Sean Walsh's view of the world changed his view of the world.
After he graduated from Terry, Walsh had a run in the bruising environs of Wall Street where his 80-, 90-, 100-hour work weeks were fueled by caffeine from six Diet Cokes a day. His job in mergers and acquisitions held a tyranny over him until he went on a different kind of run, this one around the world.
In the last 3½ years, Walsh has completed marathons on all seven continents. What he encountered — the brilliance of life, the despair of life — was an awakening.
He saw intense poverty in South Africa and was enthralled by the majesty of Mother Nature in Antarctica. He was moved by the piety of the Spanish and the discipline of the Japanese. The Australians showed him how to work and play in a healthy ratio and a Brazilian showed him the power of empathy.
And what about the seventh continent, North America? He was smothered in adoration by complete strangers as he ran the New York City Marathon.
The stew of cultures was transformative for Walsh, 33. His fulfillment baseline changed.
“I can’t pinpoint the exact moment my viewpoint fundamentally changed,” Walsh says. “It might not have been a specific trip, but instead an evolution in my ideology.
“You become a better, more well-rounded person by traveling and experiencing other countries. It has broadened my mindset as far as my political values and my social mindset and I have come to appreciate other people’s viewpoints significantly more.”
The cascade of emotion from a life-threatening illness can cause a soul to stir and change boundaries. Walsh’s life-threatening illness was his work ethic. He over-extended himself, physically and mentally, on Wall Street, especially when in a duel with an Ivy Leaguer. Walsh had a winner’s fanaticism.
“An interviewer said to me once, ‘I have applicants from Harvard and Penn, why should I hire someone from Georgia?’ ” Walsh says. “When I finished explaining everything I learned at Terry about analytical skills and communication skills and how to conduct myself, and talked about my background, I got the job.
“You have to set high goals for yourself. I did that.”
He did that to the detriment of his health. Walsh is just 5-foot-9, but he weighed 240 pounds his first year out of college. He weighed 220 pounds when he decided he wanted to get in better shape by running.
“You become a better, more well-rounded person by traveling and experiencing other countries. It has broadened my mindset as far as my political values and my social mindset and I have come to appreciate other people's viewpoints significantly more.”
After the stint on Wall Street, Walsh moved back to Atlanta in 2012 and joined a middle market firm, Croft & Bender. He was still an indefatigable associate, but then he started to work in light jogs. His life started to balance out. There were still long days at a desk, just not as many. He sits at 175 pounds now.
“When I first started running, I couldn’t run more than two miles without stopping and walking,” Walsh said. “I had terrible shin splits, a lot of pain. I didn’t enjoy it.”
But the more he ran, the more he enjoyed the exercise and the solitude. He entered his first competitive race, the Peachtree Road Race, in July 2014. Walsh entered his first marathon in Savannah in November 2014 and the 26.2-mile race became his specialty. He is a scrappy runner; a middle of the pack competitor with more resolve than speed.
In 2015, Walsh ran the marathon in Barcelona and that is when he understood the travel bug had him in its grip. He was struck with the idea to run a marathon on all seven continents. Walsh joined the Seven Continents Club, and now he is a full member, along with just 686 others.
The seventh marathon was in Antarctica, which he ran in March 2018. It is the race that left the biggest mark.
Marathoners have to sign up for the Antarctica race two years in advance because space is limited and it is high on the bucket list of so many. The runners fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina, then take another flight to Ushuaia, the southern most city in Argentina. Two ships, each carrying 100 marathoners, then set out across the Drake Passage, which can either be the Drake Lake for its placid water, or the Drake Shake for its roiling seas. Mother Nature flips the coin.
It is two days at sea, then small boats carry the marathoners to King George Island for the race. Organizers command runners not to be tourists, and run as fast as they can because if harsh weather rolls in the ship’s captain will order everyone to the boats. Weather was so chaotic one year the marathoners ran laps around the deck of the ship to say they had run a marathon in Antarctica.
King George is 80-90 percent glacier. It was a grueling race, Walsh said, because there was a 40-mile per hour tailwind going out and 40-mph headwind coming in. At one point on the loop back a snow squall created whiteout conditions.
“I was awestruck by Antarctica,” he says. “I’m going back.”
The excursion also included kayaking alongside humpback whales and watching predators feed on less nimble prey.
Of the 13 marathons Walsh has run, Rio was the most grueling because the humidity drained his body and cramps attacked his legs. Walsh says he will usually take two salt tablets a race. This race he took four. He was trying to slog his way through cramps and dehydration on Copacabana Beach when a Brazilian runner came alongside and saw Walsh struggling mightily.
“Keep moving, don’t stop your feet,” the man said. “Take your mind off the pain. Where are you from, what do you do?” The stranger couldn’t have helped more if he had strapped Walsh to his back and carried him the last two miles. Both finished the race.
“This is what runners do for each other,” Walsh says.
His mind is seared with other memories. The intense poverty in Cape Town, South Africa, made him grateful. There were game wardens with rifles on the rural South African course, in case a human running looked more appetizing than a wildebeest running.
No people impressed Walsh more than the Japanese. “They treat everyone with civility,” he said. The Aussies, meanwhile, conveyed a work/life balance which, Walsh says, “I have struggled to find most of my career.”
Is the struggle over? Walsh is hunting his next job, an M&A corporate strategy role.
He’ll know soon enough if work is still his idol or if he has permanently cleared space on the shelf for more of what life has to offer.