In the first part of my notes from Ultra: Top Model to Top Ultra Runner by Michele Graglia I covered the lessons on changing one’s life from an easy, empty one to a meaningful one, filled with challenges. Today we’ll focus on that second lifestyle and learn how to go beyond ourselves—in training and in life.
Figure Out Where You Went Wrong and Then Improve
It would have been easy to give up. I could have quit right after the Keys 100. I fell flat on my face and did quite a bit of damage. The day after that race, I was laid out on the bed with blood flowing from my wounds, which had opened from chafing.
I couldn’t get out of bed. I was completely depleted. I couldn’t even eat because my stomach was destroyed. I’d run until I couldn’t run another step—one more step could have been the difference between life and death.
Still, I believed I could have made it. That’s the philosophy of the ultra: never give up, no matter what, and keep going until you reach your goal. What happens in the middle shouldn’t concern you. Fall flat today? Don’t worry; you’ll get back up and make it tomorrow. Many times, you hear people say, “It didn’t go so well. This is obviously not for me.” No, you figure out where you went wrong and then improve.
Michele’s first experience with ultra-running, a 100-mile race in the Florida Keys, ended in a catastrophe. At mile 88, he developed hyponatremia and lost consciousness, falling face flat onto the asphalt.
But it didn’t deter him from ultra-running. As he emphasizes in the quote above, when you suffer from a crushing failure, it’s not the end of the world. You get back up, recover, figure out where you went wrong, and then improve.
Yet, so many men today give up permanently once they experience failure after trying something hard.
When I started freediving, I was one of the worst freediving students ever. I couldn’t dive deeper than 2-3 meters (6-9 ft) because I had no idea how to equalize my ears. I also couldn’t hold my breath for long because my nerves often got the best of me.
Each session was disappointing. To make matters worse, I saw other beginners having no problem diving 10-20 meters (33-66 ft). I felt like a complete failure.
I had to work with several different teachers over many weeks before I finally learned what most people do instinctively or learn within a few hours.
If I had given up on those first embarrassing days, I would have never experienced the feeling of a great dive and the increased water confidence. It would have been easy to say “freediving is too hard for me” but I refused to give up because I love being in the water.
Failure, even a devastating one, doesn’t mean you aren’t cut out for something. More likely it means that your approach needs to change. Dust yourself off, change your strategy, and sooner or later you’ll figure it out and go beyond your current abilities.
Cultivate Internal Strengths
In sports, you often hear, “That guy is thirty; he’s old.” Old?! We’re just beginning to get into top form. And here’s where physical maturity begins. The average age of someone who wins an ultra is between thirty and fifty. When I came in second at Angeles Crest, for example, I was thirty, the third-place guy was twenty-eight, and the first-place guy was forty-eight. The oldest guy won. It hits home. Because the further you go in life, the more you mature. You might lose a little speed, but you gain wisdom and patience. You learn to know your body and listen to it. And endurance increases with age. It’s a psychological question. What is it that you endure when running like this? Severe discomfort. So, the better you know yourself, the better you manage yourself, and the more endurance you have.
The world of ultra-running is distinct from other sports where physical abilities trump everything else. Running excruciatingly long distances, often in challenging terrain, requires a well-developed ability to tolerate severe discomfort. And there’s no other way to develop it than by putting in hours upon hours of suffering.
In most sports, young athletes always have an edge over the older ones. In ultra-running, internal qualities like patience, wisdom, and resilience can make up for weaker physical abilities.
But growing older doesn’t guarantee acquiring these qualities. We don’t grow stronger mentally with each birthday—we grow stronger mentally with each hard challenge we face. Older ultra-runners are more resilient not because they’re older but because they’ve (voluntarily) suffered for more hours than the younger athletes.
This brings me to an important question for self-reflection: looking back, do you see yourself more resilient today than you were, say, five years ago?
If you don’t consider yourself stronger mentally today than in the past, chances are you don’t challenge yourself often enough.
The Power of Yoga
I started doing yoga when Lauren and I moved to Los Angeles. In the beginning, I used it to stretch and work out some tightness due to constant running and overuse. By doing yoga, though, I got a better and better understanding of how my body works. Because when you put yourself in certain positions and when you twist a certain way, you feel where it’s pulling, stretching, opening up. You explore every part of your physical body with its blood and breath and consciousness. And the more you do it, the more you get in tune with your body until you radiate well-being. Now, I get up every day and do an hour of yoga. I’ve been doing it regularly, and I haven’t had any injuries or problems ever since.
Yoga may be considered by some men as unmanly. “Real” men want to push and pull things while weaklings want to hold their feet in the air in some weird poses.
Such a closed-minded attitude doesn’t help go beyond your physical capabilities. One major reason for that is that when you focus too much on strength and too little on flexibility you’ll inevitably get injured.
A body out of balance always, sooner or later, gives out. You won’t be pushing and pulling anything if you’re immobilized by pain.
If it weren’t for stretching my calves and toes, I wouldn’t be able to run. I also find stretching an instrumental tool to increase my range of motion for high kicks. Some people view flexibility as an accessory skill—to me, it’s an indispensable enabler.
Whether you practice yoga, pilates, mobility drills, dynamic stretching, or a passive stretching program, all are beneficial for recovery and longevity.
Michele is a great example of that. If it weren’t for one hour of yoga a day, he’d be dealing with constant injuries that would prevent him from becoming one of the top ultra-runners.
For the Yukon, I trained on trails during the winter at an elevation of ten thousand feet to find snow and temperatures well below freezing. While for Badwater, I had to do countless miles on asphalt—this one would be on the road—under the midday California sun with winter clothes, a wool hat, a K-Way wind jacket, long tight pants, gloves, and all the rest followed by 1,500 sit-ups at a time in the sauna to get ready for the high temperatures. Or I’d drag a tire with a rope around my waist through the streets of Los Angeles, with all the traffic stopping to watch me pass by. For three months, I prepared for the test, paying attention to the tiniest details from every possible angle. I did strength training, yoga, meditation, and I felt in top condition. I was lean and strong with ripped abs and tight skin. I was ready to run.
Michele’s meticulous preparation for his ultra-hard competitions is out of this world.
When he trained for the Yukon Arctic Ultra (it’s even more terrible than it sounds: frostbite and amputations are a real risk), his training mimicked the deathly freezing cold conditions he would face running in the Yukon.
When he prepared for Badwater, the opposite of the Yukon ultra (running in California’s Death Valley in the middle of the summer), he needed to improve his ability to handle deathly hot weather. So he trained as described above, in a way most people would consider extreme, if not outright crazy.
It’s rare to find people who pay such attention to preparation and suffering while training as Michele does. In fact, many people do the contrary: they prepare in good conditions and hope that things will work out during the D-day.
Michele’s approach of “train as you fight” doesn’t apply to ultra-running only. It applies to every pursuit in our lives. We can only benefit from making our preparations mimic the real thing.
For example, I once suffered from massive soreness after a long (for me) run. My Achilles tendons ached and my calves turned into heavy blocks of stone. I walked like a penguin, each step reminding me of the run the day before.
On the same day I had my MMA workout. It would be easy to skip it and let my legs rest. After all, I could barely walk. But to me it was a valuable opportunity to train despite the pain. If I were forced to defend myself out in the street, nobody would ask me before whether I was feeling fine.
This attitude becomes even more important on big days that may have a huge impact on your future.
If, for example, you’re preparing for a sales presentation for a potential huge client, it doesn’t suffice to approach it the same way as you would every other presentation. You need to go beyond: pay attention to the tiniest details and look at it from every possible angle.
What can go wrong? What will you do when things go wrong? What if you wake up dead tired and sick on the day of the meeting? How will the client react to this piece of data? What if the client comes with a reluctant partner who shoots down your ideas?
Whether it’s an important sales presentation or a tough competition, if we aim to go beyond, we need to train and prepare the same way, too.
After Devastation, There’s Always Rebirth
The pain is constant. It’s not that you say, “I’ll do a marathon. It’s hard, but then it gets easier.” No, it always progressively gets harder and harder. The body slows down because it accumulates tons of toxins. But what I learned is to try not to evade the discomfort; you have to go looking for it! Everyone is afraid of fatigue and pain. And yet, if you accept it and go through it, then it’s no longer scary. It’s an inevitable part of the journey, and if you do accept it, you find bliss.
It’s not by chance that ultras are considered a metaphor for life because there are countless highs and lows. When there are lows, you get stronger, and when the beautiful moments come, you appreciate and savor them more because you made it through the hard ones. When you understand this cyclical nature, you manage to have more control over yourself and your life.
Nature teaches us that after the devastation, there’s always rebirth.
Anything that’s hard to accomplish will break us down before we emerge victorious. This may happen both literally such as when our body refuses to go on during a marathon or it may happen figuratively such as the destruction of our beliefs.
When things get oppressively hard it’s tempting to run away from the unpleasant feelings such as fatigue, pain, or doubt. And yet, when we do that, we train ourselves to escape problems instead of facing them head on.
Accepting the cyclical nature of highs and lows or suffering and growth is a key tool to go beyond. When the pain or frustration comes, you welcome it as the start of another cycle. Yes, it sucks but it’s also a sign that soon it’ll be followed by another uplifting wave.
What We’re Looking For Can Only Be Found Beyond Things
Suffering and weeping are often seen as things to hide. We’re too afraid of suffering; we always avoid it. But suffering makes us grow. It’s useful. It helps us appreciate moments of beauty and helps us embrace happiness with open arms. If there’s no effort and everything is given to you, or you always want immediate satisfaction, you then lose the flavor of things. You lose the pleasure of having them, making them, achieving them. If everything is always easy, you never truly appreciate anything at all.
I’d realized this when I was sitting on the windowsill of my fifteenth-floor apartment in the big city. You no longer appreciate anything, you despise people, you hate what you have because you can never get enough. Because what we’re really looking for can only be found beyond things. When you do something special—digging, expanding yourself, liberating yourself, trying to push yourself beyond what you know—you live those incredible moments and everything becomes crystal clear.
The quote above serves as a perfect closing thought for my two-part series on Michele Graglia’s book Ultra: Top Model to Top Ultra Runner.
Michele’s life as a top model might have been perfect on paper. He had everything he wanted. But in reality, it missed a key element: going beyond himself, in a way that would make him push his limits, explore his abilities, and grow as a person.
This is the foundation of the Discomfort Club. We don’t do uncomfortable things because we’re masochists. We don’t do them to brag how tough we are, either.
We do them because every time we’re uncomfortable we’re liberating ourselves from our weaknesses. We’re pushing beyond what we know, and in this process we learn something new. This gives us immense fulfillment and helps us become better human beings in all aspects of life.
Suffering is an unavoidable aspect of cultivating voluntary discomfort. But as painful as it can be, it’s also a source of deep fulfillment.
A life that’s too easy, when everything is given to us, isn’t rewarding because the thing that is most rewarding—growth through our own efforts—can’t be given to us.
Questions to Ponder
1. When you experience failure, do you try to figure out what went wrong or immediately assume that whatever you did isn’t for you?
2. Do you consider yourself wiser, more patient, and more resilient with age? If not, how could you improve these qualities?
3. Do you practice yoga, stretching, or do any other kind of mobility workout?
4. How meticulously do you prepare for big events in your life? Do you pay attention to the tiniest details from every possible angle or do you merely hope things will go well?
5. Do you accept the pain of doing hard things, knowing that rebirth is around the corner, or do you run away from it?
6. How often do you do something special that forces you to dig deep and push yourself well beyond what you know?
If you want more advice on how to train to go beyond, sign up for a free weekly Discomfort Club newsletter. Enter your email address below: