Going the distance

Leadership  Learning
15 August, 2016

Leadership and life lessons from a marathon runner’s journey

152 days down the road, on January 15, 2017, over 40,000 people will be running the Mumbai marathon. Those of you who run regularly, will vouch for the fact that this is much more than just a race. Each person running it has their own story, one that has probably started much before the actual race. Many of them have been training for months.

So, I am very pleased that Sunita Devrani has agreed to write this week’s message. Sunita, as you know, leads Leadership Sourcing for GILAC. In this message, she shares her story on running the marathon and how it has shaped her as an individual. Please read on…

This year I am taking the big plunge of running the full marathon – all of 42.195 Km – at the age of 45. Phew.

Being from an armed forces family and having been part of the first batch of lady army officers, I love new challenges. As an army officer, you lead by example. You have to be bloody fit to lead your troops in peace and war. I started running as a way to stay active and fit, and compete. Before I started running, I played active sports like tennis and badminton. I continue playing basketball on most Saturdays with an enthusiastic group of parents at the Oberoi International School in Mumbai.

For me fitness is like breathing. As the mom of two teenage girls, I am hoping to give them someone to emulate and be inspired by. Running also empowers you. You feel strong and bold, which is a good way for girls to grow up feeling.

It’s that time of the year again when people prepare themselves to register for the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon in January. The thousands of people who will participate in the marathon all have different reasons for doing so, but their goal is still the same. In my case, my husband started running the marathon and I just couldn’t only stand by, clapping and cheering. Domestic competitiveness helped! But to this day, he inspires me with his determination and resolve.

7 half marathons and over 3 years later, as I look back, I realise that running has definitely changed me. Many of you who run will probably feel the same way.

The 18 Km pushes you to keep moving, talk to yourself, maintain hope, just keep moving, give it all you have, keep moving, pain is monetary but PB (Personal Best timing) is forever, so keep moving, you can do it, keep moving. Running has transformed my perspective towards life, work, family and the ups and downs of it. It has added a great new length and breadth to my personal journey. A hard, uphill 21 Km run makes many things at work and home seem small and conquerable. The immense health benefit is a superb upside too.

Today, I want to share with you some of my biggest learnings – and hopefully inspire more of you to start your own journeys:

1. Dream big

Believe in yourself. And decide that you will make this happen. While you’re at it, don’t focus on your current state of readiness. Dream and plan big – perhaps even outrageously. Work with a possibly mindset; an “I can” attitude. Your body is capable of more than you can imagine. Running is simply getting up and putting one foot in front of the other, in pursuit of a goal. When you complete a run and remember where you started from, you are so damn proud. You also begin to see potential in everyone. At the start of my running journey, a 2 Km run would tire me out. Now, I have dared to register for 42! The question is not can you, it’s will you.

2. Be humble

It’s interesting how running ingrains humility in you. During a long run at Borivali National Park, when I was finishing my 12 Km and feeling proud, another runner crossed me. He asked if it was my first round. Yes. I asked him the same. He said third, which means he had finished over 25 Km. That completely changed my perspective. I was so humbled.

3. Get motivated

Marathon running is one sport where people who are better than you, motivate you. They give you a runner’s smile, the unsaid ‘You can do it’. Then, run past you, all the while making your performance better without pushing you. In organisations, when we hire superior talent from outside, we uplift the performance of everyone else. You see them and feel inspired. Your competitor isn’t the person beside you; it’s the person inside you! My neighbour, Dr. Sonali, who now runs 4-5 half marathons a year, started running casually with me a year back. We also have a runners group in our society. The mutual encouragement is very motivating.

4. Things don’t always go as planned

My close running buddy, Manju, practiced hard. She couldn’t however do well in the marathon due to bad cramps. The next year, she had a fall in the last 3 Km. My husband couldn’t run his first full marathon, for which he had practiced hard for 6 months, because he lost his younger brother 3 days before the run. Many times, things don’t go as planned. However, the ability to accept them and get going again, gets ingrained in runners. In leadership parlance, it conditions you to handle unexpected tough times. We may fail, but it’s okay. No matter what the loss is, we could put it in perspective. There will be another run, a new day, right? Left foot, right foot. Repeat.

5. Don’t quit

Running and preparing for a marathon reminds you that we all have that little bit left, even when we are ready to give up. We could benefit greatly by going on. Take a few slow steps, walk if you have to in between, slow down your pace… but don’t quit. We will get there…! Preparing for a marathon also teaches you to be disciplined, train well and be consistent. The final run shows you the relationship between effort and result. Shortcuts in training will show up in your timing. My husband is a methodical runner. He has a printed daily schedule for next 3 months. I am an intuitive runner. And it clearly shows in our results 🙂

6. Start more conversations

On a lighter note, running creates great bonding and often gives you a conversation starter. I chat often with Sanjeet Gujral, a superb runner and my colleague at Corporate HR, about our preparation levels. Jishnu Batabyal, from the Strategy team, who started running recently and is doing fabulously well, Sunil Kataria and Parveen Dalal from GCPL, Salma Majeed, LOUD winner, who is now preparing for the TCS Amsterdam marathon, Prakash B also from Corporate HR – these are all people I regularly connect with.

In fact, it’s also a great topic during a business development meeting. If your client is a runner too, you know you’re going to get the sale done. You meet a runner at some conference and it’s like an aha moment; old friends chatting. In fact, a team of four of us at Corporate HR are planning the 100 Km, Oxfam Trailwalker, in December. Running does this to you.

7. Find the time

Many people say that they don’t run because they don’t or can’t find the time. I can relate to that, being a full time working mom of 3 full-time kids (17 to 7) and a full-time husband, and living an hour away from office. It can’t get better! To top it all, you finish a long run and come home and your kids ask – “What’s for breakfast?”! Grrr. I’m often tempted to shelve my running. However, if you really want it, you find the time. I’m now looking forward to the gym opening at Godrej One, where we can do our weight training. Most meetings may now happen on the treadmill…

8. Run for whatever it offers

PB, or your Personal Best time is a runner’s pride. I haven’t managed to do well there. In fact, over the years, my timing has worsened. However, now I run for whatever it offers – PB, adrenaline rush, scenery, challenge, travel, adventure, FB update, selfie, Milind Soman…

9. Take breaks

There is a Don Williams song that strikes a chord with me – “There is a time for love, time for letting go”. Train hard and push yourself, but know when it’s time to take rest, recoup, get downtime, because breaks are important too. Listen to your body’s instincts.

I would conclude by saying, run if you can – it’s adrenaline meditation. Take out those old running shoes and give them a chance. If not, walk, pick up weights, dance, do yoga, pilates, zumba, cycle… whatever suits you. At Corporate HR, we have kept three sets of dumbbells in our office and plan on using them during breaks at work.

You will do yourself a world of good, if you insert any form of exercise into your routine. It will improve your emotional health and cognitive abilities (many companies check for it during their selection processes). And your outlook on life will be incorrigibly positive. Running has taught me that I’m capable of so much more than I ever imagined and so are others. Your morning run is the in-between space between yesterday’s forgotten problems and today’s wonderful possibilities. So, go ahead and give it a try. The marathon registrations are on. Take the first step.

A big thank you to Sunita for this very inspiring message.

Committing to running or playing a game more regularly, is, as she points out, about much more than just the sport. It’s also very much about endurance – your ability to consistently carve out that time, stick to a routine and push yourself to raise your personal bar, over and over again.

The same things that make you a good leader. And that’s not counting great sportsmanship, teamwork, coping with failure and the drive to win. As Jesse Owens, American track and field athlete and Olympic gold medalist put it, “We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.”

So, if you haven’t already give it a shot, why not try now? Many of you, like Sunita, are enthusiastic sportspersons too and will have your own learnings to share. I look forward to hearing from you.


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