Taking the long road

2003 Mardi Gras Marathon finisher

I ran my first marathon in college. It was my junior year and I decided to take a brief respite from alcohol (I would take another one about fifteen years later) and train for a marathon. There was no impetus behind it. I just wanted to do it for me and I decided to do it alone.

I picked the Mardis Gras Marathon in New Orleans, trained as best I could, and flew out to NOLA with just a backpack and some running shoes. I felt prepared, excited, and anxious to push myself to the outer limits. At the time I’d never actually run 26.2 miles. My training topped out at roughly 3.5 hours of straight running. This was in 2003, before we carried GPS-enabled maps in our pockets, so I wasn’t sure exactly how far I my training runs were. I guessed based on how much time it took.

It turned out this was not a good way to train. I ran in the Berkeley hills and developed calf muscles that cramped up in the flat southern terrain around New Orleans. I wasn’t prepared for the heat or humidity. I remember route was in a figure-8 shape, with each loop being 13.1 miles so the half-marathoners could wave good-bye at that route intersection in the middle.

I struggled to get to that half marathon point. I was ready to call it quits right there, give it up, and return back to the finish line where I’d read several kegs of cold beer would be awaiting the finishers. I almost did it but as I watched the other full marathoners trod on, the same group of people I’d started the run with, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I kept running.

It was a brutal run. The sun rose to the middle of the sky, beating down on our backs. There was no shade, except under the tents where volunteers handed us bananas and Gatorade. I wanted to curl up under the table and go to sleep. My calves burned. My hair was mated to my head in sticky clumps where I’d poured cold Gatorade over myself. I didn’t care. It was hot.

I crossed the finish line and collapsed onto the cold cement inside the Superdome, the same facility that would become infamous a few years later during the Katrina disaster.

I’d done it. My head was dizzy. My legs were numb. In a few hours I’d be unable to walk up or down stairs but none of that mattered. A few people stopped to make sure I was okay. I smiled and waived them along. I’m fine, I said. Just glad to be done. Eventually, I picked myself up and managed to take this selfie using the bulky digital camera I brought in my backpack.

That’s what running is for me. It’s a struggle and a release. I ran several more marathons after this one, each had its own set of challenges leading up to and during the race.

What I take from these experiences is the challenge of preparing for and solving something. How do you run for four to five hours straight? What exercises do you need to do? What should you eat in the months, weeks, and night before the big run? Should you start fast and slow down over the course of the route or do the opposite and finish at a faster pace than you started? 

I find the answers to these questions give a peak into the fundamental personality and preference of the runner. I like to start slow and finish fast. I’ll let my peers get a mile or more ahead of me in the first half of the marathon and take that distance back on the back half, gleefully passing them in the final few miles, feeling better with each passing water station. 

I think building and running companies is like that too. The best ones know that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. They save their energy (cash) grow faster over time. Private and public investors love to see an increasing growth rate, or at least a steady one. When you’re a startup and your growth rate slows, it’s the kiss of death. It’s much better to manage your business the way you’d manage your body in long race like this. The worst outcome is to burn out at the midway point and take a premature exit. 

I suspect that political campaigns are like this too. From watching my friends do it I can see that the best candidates prepare for their campaigns at least a year in advance. They train, they exercise, they eat well, so by the time they pin their race number to their shirt, they’re as prepared as they can possibly be. 

That’s why I’ve built this site and am blogging about politics and campaigning before I even know what I’m running for. I’m preparing for my next marathon. 

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