If running a business is a marathon . . .

. . . have you ever wondered what a marathon is like?

Come on, you know you’ve heard the expression a thousand times. “Running a business” or “starting a business” “is a marathon, not a sprint.” And you nod your head in agreement as if somebody has actually said something sensible. But outside of the fact that a marathon takes a few hours and a sprint a few seconds, isn’t this as helpful as saying, “Starting a business is a butternut squash, not an apple” or “Running a business is a cement driveway, not speakerphone”?

However, truth often resides in the nuttiest of hoary chestnuts. Running your own business really is like a marathon, but in far more than just the distance covered. As someone who has run 13 marathons and has rushed back into training for the upcoming LA marathon, let me count the ways . . .

You can’t go the distance without a plan.
The folks who show up and finish a marathon don’t do it on a whim. Sure, there are a few that bash out a 5K or 10K because they fell off the wrong side of the bed one Saturday morning, but they don’t graduate to the 26 mile monster without doing some serious planning about training, diet, injury abatement, and risk. I’m not talking about planning for a marathon; I’m talking about all the work that has to be done to get you there in the first place.

While you can certainly find businesses that wildly succeed without any planning or organization — business, I’ve learned, is about probabilities, not impossibilities — the vast majority that go the distance at some point sat down and planned their progress carefully. And in the world of entrepreneurship, it costs you nothing to plan.

Effort doesn’t count.
Many moons ago, when I taught at some university or other in Washington, I used to begin each course with my “effort doesn’t count — only success counts” lecture, because, inevitably, some student would complain about their grade even though they were “working really, really hard.” Unfortunately, working really, really hard and getting an F is, in the end, the same as doing no work at all and . . . getting an F. In real life, you don’t get rewarded for effort, you get rewarded for succeeding. If you’re making an effort and not succeeding, then you’re making the wrong effort. Don’t pat yourself on the back for at trying hard. Change your effort!

We all have friends and acquaintances at the gym who show up every day and work like the dickens. They’re determined to lose weight or get fit, but no matter how many hours they spend on the Stairmaster, the weight just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Here’s a news flash. As long as they keep trudging about on the Stairmaster every day, that weight won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

Nowhere is the rule, “effort doesn’t count — only success counts” more applicable than training for and running a marathon. Making the wrong effort means injury (sometimes permanent), lack of progress, wasted time, and disappointment (or death — in my first marathon, one person died at mile 23). There is no A for effort when you put everything you have into he training and can only run 12 miles. In the marathon world, that’s called “not finishing.”

Business, like a marathon, operates on a simple, inexorable, and unforgiving logic. For a marathon, you either go the distance or you don’t. For business, you’re either making money or losing money. While you may think that the key to success in either of these endeavors is about working really hard, the key instead is . . . working really hard at the things that make you successful.

So, as I like to repeat endlessly here and elsewhere, business is about making the right decisions. Marathons are no different — going the distance requires that the runner make the right training and performance decisions and follow through on them.

You can’t go the distance without adapting
Nothing goes as planned on your long trip to a marathon. Unlike practically any other physical training you may do, you can’t just muscle your way to a marathon. Sure, you can keep adding distance to your runs and push yourself to maybe 12 or 13 miles, but getting to mile 14 and then mile 15 in your training takes some serious replanning and rethinking.

Why? When you push yourself to running 12 or 13 miles, just about then, things start to break down. Your feet hurt, you run out of energy, your head hurts, your stomach hurts, your knee hurts, or, worse, you pull a tendon or sprain a joint. Getting from mile 13 and 14 involves far more than getting form mile 3 to 4. Whatever made you great in training back at mile 3 could probably be screwing you up at mile 13.

So you either keep making the same effort (and fail), or you go back to the drawing table. You try new shoes. You try taking a break at mile 6. You try drinking more water through the run. You run the first six miles at a slower pace. You rethink every aspect of your training to make it easier to get to the next mile in your training.

Once you’ve got that solved, you hit mile 18 or 19 or 20 in your training and things go south again. You run out of energy, your feet become unbearable, you throw up, all manner of things start going wrong and, again, you can’t find a new pair of shoes or muscle your way up to the next mile.

So you start rethinking not just your run, but everything you do. You rethink your diet, you rethink other training, you rethink your whole training schedule. Whatever you’ve been doing to get yourself to mile 18, you’re now going to have to do differently if you want to get to mile 19, or 20, or 25.

And all your best laid plans may blow up in your face come marathon day. I remember running the Nashville marathon and finding, to my horror, that it was going up one hill and down the next over and over again. Around mile 4, I decided that running up hills would doom me to a slow last half, so I started walking up the hills. Not only did I post a personal best in that race, after the finish, I strolled across Titan stadium to the 20 mile mark and joined a friend and . . . ran another 6 miles (my first unofficial ultra-marathon at 33 miles!)

Marathoners who finish are fundamentally people who are willing and able to constantly rethink what they’re doing rather than stubbornly charging ahead. Business works exactly the same way. What makes you successful as a startup may sink your business when it starts to grow. What makes you successful as a growing business may doom you to failure when your business gets large. It is, in fact, the same as career promoions. What makes you successful as an employee won’t help you when you become a manager of employees. What makes you successful as a manager of employees may doom you to failure when you’re promoted to being a manager of managers. Business, like careers, reward people who are willing and ready to rethink and retool.

If it’s true that effort doesn’t count, it’s equally true that the right effort today in your business will be the wrong effort tomorrow.

Complete, not compete
You probably don’t need to be told this, but the stars have not been aligned so that we can all be Olympic class marathon runners or, for that matter, Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.

For marathons, as for business, success has to be doable and sustainable. In training for a marathon, your surest route to an injury is to push yourself into the top ranks.

Let me put it another way. One of the greatest rewards of marathoning is that you get to run with the top marathon athletes in the world. You routinely run races with Olympic athletes (try that in tennis or basketball). And, sometimes, you even beat them. Even if you walk a marathon and toddle across the finish line 8 hours after the gun goes off, you still might have “beaten” one or two of the most elite marathoners in the world. Why? Because they’ve dropped out of the race — on average, about two or three of them do. And you also get to beat a whole slew of sneering, puerile, hyper-competitive jerks who either injure themselves on the way to the marathon or injure themselves during the marathon. Sure, they may run six minute miles. They also, for all their overweening pride, conk out at mile 14.

Marathons, in other words, are about crossing the finish line, whether you do that quickly or slowly. The only real losers in a marathon are the ones who don’t finish.

In marathoning, sucess is about completing the marathon, not competing.

In business, the only “losing” is “losing money.” To avoid losing money, you may need to compete, but, just as in a marathon, your overwhelming goal is not to “compete,” but to “complete.” What this often means is that your competitors, like fellow runners in a marathon, may be your best allies who are instrumental to your success rather than “competition” that needs to be mercilessly run over.

My first marathon was in Death Valley and there were only 40 runners. What that meant was that by mile 13, you were all by yourself. The person in front of you was a half mile or more in front of you and the person behind you was a half mile or more behind you. And, because Death Valley is this big, flat bowl, with one and only one road going through it, you ran up that road in one direction for 13 miles and then turned around and ran back. And you could see the entire 13 mile course from anywhere on the course. No joke. When you turned around at mile 13, you could see the finish line way, way off 13 miles away. Most marathon courses are sensibly laid out so that you run a half mile to a mile in one direction and then turn down another road, so you never really get a visual sense of the distance you’re traveling. Not so in Death Valley. If you had 13 miles to run, you had to stare at it. Being out there all alone in that vast nothing staring at 13 miles of road to run is, well, a tad dispiriting.

So at mile 14, I slowed up and teamed up with the runner behind me, who was also getting a bit glum. Together we helped each other to the finish line. In marathoning, as in business, your fellow runners are more useful to you as an ally than as a competitor.

“Complete, not compete” means setting doable and sustainable goals. While it’s true that “you can do it,” in marathoning and business that means, “you can do it, but not necessarily the way others do it.” While it’s true that “you can win,” that doesn’t mean that “you beat the pants off of everyone else.”

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