8 business lessons learned on the marathon trail from Strata CEO Dan Michelson

Dan Michelson, CEO of cloud-based analytics company Strata Decision Technology, will hit the streets of Boston on Monday for what many consider a rite of passage for serious runners: the Boston Marathon.

This will be Mr. Michelson's 15th marathon and fifth time on the Boston course — no small feat for a busy CEO. But based on how he describes running, it's not a surprise his passions align. "The discipline around marathon running is analogous to how a company or organization should look at running their business," he says. "It requires a long-term view; there are moving parts and pieces; and it takes a lot of planning and persistence. There are good and bad days, but the work it takes to get there is probably more important than the goal itself."

Research shows Mr. Michelson will likely be among peers on the Boston course. According to Fortune, the average runner of the ING New York City Marathon had a household income of $130,000 in 2006 and the average triathlete's household income is $126,000. Top earners and executives alike are hardwired to be successful endurance athletes — and it may be in their benefit to do so. A study featured by Inc. shows CEOs who complete marathons are actually 5 percent more valuable to their company.

Here Mr. Michelson shares eight business lessons he has learned in training for 15 marathons and running a company.

1. You have to have a plan — and be willing to course correct. When I run a marathon I have a 16-week training plan. I know what I am doing, or not doing, every day. But life gets in the way and the key is to keep your head when things don't go your way. It's the same in business — you can't be rigid on your approach or you will drive yourself and everyone around you crazy. Plans can and should change, but you need to stay true to your goals. There's a distance and a date; you need to be ready.

2. It's a numbers game. Too much data can be a bad thing, but some data is essential to create a baseline and a barometer for getting better in running a business or a marathon.  The key is to know what matters and always reassess what other data elements should be added in along the way.  Running long distance appeals to people who are technical for that reason. If you know and care about your numbers — time, distance, speed, weight, heart rate, etc. — you can and will improve. It's not a mystery; it's math. 

3. Commitment and consistency are key. The hardest part of running a marathon isn't the 26.2 miles on one day, it's the 500 to 600 miles that come before. While your mileage may vary, your commitment can't. You can shortcut the process for one marathon, but in order to continue to level up, there are no shortcuts — at least that I have found.  Once you commit, you're 90 percent of the way there. From there, the two keys are maintaining that commitment and staying consistent. I haven't seen anyone run a business effectively for a meaningful amount of time who can't deliver those same two things.

4. There are many wins and many losses along the way. There are good days and bad days in both marathon training and leading a company. Recognizing that and taking it in stride is the trick. Translation: Don't get overconfident or too down. An occupational hazard of running a company is that all eyes are on you at all times; even when you aren't there your absence sends a message. If people see you riding a roller-coaster of emotions, it builds organizational stress. In running, a business or a marathon, you have to believe a bad run will be followed by a good one.   

5. You are always learning. I am always surprised at how much I end up questioning everything every time I commit to another race. Having "beginner's eyes" is essential in all aspects of life, but in running you would think I would be past this after 25 years on the trail. And I'm not alone. Running geeks like me are no different than geeks working in or running any business — they love what they are doing and they want to go deeper. That love of learning is a huge competitive advantage, maybe the biggest one. 

6. You can always do better. The first marathon that I ran I finished in just under four hours and I thought I was literally going to die at the end. Two marathons later, I finished in under three hours (one hour better) and I felt like I could run another five miles. What was the difference? While training had something to do with it, most of it was just the ceiling of expectations that I had put on myself. Clearly this same reality plays out in every business every day. You have to believe in yourself or at least give yourself the benefit of doubt. I'm a big believer in the saying, "Whether you think you can or can't, you're right".  

7. It's hard work — and that's a good thing. The most satisfying jobs I have had and projects I have worked on were really tough. In that same light, marathoners love the work and thrive on training. You have to believe that the harder the work, the more you're getting out of it. You have to convince yourself that when it's 10 degrees out and snowing sideways, it's a perfect day for a run. Raising kids is tough. Leading a business is tough. Running a marathon is tough. But as challenging as each is, anyone who has been through it would tell you that the more work that went in, the more satisfying were the wins along the way.

8. It's the journey, not the destination. I am always a little down after I finish a marathon. As soon as the adrenaline rush fades, you realize the journey has ended; it's really not a great feeling. Quickly you start thinking about what is going to fill that void, as there is always a void to fill. Running a business is so many things, but more than anything it is a journey and that's the best aspect of it. You accomplish one thing, you move on to the next. Over and over again. You have to thrive on that.


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