The footprints in the snow stopped. I kept going. I could still see the trail just enough to be reasonably certain I would not get lost deep in Nevada’s Lamoille Canyon.
But I wasn’t 100% sure I was making the right decision by continuing the hike. This was not a place to slip and fall and crack my head on a rock. I was alone and miles and miles from civilization/cell service.
I had reached the edge of my comfort zone, maybe even exceeded it, and that was the point of this hike. It was part of my training for an adventure race, and I was working on getting comfortable being uncomfortable because I knew that was a necessary ability for the race.
A few hundred yards after the footprints stopped, I arrived at what I’ll call a footbridge but was really just pieces of wood strewn across a creek with big rocks to step on in gaps between the wood. Ice covered both the wood and rocks. If I attempted to cross and slipped into the icy water, I would risk frostbite. If I fell into the water, it would be much worse.
The mountains ahead of me, on the other side of the creek, called to me. But so did the mountains behind me, and I didn’t have to cross a dangerous creek to get to them. I turned around, hiked back to the parking lot and found another trail.
The hike was part of my preparation for the Castlewood 8-hour Adventure Race, which comprises canoeing, orienteering/hiking/trail running, road biking, and mountain biking. Part of the challenge of the event is you don’t know where it will be, how long it will be, or because it’s outside in December in St. Louis, what the weather will be. I trained in the snow and ran several times in the rain to be ready for either… and it turned out to be an unseasonably warm and sun-kissed day.
The irony is that while the “endure the weather” part of my training turned out to be irrelevant, it still taught me an important lesson, one of many I learned from training for endurance events that will help you in your solopreneur life.
It’s not about the fitness or the event or the distance.
“Fitness is almost like an accidental nicety,” says Taylor Thomas, the founder and head coach of Thomas Endurance Coaching and endurance athlete with two decades of experience. He’s passionate not just about his sport but how he and his clients apply what they learn from it in the rest of their lives. “It sets you up for success in all areas of your life, and it allows you to see, to gain clarity. It almost forces you to create time for yourself. That’s huge. We really struggle to do that in the modern world.”
Punit Dhillon is an athlete, entrepreneur and the author of Catapult, in which he writes about how executives can leverage athletic events to find success in business. He calls endurance races “personal-drive” or “self-drive” sports, and the connection between the motivation to compete in them and the motivation to be self-employed is obvious. “How often do you come across somebody that says they’re running a marathon for recreation?” he says. “There’s not really a recreational story attached to marathon running.”
The solopreneur life requires the same intentionality. “In order for anyone to succeed, they have to recognize the importance of endurance and discipline and have the confidence that it takes for anything that they want to put their mind to,” he says.
Training for events teaches the value of setting goals and drawing up and executing plans to reach them.
Following a training plan requires discipline and focus. “This is one of my tools for structure in many ways. It allows me to have that routine on a daily basis,” Dhillon says.
In preparing for a half IRONMAN, Dhillon followed “95-99%” of what his coach drew up for him, far more than usual. The result: He set a personal best in all three disciplines, beat his overall record by a whopping 40 minutes and cried at the finish line.
His next big fitness goal is a long trip across open ocean on a paddleboard, a daunting task he knows he can’t do without following a well-drawn out plan, which includes meeting qualifications crafted by organizers of the event.
“The same thing applies on work,” he says. “We’re setting all our objectives and milestones for the following year. There’s a clear set of milestones. There’s the budget, and then there’s the operational plan that follows that. Some of those things are lofty, some of those are stretch. Some of those are very clear to be able to get done, but if you don’t have a plan, then as the saying goes, you plan to fail.”
It teaches us about our weaknesses.
My prep for the adventure race lacked “specificity” in one area: I did not practice/train for the mountain-biking section. I don’t own a mountain bike and borrowed one for the race. I knew going in it would be my weak spot. I trained for the road-riding part of the event and hoped that would be good enough.
It was better than nothing. But my slowness bottlenecked the course as faster riders piled up behind me. I only crashed once, and it wasn’t painful, but as I picked myself up in front of other competitors, I was humbled, even a little embarrassed.
My struggles on the mountain bike helped me understand one of my biggest professional disappointments this year. It came when I applied for a freelance writing gig for a medical website. The editor gave me a “test” assignment with the assurance that many more assignments would follow if I passed it.
I worked hard on the test, and while it did not contain majestic prose—the topic was nasal irrigation, nobody can make copy about that sing—I was confident it was good enough.
It wasn’t. I failed the test. The editor refused to give me any assignments.
This wasn’t as public as my bike crash, but still, I was humbled and embarrassed in much the same way. I didn’t ask for an explanation (which I regret), but I see now a parallel between that struggle and my struggles on the mountain bike.
I know what I’m doing when I ride my bike on gravel and pavement. I know what I’m doing with narrative stories and essays. But just as my gravel and pavement experience didn’t translate perfectly to mountain biking, neither did my narrative and essay skills translate perfectly to what the medical website wanted.
The key, as Thomas put it, is “patience over time yields results,” and if I don’t exhibit patience or spend time honing skills, I should not expect results. “Any time we think about our goals, we want to try and understand the specificity, then ensure our process aligns with what’s needed to prepare, and also align our expectations with our process,” Thomas says.
Good habits in fitness lead to the same in work, and vice versa.
U.S. Army Major Jay Tiegs was exhausted, alone, drifting through a swarm of gnats so thick he pulled out a plastic bag, cut eye holes in it, and put it on his head. “I cried a little bit, and I had my talk with God—I’ll do anything to get through this,” he says, with “this” being the MR 340, a kayak race that runs the length of the Missouri River across the state of Missouri.
The experience fit right in with his mantra/the name of his podcast: Do Hard Things. When he faces tough challenges, he reminds himself of those hours on the Missouri River… or any of the other dozens of challenging situations he has put himself in to build grit. He knows, if he endured the MR 340, he can endure whatever comes up at work. “If I just show up and do the work and push through this uncomfortable situation, if I can see it through, I’ll have success. And that’s enabled me to get through so many other things in my life.”
A team led by Tiegs, a high-performance coach and leadership speaker, finished one spot ahead of my team in the adventure race. We yo-yoed all day; they ran by us for good with 200 yards to go.
Says Thomas: “If you’re a high performer in one area of your life, you’re going to be a high performer in other areas of your life. And I’m not talking about whether you’re fast or slow or have specific types of fitness. If you carve out time for yourself to execute towards your fitness goals, that’s going to help you take more concerted steps in other areas of your life.”
The reverse is true, too. If you already have those attributes at work, they will translate into physical training.
You get to choose your own adventure.
Just as in your solopreneur life you get to choose (to a degree) what you work on, the same is true in your event life. “The sum total of the effort is what matters, so it’s not about a particular distance or disciplines,” Thomas says. “Do what’s going to keep you excited.”
I’m not going to enter a long run because I just don’t want to. I prefer group- and/or team-based endurance events that have variety. I enjoy adventures of my own design more than formal races and events, though I’m open to all of them.
When picking an event, find a balance between pushing yourself and being realistic. “Some of your greatest lessons come when you just kind of throw yourself in the arena and learn,” Tiegs says.
Think: scary but doable. “You don’t want it to be such a stretch goal that if you don’t reach that goal, it’s damaging to your athletic pursuits or your identity as an athlete,” Thomas says.
Read next: Why You Need to Pace Yourself
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