Some time ago I was told that I am going to meet a guy. ‘He’s even crazier than you’, told me my managing consultant, referring to the IRONMAN training regime, so I was looking forward to shaking this guy’s hand.His name was Casper Wakefield. Our first conversation looked more or less this way:
Me: I heard you’re crazy. What do you do?
Casper: I run ultra marathons.
Me: Oh, cool! Did you do that one where you have to do several marathons on a desert on a few consecutive days?
Casper: Marathon des Sables? Yeah, done that.
Me: Amazing! What was the longest ultra marathon you’ve done so far?
Casper: Yukon Arctic Trail in Canada, it was about 700 km long.
Me: (‘Holy **** snacks, you crazy man’, I commented in my head) Oh wow. How long did it take you?
Casper: 7 days.
Me: Was that the cut-off time?
Casper: No, that was the world record.
I later found out that 15 people started the race that year and only 8 finished it. Not only did Casper do about 100k every day – he also had to run on snow and pull his own sled, as it was a self-catered race. Finally, he also booked his return tickets in advance of the race – basically his thought process must’ve been ‘700 km, snow, sled – yeah, I should be able to make it in about 7 days. Window or aisle seat?’.
Casper kindly agreed to responding to 5 questions – and his answers should be an inspiration for endurance athletes, people wanting to get fit, business people and anyone else interested in crossing over barriers, both physical and mental.
ironconsultant (i): First of all Casper – why? (And I mean why did you choose pushing yourself to the limits of human physique instead of e.g. playing darts or becoming a competitive beer drinker?)
Casper Wakefield (CW): I have always enjoyed sports. When I was younger I played football and handball, which are both team sports. As I started to work, and also raised a family I found that I wasn’t too good of a team player anymore, so I started to do more individual sports like running, mountain biking and also kayaking – basically all the stuff I could fit in when I had the time.
In my late 20s and early 30s I was racing marathons competitively, but after doing this for a number of years I picked up adventure racing and ultra running, where many other factors are playing a critical role, and you are not so much focused on km split times etc. Also you often train and compete in beautiful places with mountains, water and forest. The mental challenge is much greater, how you eat, your gear and your ability to rest and recover quickly are all hugely important factors.
And I must admit, I’m fascinated by constantly challenge the status quo, continuing to push the limits, to find out what is actually possible if you put your mind to it. Most limitation that we imagine as humans are mentally created barriers, and I’m both inspired and fascinated by how we can move this barriers.
i: You’ve been in C-level leadership positions over the last 11 years. At the same time, you have trained for and finished several ultramarathons, including winning the Yukon Arctic Ultra. How have those sport experiences impacted your business thinking & activity?
CW: Absolutely and on several levels. First of all, I think that I have always had a certain level competitiveness in my personality. I grew up with a brother, so I have been used to always competing, both in sports, for our parents attention, for the best seat at the dinner table etc. But I think competing in marathons and ultra running competitions have made me a better colleague, as I’m not as competitive at work, which I think I would have otherwise been.
Secondly, I have been fortunate to win some of the ultra races that I have participated in and even set some course records along the way – that type of experience builds incredible self-confidence which you can use and leverage in many other settings, both privately and in business context.
i: For those whose excuse for not exercising is ‘I have no time, I’m too busy’ – how did you manage to combine your COO roles with training for ultramarathons?
CW: There is always an excuse not to train, something always comes up – it’s the same for me, as for anyone else. The difference is that I have chosen to make running a ‘must-happen’ activity everyday – it’s a key priority; the question is not if will go running, but when and potentially how many times I will do it that day.
Of course, this is about planning as well – you can plan your days to ensure you get your run in – if you know that you have a busy day and an appointment in the evening, get up early an run. If you are going to a dinner – run to your friends house, and ask if you can take the shower there! If you’re training at a running club, don’t take the car there, run there to maximize the km. Bring your trainers with you when you travel – you can always find a place to run and there is no better way to discover a new place. I have 3 kids, so when I take them to football practice on weekends, I don’t stand around and wait for 1 hour, I go for a run while they train, I then go back home and pick up the next kid that has practice at a different time and do the same again, so I find a way to fit in the training with other family related activities. I also enjoy running in the evening – if I’m getting a little tired I actually find that it freshens me up again, which is sometimes helpful when I’m working from home in the evening after the kids are in bed.
i: When you’re racing, do you get a tiny voice in your head that tells you that you’re too tired and you need to stop? How do you deal with it?
CW: Yes !! I know the inner voice – and there has been a lot of scientific studies done to show that the voice controls your self-esteem and performance, so in other words, you need to be able to control the voice.
Now – how do you control the voice? I would say that ultra running is 30% physical performance and 70% mental performance, but by being in great physical shape, you can build mental surplus and the self-conviction of imminent success. You need to spend a lot of time in the training zone, where the voice starts appearing, so that you can recognize what it feels like on your body, to detect it early and start manipulating it by thinking about positive things like friends and family, things you are looking forward to when you get back, stories that bring positive vibes etc. Also once you have worked yourself through a crisis, you know what that feels like, and you start getting more comfortable with pushing your body through those phases rather than starting to panic or convincing yourself to stop.
You also need to be very comfortable with all your equipment, having tested it and trained with it in real conditions. The less time you need to spend on playing about with equipment trying to make it work, the better. All these activities around managing your rucksack, your food/energy, hydro-system etc. – this should all happen on auto pilot, so you can focus all your energy on managing the inner voice.
It’s also important to start breaking down that big challenge into some small easily-digestible pieces, where you have a high likelihood of succeeding. So as an example, do not focus on the fact that you still have 350km left of a race, but think about the fact that you only have 12km to the next check point, where a clean t-shirt is waiting for you or you get to rest for 30 minutes. This way you design your own journey for success rather than allowing yourself to focus on the negatives of the challenge ahead of you.
i: Finally, what’s your “why” for living your life as you do?
CW: Great question – for me this is a lifestyle now. I think I’m both physically, mentally and chemically addicted to running. Running is my personal space, away from kids, colleagues and friends. It’s the time where I get to clear my mind, reflect on things and recharge my batteries. I believe staying healthy and fit gives me advantages in most aspects of life. I can do sports with my kids, I can go hiking, skiing, biking and playing other sports without worrying whether I’m fit enough to do it or whether I’ll get injured. I also think it generally gives me a higher level of energy, which means I can accomplish more and I deal well with high intensive workloads, because I’m in a good and healthy physical condition.
I’m sure that the production of endorphins during workouts also focuses my mind on making sure I make time to get my running done every day.
Finally, I always have some small running vision or project cooking in the back of my mind. By constantly being in good shape, I know I’m always within reasonable reach of being able to pursue some of these dreams with 3-6 months of intense prep – this is also a great motivational factor.
So there you have it – words from the champ himself. I hope you found them as inspiring as I did. Time to move!