It’s a marathon not a sprint: reflections on 3 years of independent work

Written by governance consultant, and runner: Mairead O'Rourke

Warning: This article includes running analogies – a lot of running analogies.

“I’m sorry to tell you that your application has not been successful.”

“After careful consideration we have selected another organisation to complete the work but thank you for your interest.”

“We have now assessed your bid and regret to inform you that you have been unsuccessful as you did not achieve the minimum scoring threshold set for one or more of the criteria or did not meet the overall threshold.”

Fellow freelancers will know the feeling only too well of investing hours, sometimes days into bids for no obvious return. The result of bidding for work is binary – you either get it or you don’t. It’s a race – there will be a one winner… and you might fall just before the line.

So why do we take part? How do you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go again? I am guessing, like me, you have had to; to be in this business you need to.

When I was considering moving to freelance work, I remember a work colleague saying they didn’t think I could handle the rejection that comes with the territory. That was possibly, in part at least, a catalyst for me to take the plunge. I like to prove people wrong. A similar thing happened when a friend once said I’d never run a marathon as I’d no idea how far it was. They were half-right - I genuinely had no idea of the distance when I signed up for my first one! But 10 years later I have 15 marathons under my belt and I’m still running.

From planning a race/a bid, to committing to training/a project, right through to post-race/ post-gig reflection and learning for next time, there are many parallels between my running and working life: my company is called CultureRunner for a reason. Whether on the road or in the workplace, I have stumbled more than once – sometimes it’s just not your day. But I’m still running.

I am sure you will have your own ways of staying in the game. Here are just a few of mine.

Pick your race wisely

I am a long-distance runner and I am smart enough to save myself the humiliation of running against leggy teenagers on the track who will leave me for dust. I don’t always get this right in my working life, but I’m most effective when I focus on jobs which play to my strengths. I have worked in governance and policy for 13 years and these areas of work have naturally become my consultancy bread and butter. The governance gigs are where I feel most comfortable – where I’m stretched within my limits, not beyond them. But crucially, they are not the only things I do. It’s equally important to…

Move beyond your comfort zone

The best running training is a mix: some slow, some sustained effort, some lung-bursting intervals. This extends to races: I’ve learned that occasionally taking part in events beyond what I’m used to, is ultimately good for me. Taking on big challenges makes me a better runner, even if the experience isn’t a ‘success’ in itself – I ran a 30 mile trail race last year and seriously messed up eating and drinking during the run… so now I know from my own earned experience, not just from what wise runner friends were telling me before I found out the hard way! I recognise the same start-line feeling of ‘I can’t possibly do this’ in my work life when I take on a project that doesn’t fit my usual profile. I recognise the same finish line feeling of ‘oh, right, so that’s how these things can go’, too. Sometimes you have to do something that scares you and some of the best outcomes for me have come from taking a leap of faith.

Know your current boundaries

I have a dream to one day run the Antarctic Marathon – and I believe I could – but it’s unlikely I will be doing that anytime soon. Why? Because not only is it eye-wateringly expensive, it would involve a far greater intensity of training than I have time for at the moment. Sometimes you have to say no. No, because it’s not the right time. No, because it’s not within your current skill set. No, because you just don’t have the capacity to do it alongside other work. I’ve made the classic consultant mistakes of taking on too much at once, taking on the ‘wrong’ project and this has left me working late nights and holidays to catch up. Learning to say no constructively is like training a muscle to stay free from injury. If it’s really important, you’ll find a way to say yes in future.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

This is probably stating the downright obvious but if I don’t do enough training it generally doesn’t go well on race day. I’ve not yet been stretchered off (thankfully) but I’ve made myself pretty ill on a couple of races. In work there are times where I have also been a bit lax, leading up to the main event. I’ve not prepared well enough for a client meeting, not read all the relevant documents in advance before a workshop or not been on top of my diary management and missed deadlines. It’s not a nice feeling when it happens but each time it does, it’s a jolt of a reminder of the importance of being prepared.

Stay fit

Just like my physical need to exercise I also need to keep my brain engaged. Of course, the work I do this is exercise in itself, but it’s concentrated effort. Like the best mix of running training, work effort needs mixing up with more reflective time to develop knowledge and insight. It’s training events and conferences, meetings with other freelancers and – especially for me – a rich diet of podcasts, some of which relate directly to my work, alongside plenty that have nothing to do with it but stretch my brain in other interesting directions (if you’re not already listening, try Radiolab and This American Life – constant classics).

You don’t get a PB every time

Sometimes it doesn’t work out. It’s just not your day. You’ve done the training; you know you are prepared; you know you can do it, but this one time, it’s just not meant to be. Projects sometimes feel like a real struggle, or don’t end quite as I had hoped they would. There is always something to learn from these stumbles and while it can feel icky and unbearable at the time, I now know it will pass. I allow myself the time to wallow a little, to feel grumpy then reflect more constructively, then I move on. I say this as if I have mastered the art – I haven’t yet! It is something I am constantly working on. But I do keep running.

Find your running buddies

I have learned both in my running and working life that having good people to run and work with ultimately helps me to be better. By working with others and sharing experiences I have improved what I do. My ‘running buddies’ add a richness to my work and life that keeps me going. When I can’t find my way and I’m struggling with a project they help me back on my feet and back on track. 

YOU run the distance

As important as buddies can be, the key parallel between my work life and running life is: it’s down to me. I never work entirely on my own, and I value all the help I get, from colleagues and clients alike, but the truth of the freelance life is: YOU have to get on with it. And that is the beauty of running, too. It’s a simple sport, you get back what you put in. And in the end, the only person you’re ever really racing is yourself. It’s down to me to pick my races, to plan my training, to get the shoes on and get out the door, to set my own standards and try to better them. When I do that, I’m winning.

 Find Mairead on twitter, LinkedIn and via her website.