Wisdom//

What Running Has Taught Me About Entrepreneurship

Some days, it can feel like a marathon.

Courtesy of Tierney MJ / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Tierney MJ / Shutterstock

“I’m going to work so that it’s a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win.”

“The best pace is suicide pace, and today looks like a good day to die.”

Fellow distance runners will know that the above quotes are from Steve Prefontaine, but many others know neither the quotes nor the man. Last week, I traveled to both Portland, Oregon, where I visited friends at Nike Headquarters, and then onto Salt Lake City, Utah, where I took part in the Park City Trail Series 15K race. Both trips got me thinking about Pre, my favorite runner of all-time. 

Us distance runners, those of us who grew up running long miles on early mornings in small towns like Berea, South Carolina (where you’d pass seventeen churches on a six-mile run) or hot summer afternoons in Killeen, Texas, along barbed-wired fences where Army tanks rolled by Fort Hood, know that Pre didn’t even win the biggest race of his life. Pre didn’t get paid millions of dollars for reppin’ Nike a decade before Jordan made the brand famous. Pre didn’t even live to see his 25th birthday.

In the end, Pre lost the the ’72 Olympics 5,000 meter race in which he was the frontrunner during the final mile until a disappointing fourth-place finish down the stretch. Then, amidst training for the ’76 Olympics, he lost his life, in a car accident in which he didn’t even break a single bone.

But even after failing to medal in Munich, and even after death, Pre made it so that he won. His legacy remains in tact. Not just one of the greatest American distance runners who broke numerous Oregon high school, collegiate and national records, but as a man who has a Nike building named after him alongside the likes of Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm and Jerry Rice, a man who has had not one but two biopics made about him – one starring Oscar winner Jared Leto, the other written by the man behind Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible films.

What I’ve come to realize from reading and learning a lot about Pre was that winning wasn’t his pursuit. His true pursuit was giving his best, living with the regrets if necessary, and keeping his pursuit honest and effort-driven rather than talent or logic-driven. Because talent and logic win often (name the gold medalist in the 5,000 meters in this week’s World Championships?), but they don’t make legacies.

Did Pre have amazing talent? Sure, but so do dozens of other runners each year, especially in the hey-day of the early 70s when Americans were performing at a world-class level in middle distances. It reminds me of all the startups in Silicon Valley with founders from Google and Stanford. What Pre had went beyond talent and reason. His coach, Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman learned that early on once Pre arrived on the Oregon campus. He created conditions for himself, in races and in life, that others may have frowned upon, but definitely fueled him. Sometimes that meant front-running in the Olympics and running out of gas in the final straightaway. Sometimes that meant missing a record time because he spent too much energy early in the race to assert control over the pace. In every instance, Pre was out there to do his best, believing that to give anything less than his best was to waste the gift. Pre made his running a way of life more than a way of winning.

“A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected by in as many ways as they’re capable of understanding.”

I may never win an Olympic medal. I may never sell a company for $1 billion or even $100 million. But 4+ years in, much like Pre’s tenure at the the University of Oregon, I’ve learned that I have no match in a pure guts race of entrepreneurship. At this point, I can’t say I’ve seen or done it all (because I haven’t), but I know I’ve seen and done and grit my teeth and pushed a company through dozens of things not even my advisers can say they’ve done. Figuring out how to reach Localeur’s potential is something only I am equipped to do; I know because I’m doing it and no one else signed up to do this heavy lifting. Everyone else is running to win a medal, to get VC funding, to get a return, to get cool points, but I’ve got far more at stake if I give less than my best. My legacy won’t be as a CFO or a CTO or a head of sales, but as a founder-CEO. A black one in Texas, at that. Name another one. And I’m running this race both angry and happy knowing I’ve given this company the best chance to win by sticking to what got us here in the first place: mission-focused, authenticity-driven, hustler’s-mentality and grit-fueled.

I believe it takes a bit of anger for a person to succeed in spite of those who doubt your likelihood of success.

It takes vision to leave a six-figure job after you’ve just become the first person in your family to graduate from college to start a business with less than a 1% chance of success while living off your savings before you’ve even created an LLC.

It takes passion to build a community of people using and contributing to the betterment of your idea and product in dozens of cities around the world.

It takes savvy to navigate a company through 4.5 years knowing that confidence and belief in who you are as a black founder-CEO ebbs and flows like the stock market depending on what momentum you have to showcase.

It takes grit to pitch over 250 investors everywhere from San Francisco and Miami to London and Hong Kong and raise $3 million from 58 individuals, the majority of which are contributing $10,000 to $25,000 each, all the while reading about your competitors who’ve raised tens of millions only to flame out within a few years and then be invested in again by the same “pattern recognizing” and “I don’t see color/gender” VCs.

It takes perseverance to handle the exit of a co-founder, the buyout of ill-intent investors, the ebbs and flows of an industry you’ve in part shaped to the point of being emulated by an industry giant, and the death of a lead investor.

It takes conviction to do all this all the while knowing you’re being judged against founder-CEOs and startups who’ve only ever known life with the anticipation or certainty of institutional funding or a handful or dozens of engineers and sales staff to execute.

It takes authenticity to write these things knowing that for every like you get on Facebook, you’re going to get an eye roll from someone who reads something that isn’t on the page even though you’ve given them plenty of words on the page to decipher.

It takes guts to keep going even when you feel like you’re on an island, bearded, exhausted, starved and waving for help at folks on the cruise ship in the ocean who instead think you’re waving to say hello, debating with their friends on deck the merits of the island not based on the years you’ve toiled away on it alone, but the height and fruit bearing from the trees on the beach.

It takes a vill–err, it takes a team to remind me why this is all worth it; from my family and friends, to my co-workers and investors, to my advisers and supporters. I never for one second doubted your belief in this story even when you doubt the methods.

“I tell you one thing, I love every one of them…but there is a breaking point in each race when you wonder if all the sacrifice is really worth it. You think ‘why should I do this? I don’t have to run this hard.’ But that’s when I think about them. They keep me going.”

“Over the years, I’ve given myself thousands of reasons to keep running, but it always come back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement.”

Me too, Pre. Me too.

Originally published on LinkedIn.

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