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Is the Ironman the Entrepreneur's Ultimate Test?

Your chances of meeting an Ironman finisher walking down the street are about 1 in 1,000. Get a bunch of entrepreneurs in a room, and they're much higher.
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Have you ever noticed the disproportionate number of successful entrepreneurs who have completed an Ironman triathlon?

I don’t have hard data, but it seems strange that everywhere I turn in entrepreneurial circles, there’s another Ironman. Last week I had drinks with fellow Entrepreneurs’ Organization member David Rich, and we talked about his last Ironman race. The next day, I met a Scandinavian who runs a coaching business in Vienna and is training for Ironman Austria at the end of June. Then I happened to read the bio of Scott Shewerty, founder of Nashville-based Ethos3, and … you guessed it … an Ironman.

Back-of-the-napkin math: are you 1 in 1000?

Annually, there are eight Ironman races in the United States, with an average of roughly 2,000 finishers. That means there are approximately 16,000 Ironmen and women each year. So over 25 years (the race has been around since 1978 but did not reach mass popularity until the late 1980s), that’s about 400,000 finishers. Yes, there are people who complete more than one, and yes, there are people who come from all around the world to race in the U.S., but let’s stick with 400,000 finishers for fun. That means the chances of finding an Ironman walking down the street in the U.S., which has a population of 313 million, is about one in a thousand.

In my Entrepreneurs’ Organization forum of seven entrepreneurs, we have one Ironman finisher, another training for an Ironman next year, and two marathon finishers.  I bet you there are 50 Ironman finishers on the Inc 500 list. There’s even a company that was created to cater to the growing demand of entrepreneurs who want to test their mettle. It’s called “CEO Ironman Challenge” and bills itself as a race within the race for CEOs and company presidents. Not to be outdone, the official organizers of Ironman triathlon also created an event called The Ironman Executive Challenge, or ‘XC,’ for short.

Why are all of these entrepreneurs training for a race that includes a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile bike ride capped off by a full marathon? Here are four reasons the Ironman attracts so many entrepreneurs:

Proving someone wrong

People who think creating a business is about making a lot of money have it wrong. I think most entrepreneurs do it to prove something to somebody. You might be trying to prove something to an old boss or a parent, or maybe just to yourself. Likewise, running a marathon after a 100+-mile bike ride and an open water swim requires an intrinsic drive that comes from being just a little bit angry at something or somebody.

Money helps

Triathlon is a ridiculously expensive sport. Like starting a business, it will probably cost you twice as much as you budgeted. There are the carbon Zipp wheels for your bike that will cost you $3,000 - the bike itself costs extra. Then there’s getting to the race and coughing up the entry fee. When your training runs are three hours long, even the energy bars and gels at $3 a pop tend to add up.

Time

You need roughly 20 hours a week to train for a full Ironman, so it helps if you don’t need to answer to anyone when you leave for a 70-mile ride at two o’clock in the afternoon.

The ultimate mental test

I completed an Ironman back in 1993. Most people warned me the marathon would be the hardest part, but I reached my nadir at mile 40 of the bicycle section. We had just come over the Richter pass in the mountains of British Columbia when we took a 180-degree turn north to ride up the valley back to the town of Penticton. As soon as my bike made the turn, I could tell the next 70 miles were going to be torture, as I was assaulted by a wall of wind hitting me head on.  My confidence melted away and I questioned how I could possibly ride another four hours directly into the storm - then run a marathon. Grinding it out up that valley was the most mentally challenging thing I’ve ever done, but I draw on that experience today when things go wrong in business or life.

With triathlon, as in entrepreneurship, we seek out these challenges because they are hard - not in spite of the difficulty. Somehow, we feel just a little more alive when we’re pushing the limits of what is possible.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Jun 20, 2013

JOHN WARRILLOW | Columnist | Sellability

John Warrillow is the author of Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You and the founder of The Sellability Score, a cloud-based software company that helps business owners improve the value of their company.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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