Leadership & Management March 06, 2019

Moving boundaries every year

Interview with Michael Gilgen about ultrarunning and business performance

Michael Gilgen  is one of the few ultra-runners who has crossed four different deserts in one year. He is also Krauthammer Senior consultant based in Switzerland. We spoke with him about his running experiences and how sports can impact business performance.

1. How did you become an ultrarunner?

At the age of 15, I started to run regularly. I took part in a race, just for fun. I did well and I realised this is something I’m good at. You start small, first 5 km, then 10 km, then a half marathon, and so on. Ultra racing means that the track is longer than the classic marathon distance of 42.195 kilometres. Overall, it’s about achieving goals that go further than what you’ve done so far. You’re looking for a bigger challenge.

2. What does it take to be an ultrarunner?

You need to know why you’re doing it. Only then you can develop the mental strength you need to endure the huge effort required. Nobody just runs like that. Running is always about fulfilling a need for meaning, be it "freedom from your mind" or "testing limits". My last race in Kenya was a 230 km sponsored run for rangers protecting rhinos. When it got hard in the race, it helped a lot to know that with every step I was contributing to this cause.

3. How do you prepare for an ultrarace?

With a training plan to stay physically fit. However, when you’re training you can never go as far as in the race itself. I inform myself about the terrain and take care of further preparation; what are the best shoes, which food do I need to support myself, what kind of equipment do I need? That’s complex. I learn a lot through literature and discourse with other runners.

The rest is a matter of the mind. It’s important to respect the distance. It doesn’t work without respect and you have to be ready to overcome your fears. Fear is always there. I have a snake phobia and I had to face it in the Jungle Ultra Run in 2017.

4. What were difficult moments and how did you survive them?

In 2017, I also participated in a desert race in Namibia. I was dehydrated. To go on in such a situation, you need the will to see the finish line. I could have climbed into the jeep and let myself be driven back. I said to myself "hey, you have a water shortage now, that's tough, but you can get through that." What helps are positive images you can recall. For me that’s images from other races, which I’ve already overcome. These are mental stirrups to help you. You have to bring your positive inner attitude forward and think "everything negative also has positive sides". If you make it, you say, "Wow, I can survive a lot."

5. What can you transfer from running to your consulting job?

Business is also about motivation and achieving goals. However, goals can come from above and you might not be able to classify them properly. When you get an assignment and you don’t understand what’s behind it, it’s difficult to be motivated and to get started. As a leader, it’s important to think about the purpose of the task I’m giving to an employee. The employee will only be motivated if he believes the task is meaningful. To do this, the manager himself should be a role model and communicate clearly. When goals are too abstract, it often makes little sense to employees. Why should I go the extra mile for that?! If the goal is embedded in the right context, clearly communicated, and achievable, then that’s something else.

6. What tips from sports can help increase performance in business?

Goals are crucial. Goals that lead to determined action and come from a vision. That’s what we treat first in our management training. How do I get my people moving? It’s always through finding meaning. As a leader, you have to think of the chain like this: putting high demands on myself - placing high demands on others - helping others with their development and demonstrating exemplary behaviour. Employees can only be efficient if they understand the purpose of the action, if they are personally willing to do so, and if they have the skills to do it.

From sports you can also learn not to tackle everything like a mad man, and then collapse immediately afterwards. Sometimes it’s better to start out a bit calmer to get through the long haul.

7. Would you recommend anyone start running?

If someone feels the need to run, he will do it. What I would rather recommend is to continue living for your own passion, no matter what it is. For me it’s just the race. Other people enjoy team sports, read books, or play the piano.

8. What’s your next race?

At the end of April, I will participate in the BADWATER® Salton Sea. This is a 130 km long race above San Diego, through the deserts and mountains of Southern California. We’re going through several climate zones that will be demanding. The height difference is 2740 m. You have to run at least in a pair because there are very difficult trails.

With his runs, Michael sponsors the Theodora Foundation, which gives seriously ill children in Switzerland the pleasure of hospital clowns. michael-runs-for-kids

Interview done by Susanne Barth, Publications Manager 

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