Climbing Mount Everest Is Just The Beginning | Meet Claire Thielke

If you believe that your mindset determines your success, you’re not alone. Claire Thielke, a bonafide businesswoman and stellar athlete, is all about breaking down barriers and overcoming what some may think is impossible. She was an Olympic hopeful, completed Iron Man without training, propelled down a skyscraper, rode a cruiser bike to Austin, and beat cancer--and that’s not even the full extent of her success. The latest is her participation in a marathon… on Mount Everest. Completing the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon--one of the world’s most difficult marathons--is no simple task, but Claire has just checked it off of her to-do list and is already thinking of what is coming next. We took some time to get to know Claire, both before and after she took to her race. Find out what it was like to be on Everest and what keeps Claire going below!

Tell us a little about where you are in your career right now.
I'm a Managing Director at Hines, one of the world's largest real estate development companies. Specifically, I am responsible for global strategy and operations in our Office of Investments, which oversees over $47 billion in assets in 38 investment vehicles around the world. I'm also very involved with for-profit boards as a strategy and advisor to banks, consumer products companies, and various other for-profit entities.

You were an Olympic hopeful and unfortunately never made it to the games due to a thyroid cancer diagnosis. What did you learn about yourself from that experience?
Going through a major diagnosis (and subsequent recovery) feels like an existential crisis paired with emotional schizophrenia. At every stage, most answers are binary: good or bad. As you move through the process, the decision tree looks like a series of bad/worse/worst branches, followed by one good one where everything is fine. It seems cliché to talk about how time is precious but nothing is promised; illness reminds and reinforces all of that in a very visceral way.

Some athletes have mantras that they tell themselves over and over to get through. What do you tell yourself to overcome your obstacles?
They obviously vary by what I want to accomplish or do---most of the time while I'm out running I'm thinking about work and other things unrelated to the immediate task at hand. My mantra is less something that I repeat to myself, but rather an awareness I try to have. And that is--whether I'm running through a stadium of 180k North Koreans as I was this time last year, or coming out of the shoot at the 800m Track and Field National Championships, or running across Northern Ireland--I just remind myself to look around and soak it all in. Life is short and you'll never be in this moment again, so whether it's career oriented or family oriented or anything in between, it should be thoroughly processed and taken in.

How did you feel going into the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon? Any special training you underwent that was unique to this race?
When I did my first race after getting better, it was much more on a whim, to the point where I didn't train or do anything (beyond my normal running/weight lifting routine--the 2.4 mile swim was the first time I'd swam since my surgery!) This time, I took training very seriously, I even bought an altitude-simulation machine. The machine basically strips oxygen out of the air and enables me to sleep at altitude, conditioning my body for the heights at which I would be racing. Of course, I did all of my usual strength training, ran a lot, and cross trained; this time, however, I added the support of my endocrinologist.

What inspired you to participate in the race?
It was 5 years and 2 months after my cancer surgery, and 1 year after I ran the Pyongyang marathon--it felt like a challenge I was ready to take on, and the timing couldn't have been better!

Take us through the race itself! How did you feel starting out and what it felt like to finish? Any standout moments?
So first, this experience was more than just the race. The race is at the mountain itself, but first, you have to get there. The other runners are mostly Nepali so they’re traveling from their village. The others had been there for around 10 months acclimating. But thanks to my job, I wasn’t able to be there. I knew that I had to get up there as fast as I could. Working my way in, I saw my own breath. It was just a reminder that this is a dangerous activity and death is not unlikely. For me, it was a reminder that it I needed to adjust and prepare.

There were several standout moments. You never forget the first time that you see the mountain yourself. Then I remember hitting a point when I recognized where I was and I felt like, “unless something really bad happens, I’m feeling good.” My mind already sensed it. I was 100% near confident that I was going to make it. When you start off, you just don’t know. Some people don’t make it home. I was already running through what’s next. I knew that the race was over and that I had done it. The end of the race is probably the most intense in terms of elevation gain. You see people exhausted or even quitting, and that was the place where I felt most confident. That was a very empowering thought process to have. It’s a personal philosophy for me.

“The single greatest asset that you have to contribute is your own perspective... You owe it to yourself, to your colleagues, and to everyone to cultivate and enrich it as much as you can."

Did you have any frustrating moments on Mount Everest? How did you overcome?
Obviously, you take a few spills, that’s natural. I also took a series of wrong turns, since you really are out there navigating. At one point, I headed down a very wrong path toward a village just off of the mountain. Then I realized I was going the wrong way. You’re also trying to budget for how much water and food you’re going to need and how much energy you’re using up. So that was tough.

Then there are also things that are specific to the region. There was one point when a pack of yaks just came towards me. You’re on the side of a cliff and they have the right of way, so you just have to sit there and wait. Something like that would never happen anywhere else.

What you accomplished is a huge feat. Would you experience it again? What's next for you?
Oh yeah. It was such a special experience. I always want to push boundaries. My view is that most boundaries people create are artificial. All boundaries really. You really just need to frame those as a probability and recognize them as such. For me, I want to cram as much experience as I can into this life. And contribute as much as I can--I have something very meaningful to contribute.

I have business goals I want to accomplish, also a 100-mile race. Long distance biking. There are always a ton of challenges. There are math proofs I want to break down and understand, and so many books I want to read. I want to work on a classic car and break it down to understand it and gain that skill. I think for me it's all about having skills in your tool box. I’ve got a big list.

You are such an inspiration. Any advice for young female athletes looking ahead to their futures?
I think my advice is more than just for athletes. It’s also for young business women as well, I always try to overlap the two. I’d say first, the best experience comes from being truly tested. So for an athlete that’s physical preparation. But for your career, it’s about pushing yourself. Further than that--the best experiences come from being tested when positive outcomes are not promised. There is no guarantee that something is going to work, but you should just push through anyway.

The single greatest asset that you have to contribute is your own perspective. It’s the only thing you have that no one else has. You owe it to yourself, to your colleagues, and to everyone to cultivate and enrich it as much as you can.

Pushing yourself to rise to one of the greatest challenges is exactly what makes you a MISSBISH. Who do you look to for inspiration?
For me, hands down no question it’s my parents and my grandparents. Not to be a cliché at all. They overcame boundaries that were much more structural than my own. Growing up in segregation. Being the first for so many things. Coming from a small Texas town, my dad’s father was a dishwasher and my mom’s dad cleaned cars. They had none of the advantages of an education. They laid such a foundation for life experience. All of the boundaries I’m knocking down are diminished in comparison. The strides they made for survival and to accomplish what they did in their lifetime, to me, it’s incredible to be a steward of that. This was Mount Everest, not Jim Crow. It makes what I've done look easy.

Photos by: Tyler Deauvea

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