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November 2018

Our Team Culture

Our Team Culture

As more and more great running teams and coaches credit culture as a key to their success, I think longer and harder about the culture that will enable our success. Before I get into this, I should mention that I’m especially tuned into culture due to my role atEnergage, where we provide businesses with the tools and services they need to measure and improve their culture.

Let’s start with some examples in the running domain. Check out the Northern Arizona University men’s cross country team who just won their third NCAA D1 championship in a row. At the helm is coach Mike Smith who believes much of their success can be attributed to a sustained focus on building the right culture for their program. It certainly seems to be paying off. A little closer to home is the North Allegheny high school program that just won the male and female team PA state championship. Coach John Neff states that “it's a special thing whenever people can come together and each contribute a little bit and do more together than they could ever do on their own." That is very cool to hear in such an individual sport like running. For me, this hints at a culture that emphasizes team contribution and support.

So what is culture? You can look up many definitions, but let’s go with it being a shared set of behaviors, interaction patterns, and beliefs. At Energage we say that a company’s culture is the only truly sustainable competitive advantage. I see it all the time with the customers we work with, and I hear about it more and more in the context of running and athletics. Coach Steve Magness, distance coach at the University of Houston, likes to talk about how important a focus on culture can be. He explains it like this: “True culture reaches many of the same desired outcomes of team unity, belief, and buy-in from a positive path. Instead of control, we have trust. Instead of isolation to create a team, we have a shared purpose that is bigger than ourselves. Instead of exploiting vulnerabilities, we create an environment that acknowledges and accepts all of our issues.”

While much of the current discussion centers on fostering great cultures at high school and collegiate programs, I don’t think the rest of us need to be left out. We have so many opportunities to be a part of communities that support our development as athletes and individuals. Recreational running teams, informal group training, coaching programs, and other groups can all bring us together. In fact, we have a ton of control over the groups we join, so we can consciously select opportunities that provide a culture that works best for us. There is no “one best” culture, only the culture that works best given the people and content you are operating in.

So what is the right culture for this team? What culture will attract and retain the type of people that will allow us all to thrive and succeed as individuals? As John Neff says, how can we come together and become something greater than we could ever be on our own?

When I think about the types of behaviors, interactions, and beliefs that produce the most success in runners that I know, I land on a 4-tier list:

  1. Social Support — help and encourage each other
  2. Personal Aspirations — know ourselves and fulfill individual desires
  3. Wisdom — learn from our experiences
  4. Performance — be the best runner we can be

In my hierarchy of what matters here, I put running performances on the list but I put it at the bottom. More important than athletic performances, in my opinion, is wisdom — I want us all to gain something important from our running experiences that we can use to help enhance our lives. And even more important than wisdom is personal fulfillment. Everyone has different motivations and reasons for running, and I believe it is important to understand and respect them. We are all responsible for our own personal fulfillment, but we are much more likely to attain it when we have people around us to provide support and encouragement. That brings us to the final value on our list: Social support. There are many things we can do together that we would never do on our own, or perhaps those things wouldn't be as meaningful if we didn't have others to share them with. If we do nothing else here, let's find ways to help each other out.

In summary, we strive to run fast, we learn important lessons from our efforts, we find ways to use running to fulfill personal aspirations, and we interact together to help each other succeed.

Please suggest ideas and challenge me so that we can shape our culture in a way that makes these our default behaviors. 

Resources

The following books are great ways to learn more about shaping the culture of teams, groups, and organizations:

The Culture Engine: A Framework for Driving Results, Inspiring Your Employees, and Transforming Your Workplace Hardcover – September 22, 2014

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups Hardcover – January 30, 2018

The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World's Greatest Teams Hardcover – May 16, 2017

Brock’s 2018 Philadelphia Half Marathon Race Report

Brock’s 2018 Philadelphia Half Marathon Race Report

Having competed at running events from 400 meters up to 100 miles, it is surprising that this was my first time competing in a half marathon (if you don’t count the ones I ran at the end of half ironman triathlons). I love racing in Philadelphia, especially when my friends and teammates are there to cheer and race with me. This was also the first race with our new rabbit race kits. At least we’d look good!


Purpose and Goal

This was my “A” race for the fall. I didn’t feel up to running another marathon this year, so the half felt like a perfect way to test my fitness and see if I’ve advanced since last year. My goal these days is to be a competitive masters runner, so I had my sights set on beating as many over-40 folks as possible (which is highly dependent on who shows up).

Earlier in the year, it looked like I could get into shape to break 1:10. However, some injuries and inconsistent training in the late summer set me back. The last 8-weeks leading up to this race were solid, but it was clear that 1:12 was a better target for this race.

Pre-Race

I had a very busy week leading up to the race and had to really focus in the last 24 hours to get myself in the right mental state. Getting into an optimal mindset is just as important for me as optimal physical preparation. Race morning went well. Having run well at Broad Street 10 mile earlier in the year, I had the privilege of accessing the elite tent which makes many of the logistic much easier on race day. A warm place to change, dedicated porta-potties, a convenient gear check, and easy access to the starting line are just a few of the perks.

At first, my warmup had me second-guessing my taper, as I felt really stiff and un-energetic. But things got better as the sun rose along with my body temperature. I feeling good as I headed out to the starting line and was pleased to see some friends there — chatting a bit helped release some tension.

The Race

I’ve run a few 10 mile races, but I wasn’t quite sure how hard the additional 3.1 miles would be. My intention was to be conservative at the start and build through the middle of race. Based on my training, I didn’t want to run much faster than 5:30 per mile—and I wasn’t certain I could maintain that for the whole race.

It always amazes me how races can provide such a boost to performance. I went out in 5:22 and then ran 5:15 for the second mile. It felt really easy as I tucked in behind some guys and relaxed.

The pack I was with started slowing in the 4th mile. Around the 5-mile mark I had to make a move around them to stay under 5:30 pace. My friend Darryl also made a move at this point. We ran together for a bit but he took off for the next pack that was about 20 seconds ahead of us. I didn’t have the confidence to go with him.

For the rest of the race I ran alone, staying about 10-20 seconds behind the pack ahead. Each mile required more effort to hold 5:30 pace. Some small hills in miles 7-11 made things interesting. I really had to push hard here to stay in contact with the pack ahead.

I kept feeling myself slowing down, and each time, I would counter with a small surge followed by an attempt to relax at that pace. It seemed to work.

By 11 miles I was really feeling it. Fortunately, my team mate John Becker was there to encourage me (yell at me). There was also a nice downhill at that point that allowed me to throw down another 5:15 mile.

It was all flat from there, straight into the rising sun. I ran all out and still could just barely hang on to 5:30 pace. I tried picking up at the end but my legs and lungs were working at their max. So when I crossed the line at 1:11:39 I felt really good that I ran as fast as I possibly could on that day.


Outcome

I’m very happy with the effort I put in and I think the training for this race helped me progress my fitness. I did manage to take the 1st master trophy, which meant that I got to enjoy some additional privileges after the race (VIP tent, hanging with Meb Keflezighi and Des Linden at the awards ceremony). It was the perfect ending.

Our new rabbit race singlet, shorts and warmup top were amazing. Felt really good and looked great.

Lessons Learned

  • Be willing to revise goals based on training. Aspirational goals are great but not if they are impossible. I firmly believe I can go sub-1:10, but not right now.
  • Share running experiences with friends and family. I was sad my family couldn’t be there, but I had teammates and friends to enjoy the event and performance with. This was amplified by the number of friends who I interacted with on Facebook, Strava, and text message after the race.

Shaping My Son’s Future at the 2018 Philadelphia Marathon

Shaping My Son’s Future at the 2018 Philadelphia Marathon

Racing and goal setting go hand-in-hand. I’ve raced many times over the last decade, but this was the first year I truly thought about the goals I wanted to achieve. Sure, I’ve had time goals in mind in the past, but never truly thought about the why behind them. Identifying the why is still a work in progress, but running and training with Team Run Xpress has helped me prioritize it.

The scene: Standing near the maroon corral about 12 minutes before the start of the 2018 Philadelphia Marathon. I’m in line for a last-minute stop at the Port-o-Potty with another guy from the corral. He points to the sign over the john that says “Elites Only”—but no one’s looking so we use it anyway. “Closest we’ll ever get to the elites?” I joke. “You know it,” he replies.

I’ve seen and heard that kind of self-effacing humor from runners a lot. Nonchalant about our goals on the surface. Secretly churning underneath with thoughts about splits and gels and pace. Like a duck calm on top of the water and frantically paddling below. The guy in line wanted to break 3 hours, and I knew that was a big deal for him.

I myself had three goals in mind: 1) Qualify for Boston by running under 3:20, 2) set a PR, 3) indoctrinate my 8-year old son into the running scene.

We had arrived the day before and stayed at a hotel near the starting line. The neighborhood was teeming with runners. You’d catch snippets of conversations about gear and nutrition, weather and race-day plans. My son started catching a bit of the fever… goal three was in progress.

Tip: If you have the opportunity, stay in a hotel the night before. Your stress level will be much lower the morning of the race.

I jogged to the starting line after a brief elevator conversation with a runner from the U.K. wearing his wife’s pink sweater. It was a throw-away, but one he probably didn’t need since the weather was a perfect 40 degrees at 7 a.m.

After a little warmup and the before-mentioned bathroom break, I was in the corral for the pre-race pomp and circumstance. National Anthem, the announcer’s pep talk, a speech from a guy who ran the race 25 times, good luck wishes from Meb Keflezighi and Des Linden. And then we were off!

I planned to break the race into sets of five miles. I consciously asked myself, “What do you want to get out of the next five?” I’d reward myself with a gel at the end of each set and reassess.

  • Goal for Miles 1-5: Settle in, stay relaxed, spot my friend who’d be cheering at 5th and South – accomplished.
  • Goal for Miles 5-10: Stay relaxed, spot my wife and son at mile six, and then run the hills well in Fairmount – accomplished.

My son snapped a great picture of me mid-stride around 17th and Chestnut. We then compared this to a video of him running at school. He’s hooked.

A note about running the hills in Fairmount Park. They aren’t huge by any stretch, but running up them too hard can sap your energy for the rest of the race. It’s a lesson I learned last year. Just a few weeks before the race I was running with my coach Brock in Valley Forge Park. We crested a little hill and he mentioned we hit something like 310 watts on the climb—well above my threshold pace. So I kept that in mind during this stretch of the race. Climbed conservatively and bombed the downhills. It was fun to pass people here.

As a result, I was feeling fresh going into the next set of five.

  • Goal for Miles 10-15: Stay relaxed and find a group running around 7:30/mile to run with – accomplished. These miles felt much easier than the same stretch last year.
  • Goal for Miles 15-20: See the rest of Team Run Xpress on the sidelines cheering me on at mile 18. This was a huge motivator for me (goal accomplished). Feel good coming out of Manayunk (goal sort of accomplished).

I started feeling some chinks in the armor around mile 20. Nothing too serious, but my left calf felt tight and I had a stabbing pain in the center of it. I relaxed and it subsided. Manayunk is a tough stretch for me—I’ll just say it, I hate that part of the marathon. The road is narrow, the wall of screaming fans irritates me, and it’s claustrophobia-inducing.

  • Goal for Miles 20-26.2: Hang on and feed off the crowd, keep my pace around 7:30-7:45 (primary time goal not accomplished, secondary goal kicked in).

The wheels came off around mile 22. I was holding a 7:23 pace until that point. My finish time was 7:45 pace. So, yes, I lost a lot of ground in those final miles. It was pretty miserable. My quad cramped, I had to walk and massage it out. I would have loved to qualify for Boston, but it wasn’t in the cards that day. What was in the cards was potentially more valuable. I was forced to really examine the why of the run.

I reached my other goal of setting a personal record for the marathon. And I also reached what started off as a third-tier goal but in hindsight may have been the most important. My family and my team were proud of me, and my son was really excited about running and taking pictures of runners. We talked about it on the way home and he saw that I was still happy even though I didn’t reach the original time goal I had in mind.

Running is about time, for sure. But what’s even more important is how it fits into your life. At this point, shaping a future generation—my son—is my priority. And running is one of the tools that helps me do it.