Sprint At the Top, Even if it Kills You?

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Chris Brogan’s “While the Iron is Hot” post on pushing harder yesterday reminded me how I’ve used this very same strategy to transcend limitations not only in business, but in various aspects of life.

Back in college (a looooong time ago), I raced bicycles. I wasn’t very good, but I loved it. And, unlike most other riders, the thing I liked best was the very part of the race most others loathed.

Climbing. The longer, the nastier, the better.

Every year, our team would ride this race up around Cornell University, just outside of Ithaca, NY. What made it so hard was that it was packed with giant hills. Not short sprinty ones, but big, meaty, meandering, never-ending monsters. Every peak was a false one, every turn opened up to the next leg of a climb. And, we had to do 3 laps on this course.

For me, the first lap was about feeling out the course and the competition.

I didn’t push that hard, just tried to learn the road and stay in the pack. On each hill, I’d count the turns and peaks, so I knew what was coming next time around. I’d suss out how those around me approached the hills and noticed most people started hard, then lost steam around the top third of the climb.

From that point on, I began to get my evil on…in a good way.

In the second lap, I’d start into a climb at a moderate to slow pace, conserving energy. Halfway up the climb, when everyone else was starting to feel the burn, I’d start to turn it on. When nobody was looking, I’d grunt, pant and scream, but as soon as a rider appeared ahead of me, everything would change.

When I was within about 20 feet, I’d slow down my breath, put a smile on my face, sit down on the saddle and look up (a sign of not working too hard) and hammer. My goal was to pass each rider, while faking relative ease. Then, as I approached the peak, where most others were one pedal-stroke from puking, I’d start to really turn it on. Trust me, I felt just like them, my thighs were screaming in pain and on occasion I puked myself, but instead of slowing down in anticipation of a long decent…

I stood up on the pedals…and as Gary Vaynerchuck says, “bled through my eyeballs.”


Two reasons.

One, I knew I could square my lead.

A huge descent lay just on the other side of the climb and I’d have plenty of time to recover. I also knew that my speed would be much more closely matched to everyone else on the downhill. So if I could place myself ahead of the other riders before cresting, I could carry that lead with minimal exertion while I recovered on the downhill. Plus, if I doubled my speed at the same time they were halving theirs, my lead wouldn’t just be doubled, it’d be squared.

Two, I was playing a nasty psychological game.

I knew that many of the riders who saw me hammering up to the top, picking up speed as I crested and smiling all the way would assume there was just no hope of catching me, so they’d give up. It would demoralize them. So, I’d covertly cough up a lung in the name of brainwashing them into bailing on the challenge and going even slower. And, I have to say, it worked like a charm.

Over time, I began to expand this same strategy out into my entrepreneurial efforts and quickly realized it was an immensely powerful way to excel in business.

Not so much the mind games part, but the pushing hard part.

Actually, the mind games part is still hugely effective, but it tends to gut you psychologically. And, over the last 10 years, a more karmically-minded approach to entrepreneurship has changed the level of aggression that drives me.

It’s no longer about domination, but the chase of impact and excellence.

I’m not looking to break my competitions’ spirit. In fact, I look much more actively to conspire and collaborate, rather than compete. But, the knowledge that often the best time to make the greatest strides in any market is when everyone else is pulling back has stayed with me and informed the way I operate and grow businesses.

I’ll keep pace or build a slow lead, wait until everyone else pulls back then double down on my efforts.

Because I know the edge I get won’t just be doubled, it’ll be squared. Insurmountable. Or, at the very least, substantially more difficult to overcome. So, looking forward to 2010, my question for you is…

Are you ready to double-down while the world makes a phone call?

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19 responses

19 responses to “Sprint At the Top, Even if it Kills You?”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Fields, glenstansberry. glenstansberry said: Loved @jonathanfields article on pushing at the top. Reminded me of a similar workout we did in cross-country 🙂 http://is.gd/5xiQS […]

  2. George says:

    Great story and very inspirational!

    I think that most people quit as soon as the going gets tough, as the saying goes. Many people quit before they even get started. It is important to keep going!

    Also, it is much better to collaborate than to compete. The internet has made collaboration super easy and cheap (actually free!). Looking forward to new collaborations in 2010!

  3. Jeffrey Tang says:

    Gotta say, this is a great post. I love the cycling story, and how you apply the “sprint at the top” concept to business. I’ve always believed that tough (economic) times are also opportunities in disguise; those who manage to come out on top just before the upswing will find themselves in fantastic position.

    The title of your post raises a question for me, which isn’t answered in the body. Are there times that you’ve found that sprinting up the hill just isn’t worth it? Even if it kills you is a harsh ethic, if taken literally.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      No doubt, some of the biggest successes have launched while others were running for cover

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by jonathanfields: Sprint At The Top, Even If It Kills You? – http://is.gd/5xiQS

  5. Brett says:

    Heya Jonathan!

    I can really relate to this post, since I mountain bike and have a strange affinity for the soul crushing hills on the trails. My approach is the same as yours – I take it easy enough to keep up with the competition on the first two-thirds or so of the hill, then I start hammering my way up the hill, sprinting like a mad man. That final push is one of my favorite feelings ever, even though my legs and lungs are burning.

    So how do I apply this to business? Simple. Work when people expect me to work, then start chasing excellence for that final sprint up the “hill”, working like a dog, every single day of the week. And there’s something to be said about the sense of fulfillment I get inside when making this mad dash, whether I’m on my bike or applying the concept to work (or anything, really).

    To answer the question: yeah, I’m ready to double down and work when no one else will. I’m game.

    Thanks for writing a quality post, my friend.

  6. I like how you “got your evil on”… I can totally see how your tactics were very effective.

    In terms of business and the hustle it takes to make it big and outdo the competition (and I mean this in a friendly way), I’m definitely working hard to push forward even now during the holiday season. If I don’t push and work hard, well, the competition gets one up on me. I consider myself fairly competitive so let’s not let that happen… 😛

  7. Werner says:

    Hi Jon,

    I recently found your blog and am thoroughly enjoying the quality of the information. So much so, I’ve subscribed via RSS and I’m reading the archives.

    Last night, I stopped at a B&N and purchased your book. I feel there’s a lot I can learn from your experiences and articles.

    A new fan and aspiring renegade

  8. Hugh says:

    This is a great, motivational post. This year, I’ve made a conscious effort not to “take the holidays off” and keep pushing physically and with work. I like your concept of doubling your efforts while your competition halves theirs.

    I’m a triathlete, so I read a lot about the sport. You are right on with your uphill techniques! Chris Carmichael, legendary coach of Lance Armstrong has always said that, in terms of distance per second, you have the potential to gain the most on uphills. So whenever I train or compete, I always go hard on the hills to try to gain on the competition. And you’re right, you can take it easier on the downhill. What goes up, must come down, right?

  9. Jonathan:

    Funny thing is I was talking to my brother about a similar topic yesterday – doing the opposite of what everybody else is doing!

    Just like when you were taking it easy when everybody was sprinting and sprinting to the top when everybody was exhausted!

    Same strategy does really work in life. My brother and I were talking about the stock market. We came to realize that most people will start buying or selling when everybody else is buying or selling.

    The best strategy seems to be the opposite. Buy when every body is selling, and sell when everybody is buying. I guess it all comes down to doing things differently than every body else in a sensible fashion.

    Thanks for a great reminder Jonathan!


  10. Ahh, so that’s your secret Jonathan. 🙂

    Great post and great, timeless advice as per usual!

  11. I suppose I can take a short break from doing this very thing (I’m working feverishly on some awesome new stuff for 2010) to swing by and say, “Yup! Totally agree.”

    While the rest of the world is resting and taking time off, I’m getting a head start on the new year.

    It’s really interesting to me that you said your big word for the next year is “collaborate.” I’ve been taking a good hard look at what I’ve been doing and came to the same conclusion.

    Happy Holidays, Jonathan!

  12. Hey Jonathan, I read Chris’ post yesterday also, and felt exactly the same way. You wrote: “It’s no longer about domination, but the chase of impact and excellence.” That’s it in a nut shell bro. Inspiring!

  13. Joe Jacobi says:

    This gets my TdF juices flowing, Jonathan!

    Two quick thoughts – first,if I see someone pound the hills like you do, you’re the kind of the guy in the peleton I know I’d want to collaborate with down the road. Second, pounding the hills isn’t only a fun and cool strategic move but if you practice it consistently, you’ll actually train yourself to recover better and more quickly than your competitors who are putting out less effort.

    Thanks for the post and best wishes for a happy, healthy 2010 and of course a joyous pursuit of many days in the yellow jersey.

  14. Bob Bessette says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    This is definitely a timely post given the fact that the new year is around the corner. I’m hoping to push through this year with a renewed vigor in my work, my schooling, and my blog. Increasing my posting interval is a goal of mine when it comes to my blog and finishing up my 3rd degree in the Spring is an exciting milestone for me.
    I like your operative word for 2010: collaborate. I’m hoping to do the same with like-minded individuals. I read somewhere where someone wrote “It’s all about the Benjamins, not the benjamins”. I wonder who that was? Here’s to a healthy and successful 2010 to you.


  15. Anne says:

    A recurring theme in blog posts around the web is that to be a successful blogger takes hard work, hard work, and more hard work.

    I suppose this is a comfort to me because I am a hard worker. Right now, however, my biggest frustration is that even though I’m working hard, I’ve yet to log my first blog post because the learning curve (particularly tech stuff) is so steep.

    I should point out that I am not approaching my blog as a casual “this is what is going on with me” type of blog. I am forming it as a business with the blog as only one part of a full-fledged website. So I want to have my ducks in a row and have a really quality website up before I start trying to drive traffic to it.

    That said, articles like this encourage me to keep at it. Thanks once again Jonathan!

    Anne @alivenkickin

  16. […] to Jonathan Fields, if you want to succeed, you need to push yourself when things are at their worst, when success seems impossible. It is easy to fall into the pack and […]