By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
Why do we find Wayne Kurtz running for hours, at night, in Pittsburgh's North Park with nothing but raccoons, deer and the occasional opossum for company?
Why does Barbara Gahbauer spend the better part of a week admonishing herself, when, after suffering abdominal problems in a 100-mile trail hike/run in the Rockies, she found that she ran a couple of hours slower than she had planned on?
Why does Alex Fairly describe pain as purifying?
And why do we find Jim Bychowski going for a swim of more than a mile with, of all things in all places, jellyfish in Dubai's Gulf of Aden?
Who on God's green earth are these people anyway? We may not be able to answer that question fully, but one thing we know about them for sure is that they work for insurance brokerages.
A WORLD OF COMPETITION
Much is made of the competitive nature of the insurance business and insurance brokers in particular. But what has become apparent to Risk & Insurance® as we researched this article on elite athletes in the insurance brokerages is that there are people in this business who take that notion of competitiveness to a level that even the most driven insurance industry veterans might find hard to believe.
Do you want to know about Aon's Wayne Kurtz? Are you sure? You might want to take an aspirin just to read this.
Kurtz, 42, a senior vice president in executive benefits for Aon Consulting in Pittsburgh, is the first U.S. citizen to complete the Deca-Ironman World Championship, a milestone he accomplished in November 2009 in Monterrey, Mexico.
For the blissfully uninitiated, an Ironman is a triathlon that calls for a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26-mile run, all in the same day, with no stopping. Now, in the Deca-Ironman, we're talking about doing an Ironman per day for 10 days in a row, with no rest days in between. Yes, you read that right.
Think that's impossible? Let's let Kurtz describe the 2009 finish in Monterrey for us (and by the way, he managed to finish fifth out of a field of 18 starters, with 10 overall finishers).
"The scene at the end of this was just unbelievable. It was like an infirmary. There were people with bags on their legs. One guy tore his Achilles tendon and walked nine marathons as a part of this thing," Kurtz said.
"These guys can eat nails, but the injuries were just amazing," Kurtz said.
For his part, Kurtz did experience his own exquisite tortures. For seven days, he said, he focused on one event at a time, stayed tough mentally and competed well.
But then fate dealt him an off-suited deuce: He contracted some kind of bug on day eight.
"I got really sick. I got a fever that night. I got a cold and it went into my chest, and day eight and nine were just really brutal mentally," Kurtz confided.
He struggled with this sickness, competing in outdoor temperatures that were alternately sweltering and chilling, but still he got to day 10 and managed to finish in the top five, making him one of the elite athletes in the world in this discipline.
As we can see, the travails Kurtz's competitive nature drives him to are horrendous, but what sort of payout does he get professionally?
"I work at Aon, and it is all driven off of a competitive environment to earn your business and to do the right thing with clients," Kurtz said.
"I have always believed that training like this kind of gives me the mindset that I can outwork anyone," said Kurtz.
He also said that having completed a Deca-Ironman and other stupefying, difficult races is a great calling card when he enters the C-suites of client companies. Executives, as many of us do before meeting someone for the first time, have Googled him and know what he's done before he gets in the door.
"So, for me it has helped my business long-term because people look at me and see what the hell I've done," said Kurtz.
EACH HIS OWN"
Again and again, when we interviewed brokerage professionals who, like Kurtz, push themselves like mad in their athletic training, they reported a substantial professional payout.
"You don't give up. You try to find the best solution for your clients," said Barbara Gahbauer, an account manager with Lockton Cos. LLC, based in Denver.
"You try to find the best deal for them, whether that means going the extra mile for them or not ... and sometimes that means challenging yourself to go beyond your own boundaries, so to speak, or outside your box," Gahbauer said.
Outside of the office box, Gahbauer is a boundary pusher of another sort. A native of Germany, she despises treadmills and other such monotonies and instead glories in the outdoor trails, the pines and the aspens, the inclines and declines of Colorado's Rocky Mountains.
At 34, Gahbauer is a relative youngster and has a lifestyle advantage in that both she and her boyfriend are long-distance runners and can go on weekend training runs together.
In 2009, Gahbauer completed one of this country's more famous foot races, the Leadville 100. The 100-mile event matches athletes against a 14,000-foot vertical climb in Leadville, Colo. But you don't run the whole thing. Competitors power walk uphill and then let loose into a run for the flat parts and the downhills.
Gahbauer, who averages about 40 to 50 miles of training runs in the course of a weekend, had set her sights on completing the Leadville course in around 27 hours. But as can happen to many competitors in ultradistance races, her gastrointestinal tract suffered a breakdown under the extreme stress, and she couldn't get enough nutrients to compete at the level she wanted to.
Gahbauer kind of let herself have it when she finished Leadville in 30 hours instead of 27.
"I was superdisappointed with myself," she admitted. "It took me a week of beating myself up before I realized what I had actually done was an accomplishment," she said.
Ahhh ... yeah?
"And I have 365 days to think about my revenge on the Leadville course," she added.
So, let's get a little frank here. Is our Lockton friend Barbara a little off the beam? She completed a 100-mile foot race in the mountains of Colorado and is critical of herself?
Bless her for her honesty, because this is how she looks at it.
"Many people would say that I am not balanced," Gahbauer said.
"I would get smart, and I would say, 'To each his own.' Some people like to drink alcohol and some people like to run, and that is what I like to do," she said.
And some of us like to do both, just for the record.
Yet another insurance professional admits that his approach to life, and to business for that matter, isn't for everyone. But it works for him.
Alex Fairly's voice is so gentle, his manner so disarming, that you almost can't imagine him bicycling down the road in a dusty peloton (the pack in a bike race), with dozens of other teeth-gritting, sweating riders just to the fore and aft of him.
Listen to this. Maybe it's why the 46-year-old, Amarillo, Texas-based senior vice president and leader of the Sports & Entertainment practice for Willis Global Sports Services sounds so calm.
"I love competing, I love racing and I love having to give every single thing you have," Fairly said.
"I don't race in my age group and so I am racing with 20-year-olds, and I love just having expended every single thing you had. Most days you don't win, but there is something that fills me up about the suffering aspect of racing and training, it just kind of cleans me out," said Fairly.
The man said he is filled up by suffering, just for the record. But before you judge him for being strange, check out his vitals.
Fairly is 6 feet 3 inches, weighs 171 pounds, has a resting heart rate of 46 beats per minute; his blood pressure registers at 110 over 70; and you don't even want to know how low his cholesterol levels are.
His nutrition regimen? Oatmeal and coffee for breakfast, a salad with less than 500 calories for lunch, and lean meat and a vegetable for dinner. This man does not know what the inside of a McDonald's looks like.
He has two children that are elite athletes, so he trains with them when he can, averaging on his own 8,500 bicycle miles per year.
Like Lockton's Gahbauer, Willis' Fairly said he knows that there are probably people out there that think he is over the edge, if not on the verge of going over it.
"Most people would say I overdo it," Fairly admitted.
"My family thinks I overdo it, my dad thinks I overdo it. But I just love being fit. I feel good about myself, I feel confident. I feel like I am a step ahead of the world. I don't get tired, I can work harder."
Fairly was a 2009 Power BrokerTM in the workers' comp category and was twice previously a winner in the entertainment/sports category, so we can certainly attest that he's getting the job done in the office.
Aon's Jim Bychowski is just as soft-spoken and mild-mannered as Fairly is and just as much of workout nut.
These days he's working as the Middle East managing director of Aon's risk engineering group in Dubai. While there, the mountain biker, mountain climber, marathoner and triathlete has affiliated himself with swimming and bicycling clubs populated by expatriates from all over the globe.
Bychowski's event calendar has included the Chicago triathlon for the past 23 years, that aforementioned swim in the Gulf of Aden around Dubai's iconic Burj Al Arab hotel, an ascent of Mt. Hood with some buddies, and, every Friday morning, a bicycle ride of between 40 and 80 miles out into the desert around Dubai.
"I would say it has definitely brought my confidence level up," said Bychowski, who is 48 years old and sounds like he's 30.
Like Kurtz, Bychowski has managed to remain relatively injury free.
He was in the top 25 percent in his first Chicago triathlon and is now categorized as an elite triathlon competitor in his age group.
He also can make a direct connection between his mountaineering experience and other athletic pursuits and the teamwork required for his engineering risk management work in the Middle East.
"You know, when you are hanging off of a cliff that is 3,000 feet down and one guy slips, you are all potentially going to go over. It is something that you really have to concentrate on and have a lot of trust in the people you are climbing with," he explained
Same thing goes for his role in building an international engineering group for Aon.
"In essence, we're all sort of roped together, and the success of it is going to be based on the whole," Bychowski said.
And rather than fear 50, as many of us do, Bychowski said he is eager to reach the age milestone.
"Yeah, I am looking forward to 50; I can't wait for it actually. I don't know, I just don't dread age," he said.
THE WORLD AT LARGE
As impressive as the individual accomplishments of an Alex Fairly, a Barbara Gahbauer, a Jim Bychowski or a Wayne Kurtz are, they see another side in all their sweating and discipline. As professionals who know full well the cost of obesity-related healthcare, all have an eye to the world at large that, taking our home country of the United States as an example, has been getting increasingly larger: i.e., fatter.
All four brokers serve as examples, but all four and a few other insurance professionals we know have some real firm ideas about how to get the country in better shape.
As President and CEO of the Bala Cynwyd, Pa,-based Philadelphia Insurance Cos., a recent acquisition of the Tokio Marine Group, Jamie Maguire heads a company that is overwhelmingly fitness oriented.
You practically have to had run a marathon to get hired or promoted into the C-suites there. Maguire himself manages to fit in an average of two workouts a day and runs a ship that has virtually prohibited unhealthy, processed foods in the company's snack machines. The company also hosted, for the fourth straight year in 2009, the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon.
He said you can feel the heightened energy at the company's Bala Cynwyd headquarters, and it's not just workplace caffeine or job-performance anxiety.
"It is supercharged around here," said Maguire, who, when he talked to Risk & Insurance®, was just off a plane from Europe and getting ready to fly to Japan.
"I just think it transcends and crosses over from your personal life to your professional life if you have the discipline and the perseverance and you have the goal-setting mentality outside of work in triathlons or running marathons. That sort of mindset and those character traits flow over into your work life," said Maguire.
Maguire feels the key to battling the national obesity epidemic is in getting the fitness message across to children, at the primary grade level, if not before.
"It's got to begin with our schools and our kids," said Maguire, who finds himself juggling his heavy workout schedule with the obligations he feels toward his four daughters, all of whom compete in athletics in one form or another.
Willis' Fairly, who has a daughter who competes in collegiate cross-country races and a son who is a professional bike racer, said he and his wife run a household where outdoor activity and eating right rule. None of his offspring are hankering after video games and television shows.
"I think it has to start at home," said Fairly. "I think people have to make a decision about this is the way my life is going to look and I'm going to be healthy."
"I think you've got to teach it to your kids just like you teach them math and spelling and arithmetic. We have just made it the way we live. And my kids don't feel preached to, but they know about this lifestyle and they know it's a decision that they make and they are attracted to it; we're not cracking the whip with it," Fairly said.
These people may not have all the answers, but think of them, your fellow insurance professionals, the next time you're on the treadmill or the exercise bike and deciding whether you have the will to put in another 10 minutes. Know what? Bet you can.
February 1, 2010
Copyright 2010© LRP Publications