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Road to Ironman World Championship

Marriott International

Welcome to Checking In, our feature that spotlights fascinating associates across the company and globe. Today, Heart of the House checks in with Ellen Wexler, who is gearing up this month to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, a 140.6-mile swim, bike and run. It is a grueling event, and the culmination of a series of Ironman triathlon qualification races held throughout the world.

What do you do at Marriott?
I work in Global Operations as Manager of Change Management and Communications. I work across disciplines and continents to help deliver change efforts for global initiatives.

How many hours a week do you train?
I do a 3-week “build” cycle, followed by a week of “recovery.” Build weeks, I swim, bike, run and strength train for about 20 to 26 hours. Recovery weeks, I usually train about 13 to 15.

We understand that you did not have an athletic background when you started casually running in college. How did you become at elite athlete?
When I was in middle school, I played soccer but I was the goalie because it required the least amount of running. I started exercising in college because it was the social thing to do. In 2005, I ran my first marathon and let me tell you it was SLOW. Four years ago, I signed up for my first Ironman – that’s the longest at 140.6 miles — 2.4. mile swim, 112 bike, and then 26.2 marathon run.

My road to qualifying for Kona wasn’t easy. I’ve overcome challenges such as hyponatremia at the finish line of Ironman NYC. That’s a potentially deadly condition caused by water intoxication. There also was a bike crash at mile 80 of Ironman Arizona that left me unconscious for hours. Finally, I’ve recovered from the Female Athlete Triad – a condition basically caused by too much exercise and not enough energy availability.

Were you surprised at your own ability?
We all have the ability to be stronger than we think. I was raised with a broad perspective of “ability” because my sister, Ruth, has developmental disabilities. She’s taught me that there actually is no such thing as dis-ability, just a different-ability. It’s beautiful to see Ruth running a 5k. I can cover the same distance in less than half the time, but her achievement is just as significant, if not more so.

What have been some of the biggest challenges to competing in such high-octane races?
I actually think the training is more challenging than racing. Training with such a high volume isn’t glamorous. There’s lots of laundry, lots of Sundays when I’d rather go to brunch than execute five hours of training on the heels of seven hours the day before. These are the hard moments when it’s just you, out there with yourself. No fans cheering, no finish line.

Do you sometimes want to quit? What keeps you going?
I almost always want to quit, even when I’m almost winning a race! It hurts, it’s hard! But once you get used to conquering these moments, you begin to believe you can do anything. I think it’s that satisfaction that keeps me going most often.

What advice do you have for people who want to start running or training but haven’t found the courage?
Just start. Seriously, it’s simple. Make a routine out of it. Walk 1 loop of your block before work. Then build to 2 loops. Then add some jogging. You don’t need to make a dramatic leap. Start exactly where you are.

What lessons have you learned that you can apply to your job at Marriott?
Tons! How we do anything is how we do everything. Athlete traits are analogous to leadership traits. I’d list four:
1. The drive to practice relentlessly, with discipline and rigor, even after experiencing failure, until I succeed. Failure is just feedback.
2. Goal achievement. Overcome and remove barriers to create another path to success. Working smarter, not harder.
3. Strategic, big-picture thinking. Tune in to the big picture and the long-term goals.
4. Balance. I’ve learned how to respect the laws of balance in energy, health, sleep and nutrition.

Read more about Ellen’s story on LinkedIn