Lessons Learned Running a 100 Mile Relay Race

Version 2

Seven years ago I took part in GE Training at their Crotonville, NY campus. Much of our time was dedicated to navigating corporate politics and developing large-scale, effective teams. According to the curriculum, building a functioning group could take months or even years. There are four levels in a team’s life cycle according to Bruce Tuckman’s model of group development: storming, storming, norming and performing. That is some unwieldy baggage if you need to get something done right now.

On the flipside you’ve got Minimum Viable Product (MVP),  a concept popularized by Eric Ries. The basic idea is to build a product quickly and inexpensively with just enough features to attract early adopters. As you add users you iterate and add to your product based on the feedback from customers. It’s all about immediacy, speed and agility.

In the years since I took that training it’s been fascinating to watch large corporations dump traditional business strategies, adopting MVP and Lean Startup principles. They’ve had to reinvent once-sacred processes in an effort to bring better products to market faster.

Last summer I took part in the 100 On 100 Relay, an epic day-long race. We had to come together as a team, run like hell for fourteen hours and survive a grueling endurance event. This meant embracing concepts from both Tuckman and Ries to get from one end of Vermont to the other.

screen-shot-2017-02-09-at-11-04-16-pm

We had a clear goal. Our team of six people had to run 100 miles along Vermont Highway 100 from Stowe to Okemo. The race organizers provided us with a map and first aid at transition points. Apart from that we were on our own. It was up to us to organize, delegate, hydrate and operate our minimally staffed running startup for one long day.

We organized. I only knew one teamate well. I had run a few times with another, but hadn’t seen him in eight years. Another I raced with once in 2006. Two members I had never met before that morning. I was going to spend the next fourteen hours packed into a car with them. We had to make it work.

We made decisions. We hadn’t chosen which legs to run prior to the race. Fifteen minutes before the start we picked our assignments consisting of three legs per person. Each runner was responsible for roughly seventeen or eighteen miles. One leg in the morning, one leg in the afternoon, one leg at night. Our first runner was off at 8:15am. The rest of us tumbled into the car. We formed immediately. You get pretty friendly pretty fast while sweating and farting in a crowded SUV packed with runners.

We acted immediately. There was no dithering or hesitation or non-performance. We each got a number. #1 was responsible for legs 1, 7 and 13. #2 was on the spot for 2, 8 and 14. And so on. When your number was up you took the fluorescent snap bracelet and started running. It was your job to get your ass and the snap bracelet five, six or seven miles down the road.

We found our roles. At first there was a bit of politeness and hesitation about who would drive or who would sit where. Pretty soon someone would grab the keys and go. Someone else would carry water to the runner. It was no longer about courtesy. Now, it was about doing our job and iterating as we went. Feedback was constant and fixes were put into place immediately.

We cooperated. We normed quickly. One of us would buy ice while another would check the map for our next transition spot. One would get water ready for the incoming runner while another would make sure our outgoing runner was ready. We acted on instinct and nobody slacked. Our organization was flat and everybody gave it everything they had.

We suffered and endured setbacks. The only storming came from external forces. We ran through soupy lung-sopping humidity. We endured a massive thunderstorm and got soaked. There were hills that crushed souls and hot open spaces that burned skin. We ran in the dark on a lonely highway with only reflective vests and headlamps to protect us from oncoming cars. Our only job was to get further down the road. I ran my first leg like I was racing a 10k and after three miles I crumbled in the heat like a house of cards. My pace dropped by two minutes per mile. I crawled up a final massive insult of a hill with my stomach gurgling, my spirit destroyed and my energy reserves gone. I still had another tow legs and twelve miles to cover. I would never make it. They would find me out.

We brought the best out of one another. While one runner put in mileage the rest would follow by car. The team was there every couple of miles with water, Gatorade, or whatever the runner needed. The cheering and encouragement from the support vehicle made all the difference. We even had cowbell! Plenty of cowbell.

cowbell

Our greatness combined transcended all our individual weaknesses and shortcomings. We were performing. I found the strength to head into my second leg. I had seven miles to race with nothing left. Left foot, right foot. The sandwich hollering in my gut was declaring its independence, yet I was determined to keep going. I gave everything I had to the team. Somehow, leg two was a vast improvement over leg one. By leg three I was done, but the spirit and unity of our group carried me forward. Without them I couldn’t have covered that final five miles in the dark on a meandering dirt road. I couldn’t let these people down. They were my team.

We succeeded. Together we ran 100 miles. One step at a time. One mile after another. Somewhere around 9:58pm our sixth runner climbed the last pummeling hill in the dark and crossed the finish line. We gathered around and hugged like we had known one another for years.

We celebrated. At the end there was beer for the drinkers and food for the eaters. After eighteen miles of running and fourteen hours of riding shotgun just about anything is gourmet fare. We destroyed piles of baked beans, pulled pork, hot dogs and fruit as if they were the greatest delicacies ever prepared.

What we had done in that day takes organizations forever to accomplish. We came together, bonded over a quest, faced countless challenges and made it across the finish line. We will never unite as a group again, but in one day we formed, stormed, normed and performed. We produced, iterated and pivoted like a well-tuned startup. In the end we slayed the goddamn dragon and went home happy.

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