9 Leadership Lessons from Running 100 Miles

Two months ago, I finally crossed the finish line at a 100-mile Ultramarathon after dropping out on my first two attempts. Running for almost 24 hours gives you plenty of time to reflect on life in general and who in their right mind runs for nearly 24 hours in particular.

One of my reflections centered around my two passions; helping leaders grow and ultra-running. In this post, I will share some of the similarities I see between outstanding leadership and running.

What is an Ultramarathon?

For anyone new to ultra-running, a definition might be in order. An Ultramarathon is any distance longer than the traditional marathon of 26.2 miles or 42.195 kilometers. The most popular distances are 50 kilometers, 50 miles (80.5 km), 100 kilometers, and 100 miles (160.9 km), but any distance beyond the marathon qualifies as an ultramarathon. If only defining leadership was just as simple.

1. Know Your Why

If you only do it for the glory, you are unlikely to succeed. This is true for both ultrarunning and leadership. Unfortunately, I meet many leaders who don´t know why they lead. In ultrarunning, not knowing why you do it will often result in a DNF (Did Not Finish) or even a DNS (Did Not Start). In leadership, the consequences are less visible but often more profound. Knowing why you are a leader, or an ultrarunner, is key to success. Remember that leadership and ultrarunning are choices – no one is forcing you.

2. Own Your Mistakes and Learn

If the outcome is not as you imagined or expected, you need to own it and learn from it. When I dropped out of my first 100-mile attempt, I could easily have blamed it on the hills, the weather, or other exterior factors. In reality, I was underprepared and acknowledging that allowed me to own the situation and learn from it. The same is true for leadership. Even if you feel you are without fault, or even a victim of a given situation, try to own your stake in what went wrong and be relentless in what you can learn from it.

3. Consistency and Small Steps

Becoming great at leadership or getting in shape to run an ultra takes time, effort, and dedication. Progress often shows in small incremental steps with irritating setbacks to overcome along the way. Consistency and acknowledging that small steps lead to greatness are keys to success. Wanting to do too much right out of the gate might get you injured (as a runner) or burned out (as a leader). The road to your ultimate goal might be long but remember to celebrate all the small victories along the way.

4. Have Faith in the Unknown

You cannot Micro-manage your way to the finish line of a 100 miles race. Working from a high-level roadmap and being comfortable with the unknowns that will happen during the training and racing will increase your likelihood of success. The same is true for leadership. The world is too complex and volatile to plan everything upfront. Unforeseen stuff will happen, and being comfortable with the fact that you cannot predict everything, will give you more mental bandwidth to focus on the knowns.

5. Bring a Positive Attitude

Studies have shown that smiling while running can reduce pain and make running feel easier. A positive attitude to leadership and occasionally smiling can also have a positive effect. In challenging situations, a positive attitude can help you flip the situation ad help you focus and lead your team toward positive outcomes. The same is true in ultrarunning, where cramps, tiredness, boredom, and other negative feelings will challenge your attitude and resilience.

6. Race Yourself

It is easy to compare yourself to others in running, leadership, and life in general, but why? I will never be the fastest runner or the best leader, for that matter. But that is not why I do it. Running is something I do for myself, and leadership is something I do to serve others. In both disciplines, I learn and get inspired by others, but making unhealthy comparisons will not make me a better runner or leader.

7. Be an Expert in Problem-Solving

Cramping, gut issues, bad weather, blisters, and lack of motivation, are just some of the problems you risk running into (no pun intended) when running long distances. The list of issues you will face in a leadership role is much longer. Being an expert in problem-solving, combined with a positive attitude, will increase your likelihood of success.

8. Go Together

Running and leadership can sometimes feel lonely, but doing it with others can make it easier and more fun. You might run with a group or share your leadership obligations with others. But even if you run or lead alone, you don´t have to be alone. Having a support system that understands why you do what you do and the consequences it has can be a blessing when the going gets tough. Crossing the finish line is much more fun if people you care about are there to cheer for you.

9. Be Grateful

Nearing the finish line of the race, I started to reflect on how grateful I was to be able to complete this long-term goal of mine. I felt grateful for the support of my family, the flexibility my working situation allowed, my health, the race organizers and volunteers for putting on the race, and all the people that have shaped and inspired me on my journey. When you succeed in running, leadership, or other aspects of life, remember those who supported you along the way.

Final Thoughts

I hope this post inspired you to go for a run or reflect on why you lead. Please share any questions or comments below, and get in touch if you want to share stories about running or leadership.

An exhausted and extremely happy me just minutes after crossing the Hennepin Hundred finish line. Check out HennepinHundred.com for more information about the race. Race director Michele Hartwig and her crew are absolute rock stars who fully live up to their motto (added by me): Kindness, Community, & (Helping) Ordinary people (like me) doing Extraordinary things!

One comment

  • Kenneth Darling Sørensen

    December 5, 2022 at 11:01

    Love this, Martin, agree very much with your point!


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