medical tent in a wheelchair. The lesson from that experience was that there are times to go fast and times to slow down, and you need to pay attention to what your body is telling you.

Similarly, when you initiate a major change in your organization, you may be tempted to push through it quickly and get it over with, so you can get to “the new normal” as soon as possible. Try to resist that temptation. If you have been doing things the same way for a long time, your employees need to adapt to changes over time rather than trying to accomplish everything at once. If you go too fast you create a lot of uncertainty about what’s important and what’s not, and your team will often slow down while they try to figure out what’s happening.

Pro Tip: Try to plan major changes in stages, and make sure everyone knows what those stages are, so you reduce the shock of change and instead make it more predictable and easier to adapt to.

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 can connect with others from whom they can learn. When I started running with a club in Singapore a few years ago I realized I would push myself faster with them than when I was training alone. From the other runners I learned more about pacing, hydration, nutrition, and ways to overcome challenges in different climates. These days I still see other members of the small Grand Slam community at races around the world, and the camaraderie and support from those relationships pushes me to be better.

You can learn a lot at work from both your internal and external relationships. When you share ideas and information with others at work, especially with people from other functions and business units, it’s easier to see opportunities and identify emerging problems than if you were limited to your own perspective. Your external networks help you learn about market changes, and learn about best practices from other industries that could be adapted to yours. Whether it’s as simple as having a broad LinkedIn network, or more active like participating in chamber of commerce sessions, you can boost your resilience by being part of a group.

Final Thoughts

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. My running experiences have helped me be more resilient as I have undertaken dramatic career changes in the last decade. From my own experience, I encourage you to ask yourself: what are you doing in your personal life that could help you professionally?

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