Adaptability Is Crucial in Business and In Racing

Anyone who knows me well would probably classify me as an obsessive planner, and I wouldn’t disagree. As a public relations consultant and a personal fitness trainer, I understand the importance of proper planning. A well thought out and executed plan can mean the difference between success and failure. However, unforeseen circumstances that you cannot possibly plan for can arise. When that happens in business and in racing, the key to success is being responsive and adaptable.

The Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) is the third most popular race in the nation and the tenth most popular race in the world. It’s been on my dream list since I took up running seven years ago. Getting into the race is not easy. It sold out last year in less than three hours and many people were disappointed. I knew this year would be no different and it would likely sell out even faster.

Earlier this year, I found out that MCM would be one of the races for the Runner’s World Challenge. That meant registration for the MCM Challenge would be two days prior to open registration for MCM. I have done three Challenge races, and they were all fabulous experiences. Nobody spoils runners like Runner’s World. And knowing that I could hopefully secure my registration prior to tens of thousands of runners trying to register during open registration was an additional bonus. As soon as the MCM Challenge registration opened, I was online and submitting my information. A few minutes later, I had secured my MCM spot. Knowing that in two days, 30,000 people would have their registration secured, I thought planning ahead would be wise. I booked my flight and did my research on which hotels were closest to the start and the finish. The race start and finish are about two miles apart, so I needed to pick which one I wanted to be closer to on race day. I chose a hotel closer to the starting line and booked it because it was also across from a Metro stop. I knew from being in DC before, a car was not necessary because you could get just about anywhere you wanted to go via the Metro or on foot. By 5pm that evening, I had also researched restaurants, what was on their menus and made dinner reservations for each night I’d be in DC. I was set. With all the logistical details handled, I could focus on my training plan.

I have a number of friends that have run MCM and raved about this race. All of them gave me the same advice. They said, “Don’t run this race for a PR (personal record.) Take your time and experience every mile of this incredible race and course.”

So, with that trusted advice, my training plan was not designed for speed, but for endurance. While I did my usual hill and speed runs, my long runs were done at a slower, relaxed pace that would be similar to my race pace. I expected to finish the race in five hours to five hours and 15 minutes, which means I would average an 11:30 to 12 minute mile pace for 26.2 miles. I felt that pace would let me see all the landmarks on this course and also experience the many moving and emotional aspects of the race.

Everything was going as planned until October 1 when the government shutdown began. Keep in mind that a majority of the MCM course goes by or through parks, monuments and other facilities that were closed due to the shutdown. The race wasn’t until October 27. I was optimistic that the government would have this matter settled long before then. A week passed, then two weeks passed and there was no end in sight. Then I woke up on October 15 to see the following post on MCM’s Facebook page:

Dear Runners,
Since the government shutdown occurred, the Marine Corps Marathon continues its coordination with hopes of a conclusion in time to host the event without impact. Without a resolution to the government shutdown this week, the MCM as planned is in jeopardy of being cancelled.
While still considering and exploring all possible options, the MCM has targeted this Saturday, October 19 as the date to officially notify runners of the status of the event. It is sincerely the hope of everyone associated with the organization of this event that MCM participants can run as planned.
When I read this, I felt sick to my stomach. Runners often think about their race being derailed by an injury, illness or transportation issues such as bad weather cancelling flights, but we never imagined the government could potentially cause our race to be cancelled.

This was an unforeseen circumstance that nobody could have planned for…not the MCM race director and staff, not the Marines, not the MCM volunteers and not the MCM runners. All we could do was hope that things would be reopened by October 19.

All I could think about after reading that post was all the people who had worked so hard to make the 38th Marine Corps Marathon a reality on October 27. That group included the race director, race staff, civilian volunteers and crowds of spectators that were planning to come out and support the runners. The most heartbreaking group was the Marines who view volunteering at this race an honor. And, of course, there were 30,000 runners who had been training for months and their families who were looking forward to celebrating “Mission Accomplished” when their loved ones crossed the finish line.

On October 16, I pulled an all-nighter. I stayed up watching the news to see if Federal lawmakers would come to an agreement to end the shutdown and “kick the can” down the road again. They did.

On October 17, my training plan called for a 5 mile run at an easy, relaxed pace. I headed out the door as I had for the last four months to carry out my plan in the spirit of the Marine Corps motto, Semper Fidelis…Latin for Always Faithful or Always Loyal. I was being faithful and loyal to my plan and hoping to hear good news upon my return from my run.

When I got back home, I checked the MCM Facebook page. A video entitled “We’re So On!” had just been posted. I watched it with joy and was sure I could hear the thunderous voices of 30,000 runners and everyone associated with the MCM shouting “Oorah” at the top of their lungs.

Now, there were just a few more training runs left and then it would be time to pack for the race. I had my packing list that I have used for several years so that I don’t forget anything I might need. My strategy when packing for a race is over pack vs. under pack. The best plan is to have everything you could need on race day because weather conditions can change quickly and that can impact what you wear, how you hydrate and fuel and ultimately how your race unfolds.

My friend and I left for Washington, DC on October 24. Everything went according to plan. The flight departed and arrived on time. Hotel check-in was quick and flawless and the microwave and refrigerator I’d ordered were waiting for me in the room. I headed to the grocery store that was a quarter mile from the hotel (another reason I chose this hotel ) to buy the food I eat each day for breakfast prior to a race because I know this particular breakfast fuels me well and doesn’t upset my stomach. Next we went to the Metro station to buy a Metro pass and headed into the city for dinner. Our table was ready and waiting. So far, everything was going as planned.

The next day, we ate breakfast, got directions at the hotel for dinner that night and took the Metro to the packet pick up location to arrive as soon as the Expo opened at 10am. Because we were with the Runner’s World Challenge, we were able to bypass the very long lines to get our race bibs, participant shirts and drop bags. The Challenge booth had all of that ready for us when we arrived. While at the Challenge booth, we got directions on how to get to the starting line from our hotel. We were told we could walk or take the Metro, but since you have 30,000 runners and their families all trying to get to the same place, it was recommended that we walk to the starting line and skip the Metro. There is nothing more stressful to me than not knowing where you need to be on race day. So, my friend and I took our race bags back to the hotel, grabbed a high carb lunch and headed out to find the starting line area.

We had the hand drawn map that we’d gotten from one of the Runner’s World staff members and followed it. Everything was going as planned until I stepped down on uneven ground and felt an old foot injury rear its ugly head. I hadn’t felt that shooting pain in my foot in quite some time, but I knew what it was immediately. We finished our journey to find the starting area and then headed back to the hotel. I put my foot on ice, elevated and rested it until we left for dinner. Dinner was a bit of a walk from the Metro stop, but my foot felt better after icing it. I thought it was going to be fine. We walked back to the Metro after dinner and when I took off my shoes at the hotel, my foot was sore and I repeated the procedure…ice, elevate and rest. As a personal trainer, I know this is the best thing I could do for the grumpy foot. Saturday, my friend went sightseeing. I chose to rest my foot and continue to ice and elevate it.

On race morning, I woke up, had my usual breakfast and got dressed so that we could walk over to the starting line. The race staff and Runner’s World staff recommended you arrive two hours prior to the race starting to get through security. My foot was sore on race morning, but not painful. I ran an ultra marathon with this same foot injury two years ago, so I knew it could be done. Because the injury is a deep muscle pull, I knew I was at no risk of causing permanent damage, so I was ready to take on the 26.2 miles ahead of me no matter how painful it became.

Another nice thing about the Challenge is that we had our own private tent with tables and chairs. That was a blessing! I knew I wouldn’t be standing on my feet for a couple of hours prior to the race. Being able to rest and elevate my foot really helped.

The race started just before 8am, so around 7:30am, we started walking towards the starting line so we could get in our corrals. The corrals are set up by estimated finishing times. While I had anticipated a 5 hour finishing time, I got into the 4:30 to 5 hour finishing time corral. The reason for this part of my plan is that I know from previous races that the first few miles are very slow due to the crowds and you’re not going to be running that pace until people start to settle into their pace and either surge ahead or drop back. I found I was in the right spot once we started running. I was running between an 11:15 and 11:30 minute/mile pace, which was about right. While running a negative split is ideal (you run your first half of the marathon slower than your second half), I knew that wasn’t likely with my sore foot.
MCM has time limits and there are two check points you must pass before a certain time or you will not be allowed to officially finish the race and you don’t receive a finisher’s medal. One check point, known as the Gauntlet, is at mile 17.5. The other check point at mile 20 is called Beat the Bridge. My plan was to run fast enough that if my foot started to hurt worse as the race progressed, I’d be past the bridge long before the time cut-off so I wouldn’t be in jeopardy of being pulled from the course and not finishing. That would be an unacceptable outcome.

I ran my plan and truly understood why my friends said to take my time and really look around on the course. There were so many things to see. The course begins in Virginia on Route 110 between Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon. You run through beautiful Georgetown with its elegant architecture and along the Potomac with the fall leaves bursting with color. You run by a number of memorials before reaching the Gauntlet. But what brought tears to my eyes was a memorial that only runners got to see. There were a series of signs along this one stretch of road. Each sign had the photo of a war hero who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Under each photo was the officer’s rank and age. The age was the chilling part. Almost all of the photos were of men and women in their 20s. All I could think was God bless them and their families as I could not imagine the loss their loved ones feel and the honor they feel through their pain. This moving memorial was followed by a sea of individuals holding giant American flags. It really put all the government craziness into perspective for me. While our nation has its issues, it is still the greatest country in the world to me. And I have never been more aware of how proud and honored I am to be an American as I was at that moment.

Other things I saw on the course that made me proud were the wounded warriors running with prosthetic legs, hand cyclists pumping up hills with all their might, groups of Marines running in full gear and many “Angels” running while pushing their physically challenged children in large running strollers. Their determination was inspiring.

Throughout the course, Marines lined the streets. Some had megaphones to shout out encouragement to the runners. Others high fived us and cheered us on as we ran by. This was one of the best parts of the race for me. It was my opportunity to try to thank every one of those brave men and women for their service. Their reply was often, “Thank you, mam, for your support.” Seriously…they’re thanking me? Their gratitude was so touching, yet it seemed unwarranted. I’d done nothing special. They have done so much and continue to do extraordinary things for this country. They are the ones who deserve our gratitude.

When I reached the Gauntlet, my foot was starting to hurt but I was an hour and a half ahead of the time limit for that check point, so I felt confident I was on track and the race was going according to plan. My reward for my efforts to this point was turning the corner and seeing the majestic view of the U.S. Capital. It was breathtaking. After that we proceeded to the National Mall where we passed a number of museums. I was now approaching the last check point.

At mile 20, I was ready to “Beat the Bridge.” My foot was really starting to give me some attitude, but I knew I had to push myself and get over the bridge to assure I’d finish in well under the time limit. Once over the bridge, I felt this huge sense of relief. I knew I was going to finish in plenty of time and now I could relax and enjoy the last six miles of the course.

There were so many beautiful things to see the last six miles, but they paled in comparison to what I was feeling…an overwhelming sense of pride. Not because I had run 26.2 miles, but because I was part of something so special, so unique…a chance to witness humanity at its best. Between the 30,000 runners cheering each other on, the Marines giving up their day to be part of our experience, the MCM staff and volunteers who planned for months to make sure we had a great race and the Marines we didn’t see who guarded the course by air and on top of buildings to keep us safe; it was an experience of a lifetime.
My journey ended at the Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial. As I ran through the finishers shoot, I was greeted by a Marine who presented me with my finisher’s medal, shook my hand, thanked me and congratulated me. I thanked her for her service and being part of the race. As the MCM warming jackets read, “Mission Accomplished!”

So what does this story have to do with business?

Business and racing share so much in common. Good business is about planning, smart strategy, proper execution and positive outcomes. Good business is also about being aware and agile. And good business isn’t just about us…it’s about others and the positive impact we have on other people…clients, vendors, co-workers, etc.

By plotting your course you help ensure a successful outcome. But the best laid plans/courses can have unexpected bumps and detours. How we deal with unforeseen circumstances sets us apart. By being flexible and adapting our plan we can still reach our intended goals and learn some things during the journey’s detours. Those detours may offer opportunities for us to mentor and inspire others along the way.

In business we are often so focused on the finish line that we fail to experience the joy and beauty of the journey. So, the next time your strategic plan doesn’t go exactly as planned, take a look around you. What you might find is that the detour makes the journey and the finish line even more rewarding.

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