The Self-Leadership Secrets of Extreme Athletes

3 Takeaways from Dean Karnazes’ 153-Mile Race from Athens to Sparta

Sometimes leading a business can feel like running a marathon. That’s especially true when our goals seem ambitious, daunting, and a long way off. What could the sport of running teach us about reaching the finish line?

I’ve been a fan of Dean Karnazes ever since I read his book, Ultramarathon Man several years ago. His story inspired me to run my first half marathon. So I eagerly devoured his newest, The Road to Sparta, which tells the story of history’s first marathon.

Some of us know the popular version of the story. After the Athenians defeated Persian invaders at the battle of Marathon 490 B.C., a messenger ran twenty-six miles to share the exciting news.

But Karnazes shares the real story, and it’s far more compelling.

The First Marathon Was How Long?

The runner, whose name was Pheidippides, actually ran more than 150 miles all the way from Athens to Sparta—and then back again—before the battle. That’s 300 miles. And Karnazes says the same runner might have run the final stretch after the victory at Marathon for a grand total of more than 325 miles!

That might sound farfetched, but Karnazes recounts the story of a British air force commander named John Foden. In 1982 he led a small group who ran the distance from Athens to Sparta in under thirty-five hours. A year later Foden cofounded a 153-mile race retracing his steps. It’s called the Spartathalon.

Karnazes ran it in 2014. As an ultramarathoner, he’d already run 350 miles nonstop. But the Spartathalon held mammoth challenges of its own, including Karnazes’ determination to run the distance with only the foods Pheidippides would have eaten: olives, figs, and cured meats.

Why would a person willingly go through something like that?

The Discomfort Advantage

“Western culture has things a little backwards right now,” Karnazes once said. “We equate comfort with happiness. And now we’re so comfortable we’re miserable. There’s no struggle in our lives.”

That observation doesn’t just apply to running. That applies to all of life, including leading our organizations. When it comes to work, comfort equals boredom.

Engagement and even happiness come when we’re gunning toward major goals. I’m talking about the kind of achievements that push us outside our comfort zone. Maybe it’s launching a new product line, starting a new career, or growing a sales channel by double digits. If staring down the goal makes you feel uneasy, you’re on the right track.

I’ve written about that before, but the Discomfort Advantage is only one of the lessons running can teach us.

3 Leadership Takeaways from an Ultramarathoner

Here are three leadership takeaways I discovered when I read The Road to Sparta:

  1. Leverage your unique abilities. When Karnazes was a child, he went to a basketball camp coached by the legendary John Wooden. A small kid, Karnazes struggled to get rebounds like the bigger children. But Wooden could see his spirit and gave him some advice: “Do what you can.” Instead of going for rebounds, he started playing the backcourt. And he dominated.

    When we compete head-to-head as if our abilities are the same as others, we sometimes miss playing to our strengths. It’s like we tilt the playing field against ourselves. Instead, we need to focus on what makes us unique. Steve Jobs is one of the best examples of this in recent years. Apple played its own game and rose to dominance.

  2. Let passion outrun balance. We have to be careful that our jobs don’t dominate our lives, but there’s a natural tension in play if we really love what we do. “People speak of finding balance,” says Karnazes. “To me, that’s a misplaced ambition. If you have balance, you do everything okay. … Balance doesn’t lead to happiness—impassioned dedication to one’s life purpose does.”

    What else could lead a person to run 153 miles through Greece? What else could lead an entrepreneur to do what the market believes is impossible? Balance is desirable, but it’s not the endgame. Finding and achieving your life’s purpose is.

  3. Celebrate your wins. When we reach our goals, we need to take the appropriate time to celebrate. That’s a critical way to honor our work. But it’s also a key component of living a full life.

    Hosting another run in Greece called the Navarino Challenge, Karnazes was surprised at how the townspeople came out to celebrate the winners. “These people were all willing to put aside what they were doing and join together,” he remembered, “rejoicing in the moment.”

    “If we always made decisions with our heads instead of our hearts, we’d probably live much more orderly lives,” he says, “but they would much less joyous. … How many people spend their entire lives striving for something with their nose to the grindstone, only to wake up one day and realize they haven’t really lived at all?”

Trade on your unique abilities, stay fueled by passion for your work, and take time to celebrate your accomplishments. Those three takeaways might serve an athlete. But I’m confident they’ll serve leaders even more.

Question: Which of these three takeaways do you find most compelling?

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