‘Being out in the desert beats sitting behind a desk any day’

Top 1000: Three business people turned athletes and adventurers discuss their highs and lows


Anne O’Leary

Chief executive of Vodafone in Ireland

“It started as a kid. I was a swimmer and did competitive swimming which was really my entry into all of this. I gave it up in my teenage years but went back at 18 and swam three or four times a week. It was sociable as well as competitive.

With triathlons, someone would ask me to do the swim section, and someone else the bike and someone else the run part. But then I started running at 20, then I started cycling, and then I did them all. Over the course of 10 years I was doing about eight triathlons a year.

I used to be a big triathlete, but I don’t do so much anymore. I still do the Dublin City triathlon, which Vodafone sponsors, and I’ve done the Dublin city marathon three times. But I also do other things now, a mixture of things, like different cycling events, such as the Ring of Kerry or the Wicklow 100, as well as other 10ks and half marathons.


I’m more into the fun part now, rather than competing. It’s about really getting some air, spending time with friends and going to beautiful places. I’m going to Westport shortly to cycle with some friends and I’m really looking forward to that.

We started sponsoring Dublin city triathlon over 10 years ago, and it really was a minority sport then. Now, more and more people are participating. People are more aware of the benefits of it, and the beautiful facilities we have be it up the Dublin mountains on a Sunday on your bike, or swimming in Forty Foot or Seapoint.

One of my highlights was last September when I took on the challenge of swimming a kilometre every day to raise funds for ISPCC Childline. I swam 30km in 30 days. It was challenging first from a time perspective, but I had a great sense of achievement from it. I felt free during it.

We’re hearing more and more of the benefits of sea and the mental benefit of the cold water. So for the month of September it felt amazing every day. It’s not necessarily when you’re in the water that you feel the benefits of it.

I obviously know the benefits of exercise, but the cold water sea benefits I hadn’t really experienced.

I can’t wait to get back to it now. I think I’ll go back on May 1st - an extra degree makes a huge difference! I want to do more sea swimming. It’s there and I live near it.

(Endurance sports) are not always easy. If you’re doing half Ironman races, or marathon type races, at various points during the race you will feel “I can’t do this” “My blister hurts” or “Will this ever end?” And that’s quite normal.

It’s unusual to say ‘I feel brilliant’ all the way through it. It’s about that mental strength and resilience.

There are definitely set backs that you’ll get during these events that you can’t control. Maybe physically, or weather wise, or maybe you’ll get a puncture. That’s all part of testing you; but that sense of accomplishment when you get over the line, those happy endorphins, it’s really very uplifting.

I remember doing Alpe d’Huez (triathlon in the French Alps), and the day before there was a heatwave, but it ended up raining and being miserable and cold. It’s very hilly going up, and I remember being on the bike thinking “how am I going to get through this”. But I pretended I was in the Dublin mountains and tried to think of something else. In the end I was so cold I couldn’t wait to go up!

When we talk about endurance things, sometimes they can be compulsive and obsessive which isn’t healthy. This is about balancing your life, and looking after your physical or mental wellbeing.

For me, it’s about being outdoors. It’s really important for me on a Saturday to do my 10k run outside near Seapoint. It’s about having quiet time. On a Sunday there’s nothing I prefer more than going for a 50k or 100k bike ride with my friends - with a nice coffee stop on the way!

To deal with the challenges you face every day, whether they’re personal or professional, you have to be ready for them. And to be ready you have to be at your best physically and mentally. Of course dealing with setbacks when doing a marathon helps in work when you get a setback. It’s about being calm, being emotionally resilient, sticking it out to the end, not giving up, and understanding that it’s a long term play.”


John Burke

Managing director of the Armada Hotel in Co Clare

“I gave up sports really young, at the age of 16. The traditional sports of hurling or football, they just didn’t click for me. Soon after I knuckled down to focus on my career, and I studied hotel management in Shannon. I soon realised the more I worked the more I succeeded, and pretty much dedicated myself to that plan of action. By the age of 28 I was a wreck - overweight, smoking, unhealthy eating, no healthy work life balance, no proper down time. I would take about half a day off a month, and my life was slipping by me. After my dad passed away at the young age of 62 it made me ask some deeper questions. Soon after I read an article about Everest, and that was my light bulb moment. I set off on the journey to climb it, having never climbed a mountain in my life! But step by step, mountain by mountain, year by year, I got there, 10 years in all, with a bit of a slow down in the middle due to the recession. But I got there.

Physically, I prepared well for it, but without a doubt, success in climbing comes from the mental aspect. I have no doubt that it was my mental state that got me to the top. I learned over years of climbing how my mental state could adversely affect my performance, in every way, from sleep, adrenaline, recovery, safety. Once I got a handle on that I knew I was on to something. I never had as much of a struggle to acclimatise as I had on Everest, yet I never managed to stay as strong, I dare to say I even enjoyed it! There were a hundred and one ways I needed to manage my mind, for example, mantras when eating to overcome loss of appetite or nausea, positive self-talk on really rough days, techniques to move on from mistakes, staying sociable when I wanted to hide in a tent, staying in contact at home without allowing home sickness to kick in, focusing only on the controllables, so the fear of death disappeared.

There is often talk about Everest becoming polluted, exploited etc, but I don’t feel this is the case in any way. Everyone climbs Everest at the same time, as there generally are only 5-10 days in the year when it’s possible to stand on the top, so of course there are a lot on the mountain and there should be some way to ensure there are more controls to ensure all that await in base camp for a summit push leave at once. Once the climbing season is over, the mountain has maybe 355 days to recover on the upper slopes before it will be touched again.

The highest point for me was getting home. Some people live for the mountains, but for me there is no place like home. Without a doubt, standing on top of the world is special, but no place compares to standing amongst your family and friends, and arriving into Shannon Airport was a moment I will never forget.

I tried to embrace every low point out there, to take them as a challenge that had been sent my way as a test. On the final summit push my stomach couldn’t hold down food, so I ended up going five days with about 300 calories a day and a fraction of the fluids I needed. I was burning between 15-20,000 calories, so it took its toll on me. I was disintegrating as I moved. In the final days I was very dehydrated and it was affecting me in every way, I was hallucinating and could not stop thinking about a cold bottle of coke! I knew the body could keep going and I couldn’t let the mind sell me short, so I focused on mini goals, mini victories, one step at a time. When I looked up at one stage I saw the summit nearly 2km above me, but I needed to focus on the mini goals, 50 metres or so, maybe 100. Step by step that’s all it takes.

Preparing for, and my time on Everest, was the most valuable learning ground I have ever experienced. The people you climb with, the sherpas and guides all taught me lessons along the way.

One is to focus on what you can control. On the mountains I often filled my mind with the what if’s, eg the avalanches, rope failure, bad weather, etc, none of which I could control. In business, I have learned to focus the energy on what I can control, and now what I can’t - like interest rates, recession, shortages of available talent. So I have learnt to put all energy into pushing forward with opportunities. For example, do I hold back on development of a food outlet due to chefs shortages which could be 5-8,000 nationally, or do I focus on the fact that there could be 25,000 in the country and I just need to find maybe five?

Another is to dream big, and set major long terms objectives, but to focus on the tasks one by one to get you there. Don’t let the scale of a vision frighten you off.

Relish the challenges. The bad days pass, relish them as an opportunity to learn and grow. Often with mountaineering, in preparation or climbing, it’s only when things went wrong that my skills and ability really started to develop, and the same has been the case at work. So embrace the set backs, the challenges, the mountains in front of you so to speak, we are all on a journey and these are part of it.

I still have mountains on the horizon. There is no place like time in Carrauntounhill; I’ve climbed it about 250 times, but I have a new personal objective set up for there that I would like to achieve. I’m also planning Mont Blanc in September again with some friends from Clare, so really looking forward to that also.”


Ray O’Neill

Venture partner at BVP Investments

“I played basketball as a kid but I stopped playing in my twenties because I blew out my knee twice. I got into triathlons then, and founded Piranha Triathlon Club with my wife. We set it up in 2000, after the Sydney Olympics, when for the first time triathlon was included. There were three members then; now there’s over 300.

I was hardcore for maybe five or six years, but then I had kids. Now I usually pick one event every one or two years.

It’s about finishing - not about finishing up front. It’s about setting an example for my kids, as I’ve three daughters. I want to be a good role model.

Marathon des Sables (MDS) is both a mental and physical test. It’s a scary enough race that you can’t just wing it. I trained for about 12 months before hand, and drove my wife and kids mad obsessing with all the gear and light-weight-calorie-dense food. Plus, I was trying to raise money for SOAR, a charity that helps young people overcome obstacles that are holding them back in life. I went to a live session with the charity, before I left for the Saraha, as they worked with the kids in a school in Dublin and I was blown away. So, when it was 50 degrees, back hurting, toe nails falling off me, it was SOAR that kept me going.

The highest point was climbing up a large Jebel (hill) and looking back down. The people below look smaller than ants as they follow a trail up the side of a large sand mountain with the final section so steep that you need to pull yourself up with ropes. The view from the top is for miles. I took a breather to appreciate the glorious view, before making my way down the other side and onwards.

The lowest point probably came on the first day when a sand storm whipped up mid-way through the stage. We walked through it for a few hours and it set my expectation about how challenging the MDS would be. With so much prep done, and not wanting to let the charity down, I changed my race strategy to be more of a “military” affair. From then on I checked stage distances, water rations, terrain and expected temperatures to try to “control the controllables” and get me around. I’m glad to say it worked but I also think if I did the race again, I would take more risks.

If I was giving a tip to anyone I would say to them to enjoy the pain and the hardship, if that makes sense. These kind of events are not meant to be easy. The MDS’s ethos is about finding your personal limit and appreciating that to be happy, you don’t need much at all. Let’s face it, being out in the desert still beats sitting behind a desk any day.

I think there is a connection between endurance sport and business. Business, like endurance sports, requires planning, mental and physical effort, sacrifice and has it up and downs. It’s not easy either. But the struggle can be worth it if you take time-out to appreciate the new friends you make.

You can get away with playing a game of tennis or golf with no practice, you can just wing it. But with these endurance events, you can’t wing them. There’s something on the line , there’s a risk you won’t finish, a risk you’ll hurt yourself. Because this is on the line it motivates you to train, and that’s what I need to get me off the couch. I need the sense of risk; I know if I deliver on the training I’ll succeed.

With business, too, there’s a lot on the line, and you can’t wing it - at least not all the time. If you keep winging it it’ll catch up with you.

And it’s the energy it gives you; it focuses you completely. I find that people who train for any of these events are so much more efficient with their time. It’s attractive as an employer (or investor); you know that they have the discipline, that they can put in the hard work and that they are diligent. No wonder a lot of successful people are ex sports people.

Next on my agenda, I’m signing up for Otillo Cannes, a swimming and running combo race in October. The idea is to swim between islands, haul yourself out of the water, and then run the islands with a total of 9km of swimming and 30km of running. You have to race in pairs and the rules allow you wear your running shoes while swimming, and to tether yourself to your race partner so they can pull you along (thanks Tom!).”

(Ray also works for fincovi.com, a start-up accountancy firm for the renewable energy fund sector, and co-founded ClimateCocktailClub.org, a network for climate professionals now scaling around the world.)