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Posted: December 02, 2008

Tougher than tough

CEO Fitness Challenge tests the power of the executive class outside the office

Mike Sandrock

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Clarence Harrison, CEO of FloorCrafters and Ted Kennedy, head of CEO Challenge, see how many pushups they can do in a minute at the Colorado Athletic Club. Photos by Jonathan Castner

As soon as he hits the track at Boulder High School, Ted Kennedy begins running faster, his legs turning over quickly as his breathing and energy increases. He talks faster, too, and soon, as he floats around the track, he is running close to a five-minute mile pace.

Kennedy, head of CEO Challenge LLC, runs a couple of more 400 meters at close to 75 seconds each, then jogs off to cool down on a fall day so beautiful the credit crisis and stock market plunge are no more than a distant nuisance.

"I love the track," says Kennedy, 51, as he recovers with an easy run along Boulder Creek. "There is something about racing, about measuring yourself and pushing yourself."

Measuring himself, and CEOs, is something Kennedy does well, one reason he put on the inaugural Denver CEO Fitness Challenge. The competition, hosted by the Colorado Athletic Club, is the newest event in CEO Challenges, the firm Kennedy started in 2005 after originating the concept with the CEO Ironman Challenge in 2001. The premise is simple: C-level execs compete over a series of four tests — pushups in a minute; crunches to exhaustion; step-ups in three minutes; and flexibility.

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Kennedy formed his company after leaving a corporate job with Best Foods, makers of Hellmann’s, Knorr, Skippy and Mazola. Since then, CEO Challenges has grown to 13 events on three continents, highlighted by the CEO Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.

"It has been fantastic growth," Kennedy said of the Challenges, in which CEOs compete in "races within a race" in order to find the fittest in their sport. They get VIP treatment and the chance to turn their years of training into an experience valuable for themselves and their firms.

"I launched CEO Challenges to take the CEO Ironman concept to a number of other sports that CEOs are passionate about," he said.

Kennedy has long had a passion for running and fitness, ever since he was a prep miler in Canada, and then on to the University of Guelph, where he graduated in 1979 with a degree in physical geography and the school record in the 1,500 meters. Like many promising young athletes, Kennedy gave up competitive running when he was just 22, with a personal best 1,500 meter time of 3 minutes, 50 seconds (roughly a 4:07 mile).

Instead of running on the roads or track, he began racing up the corporate ladder. Kennedy climbed all the way to vice president of sales and marketing with Best Foods, seemingly on track for a comfortable life. Through all the long work weeks and travel, Kennedy maintained his desire for athletic competition, a desire that led him to compete in his first triathlon in 1986. Then, in 1999, he gave up the security of Best Foods to join Ironman North America. Since then, athletics has been his life.

The biggest plus in his business, Kennedy says, is meeting the CEOs, who invariably are accomplished, driven people. Not only is putting on the Challenges fun, it is also inspirational, adds Kennedy, who is helped in the business by his eldest daughter, Shawna.

"CEOs who keep fit show an incredible knack of being able to juggle numerous things at one time," Kennedy said. "They are a true inspiration, and their ability to focus is enviable."

Oh, and one more thing, Kennedy adds: "They are as competitive as hell."

That comes through when you talk with some of the Front Range executives who took part in the inaugural Denver Challenge.

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"I keep checking my e-mail every day to see how I did," Dr. Nathan Moore said during a recent phone interview. "I am excited to see the results and how I match up. I am a competitor. CEOs are winners."

Moore, head of Rocky Mountain Urgent Care, did 50 pushups in the minute. To understand how tough that is, get down on the floor right now and do one good pushup. Now add on 49 more. Not so easy, is it?

What drives a successful doctor to push himself through hours of training every week?

"We work, work and work, but in the end, if you don’t have that great feeling that exercise and working out brings, where are you?" Moore says.

Louisville’s Steve Gibson, CEO of the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, has a similar attitude. "I am a big believer in fitness," he said in a phone interview from Virginia. "It is a way to be effective; when your emotions are under control, you make better decisions. I am better with dealing with stress because of it. If you do not have control of your emotions you don’t make as smart of a decision. And dealing with stress and making decisions is what C-level executives do."

Bobby Stuckey, co-owner of Frasca restaurant in Boulder, considered one of the top restaurants in the nation, agrees. He ran the New York City Marathon on Nov. 4, because, he said, "It helps me in all aspects of my job. Working out is critical."

Stuckey has hired several national-class ultra-marathoners over the years, in part, he jokes, "so I can have someone to train with."

Often, it turns out that the rigorous training regimen of the CEOs seeps through the company, says Rich Kylberg, CEO of Communicom Broadcasting, a Denver-based radio station operator. He believes his own high fitness level "trickles down" to his employees, giving them the OK to get fitter and faster, and he hopes, more productive.

"I really believe that fitness and good health trickle down, up and sideways," Kylberg said. "I mean, when anyone in a business environment makes a serious personal commitment to improving their conditioning, from the corner office to the mail room, the benefits can be seen and felt in a way that inspires and motivates others.

"Unlike other decisions, like over-eating or excessive alcohol indulgence or a lack of sleep, I have never seen any business downside to the individuals in our company taking time from their day to care for their fitness and health. "Make sense?"

It does indeed. And one tip that the non-CEOs among us can pick up from those taking part in CEO Challenges is time management. These CEOs often work out as much as elite age-group competitors. Gibson, for example, spends up to 20 hours a week training ("I buy my wife a lot of dinners," he says).

How motivated is Gibson to keep training and racing? Very. In February, he will compete in the Mount Taylor Quadrathlon in New Mexico, a tough mid-winter race comprising running, cycling, cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing to the top of Mount Taylor near Grants, N.M.

"I am a big believer in fitness," he said. No kidding.

There is good reason for it. Research over the years has shown that exercise promotes the release of "endorphins," a term coined by a scientist from "endogenous morphine." Many of us, whether we jog a few miles with the kids or dog, or train like an elite marathoner, can feel the physiological benefits of exercise without knowing exactly their biological origins.

CEOs, Kennedy says, take the "runner’s high" a step further, using smart time management techniques in putting in 60-hour work weeks, raising families and traveling.

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"CEOS who are fit have more energy to put toward their other passions, including their companies and their families," he says. "Working out allows them some rare personal time to reflect on issues and opportunities."

Clarence Harrison, head of Boulder-based FloorCrafters Inc., is the paradigm of the fit CEO. He rarely misses a workout despite working 50- to 60-hour weeks overseeing a business that has customers up and down the Front Range. Harrison did an amazing 65 pushups in just 50 seconds during his early November fitness test at the Colorado Athletic Club.

"I feel fine," he said afterwards, "but my calves are a little sore."

No wonder, as Harrison was able to do 163 step-ups in his allotted three minutes. While Harrison’s high fitness level is good for his health, it is also good for his business, he told ColoradoBiz during an easy recovery run the day after his fitness test.

"I get this all the time, with an employee saying I inspired him to start walking," Harrison said. "When they see me running or lifting weights before work, it promotes the idea of making exercise a lifestyle. We try to make it easy for them to work out" by creating a culture of fitness.

That includes a shower and a full gym at FloorCrafters headquarters as well as the encouragement to work out, when the schedule allows it. "I work out in the morning, and I have a clearer mind when I run before work," Harrison said.

There is no time to reflect during the Denver Fitness Challenge. Within a few seconds of starting the pushups, arm muscles start burning. The CEOs taking the test are focused only on their form and getting out the next rep.

Surprisingly, it is the flexibility test that gives the CEOs the most problems. They are motivated enough to push themselves» to exhaustion in pushups, sit-ups and step-ups, but there is no pushing it when it comes to stretching out your legs and leaning forward.

As Moore puts it: "The flexibility is not there after (age) 40."

But the drive certainly remains, and after my run with Kennedy, training partner and recently retired biotech executive Scott Winston said he sees in Kennedy the same drive as the CEOs who compete in his Challenges: "Ted is high-energy, competitive, focused and able to multi-task with good time management," Winston says. "Keeping up one’s training is easy with those character traits."

Kennedy has found his niche with CEO Challenges, and his home in the Denver metro area. He continues his quotidian workouts, running intervals with five-time World Triathlon champ Simon Lessing, going on four-hour bike rides up steep mountain roads and cross-country skiing all through the winter.

As we leave the track, Kennedy says he expects the Denver Challenge to be a model, in part because of the culture of fitness endemic to the area.

"I am sure that once we host CEO Fitness Challenges across North America, the Front Range will likely have the fittest CEOs of all," he says. "Fitness and health is woven into the culture here. It is why so many of us choose to live here."

Oh, and how would Kennedy match up against his CEO competitors? He certainly would not win, he admits after taking the test himself. "Maybe 15 years ago I could have stayed with these guys — but certainly not now."

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