6 Enduring Marketing Lessons from the Ironman World Championship

image of ironman race logo

Could you swim 2.4 miles? How about bike 112 miles? Or run 26.2 miles? What about doing all three, one right after the other?

Now, if you can imagine doing this in temperatures well in excess of 100 degrees, you’ll understand what truly makes an Ironman, as well as what defines the Ironman.

Every year a few thousand athletes compete in an endurance event called the Ironman World Championship which is held in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. This isn’t for the faint of heart, and quite honestly, I classify these people as borderline insane.

But that’s what makes them so appealing and — to put it simply — awesome.

How does the Ironman race relate to marketing your business, product, or idea online?

In order to clearly grasp the points I want to make here, I’m going to do something we don’t do much at Copyblogger. I’m going to ask you to click play on the video below and watch it until the 1:05:00 mark (don’t worry, it’ll start playing at 1:01:18) …


Click here if you can’t see the video.


I came across this video eight months ago, and was inspired so greatly that I started training for a 1/2 Ironman event myself.

The 1/2 Ironman consists of 70.3 miles (1.2 swimming, 56 on the bike and 13.1 running), but after four months of training I decided to put that dream on hold.

Up until that point I’d been mostly just a runner, so I decided to push my limits there first. In April of next year I’ll be running my first marathon, then get back into Ironman training.

Training vs. trying

It’s pretty safe to say that most folks (talented and freakish ones notwithstanding) are incapable of waking up one day and running — even finishing — an Ironman event.

Sure they can try to do it, but unless they dedicate themselves to train for it, they’ll probably end up being unsuccessful.

It’s much the same with marketing, and running a business. You can try to run one. But unless you make it a priority and put in the necessary hours learning, applying, testing, and repeating that process, you’ll probably fail.

Below are six connections I’ve found between serious Ironman training and achieving success in your marketing campaigns …

1. Respect the race

It’s a big, bad world out there, and life won’t make it easy on you.

In Hawaii, that might mean temperatures and heat indices in excess of 120 degrees with a 40 mile per hour head wind.

For you, that simply might be the competition that exists within your niche. Maybe they’re cutthroat opponents, or they have a much larger social media following.

Whatever the case, it’s vital that you take your business, your niche and your marketing efforts very seriously.

There’s a reason that Ironman bears that name, and why the white seashell markers of failed attempts litter the side of the road.

2. Share a sponge

You might be wondering why Chris McCormack shared a sponge with Andreas Raelert in the final moments of their battle.

It’s a concept called frenemies, also known as co-opetition.

The respect between the Ironman competitors in the video is quite evident, and nearing the end of the race, they embraced and helped each other.

Even though Raelert might not have won that particular race, what we saw was an act of sportsmanship that is often times unmatched in the business world.

Once in a while, or maybe even more than that, it’s ok to share a nugget of wisdom with other leaders in your niche. Share a sponge with them.

Copyblogger befriends many who are considered competitors. It’s a big race, and there’s a lot of room for co-opetition.

Good sportsmanship is good business.

3. Stay in front

As the narrator of the video pointed out, it seemed as though there was a part of Chris McCormack that wanted to be a step ahead of Andreas Raelert.

In the marketing space, this is simply known as good strategy.

What that means is that you should be putting your efforts into being a leader, and not a follower. Set trends, rather than copy them.

When you’re out in front of your race, you get to set the pace. You get to dictate how fast you are going, which ultimately means you’re in total control.

You’re never on top, and if you do find yourself there, you should be just getting started.

4. Just go

Once in a while, you need to take the initiative and just go.

No matter what your competition might be doing (or what direction they might be heading), there are times where it makes sense to push the limits.

As Mark Allen did in the “Iron War,” he found the right opportunity to kick things into gear and captured a lead that he never lost.

In your case, that might be while your competitors are busy building a product, or taking some time away.

If you see that happening, it’s the perfect time to step it up and do your thing.

5. Look back, strategically

So we’ve encouraged you to “just go” with your business and marketing campaigns, but it would be foolish to do that without looking in the rear view mirror once in a while.

A successful business should always have an awareness of where their competitors are, or what they might be doing.

As you see in the video, after Chris McCormack pulled away he continually looked back to see where Andreas Raelert was. In other words, he didn’t want to assume he’d won the race.

If you’ve managed to put some innovative space between yourself and your competitors, check up on them, keep track of what they’re up to.

You don’t want to be in cruise control when they hit the NOS and blow right past you.

6. Finish strong

Like every good Ironman competitor, you should reserve enough energy to finish strong. Nobody wants to limp to the finish line, and certainly, nobody wants to completely collapse just short of it.

That means that training and discipline are essential along the way, and more importantly, being fully prepared for the unexpected.

I recently read a book from the 4-time Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington that talked about the things she would do to mentally prepare herself for a race.

It’s mind boggling to comprehend all of the angles in which she trained, and this is something I’m personally trying to do more when it comes to my job and our business.

Are you an Ironman?

You might think that participating in an Ironman event is easier than it looks. If you’re in that camp, then I’d suggest you give it a try.

Unless you’ve put in countless hours training and preparing for said event, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll fall flat on your face.

I’m not trying to be mean, because the fact of the matter is that I would, too.

Running a business and developing a marketing plan are no different. If you think you can just jump off the couch and deliver a successful, full-blown product or service, you’re setting yourself up for a lot pain and disappointment.

Take a look around at those who are at the top of the business marketing game. They didn’t get there overnight, and they certainly weren’t handed their current audiences and revenues on a silver platter.

My guess is that — like Chris McCormack — they’ve killed themselves with preparation.

And, like an Ironman champion, the success they’re tasting right now is pretty sweet.

Do you have it in you to become an Ironman? Are you one today? Let me know in the comments …

About the Author: Brian Gardner is a founding partner and Chief Product Officer of Copyblogger Media. Starbucks Addict. Sarah McLachlan Fan. Nomad Theorist. Future Ironman. Aspiring Blogger. Get more from Brian on Twitter and Google+.

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Comments

  1. Very inspirational Brian! The race is definitely not for the faint hearted.

    It’s truly remarkable as to what you can achieve when you put your mind to something. When you give your soul to it. And when your passion overrides fear.

    I totally agree that building a real business is much more than having a vision. It’s having a solution to reach that vision.

    Thank you for these insights!

    • I had a fun time writing this post, as I literally envisioned some of the endurance races I’ve participated in as I typed. Building an audience and business is definitely not a sprint, so it’s crucial to develop a plan. Without one, you’re being blown in the wind without any course – which usually ends up nowhere near the finish line.

      • I bet it was fun! And you’re right, without a plan you’re setting up your business for failure.

      • Yeah this is great comparison indeed and you got it right. Nothing can be won overnight. Training is inevitable if you want to win. All the other tips like co-opetition is great. I guess guest blogging is part of that world too.

    • Great post. As an Ironman myself, the event taught me more about myself and the limitless possibilities we all have….but dedication to the cause, whatever it is, is the absolute key.

  2. Just what I needed today Brian.

    When you get down and nothing is going your way it’s difficult to continue on. Even when you fall down the thought of getting back up can be overwhelming.

    But when I read the title of this mornings post I had to read it all.

    I’m not an ironman at anything because I’ve not put in the necessary training to become one. Yes, I’ve got a little knowledge about a few things but not nearly enough to say that I’m at that status.

    But I do realize now what my problem is. To be successful at anything it requires training first.

    This is where I’ve failed. Now I’ve been inspired to go train to become truly successful.

    Thanks Brian.

    • I’m often asked how to build a successful blog and establish a following. The one thing I always do is bring up the concept of training vs. trying and how writers often experience “the wall” in the same way marathoners do.

      The early stages of running 26.2 miles, of establishing a business or starting a blog are no different – filled with joy, with ambition and the with the “yes I can” mentality.

      But at some point, we’re met with the physical and mental pain of doing something extremely difficult. That’s when two roads diverge, and usually those who choose the one less traveled by experience the difference.

      In some cases that means finishing the race. In others, it means establishing traction and becoming successful online.

      Either way I encourage everyone not to throw in the towel.

  3. Love it! It’s amazing what you can learn from doing an Ironman. My husband & I used to race this many years ago, and only last year I went and watch a girlfriend race again. I actually did a post on this, and thought I would share it with you (please delete my post if you would prefer that I didn’t post this, but it’s something I’m passionate about :-)http://debpilgrim.com/_blog/Blog/post/Doing_Your_Very_Own_Ironman_Triathlon/ .

    • Great post you’ve got there Deb, I always enjoy reading personal accounts of Ironman races. More than anything, I simply find it fascinating how many parallels there are with running a business and endurance events!

      • I got all kinds of business ideas from reading Dean Karnazes’s work (he’s one of the people who popularized ultra marathons), but since I don’t run ultra, or even, uh, 5Ks, I thought it would be weird of me to write about it. :) But you’re right — so many parallels.

  4. Tea Silvestre :

    That video was just…perfect. And I immediately felt the humor and pain of the announcer’s voice when he said, “these folks CHOOSE to do this.” Training is essential if you want any hope of crossing that finish line. And if you’re going to choose the entrepreneurial life, you better get serious about the challenge. Thanks for such a great reminder.

  5. Brian-

    Your post struck a serious nerve with me. I just finished my first Ironman distance race this weekend (Vineman in Sonoma). What a rush!

    I can barely walk even today from the soreness and fatigue.

    Your Point #2 about Sharing a Sponge is spot on.

    I met someone on the run and we ran the whole way together. We encouraged each other to keep running. We pushed each other to finish in under 14 hours. Goals both of us achieved.

    Finishing strong was one of the most profound and moving moments in my life. I kicked it at the end and the cheers from the crowd and the announcer saying “Here comes Jarie, finishing strong!” made me kick even harder!

    I met a women who lost her daughter the week before. She was racing for her memory and the pain and sorrow was palatable. She chocked when she talked about her but vowed to not stop until she finished because that’s what her daughter would have wanted. It moved me to tears.

    I am forever changed by this. I look at life in a completely different way. The only limits we have are the ones we impose on ourselves — be it in life, sport or business.

    You should go for it. If you can do a 1/2, you can do a full. It just takes pushing that little extra bit to make it past the finish line.

    Inspired!

    Jarie

    • Jarie – thanks so much for the comment and encouragement. That’s so awesome to hear about your experiences at Vineman. Believe it or not, I had look into that race, and really wanted to get in but it had sold out. Perhaps next year it might be something I consider after I tackle the Big Sur Marathon in April!

      • Brian-

        Vineman is a great one to start with. Great support and scenic.
        I have always wanted to do Big Sur. It’s such a beautiful run. Maybe I’ll sign up and see you there :)!
        Jarie

  6. Whao!
    What can I say Brian?
    That was awesome
    My favorite part is that lady with the inscription of “I can do all things through Him who strengthen me” on her T-shirt

    It was so emotional ” I almost cried!
    Don’t tell any one OK?
    Thanks you

  7. Great post, Brian! I agree with everything you say. You might find in your first full Ironman distance race that training for an Ironman doesn’t completely prepare you for what you’ll face on race day. You’ll have to dig even deeper and make the important distinction between training and execution. I wrote about that distinction in my line of business over here >> http://blog.mcclureco.com/what-ironman-triathlon-taught-me-about-green-building-certification/

  8. Whenever I meet a business owner that doesn’t “have time” for marketing I’m stunned. You don’t have the time to help your business grow and succeed? If you want to make it you better make the time! There is no quick or easy way to win.

    • That’s pretty much the same thing as someone saying… “I really want to run a marathon but don’t have time to train.”

      Um, good luck with that. ;-)

  9. Great analogy! Let us know when you finish your first marathon.

  10. Great analogy, Brian. I’ve completed numerous triathlons, but not the full Ironman. Or even the half, for that matter. But the one thing that becomes apparent in training, especially as the distances increase, is that it is one thing to train and be comfortable in each of the three discplines – swim, bike, run – but another matter to put them all together, back-to-back. While each event stresses a part of the body – arms, legs – the cardiovascular system must perform at peak level for the entire event. As in business, you have to attend to all elements – the product, the marketing and the customer – in order to be successful.

    Alas, I’ve had to give up the running portion of the triathlon because of spinal problems, so I’m focused on masters swimming now. But the triathlon is clearly the most challenging . . . and most rewarding fitness endeavor there is.

    • The funny thing for me when it comes to Triathlon is that I have no problems with the bike and run. It’s the 1.2 miles swimming that was the challenge.

      I suppose that mirrors what we all experience in life, and especially in the business world. We all have an “achilles heel” when it comes to running one, it’s a matter of identifying it and making sure it stays intact.

  11. Wow! Thank you for this, Brian. I’ve touched my toe into sprint triathlons and half marathons, but am mainly and endurance sport fan. Literally, I have the Ironman t-shirt and that’s all! But what a touch of memorable Ironman imagery to inspire my marketing business. In fact, sharing that sponge should just be our way of life in general.

    Thank you for the sponge!
    Gayle

    • Hey Gayle – great to hear you’ve gotten (no pun intended) your feet wet with triathlons. If you’re really looking to push yourself, I’d highly encourage you to watch the entire video above if you haven’t seen it already. They are incredibly inspiring!

  12. Nice post. I agree that there are lots of parallels between success in endurance events and in business.

    On #3 (“Stay in front”), I’d also argue that there are benefits to holding back a bit – both in running and in business – before you push hard to pull ahead of others and/or win. I’ve not yet done an Ironman (though I’ve run 5 marathons and am training for the NYCM now), but there’s also psychological and physical advantage to letting someone else set the pace for a while (drafting) before making a move. In running, at least, this is a much more common strategy than setting the pace or taking the lead too soon.

    Many of my best races and most memorable finishes involved staying back before making my final kick. There’s no feeling quite like passing lots of runners as you charge toward the finish line. Going head-to-head with someone (in running and in business) also helps you push yourself beyond what you can achieve on your own (competition is good).

    That’s how I set my half-marathon PR in Lake Placid (2010): Battling it out in the final couple miles in a less glorified Chris McCormack-style duel of my own (coincidentally against an Australian guy). We pushed each other harder than we would’ve run without the other, exchanging the lead a number of times, before I eventually pulled ahead to crush my previous half PR and beat my goal time on a very tough course. We weren’t exactly the top overall finishers, but I waited for my competition at the finish line and we shared a knowing handshake.

    In business, sometimes it’s OK not to be first to market, especially if it means you’re taking your time to deliver a higher quality product to your customers.

  13. Dear Brian, I am respectfully thankful for this Ironman Inspiration. I have been up and down thinking and trying to be one of people who are successful, when i read this post i realize to be an Ironman is not all thing I usually do right now, but I think i can be one, I am now doing the start and willing to go through. Thank you. Regards

  14. Great article, Brian! The point that resonated with me especially was “sharing the sponge.” Being self-employed is HARD, and in my experience, only other entrepreneurs can understand and appreciate the crazy amount of time, effort, blood-sweat-and-tears it takes.

    Also, a little friendly competition is always a good thing. It pushes you to constantly better your service/product, which means an infinitely better experience for the customer. Win-win. :)

  15. Would have been good to see Chris in the Olympic team but i guess he’s more suited to the Ironman distance.
    Did tri’s back in the late 80’s early 90’s and then focused more on swimming.
    Never did the Ironman or half Ironman distance.
    2 hours of pain was enough.
    Would be good if they increased the swimming leg so all legs take around the same time.
    Seems that weaker swimmers can still win races where as weaker runners rarely do.
    Got a lot of respect for people that do these type of endurance sports because it promotes healthy living and is a great way to clean the slate every day rather than hit the Booze or drugs.
    P.S NEVER GET BEATEN BY A KIWI!

  16. Not surprised to see your article here Brian. Just got your ‘Lookie here’ titled newsletter and I’s like superb. Not only the point you’ve made here is great but you even succeeded in propagating Ironman Championship :)

  17. Cool! Inspirational indeed. Made me envision bloggers running next to those two men, then BAM—they stop running to check their Twitter streams, Facebook timelines, and RSS feeds. :)

  18. I couldn’t agree more that running a business is akin to doing a marathon. And I give you major kudos for wanting to do the Ironman!

  19. Nicely done, Brian! I would add that folks or pros in training for an IM get up and they consistently do the (non-glamorous) work that is required. Every. Day.

  20. Awesome post! I was out there racing my 7th Iroman on that day, albeit a little bit behind Macca & Andreas. ;)

    What’s your next Ironman event Brian, or were you crazy enough to sign up for another?

  21. Brian – My biggest take-away from about 15 years of triathlons and some half-Ironmans is how vital the transitions are – and the advantage one can gain by learning how to do them well.

    In a business environment where we are all pivoting more frequently, planning and practicing how to make the next move more seamlessly can save a lot of wasted time.

    • Jeff, it’s really interesting that you point out the importance of the transitions. Most folks emphasize their preparation (with endurance races that is) on the physical element, and not so much the mental.

      In business, I think we all have areas we feel are less important than the obvious ones, but as you said there’s a huge advantage to be gained from focusing on the smaller things.

    • Nice point, Jeff, thanks. :)

  22. Very inspiring to keep every one stay in the ‘farm’ and never stop to train. TRY and TRAIN that is the bold statement I find here Brian.

    Any way, that have been months for you to blog more often on your own blog. But this is your only post here, is that blogging activities also part of your training before your post here?
    Can’t wait your next post Brian ;-)

  23. HI Brian!

    Great inspirational post and certainly ironman has got the ability and most of important from all is that he got the encourage to do every task. Secondly, great compilation the main point with the example I love that Brian ;-).

    Thanks for sharing great worthy content.

  24. I think I’ll just start off with something like Warrior Dash or Tough Mudder. Iron Man isn’t calling my name yet.

    Starting out small and working your way up isn’t a bad idea either. It’s how most small businesses grow.
    Once you master the “basics,” you can continue training/growing to meet your goals.
    Plus, when you become a “front runner,” this doesn’t mean you can start to relax. Especially in Marketing, look for new or improved ways of doing things, so you can stay ahead of your competition.

    Good stuff Brian. Thanks for making these connections.
    Anyone else feel like going for a run?

  25. Very nice and inspiring article, I like the comparison between sport and business. I don’t run ironmans but I often relate between my sport practice and life in general. I love how you differentiate training and trying, it’s so true. You have to set goals, practice, build up and not give up.
    Thanks for that great article!

  26. Thanks for writing this post. It was very inspirational and it was lovely to see them share the sponge at the last minute. Like you said, true sportmanship.

  27. Good stuff Brian. “frenemies…In the business world I have seen so many people take a me, me, me attitude; even amongst those on the same team. This approach is never a good thing…

  28. John finishes reading the Ironman article. With sweaty palms and an anxiously racing heart he pushes his dark chair back so hard from the desk the wheels almost pop off. The wood floor cracks and pops as his feet slam down to raise his body into the air as he yells, “I’m ready, Brian! I’m ready!”

    … Hey I was just trying to set a new trend in leaving comments. ;-)

    Great comparison. It’s funny because for me I’ve been somewhat successful in building my niche sites but my blog, not so much. To be fair, I haven’t focused on it much; but that’s changing as I’m going to be releasing a new product soon.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the video and the article. Thanks for taking the time to write it and good luck on your training.

  29. Excellent analogy between the ironman and marketing. To be successful, the marketing and seo of a website needs to be viewed as a long term on-going project. I was bad this summer and took a break from my seo but this video has reminded me that I need to get back at it. :)