As I passed the famous Penn State Creamery, and Beaver Stadium came into view, I knew that I was about to complete one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. Literally putting one foot in front of the other, I entered the finishing chutes behind the main scoreboard and turned left into the tunnel. As I crossed the 50-yard line with my name and hometown announced over the PA system and a few hundred supporters cheering me on, I completed my first IRONMAN™ 70.3.  As an off shoot of the more famous full distance event, the 70.3 is just that…. exactly half the full race. This includes a 1.2-mile open water swim, 56-mile bike, and 13.1-mile run.

Having spent the past dozen years studying and working with middle market companies, I could not help but think of some of the similarities between competing in a triathlon of this magnitude and mid-size companies in the United States. Here are a few of the key themes:


MATURITY – Ironman races have been around for decades, gaining popularity in the 1980s with broadcasts of the Kona, Hawaii, world championships. Similarly, the average age of a middle market company is approximately 40 years. Unlike say, pickleball, neither triathlon nor middle market companies are new on the scene.

GROWTH – Both the sport of triathlon and mid-size companies share strong, steady growth.  The number of races around North America (and the world) continues to grow to the point where there is either a half or full distance Ironman taking place nearly every week. Since the National Center for the Middle Market began tracking middle market revenue growth rates in 2011, the average annual growth of the segment has been close to 9.0%.  

DISCIPLINE – An Ironman is not a “couch to competition” endeavor.  Surely a few have been able to pick it up and finish without any training, but it’s certainly not the norm, or advisable.  For my first Ironman, I started by building a strong base of fitness in all three disciplines, supplemented by strength training, mobility work, nutrition changes, and rest/recovery. At 16 weeks before the race date, I followed a specific daily training plan with recommended activities and mileage.  Having a smart plan was essential to ensuring proper levels of endurance and power built over time without risk of overuse injuries. Middle market companies are similarly disciplined, typically focusing efforts on their strengths and minimizing the temptations to branch out into interesting but unnecessary products, services, or other expansion.

RESILIENCE – The biggest lesson I learned in my race experience: Control what you can control. There will be all kinds of chaos and unexpected things on a course with nearly 3,000 athletes. Goggles fog up? Keep going. Bike crash in front of you? Slow down and make sure everyone is okay, then keep going. Legs cramp up on mile 10 of the run? Walk for a bit, take in some electrolytes, and keep going. Mid-size companies are no different, they can take on uncertainty and weather the storms. The COVID pandemic was a perfect example of how the middle market uses its unique position to survive (vs. small companies) and adapt quickly (vs. large companies).

SUPPORT – Nobody can train and finish a race alone. It takes a team, including supportive family members, training partners, healthcare professionals, and in my case, an experienced brother-in-law and a professional triathlete neighbor to serve up inspiration and last-minute tips. The middle market often runs “lean” and relies on trusted advisors to help navigate the most complex or developing challenges. Bankers, lawyers, accountants, consultants, and technology implementation partners are the most frequently used support resources.

One of my favorite observations since being at the NCMM – all Fortune 500 companies were mid-size at some point. For IRONMAN™ competitors, at some point, they were all swimmers, cyclists, or runners before becoming triathlete champions.