4 Insights From A 2400 km Ultra to Help With Everyday Leadership and Self-Management
Updated: Jan 13
“There are no impossible goals, perhaps just timelines that are too tight,” Mike Osmond, a Palo Alto -based seasoned triathlon coach said to me during our meeting at a local bike shop.
I had just told Mike about my plan to run 2400 kilometers (1500 miles) across the length of both islands of New Zealand and train for my first full Ironman triathlon while at it. This dream which at first seemed nothing short of an actual impossibility, became a reality in 2018.
I finished my 2408 km journey (with bicycling included due to injury) in 50 days while hosting 15 community events along the way. The served to launch my new nonprofit Sisu Not Silence—a movement to break the silence around abusive cultures of family violence and draw attention to the scientifically proven power of compassion—and also to engage me in in-depth research for my PhD dissertation exploring the human experience of inner strength (what the Finns have for centuries known as sisu). I also completed the Ironman at Lake Taupo in preparation for the run.
One of our events in Wanaka on January 23rd. By that time, I had run for 6 days completing 300 kilometers. On my right side is the wonderful Mina Holder who took care of my crewing the whole trip. Photo by Nadine Cagney.
While there are books worth of learnings to share from this journey, here I present four insights that have been most helpful to me after the run and which seem to translate to many of the real-life challenges around everyday leadership (be it that you are a CEO, team leader, or a parent). My wish is that they also remind you of your own life learnings and help navigate the uncertain times we are currently facing.
1. Pace yourself when you race yourself
Pacing is a principle I learned during a 230 km training run with ultrarunner and COO of Hintsa Performance Annastiina Hintsa—and I think it saved my run. Already a seasoned ultrarunner, Annastiina was adamant about walking all uphills. When I was raising my eyebrow at her, she gave me the patient look of an old sage and explained: “I know you are feeling all eager to go fast. However, when you have to be on your feet for a long time—and you will be on your feet for a veeery long time, Emilia,” she was deliberately stretching the e to make a point, “it makes absolutely no sense to waste energy by fighting gravity.”
Whether a self-chosen uphill to see what we are made of or one of the many unexpected trials and tribulations life hands us, we can increase our chances of success—and to succeed with less damage to ourselves—when we are wise enough momentarily slow down. This means to pay extra attention to rest, recovery and reconnecting with people who care about you. It means to honestly assess your energy reserves, focus on what matters, drop some stuff from your to-do list and return to it later. We might want to distance from others when things get tough, but research shows the tremendous benefit of social support. Benefits include stress relief, increased perception of control over events, decreased health threatening behaviors such as substance abuse, fewer illnesses, and a longer lifespan. We can do (almost) anything but not everything.
Running 230 km from Helsinki to Turku with Annastiina Hintsa (on the right).
2. Honor your body
Be conscious to approach any challenge and life bump in your leadership journey with compassion and awareness. Check-in with yourself daily by including a moment for meditation and make time to find stillness in your evening time. Attune to your body and be conscious to not to let yourself slide into an autopilot mode.
One of the differences between a flow state and an autopilot is that in flow we are aware of what we are doing, we take charge and craft our story consciously and with presence. When we switch to mental autopilot, life and events are happening to us, instead of us happening to life. We become passively engaged and less likely to notice the subtle changes in our body, energy, or environment that would require us to adjust our direction, update our pace, and care for ourselves so that we can achieve the best results. On autopilot, we are prone to react (instead of acting from a place of consideration and good judgment) and lose our composure instead of moving from a grounded place within us.
Explore what kind of a dialogue i.e. two-way connection might you create with your body, and how might you use this knowledge to know when to push hard and when to slow down during tough time periods. To be able to tell the difference between the two and know our limits is perhaps one of the hardest lessons to master, but it’s also one of the major keys there are to experiencing more balance, harmony, and lead from a place of gentle power.
3. Trust the process and expect to find a second wind
In any grand journey, there are at least two key moments. The first one is the beginning. While the mind is abundant with ideas, turning them to action by taking the first step can be hard — it took me 16 years to finally commit to train for the Ironman, so I dare to say I know what procrastination is. The second key moment happens somewhere in the heat of the process. It occurs usually when we have been doing something for a long time and feel we have come to the edge of our mental or physical capacities. Just like in a marathon, where most people report ‘hitting a wall’ and yet pretty much all of them finish the race, in life we hit all kinds of obstacles and experience what seems to be a deadend.
However, what people also report, and what seems to be of our most defining human qualities, is that we have dormant, untapped, and hidden energy within us waiting to be released. An extra reserve of energy that we can’t really unlock unless the situation calls for it. Adversity, significant challenges, and fatigue seem to act as a pathway to sisu. We are much stronger than we generally think, but we’ll never know how strong, unless we say ‘yes’ to things that test us. During the run I learned that the smallest unit of sisu is sometimes one single step, breath, or a heartbeat. Sometimes it’s all we have, and it’s enough.
Barriers into frontiers was one my mantras for the run across New Zealand.
Photo by Nadine Cagney.
4. Seek not only to succeed, but to succeed gracefully
View all your work, encounters, and each challenge you face as something that can help you become a more emotionally intelligent, strong, and upright leader. Working smart is better than working hard and finding purpose in not just the ‘what’ or even ‘why’ of what you do, but in ‘how’ anything is done will allow you to do something that you can be proud of. What do you want to feel when you look back from the finish line? Did you run a good race and honor yourself and others? When we do things with grace and aim for excellence in being human, our story is bound to be a success story even though we occasionally fail to reach what we set out to reach.
One way to prepare for this is to ask yourself what does real success look like? Then write down what does gracefulness mean to you, and finally, write down what does it mean to succeed gracefully?
I asked this question from myself in New Zealand to understand what kind of mindset, attitude, value-base, and even way of moving my body will allow me to tell a strong yet gentle story and look back with contentment. To say that I didn’t just complete my run at any cost but that I did it with balance and self-respect. I believe this kind of approach not only paves a way for greater future challenges, but as we go on about our journeys from integrity, it allows us to grow internally with each tribulation transformed into triumph.
Emilia Lahti (MSc, MAPP) is the Founder and creator of Sisu Lab that integrates healthy sisu and gentle power to the everyday practices of conscious leaders and their teams. In her Ph.D., she pioneers the research on the ancient Finnish construct of sisu that denotes courage in the face of adversity and the ability of humans to tap into hidden strength.
As part of her social action initiative called Sisu Not Silence that focuses on nonviolence and unlocking human potential through psychological safety, along with her personal quest to research human spirit, she completed a 2400km/50-day run/bike journey across the length of New Zealand.
You can read more about Emilia’s work or book her for a talk at www.sisulab.com.