Blog of Matthew Porter – Husband, Father, Entrepreneur, Geek, MS Warrior, and Ultramarathoner
Two of our three kids have already started school. Those two are Gabe and Owen who will be in separate schools for the first time in 8 years. That breakup with them also means all three will be in different schools for the first time. Ever.
The kids being gone inevitably means that we will have less time with them. They will have less time with each other. School will take up a huge portion of the weekday. Sports and after school activities will fight to absorb its fair portion. Social activities, including even dating in the near future (gasp! ugh), will soon become the black hole of their time.
The reduction of time together may mean the reduction of influence or the increase of influence by others. As I reflected on this, I became proud of who each child is as a person, not just my child. I know this needs to be protected and explicitly called out. For me, it is not worth being subtle with something so critical. The world will enhance their values and character. The world will also test them and test who they are.
With that, I sent them the following before the school year kicked off:
AGO [Avery, Gabe, and Owen] – as the school year approaches, mom and I have less time with you. It means we may also have less influence… or that other people have more influence. We have raised you to know who you are and what you stand for. That can be tested by others who want to influence you.
This makes me think about Anne Frank and how she stood for her ideals.
“It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart…I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals.”
In the darkest of humanity, Anne (who is around your ages) still believed in her ideals. I hope we have given you the guidance such that you have built the strength to hold onto yours and our family’s.
Love you all!
It’s not lost on me that Anne Frank was around the same age as our children when she wrote these words. These are words from a peer who dealt with the worst and was able to hold up her ideals – many of which stemmed from her family, her upbringing, and the inner beauty of someone leaving childhood headed to being a young adult.
Perhaps that’s why I was reminded of Anne Frank when contemplating the upcoming school year and its changes…
“Not every end is the goal. The end of a melody is not its goal; and yet: as long as the melody has not reached its end, it also hasn’t reached its goal. A parable.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
March 26th marks an unsung anniversary in my life. On that date in 2010, I stepped out of our house for my first run. The quirkiness of the universe is that I would be diagnosed with MS exactly 4.5 years from this date – September 26, 2014. As this runniversary passed, I decided it was time to retell the story with a new perspective. One half of my running has occurred before the diagnosis. One half has now occurred after.
On March 25, 2010, Courtney told Avery, who was six years old at the time, about the week of our wedding. Right before we wed, my then-fiance had moved back home to spend the week with her family leading up to the big day. As the oldest and first to be married, she intrinsically wanted one last week with her parents and siblings as her immediate family. Once the vows were said, she and I would step onto a path to building our nuclear family.
Her parents and siblings welcomed her home. They fell into the muscle memory routines of living together under one roof. Over plenty of laughter and a few tears, they also had time to recount the memories of years gone by. While everyone was excited by the upcoming nuptials, this was the last time they would all be together like this again – no spouses and no grandchildren.
It was a beautiful story that captured the imagination of a young girl who dreamed of fairytales and wishes granted.
As I was tucking in Avery later that night, she asked if she could “come home like mommy did” when she gets married one day. I told her she absolutely could come home and our house would always be open to her. She gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. She was giddy, and I was, too.
After a few seconds, I could see her mind churning. She then poked me in the belly and told me, “You have a lot of squishy. I don’t know if you are going to make it.” These words were not said with the playfulness of a child. They were said with the piercing reality of someone seeing the world with a binary view.
I was shocked. As Gracian stated in The Art of Worldly Wisdom, “The truth is generally seen, rarely heard.” It was true that my health had taken a considerable downturn the previous five years as I was building Contegix. I could see this in the mirror, and I could feel it. It took hearing these words to see the larger truth. My health was destroying a future with my family. A six-year-old saw the visible health state. It would later take MRIs to see the full extent of my health issues.
I called a friend who was an ultra runner and told him of my plan. I would run a mile the next day. He asked me to call him afterward.
I could not sustain running the full distance of one mile. I ran less than a quarter of it, and I walked the remainder in humiliation. I felt worse because of the emotions delivered by reality.
I called my friend in embarrassment. I expected disappointment or sympathy. Instead, he congratulated me and celebrated my success. He also told me I needed to make it farther the next day and continue to repeat that pattern. I went out the following day and did just that. It was not much farther, but it was more than the previous day. (This same man would later be the person who guided me into Leadville in 2018.)
I would never forget the lesson I began to learn that day. This lesson would show up time and again over the next few years. This moment may not be perfect. It does not diminish the gift of the moment and the relentless pursuit to make the next second perfect. That is how we have continuous forward motion even when it is just a few steps farther. The mere effort, almost regardless of success, has a compound effect on the next second.
“The act of discovering who we are will force us to accept that we can go further than we think.”
– Paulo Coelho
Over the next four and a half years, I would lose a significant amount of weight and run multiple races. I would dial in my eating habits. I would fall in love with running trails, and that would lead to running ultramarathons. Those two factors would end up being critical on the day of my diagnosis.
On that day, the doctor shared the results of my MRI and lumbar puncture. I have “greater than thirty lesions on my brain and spine.” The cerebral fluid from my lumbar puncture shows signs correlating to MS. Yet, these are only two of the tests often performed.
I had also undergone a Visually Evoked Response Test and a neurological examination. These tests partially measure the impact of MS. VERT records how long it takes for a stimulus to reach the brain. Basically, it measures how fast I process visual input. The neurological examination includes understanding how much stress my body can endure. Intolerable stress can often lead to exacerbations (the fancy word for “
These tests reflected the reality and its impact.
When Courtney asked if I should continue to run, especially long distances, the doctor replied, “Yes. The results of your visually evoked response test and stress test are off the chart positive. It is probably related to how much running you do and where you do it. You have built a tolerance to the stress and the volume of visual input.”
One of the reasons I love trail running is the visual stimulus. Every step is different and always changing. That makes it beautiful and familiar yet new. It is also an immense amount of visual stimulation. All of this makes it imperative to keep attention on the next step. Failure to do such could mean a sprained ankle, a fall, something even more catastrophic.
The doctor also told me to “keep going for as long, as fast, and as hard” as I can for “as long as you can.” That is the lesson I learned. It is about the continuous, relentless forward motion when things are easy and when things are challenging. That is the only real means of change regardless of whether that is running, health, relationships, business, or whatever.
As for running, I am doing such with a goal of the most important distance – an aisle in a wedding one day in the long term future. It is the least I can do for someone who helped me hear and see reality. It is the least I can do for someone who gave me the motivation that would lead to saving the quality of my life.
Even then, that is the goal and not the end.
“Why are you here? What made you come all the way to Poland to walk into freezing water and hike a snowy mountain in only shorts and boots?”
Before answering this, I have an admission. I am struck with dichotomies. I live a life of dichotomies.
I love running races in the summer, and I hate cold weather. Yet, summer race finishes are earned in the winter. They are earned in the running on the dark, cold mornings and evenings during the bleak winter months.
I have multiple sclerosis which makes extreme temperatures an adversary. My trigger is radical temperature changes in a short period, such as one from a nice, warm bed in a nice, warm house to the frigid trail at 4:20 am.
I run trails over terrain for long distances. The temperatures can change over a distance and are inevitably impacted by the terrain, such as mountains and lakes. It’s no surprise that my first flare up occurred at the Clinton Lake Ultra as I was making my way around the lake. The temperatures rose steadily throughout the race. At one section around the lake, the winds shift, and temperatures dropped ~15F degrees in a few minutes.
I live in Saint Louis which has decided to embrace the temperature contrasts like a moth to a flame. In this case, it’s the flame of the ice dragon from Game of Thrones. It has brought these contrasts to the forefront with a vengeance this year. We have been struck with one of the fiercest winters in a lifetime. The temperature fell to -6F on January 30, 2019, which canceled schools, events, and any semblance of normal life. This insanity was then followed by a massive change in temperature. Temperatures reached 70F three days after this cold spell. (That’s not a typo.)
With this backdrop, it may be surprising that cold immersion therapy has captured my mind in the past 2 years. (Or depending upon how well you know me, it may seem wholly expected the I would run right into this fire.) It started when a fellow ultra runner recommended I research Wim Hof and his breathing techniques. The recommendation came with a promise that I would better be able to deal with elevation, cold temperatures, and extreme changes. I would be conditioned to mentally and physically manage my temperature within reason regardless of the elements. The idea of carrying less gear, such as jackets, gloves, and other cold-weather gear, over >50 miles was also very appealing.
Thus, I began my exploration into Wim Hof two years ago that led to me jumping in 24F streams in Poland and hiking up a mountain wearing shorts, socks, and boots.
The breathing techniques proved to be effective at both Leadville Run Camp in June 2018 and through most of the race 2 months later. I crossed Hope Pass in shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt in both situations. It was incredibly comfortable even with temperatures in the mid-20s Fahrenheit and stopping for a bit at the aid station. For most of the race, I was able to maintain my core temperature when the weather was dry, especially with the Colorado sun beating down.
Around mile 65, the world turned on this idea. The sun had set hours earlier. The outside temperature continued to drop, and the misting drizzle had transformed into the pelting rain. Cold rain where each drop reminded me of my exposure. Trying to maintain my core temperature without gear became a double whammy on my energy.
I was expending too much mental energy on the task, and I was shivering which burned additional energy. Energy is always a precious commodity for me in races. It was worse at Leadville 2018. I was struggling to consume calories due to complications from suspected food poisoning the previous day. My calorie intact was half of what I had planned. I relented at approximately mile 65, and my pacer grabbed a hooded jacket and gloves.
After doing my post-race evaluation analysis, I had identified this was one of the challenges to fix in 2019. This decision led to further research into Wim Hof and the studies on him, his technique, and cold immersion therapy. I was delighted to learn about the positive impact on the neurological system and those with autoimmune diseases. In short, the results are promising, but more study is needed. More important, the risks and downside were minimal, if existent. (I am not a doctor nor do I play one on television. Do your research!)
Thus, my 2019 daily goal of performing Wim Hof breathing exercises was born. I knew it would be a struggle. I would often get distracted in the midst of performing breathing exercises. I would cut the cold shower short because I was in a hurry. I know evolution has trained the human brain to find the easiest way, especially when pain is involved. I would find a way to shortcut, if at all possible.
With running, I have both a running coach and strength trainer. I still have them as part of my team. They force me to be highly focused. I have an obligation to them. I needed to be highly focused
Why would this be any different? I needed a trainer. I needed a coach. And I saw an opportunity to train with the best… with Wim.
On October 2, 2018, I signed up for the Wim Hof Winter Expedition from January 29 to February 4, 2019. I signed up to travel to Prague then Poland where I would willingly choose to swim in freezing streams, walk into a half-frozen waterfall, and hike up a mountain in shorts.
This trip awarded me time in one of my favorite cities, Prague. A few years back, Courtney and I visited as part of our Oktoberfest trip. We still remark that this was the best part of the vacation. I relished the opportunity to spend some additional time in this beautiful city. Besides exploring, I used the morning of Day 0 to visit the Apple Museum which brought back memories to hacking on my Apple ][e as a child.
After spending 36 hours in Prague, I met with the Wim Hof team at Prague airport around 5 pm. I was surprised by how many people were there. I had imagined a more intimate gathering. The videos portrayed this as an intimate gathering rather than seventy strangers with visions of being Junior Ice Women and Men. Regardless of the size, I was there for the cold and my health. We boarded 2 buses at 6 pm for the nearly three-hour journey to Wim’s home town of Przesieka, Poland.
As we arrived in Przesieka at the hotel around 9:30 pm local time, we were greeted with the Innerfire (aka Wim Hof’s company) team welcoming us to the Expedition. The Expedition had taken over the entire hotel, including all the guest rooms, common areas, and the sauna. We would eat, sleep, and learn here. We would build a community in this hotel. The community would not have locks on the doors. The hotel would be my home for the next week, and twenty other participants would become close friends, including the two with whom I shared a large, four-bed suite.
Wim would not make an appearance until the next day. Instead, we were broken down from the seventy into smaller groups. Our group was around twenty in size. This would be our tribe, and our tribe began the expedition that night with the exploration of a single question – “Why are you here?”
My answer was two-fold. It was the two aforementioned tactical reasons – carry less gear in races and better able to deal with temperature swings. I would later learn I was in Poland for much more. It would become internal, personal, and profound.
Reflection: Day 1 was mostly introduction and getting comfortable with the group. The guided breathing exercises built into something different than I had experienced on my own. They brought forward an energized, almost euphoric, state.
Our tribe co-leader, Elee, shared with us that she has been learning from Wim for six years. He told her that the cold was part of it. It was not just the breathing. Thus, she wasted no time in getting us to embrace cold.
After breakfast, we were instructed to dress for a warm, summer hike despite it being in the mid-20s Fahrenheit. This meant only shorts for the males. Females added bikini tops. This hike was not the famed mountain hike. It was a jaunt of fewer than 90 minutes with learning mixed it. While we learned techniques to generate heat, such as the horse stance (aka haha), this hike was the beginning of a lifelong journey to learn about embracing the cold. I would need it.
I remember thinking that I should have worn Yak Trax and that there was absolutely no way I was making it through the week. As I reflect back, I realize it was fear of the cold and fear of falling that occupied my mind more than the cold itself.
Wim made his first (of many) appearances after lunch. It was inspiring to see and hear the man himself. His passion is addictive, and his knowledge of the science is undeniable. He is clear that it is correlation until studied and verified. He is extremely proud that this is beyond his belief and that he is being investigated. That does not stop Wim from occasionally yelling, “Just breathe, motherfucker!”
Recap & Reflection: Day Two began with more breathing exercises, reflection, and meditation in the morning. We finished by deciding the order of the future cold immersion. As we finished and prepared for breakfast, I decided to head for a run instead of eating. Cold immersion would be uncomfortable, if not painful. I wanted to do something comfortable, and running is always comforting even when it hurts. I was also attempting to push out of my mind that chattering whispers.
Chattering whispers are the default mode of communication at WHE. Schedules are communicated this way. It seems disorganized and, yet, highly orchestrated. It is almost by planned design. It forces people to connect and bond. As we headed toward the breakfast hour, the whispers began. The chatter was becoming clear right before the meal break. Elee was serious about embracing the cold, and we would be meeting promptly at 11 am donning boots and winter clothes.
Swimsuits should be worn underneath.
At 11 am, I had finished my run and met our group assembled in the lobby. We walked past where we practiced the horse stance and headed along the previous day’s hiking path. We stopped as we crossed the first bridge. Ice was still on the edges of the stream that intersected with the land. This would be where my fear of cold and temperature swings had to die. The water was approximately 24F.
I gathered with 3 new friends when it was our turn, and we walked into the stream. Walking into the water was not a single decision. It was a series of repeated decisions. Each step away from the land was a choice. As the water reached my torso, I started regretting the earlier decision to go for a run. Lactic acid had built up in my legs, and it was freezing.
The water reached my neck. My legs locked, and the early feelings of Charlie horses nagged my calves. I was actually warm until that moment. The fear of never being able to leave the water broke my concentration, and that broke the warmth. I began to head for the shore. After only a few seconds, I needed to get out of the cold. I did not care; it had only been a few seconds, maybe 30 seconds.
The reality was much different. When I reviewed the GoPro video, I had been in the water for approximately 2 minutes.
After lunch, Wim joined the group for a talk. He covered the science of breathing and cold while sharing his stories. Wim has a manner that allows him to be utterly charming and humble while being humorous, braggadocious, and sometimes vulgar. He’s also insightful into the soul of what comprises emotions, intentions, and the soul of humanity. He welcomes others to compliment and even challenge his learnings. This invitation included every instructor with us.
The most profound insight for me came during this session. It was unexpected in the midst of talk around science and university studies. It summarized my ungathered and unsaid thoughts and mantra over my life and over a body that could potentially betray me.
“You are the master of your fate. You are the pilot not the passenger.”
Before the evening could move into dinner, Elee had one last
surprise fun activity. We were instructed to dress for a winter hike to be held an hour before dinner. The walk would lead us to a beautiful stream that was entirely frozen just days earlier. The movement of water unthawed some with plenty of ice around the edges.
As we reached the stream, we removed our socks and boots for two rounds of ice extremities training. Each dip of the feet was 2-3 minutes in water below freezing temperature. Once our feet had endured this, it became time to do the same for our hands. In hindsight, it was the right order as tieing boots with frozen fingers is nearly impossible.
Recap & Reflection: Day Three was the turning point for me in regards to the breathing and the cold. We would oscillate between breathing exercises and cold immersion.
One of the claims around the Wim Hof breathing method is that it changes the pH of blood from acidic to alkaline. According to Wim and others, alkalinity combats inflammation, makes it more difficult for bacteria and virus, and decreases the sensation of pain. Wim states that studies have shown the blood to be alkaline more than five hours after performing the exercises. I had a chance to test this during the morning’s exercise thanks to another tribe member.
One of the other participants brought pH strips to test. Our pre-breakfast morning breathing exercises gave me an ideal opportunity to test this. I restricted food and minimized drink until afterward. I tested prior to the breathing and immediately after finishing. I cannot attest to the medical benefits of the change, but I can unequivocally state that mine changed from acidic to alkaline after ~35 minutes of performing the breathing exercises. I have repeated this test several times since Poland with similar results.
The first cold immersion was the jump in the stream. This is a >10 feet drop with only one decision – just take one more step. I cannot explain the beautiful sensation of joy and happiness that washed over me. The warmest point was during the complete immersion with the water over my head. I felt I could stay under the water for eternity. There was no struggle for air. There was no struggle for warmth. There was just peace.
I stepped up to the jump point and asked Elee a few questions. I was more fearful of the drop since water depth was difficult to see. I repeatedly asked where I should jump. Before I jumped, she asked one question, “What do you want to leave behind here in Poland?” My answer was left in that stream.
The afternoon’s cold immersion was the famous waterfall seen in numerous Wim Hof videos. The group held hands and walked into the pond below the freezing waterfall. We gathered and formed a circle.
After exiting the waterfall, we were treated with an afternoon at Wim’s house with Wim. Wim graciously welcomed us to his house and its amenities, specifically the ice baths and saunas. He answered questions while hanging out with us. Toward the end of our time at his house, Elee and Wim gathered us to teach the brown fat activation technique.
Day Three ended with an evening talk by Wim and then dinner. I estimate I spent over 35 minutes in sub-freezing water over the course of the entire day.
Recap & Reflection: Day Four is the second part of what most see as the Expedition. The first is the aforementioned jumping in streams and waterfalls. Today was the hike up the mountain.
Despite my feelings of accomplishment the previous day, I dreaded this moment. It brought back my thoughts from Leadville and needing to grab winter gear. Little did I know that the weather would exacerbate the challenge and elements with rain, sleet, and snow. The hike would be a light of truth whether this endeavor was leaning towards success.
As we boarded the bus, my nerves took over. I boarded the bus dressed in warm gear. It seemed insane to leave the warmth of the bus to strip down to shorts with the intent of hiking up the mountain. This would be a hike not a run. I would not have the benefit of an elevated heart rate to generate heat. It would be the learnings of this week or relenting to warm clothes just like Leadville.
The drizzle started as we took the first steps. Yet, the first hour passed with ease and the backdrop of laughter and conversation. People were gleeful. Why wouldn’t we be? We were living the images seen in those videos. The group mood was euphoric, but this would quickly flip as the weather rapidly increased its ferociousness in the second hour.
Wim led physical the charge up the mountain. Elee, Patrick, and the other instructors led the emotional charge up the mountain of our commitment and psyches. The uttered the drumbeat of reminders to stay focused. We were the pilots
After more than two hours, we reached the summit and the ski lodge where we would have lunch. I remember how warm I was and wondering how to transition to the warmth of the lodge. Clearly, Wim knew these people, and this group would be considered normal. Can I stay in just shorts? Is there a “no shirts, no shoes, no service” rule?
Then, I heard the cheering from the group. People wanted pictures at the top before settling down for lunch, and their excitement could not be contained. I broke focus. I broke concentration. That broke the warmth, and the cold flooded my blood and muscles. My question of whether to gear up had been answered.
Recap & Reflection: Day Five would be the final full day of the Expedition. It lended itself to being anti-dramatic. We had accomplished all we came to do and answered all the questions with which we came.
I regrettably cannot comment on the final walk and ceremony. The informal communication method failed me, and I somehow missed this.
I have continued the breathing exercises and cold immersion since returning from the Expedition. A few weeks ago, I laid out by the pool in a recliner covered in a foot of snow while on a ski trip in Park City. Yesterday, I completed a trail race and hung out for an hour afterwards wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, shorts, and footwear. People repeatedly asked if I wanted to borrow a jacket or if I was freezing. The idea of wearing more did not appeal to me.
Yet, I still do not understand what happened and how the transformations came about. I cannot explain it. That is perhaps the mystery and the benefit of the expedition and Wim Hof. It unlocks the capability without any need for explanation.
Somewhere in Poland, a monumental change in my mental strength regarding breathing and the cold occurred. My suspicion is that a physiological change has also, which continues to this day.
It has been nearly 3 weeks since I returned from Poland. I have spent hours putting together my thoughts, this blog post, and answering questions about the experience. The most important question needing to be answered was the opening one of this blog posted as it was the one asked by the tribe instructors on Day one.
I found the unstated answer to that opening question. Yes, I was there
I was also there to find something deep inside me. I was there to answer a different question.
How would I address the challenges, pain, opportunities, and uncertainties of my future? With the same joy and warmth that crashed over and enveloped me from a single step forward off a cliff and into the coldness.
In light of the recent CEO announcement for Contegix, I decided it was to resurrect this draft blog post. The post is surprisingly not about Leadville, ultramarathons, or even running despite the question. It is about knowing oneself and what one wants for a life well prioritized and planned.
Of all the questions around the Contegix equity investment, the most common was around why I stepped away as CEO of Contegix. It was asked by my team when we took the investment and has been asked by numerous friends and entrepreneurs since then.
It was asked in straightforward ways, “Hey, so why aren’t you CEO anymore?”
It was asked with innocence and timidness, “Everything good, man?”
It was asked with declarations and poor assumptions, “Dude, what the f* happened?”
Before getting to how I made this decision, it’s important to understand the context and a conversation with my mentor that happened almost two decades ago.
The conversation with my mentor about entrepreneurs started innocently and light-hearted. At this point in my life, I knew my path was one of entrepreneurship. I did not know precisely what that meant or how it would play out. Craig and I were about to start what eventually became Contegix after a few iterations. I had not yet learned a fundamental truth. The path of entrepreneurship is inevitably a path of risk and leadership.
I was yet again confronted with a question for an answer in response to mine. I had asked about entrepreneurs and their impact. I wanted to know how to be an entrepreneur that built a great company by facilitating and helping build incredible talent, even if the company ended up being an exporter of talent. Sensing the requirement of time to accomplish this truly, he pivoted to the core.
He repeated the question as I stared at him, “Do you know why Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison are so well known?”
I vaguely remember giving some remotely intelligent answer about how they had impacted the world and their stakeholders.
He repeated the question a third time, and this time he included an answer.
“Do you know why Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison are so well known? It is because their respective 100 miles is much longer than almost anyone else’s. Others have a 100 mile distance that sets up the next phase.”
He went on to explain what he meant by the cryptic statement.
The Mississippi River was filled with steamboat traffic not too long ago. While the traffic may have faded some, rivers remain vital to our country and economy. These boats have been and continue to be the heart of commerce and military transportation. Traversing these waterway has never been easy though. Rivers are like living, breathing organisms. Even today, the risk is inevitable and often unexpected because change is constant.
At this historic time, vessels lacked the current protections of GPS, sonar, and radar that help detect the changes in currents, debris, sandbanks, and many other factors. They lacked radio to communicate with other water-faring vessels about real-time changes in the river or to send a request for help. It was dangerous for the men who worked on these boats. It still is in many ways.
In lieu of the modern equipment, there were experts, specifically men who knew the most treacherous and dangerous sections of the river. These experts traveled up and down the river. Each would often focus on a specific segment, say 100 miles (or so). They would learn, re-learn, and memorize every change in the river with brain cells filled with the minute details.
Captains were generalists with a mission to traverse the entirety of the river. These men were specialists whose livelihood was based upon knowing a specific segment. No one knew it better, except for maybe another expert with more tenure or proficiency.
The captain, a man (unfortunately, it was almost always a male) appointed such by employment, tenure, rank, or direct ownership, is the last line of responsibility and authority for the boat during its voyage. When a ship would approach a treacherous or unknown section, the captain had a decision whether to hire the specialist who knew the next 100 miles better than he did or attempt the passage under his command. If the decision were made to hire one, the captain would hand over control of the boat and its precious cargo of souls and merchandise to the designated captain. The ship was his to command and his to relinquish when the 100 miles was over. He was the designated captain for that 100 miles.
Up and down the river, each designated captain went being hired and navigating the precarious waterways he knew. He stayed in the boundaries of those 100 miles.
Almost two decades later, I have yet to verify if the history is accurate. It perhaps may only be an analogy for which I could relate growing up in Saint Louis and living alongside the majestic Mississippi. Yet, I told this story to a friend a year ago who remarked he saw this in action on a European riverboat cruise in 2017.
Regardless, the insight for me was immediate. Jobs, Ellison, and many others since this conversation are known because they have a long 100 miles. They have had a long period to make an impact on their stakeholders and communities. They have gone from founders to tech icons, and they have evolved along the way. In the case of Jobs, it could be said that he had 2 sections at Apple and, perhaps, learned the second course during his time away from Apple navigating other waters. The cost of this is considerable sacrifices and prioritization of the essential mission.
This conversation left a mental mark with me that I carry to this day and have relied upon numerous times, including our transaction.
Craig and I decided to take an investment for numerous reasons. The most significant was our core value of Rapid Accelerated Growth. It was odd that most people never read the description of this core value. The growth was not in reference to the financials – the top or bottom line. It was in reference to our stakeholders, especially our talent, our team, and customers. We fundamentally believe that if these grow, the growth of the financials was a drag-along effect. It was a core reason we implemented the 20% pre-tax profit sharing.
We knew that the competitive landscape was shifting for both cloud and managed cloud services. An investment was the fastest path to be either fail or be prepared for the market shifts. It was contingent upon the right equity partner. We found that in Strattam Capital and its team. It was a relationship developed over years and one built on honest, regular discussions around expectations. These still continue to this day.
I flashbacked to the mentor conversation a few weeks ahead of completing the Contegix transaction in 2016. I realized that my 100 miles was coming to an end as CEO of Contegix if we went through with the transaction. I had navigated Contegix from an idea with the first servers in my basement. The transaction would mean Contegix would now by the combination of three companies and cultures.
Contegix’s CEO needed to be an expert at navigating the delicate waters of integrating these companies and their respective cultures. The CEO would need to spend more time with customers in this competitive landscape and time with our private equity partner.
I would need to expand my 100 miles if I wanted this journey whether through this transaction or another method. As the then-current CEO, my responsibility was to ensure the best talent for the journey ahead.
In the midst of this, I also realized there was a new role for me. I may have been relinquishing the role of captain. I was still on the boat and would continue the role I loved most – being the voice of our customer on the Board and the technology liaison between the business and the Board. For service companies, there should always be someone on the Board who loves the customer first and foremost (rather than the service, product, sales cycle, or anything else). For the executive team, that role is often the CEO.
As the new captain takes the next 100 miles, I relish in the fact that any change does not diminish the work and effort done by predecessors. These were absolutely foundational to get to this point. One cannot hire the designated captain if the boat fails to make it to the rendezvous point.
As a passenger on the boat, I appreciate that more than most.
“There is only one rule. You can’t give up.” This is the advice I give someone when diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It’s probably the only rule that matters for everyone even Lance Armstrong.
I recently heard Jesse Itzler retell a story Lance Armstrong shared with him. Regardless of how one feels about Armstrong, the story puts forth a lesson, and it is a lesson with which I wholeheartedly concur and must live every day.
Lance was speaking about a time when he was struggling in the middle of the Tour de France. He wanted to get off his bike, and his coach could see Lance’s mindset and state. It just wasn’t his day. In the midst of this, his coach told him that no matter what, Lance cannot get off the bike. Lance had to keep peddling. His coach knew that if Lance got off the bike, it was over. Perhaps the coach meant the race was over, or maybe he meant Lance’s career because quitting is a fundamental mind shift from which it’s hard to come back.
When I heard the Lance Armstrong story, two things came to mind. The first was the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF).
I have spent the past few years working with the Foundation and those with cystic fibrosis. On December 31, 2018, I completed my year as Board Chair/President of the CFF Gateway Chapter and my first year as Gala co-chair. The previous years, I served on the executive committee and as committee chair for FestivAle, the annual craft beer event.
My involvement with CFF began when I was searching for a way to give back. I chose CFF because one of my closest and oldest friends has this life-threatening disease. I may have also picked them because of the aforementioned craft beer event held committee meetings at breweries. I failed to anticipate the positive impact it would have on me (and my later diagnosis).
Those with CF who are over the age of 30 are living beyond expectations a few decades ago. When most were born, high school might have been possible, but college was usually not in their future. Life expectancy charts did not allow for long-term dreams and plans.
The community and those with CF keep peddling, and they do it with an eye toward adding. That is not just those with CF. It includes their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncle, brothers, sisters, and sometimes a close friend. It is not an accident that their motto is “Adding Tomorrows.” All of that work led to small changes and significant breakthroughs – enzymes, vests, CFTR regulators, and many others.
Since 2015, the majority of the CF population is now over the age of 18.
Those I have met in the CF community know that they must keep peddling. The community acknowledges the pain. It also celebrates the successes and appreciates every win, every additional tomorrow.
My exposure to the CF community has provided an incredible view of true grit and genuine hope. It’s incredible how much insight this has brought to my diagnosis and perception of it.
This leads to the second thought. Is there a stark difference in emotions and perception between being born with a disease or condition vs. developing and being diagnosed after decades of seemingly normal health? Is this the difference between addition (of life in quantity and quality) vs. subtraction (of life in quantity and quality)? If so, maybe we need a mindshift. What can those of us with MS learn regarding how we tackle our futures and our perceptions of it?
Compare the homepages of these two organizations, and one sees the stark difference. The CFF.org homepage talks about the “dreams of people with cystic fibrosis and their families.” The background images and videos show celebratory moments, such as weddings and graduations. These are people living their lives with CF. It does not take away the pain and realities of CF, nor does it allow them to override the success of living with CF. This approach amplifies hope and grit.
In comparison to CFF.org, the National MS Society homepage regular uses pictures of those negatively impacted by MS.
There is something broken with multiple sclerosis beyond the disease itself, the risks from medicines, and the general populations’ lack of knowing what MS is. (Don’t ask me how many times someone has asked if MS is the disease for which Jerry Lewis telethons raise money.) It heavily leans towards the negative.
We should talk about how this is a never-ending fight. It’s akin to holding a glass of water with a straight arm. It is easy to do for a few seconds, not fun for a few minutes, and painful for a lifetime. Perusing the Facebook MS groups and the MS subreddit, one sees this pain and the horrible effects of this disease. We need peers to share our pain, but it trends too much on the negative IMHO.
I am concerned because of the contagion of negativity and pain. Mark Manson wrote about drama and pain.
Pain is contagious. It’s like a virus. The more we hurt, the more we will feel inclined to hurt ourselves further and to hurt others further. Our own perceived shortcomings will be used to justify further destructive behaviors towards ourselves and towards those around us.
“How To Grow From Your Pain”, https://markmanson.net/how-to-grow-from-your-pain
When I was first diagnosed, this non-stop message of pain only added to the situation and reality of the unknown. It attempted to pull down to the bottom like quicksand. It attempted to deplete hope and grit. We also need peers to share our hopes, successes, and dreams.
We can do better, and we should do better. Perusing those same MS resources, one also sees the camaraderie of the MS community. This should be the foundation to talk about our successes living a regular life while fighting MS. We need to talk about the pain while continuing to live non-perfect yet beautiful lives.
When I stepped forward, I committed to myself that part of that journey would be helping others diagnosed MS warriors. I would tell my story and share my experiences. In that light, please know that I have bad, even horrible, days. I am grateful they are rare.
A few months ago, I spent nine consecutive days in pain. The peak of the pain occurred at night. I woke up screaming because the sheets and blankets hurt. I could not take anything touching my skin. I would describe it as being burned without feeling the heat. What did I do during these nine days?
I got my ass up. I focused on being a great husband and father. I went for a run. I saw my personal trainer and did my daily running strength exercises. I went to work to lead an incredible team. I served my community.
Why? Because I remembered one fact in both the good and the bad moments. It’s something I learned from a person with CF. Every second is a gift. Every day is a gift. They are opportunities to live, to breath, to connect with someone, to achieve, to fail, to love. It took being diagnosed to hear this message.
Regardless of how I am feeling, I push never to lose sight that I was given the gift of time. How I feel and what I think should never take from those gifts. I have a responsibility to respect and appreciate them.
That brings me back to the Armstrong story and a third (bonus) realization. I realized I was on the bike, and I would never stop peddling. I am not alone. All of us are on the bike with our unique struggles – family, children, weight loss, health, money, a loved one dealing with a disease, etc.
Let’s stay on the bike and make sure we are helping the other stay on theirs. There is only one rule – you can’t give up. You must stay on the bike.
I started drafting this blog post on the Monday following the Leadville Trail 100 Race. I felt I owed it to myself and everyone who supported me. Thankfully, I did not finish the draft or publish it. It has taken until now (more than 2 weeks later) to come to the point of digesting all that happened.
“You’re broken down and tired
Of living life on a merry-go-round
And you can’t find the fighter
But I see it in you so we gonna walk it out
And move mountains
We gonna walk it out
And move mountains”
Andra Day, “Rise Up”
For more the 18 months, I wrote in my 5-minute journal nearly every day. It ended with that day’s affirmation. The affirmation has concluded with “I will crush Leadville in X days” except on August 18, 2018. On that day, it ended with “I will crush Leadville today.”
The last two weeks have been detoxification. It’s physiological detoxification from coming off an adrenaline drip for 29:49:39. It’s emotional detoxification for achieving a goal that was created more than three years ago when committed to Jeffrey to pace him. It affirmed a place in my heart when I pulled into Leadville for the first time. It lodged itself into my marrow when I watched Rui Pedras cross the finish line in 2015 with 13 minutes to spare.
I have never met Rui. I probably never will. We live an ocean apart. Yet, I learned something about him as he fell from side to side on his trekking poles. He does not quit. He taught me that strength comes from the something primal in each of us. We have to want it. We have to drive it out with every molecule of oxygen exhaled. It does not care about elevation, fatigue, or circumstances.
I often thought about Rui and his finish during the race. It was a necessity because I felt broken after 2016. I had done the work. I had spent time and energy with some of the best trainers, runners, doctors, and therapists available. The list includes Jay Dicharry at Rebound Physical Therapy, Dr. Oliver and Jeremy Dunbarr at Bluetail Medical, Dr. Matthew Lytle at Precision Health, Jeff Huse at Athletes Unlimited, and Rob Krar at his ultrarunning camp weeks before the race. All of this had prepared me for the race. I could not fathom how much would test me and attempt to break me before the starting gun went off. I felt that I was faking it going into this race.
It’s important to put into perspective something Corky Miller, a friend and LT100 finisher, once said to me. “Leadville is harder than most 100-mile races. It finds a tiny chink in the armor and hammers down on it. Relentlessly and unapologetically.” I experienced this in 2016 with the torn hamstring.
Five weeks before the race, the wheels started falling off. I sprained my right ankle. It happened in the final quarter mile of the last run at Rob Krar Ultra Camp (RKUC). It was entirely my fault and occurred due to my excitement. That run was the finality of an incredible week that turned strangers into family. I was practically dancing downhill and took one misstep. I finished the run but knew something was wrong.
Dr. Lytle quickly rehabilitated me, but I was not sure it would be enough. It was days before the race when the ankle felt almost normal. By the start of the race, I was back to normal and never struggled from the sprain other than some rocked confidence. Unfortunately, I was not thinking about my ankle at the start of the race. It ended up being something worse that would plague the first 10 hours of the race.
I slept well the night before the race. When I awoke, everything seemed normal until some stomach cramping began. I incorrectly attribued the GI distress to nerves. It would rear itself multiple times during the race.
In 2016, I felt I did not belong in the race. It was entirely a self-confidence issue that led to a host of other issues during that race. I would not repeat that this time. I pushed my way to the front and crossed the line in a fraction of the previous time. My race started as planned. Things were smooth sailing as I completed the first five miles that took me out of town.
After the five miles leading out of town, the course has 7+ miles around Turquoise Lake that leads racers to May Queen, the first aid station. I love this section with its rolling hills and beautiful view of the lake. It embodies a feeling of familiarity since it reminds me of the trails here in Missouri. This is despite being the section where I suffered a torn hamstring in 2016. It’s also the section that I paced in 2015 and had my runner doing sub-9 minute miles to finish his race.
All was well until mile 8. The theory of pre-race jitters was replaced by the reality of food poisoning from the previous day’s lunch. It caused frequent stops. More important, it set off a chain reaction that significantly reduced my fuel consumption.
In most ultras, I plan to consume around 250-300 calories per hour. This amount is typical and safe for most runners despite burning up to 800 calories per hour. Consuming too few calories causes a runner to bonk and run out of energy. Consuming too many calories causes a runner to have cramps or worse. The blood rushes to the stomach to deal with the overabundance of food which induces nausea or worse.
I would consume a fraction of the typical amount thanks to the food poisoning. Over the 30 hours, I should have consumed around 7500-8000 calories. The estimate is that I took in approximately 3000 calories or about 100 calories per hour. That downward estimate does not factor in what I returned to the trail gods. Please do not ask what this explicitly means for the sake of the children. Search Google for “what happens when you get food poisoning?”.
My saving grace ended up being Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem. I had trained on this, and it was gentle enough that I could digest it without issues. Most of my calories came from Perpetuem. (Disclaimer: I am a Hammer Sponsored Athlete. I am not required to mention them. I tried this product because they sponsored me. If I had not, I am not sure if I would have finished.)
Two miles after the first GI issues, I ran into another problem. The lake and accompanying winds caused the temperatures to fluctuate. I am usually able to adapt to it; however, it was occurring too fast. The electrolyte and GI stresses made adapting difficult. Either from to the electrolyte imbalance or due to an appearance by my friend MS, I spent the next 2 minutes in unadulterated pain. My brain was smacked with waves of electrical shocks (aka brain zaps).
I had mentally prepared for this. I struggled with something similar years earlier at Clinton Lake Ultra. I had visualized how I would respond should this happen again. I had run this play in my head a hundred times. My thoughts cycled through three thoughts – my family, Rui, and gratitude that I am one of those with MS still able to run. Rinse. Repeat.
I came into May Queen at mile 13 in much better spirits than I expected despite multiple GI stops and the brain zaps. I did not show it. The crew would later tell me that I was different this year. I did not chat with them much. I was focused. Unfortunately, my state of focus visually represents itself as being an asshole. I decided to postpone a change of clothes. It was either my state or the need to chase cutoffs that caused my crew to rush me out of aid stations beginning with that one.
The miles from May Queen to Outward Bound were fun with minimal challenges to report except the ongoing GI issues. Hagerman Pass brought back smiles from 2016 when I was begging my wife to bring me painkillers so I could finish. I was aggressively cautious coming down Powerline after the sprained ankle from RKUC. As I watched another runner unsuccessfully test his ability to fly, I wondered if my sprained ankle was karma teaching me a lesson before the race.
The crew was able to turn me around at Outward Bound quickly. The next section is the one I hate more than any other. It’s a mile through the field of a ranch. It’s tedious and dangerous. The grass makes seeing the ground surface nearly impossible. It’s too easy to take a misstep and prematurely end the day with a twisted ankle or worse. This section also leads out to 2 miles on the road.
Road sections mentally slaughter me. I started running on trails because the road is boring. The emptiness of thoughts leaves my mind to contemplate my capabilities and count mileages. The defeating thoughts of my inner child (aka Fatty Matty) come alive. Also, I hate running next to cars most of which are piloted by mobile phone comatose drivers. Before heading to the next official aid station, I was able to connect with the crew and try to get down some real food.
I made it into Half Pipe with more than an hour before the cutoff. I burned a bunch of this time dealing with GI issues. This was the first time that I worried if I would need to drop from it. I could only run for a short period before getting sick again. I spent an excessive amount of time here hoping to settle my stomach. That investment in time led to a near race ending misstep. I left with a nearly empty hydration vest.
Three miles out of Half Pipe with more than 5 miles to go, my hydration vest was bone dry. I did not have enough time to return to Half Pipe. I decided to push forward despite the rising temperatures. This risky decision was stupid and forced a lesson in personal growth.
I hate asking people for help. It was a struggle to ask people to support the fundraiser. This deficiency can come across as egotistical or a sense of being better than others. The reality is drastically different. I never want the other to think or feel my friendship, love, affection, etc. come with strings attached. I still have never asked my crew to help me with Leadville. I can only hope I make up for this with gratitude towards them.
I broke down and asked a stranger for any extra fluid. A racer named Scott had the same hydration vest as mine, and he left with the back hydration container plus two frontloading bottles. He was able to share one of the frontloaded bottles. That provided enough water to get me through to an ad-hoc water-only station barely. I had forgotten about this station. To Scott, I owe you. You saved my race and my dream.
As I arrived at Twin Lakes, the GI issues had become less violent. I was still unable to consume the necessary calories per hour. With time to spare, I decided to change clothes and address a new issue – blisters. I have not had blisters in almost six years despite thousands of miles. The race had not hit the water crossings yet. Courtney attempted to treat them; however, it was too late. Calluses had already covered the blisters. (Have I ever mentioned how sexy and classy ultramarathoners are? No! Because we aren’t.)
Twin Lakes is where the race really begins. The previous forty miles were foreplay in pain and struggle. The rumor is that more people drop here than any other point in the race. It’s the climb up Hope Pass to the peak of 12,600 feet. Because this was not enough (and for supposed logistical ease), the course was changed in 2017. The change added miles to this section and increased the overall distance of the 100-mile race.
I struggled with this section in 2016 and needed to negative split the return. I was committed to not becoming a victim to it again. The lower water levels helped as I made my way across the field to the climb. My pace was excellent, and I was on my projected times to this point. As I climbed Hope Pass, I ran across its first victim. A runner was hobbling back down the mountain. He had broken his foot. He did not want aid and was in no mood to discuss the circumstances.
I arrived at the turn around point with time to spare. I picked up my first pacer, Jeffrey Stukuls. Jeffrey and I were the combo that negative split this section in 2016. We did not need to repeat that feat, but we also could not relax. The lack of calories began to limit my capabilities at this point.
My body was betraying me, and it was dragging my mind with it. I mentally and emotionally began to check out of the race. I was on the verge of praying for a DNF. I swore we had no chance of completing the race as other runners passed us. In 2016, I was passing people. The difference amplified my emotional state. As my pacer, Jeffrey was left to deal with the broken me.
We arrived back at Twin Lakes with eleven minutes before the cutoff. I needed to cross the chip sensor before 10:00 PM. It was a split decision whether to sit down and change shoes. The other option was to change them out on the trail after crossing the chip sensor. We opted for the former, and I chipped with less than seven minutes to spare.
The mere act of sitting and changing shoes revitalized me. I also picked up a new pacer, Corky. Corky knows LT100 better than anyone I know, and he knows this section better than any other section. It’s why he has paced me on this section both attempts. It’s also why we only lost 15 minutes from the trampled course marker that took us off course. Corky and I began to start passing people. We dealt with rain and sleet. I could not hold my core temperature and had to resort to wearing a jacket.
In the end, we picked up more than forty minutes before the next cutoff. That set the next pacer and me up for success on the section that killed my 2016 buckle.
My pacer changed to Noah Lander. Noah and I left Outward Bound headed for Powerline with plenty of time. I still was not wasting any time in aid stations to rest. Noah made me commit to something I had feared before now. He made me commit to saying, “I will finish Leadville this year.” When I would be on the verge of breaking, he would force me to say it. We started passing people again.
Powerline is measured by its false summits. The true summit is a sight to be seen thanks to its unofficial aid station. It is informally referred to as Space Station. The name is apropos given the volunteer students and Colorado’s liberal laws. It was also a welcome sight for this runner. I had taste fatigue. The hope was that a change of good would help me to keep the food down. I had not done such in nearly 10 miles.
Noah grabbed some potato chips. It was a successful plan for about 10 minutes. The potato chips returned to the trail. I went nearly dead on the inside. It was in this moment that Noah said something that clicked. “Shut your brain off. Zombie run this in.”
I am not sure why those words resonated. Maybe it was the permission to shut down my brain. Perhaps it was the permission to only focus on the present moment and not worry about the future. Sometimes being a pacer is about knowing what to say at the right time. Noah nailed it, and I still don’t fully understand why that worked.
As I returned to May Queen, it hit me that this would be the first time I would leave May Queen headed towards the town. I did not get the chance to take those steps in 2016. Those steps would need to wait though as food poisoning schedule a meeting with me and a porta potty.
Jeffrey and I left with four hours to cover 12.5 miles. This distance was doable given my strength despite my fuel issues. We unknowingly began to slow down. In the first two hours, we covered less than five miles. We were completely unaware and still believed we were on pace to finish. We even passed another runner who asked why we were running (which was really fast walking) given the “abundance of time we have left.” Jeffrey got the slowest and worst of me on the trail.
I spared almost no expense with Leadville this year. One of the additions was the Garmin inReach Mini Satellite GPS. The device was uploading my GPS data every ten minutes. They could see that we were off pace and the finish was severely at risk. They made an executive decision to send Corky and Noah to meet up with us. If they had waited an additional ten minutes for the next GPS push, it would have been too late.
“My new year’s resolution, yeah
Is to choke out my illusions, yeah
And cut through the confusion, yeah
Oh, keep on digging deep, keep digging deep
Keep digging deep, keep digging”
Nothing More, “Don’t Stop”
Corky met up and began to get us back on pace. Even in my delirious state, I would see him calculating the pace and the remaining distance. He was running/shuffling by my side despite wearing corduroy pants. As we exited the woods around Turquoise Lake, I began to lean to the right. My right obliques and right hamstring turned off. I could not activate these muscles.
Corky took over at this point. We had five miles to go with a significant amount of uphill. This same section seemed so alive and optimistic twenty-nine hours ago. It was now demoralizing and transmuting into a dream killer. We moved along for what seemed like forever. At one point, we caught up with Matt Stevens, a crew member.
Matt is the brother of one of my closest friends, Josh. Matt resides in Colorado and had joined the crew to spend time with his brother. A man I barely knew had started at the finish line that morning. He ran the course in reverse to meet us. He did this to provide the exact distance we had to go – 1.9 miles.
It was at this time that Corky asked me if I wanted this – if I wanted to finish or not. I am still not entirely sure I answered the question.
His next statement was that I was no longer in charge. I had to promise to do what he said. If he said run, I ran as best as I could. If he said walk, I did that the best I could. It did not matter. It just mattered that I did what I was told from now until thirty hours.
The last (and first) mile of the race is on the streets of Leadville. It is a rolling hill with the finish line visible from the top. In 2015, I watched dreams die as the race finished with people visible from afar on the top of those rolling hills. It’s too easy to think the race is over when the finish is within sight. Corky is well aware of this phenomenon.
He pushed me to continue running when I could. The video shows me with my hand on his left shoulder. I could not walk straight anymore due to the lean. It did not help that my vision was starting to deteriorate. He was not pulling me. He was guiding me to run straight. He was pointing me to the finish.
For the first time, I truly believed I was going to finish. The point hit me when I saw Rob Krar and his wife Christina Bauer cheering me on. It’s something that will ring in my heart forever.
Everyone kept shouting how Courtney was waiting for me. With the volume of people and emotions, I could not find her. When I finally did, Corky hugged me one last time. We uttered words that will remain between us. Just know that I love that man more than words can ever express. His guidance in my life has and continues to have a profound impact on my mission, my family, and my future.
Corky sent me to Courtney. From there, the video says it all. We crossed the finish line together at 29:49:39. I had less than 10.5 minutes to spare. As our family mission statement says, I “maximized life and potential.” I also maximized my time.
Ultra running, like any endurance sport, is a selfish endeavor. It takes time away from family and friends. I have a slight excuse with my multiple sclerosis. Trail running for long distances has helped me adapt and deal with neurological stress and visual response challenges that commonly plague those with MS.
Courtney asked me on the plane ride home if I wished I had a picture of only me crossing the finish line. I could not imagine any finish other than the one I had. She has been my partner for 25 years. The day I crossed the finish line was the 25th anniversary of our first date.
The finish line was merely the closing of the first quarter century together. I want her by my side and running with me for as long as she will have me. I just hope my friends are by my side to make me a strong and good enough person for her.
Here is the crew that made this happen: (alphabetically by last name) Paul Bastean, Noah Lander, Jon Lauer, Craig McElroy, Corky Miller, Ryan Mortland, Misa Ono, Courtney Porter, Todd Rausch, Jay Steinback, Josh Stevens, Matt Stevens, Jeffrey Stukuls, Holly Turner, and Krister Ungerboeck (the dinosaur).
Finally, I want to thank everyone who followed along at home and for everyone who contributed to the Fundraiser. We raised almost $50k for Race to Erase MS. The mere fact that every mile was worth so much mattered in the darkest moments. Even zombies care.
A few weeks ago, I blogged about why I think people should spend less time on email. I discussed some reasons why one could be spending too much time on email. I confessed my challenges with this at one point in my history. For me, it was about accomplishing something to demonstrate value and self-worth and needing breaks when dealing with complex challenges. I now check my emails less than five times per day.
Perhaps the reasons why one excessively clings to email did not resonate. Perhaps a belief that immediate responses are critical when dealing with clients and employees, and perhaps that belief trumps the causes. Perhaps one did not finish reading the post due to an audible ding indicating the arrival of a new email. I heard similar feedback when I gave this advice to the aforementioned panel.
Regardless of the reasons why one is always on email, there are numerous reasons to change. The financial and productivity reasons should be enough. Yet, it is not the most prominent reason to change.
It can destroy relationships. Period. I am not talking about reading email while at dinner with loved ones. I am talking about the relationships with the people on the other side of the email.
It comes down to reality, expectations, and commitments.
Imagine someone wants to send a package via FedEx. The package is not needed until Christmas which is more than two weeks away. She steps into a FedEx store and decides to send it via FedEx Ground. The package should get there within four days which is more than enough time.
After leaving the store, the agent and the entirety of the FedEx team size up the situation. They unanimously decide to send the package FedEx SameDay after seeing the holiday wrapping paper. FedEx never notifies the customer of the priority change. The package is getting there today, and they are not charging the customer for this upgraded delivery. The customer is ecstatic when she receives a call saying her package arrived the same day!
This happens repeatedly for every package the customer ships with FedEx. It continues through the holidays and for weeks afterward. The customer always chooses FedEx Ground. She always pays the price of FedEx Ground. Yet, packages are repeatedly delivered FedEx SameDay.
The customer eventually discovers this happening, and she is ecstatic. It is a deal for the customer, and FedEx never waivers or complains.
It’s reasonable to believe the customer would no longer select the truly needed priority when sending a package. FedEx never committed to anything other than four-day delivery. Regardless, it has always delivered same day. The customer has been trained to expect SameDay service.
That is the case until the one time FedEx a package must get there tomorrow. The customer now has a decision. Should she send it next day or ship it ground?
If she choses next day, she is now paying additional for the same service that has always been delivered at no extra cost. She may feel this is outrageous because she knows FedEx can do it for the same price as four-day. She may have the opposite reaction and feel this is acceptable as an insurance policy. Yet, I question if this is the feeling one wants a customer to have.
She may consider it financially foolish since packages have always arrived the same day. FedEx has never let her down – SameDay, every day. So, she ships it ground and takes the risk. FedEx is not aware of the imbalanced expectation or the risk. If the package doesn’t arrive on time, the customer is upset and probably realizes she is at fault. It still negatively impacts the relationship because her expectations have not been met.
How did the situation get here? It was a relationship created with initial good intentions by the vendor. It devolved. The misalignment between services purchased and services delivered has created a relationship no longer based on honest expectations. That’s where the problem crept in and began to eat away at the core of the relationship.
As a format, email does not innately convey a priority or expected reply time. It does not even contain a requirement to reply. It needs to be explicitly stated.
If a recipient instantly reads and replied to an email, the tone and expectations are potentially being set for the conversation. When it repeatedly occurs over multiple conversations and is not based on committed priorities and time requirements, the expectations on the relationship between the parties is altered.
People are being trained to expect replies not aligned with committed response times. In customer service, clients are being trained to expect this level of service regardless of the contract or service level agreement. As a leader, teams are being trained this is the expectation of each other and from their leader. This is also the expectation when a customer emails.
Are you training your customers to expect messages read and replies faster than the commitment? Are you training your team that this is the modus operandi for customer emails? For your emails? Are you training your spouse that replies must be instant?
Each day is an Instant Replay
They say what we display is symptomatic of addict behavior
– Eminem “Love Song”
Respect in a relationship is built on met expectations and commitments. Unmet and unreal expectations are critically harmful to relationships. There is no need to create additional ones that will inevitably fail.
Finally, it is potentially insulting. It is about saying that you will set the priority regardless of the sender sending it via a mechanism that implicitly has no real priority. It is about you saying that you are smarter than the sender and will be the one to protect everything by setting this priority and replying immediately.
All of this adds up to being destructive. It can be destructive of your relationships with your team, your customers, your friends, and your family.
I recently wrote about how I was a panelist for EO Accelerator. In that post, I discussed how there are times to share experience, and there are times to give advice. I finished the blog post with the advice I gave the audience that day – Get off your fucking email. I want to take a moment to explain why this direct and intentionally vulgar statement is subtle and critical.
I gave this advice because I used to be this person. I regularly answered emails within minutes of receiving them.
Email me asking to review a proposal due in 30 minutes? I replied within minutes.
Email me asking about plans for the weekend? I replied within minutes.
Email me asking if I have thought much about where our kids will go to college in 5 years? I replied within minutes. OK, maybe that took an hour. We are talking about a life decision. It deserves that extra time.
I would walk out of meetings with my phone in hand and digest emails. There was no time to process the meeting and its takeaways. There was no time to socialize and express gratitude for those in attendance. I thought I was doing well and fully present by not being on email in the meetings.
This behavior led people to email a second time if they had not heard from me within hours of the first email. They would ask if everything was ok. They would ask if I was ok. The answer is no because this is insane. This is majoring in minor things.
“A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Before discussing the causes and impact of this behavior, it’s critical to understand the concept around the size of challenges and an organization.
As an entity grows, the challenges become more substantial. Previously conquered difficulties are later done with ease. Most of us can walk across the room and perform basic mathematics. We engage our muscle memory and do not need to exhaust much mental capacity. The oddity is that very few of us can explain how we do these tasks with ease.
Watch an infant learn to walk or a child learn addition and subtraction. The struggle is visible and palpable.
The same growth of challenges and opportunities occur within organizations. The smaller problems are solved and create growth. As the organization grows, the quantity and volume of opportunities and challenges grow. Each takes longer to solve. For example, a buddy recently closed his 90+-year-old family business and opened a franchise in the same industry. That process took more than 20 months with tremendous challenges and opportunities along the way.
Leaders must grow to tackle these problems. They need to learn new skills and amplify current strengths. The Director of a 50 person company often requires different skills and capabilities to be a Director of a 500 person company. If a leader does not grow, the organization will outgrow him. If the leaders do not grow, the organization will cease growth and probably wither.
Let’s break this down regarding the potential causes of this mindset including what drove this behavior in me.
Procrastination is not inherently bad. It is sometimes the result of needing space for diffuse thinking. In Barbara Oakley’s course “Learning How to Learn“, she discusses how our brains need to step away from problems, especially when learning new skills. This is diffuse thinking mode. It allows our brains to create new connections and solve new problems.
Email can be the opportunity to step away and be effective procrastination. That’s not what I was doing.
I would often jump on email because I did not want to address the significant tasks at hand. They seemed daunting. I was afraid of where to start and being unable to tackle the challenges at hand.
The most likely cause of this feeling was a failure to manage my energy that day. I just didn’t reserve enough horsepower and capabilities to tackle the tasks.
The reality is that almost all work is like math problems. You often have to start and figure it out along the way. Yet, you have to actually start the work.
I was most guilty of wanting to accomplish something by the end of the day. Considerable challenges often take a long time. I became acutely aware of this as a driving force of being on email during our transaction. It was not because there was a need for instant communication with the lawyers, accountants, and private equity teams.
We began our discussions with private equity in March. Our transaction concluded in November. I worked on the transaction every day. It consumed most of my time. We were merging three companies with similar but different cultures. We were bringing in a CEO. We wanted our PE firm to understand our customers.
Many of those days I felt I had done nothing as I walked out. There was no task crossed out that day. Many of our team probably thought I did nothing the same thing since most did not know about the transaction.
In the midst of a monumental moment, I would jump into email threads with replies. I was often included as a courtesy or by accident. I would reply to a customer would accidentally email me instead of their sales rep.
I later realized I engaged because it feels good to accomplish something. I wanted to walk out with a checkbox receiving a beautiful mark that screams “Done.” This was short-sighted and more about my needs than what our talent and organization needed. It was about my self-worth and feeling I had done something.
This is the nasty one. There are multiple ways this could be an issue of self-confidence.
Email is 7% as effective as talking. (We won’t even cover the social impact of other forms of text-heavy and non-verbal communication, such as SMS and Snapchat.) Email does not implicitly convey emotions. It also does not implicitly convey time sensitiveness. These need to be explicitly stated by the sender. In the case of time sensitivity, this would be with phrases such as “This is needed by tomorrow at noon”, “ASAP”, or “Oh, shit. I needed this yesterday.”
How is this related to self-confidence?
Being the person in the know is powerful. Being the person who solves problems is powerful. People express gratitude and encouragement to keep doing this. If the problem is smaller than one’s position, it’s can often be easy because it’s been done a thousand times. It’s a situation of minimal effort with maximum reward. All of this demonstrates one is valuable and can boost self-confidence.
Yet, it’s also extremely selfish and destructive. It’s the concept of being the one-eyed man on an island of blind people. It tells others that one needs to step in because only she can do it. It tells the team that one can do their jobs with part-time effort and partial knowledge. It might be more subtle to send an email to the team saying, “Hey, I know you do the job full-time and consider yourself an expert, but I know best after studying the situation for a few minutes. It’s due to my infinite intellectual capabilities. All of that says here is what you should do.”
The harder and selfless option is delegation. When one does know more, delegation can be an incredible opportunity for development. Instead of replying to the customer who accidentally emailed, delegate to the sales rep and ensured her manager knows in case it is a development opportunity.
Frankly, I never struggled with this as a reason; however, watching people grow always provided a confidence boost. And that is the long game.
Fear of Missing Out.
I struggle to understand this one. Logic overrides my emotions regarding FOMO. Perhaps it is my opinion that Facebook is the curated trophy case of one’s life and Twitter is a steam of people’s current context with minimal character. Perhaps it is the reality that human knowledge is doubling every 12 months. It could soon be every 12 hours.
There is no possible way to know everything that is happening – on email, on Facebook, on SMS. There is no possible way to care about everything that is happening. Regularly checking these is akin to hitting one’s head against a wall. (Pun intended.)
It’s exciting, causes an emotional reaction, and potentially creates brain damage.
“Everybody wants to change the world.
But one thing’s clear
No one ever wants to change themselves.”
– “Do You Really Want It?” by Nothing More
Today, I mainly check my email 3-5 times per day. I never check it as soon as I wake up. I set reminders to check it. That is time for preparing for the day ahead.
All of this was a significant change. It’s made me a better person and a better leader of my family and the organizations in which I lead. I get more done with less distraction.
I changed because of the pain and destruction I was causing. I intend to discuss those in an upcoming post.
A few years back, I attempted to write one thing per day that I appreciated and loved about my wife, Courtney. This would remain a surprise until Christmas morning. Then, on that glorious day, I would see her opening it. I would explain what the journal was. She would smile and maybe even shed a tear.
A few months in, we hit a moment when the world was allowed to bleed in. The foundation of our marriage was rock solid. We were just covered in too much crud. I allowed it to impact me. The journal became a burden. I surrendered to poor judgment, and I stopped. Even worse, I told her about the journal and stopping.
That decision has haunted me for years and remains a huge regret. I knew our relationship was strong. I could feel the strength of our relationship. It did not truly reflect our marriage, my commitment to her, and the inexhaustible list of her incredible qualities. It did not reflect how I felt about her. Yet, I stopped, and I did not truly know why.
On January 1, 2017, I quietly began a new gratitude journal for Courtney. One day, one entry. It took two journals in all. She received those on Christmas morning.
The obvious question is “What changed?” The answer is that I changed.
The better and truer question is “What did I learn that caused this change?”
I later realized that the original attempt was a journey that began with the wrong purpose. Beginning with the wrong purpose would have been acceptable if allowed the option of anything else.
This was all about my aforementioned vision for Christmas morning and how I would look. I wanted to quietly but triumphantly nod to myself like the superhero of Christmas. It was about my story. It was selfish and vain.
This changed with the simple act of writing in the journal. The days when we didn’t click? I wrote in the journal. The days when the world was perfect, and I didn’t want to let go? I wrote in the journal. Days spent away from each other and days when everything was just ordinary? I wrote in the journal.
Pissed off at your spouse? Write down three things you love about them. Don’t use words like “but”.
This changed the purpose somewhere along the way. It became about honoring her and our relationship. This caused the journals became the greatest gift I could have given myself. There were no more visions of grandeur for her opening them. They allowed me to see Courtney in a positive and appreciative light every day regardless of the circumstances of the day.
Thus, I learned that purpose often comes on the journey and to be skeptical if it comes before.
Startups and entrepreneurs love to talk about failure should not be feared. Past failures are considered badges of honor or a rite of passage. This completely misses the point.
Failure typically comes with damage and destruction. At a minimum, it destroys the currency of time. One should fear failure. One should not be proud of the failure itself.
It’s what happens after the failure that matters. Failure can be a seed of growth. This is the growth of a person, a team, a family, an organization, and a relationship. That growth can often reimburse and replenish the failure’s damage.
It took failing for me to get here. It was a course correction for me. I grew from failing the first time around. I approached the endeavor this time with the correct priority and commitment.
Describing a role as a firefighter conjures images of danger and treacherous situations. That’s not the daily reality for firefighters. Calmness reigns over most days. Actions are not dictated by a crisis because there often is no crisis. They remain diligently prepared while conserving mental and physical energy. It’s boredom bookended by crises.
When the fire does happen, they run into it fully prepared together as a team.
This was the mistake made my first time around. The outside world caused a fire in the midst of calmness and bliss. I wavered between running away, running in ill-prepared, or going alone.
Courtney and I are peers and partners in this relationship and this world. We do not need to go it alone, especially when it impacts the relationship. The right response would have been to open a dialogue and communicate. This gives time, options, and support.
I learned to enjoy the bliss and to be prepared for the moments when called to action. Once called, battle the blaze with heart and as a team.
The kids knew what I was doing. I did that because I often wanted their thoughts on what they saw in Courtney. It also created this vibe and excitement as the year went along.
I began to believe that one of the greatest gifts a parent can give her/his child is the true image and story of herself/himself. This also includes the reality of relationships. I want them to see that we love each other and our relationship is not all roses and unicorns. It’s real.
Leave something your children will smile reading when you are gone. Leave something your children will learn from (but not idolize) when you are gone. And also leave something your children will blush reading when you are gone.
Finally, I believe that our marriage is imperfect yet a loving and relentless commitment to each other. We each make a decision every morning and every night that our relationship and the other is important and that each is 100% responsible. Thus, we each commit to improving and growing our individual selves and the relationship.
For me, this is a fairly easy commitment to make when your other truly is your better half and brings you joy. Don’t believe she is? She has two journals put together over one year to prove it.
A few days ago, I was on a panel for early-stage entrepreneurs. This was for the EO Accelerator program. Each of these entrepreneurs has a business with revenue between $250k and $1MM. Each is wanting to grow their business which inevitably means personal growth.
I love serving EO Accelerator. It is a program near and dear to my heart. I was a member of the program more than a decade ago and became the first Accelerator graduate across the global program. I refer to myself as a product of mentors and peers. That started in Accelerator. Thus, I owe it a lot and more than I could ever give back. It’s a blessing to have the chance to try. Furthermore, the energy from these entrepreneurs is incredible and inspiring.
One of the questions asked was a deep reminder that our language protocols matter. Language protocol often matters more than the content.
When I am mentoring or speaking to a panel, I typically default to experience share. This stems from being in EO (Entrepreneurs Organization) and YPO for over a decade. Both organizations are peer-based and use a language protocol that is focused on sharing experiences. It’s referred to as Gestalt.
Experience sharing is done for a multiple of reasons. Frankly, as a peer-based organization, it should not come as a surprise that peers do not like being told what to do. A bunch of mostly Type-A personalities telling each other what to do and how to solve their problems sounds horrible and hostile. Yet, let’s look at the psychology of this.
When a person is corrected or specifically told to do something, it activates the reptilian brain. This is especially the case when someone has been vulnerable and transparent. The reptilian brain takes a defensive stance for protection. In addition, the left cortex begins to tenaciously cling to what it believes to be true and correct regardless if it is.
To further muddle our innate reactions, we look at our own personal actions, challenges, and problems as contextual. Yet, we often look at other’s as representing (a flaw in) character. Sharing experiences rather than giving advice helps stop the judgment of the person’s character. No one wants to be vulnerable to peers and share a challenge or opportunity to then be judged.
Even if one person can withstand that, would anyone else want to head into that potential firing squad?
In contrast, experience sharing lacks this judgment. It comes with context, actions, and results. Every one hearing it, including the person presenting their challenge, has the potential to learn from each person’s experience share. Each can draw out how it applies to her/him. I have learned more from the experience shares to other’s challenges and problems than perhaps they did. That respects my time and talents.
I love and prefer experience sharing. Yet, it is not an absolute.
The panel was asked the question, “How do you focus on your strategy?” This was a pivotal and probably the best question of the day.
As a panelist, I take the role as a serious obligation. I am deliberate in my content and delivery, including language protocol. I will typically default to Gestalt. It is the rule, not the exception. Yet, I intentionally did not for this question.
Certain questions do not need experience sharing. For example, let’s say an entrepreneur shares her challenge of getting people to return every day. Then, she shares her challenge regarding whether she should give those people compensation, such as a paycheck. I can absolutely state that she should probably pay her people. There is no experience share needed.
These are absolutes. Yes, you should pay your people. Yes, you should pay your taxes. Yes, you should treat people fairly and with respect. No, you should not discriminate based upon gender, religion, sexual preference, hair color, skin color, preference of cats vs. dogs, etc.
(There may be details of these questions, such as what, how, when, etc., that are potentially worthy of an experience share. For example, bi-weekly vs. monthly paychecks?)
My answer to the strategy question was absolute. The answer I gave was “Get off your fucking email.” It was that direct and that absolute. It was intentional. I will detail why this was my answer for most entrepreneurs, especially early stage, in an upcoming blog post.
In the meantime, get off your email.