I was a shy kid with high blood pressure. I grew into a skinny adolescent whom other kids teased and called “Pee-Wee.” I wasn’t the fastest kid in my school, or the strongest, or even the smartest. I was common as grass, longing for something I couldn’t even name. I was like everyone else, the same. Then I found something.
I’m not going to offer any vague parables about inspiration and belief. I’m not going to promise you that if you want to achieve your dream, all you need is faith. No, I am going to show you—in concrete terms—how I transformed myself from the inside out and how you can do it too. Whether you’re a marathoner or weekend jogger, swimmer or cyclist, young or old, fit or fat, you can do this. I know because I did it.
The story of my life is going to sound very familiar. Not in the details (unless you’ve found yourself face down in Death Valley, that is), but in the desire. It’s the tale of everyone who has ever felt stuck, of anyone who has dreamed of doing more, of being more.
I was stuck like that a few years ago in one of the lowest, hottest spots on the planet. That’s where I’ll start my story. That’s where I’ll start your story.
DEATH VALLEY, CALIFORNIA, 2005
The best way out is always through.
My brain was on fire. My body was burning up. Death Valley had laid me out flat, and now it was cooking me. My crew was telling me to get up, that they knew I could go on, but I could barely hear them. I was too busy puking, then watching the stream of liquid evaporate in the circle of light from my headlamp almost as fast as it splashed down on the steaming pavement. It was an hour before midnight, 105 incinerating, soul-sucking degrees. This was supposed to be my time. This was the point in a race where I had made a career of locating hidden reservoirs of sheer will that others didn’t possess, discovering powers that propelled me to distances and speeds that others couldn’t match. But tonight, roasting on the pavement, all I could summon was the memory of a television commercial I had seen as a child. First there’s an egg in someone’s fingers and a voice says, “This is your brain.” Then the owner of the hand cracks the egg, and as it sizzles and crackles onto a hot skillet, the voice says, “And this is your brain on drugs.” I saw that image in the scorching nighttime sky. I heard the disembodied voice. But what I thought was: “This is my brain on Badwater.”
I had just run 70 miles through a place where others had died walking, and I had 65 more to go. I reminded myself that this was the point in the race where I was supposed to dust anyone foolish enough to have kept up with me in the first half. In fact, I had started this race intending to shatter its record never mind worry about winning it. And now I didn’t think I could finish.
There was only one answer: Get up and run. Whatever the problem in my life, the solution had always been the same: Keep going! My lungs might be screaming for oxygen, my muscles might be crying in agony, but I had always known the answer lay in my mind. Tired tendons had begged for rest in other places, my flesh had demanded relief, but I had been able to keep running because of my mind. But not now. What had gone wrong?
Running was what I did. Running was what I loved. Running was—to a large extent—who I was. In the sport I had chosen as avocation, career, obsession, and unerring but merciless teacher, running was how I answered any challenge.
Technically speaking, I was an ultramarathoner. So I competed in any foot race longer than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. In point of fact, though, I had fashioned a career from running and winning races of at least 50 miles, most often 100, and every so often 135 and 150 miles. Some I had led from start to finish, others I had stayed comfortably back until the point when I needed to find another gear. So why was I on the side of the road vomiting, unable to go on?
Never mind my success. People had warned me that this race—this 135-mile jaunt through Death Valley—was too long and that I hadn’t given my body enough time to recover from my last race—a race I had won just two weeks earlier, the rugged and prestigious Western States 100 Mile. People had said that my diet—I had been eating only plant-based foods for seven years—would never sustain me. No one had voiced what I now suspected might be my real problem—that I had underestimated the race itself.
Some ultras curve through level virgin forest, next to melodious streams, past fields of wildflowers. Some ultras occur in the cool melancholy of autumn, others in the invigorating chill of early spring.
Then there were the ultras like the one that had felled me. Its proper name was the Badwater UltraMarathon. Competitors called it the Badwater 135, and a lot of people knew it as “the toughest foot race on earth.”
But I hadn’t taken such talk too seriously. I thought I had run more difficult courses. I thought I had faced much faster, tougher competition. I had raced in snow and rain, won events in far corners of the earth. I had scrambled up loose rock, over peaks of 14,000 feet. I had hopscotched down boulder fields, forded across icy streams. I was used to trails that caused deer to stumble and falter.
Sure, the Badwater flat-lined through Death Valley at the hottest time of the year. And yes, according to Badwater legend, one year when a shoe company handed out its product to all entrants, many of the soles supposedly melted on the scorching pavement.
But that was just a story, right? And though the Badwater did sizzle and though it was longer than I usually race, its brutality was unidimensional. I was used to forbidding terrain, climate, and competition. Other ultras inspire not just reverence but fear. The Badwater? The truth is, a lot of the most accomplished and well-known ultrarunners had never run it. Yeah, Death Valley made it sound ominous, if not fatal, but when you are in a zone running at levels one might call superhuman, tales of danger and death aren’t uncommon. Ultrarunners liked the stories but didn’t dwell on them. We couldn’t.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t prepared; in my line of work, lack of preparation was tantamount to self-abuse. I had purchased an industrial-sized sprayer so that I could be hosed down at regular intervals. I had worn specially designed heat-reflecting pants and shirt. I had guzzled 60 ounces of water (the equivalent of three bicycle bottles) every hour for the first 6 hours of the race. But those precautions were designed to shield my body. No industrial sprayer was going to protect my mind. And an ultrarunner’s mind is what matters more than anything.
Racing ultras requires absolute confidence tempered with intense humility. To be a champion, you have to believe that you can destroy your competition. But you also have to realize that winning requires total commitment, and a wavering of focus, a lack of drive, a single misstep, might lead to defeat or worse. Had I been too confident, not humble enough?
Early in the race, after 17 miles, a marine who had dropped out saluted me as I ran past him because he knew my reputation. Another runner, a desert race veteran, dropped out about 30 miles later, right about the ti...