Why bankers can’t stop running
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“You must love running,” people often comment when they hear I’ve signed up for another marathon or see me leaving the office for a jog along New York’s Hudson River path. There are certainly many who do. Tim Chichester, a teacher who has just won a leg of the world’s biggest corporate race in Rochester, New York, has no hesitation when I ask what motivates him. “I love it,” he says emphatically.
For the briefest of moments, standing in the tunnel under Rochester’s minor league baseball stadium where the three-and-a-half-mile race finished, I envy his unadulterated enjoyment more than his ability to knock out a three-minute kilometre. Despite having completed more than a dozen marathons, I don’t “love” running in the straightforward sense. It’s closer to my relationship with writing — I love having run.
From 30km in a category-5 typhoon across Hong Kong island, to 30 minutes on a sweltering Dubai evening, and all the runs where things just haven’t clicked, I have never finished a session and wished I’d never set out. But there were countless moments of pain, frustration and general misery too.
I think back to my time covering Ireland’s financial crisis for the country’s biggest broadsheet, a daunting task for a twenty-something journalist that could occasionally weigh heavily. So I would run, every morning I could, on a beach just south of Dublin. I would watch the sun rise on Sandymount’s vast shoreline and I would feel insignificant, gloriously so. I wasn’t the only one — Ireland’s then-financial regulator used to run that same beach most mornings.
On the worst day of my life, I ran twice, going out as fast and as hard as I could so that I could feel something else, anything else. I’ve pounded the pavement furiously after being scooped on stories and botching interviews. I’ve gone out long and steady trying to find a better way to tell a story that just isn’t working. I’ve salvaged bad days with good runs more times than I can remember, savouring the predictable “effort in, results out” nature of the endeavour — so unlike journalism. And I’ve slumped into the depths of despair when running isn’t going my way, even if all is well in the rest of my world.
This might sound like madness — and I might share that view if I didn’t spend so many of my waking hours covering financial services, an industry full of kindred spirits who share my complex relationship with one of the world’s simplest forms of exercise.
Every second banker I meet seems to be either training for or recovering from a marathon, or attempting a more arduous challenge. The industry’s zeal for running isn’t just anecdotal — at the starting line for the London Marathon back in April, I had a one-in-10 shot of stumbling across someone in finance, rather than the one in 25 you would expect given the proportion of the UK’s population employed in the industry.
So what is it that binds running and finance so tightly? The easy answer is that both attract “type A” personalities. The intense preparation demanded by a marathon isn’t that different from what it takes to win a big client. Similarly, the stamina to keep going when your legs have given up is the same trait that powers investment analysts through 16-hour days.
Brad Hu, Citigroup’s chief risk officer, was 49 when he discovered running after being “backed into a marathon by a friend”. He now does run streaks — daily runs with minimum distances — from Memorial Day to July 4, and Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. His minimum distance is three miles, but he goes out for as long as eight some days.
“If I have a race or a goal, I get locked in, totally committed to the training programme,” he says. How does that sit with the demands and unpredictability that surely come with running risk for one of the world’s biggest banks? “There’s no excuse,” says Hu. “It doesn’t matter if you get home and it’s 10pm and it’s raining, you go out and do it . . . hell or high water, I’m there. I run with lamps, all that crazy stuff.”
Gary Thompson, head of trading at Vontobel Quality Growth, adopted a similarly bloody-minded approach when he was training for the gruelling North Pole Marathon. For four months starting last December, he rose at four each morning, running through the depths of Manhattan’s winter so he could be at his desk by 6.30am.
John Wraith, UBS’s head of UK rates strategy, ran a marathon every month for 12 months straight last year, even as his day job of predicting the future cost of UK debt was made infinitely harder by the wild ride that is Brexit.
Wraith completed his extraordinary succession of marathons with a friend, a lawyer, to raise money for four charities with which they have a personal connection; these included one focused on Downs syndrome (a condition that Wraith’s son has). Wraith said he opted for such an extreme challenge because having already done so many marathons, it was harder to raise sponsorship.
Jacqueline Valouch, who heads philanthropy for Deutsche Bank’s wealth management business, describes running as “a part of my day that I’m unwilling to sacrifice”. Running is popular with high-achieving finance people, she says, because they share “this very goal-setting committed type of mind that says, ‘I get up and I run. And if I have a meeting that’s early, I’ll get up earlier and run.’ ”
Yet grit and determination can only partly explain why bankers run — or why anyone runs. You also have to want to do it. From my vantage point writing about big global banks, I can see many reasons why people working in finance would want to run more now than they ever have.
Rapid advances in everything from machine learning to voice recognition and computer modelling have brought the industry to the cusp of a transformational era. Bosses have so far mainly spoken about the destruction of roles in operational areas. In the long term, though, just about all roles in finance are potentially under threat, and so it makes all the more sense for humans to take part in activities that play to their advantage over machines.
“Some of my best clients and I run together,” says Ricardo Mora, a partner at Goldman Sachs. “We’ll incorporate a breakfast meeting, get together for a meal afterwards,” says the 22-time marathon runner. As someone who has done a few running meetings, I can see how the shared endeavour would forge deeper bonds than a drink or a meal.
Mora also runs with colleagues and is one of the organisers of an annual event for Goldman’s summer interns and other runners at the bank. “For a junior out of college looking for a job, it’s another way for them to connect,” Mora says. “One day they’re sitting at a desk working with them, the next day at 5.30am they’re running the Brooklyn Bridge with a managing director, a partner, someone from the firm, running alongside them.” Between 40 and 50 people join the run annually.
Hu says he tries “to run with colleagues in every city” when he travels — something that I’ve done too, with varying levels of success. On a trip to Dublin, where Citigroup Europe is based, he went running with Ireland’s then junior finance minister Eoghan Murphy, who took him on the same stretch of beach where I once enjoyed my daily runs.
Running also enjoys a roughly equal split between male and female participants, as shown by numerous studies including the latest annual survey from Running USA, which says that 54 per cent of runners are female. That makes it a far more inclusive option for client and employee bonding than traditional corporate activities such as golf — an important consideration as the finance industry comes under increasing pressure to improve its gender diversity.
All of these bonding qualities were on display in Rochester on Tuesday night, when 8,000 people took to the streets in aid of the charity United Way. The run was part of the JPMorgan’s Corporate Challenge series, which encompasses 13 global cities and is described by the bank’s chief executive Jamie Dimon as “a great way to bring together thousands of people — customers, competitors and our own employees in a fun and healthy event”.
After the race, buildings across Rochester (population 208,000) were lit up in the company’s trademark colour blue, stamping its imprint on the town at a time when rivals such as Goldman and Bank of America are playing for a bigger slice of Middle America’s business.
Jenn Piepszak, JPMorgan’s new chief financial officer, says she doesn’t think of the event in terms of cost since it’s “about brand awareness and giving back to the community”, while the firm’s marketing boss Kristin Lemkau says the race matters even more in smaller town where “this is probably the biggest thing we do in the market”.
I love the corporate run,” says Deutsche’s Valouch, a serial participant, who huddled with me in torrential rain ahead of the Central Park leg of the JPMorgan Challenge last week, before flooding forced an eleventh-hour cancellation. “It’s such a great healthy way to create the culture of a firm . . . to have them [colleagues] all levelled in a lot of ways.”
She recalls having a “lot of senior people run last year for the first time”. “In the corporate environment, they need to have a different persona, a different kind of leadership, that they didn’t need to have at the race . . . ”
Three months after he was appointed chief executive, with his bank still gripped in apparently ceaseless crises, Deutsche’s Christian Sewing joined the Frankfurt leg of the race. “Running is an efficient way to keep in shape — but it is much more fun doing it with colleagues and friends,” Sewing told me. “So whenever I can, I take part. It is a great way to be with our people.”
Bank of America is similarly effusive about its ownership of the Chicago Marathon. “The highs and lows of training for a marathon is all about setting a goal and doing what you need to do to achieve that goal,” says Joe Smith, an executive who oversees the bank’s relationship with the race. “It’s very similar to how you would look at your financial life.”
It’s not just about the customers. Around 400 Bank of America staff register for the marathon every year and around 300 typically cross the start line. Smith ran Chicago for the first time in 2018. His time was the best of the nine marathons he’s run, which he attributes partly to having so many colleagues there.
Such events make sense at a time when companies are being made increasingly aware of their employees’ general health and wellness. In New York, Citigroup supports an annual run/walk with the American Heart Association, which attracted some 2,150 Citi runners this year.
“Whenever I’m with our employees at town halls and other gatherings, I stress the importance of exercise, eating right and overall wellness efforts,” says JPMorgan’s Dimon, who walked and ran through cancer treatment in 2014.
Beyond the health-giving effects and the opportunities for networking that running offers, it is the more intangible benefits that the bankers I spoke to seemed most passionate about.
Citi’s Hu describes “all these creative ideas” that come to him when he’s out there. “Something happens on the run, you’re not trying to do it,” he says. He uses an app that allows him to instantly record short clips of inspiration on everything from “self-improvement, personal life hacks, things with family . . . deep intractable work problems, new risk paradigms”. Asked if they do similar, several other interviewees request the name of the app to record their mid-run epiphanies (as did I).
Valouch says running teaches important lessons about a life in finance. “It can’t always be a good year at work, you’re not always going to be on top of your game,” she says.
Vontobel’s Thompson knows all about the character-building qualities of running. Having travelled to the northern tip of Norway in April to take part in the North Pole Marathon he’d trained so hard for, he and 38 other runners were left “waiting and waiting” amid political tensions between Russia and Ukraine that ultimately led to the revocation of permits to fly to the North Pole. The North Pole is runnable for just 14 days of the year and the marathon was cancelled.
Kelly Crowe, a sub-three-hour marathoner in Brown Brothers Harriman’s marketing division, says running brings her “clarity and happiness”, referencing the “runners’ high”, a sublime sense of euphoria that some runners experience.
Some early-career finance workers who feel subjected to the constant whims of their bosses say they run so that they can claim control over at least one area of their lives.
Mora, a partner at Goldman Sachs and thus a member of one of Wall Street’s most exclusive clubs, gives a strikingly similar answer when asked why he runs. “Freedom.” Freedom from what? “It’s a personal reflection,” he says. “It’s freedom from your daily routine . . . that one hour a day is a time that’s just mine, I can go out, run.”
As for me, I didn’t realise how much my running meant to me until I thought I couldn’t do it any more. I’d run a marathon in October 2015, but by April 2016, no matter what I did, my pace got slower, my legs felt heavier and my chest burnt. I’d hoped to get back on track with that June’s JPMorgan Corporate Challenge in Frankfurt. Instead, I had to stop several times — in a 5.6km run.
That summer, I also struggled with the stairs from the Tube exit nearest to the FT’s London office. My heart was pounding hard and I was permanently exhausted. But all I cared about was the running. I would watch people bounding down London’s Southbank or around my local park and feel a sense of envy and loss that I struggle to describe.
A 10km race around Roosevelt Island that July, when I couldn’t run a continuous kilometre, was the wake-up call I needed to go to the doctor. I was diagnosed with severe but easily treatable anaemia and recovered quickly.
Since then my relationship with running has changed. I run for all of the above reasons, and so many more, but if I’m asked why I run, the first thing that comes to mind is always “because I can”. Being able to go 20 miles under your own steam, being able to run through sunrises and sunsets, through falling leaves and dancing snow, through new cities and familiar beaches, is a wondrous thing, a privilege to be savoured for as long as my legs will carry me.
Laura Noonan is the FT’s US banking editor
For more in the FT series on running click here