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Marathons offer lessons on running your life

Toronto Star
October 29, 2003

Rosie DiManno, if you're reading the business section today, please skip this column. I'm going to talk about how training for a marathon prepares you for other gruelling assignments, such as organizing your finances or managing your career.

Rosie's no fan of long-distance running or the middle-aged women who "simply look ridiculous" doing it. In a column last Saturday, she told us to quit running off at the mouth and go run into a bus. She prefers to amble.

Well, here's a news flash. Slow-paced strolling won't make you fit. Fitness is one reason we "hard-nosed columnists" have embraced marathons. But it's not the only thing that keeps us going.

I had plenty of time - six hours, in fact - to ponder the attraction as I competed in, and completed, the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. last Sunday. What follows are lessons on what marathon training can teach you about business and life.

Set your sights high

Failure is a constant possibility, no matter what you do to improve your economic status. You can start an investment program just before the stock market tanks. Or you can embark on a new career and miss the signs the sector is shaky.

Guesswork is part of any long-term venture, so you're always staring failure in the face. Get used to it.

When it comes to marathon training, you can spend months to get in shape - only to lose your preparation to a last-minute injury. But at least you had a noble goal, a vision of success that made it all worthwhile. You risked a lot and lost, but you didn't dream on a small scale.

If you're going to fail anyway, fail big.

Train properly

You can't get from here to there without a plan. I'm talking about a detailed plan that takes your noble goal and breaks it into manageable and easy-to-digest chunks.

Suppose you want to retire with $2 million in your RRSP. Posting a sign on your fridge isn't enough. You need a financial planner - or financial planning software - to tell you how much to save each month (and at what investment return) to get you to the $2 million mark.

As your income grows and you get used to living with less, you can add more dollars to your monthly savings plan.

That's how marathon training works. You start with the idea of running 26.2 miles, but you can't reach the end of your block without getting winded. So, you run five minutes in comfort, then try 10 minutes next week and 20 minutes the week after that. You add the minutes - and the miles - more quickly as your tolerance grows.

Don't hit the wall

Some marathon runners collapse at 20 to 21 miles, about three-quarters of the way through the course. They walk the rest or give up altogether.

Hitting the wall can result from not pacing yourself, starting too fast and flaming out.

Distance runners start slowly and don't get anxious if they seem to fall behind. They conserve the energy to power them through the last few miles.

So, too, with business. Although sprints are required along the way, the key to success is a long-term perspective - patience, fortitude, resilience, sustainability - ahead of the short-distance vision and quick-burn.

Hire a cheering section

It's hard to be brave and stoic on your own. You're more likely to stay the course if you're surrounded by friendly folks who support what you're doing.

When it comes to saving, this means getting family and friends on track. You can't put money away for the future if they're intent on spending it all today. When it comes to starting your own business, this means getting employees to sing from the same song sheet. Either they breathe the mission or they breeze out the door.

Finding fans to cheer you on is crucial to marathon success, too. You're advised to recruit the help of strangers along the route by writing your name on your clothes or legs.

My mantra, "Go Ellen," printed in red marker on my T-shirt, was picked up and repeated by thousands of onlookers. It was electrifying to be the recipient of so much good will.

Control what you can

In a marathon, you can't do anything about the weather. (Ours was hot and humid and always on the verge of rain.) You can't do anything about the jostling crowds of runners or the route.

But you can control your thoughts. Instead of dwelling on what's wrong and holding you back, think of how you'll make it to the end and how great you'll feel when you're done.

That's the mentality you need to succeed in your career or in any long-term venture. Focus on what's within your power to control and you'll feel free and have a sense of autonomy. And isn't that what life's all about?

©2008 Sylvia Sarkus
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