Home » Race Across America: Leadership Lessons From The Hardest Bike Race: Kurt Matzler (Transcript)

Race Across America: Leadership Lessons From The Hardest Bike Race: Kurt Matzler (Transcript)

Full text of Professor of Strategic Management, Kurt Matzler’s talk titled ‘Race Across America: Leadership lessons from the hardest bike race’ at TEDxRohrbachBerg conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Kurt Matzler – Professor of Strategic Management, University of Innsbruck

Three thousand miles on our bikes across the United States, to raise 4 million dollars to eradicate polio. This is Team Rotary RAAMs Polio’s Race Across America project.

The Race Across America is the hardest and longest bike race in the world: 3000 miles, coast to coast, 175,000 feet of climbing; three mountain ranges; two deserts; twelve states, three time zones, non-stop. Non-stop across the United States.

There are solar racers; there are two, four, and eight-person relay teams and Team Rotary RAAMs Polio is a four-person relay team that has been participating in this race since 2016.

The race starts in Oceanside every June with mild temperature, and after a few hours racers face the first big challenge: the desert with temperatures of up to 50 degrees. If you survive the desert, you are rewarded with beautiful scenery: you enter Monument Valley.

But after Monument Valley, you face the next big challenge: the Rocky Mountains. Three passes with an elevation of more than three thousand meters. Wolf Creek is the highest point: 3300 thin air, ice cold; it can even snow.

And if you survive the Rocky Mountains, the next big challenge is awaiting you in Kansas: The Great Plains, 1000 kilometers like that: flat with crosswinds, headwinds, and you pedal and pedal, and you think you don’t make any progress, because the landscape is not changing.

Sleep deprivation at night, constant dangers on the highways with these trucks rolling by, but after seven days and 3000 miles, we cross the finish line in Annapolis.

Team Rotary RAAMs Polio has finished four times this race. It has won this race in its category twice. It has set a world record in its category twice, and it has raised more than 4 million dollars to eradicate polio.

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First, Know The Why. When it’s getting really hard, and believe me it does, you need to know why you are doing this. When Bob McKenzie of our team was racing in 2017, on a Saturday morning three o’clock… it was raining; it was bitter cold; it was windy and he was totally exhausted after six days of racing, he thought about quitting the race.

But then a thought came to his mind: children who have polio, they cannot quit, they are in for life. So he continued to race and we finished, and that year we raised more than 500,000 dollars to eradicate polio.

Viktor Frankl survived four concentration camps in Nazi Germany, and there he made the following observation: prisoners who had a ‘why to live’ who had a purpose, who had hopes to return to their families or who had a project to finish, had a higher chance of survival than those who had lost all hopes.

Those who have a ‘why to live’ can bear with almost anyhow. Those who had a why imagined the outcome when going through all these sufferings and hardships.

This is our why: we ride so that others can walk.

What separates top athletes from average athletes is the POWER OF VISUALIZATION. Top athletes imagine the outcomes of their hard work and their training: how will it be when I reach my ambitious goal? How will it be when we reach to cross the finish line in Annapolis?

You have to imagine that, and that image must become real, it must become vivid, you must feel it, you must smell it, and you must see it. When it gets really hard, imagine the outcome of your efforts. This is the source of your motivation, but never think how far it is. This leads to frustration.

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Instead define small quick wins on the way: The next crossing, the next time station, the next city… this gives you a sense of achievement.

Planning for such a race is everything. If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I would spend six hours sharpening my ax. This is what Abraham Lincoln once said. We spent a whole year for preparation and planning. We have countless Excel sheets, checklists… every detail is analyzed; we have plans for everything.

But if you read current management literature, you read quotes like this: Nobody except venture capitalists and the late Soviet Union require five-year plans. Because once you have a plan, it’s already obsolete. Planning has gone out of fashion, but quotes like this forget one important thing about planning.

Let me tell you a little story. It was many many years ago in the Swiss Alps when Hungarian troops in winter were invited for a military maneuver. It was high up in the mountains when a young Lieutenant sent out a small unit to explore the wider nest and it started to snow, and it snowed heavily. And the soldiers didn’t come back.

So the young Lieutenant thought that he had sent them to death. But after two days they returned, and very happy, the young Lieutenant asked them: how did you find your way back?

And one of the soldiers said, ‘Well, we waited until the worst was over, and then I pulled out a map of my pocket, and this map showed me the way back.’

The young Lieutenant had a look at this map and to his astonishment he saw that this was not a map of the Swiss Alps; it was a map of the Pyrenees.

So now you might wonder how can one find the right way with the wrong map? That’s an interesting question.

But a better question is: what would have happened if the young soldier would not have pulled out the wrong map? They would probably have given up; they would have lost hope; they might have split up and gone into different directions; they might have not found the energy to move.

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Plans are like wrong maps; sometimes a wrong map can do it. A plan gives you orientation and animation, and a plan gives you self-confidence.

Eisenhower once said ‘plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.’

If you have a full-time job or more than a full-time job, training for such a race is very hard. I train between 15 and 25 hours a week, 25000 kilometers on my bike every year. And that requires a lot of willpower and discipline. And this is one of my favorite quotes by Clayton Christensen: it’s easier to hold to your principles a hundred percent of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time.

Once you make an exception to the rule, discipline starts eroding. At the beginning, very slowly, and then all of a sudden very quickly.

For me this means, for example, when my training plan says, 200 kilometers, and I come back from my training ride and I have 190 kilometers on my odometer, I ride my bike in front of my house up and down the road until I have 200.

And if my training plan says, three hours on the bike before breakfast. At six o’clock I am on my bike not for two hours and 58 minutes, not for two hours and 59 minutes; I’m on my bike for three hours.

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