From the City to the Sahara: Why investment bankers rule in the ultra-marathon
Working in investment banking isn’t always great for your health. Long hours, stress, a sedentary lifestyle and, according to some reports, a predilection for substance abuse has led to a reputation as an industry that can ruin both body and mind. And yet, many bankers don’t just manage to keep fit, they take it to an extreme – ultra-marathons.
Iron Man races and ultra-marathons – extreme endurance events that involve running hundreds of miles through hostile terrains like deserts and jungles – are incredibly popular among financiers.
“I’ve completed three ultra-marathons across the Sahara, finished the Marathon Des Sable twice, run across the Gobi, Namid and Atacama Desert and through the Amazon Jungle,” said Ian Shephard, a global head of trade asset management in London. “There are two dominant cultures in these events – ex-forces and City types."
Over the last eight years around 30% of the people taking part in the UVU Jungle Marathon – a run of up to 254km across the Amazonian jungle – work in the financial sector, according to Shirley Thompson, its race director. Mary Gadams, an ex-investment banker who has run 50 endurance events and CEO of ultra-marathon firm Racing the Planet, puts a similar figure on those competing in its 4 Deserts series of events.
Meanwhile, Colin Geddes, a former managing director at Deutsche Bank, has been organising the Grand to Grand Ultra – a 268km race from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas – for the past two years and said that 20% of participants work in finance. One of those was Peter Clarke, the 62-year-old former chairman of Merrill Lynch Asia-Pacific.
“A lot of the people who do these events are well-heeled investment bankers, partners in law firms, CEOs and entrepreneurs,” he said. “These are type-A personalities who tend to push themselves physically and mentally, and are able to pay for fees, equipment and travel costs.”
Taking part is not cheap; the Grand to Grand costs $3,200, while the most famous, the Marathon Des Sable, comes in at around £3,000 ($4,600). Competitors also have to pay for their own travel out to far-flung locations, as well as specialist equipment like light weight backpacks, outdoor wear, survival gear and running trainers – it all adds up.
However, Gadams believes that it’s also a way of escaping the pressures of working life: “These events are very mentally intense, yet what attracts bankers and CEOs is that the event takes them back to nature where there are minimal choices each day. Many come to the events thinking that they will have a lot of time on their hands, yet they find that their whole focus is on survival, just getting from one checkpoint to the next.”
And, if you’re thinking of checking in with the office during the course of these events to keep in touch, don’t bother. Blackberrys are strictly off-limits, said Gadam: “We don't allow mobile phones or other devices in the event, except in an emergency.”
Getting the training right
If you sign up for a marathon, there’s a small chance that you could get through without adequate training. In an ultra-marathon, however, preparation is absolutely key. Geddes said that both strength training and clocking up hundreds of miles every week with a 9kg backpack across a variety of terrains are integral to success. This is no easy task when your job keeps you in the office for 60-80 hours a week.
Nick Doggett runs KD Ventures, a property development firm, but worked at Lazard in 2008 when he signed up to do an Iron Man with five other bankers. “We trained 18 hours every week, and kept a spreadsheet of what we were doing – it was very intense,” he said. “I promised my wife that I would only sign up to these events once every five years.” He’s now due to run the 100km Thames Path Challenge in September.
“I get off the commuter train a couple of stops early and run home in the evening, try never to have a lie in at the weekends and instead of non-productive activities like watching TV, I train to make sure that I’m prepared,” added Shephard.
Most people who sign up do enough ensure that they’re able to get over the finish line, said Gadam: “There is now so much great gear on the market, that as long as you have the basic items, your overall chances of completing the event are high. It's mainly blisters that cause people not to finish. Overall our finishing rate is around 80-90%.”
The beginning of a mid-life crisis?
The demands of completing an ultra-marathon are not just physical – it takes a mental hardness to keep the focus and drive to make it through. Therefore, most competitors are a little more mature – it’s rare that anyone in the line-up is under 30, said Gedde. This is also the point when many investment bankers consider their career options, or look for achievements outside of the work environment.
“People are mentally stronger from their mid-30s, we’ve seen younger people in the financial sector who simply can’t cope with the demands of an ultra-marathon,” said Geddes. “People are either looking for a new challenge, or simply adding things to their bucket list.”
For Gadam, it was a case of pursuing her passion over her banking career: “I have always loved the outdoors and sports, having taken part in more than 50 marathons, ultra-marathons and multi-day races. So around the age of 30, when I was a vice president at an investment bank, I put all my belongings into storage and went to study languages around the world: Chinese, Spanish and French.”
Shephard is now in his 40s, and only graduated from regular marathons to extra endurance events when he hit 30 and wanted to push himself further while also experiencing some “adventure tourism”.
“I wasn’t scared enough to train for a regular marathon, but the prospect of a 250km race gives you the incentive to put the work in,” he said.