The lessons that I learned in Ironman that helped me in my MBA

I raced my first Ironman triathlon in 2011. That’s a 3.8km swim, followed by a 180km bike ride, and a 42.2km run (aka a marathon). Nine years later I began my MBA in 2020 in the midst of Covid, which I completed in the winter semester of 2023. I’d file both of these endeavors in my mental filing cabinet as “hard things” and I was able to derive some important life lessons out of both of them. If you’re about to start your MBA—or start training for an Ironman I suppose, then hopefully the following insights will help you on your journey.

They both cost a lot (but an Ironman is still cheaper)

An Ironman itself costs about $1000 USD, plus other items like travel expenses, nutrition for training and racing, and electronics like GPS watches and heart rate monitors, and of course the bike(s). Each of those line items can reach into the thousands of dollars. And theoretically you could make a 1-year endeavor into triathlon equivalent to the cost of an MBA. That being said, most MBA programs range well into 5 figure multiples and the price of just a few ebooks will net you a race entry to whatever event you want.

The point here is to say that both represent a major financial commitment. But even more costly is the time commitment. The hours that you put into either would be equivalent to having a second job requiring between 10 and 20 hours per week on average. Expecting to spend anything less would be either naïve or unrealistic. But there are practices and tools that you can put into place to make sure you’re maximizing your use of time. I highly recommend the book “Deep Work” for learning how to focus on tasks with greater intensity, and I took a dive into some of these practices in another post, “Read this before you or your partner starts their MBA”.

Maximizing your time is a skill and I’d recommend finding ways to squeeze every minute out of your day. Commuting to work by car? Try biking to work to get a sweat in. Want to level that up? Try listening to an audiobook on the way. Depending on where you live that’ll turn a 20 minute commute into 40 minutes of riding and reading. In theory your commute takes 20 minutes longer, but if you’ve just worked 40 minutes of exercise and 40 minutes of reading into it, then you’ve just netted yourself 60 minutes of incremental productivity on the day (40 minutes riding + 40 minutes reading – 20 minutes commute = 60 minutes of incremental productivity).

You only get out of it what you put into it

Continuing the train of thought from the last point, there are material costs to endeavors like an MBA (or an Ironman) both in terms of dollars, and time. You should recognize that you’ll get out of the endeavor only the equivalent what you’re willing to put into it.

Do the minimum amount to get a passing grade in a class and it’s unlikely that you’ll apply any of the course content into your professional life. Get into the pool once per week to make sure you don’t end up getting pulled from the water in a triathlon, and you’re unlikely to become a better swimmer. On the flip side, if you invest time into developing a deep understanding of a topic by doing all the course readings and developing a genuine curiosity for the concept, then you could find yourself one day becoming a subject matter expert in a field you had little exposure to in the past. Likewise, if you join a master’s swim club to become a more efficient swimmer, you may find yourself with a new lifelong skill passion.

There is a social component to both an Ironman and an MBA as well. In progressing towards the completion of both, I built connections and friendships. Similar to going into each with an open mind towards developing new skills and knowledge, you should have a receptive approach to the social aspects of either endeavor. In my opinion, sharing the experience of working towards a challenging goal with others going through the same emotional peaks and valleys acts as a multiplier for positive affect while blunting the impact of the most mentally challenging moments.

A cold beer (or kombucha) after a big group project is just as good as one after six hours on the bike at the end of a three-week training block.

Be humble

I think everyone in this world can use a healthy dose of humility. But unsurprisingly I believe that the individuals who self-select to complete an MBA or an Ironman can especially use an extra dose of this from time to time. There are going to be topics where you think you’re an all-star, but there’s always someone smarter. And in Ironman I quickly learned that no matter how fast you are, there’s always someone faster. For a real lesson in humility, simply try to look cool while putting your wetsuit on if you’ve already been in the water.

In my twenty odd years in the workforce I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are “really good with Excel”. In the company that I’ve kept professionally, I’d categorize myself as “pretty okay at Excel”. I can write macros in VBA, fire off formulas from memory, pivot table until the cows come home, use the Data Analysis Packs at will, and even add fill colours to cells. But I still meet people who make me feel like I’m a kid learning his multiplication tables in grade 3.

When I come across people who are better than me at something that I think that I’m good at, my approach isn’t to shy away or puff out my chest, its to get stoked that there’s someone that I can learn from to make me better at something that I thought I was already good at. The way you become a faster cyclist isn’t by being the guy or girl out in front of the pack, it’s by being the rider who is hanging on for dear life at the back of the peloton.

You’ll also have imposter syndrome but you deserve to be there

The flip side of that there are going to be moments when you have no idea what is going on.

I remember taking the bus to my first half Ironman. It was about 4:30am, cold, dark, and pouring rain. I was surrounded by people who seemed to know what they were doing, and I felt like I had no business being there. And there was a moment half an hour into the ride when I thought to myself, “what the f— am I doing here?”.

When I first had a class where I had to write script in a software package called “R”, it was akin to learning another language. Though the course stated that there were no prerequisites, everyone in the class somehow already had experience with the programming language. It was just like being on that bus again.

Both times I had the realization that either I’m doing this or I’m not. I framed the task with the recognition that I had done the work to get to where I was, and that the biggest impediment to my own success is myself. There will certainly be moments where a subject will come far easier to a peer than it will to you (for me that topic is generally finance), but recognize that you are still qualified to be there. You wouldn’t have been admitted to the program if you weren’t capable of completing the task at hand.

For some things you may have to work harder than the next person, but in the words of legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, “I may not be able to outsmart too many people, but I can outwork ‘em”.

They’re both going to throw you curve balls

There are moments in both an MBA and an Ironman that will suck. Like really, really suck.

I raced my first Ironman in near record-breaking heat in Penticton, BC. When I got off of the bike to begin my marathon, the temperature read a scorching 37 degrees Celsius. Needless to say, the run did not go as planned. My original plan was to run a slow, manageable pace for the full 42.2km but about 5km into the run, the plan went out the window and I cracked. I ended up having to walk/run the marathon course and desperately tried to keep my body temp down using water, sponges, and ice available at aid stations throughout the course. I lost eight pounds that day and was dehydrated for a week after.

Though Ironman sounds hard, you actually have a lot of time to complete it. The typical cutoff times are about 2.5 hours for the 3.8km swim, 9 hours for the 180km bike, and 6 hours for the marathon. Depending on how your day has gone, you can literally walk the marathon and still make the cutoff time. As difficult as it all sounds, people who have trained (even undertrained) for the event rarely fail to finish because they ran out of time. They fail to finish because at some point in the 17 hours they have to complete the race, they “blow up”. They sometimes ride too hard on the bike and their body can’t hold the pace for the day, or they overheat by running too hard in the hot midday sun, or maybe they just went out way too hard on the swim and things went sideways from there. The point is, they often don’t fail to finish because they run out of time, they often fail because they fail to adapt to changing conditions. Such is true for athletes just as much as it is for teams, organizations, and industries.

When I started my MBA we were already in the midst of Covid and my wife and I were already planning to have a child. But day 1 of the program looked vastly dissimilar from the last day. In September of 2020 my wife and I were dual income with no kids, living in a downtown condo, and I was attending lectures via Zoom. On the last day of the program I was working for a different employer, we were living in a single detached home, we had a two year old, I was physically in class from 3:00pm until 9:30pm every Tuesday, and I was back to training for marathons. To thrive, I needed to adapt.

I can guarantee you that your journey is far more difficult to predict than you think so the more adaptable you are, the better.

Pressure is a privilege

The last thing I’ll leave you with is a quote attributed to tennis legend Billie Jean King, “pressure is a privilege”. On that early August morning in 2011 I stood on the beach beside about 3000 other athletes. My nerves were racing and the only thing that calmed me down was an acknowledgement that this was an opportunity that not a lot of people ever work up to. I don’t know why, and I doubt that there is a peer reviewed paper that will explain it, but I believe that in those moments, you can simply replace anxiety with gratitude.

A couple of days before the race I met up for a short coffee with a professional triathlete that I’d been working with for a short while. She gave me some advice that I’ve given many other athletes since. When things get hard in your MBA (or your Ironman), you’ll feel overwhelmed, tired, frustrated, and probably a little bit dejected. Those are the times that you need to remind yourself that you owe it to yourself, your family, and your friends to double down, focus, and get the job done.

If it’s your MBA, then you need to put the phone away, get into the zone, and commit to finishing the case, the paper, or the studying so that you can get back to your loved ones and your job. You won’t do anyone any favors by being half present with your family and half into your studying at the kitchen table. If its an Ironman, then you just need to find an excuse to keep going and decide that today is the day that nothing can stop you. In either case, it’s entirely up to you how that chapter in your story gets written.

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