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Business Lessons from a Half-Marathon: Pace Yourself

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My biggest goal for the Mercedes Half-Marathon in Birmingham was to beat my January time. Okay – my biggest goal was to finish, but I took that for granted. I really wanted to improve at each marathon I run this year, hopefully running in the low 1:50's come December.

That would not happen in Birmingham.

At the start line, I found myself near a pace group. These runners are supposed to run the race in the time advertised on the sign they're carrying. For example, the guys near me holding the 2:00 hour sign are supposed to trot along at a pace so that they (and those who wish to run in stride with them) cross the finish line at or under two hours.

I'd never followed a pacer before. I think that I thought I could always pace myself just fine. But this time, I thought I'd give it a go.

When the gun sounded and we began, I kept in step with them for about a quarter mile. Then, I decided that they were going out a bit too leisurely, and that as long as I knew they were behind me, I'd be fine. I also decided that if/when I began to slow and they caught up with me, I'd keep up with them until the finish. After all, sometimes we can be equally motivated by what's behind us as we can by what's in front of us.

I ran a great time through the first half of the race. I posted a 10k time of 54:17, which means I was on pace to finish at around 1:55. I think you know what happened next.

I crashed at mile 9. The hills and my pace got to me, and just as I wondered where those pace guys were, they came blowing by me at the end of mile 9. It was like a kick in the face. I was gassed and couldn't keep up.

I stopped and stretched, hoping a quick rest would loosen me up and get me back and running. I walked through the next water stop, wanting the carbo gel and water to give me enough energy to pick up the pace again.

At mile 11, I saw the clock: 1:42. Could I cover the next 2.1 miles in under nine minutes each? Maybe, if I busted it. If I gave it my all. If I wanted to be super sore the next month.

As I weighed my options for the next 30 seconds, I decided not to try to beat the clock, or even the time I posted in January. Here's why:

  • You only use Hail Marys when you need them. You'll rarely (never) see a jump ball in the end zone on a Hail Mary pass unless it's at the end of the game (or half) in football. That's because there's no reason to use a play that's rarely successful when you don't need to. Your success rate is much higher when you calculate your game plan and execute well. And while I was definitely in a Hail Mary situation in terms of besting my time, doing so wasn't 'worth it' in terms of what I stood to gain.
  • I know where I failed and learned from it. I started out too fast. Had the race only been nine miles, I would have posted a great time and done the same at the next 9-miler. But it was 13.1 miles. And I didn't run the first nine miles with the last 4.1 in mind. I won't do that next weekend, when it's time for half-marathon #3 of 2009.
  • I realized I had 10 more races to go. At mile 11, I only had 2.1 miles left in the race. But I had 133.1 to go for the year. And if pace is about anything, it's about pacing yourself not just for one race, but for all the races.

It's important, when starting and growing a business, that you run quickly when you have to, and at a manageable pace the rest of the time. Businesses that sprint out of the gate, with no view for the long-term success of their venture will burn through energy and resources very quickly. Those businesses that realize that growth happens through deliberate and dedicated action, which often takes time, will be poised to succeed well into the future.

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