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How running 40 miles on an injured leg in freezing rain made me more successful in business

This Salesforce VP and extreme ultramarathoner says “microchunking” the mission helped him push through the pain on some of the globe’s toughest terrain. The lessons learned are universal.

How running 40 miles on an injured leg in freezing rain made me more successful in business
[Photo: Joshua Sortino/Unsplash]
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As I tried to fall asleep in the pitch blackness of a mountain range in Iceland, I wished against all sense of reason for a miraculous recovery overnight. One of my legs was so badly injured that other people had had to lower me into my sleeping bag. I needed it to heal overnight.

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When I woke up, I knew no such miracle had transpired. The pain was as bad as ever. But there I was, midway on a journey called Racing the Planet, a 155 mile ultramarathon. I had 40 miles ahead of me that day, and would have to run much of it. There would be no pausing for more than 10 minutes, because a longer wait could allow hypothermia to set in.

Much of the terrain ahead was rough. Volcanic rock filled with sharp, jagged stones bigger than grapefruits.”

Much of the terrain ahead was rough. Volcanic rock filled with sharp, jagged stones bigger than grapefruits. Stretches of soft marsh that disguised holes into which your legs could fall at any time. That was how my leg got injured in the first place.

And on the steep hills, going down was sometimes as tough as going up. I had to strain my legs to keep myself balanced while running at a downward angle, or gravity and the momentum of my stride could make me topple and crash.

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I did not know that morning that the day’s weather would make it even worse—or that my headlamp would go out, leaving me in the dark for much of it.

I made it through. The tactics I used proved so powerful that when I came back home, I applied them to my work more intensely than ever, supercharging my productivity. I soon rose up the ranks, ultimately being named a vice president.

Microchunk your work

All sorts of tasks we face in our lives and our work can be overwhelming. And many people have found that if they separate those tasks into separate components and tackle one at a time, it seems less daunting. But some cases go far beyond this.

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Sometimes a task seems insurmountable, and even each piece of it can look too big. This is a common cause of stress in our work lives. In those cases, we need to break down our assignments into even smaller components. Think of them as microchunks.

On the mountains that day, I told myself to forget about the entire task ahead. Instead, I broke down everything into 5-minute increments. Anytime I found my mind drifting or focusing on the pain, I refocused on how far I was into the current 5-minute period. I knew I could make it “another few minutes.”

Adopt a crunch time mantra

Some companies have mantras signifying what they stand for. Some people have a mantra to help carry them through a year. But different situations call for different messages. And when it comes to crunch time—rolling out a product you’ve worked on for years, launching a risky new marketing campaign, rebranding your company—you need a specific message for the moment.

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For me that day in Iceland, the mantra was, “Trust your feet, trust your training.” By saying that to myself over and over, I kept reminding myself that I had prepared for this. That I knew more tricks of the trade than I was giving myself credit for. That pushing through pain, fear, and stress are all skills I had developed. That I had the capacity to achieve this.

Let your team fuel you

I had also developed friendships with a couple of other ultramarathon runners who were on this trek. And while we were each on our own physically, only meeting up at base camps at night, my desire to pull through for them helped a great deal.

We had committed to making it to the end. As long as I wasn’t doing any permanent damage to my body, I told myself, I was going to make it. When we saw each other each night, we gave each other the encouragement to go on. They gave me encouragement that morning before we began our run for the day. It helped fuel me.

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Let your team do this for you. Remind yourself that they’re counting on you just as you count on them. That summoning energy, strength and courage is part of teamwork. And that when you need it, you can reach out to them for moral support.

At 1 a.m. that night I made it to the final rest stop before our last day. The next morning, with a much shorter stretch in front of us, someone lent me his poles and I mostly walked, quite slowly, until finally crossing that finish line. 

The rankings show that I came in 184th out of about 250 people. But that was fine by me. I had learned so much. I could go beyond what I thought my limits were and not give up. Commitment and camaraderie can lead to life changing results. And a well deserved rest is the best kind.

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Colin Nanka is Vice President, Global Sales Leader Coaching at Salesforce.com. His mini-documentary about another Racing the Planet adventure is available on OutsideTV.