Columbia Business School

Going the Distance: How Endurance Sports Can Fuel Success in Business

Presented by Columbia Business School

Skills mastered through endurance sports fuel success in business, says marathoner and serial entrepreneur Joshua Spodek ’06.

Joshua Spodek ’06 has always had a penchant for endurance sports. A cross-country runner since high school, the New York City resident is a six-time marathoner and nationals-level ultimate Frisbee player, as well as a sometime mountain biker.

Spodek credits his athletic conditioning for his varied and entrepreneurial career. He holds five Columbia degrees, including a Ph.D. in astrophysics. A true polymath, he has helped build an x-ray observational satellite for the European Space Agency and NASA; exhibited his Obie Award-winning public art at the Union Square subway station and Bryant Park; and co-founded multiple companies, including innovative media provider Submedia, which installs images on subway tunnel walls that use the train’s speed to create motion-picture advertising for riders as they travel between stops (much like a flip book). In its 2003 “genius” issue, Esquire magazine included Spodek among its “Best and Brightest.”

Here, Spodek talks about how running continues to shape his professional endeavors.

Joshua Spodek
Joshua Spodek ’06

First things first: why run?

One of the attractions of running is that there’s a freedom to it. Pair of shoes, socks, shorts — and you’re free.

What is the biggest challenge you face when running long distances? 

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You’re not doing this for physical pleasure; you’re doing it for this emotional reward. To me, that mental challenge — thinking about it as an emotional reward — is just as hard as the physical challenge. It doesn’t burn as many calories, but it’s hard!

How has your experience running marathons helped prepare you for being an entrepreneur

A lot of people think entrepreneurs don’t have bosses, or that everyone is your boss. The way I look at it is, you have to be your own boss. You have to be your own motivation. You’ve got to be hungry. You’ve got to hustle. I think that athletics has been that for me. I don’t have someone I report to. That means I have to be very disciplined.

How does training for a marathon compare to preparing for a business launch?

When I train for a marathon, I don’t run the full 26 miles. The longest I usually do is 21 miles, maybe 23. And those extra four miles are really hard. It’s not like 10 percent more [effort] — it’s like 100 percent more pain. So I’ve prepared, [but] all it does is get me to the starting line.

Within the next month, I plan to launch a new online course that I’ve been developing, “How to Lead People So They Want You to Lead Them Again.” I worry, “What if no one buys it? What if I mess up the marketing and the sales, and even though it’s awesome, I ruin it? Or what if the competition comes in, does something better, and catches me standing still?” You have all these jitters and anxieties. Then the gun goes off and you start [running], and you think, “Oh, well, I did train for this; my body knows what to do, and that’s what the training was for.” I believe that I have a great product, and I believe that I’m going to do a great job of marketing and selling it.

How do obstacles in endurance sports compare with setbacks at work? 

[With both activities], you have gut checks along the way: “This isn’t going how I planned; this is a lot worse than I thought; if I stop it’s so much easier.” During my first marathon, around 20 miles or so, it started feeling like the physical pain and the emotional pain were no longer separate. The pain in my feet felt like a relative had died. Maybe not that bad, but I just wanted to cry. I hadn’t felt it before. When my first business was borderline bankrupt, I cried at the office when no one showed up one day. I felt like, “Man, I put in so much work and now there’s nothing to show for it.” Finishing that first marathon prepared me to handle the stress.

How do you keep going?

The step across the finish line is no different from any other step in the whole marathon. That’s not where it ends: that’s just a new beginning. It’s the same in business: learn to find joy in challenging things. For me, [the definition of success has] evolved into enjoying myself. If I’m enjoying myself, that’s it, then I’ve won. I don’t think of that as a competition.

What are some lessons you’ve learned from running that you apply to your career?

The first things: responsibility and discipline. No one is going to take a single step of the marathon for you. If you want to achieve your goal, you have to take the responsibility to do it. Discipline is what it takes to get through. The training for a marathon is six months to a year — that’s a long time. It’s discipline on the hour-long, month-long, year-long, and lifetime-long levels. Again, there is no finish line.

Sometimes when I’m in a meeting and someone is annoying me, but I know if I get mad the meeting will go poorly, I think, “OK, this person is difficult to deal with. How does that compare to that hill on that 90-degree day at 21 miles in?” Then I think, “Oh, this is nothing!” Then it’s no problem. I think, “I can solve harder problems than this.”

The biggest thing of all is to develop emotional skills. Running is a physical activity, but it’s an emotional challenge. It’s easier to see how lifting weights builds muscle. Learning how to paint or put a watch together or fix a home — that’s easy to see. Rearranging your thoughts in order to see running for four hours or devoting yourself to an entrepreneurial effort as something you want to do — as fun, rewarding, and as a better way to spend your time than watching a football game? That’s life-transforming.


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