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  • Writer's picturePeterMax

Leadership Lessons from the Miwok 100K

Miwok 100K Race San Francisco

The Miwok 100K (62.137 miles) is one of the most scenic ultra-marathons courses with amazing views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, Mt. Tamalpais, and ocean views along the Point Reyes National Seashore. The race begins and ends at Stinson Beach. With spectacular views and amazing vegetation, it is easy to overlook a major challenge of a cumulative elevation gain of 11,800 feet.

I have observed leadership qualities of several ultra-trail runners, Ironman triathletes, and ultra-distance cyclists, prior to this year’s Miwok 100K and have been intrigued by ultra-athlete leadership qualities they display. I was able to spend a good part of a beautiful afternoon at the finish line, in Stinson beach, and have more leadership observations from a group of very elite athletes. I offer the following observed leadership lessons, from the Miwok 100K, May 4, 2019, that reinforce often published leadership characteristics. 

Leaders are Strategically Prepared

Like many organizational endeavors, there is much more than distance, in getting from point “A” to point “B”. Strategic planning is preparing contingencies for as many problems that can be imagined. That leaves “thinking” room for the surprise problems that inevitably happen. The ultra-athletes train hard and long to prepare for the race. On race day, regardless of contingency requirements of weather, terrain, injury, etc., these athletes were ready to implement their strategies. Simply put, the strategy is be aware of where you are, constantly know the time to and from each checkpoint location, progress against your plan, constantly assess your speed and your energy reserves, to cover the remaining distance without energy to spare.

Leaders Recruit Great Teams

The top four finishers gave appreciative credit to their teams. I can speak to my son Greg Miller’s team specifically. His wife Lauren, a knowledgeable and talented (rowing) athlete and educator extraordinaire, spent a solid 12-hour day getting Greg’s nutritional fuel and gear organized in place at each of the checkpoint locations. Greg attributes his short stops to the careful organization and precision in having the appropriate resources arranged for quick access. With 13 miles left, runners can be joined by a “pacer”. For Greg, this was Sarah Burke, an elite running champion who holds an ultra-course record and is a good “pusher” as well as a pacer. Greg had confidence in himself and confidence in his team., allowing him to focus on running the course! He assembled a great team!

Leaders are Accountable

Overall, champions are highly accountable to themselves, their training, and their goals. They study and analyze their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) without a manager telling them what they must do. They know exactly what it takes to meet their goals. I witnessed one of the most important leadership traits of accountability at the Miwok 100K. The second-place finisher, Eli White, who crossed the line in 9:20:28, led most of the race and was a solid 20 minutes ahead of the entire field, when he missed a trail marker and lost all his time advantage (and picked up a few extra miles). At the finish, the race director started to apologize for a “hard to see” trail marker. Eli quickly interrupted her and said “no – it was totally my fault – I missed it and should have been looking for it”. He went on to congratulate the first-place winner, Christopher Concannon, at 9:18:20. Chris tried to apologize for winning due to the missed marker by Eli. Again, Eli assured everyone that he was “accountable” and there was no one, or thing, to blame but himself. The next finishers, Loren Baker 9:23:38 came in third, and Greg Miller was 4th at 9:45:11. All four are amazing athletes, accountable for their finish time, and gave deserving credit to their teams. Great leadership accountability, gentlemen!

Leaders Develop High EQ

I had the pleasure of speaking with each of the top four. There was a profound commonality of confidence and humbleness. Greg has told me, that one thing he enjoyed most about the sport, is that he often meets and has conversations with the world’s top athletes. I had to remind him that a chief reason is that he is one of the world’s top athletes! They are all educated and have amazing knowledge of their athletic capabilities, sustainability, and training techniques. They constantly learn the nuances of the physical and mental limits they pursue. It was a pleasure to speak with the top four. They were articulate, accommodating, congratulatory to everyone and sincerely humble about their experience. They all actively listened to advice from other runners.

 Leaders Run the Course: the Course Does Not Run Them

The Miwok 100K is a tough course! However, the first four finishers spoke of the beautiful scenery, high above the rocky pacific coast, the “perfect weather” and the overall conditions of the course. I was reminded of a conversation, a mere two weeks prior, with a colleague, about the importance of training and coaching young managers to run their schedules as opposed to letting their schedules run them. The leaders of ultra-running, run the course; they do not let the course run them. A couple individuals were forced to drop out of the race early, due to injuries and illness. I do not fault them at all, as everyone has a bad day, regardless of preparations. However, they spoke of the steepness of the hills and the overall toughness of the course, as opposed to the scenic beauty and enjoyment of the course.   While experiencing a legitimate “bad day”, the course ran them.

Leaders Inspire

Waiting at the finish line, the atmosphere of anticipation steadily grew as the small crowd checked the runners’ progress on a computer screen. Before any of the finishers arrived, people were talking about their next races, how they are going to get in shape, start running, etc. The atmosphere was inspiring because the ultra-runners are inspiring! One does not have to “stretch” to be inspired by the dedication to training, and the sheer attempt and victory over an athletic event that common sense says, “100K up and down mountain trails? No way!”! I find all the leadership traits, I observed, to be highly inspiring. In fact, I needed to express it by writing about the experience!

Leaders Let Others Lead

The Miwok 100K first four finishers offered coaching to each other. It was not “one ups-man-ship”, but a genuine interest in learning from each others' leadership. Great leaders have others lead. With 13 miles left, runners are permitted to be joined by their chosen “pacer”. The ultra-runner gives up his/her leadership as they can only concentrate on running. The energy to monitor pace, hydration, nourishment, and trail markers, is gone! Great leaders choose great leaders to take over and give support. There are also great leaders that step down from the obvious leadership role to take a supportive role, for the success of the team. Sarah Burke, a talented young champion, is such a leader and was Greg’s pacer. Sarah is an honors graduate of Columbia University and is now an Ultra Distance trail runner, and cyclist. An integral part of the team, she executed her responsibility of coaching Greg to the finish. While she was doing that, she also gave assistance and forceful encouraging words to a runner that lost his footing. Sarah instinctively knows how to lead and more importantly, knows how and when to support a leader, through her leadership.

It is always intriguing to see leadership traits, in practice, in a variety of settings. More intriguing is the transferable nature to other settings. Leadership skills, regardless of the situation, organization, or setting, are valuable and necessary for individuals, small teams and large corporate teams to achieve "champion status".

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