3 ways running 13 marathons has helped me succeed

Chris Poelma, Contributor
Sally Brown | Getty Images

Former University of Oregon track and field coach, and Nike co-founder, Bill Bowerman once said, "If you have a body, you're an athlete."

I didn't used to share Bill's sentiment, especially after my first attempt at running ended just short of collapse. Now, I can't get enough.

I started running out of necessity. After working tirelessly to take a software management company I co-founded public, I realized I had thrown my health by the wayside. Lack of sleep, exercise and unhealthy eating habits put me in a position where I likely wouldn't make it past my thirties.

Cue my wake-up call to start investing in myself as much as I was investing in my business. I chose running, because I needed something that didn't require much time and could get me in better shape fast. I didn't realize the positive impact running would have on my life, and more specifically, my work life.

While it may seem counterintuitive to take up a hobby like running when launching a business, my first-hand experience is it pays to prioritize yourself.

The following are just a few ways running has shaped me into a more effective leader. It may do the same for you.

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It's helped me experience sparks of creativity

I'm a strong proponent of long distance running – in other words, anything beyond a three-mile loop. The constant rhythm of your stride takes over on a long run and serves as a form of meditation, which frees your thoughts for more creative thinking.

While training for the Seattle Marathon, I experienced a spark of creativity during a 16-mile run around Lake Sammamish. It was a rainy day and I knew after my run I'd have to complete my to-do list, which included a trip to the grocery store.

At the time, I was chief technology officer for Microsoft's operating channel and couldn't hear enough about mobile apps. During this run, I kept thinking about mobile apps and grocery shopping, and in a moment of clarity, I had an idea: what if there was an app on my phone that would allow me to pre-order groceries and have them delivered curbside to my car. It would save so much time.

A few months later, I turned that idea into a company called QwikCart.

Of course, not every long run ends in a startup conceptualized, but it can free you from concentrating on the minutia of building your business long enough to think big.

Photo courtesy of Chris Poelma

I've become more adept at solving problems

Running also has helped me become a better problem solver. That same uninterrupted mental clarity that spurs innovative thinking lends itself to tackling challenges you might not be able to see around when sitting at your desk.

Try running with intention. Pick a problem and focus on it while on your run. Think through all scenarios – good and bad – and begin plotting out a solution. This helped me tremendously when embarking on international expansion for NCR Silver. I used my morning runs to strategize how my team could set up support for our products in foreign markets and develop strategic reseller partnerships.

It motivates me to constantly improve

Running isn't easy. It takes a lot of mental strength and self-motivation to get up at ungodly hours and jog, or keep your commitment to yourself for an after work run. The interesting thing is, while learning to motivate yourself, you also learn effective ways to inspire others.

People often talk themselves out of doing something because it seems daunting. Running has taught me that pushing through and taking the first step, even when you don't feel like it, pays off. This translates to work. Encouraging your team to challenge themselves and take risks – the way you push yourself on a run – can spur new thinking and confidence overtime. The key is celebrating the short-term successes so thinking outside-the-box becomes the new normal.

Running has taught me that pushing through and taking the first step, even when you don't feel like it, pays off.
Chris Poelma
President and General Manager of NCR Small Business

Running is often a solitary endeavor, but as a leader, running will teach you to drive your team toward success.

It's funny how something I initially resisted has changed my life in so many ways. Running taught me creativity, problem solving and motivation strategies among other lessons. And with every lap, mile and race, I uncover ways to apply these lessons to becoming a better leader and a better person.

From mobile software founder to CTO of Microsoft's Operator Channel, Chris Poelma has spent nearly three decades developing innovative, high-growth businesses in the technology industry. In 2015, Chris joined NCR Corporation as President and General Manager of NCR Small Business.

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