Start Up

On Startups and Ultra-trail Runs

Harry Järn
February 29, 2024
5 min

We are right in the middle of Finland’s ultra-trail racing season, and just about a week from my main race for the year: NUTS Ylläs-Pallas 165 km race up north in Lapland. And we are also in the middle of scaling up our NXT:FWD startup. Crazy busy times, right? 

So I thought this is a pretty cool moment to reflect on the emotional & physical process of running an ultramarathon and about the similarities between the two things I love: startups and ultramarathons. Maybe the main similarity being how important the team is in both running a race & a startup: very seldom, if ever, anything is possible without a proper team.

But first of all I want to frame  my perspective on running & competing in general: When running, I compete against myself, not others. I set bars to myself which I want to reach. Pretty much the same way in professional life: I compete against myself & if somebody else succeeds or achieves more, it is not away from me. In essence, I don’t see life in general as a zero sum game, a competition against others where one has to lose in order for the other to win.

One important clarification  before discussing  the learnings and similarities: I’m talking here about ultra-trail runs, which are typically done in the wilderness, in the middle of nowhere. So, if anything happens, you don’t have the luxury to just step aside & take the first taxi back home, have a beer, and continue watching Netflix.

Photo: NUTS Karhunkierros 2023, Rami Valonen
Ultra-trail in reality. Photo: NUTS Karhunkierros 2023, Rami Valonen

Keeping that in mind, it’s actually surprising how seldom, if ever, accidents happen during these events, although there are some horrible examples of things really going sideways ( So you need to be properly prepared. One step in the wrong place can easily take you to hospital. If you are lucky.

So, here is my list of critical mental elements for success similar to startup/entrepreneurial life and in ultra-trail runs:

Get in shape and mentally ready well before you start. Get a coach or a mentor, learn from the experienced. You don’t need to get lost at the same place others have before you. Ask and you will be answered. Both the start-up and running communities are extremely welcoming for newcomers, you will always find people willing to share and advice. For this, I am grateful for our company as our MyDay concept allowed me to schedule parts of my heavier training also for the weekdays, not everything for the weekends. This helped massively during the training programme and getting ready for the races.

Know thyself. You can keep asking for advice, but at the end of the day you must decide which ones to follow. You need to also understand your own limitations, strengths & weaknesses, and bear those in mind. How far do you think you are able to take things? Where should I focus to strengthen my weaknesses? Only you (should) know. I’ve gotten both good and bad advice (or should I say advice inappropriate for me), for running as well as for business, leadership, and selling. You just need to know where to draw the line and  how far you think you can stretch. Most likely much further than you think: had I followed most of the running advice, I wouldn’t be running ultras at all! 

Do your homework & plan the route, including the service breaks & resources you need to be successful. Build the roadmap for success. And the go-to-market plan.

No Plan B
Either you finish, or you don’t. If you don’t, chances are you have a long hike to do to get to the next service station. There is no easy way out. Just like in corporate life: you have colleagues, partners, customers, and others to consider. You are accountable to them all, there is no easy way out in business  either. Make a good plan and  stick to it, but be flexible and expect the unexpected.

Living With the Uncertainty
There is always the possibility of failure, things happen. In the startup world, you may be doing things for the first time: nobody can tell for sure what to do next. On trails, anything can happen, you can twist your ankle around the corner and it is game over. You need to be aware of that, but not let that affect your performance or focus.

Choose Your Own Gear and Tools
Nobody can tell you what are the best running shoes for you. You must try them out yourself. And test all the other gear too. To make sure they fit your body and needs. Same goes for start ups. No more restricting corporate IT-policies limiting your options. You are free to choose the best tools for you and for your team. Loads of options, new innovative online cloud based tools, no-code/low-code tools available. Look around and choose the gear that will support you on your journey.

Team / Support Crew
You cannot do it alone. You need to have service breaks, restock energy and change gears. It’s a team effort where everybody has a critical role to play: I like to think nobody is more important than the other. We succeed or fail together, as a team. If anybody in the team fails, the whole team may fail. Look after your team! 

Flexibility to Changes
Not having a plan B doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ready for everything nature throws at you, good planning helps. Be ready to adapt if needed. Be adaptive to changing environment. Have tools, equipment, and/or resources available for the unexpected. Pivot if needed.

Valley of Death
There will be obstacles & dark moments. You must push through. Do not give up. Ever

Grit & Determination
It’s not going to be easy. You need to get across the darkest moments. If it was easy, somebody else would have done it way before you. And it’s a long run. Sprinting ahead might not be the best idea if it burns your resources prematurely.

Optimism carries you forward & over the difficulties. It’s a bit like those running poles which gives you wings on uphills and keeps you upright on tricky bits. And don’t mix healthy optimism with foolishness.

Finally, if you fail, there is always another race to participate or opportunity to jump to. Start all over again. Only this time a bit wiser, more experienced, and  stronger. Never give up!!

Now, onwards to the next ultra-race starting on July 7 in Lapland and to the next chapter with our NXT:FWD. Stay tuned!

Follow Our Journey

For the NUTSYlläs-Pallas race starting midday Friday, July 7th, you can follow my live progress here:

For NXT:FWD follow us in LinkedIn or our web page to stay up to date on latest developments with the team.

Kudos on teaser Photo to Pixabay:

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