Training for and finishing a marathon are much like the product development process

In product development, prototyping is the currency of training.


2019 was an immense year for human achievement. Perhaps one of the biggest milestones came in October when Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to run a sub-2-hour marathon.

His accomplishment was the culmination of years of training and a carefully executed plan on race day. It was inspiring.

When I finished my first marathon in November, it was at a pace nearly three times slower. So I am careful to tell people that I “completed” a marathon and not that I “ran” it.

It took 4 hours and 52 minutes from when I started the race at the Charlotte Knights stadium to when I crossed the finish line one street over. I was desperate to be done and proud to have endured through the pain and mental hurdles of the race. Yeah, I walked a few miles during the race, but I still made it. I cannot imagine how anyone could go that far in less than 2 hours.

As my race unfolded, I realized that running a marathon has many parallels with the product development process. Each is an extraordinarily difficult journey that only a few try and in which fewer succeed. There are highs and lows—and hopefully, strangers offering you literal or figurative beer and donuts along the way with friends and family waiting at the finish line.

Training is crucial

It would be nearly impossible to have never run a mile and expect to finish a marathon. Training is the key to build stamina necessary for a successful race day. The miles burned in the early hours of the morning while your children sleep, sometimes enduring wind, rain and snow to maintain your training schedule, are the backbone of success.

In product development, prototyping is the currency of training. Dutifully testing ideas through iterative prototypes is the key to unlocking the DNA of a product and the backbone of a successful launch.

Before my race, the longest training run I did was 17 miles. I thought that was “proof of concept” enough to do a full marathon. So it should have come as no shock that by Mile 17 in my race, I started having to walk.

Don’t expect a good product to evolve from a non-rigorous prototyping schedule. You may end up trying to sell a product that is not feasible.

Go farther than others

The Charlotte marathon is a race that has multiple distances in the same event. The event included a full and half marathon, a 5k and 1-mile fun run.

The half and full ran the same course at the start of the race. Once the runners came back into the heart of the city, the half marathoners turned right to the finish line and a well-earned banana and slug of water. The rest of us wearing purple bibs veered left and headed around the celebration and up the hill for the second half of the journey.

Product development is the ultimate marathon. Each step of the journey brings you closer to bringing the product to market, but you can’t stop halfway and expect great results.

Products that have not been rigorously tested by inventors are rarely successful in the market. You have to be willing to go the extra mile and fight through the difficult miles to have any chance at success.

Celebrate each milestone

Marathons and product development are long journeys that can push us to our mental limits. So it is important to recognize the depth of the task and celebrate the small milestones along the way to refresh and renew the spirit.

Each time I passed a mile marker during my race, I did a tiny fist pump for a mini celebration. When I was struggling in the second half, I would push myself to run to a visual point in the road ahead to have a micro milestone to celebrate. It helped pass the time and kept the mental demons at bay.

When deep in a development program, there are always small breakthroughs or moments of discovery or clarity that inch you closer to the finish. Celebrating these micro achievements along the way—whether with a pause for a beer or a snack or to share the milestone with friends and colleagues—can help mentally smooth the journey.

Learn from failure

I had wanted my first marathon to be in spring 2018. I started running shortly before New Year’s and made a resolution to commit to a training program and be ready in a few months.

Six weeks in, I hurt my knee. I had to stop training and missed the spring marathon season. After some physical therapy, I learned how to treat my body better. I learned how to put in miles without overdoing it, and the knowledge from that first failure propelled me to be able to train well enough to try one this year.

It is painful for inventors to give up on an idea due to a lack of funding, lost interest, lack of consumer enthusiasm or other reasons. However, the skills gained from a defunct program often end up forming the bedrock of a successful future program.

Whether it be a specific technology, prototyping technique or marketing strategy, these insights can be the fuel for the next and better product.