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For someone who describes herself as not being "extraordinarily athletic" growing up, Alison Simpson has certainly found her inner jock.
Ms. Simpson, senior vice-president of marketing and customer experience at luxury retailer Holt Renfrew & Co., is on track to complete her 50th marathon this year and her second self-supported 250-kilometre ultramarathon next year, this one in the Gobi desert.
"It's amazing what our bodies and minds are capable of," said the smiling Ms. Simpson from her sparsely decorated office at Holt Renfrew's Bloor Street headquarters in Toronto. "I never had a real appreciation for that before I got into running and continued to push the boundaries. I've learned so much about myself by doing that."
Growing up in Cambridge, Ont., Ms. Simpson and her sister were figure skaters, ran cross-country and went out for track and field. But most of that fell by the wayside after she graduated from the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., and started focusing on her career.
She spent her formative years in advertising, at ad shop BBDO . After taking on iconic brands such as Tim Hortons, McCormick & Co. spices and Discovery Channel, she moved client-side. She served as vice-president of marketing and communications at media giant Rogers Communications Inc. and later as executive vice-president at Maritz Loyalty Marketing, recently rebranded as Bond Brand Loyalty, from which she resigned in late 2014 to take a once-in-a-lifetime extended trip through Asia with her husband.
"It was a leap of faith, leaving without a new job," said Ms. Simpson, who started at Holts last January. "But it worked out brilliantly."
She likens the learning curve at the historic, high-end chain as "drinking from a fire hose: I'm absolutely getting immersed in the business and at the same time I'm driving the business forward."
She's putting in 12-hour days, after her morning run, and usually works at home in the evening, too. As a retailer, Holts is open seven days a week. Ms. Simpson isn't expected to work on weekends, but she usually does, and also routinely makes unannounced weekend visits to the company's Toronto-area stores – Holt Renfrew or premium discounter HR2.
"I love the brand. I love to shop. So I don't really see that as work," she said.
Nor, amazingly, does she see running 50 to 110 kilometres a week as work, even when she uses her outings to help her noodle over workplace challenges.
"I find it incredibly meditative," she said. "When I'm the busiest at work or when I have the biggest professional challenges to work through, that's when it's easiest to stop working out or running, but that's absolutely when I need it the most."
For Ms. Simpson, working hard during the day and running hard whenever she can is how she finds balance. She runs alone most weekday mornings, sometimes listening to music and sometimes not, and goes out with her husband or friends on the weekend. She insists that, for her, running isn't about competing with anyone else, but about seeing just how far she can push herself.
It started innocently enough: Running ultramarathons though foreign deserts was never what she set out do to. But after completing a 10-kilometre race in 2001 – and feeling "like a superhero" – she met up with two close work friends who convinced her to train for a regular marathon with them.
"It seemed like a crazy idea, but I drank my glass of wine and we shook on it," Ms. Simpson said. "The next day I showed up to the office and there was this Excel spreadsheet that was my 16-week training program and, honestly, it was the most intimidating piece of paper I'd ever seen."
But she followed through with the training, ran the race and then, four weeks later, completed her second marathon, this time in Venice, Italy. That's when she realized she'd be able to combine her new-found love of long-distance running with travel – she has since raced in Munich, Germany, Stockholm, New York, Chicago, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Disney World and more.
She has added another element to that combination in recent years, too: raising funds for charitable organizations she cares about. She ran a 250-kilometre race through the Sahara desert, for example, to benefit the National Advertising Benevolent Society, which supports people in need in the marketing and communications industries, and will do so again when she races in the Gobi in Mongolia next year.
"It wasn't a rational decision to do that race," Ms. Simpson said about her five-day Sahara desert race. "I was looking for a new challenge and if I had thought too long about what I was signing up for, I probably wouldn't have signed up. But all it took was a five-minute phone call from a friend who had done it, and I said, 'Sign me up.'"
It also wasn't rational to keep racing after she got an intestinal infection on the course. She lost her spot as lead female, became severely dehydrated and completely incoherent, and was treated by a race doctor in the medical tent by the fourth of five days. She was rehydrated intravenously but was convinced that her race was over, unable to do what is called the Long March – an 87-kilometre one-day challenge.
"When I woke up the next morning, I felt a bit wobbly but the doctor agreed that I could start the Long March," Ms. Simpson said. "I ended up completing it and winning my age group.
"Now, whenever I'm having a bad day or facing a big challenge, I think back to that experience and it gives me great perspective."