What IRONMAN Taught Me About Management…And Myself
By Mike Dowling in All,Challenges,EtchRock,Triathlon
Latest posts by Mike Dowling (see all)
It’s coming up on a year since my last big race, and I am busy training for another. This time, I am also dealing with a professional hurdle that I didn’t plan for. I just found out I need to find another team to lead. Maybe I should be more specific – I need to find a new job. Yeah…that part never made it into the training plan.
Thinking on what my plan is for the future, while having to live with the reality of TODAY, I can’t help but draw parallels with the what I’ve gone through preparing for and competing in Ironman, to the task I now have finding my next management gig.
Take a peek into what happens to a regular guy doing something decidedly irregular…and what it takes to make it through.
Raceday – Ironman Boulder
3:00 AM. Staring at the ceiling in the dark, I feel the vibration of my alarm. Already awake, I rolled out of bed and grabbed my tri kit on the floor and dressed in the dark so Jill could sleep for another hour. Grabbed my iPad and phone, and headed down to the lobby to eat and drink a few cups of coffee. Today was not a day to dispense with ritual. Meditate, concentrate on my breathing, eat my meal slowly, drink my coffee and fluids, review my race plan, review my nutrition plan and visualize each portion of the race. And God willing…go to the bathroom.
Lesson 1: Scary isn’t impossible.
I’ve done Ironman before. Twice, in fact. Enough times for me to know the special hell I would descend when I accepted this challenge a third time. In a sadistic twist, my buddies chose a high altitude event in Boulder, CO. The altitude scared me. The timing scared me, too. August 2 is early in the season for me, since Chicago winters typically last until June…seriously…the weather pretty much sucks in the spring.
Fear is a motivator…especially logical fear. But it shouldn’t paralyze you. Have a plan. Something as simple as possible that you can stick to. Whatever your ritual…do it. Daily. Weekly. What I am saying is, there are no overnight successes. In every situation, most of the hard work is done in the dark, and alone…repetitively. Do it enough times and scary goes away. Have a Plan. Stick to it. Your Plan will make it possible, or tell you why you failed.
If you don’t have a plan…your team will not have a plan. Lead them with a plan.
Lesson 2: Expect that everything will go wrong.
5:00 AM. Jill drops us off at Boulder High School…we need to drop off our Bike Special Needs and Run Special Needs Bags before we hop the shuttle to the Reservoir. Should have gotten there earlier, because the line is LONG. Don’t panic. Hit the restroom again…focus on your breathing and wait in line.
5:30 AM. We make it to the Reservoir. Takes us a half hour to fight our way to our bikes for one last check. Bottles, Nutrition, Wheels…all good. We leave the bike area and get ready to put our wetsuits on. All week, temperature was 72 degrees…all of sudden, in two days…the reservoir heats up to 78. Wetsuit optional…and I sink like a stone without one. I was going to do a 2.4 mile swim in a hot wetsuit…overheating is going to be a problem. STOP! This is an obstacle…it WILL BE OVERCOME. Take a deep breath…the goal is to get out of the water with fresh legs and alive. Deal with it. Slow and steady…find your pace…and keep your heart rate down.
6:30 AM. The cannon sounds…my head goes under and the race begins. The swim was a war zone. Feet and hands smashing my face, heavy churn from the crowd…I just could not find any open water. And the air was THIN! I burned oxygen in the first 200 yds and found myself on my back fighting to catch my breath. The sun came out and I felt like I was baking…very scary…and very normal…for me. I dug in…trusted my training…and stroked until I found my rhythm.
No matter how many times I hear it, it’s not enough. NOTHING EVER HAPPENS ACCORDING TO PLAN. There are just too many variables out of your control. When the situation deviates…deviate with it. Accept that things will go wrong.
As a sales manager…or a rep…think about your plan. How many deals are in your pipe? Do you have enough to cover your target? Instead of thinking about all the reasons why your deals will close…start thinking about all the reasons why your deals WON’T close. Expect that there will be hiccups and you won’t be surprised when they happen. This is where I refer back to the Plan. Lather…Rinse…Repeat.
Lesson 3: Have a Team
12:30 Noon. Made it out of the water and onto the bike with little issue. I’ve been going for about 6 hours…but at around mile 70, I realize that the heat and altitude were a problem. I THOUGHT I had the right plan…but it was clear to me that I miscalculated, and despite my best efforts, I was already dehydrated. Things got dangerous from there. Dizziness on a bike is bad. I stopped at aid stations to swap out fluids (anything that was cold)…but I couldn’t keep any of it down. To make matters worse, I was having distress on the “other end” as well. I had the biggest hills in front of me at mile 90 and all I wanted to do was…die.
I was really worried I wouldn’t finish the bike, and if I DID make it…I wasn’t concerned with trying to run. It. Just. Wasn’t. Happening. I had the wrong training plan…I didn’t do enough warm weather nutrition planning…and I didn’t do enough warm weather riding. I STILL HAD 22 MILES TO RIDE! Doubt and misery are awful companions.
2:40 PM. I arrived at T2 completely cracked. Couldn’t walk straight, couldn’t see straight. I was hyperventilating…a pile of pain. I grabbed my bag and immediately entered the medical tent. I was done.
They knew exactly what was going on with me…and they made certain I was aware of where I was. My support team (my wife Jill, her friend Jody, my bud Jim) all knew something was wrong…They saw what I looked like getting off the bike. I was taking too long in transition, and they finally found me in the tent.
There Is A Perception That IRONMAN Is A Solo Activity: Yes, you have to swim, ride and run the course on your own, but that is just on race day. You need a team, to keep you focused, to hold you accountable during the months of training, to keep you motivated. When I saw my team come into the tent, I didn’t feel alone anymore. Just seeing them took away some pain. I’m sure that the Gatorade and sodium solution I was pouring into me was starting to balance me out, but it was my team that pulled me out of the dark. They didn’t need me to finish…They were there to support me and remind me that I COULD finish. In retrospect…I don’t really know why I didn’t opt for an IV. I didn’t know at the time that I would automatically be disqualified to continue. Sometimes, your subconscious takes over and makes the decision you DON’T KNOW HOW TO MAKE. I believe this. It helps you be decisive.
Lesson 4: There is NO FINISH…just steps along the way
3:30 PM. I feel 100% better. I cannot explain the mechanics of dehydration and rehydration…but the human body is amazingly resilient. Your brain also has the ability to “prepare” your body to complete its task…I couldn’t envision running a marathon after everything I had been through. In fact…I vividly recalled that all I needed to do was reach the first aid station, about 1 mile away. I knew I could run, walk, crawl for 1 mile. Once I got there, I would reassess. Then I would do it again. That is exactly what I did 26 times in a row. By mile 10…I felt stronger than I had all day…sore…but strong. I knew then that the PLAN had prepared me enough to complete the task. I had to trust the plan. But I also knew that IT could not DO the task…I still needed to do the work, I still needed my team to pull me to the line. Every time I saw them on the run, it was emotional. My wife, especially…she poured positive energy and love into me. My foundation. We are doing it, we are doing it, we are doing it!
We work to live…we do not live to work. Every year, leaders have to figure out how to achieve their targets. Situations change, personnel changes…portfolios and jobs change. Teams change.
I have never met a leader that looked me in the eye and said, “Yep…I am done. I did it”. Every single leader worth his salt is looking at the next level. The next step in their plan.
8:30ish PM. I took my last step over the line…and my first step toward the next race.
I would NOT have completed this race without my team…my wife…giving me the strength to keep going. Having a team reminds us why we do these things in the first place. We do it because it is hard. We do it because it scares the shit out of us. We do it, sometimes, because people tell us we CAN’T. Maybe it starts out as an individual goal, but you quickly realise how much more it means to you when you do it for others. For inspiration. For purpose.
Shift your view. Build your team…prepare for your Ironman…whatever that is to you.
Today – my next Ironman (Challenge) is to find a company who needs a new sales leader. While I tackle that hill, Jill and I are training for Ironman Miami 70.3 in October. Training continues because life doesn’t stop. We push through and we find a way. My family is my team and my support and my purpose. They give me the strength to KEEP…GOING.
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