About 12 years ago I ran my first half-marathon (that’s 13.1 miles or 21km in distance). I had trained for a few months, but at the end of the race I was so exhausted I never wanted to run again. In that moment, the idea of running a whole marathon (twice the distance – 26.2 miles or 42km) seemed about as likely as flying to the moon.
But a few years ago, I got back into running. I mostly did shorter distances, but for a variety of reasons the idea of running a whole marathon started to become more appealing. I knew it was going to be a real challenge, and I wanted to set a big goal and figure out how to make it happen.
And so, last year I registered to run the Disney marathon and started training. I finished the full race a few weeks ago, and the entire process gave me a lot of time to think. Between training and the actual race, here are 7 leadership lessons I learned from running the Disney marathon.
Although my goal was to run a marathon, I believe these principles will apply to a wide variety of other goals. Maybe you want to tackle a big project at work, maybe you want to plant a church, maybe you want cure a disease. Whatever your goal, I hope these 7 leadership lessons will help you achieve it!
1) Learn from the experts
Before I started training, before I even registered for the race, I spoke with a couple friends who have actually run a marathon. I received great advice from them and it proved to be invaluable.
For instance, one of the biggest changes when going from a half-marathon to a full-marathon is nutrition. I never liked eating before a run, and eating during a run seemed even worse. But, if you’re going to run 26.2 miles your body will need some kind of nutrition. Understanding the importance and receiving guidance on what to eat was vital when I started running longer miles.
I also learned that a surprisingly high percentage of people who start training a marathon never even start the race because of injury. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including when people push too hard, when they don’t stretch enough, or when they don’t have the proper gear. I knew from the start that I would need to invest in good gear, stretch frequently, and build up the miles overtime.
I’m really thankful that I had people in my life who could share what they knew from their own experience. In 30 minutes, they were able to teach me more about running a marathon than I had learned in my entire life.
In the same way, we should seek to learn from experts in other areas of life. In business, it’s important to seek out mentors or people who have done what you’re trying to do. In the church, it’s important to seek out a discipler who can help you grow in your walk with God. In your home, it’s important to seek wise counsel from older family members or friends who have tackled the challenged you’re trying to overcome.
2) You need a plan
Training for the Disney marathon took me several months. Each week, I would add more miles than I had ever run before. At the start, I really had no idea how far I was supposed to be running or how quickly I should be adding the miles.
Fortunately, I found a great plan that gave me clear guidance on these things. Run with Hal provides a wide variety of training plans – you can print them off and follow a set plan, or you can download the app and follow custom plans.
Following this plan made a huge difference in my training. Instead of thinking about all the different workouts I would have to do, I simply focused on what was required in the next workout.
I never had to ask myself, “how far should I go today?” Instead, I checked the app and just followed the plan.
Following the plan allowed me to push further than I would have ever gone on my own, but it has also helped me work at a pace that prevented burnout or injury.
The plan saved me from having to make another decision each day. It also provided a level of accountability – it was harder to skip a running day when the app would highlight the calendar in red when I didn’t go because I didn’t feel like it.
The same is true with any other large goal. Having a plan in place helps you stay focused, avoid distractions, and holds you accountable. Depending on the goal, you may be able to find a plan from an expert or you may need to create your own plan. Either way, having a plan and charting a course will make it far more that you actually achieve your goal.
3) Don’t look too far ahead – take things one step at a time
Every time I run, I immediately start counting down the miles before the finish. This normally helps, but a marathon is so long it kind of had the opposite effect.
Somewhere around mile 10 or 11, I was feeling pretty good. Until I realized I still had 16 miles to go!
As they say, if you have to eat an elephant then do it one bite at a time. Big projects can be scary and overwhelming, but if you break it down and focus on the next step, eventually you’ll look around and realize you’ve actually finished.
This isn’t always easy. I chose to run the Disney marathon partly because it is filled with so many fun distractions and cool things to see. I ran through 4 different theme parks and a few beautiful pieces of Florida landscape.
But there is also a solid 17 miles of fairly boring Florida highway (including one painful mile 22 that was literally back and forth in a giant parking lot).
Sometimes there are no shortcuts, and you just have to buckle up and put in the work.
Don’t get hung up on how far you are from the finish line, just keep taking that next step.
Pictures in the post: Picture of some of the fun scenery, picture of some of that Florida highway, and a map view of the parking lot that never seemed to end.
4) When possible, make it fun
One of the reasons people love running the Disney marathon is all the opportunities for fun. It’s not the best race for setting a personal record, but the live music, optional character stops, and countless people cheering you on make it a much more fun place to run all the miles.
There are many approaches to running a marathon. Some advocate for running the whole time. Others just want to cross the finish line, even if they have to crawl. Jeff Galloway is a famous trainer who advocates for the run/walk method (for instance, run for 3 minutes, walk for 30 seconds, and repeat until you cross the finish line).
My goal was to run the whole time, but walk at water stations because they provide a quick break and every time I try to drink water while running , 40% goes in my mouth, 20% goes up my nose, and 40% spills on my shirt. It also gave me some smaller goals – I don’t have to run 26 miles, just make it to the next water station.
This was also my first marathon (possibly my last) and I wanted to take advantage of the “Disney” aspects of the race, so I planned to stop for a few random photo spots. I didn’t really do this for the first 10 miles, mostly because the lines were long and I was in a groove.
But when I was really tired, taking a picture with Donald Duck was a 20 second break and a moment of fun that motivated me to keep going.
Perhaps the most fun part occurred at mile 17, when I jumped off course to ride Everest, a roller coaster in Animal Kingdom that had no wait when I ran by. It added 5 minutes to my chip time and my legs felt like lead when I got off the ride, but where else could I ride a roller coaster in the middle of a marathon?
It’s easy to get bogged down with life and work, but taking small moments to enjoy some fun can be a great way to catch your breath, refocus, and keep going. Maybe this looks like a quick walk outside after a morning of zoom calls, maybe it’s dressing up in a space themed costume at your company kick-off, or maybe it’s a snack after completing your to-do list.
Some of these fun moments may have slowed my overall time, but these small things also made the experience more memorable and meaningful, and gave me the motivation to keep going.
5) Surround yourself with a great support team
People sometimes glorify doing things on your own, but I’ve found it’s always better to have support from others.
Support can take many forms. I’ve done some 10ks and half-marathons in the past, and consistently had better times when I ran with someone else.
Many of the long races will have a pace group leader, a seasoned veteran who carries a sign that promises a certain finish time. If you run with the pace leader, you’ll most likely finish at that pace.
For the Disney marathon I ran by myself, but I certainly wasn’t alone. My wife (Morgan) showed awesome support in several ways. She flew down and woke up outrageously early to cheer me on at the start, middle and finish (with some hilarious signs).
But she wasn’t my only supporter. My parents watched our kids so Morgan could come down. Morgan also posted on social media and texted friends to ask them to text me with words of encouragement during the race. I heard from co-workers before and after. All the supportive messages helped me keep going.
Finally, it made everything a lot more special to have someone waiting at the finish line. My two older kids even made me the most exclusive medals in all of Disney World.
In his book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell highlights the importance of having great support with the “law of the inner circle.” This law states, “a leader’s potential is determined by those closest to him.” If you want to do something big, remember that you will achieve more when you surround yourself with others who are supportive, gifted, and complement your gifts.
It’s great to chase big goals, and it’s great to work hard. It’s also important to remember the people who support you along the way. People may help by providing guidance or accountability, they may actually help do the work, they may be a cheerleader, or they may be waiting for you at the finish line to tell you “great job.”
6) Actually doing something is more satisfying than thinking you can do something
Going into the race, I felt very confident that I could run the full marathon. I had followed a good training plan, put in the work, and built up the miles (since most people ask, the longest I had run before the race was 20 miles – so crossing the 20 mile mark was a bit of a milestone during the race).
I believed I could do it, so I was surprised by how astonished I felt when I actually crossed the finish line. I said something like this, out loud, to no one in particular: “Oh wow, I actually did it!”
I’m sure some of the joy was related to the exhaustion I felt and the relief that it was over. But there was also an unexpected sense of accomplishment. It’s one thing to believe you can do something, it’s another thing completely to realize you’ve actually done it.
I say all this to encourage you – whatever that big goal is that you think you can do, but have never actually done, to go for it. It may require focus, you may have to say no to other things, but if you really want to achieve that goal then it will be worth it.
It’s also worth adding a note here about the importance of prayer. I’m a big believer that every goal we pursue should be bathed in prayer. It is God who gives us our gifts, it is He who gives us ongoing strength. Most of us know we should pray when pursuing “spiritual goals,” but I believe God wants us to pray about all our goals. He is a relational God, and He wants us to seek Him often.
7) Pass on what you have learned
In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul encourages Timothy with these words: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful people who will be able to teach others also.”
I started this post by discussing the importance of learning from others as I trained and prepared for running the Disney marathon.
Since running, I’ve had a few different people approach me with questions about running. They may not be interested in doing a full marathon, but they want to hear about the things I heard about from my mentors. I don’t really feel like I’m an expert, but I can still pass on what I have learned.
For the believer, this is the great commission – to teach others what we have learned, so that they can go and teach others. It is discipleship, and it is essential for the faith to not only survive, but thrive. Check out this guide on Training Disciples if you’re interested in learning more.
I’m honestly not sure I’ll ever run a marathon again. I enjoyed the process, but it took a lot of time and energy. Still, I’m glad that I decided to go for it and ultimately thankful I was able to finish it. The Disney Marathon itself was an incredibly fun race, and I’d gladly do another Disney race in the future (even if it’s a shorter distance).
The principles I learned while training will stay with me for years, and will undoubtedly help me tackle other goals, projects, and areas of importance. I hope these principles will help you as well!