CEO Lessons Learned from Ironman Distance Triathlons

By Nick Smarrelli

When I was growing up and competing in sports, I had to work my tail off to make up for a lack of natural athletic ability. I was tall, lanky and generally uncoordinated, but I wasn’t afraid of hard work. So sometimes, I outperformed the naturally gifted athletes purely on heart, determination and grit.

This ability to work harder and smarter to accomplish goals has served me well in my athletic pursuits, as well as my career. I’ve spent the last six years training for and competing in Ironman competitions around the country, and there is nothing like the view from the finish line.

Here are the top six lessons I have learned from competing in Ironman competitions that also apply to running a company:

1. Enjoy the journey
It takes, on average, six months to train for the Ironman, but it takes only two seconds to cross the finish line. To tackle what may seem like an impossible challenge, I confront the brutal reality that the cost of that two-second rush of adrenaline is time away from family, early morning alarm clocks, black toe nails, shin splints and more. I try and break the journey into smaller parts, celebrating the daily win of achieving a goal, feeling great on a long run or tackling a tough workout. I try to do the same at work. Recognizing the incremental steps towards a big business goal is the daily dose of dopamine needed to make the journey worth the effort.

2. Measure everything
When I train, I measure everything: The length of my runs, how many calories I eat, the speed of my swims. It’s the same with my business. We have KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for everything, and it helps us understand where we need to focus our efforts. It quickly identifies weaknesses, it rewards progress and creates accountability. If we don’t measure everything, we won’t know what to attribute that growth to and where we still need to get things on track.

3. Easy is boring
It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. When I set out to train for a race, I set ambitious goals — stretch goals — and try my best to meet them. That’s exactly the way I approach business, too. Having top notch customer service, superior products, helpful staff and a great company culture are hard fought, but always striving for these ideals is what sets our company apart.

4. We all want to quit at some point
While training for each triathlon I have competed in, at some point, I wanted to quit. I make it through those times of doubt, exhaustion or physical pain by visualizing a breakthrough on the horizon. If I didn’t push myself when I want to quit, I would never swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles in a single day. I try and keep that mindset when my company is striving to accomplish an equally grueling growth goal. Wanting to quit doesn’t mean we have failed, it means we need to press a little harder.

5. We cannot succeed alone
I can’t compete in triathlons without the support of my family, my trainers and my workout partners. They each play a key role in my success. I am certainly not a one-man show in my company, either. I do not have the knowledge, skills or bandwidth to do the jobs of everyone in my company. We all rely on each other for success. It’s not weak to rely on others, and that is something Ironman competitions remind me constantly. My father always taught me to “know what you don’t know” — easily the best wisdom I’ve received, as a kid and a CEO. I’m not good at a lot of things, so I surround myself with people who complement my weaknesses. I bring in experts in nutrition, I ride with the best bikers, I run with the quick runners and send frequent videos of my swim technique to my network of experts.

6. There is always room for improvement
When I finish a difficult race, it feels good to bask in the accomplishment. What motivates me to sign up for the next one is that I know there is always room for improvement. Next time, I want my swim to be stronger. I know I can shave time off the bike leg. Likewise, there is always some area of our business we can make better — process, our customer journey, team collaboration, our sales pitch, engineering efficiency, culture and more. We set daily, weekly, monthly and annual goals — we post them proudly and refer to them frequently. They are a powerful reminder of what’s possible.

An Ironman may seem like a self-serving pursuit, but for me, the rewards extend far beyond personal satisfaction. I’m not an elite athlete. I don’t finish at the front of the pack, but I thrive on trying my best to get there. The lessons I’ve learned from competing in distance triathlons provide a foundation — and the endurance — to be just as disciplined in my office chair as I am on my bike saddle.


Nick Smarrelli is an owner and the Chief Executive Officer of GadellNet Technology Solutions, a 5-time Inc. 5000 fastest-growing company, providing outsourced IT solutions, cyber security and technology consulting to small businesses throughout the Midwest.