#23: From an Easy, Empty Life to a Meaningful, Hard One. Lessons From “Ultra” by Michele Graglia (Part 1)

Ultra by Michele Graglia

I first heard about Michele Graglia when I learned that he beat David Goggins in one of the most grueling ultra-running competitions in the world, Moab 240, in 2020. It’s 238 miles (383 km) through a desert, two mountain ranges, slick rock, canyons, and other challenging terrain.

I was curious to learn more about him and discovered that in 2021 he published a memoir titled Ultra: Top Model to Top Ultra Runner.

Michele’s background is uncommon, to say the least.

At 24, he moved from his native Italy to Florida where he planned to expand the family business. Due to a random encounter he got scouted by a renowned modeling agency and became a top model.

Soon, he was living a hedonistic life among the famous and wealthy, splitting his time between Florida and New York.

But his easy, seemingly perfect life got him questioning his choices. The emptiness of constant debauchery and superficial relationships eventually led him to pondering suicide.

Ultimately, Michele discovered the world of ultra-running and decided to leave his lavish, comfortable life behind. Instead, he embraced a simple life close to nature, pushing his limits as a pro endurance athlete.

As co-author Folco Terzani wrote in the foreword:

With the lucidity and extreme dedication that distinguish him, he’d run from a life of pleasures, luxury, and vices in the total opposite direction. Why?!

This is what we’re going to cover in today’s first part of my notes.

The Easiest Life Can Be the Emptiest One There Is

But it’s quite clear that he’s not well at all, poor guy. Poor in a manner of speaking because he’s got more money than you can even imagine. But he wakes up every morning realizing he still hasn’t found the thing that truly makes him content in life. Because clearly, in spite of the millions he spends on shopping, the private jet, the fancy cars, and the women or the men that he can buy, he still hasn’t found what really matters.


I met a lot of people like him in those years who literally did nothing in life, absolutely nothing. Nothing at all. They didn’t even have to work because they had so much money, and they could have as much free time as they wished. So, they did whatever they wanted but then couldn’t find a point to life. In the end, they woke up each morning to answer these questions: “Who am I? What am I doing with this life of mine?”

He was totally depressed, an alcoholic, always zonked on Xanax and who knows what other pills because he just couldn’t stand himself.

That image touched me deeply.

There he was, alone, with no objective. No goals or ambitions. If you’ve already got everything, it’s easy to lose your desire to live altogether. You lose all meaning. You might have everything you want, but if your life has no meaning, you’ll never feel fulfilled. Or purposeful.

Michele shares the story of a man he met during one of the extravagant parties he attended when he was a top model.

The man had everything, and yet he had nothing. If it weren’t for Michele’s decision to change his life, he could have eventually ended up in the same spot: depressed, an alcoholic, always zonked on antidepressants, without anything meaningful to do in life.

If all you do is party and take drugs, there’s no real meaning of your existence. Living a fulfilling life comes down to having some positive purpose.

Michele chose to leave his easy, empty life behind and focus on challenging himself as an ultra-runner.

You may find your purpose in encouraging young people to study science. Or maybe you can find it in exploring the mountains. Or perhaps you can find it in exploring the oceans, foreign cultures, music, or history. Or maybe your role is to be the best father there is.

Whatever it is, if you don’t have anything meaningful in your life, you’ll never feel fulfilled—regardless of the amount of money or freedom you’ll have.

Life Can’t Be a Constant Party

Parties are fun when they happen every now and then to celebrate something. But if life’s a constant party, it becomes monotonous. Even the pleasure of celebrating fades away.

As a top model, Michele’s life revolved around partying. He eventually came to a point where he started asking himself what the hell they were always celebrating. But there was nothing to celebrate. Parties were simply another toxic coping strategy to deal with an ungratifying, easy life.

To dull the pain of an unfulfilling life, many people party to forget for a moment about the emptiness. But even that strategy eventually stops working because it doesn’t solve the underlying problem.

Parties, as most things in life, eventually become boring. The pleasure fades away and what’s left is what you’ve been trying to escape from: emptiness.

Occasionally celebrating accomplishments and good fortune is enjoyable but partying for the sake of partying is neither healthy nor gratifying. In the same way, great food can be a reward for a hard workout or a long hike but it can’t become the sole obsession in life.

This quote made me think of things that give pleasure that doesn’t fade away even if we do them daily. For me, such things include being in nature, enjoying good weather, moving my body, and learning new things. If I can have these things in my daily life, I’m content.

Think what gives you lasting joy and doesn’t get boring with time. Figuring out how to do it more often is a good starting point to live a more fulfilling life.

Entitlement Makes You Lose Contact With Yourself

Those people with whom I went out and had fun, with whom I didn’t think much about anything, had total freedom to take whatever they liked, went wherever they pleased, and said and did whatever they wanted. Everything was given to them, and they were entitled to it all. But it transformed them. The more they had, the bigger they felt and the less respect they had for others—and for themselves, too. You end up doing so much that you lose your values. And when you lose your values, you lose your virtues, and you lose contact with your true self.

Entitlement is one of the worst problems plaguing modern society. When you believe that you’re entitled to something for nothing, you lose all agency.

Michele says that people who are entitled lose contact with their true selves. I call it being an asshole. And the more you believe in your superiority, the more of an asshole you are.

Humbleness isn’t something you include in your Oscar speech to make yourself look good. Humbleness is a key trait of every exceptional man who knows that being exceptional—counterintuitively—is about accepting that you aren’t exceptional.

It’s only when we respect everyone and never expect anyone to hand us things on a silver platter that we have true power in our lives.

It’s only through working hard for things we want that we can gain self-respect. That’s why it’s not the final reward that has most meaning but the process we have to go through to get it.

The Sadness of Being at “the Top”

It’s ironic. I had made it to what I thought was “the top,” and at the same time, I was the most miserable I’d ever been in my life. A terrible inner sadness seized me.

When Michele was at the top of his modeling career, he had everything that most men in the Western society would want: tons of money, countless hot women to choose from, glamorous parties, famous friends, supercars, and whatever else he wished for.

But it was all a trap that could lead to only one destination: misery.

As Michele recounts in another part of the book:

I wish I had known this feeling of ‘comfort makes you weak’ before I started riding that wave of luxury and excess.

It’s easy to get intoxicated on luxury and excess. Humans are programmed to seek abundance because the opposite means quite literally death. But when we fall into overindulgence, we also risk death. Not so much in the literal, physical sense but in the death of our spirit, as Michele’s example demonstrates.

Michele thought that the stereotypical “top” would make him happy. But such a “top” never works because we can only feel fulfilled if we reach our own personal top—and that top rarely, if ever, includes stagnation and excess of that stereotypical “living large” dream.

Instead of pursuing what society defines as the top, design your own version that won’t make you feel miserable once you reach it. Focus on what gives you meaning and joy while also offering growth opportunities.

I wouldn’t drive a supercar even if someone gave me one because I wouldn’t like the attention. I wouldn’t care about parties because I’d rather go for a walk in the forest. I wouldn’t want to have everything because it would destroy the proper balance between comfort and discomfort in my life.

For me, being at the top means that I have peace of mind and time to do things that give me joy and help me grow.

What does your top look like?

When We Stop Using Our Bodies, We Lose Our Spirit

In the beginning, humans were perfect athletes, like many animals. A bird never stops flying, so why do we stop running? Our modern lifestyles have us spending all day sitting in front of a desk, then at a table, then in a car, after which we lie down in bed. In fact, our lifestyles have driven us to become so sedentary that we have forgotten our true state of being.

I often argue: What kind of life is that? Sitting all day, moving the tips of your fingers at most?! That whole concept is wrong, in my opinion. We’re becoming more and more like the mass-farmed chickens we eat.

It’s not just about looking better…our bodies literally deteriorate if we stop using them. That’s how we get disorders and illnesses and massive depression in our society. We’re like the little bird that spends all day in the cage. After a while, it gets fat and weak and in the end, no longer knows how to fly. But if you’re the bird who goes out every day, flaps its wings, pecks at things, and struggles with the worm to pull it out of the ground, you’re active—you move and you fly.

When we stop using our bodies, we lose our verve, our spirit. Even today, there are populations like the Tarahumara in Mexico in which even the old people run. And they aren’t the only example.

An empty, easy life doesn’t necessarily mean the kind of lifestyle that Michele lived before his realization. It can also be a life in which we spend our entire days sitting in front of a desk, then at a table, then in a car, and then lying in bed: a soul-crushing sedentary lifestyle.

Barring physical disabilities, every man needs to move. It’s not only to nourish his body but also his spirit.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t live in a society like the Tarahumara where being active is something that you do your entire life. This makes it even more important for us to lead by example.

Working out three times a week in the gym is all and good but it doesn’t get us fully out of that cage described by Michele. Just like a bird needs to have open skies to thrive, so do we need to spend time outdoors, moving our body in natural patterns and not just rep by rep and set by set.

How often do you walk? How often do you run? How often do you swim? How often do you jump? How often do you swing from branches? How often do you climb boulders or trees?

Natural movement, ideally close to dirt, trees, natural bodies of water, mountains, etc. brings us back to our true state of being. Whatever kind of movement you practice, don’t confine yourself just to another, slightly more spacious cage (gym). Be active outside, too.

The Only Real Exploration Left Is Internal

In a time when all the lands have already been explored, all the mountains have been climbed, and every corner of the globe has already been discovered, it seems to me the only real exploration left is the exploration into the depths of your own soul, beyond any physical limit. To find out what we are truly capable of.

When Michele decided to leave his modeling life behind, he began looking for a way to reinvent himself. By accident he stumbled upon Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes. Thirsty for new experiences, the book inspired Michele to push himself past his boundaries and see what ultras were about.

His pursuit of self-exploration eventually turned him into one of the best ultra-runners in the world. But as he writes in the book, running for him isn’t about the competition:

Races are all well and fine, but for what? To go beyond. To discover the world, Nature, our own selves.

Endurance sports provide one way to discover the world, nature and ourselves but it’s just one vehicle out of many. Seek your own that helps you explore your physical and/or mental limits and find out what you’re capable of.

Retreat From Society to Understand Yourself Better

As far as the inner quest is concerned, it’s important to retreat a little from society. When we’re on display in front of everyone, this can be pretty hard, whereas if you concentrate only on yourself, you begin to listen to and understand yourself. Going ultra is a means that allows you to discover yourself in the rawest conditions, under fatigue, effort, and pain.

And then those magical moments happen. You’ll never remember what you did that random Thursday night you went to the pub downtown to drink a beer, but you’ll never forget when you popped out of that trail and a glacier opened up in front of you with a herd of bighorn sheep coming down. Or that river that was a color you didn’t even know existed—what shade of turquoise is this?!—the color of sparkling ice water cascading from the mountains.

In today’s urbanized world, many men find themselves increasingly detached from nature. An urban tree or a manicured backyard, while better than nothing, doesn’t allow us to retreat from society in the same way as being in the wilderness does.

Michele, as an ultra-runner who trains and participates in races crossing wild areas, is deeply in tune with the natural world. Unlike spending weekends at the pub, that activity helps him create some beautiful memories.

We’re drawn to nature because we come from it. We live lives that are largely sheltered from the elements but it doesn’t mean we don’t need to expose ourselves to them anymore.

All men could benefit from having a hobby or two that involves nature. Whether it’s hiking, surfing, climbing, ultra-running or anything else that helps you spend a few quiet hours in nature, it’s always preferable and more productive than another night at the pub.

Questions to Ponder

1. What is the meaning of your life? What gives you purpose?

2. What things give you lasting pleasure and fulfillment?

3. Do you ever think that you’re entitled to something?

4. What is your personal definition of being at the top?

5. What percentage of your day do you sit? Do you move every day?

6. How can you explore the depths of your own soul? What tools could you use to find out what you’re capable of?

7. How often do you retreat from society into nature, even if just for an hour or two, to be with yourself?

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Lessons From “Ultra” by Michele Graglia Series

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