What a 100-Mile Race Taught Me About Owning a Business
How running the Leadville Trail 100 helped WEL alum Kari Crowe-Seher manage the wild emotions of entrepreneurshipKari Crowe-Seher
February 28, 2019
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP) presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and Audi’s #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners, Women’s Leadership Program alumni, and thought leaders pushing for change. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.
Below, 2018 Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership fellow Kari Crowe-Seher unpacks her journey from casual runner to ultra-marathoner, and how that transformation mirrored her growth from eater to ice cream entrepreneur.
I knew nothing about ultra-marathon training before last January. Nine years ago, I knew even less about operating a business in the food industry. (Not unless you count the year I waited tables at an all-you-can-eat catfish cafe off a dirt road in the backwoods of Georgia.) But both of those pursuits have converged in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.
I sort of stumbled into running after college, having felt somewhat lost and restless after years of playing competitive soccer in high school and college. I ran my first marathon the winter after college graduation as a remedy for that restlessness as well as a respite from the anxiety of figuring out what exactly I was doing with my life. And it worked—that race was what I needed. And yet after that first marathon, it would be years before I would lace up a pair of running shoes again. After all, I wasn’t really a runner, right?
Some years later, I finally did figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I come from a line of strong, skilled women who cooked and baked everything from scratch, with an emphasis on sweets: cookies, cakes, biscuits, pies, and yes, homemade ice cream (usually taken to the ice cream socials at the local New Georgia Baptist Church). At that time, my husband Mark and I lived in a wonderful, historic neighborhood in the Near Southside of Fort Worth with access to everything we could want—everything, that is, except for really good ice cream.
I gravitated toward the idea of experimenting with ice cream because it felt like the perfect blank canvas for my brand of creativity. And the more I talked about opening an ice cream shop with my friends and neighbors, the more my community said they wanted one. (Also, Texas is literally the hottest place on Earth.) Most of all, I just wanted to open a place that would make people happy, a place where people could have the best five minutes of their day. And so MELT was born.
The emotions you face in being a leader and running a business take on the shape of all your fears, your insecurities, and your weaknesses. No one teaches you how to manage those feelings. Seemingly overnight, I went from only being responsible for myself to managing a team of 40 employees, each with their own set of needs and expectations. The enormity of that responsibility sometimes paralyzed me.
When I started my ultra running journey—the term for running a race longer than a marathon—I thought it might improve my emotional strength and make me mentally tough, so I wouldn’t feel as wrung out by the highs and lows at MELT. However, a few months into my training, I discovered that the highs and lows are exactly where we learn the most about who we are and what we are made of.
Here are ways I gained the mental fortitude that can sustain you in running not only an ultra-marathon, but also a business. Because isn't running a business really just a big endurance race?
- The power of mantras. When I got the opportunity to run the Leadville Trail 100 I knew the odds were against me; less than 50 percent of the starters cross the finish line. I also knew it would be one of the hardest days of my life. On tough training days, and during the race, I leaned on the mantra “pain is temporary, regret is forever.” When you need to dig deep and give yourself a pep talk to get the work done, a mantra is a boost. It’s something you can silently repeat to yourself as a reminder of why you are there in the first place. In fact, I created mantras for every segment of that 30-hour race just to remind myself that I was lucky to get to be there with a body that can run. I have mantras for my ice cream business, too. On challenging days at MELT—like when a human poops on your patio, a pipe bursts, all the glass Topo Chico bottles explode in your bev fridge and two people call in with the flu—you just need to whisper something to yourself as a reminder of why you created this beautiful mess in the first place.
- Put one foot in front of the other. During the course of running for 30 hours I had some dark moments. And I don’t just mean when the sun had set and I was running in the pitch black by headlamp and moonlight. There were other dark moments too: When the runners in front of me were being wrapped in insulated blankets for hypothermia and led off the course; a long, freezing stretch of the race when it had been raining for hours and I faced a three-mile incline 80 miles in; during moments when every limb felt heavy as lead and I questioned why I was doing this, my mantras failing. In those moments, I just had to put one foot in front of the other. I had to move, even if it was just one step at time. During especially long marathon days at MELT—negotiating with a vendor, meeting with my team leads to solve shop issues, juggling cash flow, working with my contractor on a new project, putting out fires, and spending 3 hours interviewing potential new hires—I remind myself that this moment, too, is just temporary. I know that by simply putting one foot in front of the other our team will achieve the goals we’ve set for ourselves, chipping away at them little by little.
- Find your tribe. At Leadville, after not sleeping for 27 hours, I literally had no choice but to let my crew—i.e., my husband, my sister, and my friends—be my brain. In my running life, finding a tribe in whom I can confide, people who hold me accountable and whom I trust to push me towards my goals, has made all the difference. In the same way, there’s no way MELT would be the place that it is without the wonderful team we’ve assembled. Our staff manifests our highest values—in ways big and small—every day. I love when I learn that someone on our team volunteered to change a customer’s flat tire or that a team member bought a customer’s ice cream when discovering that she had a sick daughter in the hospital. I’m so proud of the kind, hard-working crew we’ve assembled and can’t imagine our shop without them.
Finishing the Leadville Trail 100 was undoubtedly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done; it was also one of the most instructive. I learned so much about what is possible in life and business when you set a powerful intention and single-mindedly commit to it. I approach my days at MELT with the lessons I learned while racing. At Leadville, you have 30 hours to finish a 100-mile race over rocky terrain at elevations above 10,000 feet with long climbs, stream crossings and, occasionally, cold sleet. And yet, in some ways, operating MELT is every bit as hard, if not harder. After all, there’s no finish line to cross; there’s always a new day with new challenges. But Leadville taught me that with the right mantras, a lot of persistence, and the right people around me, anything is possible.
Kari Crowe-Seher, a 2018 James Beard Foundation Women in Entrepreneurial Leadership fellow, is founder and owner of MELT Ice Creams in Fort Worth, Texas. Learn more at melticecreams.com.
The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi.