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Redefining CEOs: Chief endurance officers

More top-level executives are shunning the golf course for triathlons and adventure races.
Larry Ellison is an experienced yachtsman, and for fun sails on his 452-food yacht, Rising Sun, said to be the world's largest personal yacht.
Larry Ellison is an experienced yachtsman, and for fun sails on his 452-food yacht, Rising Sun, said to be the world's largest personal yacht.BusinessWeek Online
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

Frank Karbe, chief financial officer of San Francisco biotech outfit Exelixis Inc., has been spinning his wheels for more than an hour and getting nowhere. It must be 100 degrees in this room jammed with 13 other people, all sweating, all staring at the wall.

Fortunately, this isn't a presentation to a nervous bevy of investors but a 90-minute heat-adaptation cycling class. It's the second of three workouts Karbe, 37, has scheduled for the day. During lunch, he squeezed in an "easy" 12-mile run. After a business dinner, at a restaurant he chose for its proximity to The Sports Club/LA in downtown San Francisco, he'll swim 3,500 yards — that's just under two miles — while most people are home raiding the fridge before bed.

"Sometimes I'm out there training until midnight," says Karbe, who qualified for the Ford Ironman Triathlon World Championships on the Big Island in Hawaii on Oct. 15 by finishing his first Ironman, in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, with one of the fastest times in his age group. He swam 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles, and ran 26.2 miles in a swift 9 hours and 46 minutes. "I'm pretty ambitious," he says, with no shortage of understatement.

Karbe is not alone. He'll be in the company of about 1,800 athletic overachievers at the championships, among them 18 high-level executives whose path to Hawaii began by signing up with CEO Challenge LLC in Boulder, Colo. Growing numbers of businesspeople like Karbe are defying the stereotype of the well-padded executive whose idea of exercise is a stroll around the links followed by a much-deserved stop at the 19th hole. Instead, they're vying for a new title — "chief endurance officer" — by rising at 4 a.m. and pursuing brutal training schedules while juggling family and corporate duties.

Not all extreme execs are into Ironman events. Kevin Mahaney, the 43-year-old CEO of real estate developer Olympia Cos. in Portland, Me., captured an Olympic silver medal in sailing in 1992, skippered an America's Cup syndicate in 1994, and won a national age-group snowboarding championship in 2004. This July, just for fun, he rode all 2,241 miles of the Tour de France in 21 days, keeping a day ahead of the actual race, in a custom trip put together by Destination Cycling in Marblehead, Mass. — and he's planning to do the same thing next year.

Or take Seagate Technology CEO William D. Watkins. He started doing "adventure races" six years ago and has since completed several 24-hour and two multi-day events. Such races, typically requiring teams of three or four to navigate difficult terrain via mountain bike, kayak, and foot, "force people to take a hard look at themselves in an environment out of their comfort zone," says Watkins.

But the largest group of would-be chief endurance officers seems to aim at triathlons. This year, 45 executives signed up with CEO Challenge. To do so, an exec must have the rank of chief financial officer or above in a company with $5 million in sales (for men) or $2.5 million (for women) — the lower number for women is an attempt to induce more of them to enroll. For $6,250, the exec buys entry into one of three Ironman events. The fee includes meals, accommodations, custom wetsuits, and the chance to rub well-defined shoulders with the top professionals in the sport, such as Chris Legh or Kate Major. Execs who qualify for Hawaii get VIP passes and have the option to pay an additional $1,400 for other perks.

Beat your peers
This year, six of the CEO Challenge entrants, including Karbe, made the championships by posting fast-enough times in a preliminary Ironman to qualify under the general rules; the other 12 made it by beating their CEO Challenge peers, thus winning one of the special slots allocated to the company. Among the competitors are Peter Lazar, CEO of Bank Austria Creditanstalt Financial Services; Alex May, a managing director at Citigroup; and Ted Philip, former president of Lycos and now head of consulting firm Decision Matrix Group Inc.

So how do typically overworked CEOs find time to train for one of the most demanding sporting tests on the planet when most Americans struggle to get to the gym a couple times a week? Basically, by focusing the same energies on athletics that they pour into their profession. "Ironman training and racing is how I approach life: Set high standards and work extraordinarily hard," says Linda A. Rahal, 41, president and COO of Washington (D.C.) law firm Trow & Rahal. She started training for her first marathon while studying for the bar and plans to finish her fifth Ironman in Hawaii. Observes Ted Kennedy, a former marketing manager with Ironman North America who started CEO Challenge five years ago: "A lot of these people have achieved everything they've ever tried. They love challenges."

That includes the challenge of time management. Erik Blachford, 38, former CEO of online travel giant, did his first Ironman in 2003 and is competing in Hawaii with a slot he bid on and won on eBay. While at Expedia — he left in December of last year — Blachford ran or swam first thing in the morning, then commuted to work via bike. "I knocked off an awful lot of miles just biking the 16.7 miles to and from work, with extra loops if I had time," says Blachford, who now sits on four boards, including that of bike tour operator Butterfield & Robinson.

Although he managed to fit training into his tight schedule, Blachford says he wouldn't do an Ironman again while holding a CEO position because "the demands of the job and training end up taking away from the rest of your life, such as family and social activities." Blachford's wife, Maryam Mohit, found her own ironic way of making peace with it: "When your kids are sick and your husband is pulling out on his bike for a long ride, you just have to tell yourself that as midlife crises go, it beats the alternatives."

Mike Dannelly, CEO of Costa Mesa (Calif.) online mortgage banker American Interbanc Mortgage LLC, and a sponsor of three pro triathletes, is unusual in this group: Many weeks he trains less than 10 hours. Dannelly, 47, took up triathlons in 1985 after a cocaine-induced heart attack ("It was a low point in my life," he says) and has since done more than a dozen Ironman distance events. "Last week a buddy of mine and I ran up Mount Whitney and back in seven hours and three minutes," says Dannelly, speaking of the 14,491-foot peak in California. "This is the kind of thing that excites me. But the word 'fun' is not applicable, except when you're crossing the finish line."

The notion of top managers moonlighting as endurance athletes might not thrill some shareholders, but these endorphin junkies make a compelling case for their training and racing. Olympia Cos.' Mahaney logs 20 hours some weeks and considers his bike a much-needed office away from the office. At work, "people are banging down your door," he says. "When I'm on the bike I can think of new business ideas. No distractions. No phones. I bring my cell, but only in case I get a flat I can't fix." John G. Macfarlane, 51, COO of Greenwich (Conn.) asset management firm Tudor Investment Corp., completed his third Ironman this summer and cites another benefit of training: It helps ward off insomnia. "One to two hours of exercise a day often cuts into sleep time, but when your head hits the pillow, there's no tossing and turning," he says.

Heart rate
Although Exelixis' Karbe trains an average of 15 hours a week, his strategy is to focus on quality rather than quantity. Every few months he goes to Endurance Mill Valley, a sports lab in his Bay Area hometown, to test his oxygen consumption, power output, and heart rate — and adjust his workout. "The key question we are trying to answer is how much power can I generate over a 112-mile bike ride and still be able to run a marathon in under 31/2 hours," says Karbe.

Some executives even link their extreme athletics to achieving social or corporate goals. James Maguire Jr., CEO of Philadelphia Insurance Cos., and seven of his company's staffers will compete at the Florida Ironman in November. Besides crossing the finish line, they plan to raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims by collecting pledges of $10 per mile — and to set a "Guinness Book of World Records" mark for the most company employees competing in an Ironman distance event.

"I was the instigator," says Maguire, 45, who has finished five Ironman events since taking up the sport a decade ago. He inspired other officers to follow in his footsteps and hopes that the fitness culture will catch on with the rest of his 1,100 employees. Besides reimbursing them for gym membership and giving them a longer lunch hour if they work out, the company sponsors several races, including the Ironman World Championships.

At Seagate, Bill Watkins sends 200 of his 40,000 workers to the annual "Eco Seagate," where they learn adventure racing skills and compete in one-day races. "It helps break down barriers, teaches people how to take a risk and ask for help, and it promotes teamwork," he says.

Ex-Expedia CEO Blachford argues that endurance training can change something more intangible but even more important than physical health: a CEO's whole approach to business. "In a world where you expect immediate results for everything you do, it's very satisfying to slowly but surely put time in and build up to do something you couldn't do six months before," he says. "That's a lesson you lose track of in business, especially when throttled on quarterly results." Now he just has to avoid getting obsessed with beating every other executive triathlete in the world.