Some CEOs measure their success mile by (painful) mile

Some CEOs measure their success mile by (painful) mile

More top executives are taking goal-driven managing skills to the gruelling sport of Ironman triathlon, SHIRLEY WON writes

Friday, February 16, 2007 SHIRLEY WON

Kim Nelson wakes up early three times a week to go for a 6 a.m. swim at a recreation centre near her home in Caledon, Ont. She runs four times a week, mostly after work, and rides many miles on her bicycle, either outdoors or -- when winter weather forbids it -- on an indoor trainer.

She manages to log 15 to 20 hours of training a week -- a busy schedule by most anyone's standards. But Ms. Nelson also runs a company, Royal Containers Ltd. of Brampton, Ont., and is the mother of three children under the age of five.

There's a reason for this hectic schedule: One of her goals is to qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii in October. It would her second shot at this Mecca for amateur triathletes, who must swim, run and cycle over a total of 140.6 miles.

"I'm hooked on the challenge," she says. "Because it's an endurance sport, there is a lot of room for improvement . . . And you do get addicted to the training."

Ms. Nelson, 35, has completed eight Ironman competitions across North America since 1998, achieving her best time of 11 hours and two minutes last year at Ironman Coeur d'Alene in Idaho.

She is not alone. More and more top executives are becoming converts to gruelling iron-distance triathlons, of which the Ironman -- a global brand created by Florida-based World Triathlon Corp. -- is the most coveted, with events staged around the world. With its 2.4-mile swim in open water, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run, the Ironman is considered the ultimate endurance test.

Among higher-profile executives is Nortel Networks Corp. CEO Mike Zafirovski, 53, who finished an Ironman race in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 13 hours and 37 minutes in 2002 -- the day before he began his former job as chief operating officer at Motorola Inc.

Mark Holowesko, CEO of Nassau-based Templeton Capital Advisors and a former manager of the Templeton Growth Fund, Canada's oldest mutual fund, has participated in three Ironman races at Lake Placid in recent years.

"The typical person who does an Ironman is very goal-driven," says Graham Fraser, CEO of Boulder, Colo.-based North America Sports Inc., which has rights to hold Ironman events in North America.

"As they get more successful in their career, they also need other challenges. Ironman is just another one of those challenges that they face in their life," Mr. Fraser says.

His company runs six Ironman events a year in North America with up to 2,200 participants a race. The Canadian event is held annually in Penticton, B.C., in August.

Although no statistics are available, Mr. Fraser believes his Ironman races -- where the average age is now 41 compared with 34 eight years ago -- are attracting increasing interest from senior executives as the triathlon grows in popularity.

"We tend to get more Type-A personalities, it's that type of sport," he says. "Their average income is over $105,000 [U.S.] . . . That tells you we are dealing with a senior executive, professional crowd."

Ted Kennedy, owner of Boulder-based CEO Challenge LLC, is tapping into that competitiveness by organizing luxury sports experiences geared to executives. One is the CEO Ironman Challenge, which is held in conjunction with five Ironman competitions around the world and can cost the participants as much as $6,250 (U.S.) an event.

Nortel's Mr. Zafirovski and Templeton's Mr. Holowesko have participated in these events, which offer executives a chance to mingle with likeminded folks plus various perks, such as first-class accommodations and VIP passes.

"CEOs that share a passion for Ironman and business -- that's the real key to the program," Mr. Kennedy says.

He began this "race within a race" side-attraction at an Ironman in Lake Placid in 2001 after a database search of participants revealed 8 per cent were either a CEO or president-owner of a company. "I was amazed that there was so many."

Ms. Nelson will be participating in Mr. Kennedy's CEO Triathlon Challenge in May, a so-called 70.3 race on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix. (A 70.3 is half the usual iron-distance triathlon.) There, she will vie to qualify for the big Ironman race in Hawaii in October. That's not the end of it -- she's also aiming for the Ironman World Championship 70.3 in Florida in November.

She juggles her training with a busy family life and the top job at the family business, which makes corrugated packaging and has 110 employees. She's not a neophyte with competitive athletics, having been a member of the swim team at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., where she earned a business degree.

"I'm disciplined in everything I do. With work, I set a goal. I prepare the plans and strategies on achieving that goal and I execute it. And I do that with everything -- with work or training."

But Ms. Nelson adds she is also fortunate in having support from a nanny and her husband, an operations manager at her company.

"The training is also my time to relieve stress," she adds. "It also entails a lot of camaraderie. If you can get into a group of people who are also training for Ironman, it's comfort in numbers."

Michael Bregman, CEO of Toronto-based Tailwind Capital Inc., agrees that training for an Ironman race can be an antidote to work pressures. "It's a great release and outlet from whatever stresses you may be incurring in your C-suite," says the 52-year-old executive, who is founder of the Second Cup and Mmmarvellous Mmmuffins chains.

Mr. Bregman has completed four Ironman races, but won't be doing any more -- "My knees, after lots of surgery, are pretty much shot."

He recalls logging 20 to 25 hours a week of training for Ironman. "The training is probably more enjoyable than the racing. On a nice day, while many of my friends are golfing, I get more enjoyment spending the four or five hours out in the countryside on my bicycle."

His last Ironman was in Austria in 2004, when, at age 50, he logged his fastest time of 11 hours and 15 minutes. In 2005, he also won a gold medal in his age group at the Maccabiah Games in Israel for completing an Olympic-distance triathlon. "It was a good way to end a long career [in the sport]."

Jeffrey Maxwell, CEO of Kelowna, B.C.-based Trak Canada, began participating in triathlons to stay in shape, and is now training for his third consecutive Ironman race in Penticton this August.

Mr. Maxwell says he has been working harder and longer hours as business picks up for his company, which is involved in the engineering, design and construction of energy-efficient building systems.

"I needed a physical goal to stay in shape, and manage the day-to-day business as well," says the 46-year-old executive, who used to play hockey and other contact sports. "As you get older, the hockey injuries last longer."

This year, his goal is to shave an hour off the 15 hours he took to complete his first Ironman race. He didn't finish last year because he couldn't fix a flat tire in time to be able to continue the competition.

Some executives use Ironman events to support a social cause.

John Carlesso, CEO of Toronto-based Apogee Minerals Ltd., raised $15,000 from sponsors for Regesh Family & Child Services at the 2005 Ironman race in Idaho.

Mr. Carlesso, 42, who would train up to a maximum of 15 hours a week, finished his competition in just over 11 hours and 30 minutes.

While he has not ruled out another race, frequent business travel has made training difficult -- and, to compete, a consistent level of training is needed, he says.

"We have operations in South America so I spent a lot of time out there. You can't lug a bike around the world with you."


Are you the fittest CEO in the world?

Ironman triathlons involve 140.6 miles of swimming, cycling and running, and attract people from all walks of life. But for executives, there's also friendly competition and socializing through events organized by CEO Ironman Challenge LLC, of Boulder, Colo.

CEO events: Ironman Coeur d'Alene (United States); Ironman South Africa; Ironman Australia; Ironman Austria; Ironman Korea; and St. Croix Half Ironman.

Prizes: Participants in the full Ironman races can compete for the right to go to the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii in October, and for the title of "Fittest CEO in the World."

Cost: Up to $6,250 (U.S.), excluding airfare.

Criteria: Limited to a maximum of 25 per event. To participate, one must be a CEO, top executive or business owner. Men must run a company with at least $5-million (Canadian) in revenue, and women, $2.5-million in revenue.


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