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  • Writer's pictureJenny Hunt

How Running The Dubai Marathon Is Like Being An Entrepreneur

22nd January 2017

I have always wanted to run a marathon. As a child I watched the London Marathon on TV in awe of the kids who lived in London and could take part. From then on, it's always been in my head that one day I'm going to run a marathon. Friday 20th January 2017, I made that 'one day' happen and participated in the Dubai Marathon. Following is an overview of my story and how it compares to being an entrepreneur and running a small business.

In May 2016, a local business connection in Abu Dhabi, Julie Miles Lewis, published her first book called Moving Mountains. At the start of the book Jules shares her story of being on an educational trip to Malaysian Borneo. She sighted Mount Kota Kinabalu and felt her destiny draw her towards it. The following year she returned to climb the mountain with some friends on her 40th birthday. Jules wrote: Having Happy Birthday sung to me at 5:30 in the morning on top of the mountain was a pretty special way to mark the beginning of life at 40! The sun was up, the clouds had cleared and I was feeling on top of the world...and totally fabulous at 40."

It got me thinking. I would be turning 40 in March next year. What life changing event could I do to mark it? I'm not big on birthdays. I couldn't think of anything. This inspiring story stayed with me, but went to the back of my mind.

Skip forward to September 2016 and I was having coffee in an Ehtiopian coffee shop in Abu Dhabi one Friday lunchtime with a friend, Husameldin. Husameldin has previously struggled with weight loss, but is now so committed to eating healthily and working out. We were chatting about exercise and it got me thinking about my lifelong dream to run a marathon. When would that 'one day' be? That afternoon, I was sitting in the car with my husband (he was driving), and shared with him that I was thinking about running a marathon. There it was, out. No turning back now. I immediately started researching on my phone about marathon training schedules and nutrition guides. And that is where my marathon story started!

Once I was committed, I kept thinking that training for and running a marathon is just like being an entrepreneur and running a business. Here are my takes on how the two compare:

1. Getting the idea

Small business - so many people fantasize about setting up a business, but don't know what to do. I truly believe that successful businesses are those which are driven by a passion, help people or solve problems.

Marathon - There are two things that I have always wanted to do in life. A parachute jump and complete a marathon. I did the parachute jump in my early 20s. The marathon was still on my bucket list.

2. Research - is it really feasible?

Small business - understanding the market for your proposed product/service is key before you start. Is there a need for it? Is there competition? How will you distinguish yourself from existing players? What will it cost to setup and get started? What will the ROI be? How will you market the business? There are so many questions to find answers to. One question regularly asked is: Should you share your idea with others and risk it being stolen or keep it a closely guarded secret? When I setup Gateway Group of Companies I didn't tell anyone, apart from those on a need to know basis, until I was ready to launch. There are differences of opinions here - some will say to share your plans to get ideas, expertise and encouragement from your network; whilst others are scared of failing if they share their plans.

Marathon - My initial research was pretty limited and focused on two key issues. 1) Could I train sufficiently to participate in the Dubai Marathon (4 months away)? 2) As a vegan, how to ensure I got sufficient nutrients. I quickly found Sorted! Nutrition and training answers in one place! I quickly looked through the marketing literature before purchasing the e-guides. Yes, the marathon training plan was 18 weeks. I made the purchase and was quickly disappointed to see that the 18 week programme was based upon you already being able to comfortably run 10k. Damn. I occasionally ran 5k. I had never run 10k. And, I certainly couldn't run it comfortably. I read through some of the nutritional advice and I was ready to give it a go. My first week of training I ran 5k on alternate days. I then looked at the plan to increase from 5k - 10k. There was no way, I would be ready to run the marathon if I followed that plan. It was steady increments. However, i felt that I could probably already do 10k, so that weekend I went out, gave it a go and completed 10k. This marathon training was easy!

3. Taking Advice

Small business - There are lots of professional sources to advise on all aspects of running a business. Equally, everyone will be willing to share their own advice with you too. Be careful what advice you take and ensure that it is qualified and right for your business. Most people have opinions about how to setup and run a business, but how many have actually invested financially, and in themselves, to do it? As a solopreneur, its tempting to try to do everything yourself to keep costs low. Remember, you are unlikely to be expert at everything. So, if accounts really aren't your thing, look to get assistance from a bookkeeper so that your valuable time is spent on developing your business rather than stressing over your accounts.

Marathon - The two best pieces of advice that took as I started my training were:

  1. Run slowly and don't focus on timings. This was perfect because I am a slow runner and was hung up on timings.

  2. How to ensure that running isn't boring. Listen to a podcast. Previously, I had always listened to happy, lively music to get me fired up. However, I could never find a comfortable running pace. I downloaded some podcasts at The Learning Curve Podcast and off I went. A nice slow pace listening to conversations with women entrepreneurs in the Middle East. (I have previously given two interviews for Learning Curve Podcast myself, about being a female entrepreneur (CLICK HERE to listen) and also about setting up businesses in Abu Dhabi (CLICK HERE to listen). So it was a WIN, WIN, WIN situation. The podcasts distracted me whilst running, I was learning from other entrepreneurs' experiences, and I was getting inspired.

Ironically, this advice soon went out of the window. I was running 10k three times a week and I was just focused on reducing my time and not increasing my distance. I wasn't focused and after a few weeks I soon stopped my training all together.

4. Personal Charateristics

Small business - Entrepreneurs are a special breed. They need to have incredible self belief. They need to stay focused. They need to be determined and organised. They need to be resilient. It all comes down to strength of character and not giving up. Keeping going, no matter the odds. A survivor. A positive mental attitude. I also think there needs to be a little bit of madness in there somewhere.

Marathon - For me, it was always: If I commit to do the run, then I have to finish. On the morning of the marathon, whilst I was waiting with all the other runners before heading to the start line, I said to my husband "I know that I have the mental capacity to get through this, if I fail, it will only be due to injury". I was tunnel visioned. Failing was not an option. Athletes need to be dedicated to training. Dedicated to eating correctly. They also need to be a little bit crazy to push their bodies through the pain barrier to reach their goals.

5. Fear of Failure

Small business - According to Forbes nine out of 10 startups will fail. It's easy to see why entrepreneurs worry about failure. However, they constantly learn from mistakes and improve. They are risk takers (hopefully informed risk takers).

Marathon - I was more scared about running the marathon than I ever was about setting up and running my own business. My fears were silly too. My biggest fear was coming in last. I also worried I would be so slow that the roads would be opened to the traffic and the organisers would have packed up before I crossed the finish line and I wouldn't get my medal to prove that I had accomplished it. I was also scared of not finishing at all - that would be such a personal failure. This was why I didn't tell many people I was going to participate - I was scared of them seeing me as a failure.

6. Going for it!

Small business - I've met lots of people with great ideas that never actually get out of the starting blocks because they are focused on the wrong things. They are obsessed with being perfect rather than getting started. Sometimes you need to just get on with things. When I started my business my website wasn't ready. It went live about a week later. I was never happy with it but I kept adding blogs to it so that at least the information was there for people to read. It took two years for me to get around to revamping my website and get it looking how I wanted it and it was a hacking incident that forced me to do it. However, by that point, I had a much better idea of what my potential clients needed from my website. Sometimes, people just think too much. Seek too many opinions. Then they are too scared to take the plunge.

Marathon - 31st December 2016 was registration deadline to enter the 2017 Dubai Marathon. I kept thinking about it. I kept hearing it advertised on the radio. I had been surprised how easy the registration was. Simply, complete the entry form and pay the entrance fee. I was aware that for London it was a ballot entry and for Boston it was necessary to qualify. It must be sign! So, on the afternoon of 31st December, I paid up and was committed. What a way to end the year. I hadn't run for the previous two months. So I was committed to training starting on New Year's Day. I ran on the treadmill every other day. Day 1 was disappointing. I managed 11km - to be honest it was the furthest I had ever run, but I thought that my sheer will would power me through further. I read that if you are looking to increase your distance, you should do it gradually. Increase the distance by no more than 10% a week to avoid injuries. Listen to your body. I was pushing too hard and I could feel what I assumed was 'jogger's knee' and also my left hip was niggling. So, for the week and a half before the marathon I decided not to run, so that on race day I was starting with no injuries. This meant I had in effect had a mere two and a half weeks of training. Not ideal. In fact, rather stupid.

7. Support Network

Small business - I'm still surprised about how accommodating people are to help you. How willing people are to give up their time. There is a genuine sense that people want to help you with your new business. Coworkers and other entrepreneurs can thrive on sharing experiences, lifting your spirits during the tough times, and even agreeing barter agreements to supply each other services. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Your network is also your business development team - they will naturally talk about you and your business when opportunities arise among their own networks.

Marathon - The Dubai course has two loops where you turn and run back in the direction you came from. When the wheelchair entrants pushed passed us having done the first loop, all of us runners clapped and cheered them on. The same happened with the elite runners. There were organisers along the course with banners and music, clapping and cheering us on. There were members of the public who set up tables throughout the course handing out drinks, fruits and sweets. It was encouraging. Everyone genuinely wanted to help you to finish.

8. Dont give up

Small business - there will be tough times, especially in the early days before you are making any money when you wonder what to do. Continue or give up? It's the strength of attitude to keep going that will set up apart from the failing businesses. Remember, there was a reason why you started what you did. Keep going. Stay focused. Make it work. You are committed. Businesses require hard work and it takes time.

Marathon - I'm the first to admit that I went into the marathon totally unprepared. I hadn't trained sufficiently. I was up most of the night before with a sick puppy, so definitely not rested. I was not on top form. My hip started to niggle at 6km. Throughout the race I started to feel different things that I had never experienced. What to do? At one point I got a stitch - I had never had that during my 10k runs. I ran through it. Then I felt a bit wobbly and bit nauseous. I knew I had to sip at an isotonic drink rather than just take sips of water. I took an isotonic drink at the next station and felt much better. Then I took an energy gel. I was feeling a little weak, but I was scared that if I ingested too much I would throw up, so I clasped it tightly for several kilometres before I had the courage to open it and ingest. It worked and boosted my energy. It was rather sickly so I only managed about half of it. Then at a further drink station, I took a cup thinking it was an isotonic drink but oh no - it was Coca Cola. I took a small sip and nearly threw up. By 16km (2hrs in), I was pleased. I had been running constantly. And, I was running right on target with my planned timings. I had been careful not to run off with the crowds of athletic running groups. I had kept to my own pace. Then, I got pins and needles in my toes, so I stopped to loosen the laces in one of my trainers. I struggled with the laces as my hands had swollen. Then my hip really started to hurt. Excruciating pain, so I was forced to walk. However, I can walk quickly. So, I thought I would use the time walking as recovery. I kept trying to run on and off, but I was listening to my body and I knew if I ran I would never make it. The second hip started to hurt. This was a direct result of my body not being prepared for such a distance. 30km was the toughest the point I was almost 75% of the way through. Give up or go through the pain barrier. I decided I would never be in this position again. I had to complete it. By this time, I had dropped to the stragglers at the back of the pack. We all had injuries that were seriously slowing us down. My walking was getting slower and slower. The roads were opened up to traffic so we were forced onto pavements. The kilometers seemed to get longer and longer. I got to 38km and kept thinking "Its less than 5km now. I can do this!" I eventually go to the final straight with the finish ahead. I had always thought that everyone runs the last bit and gets a nice photo crossing the line. My husband met met half way down. I handed him my water bottle - my hands were so swollen and painful. We walked the last bit together. The last 0.195km was the slowest. I eventually made it. I got my medal. I achieved my dream. I completed a marathon before I turned 40!

9. Don't expand too quickly

Small business - the best piece of business advice I was ever given was by my book keeper when I was running my first business in London. I was told not to expand too quickly. At the time I thought it a very strange comment and I didn't understand it. Afterall, isn't that the point - to grow the business and make money? In time, I learned the meaning. My business expanded. Each time I took on staff, it cost me a lot of money - recruitment, company car, uniform, insurance, additional equipment etc...However, depending upon the contracts they were working on it could be up to 3 months before the business would get paid, so technically, I was also paying them three months of salaries before getting paid. Cashflow is a big problem for small businesses. It's essential to budget carefully and grow steadily.

Marathon - Training programmes are designed to gradually build up both your stamina and strength. I was so focused on my cardio vascular and whether I could actually finish. I didn't actually think about the toll on my body. That is why my body was in so much pain - I hadn't spent time building it up for such a mammoth event. I pretty much just jumped in and pushed through it. Had I prepared slowly I would have been a lot more comfortable and completed it much more quickly.

Lessons Learned
  • Don't wing it.

  • Preparation is key. I know I would have felt so much more achievement had I done the proper training and not had to stumble through with so much pain

  • Be prepared to push yourself harder than you ever thought possible

  • Don't worry about the silly things - focus your energy appropriately

  • Keep your goal insight - if you want it badly enough, you will succeed!

  • Starting and running a business is a marathon, not a sprint.

How Jenny Hunt and Gateway Group can help you on your entrepreneurial journey in Abu Dhabi and Dubai

For budding entrepreneurs in the UAE its essential that you are operating legally in line with the business regulations. Its necessary to have a business license to do any type of business. There are many options to choose from, firstly, free zone or mainland, and secondly which jurisdiction? It's also necessary to consider your visa situation too. Gateway Group will understand your specific situation, as well as your longer term goals, to get the best license for your needs. How to start a business in the UAE? Talk to Gateway Group.

Written by Jenny Hunt, Founding Partner & CEO

Gateway Group Of Companies, Abu Dhabi & Dubai UAE

Jenny Hunt is ranked in FORBES' Top 100 Most Influential Women in the Middle East; she is the No. 1 international best selling author of "Gateway To Abu Dhabi: How to expand your business into the Capital of the UAE"; she is CEO Today's 2019 Business Awards winner; ranked in the Top 20 Abu Dhabi Blogs to follow; and, served as the Deputy Chairman for the British Business Group in Abu Dhabi 2017-2019. She is an international speaker and regularly provides mission briefings to delegations about setting up and doing business in the UAE.

Gateway Group Of Companies

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Gateway CEO, Jenny Hunt, ranked in FORBES' Top 100 Most Influential Women in the Middle East

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