What 10 years of Ultra-Trail running taught me about entrepreneurship!

My friend Nicolas and I, after 39h19 of efforts to finish the UTMB 2018. Happy !

I’m a tech entrepreneur. Surprisingly enough, very few people ask me why. But I am also an Ultra Trail runner, and almost everybody ask me why. So why? Even if it’s becoming a very popular sport, non runners are somehow fascinated about ultra-running: for some of them I’m «  crazy », I’m « masochist », and when I finish a race I become for them a « cyborg », or a « machine ». For me, Ultra Trail running and Entrepreneurship are very similar, and I would like to share with you what 10 years of Ultra Trail running taught me about entrepreneurship!

So I’m a tech entrepreneur. 10 years ago, I founded a leading European Influencer Marketing company providing a 1.8M influencers platform to prestigious brands like Coca-Cola, P&G, Shiseido, Sony Music or Publicis. I started alone in my apartment but today I have the pleasure to manage a team of 35 very talented employees that share the same passion for innovation and social media. It’s a very challenging and competitive market, and we all work very hard. But we share the same ambition for trailblazing our newborn & fast-growing Influencer Marketing industry, and building a better world. 

I am also an Ultra Trail runner. Over the last 10 years, I ran and finished several 100Miles with 10k ascending elevation trail races, including the famous Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. 

I started to run trail races 10 years ago, 60km at my first attempt (the incredible 6000D in La Plagne – France), then the distance increased over the years, up to my first 100Miles (100Miles du Sud de la France) and finally to my graal in 2018, 180km and 10km ascending elevation around the Mont Blanc for the most selective and prestigious ultra-trail race in the World, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) that I finished in a bit more than 39h.

People usually say that entrepreneurship is like a marathon, but I believe it is more like an ultra trail. It is a race, but much longer, not on asphalt monotone roads, with ascent and descent. And you can make a lot of parallels with entrepreneurship. I believe that practicing ultra trail makes you better in life, and it makes you a better entrepreneur. Here are my key learnings.

1- Facing the unknown is facing you

2- The top is farther than it looks

3- Shit happens (all the time), and it’s ok

4- When you feel overcome, stop and hold

5- The journey of a 100 miles begins with one step

6- It’s all about anticipation

7- Only you can walk the path

8- (but) You will never walk alone

9- The journey is the destination

10- We are phoenixes

1- Facing the unknown is facing you

When you register for a race, generally 6 to 12 months before (sometimes several years if it requires random draw), it’s like the first day when you create your company. You are kind of proud, you shout « yes », you call your friends & family, you are really happy because your dream is coming true… but then you realize that you have done nothing yet but to invest a few euros.

You have your bib… now what?

You have a passion (for running, for nature, or just for challenges). You have a vision (finishing this crazy thing). But you need to find your own path. You start to be afraid as you are facing the wall. Where to start? Training? Reading blogs? Buying material? Studying the map? Changing your diet? Some might be lost. Entrepreneurs are usually excited.

You soon realize that there are few parameters that you can control before and during a race, like training, eating, or sleeping. You will focus on them. But lots of factors are totally unpredictable like the weather, your shape of the day, other participants behavior, the luck… Again, some feel panic, Entrepreneurs are excited.

Then it’s the D-Day and you are on the starting line. I almost cry every time in this situation. Emotion is at its paroxysm. Because it has been so hard to come to this point (hard trainings for months, years of races to get points allowing you to apply to a random draw, sacrifices, …). Because you feel electricity among other participants. Races’ organizations are really good at finding motivational musics (like Vangelis Conquest of Paradise) that makes you turn crazy.

Few minutes before starting the UTMB in 2018

Finally you realize that facing the unknown is in fact facing yourself. Every time you start a very difficult race, especially the first time, you know that you are going to explore your physical and mental limits. You know that you have no excuse to hide now as you will have to run, whatever happens. You know that you will probably feel pain, a lot of pain, in your legs and feet of course, but in your all body (stomach, shoulders, head …). But that’s what will make you feel alive, whatever your performance, and that’s what you are also looking for of course. You will be surprised by your body and by your mind : facing difficulties and searching for solutions, you will learn a lot about yourself, your strengths but also your vulnerabilities. You will discover who you really are.

2- The top is farther than it looks

Patience is not a natural quality for an entrepreneur🙂 You always want your vision to be realized for « yesterday », you are living your vision, and you have the highest difficulties to accept that things are always going slower that in your mind. You want to reach 100M€ revenues in 5 years but it will take 10 years. You want to hire a new A-player CMO for next month, but it will take 3. You have to learn to live with your frustrations.

Trail running helped me improve this skill radically. Do you imagine how many steps you need to make to finish a 180km race? Do you imagine how many kilometers (and hours) you need to train to prepare your body and your brain for this kind of challenge? A lot… It’s very long, and you have to be patient. Or if you are not, you have to learn to be patient.

And it’s the same during a race. We usually say that slow and steady wins the race. You don’t need to run very fast all the time and waste your energy too rapidly. The goal is to finish the race, and you have to be constant in your effort. As an entrepreneur, do not try to grow too fast, to hire too rapidly, to reach the finish line (profitability, fundraising, IPO, exit…) too early. Remember that the top is farther than it looks, and always keep some energy to make it to the finish line.

3- Shit happens (all the time), and it’s ok

So your journey is gonna be longer than you initially thought, and you know that nothing will happen as planned. Shit happens all the time. The friend you started to run with will be injured and will have to stop in the middle of the race. The sunny predicted weather will turn into snow and cold making it more difficult to run and reducing your pleasure. Your sticks will be broken after few kilometers and it will be more difficult for you to climb mountains, as well as more dangerous in the descents. Your stomach will be hurting you so bad that you won’t be able to breath properly, at 2 a.m in the middle of nowhere… Sounds familiar with your entrepreneurship experience? The mountain (and entrepreneurship) can put so many difficulties in front of you that it makes you really humble.

Somewhere training in Scotland

Whatever happens, I learned to stay positive! Chances are that everything is going to be fine very soon. And it does. Sometimes you want to quit, you wonder what you are doing here. But you have the ability to adapt, and you will, constantly. It’s like reinventing yourself. In that situation I often think about the 40% rules (when your mind is telling you that you’re done, that you’re exhausted, that you cannot possibly go any further, you’re only actually 40% done).

4- When you feel overcome, stop and hold

Paradoxically, one of the secrets facing very difficult situations is to stop. Literally stop. It’s counterintuitive but if you want to finish the race, you have to start by stopping. It can be 1 to 5 mins to breath, 15 mins to discuss with a doctor, a friend, or a mentor. It can be 1h to even sleep. But you stop. And then it’s usually like rebooting your system, you are fresh again, enthusiastic. You see solutions now where there was only questions or sufferings before.

As an entrepreneur, you are tempted to work days and nights, evenings and week ends. And that’s what you usually do during the first years. When facing difficulties you find solutions in working even more, and you never want to stop. But I learned through ultra trail that sometimes you need to take 1h to stop, your afternoon or evening, that you don’t need to work all the week end. I practice sport almost every day: it allows me to cut my routine but also to think about solutions to my pro challenges. And 3 times a year I take 1 week in a quite place to change the daily rhythm and reinvent my way of working. « Stop and hold » is the best advice that I ever received.

5- The journey of a 100 miles begins with one step

You cannot avoid to be afraid of the challenge you are taking up, except if you are crazy 🙂 . And if you are not afraid, it means that your challenge is not ambitious enough! When you think about running 180km with 10km ascent, and that you are sweating like an animal on your first 10km training, it’s obvious. How are you going to make it? When you are in the middle of your preparation after a few months and facing the first injuries, you wonder if your determination is not turning into stubbornness.

It’s the same as an entrepreneur when you dream about changing the world and building a world leader unicorn while you are in your student room, with nothing more than a slideware (basically a powerpoint presentation). Or when you don’t succeed in making your first deals, or at convincing investors… Are you crazy? Should you definitively stop (and stop the pain)?

Your final destination needs to be clear, and it will be your motivation. Then taking action becomes simple, but you need a plan. You will need to focus everyday on the very next step and not be afraid of your destination. Lao Tse said that « A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step ». It’s so true. When I prepare an ultra trail, I cut my physical preparation into pieces for the 6 to 9 months until the race, and then I take each part one by one. I do the same during the race. And when it turns difficult (remember, shit happens all the time), you will just focus on the very next step. And it works, you will make it! (most of the time 🙂

6- It’s all about anticipation

So you have to build your plan until the race. And you have to give yourself the means to achieve your ambitions. You won’t have results without motivation of course, but also without assiduity. So you will train yourself physically, mentally, and technically, on a very regular basis. For an 100 Miles I usually build a training program over 6 months minimum, and dedicate 10 to 20 hours per week just for physical training. I read books about running. I watch videos of the race.

I also spend significant hours on the mental preparation. A few years ago I discovered the power of mental images to overcome difficulties. So I am now used to visualizing in advance the difficulties that I might face in order not to be surprise when it really occurs. But also to think about the positive feelings (like crossing the finish line) as a great motivation. I transposed it to entrepreneurship to prepare meetings or presentations for example.

As an entrepreneur I believe it is very important to stay in good shape, physically and mentally, in order to face challenges. When practicing high intensity activities, when pushing your limits, you will train yourself to strengthen your will, and your ability to « be willing ». You will become stronger, more reactive to difficulties, more perseverant, more calm and serene when facing adversity. You will perform. And you will become a better version of yourself.

Training early in the morning in my home Basken Country

7- Only you can walk the path

You are often alone in ultra trail, and you can rest only on yourself. No one but you will practice 15 hours per week during the next 6 months. No one but you will run the 180km and suffer the pain. No one but you will carry your 4kg bag (full of compulsory material) to the finish line. No one else will decide if you have to continue the race or if you should quit because you are too tired. And you can be afraid sometimes. You might feel lonely.

As an entrepreneur you can also feel really alone, and you are. You have to make the first step alone, you have to make the final decisions alone, you have to face you bad and good choices alone. You can rarely share your doubts and fears with your team, investors or partners, because you don’t want them to be afraid.

But guess what, you are afraid and it’s normal! Remember, you are facing the unknown and you are facing you. It’s a great adventure, the venture of your life.

8- (but) You will never walk alone

Of course you might feel lonely, but in fact you never are. As Liverpool’s fans say « You will never walk alone ». Running (not only ultra trail by the way) is creating a real social link with thousands of other runners, in digital life (look at sports social networks like Strava) but especially in real life. You start your race alone, but usually you finish with a group. It can be a group that you discovered during the race, or during the preparation at your club, with your friends that you convinced to join or help you for the race. I made some of my best friends while preparing and running crazy ultra-trails, and it’s a real present.

In addition, when you run, even if you are competing alone physically, you often have your friends and family members that join you at the start, during refreshments or at the finish line. They can give you an encouragement, a kiss or a hug, something familiar to eat, or a simple advice when you are not totally lucid. And even if they are not at the race physically, they send you tons of messages. Most of the time they are in your head so that you are never walking alone.

The entrepreneur might feel alone, but he/she is all the same not alone at all. Trailblazing his way to success he/she will meet great people, team members, investors, mentors, coaches, partners, competitors, … or even a lover. That’s what make entrepreneurship so powerful and so wonderful.

9- The journey is the destination

Starting an ultra-trail is falling in love with a destination. Racing around the Mont Blanc in 3 different countries with amazing breathtaking landscapes. Going from A to B in less than 35 hours. Finishing the most technical race in Corsica. But you have to love the journey, not just the destination. The famous cook Thierry Marx says « The stakes should not kill the game » : it means that when you find more inconvenience than pleasure, you have to stop. It means also that you have to find pleasure in your whole journey, even if it’s often very difficult.

It also means that even if you are in the performance, you have a responsibility. You have the responsibility to respect nature (by collecting the waste on the floor for example, like the champion François D’Haene during the UTMB even when leading the race with a small advance with the 2nd competitor) and respect the people around you (those who work in the mountain, but also volunteers for example).

As an entrepreneur I decided to turn my company into a benefit company (called « Entreprise à Mission » in France) with a clear mission: use all the resources we have – our tech, our voice, and our tribe – to inspire and implement solutions to social and environmental issues. We took 4 ambitious engagements, including providing our technology to organizations that positively impact the world, but also financial support to concrete initiatives. It’s a way for me to love the destination (build a worldwide leader and revolutionize the media industry) as well as the journey. We do not only exist to make profits, but also for a greater purpose.

10- We are phoenixes

So what happens when you cross the finish line?

Finally crossing the UTMB finish line

You are totally exhausted, you promise yourself never to do it again. And 24h later you usually register for a new more difficult race 🙂 In fact, in ultra trail like in entrepreneurship, there is no finish line. You always define new targets, new ambitions, new challenges.

It’s a way of life, always trying to do better. Living for permanent challenges. It’s what makes you achieve great things, things that others didn’t dare before. And even if you don’t succeed, you learn that failure is only temporary. You have to listen to your body, but whether you win or lose, you are learning. And it will always be better tomorrow as you will come back stronger.

In fact, we are all phoenixes, and that’s the magic of life !

So, did it convince you to start trail running your own life?

Publié dans: Entrepreneuriat

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