9 Reasons Why Doing a Startup is Like Running a Marathon

9 Reasons Why Doing a Startup is Like Running a Marathon

This past Saturday (November 14th, 2009) I ran my first marathon!  It was hard.  A lot harder then I thought it would be.  Fortunately, I kept busy by thinking about how running that marathon was much like doing a startup.

Below are 9 similarities that I identified throughout the run.  If you have any other example, please let me know by leaving a comment below.

1) You need to set goals

If you’re doing a startup, you’ve probably set some goals (revenues, customers, product) .  For a first time marathoner (as I was) the only goal you should make is the date your going to run, and that you’ll finish no matter what.  Many people say they’ll run one someday, I say pick a date and commit. Set that goal today.

2) The beginning is always the best part

Isn’t starting a new company fun? You get to figure out the domain, design a logo, strategize about the business model – no problem.  The start of the race (for me, the first 18miles) had the same feeling, it was exciting lining up, I kept a good pace and had no issues.  Then things started to change, pains / cramps / a bit of dehydration.  I smiled as I thought how startups shared this same feeling.

3) It’s always easier with support

For most startups, it’s your co-founder – maybe for others its your advisory board, or business coach. Either way, having support from someone makes the journey more enjoyable.  That’s what I loved best about the people cheering us on all through out the run, then again the group that formed just before the finish line.  I always picked up the pace as I ran past these people ;-).

4) The prep-work will have a huge impact

There’s nothing like doing market research before entering an industry to understand how you’re going to compete, and the same goes for a marathon. Do your homework, figure out your training regimen and stick to it.  All the prep work you do before will have a huge impact on your results.

5) Things you don’t expect to go wrong, will.

For the longest time, I’ve had knee issues from an accident when I was a teenager.  I’ve been worried that it would act up during the race, but the funny thing is that my knee wasn’t what ended up causing me troubles.  Instead it was my hips, my right foot and my back tightening up.  All things I had no ideas would cause me discomfort.  Startups are the same way – shit happens.  Things you don’t expect to go wrong will, and it’s how you deal with them that decides if you win or loose.

6) You need to have fun

Startups are awesome because you can have fun even when times are tough – because sometimes you just need to smile.  Marathons are no different.  At mile 23.5 I came up to an aid station in pain, and m-a-n was I SORE .. so I smiled to the guy next to me and said “Wow, this is pretty hard, eh?” smiling.. cause I thought it was a funny thing to say. He looked at me confused and answer “of course it is.” – either way, I laughed.  Sometimes when things are tough, you just need to laugh and have some fun – just keep pushing forward and enjoy the journey.

7) You’re crazy just to think you can do it.

Only 1/10th of a percent of the population will run a marathon. Why? Because it’s freakin’ hard! Mentally and physically. Some that try, don’t finish, and many that do, complete with injury.  Startups are no different. The failure rate is high, the odds are against you – but still we do them. We must be a little bit crazy, right? I think so ;-).

8 ) Running out of money (water) is very bad!

Either you stop at Aid stations along the way, or you stock water and food as needed.  A typical marathoner burns 4000+ calories during the run, and much like a startup you need to insure you have resources available throughout the startup. Typically this is capital and/or customers.  Be sure to plan for both, if you run out, you’ll fail.

9) It’s a mental game

Others have talked about the Entrepreneurial Pendulum, or the Emotional Rollercoaster in doing a startup, and I would suggest that running a marathon is no different.  At the beginning you’ll feel great, then things start to hurt, and eventually its unpleasant, with moments of traction (it gets better for while).  You find a rhythm, only to slow down when it just hurts too much (but you don’t stop!).  That’s how startups feel sometimes – it’s mostly mental, a competition against your thoughts.  Were all capable of way more than we give ourselves credit for.

You don’t get what you want, you get what you believe.

  • http://www.alphacomputer.ca Jeff Brown

    Great thoughts Dan. I love the design of this page. Great job. Business certainly is not for the faint hearted. Have a great week.

  • Lisa (Hamiota) Hamilton

    First of all congratulations Dan on completing your first marathon!

    I agree with you that both start ups and marathon running do seem to run parallel.

    I personally have worked at and been apart of starts up ad agencies for almost half my 10 year career. I love small businesses, especially ones that are new. There is that sense you can do anything, make your own rules and have the opportunity to not make the same mistakes that you have seen elsewhere. A freedom that you just don’t seem to get in big corporations.

    I have only once worked in a large corporation and I could only handle six months. I am a small business person all the way. Less red tape. You can talk directly to or are the decision-maker.

    You get credit for your own work (and you get to wear egg on your face if you screw up, but because it is a small team they are likely to rally behind you and help you solve the issue).

    You won’t find slackers just hiding out trying to do as little as possible, because there is no where to hide.

    You get a chance within whatever your role is to work outside of it, because there isn’t always someone hired in that role and you need to spread the work around to the people you have. Most of my greatest learning experiences were doing tasks and projects that were not in my job description, because I was helping out the team. It just broadens your skill set so much more than a narrowly defined role in a big corporation.

    I know people who love working in big corporations may disagree, but this is how I feel and where I gravitate towards in my career decisions.

    Thanks Dan for your insights! I have been following you since meshmarketing in Toronto. Your presentation made me look at websites in a whole new light.


  • https://www.danmartell.com dmartell

    Lisa, Thanks for the comment! Very insightful and I agree, small business is just more fun. I feel the same way about startups, I could never work for someone else – in that sense – I’m unemployable ;-).

    Much appreciated.

  • Gabriella


    Congrats on marathon number 1! I say that because there is no chance you won’t do another. serial entrepreneurs = serial marathoners

    Funny thing…I was thinking about this exact same topic this morning, albeit in a different context. Someone was talking about milestones and I was thinking how much they are like mile markers. Each one is different, each is just as important as the last in achieving your final goal and though the last ones are the hardest, they give us the biggest sense of accomplishment. So many more analogies, but I will let you and your readers make them.

    On the cofounder issue; a marathon is even better when run with someone you trust to do the work too. I ran my last one with my best friend that recently moved to Wisconsin (I’m in TX). We trained together in different cities. It was amazing! Give it a try sometime.

    Happy trails,

  • http://www.runforlife.ca Mike Shanks


    Great post!

    I did my first 1/2 marathon this year. One of the things I found to be the key to finishing the race in a great time (1:57) was to surround myself with the right people. Not in the race but in the training. I didn’t surround myself with others doing their first race. I surrounded myself with Ironman Triathletes, Boston Marathoners, and people that live and breath running.

    I think that startups are similar in the fact that you can surround yourself with a bunch of people that have never done it before or you can surround yourself with the best of the best. Learn from those that have done it and succeeded.

    Always keeping in mind that those that have succeeded have probably failed more than anyone else you can find. No different than talking to a Boston Marathoner telling you the story how they started too strong and finished with their worst ever time. Learn from others’ mistakes to save yourself some time!

    The parallels between running and business are so plentiful you could continue with a whole series on it…..


  • http://web-strategist.com Jeremiah Owyang

    congrats on running this marathon and running a startup, very helpful tips

  • http://360convos.blogspot.com/ The Classic Carol

    Psst: “you need to insure you have resources available throughout the statup”

    Should be ‘startup.’ Oh, and Saturday should be capitalized (first sentence).

    And dang good post, loved the simile.

  • Dave Cohen

    congratulations on the marathon. it’s also a lot like working for corporate America… most people end up in the middle, there’s a lot of pain, and by the time you reach the finish line your too tired to do anything else 🙂

  • https://www.danmartell.com dmartell

    @Dave THANKS! Honestly, you inspired me to run this – our talks help me understand what I was getting into.

    Love the corporate America analogy ;-).

    Thx for the comment.

  • Heather Scott

    Congrats on completing your first marathon! I have been wanting to run one for a while but have yet to do it… Cheers to you, as this is an awesome accomplishment!

    A good #10 for your list may be “Tackle Hills Head-on.” Handle bumps in the road with confidence, knowing that your hard work will pay off ;).

  • http://www.brekiri.com/blog Greg

    For me, #9 is the biggest similarity. Unlike a lot of things in life, you can’t overpower a marathon with an adrenaline rush and a big push. No matter how fast you are on the first mile, the other 25 will still be there staring at you. The key to beating it is patience and consistency. Apart from a few outliers, startups are the same way. No matter how much you rock it in the first day or the first month, it’s a long road. So focus on doing something useful every day, not on whether one particular thing is going to make or break you. You have to keep your mental reserves at a level where you can build the company day after day instead of getting discouraged.

  • Denis Bastarache

    Love the comparison…. and also great to see a fellow Monctonian doing so well for himself in this Business. I agree with you 100%…. hard work and dedication do eventually pay off! Best of luck…. and make the Maritimes proud! Cheers!

  • http://about.me/kylembrown Kyle Brown

    I have often thought of running as a daily mental test that keeps you motivated and ready for the days challenges.

    This comparison is a bit broader but has the same meaning. Glad to know other fell this way it validates my thought.

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