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Completing An Ironman Prepared Me For Running A 340-Person Startup. Here’s How

Whether you’re training for a triathlon or running a business, you’ll run into dozens of situations where strategies overlap.


finishing an Ironman

In the summer of 2012, my husband Dave and I co-founded our startup, ThirdLove. 

But while we were preparing to make the entrepreneurial leap, we were also training to do an Ironman in upstate New York. And looking back on both experiences—and the journey associated with both—it’s hard to miss some of the parallels. 

Here’s what completing an Ironman taught me about leading a startup:

1. To succeed, you have to be crazy passionate.

I was competing in ‘regular’ triathlons before I did my Ironman—and I thought the Ironman people were insane. In fact, if you had told me a decade ago that I would do the race, I would never have believed you.

But the reality is that no one wakes up one day and works out for 13 hours straight. 

There’s a path to take—from sprint to Olympic, then on to a half-Ironman, and finally the real deal. You have to be a little crazy to get all the way there. You have to be passionate enough to train when you’re tired or hurting or just don’t feel like it

The Ironman race is similar to a startup in that respect. In both cases, you’re playing the long game, and you have to be able to hold onto your passion and determination as the months and years roll by. 

2. When times get tough, you have to put your head down and execute.

One month before the race, I injured my piriformis and had to cut back on training. 

I went to see a physical therapist, and together we created a plan for how I would finish the Ironman. I stopped running for the entire month beforehand and focused on staying fit by swimming and biking. I did stretches and rested my injured muscle as much as possible to give myself time to heal. 

But when my leg began acting up during the race—with 60 miles to bike and an entire marathon left to run—there was nothing to do but endure. It wasn’t easy to finish. At times during the marathon, I had to walk. But I had trained so hard for so long, and I knew I had to execute. Not finishing was not an option.

Founders need a similar mindset because every startup encounters adversity. Unforeseen problems and issues always arise. When that happens, you need to have the mental fortitude to stay focused on what’s driving you to succeed. 

You have to prove to yourself that you’re mentally tough enough to push forward and execute in the face of major challenges.

3. Testing strategies is the only way to figure out the right one.

Whether you’re training for a triathlon or running a business, you run into dozens of situations that require strategy.

For instance, triathletes have a term for what happens when your body suddenly shuts you down—it’s called “bonking.” When it happens, you feel like you literally can’t take another step.

Bonking is a result of taking in too few calories, but by the time you’re hungry, it’s already too late. So the key is to eat and drink at a steady pace. The problem is that everyone’s a little different, and it’s hard to know which foods and amounts will work best with your body chemistry.

The only way to figure it out is through testing, evaluating, and trying again. 

That’s the exact mentality every founder needs to have in regards to their startup’s strategy. You’re building something new and different, and it’s unlikely that anyone else’s formula will work perfectly for you. 

Try it one way, see what happens, and then make changes if you need to. It’s the only way you’ll find the strategy that works best for you.

4. Success is an individual journey, but a team effort. 

Completing an Ironman is an individual achievement, yet few people train for it alone. 

It doesn’t take long before you become close with your training partners when you’re spending 20-30 hours a week, running, biking, and swimming alongside them. Those relationships forged during intense training are deep and lasting, and the network you build along the way is one of the most rewarding aspects of doing an Ironman.

It’s a mirror image of the startup life, where people come together around a common goal and work to solve a difficult problem. Everyone has their own path to tread, but each individual is aiming toward the same overarching goal

The startup journey can be long and challenging, and it’s often filled with difficult moments. But much like an Ironman, the feeling when you cross the finish line is what makes it all worthwhile. 

This article originally appeared on Inc.

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Heidi Zak is the co-founder and co-CEO of ThirdLove. Prior to ThirdLove, Zak cut her teeth in retail at Aeropostale where she quickly rose to Director of the retail giant, launching and running the International Division, before becoming a marketing executive at Google. Zak holds an undergraduate degree in Economics from Duke University and an MBA from MIT Sloan. In her free time she loves spending time with her two kids. Heidi has been named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People, Goldman Sachs 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs, Business Insider's 30 Female-Founded Startups to Watch, and SF Business Times 40 Under 40. Follow her on Instagram: @Heidi.

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