7 Lessons from Running Ultramarathons

Our HireEducation founder, Mark Phillips, runs ultramarathons. An ultramarathon is anything over the normal 26.6 marathon distance – it’s not uncommon to hear of ultras that are 200 miles these days.

Mark just ran a 108-mile ultra. He wasn’t an athlete when he was younger, and when he started running, he thought it was more of a mental thing: you decide to do it, then you do it. (Um, no.) He’s since learned that with any kind of endurance activity, especially running, there are a lot of physical things to contend with, especially as you pass middle age. He’s also noticed that his running goals and training correlate to work and business life.

Here are seven things Mark has learned from running ultramarathons:

1. You can’t push too hard. It’s all about the long game.

In running, if you push too hard, you’re going to crash. In business, especially sales, people tend to think they can change their fortunes on a dime, but things take time, even when there’s a set beginning and end to a sales cycle. Every activity contributes to a longer-term reality. What’s the end goal? What are the small steps you can take each day to help you reach your goal without crashing?

2. Working towards a goal takes change.

The pursuit of a long-term goal isn’t binary, it’s not on or off, successful or unsuccessful. You can’t expect to do the exact same thing day in and day out and achieve your desired results. You test behaviors and add them to your regimen (or not), constantly streamlining your process and improving as you go.

For example, with ultra running, there were several things Mark changed:

  • When he first started running, it was difficult. He looked at his lifestyle and habits to see if there was anything he could change to make it easier. In his case, he stopped drinking alcohol, which had an immediate impact on the way he felt.
    What can you remove from your regimen that might help you perform better and reach your goals faster?
  • He adjusted his diet. He was a vegetarian once in the past, but still ate crap. (Hey, doughnuts are vegetarian!) His current diet is primarily plant-based but he supplements on occasion with lean proteins. He’s constantly aware of the fuel component of food: timing, quantity, and quality. What will help him run the longest or the fastest?
    What can you change about your regimen that might help you perform better and reach your goals faster?
  • He got more sleep. Sleep is also a form of fuel that contributes greatly to both your emotional balance at work and achieving physical goals. Mark was someone who enjoyed long days and short sleep from staying at a party or social event into the wee hours. Now he has regular sleep times and makes sure to get enough to keep him powered through his entire day, including a long run.
    What can you add to your regimen that might help you perform better and reach your goals faster?

3. Both preparation and recovery time are essential.

Mark trained really hard for a race in November and didn’t do as well as he expected. He realized that with as much as he runs (usually 9-10 hours a week), he needs to allow time for recovery. If he didn’t stretch and do some calisthenics regularly, there was a 90% chance of an injury: he would twist an ankle, tweak his knee, or hurt his back. He couldn’t just run and run and run – he needed to do strength and mobility work at least three times a week.

By diversifying his preparation to run and strengthening other parts of his body, his running became stronger and his recovery time was less.

It’s the same way in business. You can go all-in on one thing, but there’s usually some fallout from that. Make it a well-rounded experience. Instead of being laser-focused, give yourself some sort of other intellectual stimulation to keep the juices flowing or some sort of social element that you can bring back into the business.

And make sure you give yourself time to recover. Just as a body needs time to recover from strenuous exercise, your brain and body need breaks from work. Take that vacation. Go out with friends. Exercise over your lunch break. You will inevitably return feeling more energized and creative than you would have if you had just pushed through.

4. Coaching makes a world of difference.

Mark works with a coach to train for his ultramarathons. He didn’t always, but having a program that’s outside of his own whims is a good thing – it holds him accountable and gives him someone who pushes him outside his comfort zone. Working with a coach gives rigor and repeatability in a way that’s harder to pull off if you’re working on your own.

It’s the same in business. Having a mentor or working with a business coach can give you outside expertise and perspective, and will also push you to achieve more than you might think you can. It’s always good to have an experienced cheerleader in your corner, too.

5. Plan well, but be prepared to pivot and try new things.

As President Eisenhower famously said, “Plans are nothing … Planning is everything.” You need a plan to reach your goal. But you need to be committed enough to your goal that you can pivot and change your plan as needed in order to reach your goal.

Historically, Mark’s biggest issue with ultramarathons has been GI stuff. You have to eat as you go, which is a recipe for GI distress. He gets nauseated, can’t eat, then bonks. This is super common in running. Recently, he ran a 50-mile race in San Diego in February. It was a hot, sunny day, and halfway through the race he was in GI distress (he couldn’t eat anything) and was 80% sure he was going to quit the race. Sitting at the aid station, he remembered that he had some new salt/electrolyte tablets that dissolve in water, so thought he would give them a try. He was immediately hungry, ate to fuel back up, and not only finished the race, but ran the second half faster than the first half after thinking he was going to quit halfway through.

His plan was to run and eat as he went, as needed. His pivot was sitting to rest for a while, then trying a new thing.

It’s the same in business: don’t be married to the plan, be married to the goal. Be well practiced in maintaining your focus and sticking with your goals even in the face of changing information. Be okay with all the variables that exist in the world. As things change, pivot. Try new things. You might just be surprised.

6. Persevere.

The first time Mark ran an ultramarathon, he crashed at mile 62. In his second ultra, he crashed at mile 50, got through the crash, made it to mile 87, but still didn’t finish because of speed. S*** happens. You may not get there the first time. He hasn’t fully completed a hundred miler yet but will keep training and knows he will reach his goal.

7. Try looking at things in a new way.

In these races, usually around mile 10 he gets down in the dumps, and negative self-talk kicks in. “This is the dumbest thing ever. I spent so much time on this. It hurts so bad. I’m not really a runner.” This happened so often, he decided to change gears and personify it. He thought of the thoughts as a negative friend who shows up to the party and brings everybody down. “Oh, that’s just my negative friend – he’s always like that.”

Using the silly conceit turning the low feelings into an annoying person totally disarmed his negative friend and took away his power. The next time Mark’s “friend” showed up he was able to laugh him off. For the record, in running, the negative friend is always there in the first 2 miles – they’re always bad. And then it’s better. Again, it’s about persevering through the rough start.

How can you take something that always brings you down or annoys you at work and look at it in a new way so it no longer has any power?


Having goals is a marvelous thing, in all aspects of our lives. When you feel stuck at work, shift focus to a more personal or physical goal for a while, and vice versa. You’ll get there if you keep going and growing, a little at a time.

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