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Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Story about Struggle

We had to cut this from The Ultra Mindset, but I still think it was pretty good.

Receiving my first actual book copy of The Ultra Mindset (available on Amazon now and in stores 4/13/15) the other day was a fulfilling moment, and it made me think back on some of the stuff that didn’t make it into the book.  I always tell my high school students that writing is a process, that we must draft and draft and cut and cut until the best is left.  Sometimes, that means cutting material that might actually be pretty good.
Below is an excerpt from an early book draft that people who only read the final draft will never get to see.  If you like a good adventure story, read it all; if you’re limited on time, scroll to the bold part.  (Also, Here’s a video preview of Mindset #3 from the book.)
Embrace struggle--it’s one of the only sure signs of progress.  
Don’t quit just because you are not having a good race!
A year after the our what/why thinking mishaps in Sweden, I was ready for redemption at the 2007 Adventure Racing World Championship in Scotland. Spyder shifted its marketing focus, and that sponsorship was finished.  I teamed up with some former competitors from Gunnison, Colorado, an old west cow town on the Western Slope that’s teeming with world class athletes.
In Gunnison, just about everyone has a nickname (including the town, Gunny), and my teammates were local legends.  If it’s before 5:00 p.m., almost anyone in Gunny will have a cup of coffee waiting for you, and after that there’s always beer.  No one is too busy to hang out, the buildings are nice and short, and you can run past cows (they’re free-roaming and range-fed, like the people) in the summer and nordic ski past them in the winter.  I love Gunny and the outstanding athletes there because they both epitomize “unpretentious.”  Look out for Dave “Weinsy” Weins, who will look like just another dad driving the kids around--unless you see his chiseled legs before realizing he’s the guy who dominated the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race for years.  Or you might see Brian “Smithy” Smith, who you’ll probably think is a punk rocker driving a FedEx truck before you find out that he’s one of the fastest and hardest-training multisport athletes in the country.  When he’s not taking care of his baby girl, that is.  Smithy’s wife, Jenny, is just as competitive and successful as he is--and that’s saying something.
Jon “JB,” Brown (the same guy who was so instrumental in following the 4:30 a.m. Rule in Abu Dhabi) came to Gunny for college at Western State and never left.  He had recently done some mental training by spending an entire winter there, the coldest town in Colorado (no exaggeration--look it up), in his powerless, heatless house, which he was remodeling.  Years later, JB and I would spend our overnight layover in Beijing walking the streets in a quest to stay awake until the famous changing of the guard ceremony at Tiananmen Square.  He’s the quintessential teammate and a true friend.
Bryan “Wick” Wickenhauser is the kind guy who knows everyone and can do anything.  Because it involves flexibility and flying by the seat of your pants, the ultra mindset is inherently a creative and multi-faceted one, and Wick has this nailed.  Athletically, he’s solid in running, mountain biking, paddling, ropes, and ski mountaineering, which has lately become an obsession that drives him to skin up big hills every single day, October through May.  He applies the same tenacity and versatility to entrepreneurial endeavors, and Wick has recently turned an old barn in a field into a community hub where local businesses shovel in the dough through a music festival.  He simultaneously runs the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse ski mountaineering race and a company that leases construction equipment.  Wick’s wife, Jennifer, is the accomplished track and cross country coach at Western State Colorado University, which means he also spends a good deal of time taking care of their two little kids.
Jari Kirkland is such a Gunny icon that she’s one of the few people there who’s allowed to go by her real first name, and a simple utterance of “Jari” has been striking fear into the hearts of female mountain bikers, triathletes, and adventure racers for years.  Actually, the name scares the men as well, and she has smoked me at the 24 Hours of Moab Mountain Bike race, twice.  Jari is one of the strongest adventure racers in the world, and we were lucky to have her.  She’s downright tough, and Jari’s ultra mindset means that, like many female racers, she only gets stronger as the race gets longer.  Jari constantly receives racing invitations from the best teams around the world. The secret about Jari’s ultra mindset is out, and everyone wants a piece.
Together, JB, Wick, Jari, and I comprised Team Salomon/Crested Butte, and we were ready and willing to do anything it took to earn a podium finish at the World Championship.  And that’s good because cold, rainy, and downright miserable conditions for almost the entire week of racing would mean that any team that made the podium truly earned it.  We arrived in Scotland with the primary goal of proving ourselves as one of the top teams in the world.
With 365 days of intense physical and mental training logged, 196 of us from 18 countries and 49 teams lined up in the starting chute in front of an imposing medieval castle on the mystical Rum Isle, 20 miles off Scotland’s West Coast.  Our task was daunting and the setting legendary.  Over the next eight days, those who completed the journey would see the best of the Scottish Highlands as they trekked, mountain biked, kayaked, canyoneered, and climbed more than 310 miles, gaining an astonishing 82,000 vertical feet in the process.  We would each rely on three teammates (at least one of the opposite gender), five kit boxes, and map and compass in our quest to complete the course at the 2007 Adventure Racing World Championships.  At the pre-race briefing in Fort William, the self-proclaimed “Outdoor Capital of the UK” at the base of mighty Ben Nevis (4,406 feet, the UK’s highest peak), Race Director Phil Humphreys gave warning: “The course is a real monster.  Conditions may be harsh, and this is a true World Championship event.”

Thirty-six hours later, the gun blasted and we took off running in our wetsuits.  A mile and a half of running on a jeep track would take us to the ocean’s edge, where we would swim half a mile across a bay and transition to trekking.  A quick glance around on the initial run provided a who’s who snapshot of the international adventure racing scene.  Present as always were the US/NZ Team Nike, last year’s World Champions and winners of nearly ever other major race to date.  Expected to make the most of any error by Nike were the Kiwis of Team Balance Vector, the 2005 World Champions, and Aberdeen Asset Management, the UK Champions who would potentially capitalize on a home court advantage and familiarity with the environment.  Numerous others were chomping at the bit like chained stallions; Humphreys noted that 20 teams expected to finish in the top five.

Splashing into the sea to begin the swim sent a shiver through our bodies.  As we struggled to regain breath while stroking away, competitors faced the cold, hard truth: this would be an often-chilling and ever-challenging expedition.

A quick shedding of wetsuits allowed us to dawn trekking paraphernalia, grab a previously unseen map, and head out on the five-hour running section that would complete the Prologue, a short “pre-race” competition held the day before the actual expedition started.  Only in an adventure race do you compete for eight hours just to get warmed up for the real race beginning the next day.
Balance Vector showed they meant business by pushing the pace and breaking away early, and a herd of up to ten other teams pursued quickly as we climbed from the coast to the first five checkpoints arranged in a micro-navigation course on a steep hillside overlooking the sea.  With no native bush or trees to inhibit vision and surprisingly excellent weather, teams’ navigators had little trouble overcoming the orienteering.  The running race resumed as we descended to a coastal trail that circumnavigated Rum’s east coast, terminating at a field of picturesque ancient ruins backed by views of neighboring mountainous isles and the auspiciously calm sea.  “Or is this the calm before the storm?” we wondered.  The ascent to a prominent ridgeline began, and we quickly familiarized ourselves with the steep climbing, technical descending, and knife-edge ridge trekking that would occupy most of our time that week.

Places shuffled constantly as teams raced up and over a half dozen jagged peaks on the way back to the castle at the Prologue’s finish, many racers pushing themselves very hard throughout the trek.  “Too hard for the first day of a full-length expedition race?” voices quipped in the back of our heads.  A final summit—we must be close, for here are the photographers and journalists—a rocky downhill, one more route choice, a defined trail down a watercourse, and home to the castle.

Legs were sore but spirits high, for we had completed a full day of racing in Scotland and it still had not rained.  We pitched our tents, ate dinner, and prepared to paddle back to the mainland in the morning.

Zip.  We opened our tents the next morning to a view of the castle with blue skies behind.  At 6:00 a.m., the sun had been up for three hours and it still had not rained.  Today, the expedition proper would begin with 40 miles of sea kayaking, including 7 miles on the open sea at we traveled from the island to the mainland.  Seven miles is of open water is far enough that you can’t see the land on the other side, and if you, like me, happen to live in a place where paddling training happens in a quarter-mile lake, the open sea is a bit unsettling.

Two hours of rainbow-hued organized chaos on the boat ramp at Rum—paddles clanking, flags raising, boats scraping—and all teams were in the water and ready to head back to the mainland.  Those with sleek team-supplied boats quickly pulled away on the initial ten kilometer push southeast to Eigg Isle.  I, however, a Coloradoan land-lubber designated our team’s ocean expert based simply on one holiday in New Zealand, felt lucky to be in a stable plastic barge as the seas gradually picked up.  Kayaks capsized here and there (hypothermic experience number one of many) as the now extended caravan pushed eastward from Eigg to the mainland, and some teams strayed off course on the open sea crossing.

Heading north at last along the mainland coast, the terra firma rewarded us with views of pristine white sand beaches backed by minute, craggy islands.  A short portage, the first and easiest of many, took us to Loch Morar.  The Loch provided a preview to the other bodies of water we’d encounter throughout the week: straight and narrow, surrounded by heavenly green hills.

A steep portage took us to a micro-navigation section where the leaders completed two eerily similar courses in daylight and those trailing dealt with darkness.  Most of us served penalties from rule infractions and finish placement in the Prologue in a field near a curious, ancient cottage before paddling across Loch Nevis to the first true transition.  Sometimes the ultra mindset involves patience, and sitting sheep poop for a couple of hours early in the race, when we felt like hammering, was case in point.

Later that day, on a 27 mile trek, darkness fell as we trekked up a steep and defined trail to the high peak of Mam Meadail, the Scottish cold (or was that Team Merrell/Wigwam?) nipping at our heals.  A steep descent followed by an even trickier climb took us to a ridgeline checkpoint, from whence the navigators looked ahead to the precipice of Ben Aiden, another high point.  At 2,910 feet and edged by insurmountable cliffs on two sides, the peak appeared to be, and was in fact, challenging.  From the summit, we looked to our next pointy apex at 3,080 feet, Luinne Bheinn, which would be obtained after descending again to 300 feet elevation.  We were quickly learning that Scotland is mountainous, to say the least.  While the elevations seem low to someone from Colorado (the highest point in the UK is still 3,000 feet below my house), the base elevation is sea level, meaning that the climbs are steep and significant.

A lone photographer at this second high point let us know we were on course, and we soon experienced the most technical route choices yet while descending to a pass and then climbing a nearly disconnected, serpentine ridgeline to a glorious lookout at Ladhar Bheinn, 3,313 feet.  Another descent to sea level and a 5 mile lakeside trail run took us to the second transition.

Up next, an 86 mile mountain bike ride, the furthest single section of the race, would see the dawning of less desirable weather that persisted for the next few days.  We navigated a series of tarmac and dirt roads before the first serious climb through the Inchnacardoch Forest, an expansive pine tree plantation.  A quick drop down the other side to an obscure checkpoint on a public trail behind a field preceded a substantial climb on a rocky track, where cold, rain, and darkness became our companions.  A raging downhill through the frigid night took us to a mentally-daunting point at which we dropped our bikes and ran down to a river.  There, most racers already on the verge of hypothermia, we stripped nude (no point on getting the clothes even wetter), put on a wet lifejacket and helmet, and jumped five meters off a waterfall into a deep pool of water that looked like a swirling, black abyss.  Sometimes, adventure races in include activities whose only purpose is to increase suffering and test mental toughness.  Naked cliff jumping in the middle of the night in the freezing rain is a good example.

Splash!  That’s cold!  OK, breathe.

After swimming to shore, we dressed again in bike attire, sprinted uphill to kick-start circulation, and resumed cycling, downhill once again.  
A tyrolean traverse across a canyon gorge provided one more detour—this one markedly more palatable than the previous—along the ride, but the highlight came for many of us when we reached the corner store at Invermoriston, gateway to the infamous Loch Ness.  Here we gorged ourselves on meat pies, sausages, and other fatty delights.  The Great Glenn Cycle Route brought us impressive vistas of the Loch (I didn’t see the Monster, but my vision was blurry by that time) on the way to another rainy transition.

Chilled to the bone from cycling, we attempted to warm ourselves with a half mile swim with Nessy before paddling sit-on-tops across her domain.  From the lakeshore, we jogged six miles on pavement, many of us still wearing wetsuits to stay warm.  The top five teams completed a thrilling canyoneering section, which subsequent teams bypassed due to monsoon-like rising water levels brought on by the steady rain.

Still trekking, we traversed the trickiest navigation of the course.  “This area is very strange, and you’ll feel like you’re on the moon,” remarked Gary Tompsett, the course setter, prior to the race.  Right he was, and we followed compass bearings for hours through another stormy night while crossing lumpy tussock, muddy bogs, and rising creeks that would soon be rivers.  That was an eerie, long night in the fog, and we made it through because I teamed up with Petri Forsman, a Finnish adventure racing legend, who was the navigator for another team, to work together in following a bearing that would lead both teams through the trek.  For that night, our two teams became an eight-person unit, working as one to manage treacherous terrain and evidencing the benefits of collaborating with “competitors” at times, which is highly recommended by the ultra mindset.  A steepening of terrain told us that we had nearly reached the final canyon.  “Don’t walk too far in the fog because you’ll go right off a cliff.”  The pre-race warning slithered into my groggy consciousness at 2:00 a.m.  Narrowly avoiding a steep, dangerous canyon in the middle of the night, we finally found a defined track leading to the transition.
We slept on the ground near the transition area for an hour or so, wrapping a tarp around ourselves to make a wet, muddy, four-person burrito.  The rain persisted, and anyone who’s been on an extended camping trip can imagine the smell and absence of fresh air in our little capsule that had to be sealed against the rain.  It’s always a good idea in the transition to change clothes and pack up for the next section before sleeping because you’re so disoriented when you wake up, and I slept well in my bike shoes, helmet, and chamois, which was covered with diaper rash cream.

Yahoo!  The race’s most exciting section took off as we cycled through a thrilling mountain bike park.  Thick mud and steep hills had ground down the brake pads long ago, but the course of sharp switchbacks, endless rollers, rocky tabletops, and an elevated boardwalk dazzled us nonetheless.  Robbed of the delight that would have come with a full day in this park, we raced on through the rain to an impressive lakeside castle, where we dropped our bikes in the courtyard and trekked towards fixed ropes on Binnein Shaus, rising 2,447 feet into an icy fog.

Dante crept into my mind as I the rock wall via a fixed rope that I climbed with mechanical ascenders.  His Tenth Circle surely would have described this scene: endlessly climbing a rock face—sheer, gray, dripping—surrounded by fog, arctic shower pelting the sinner’s face.  This followed by a wait for teammates while huddled against the wall on a forlorn outcrop where the wind howled like a constipated sleepmoster.  Paradoxically (psychotically?), something resembling happiness often stirs in an adventure racer’s heart at moments like this.

Our foursome reunited on top of the peak, and we crossed the summit on foot to reach a series of three rappels.  Rappelling involves descending a fixed rope using a metal device to regulate speed--think of Batman cruising off the side of a building in Gotham City.  Much less Hellish, the downward trip took us past lurking photographers, and, lo and behold, the skies cleared momentarily just as we filled their viewfinders.

Running again, the cold began to harp on us.  Jari became a giant construction cone as she improvised a full body suit out of the bright orange trash bag carried by each racer as part of the mandatory gear.  I chuckled, and then joined her later on; the flashy dress complimented my ever-present shower cap (also used for insulation against the rain) very well.  Back on bikes, we made our way to the transition at Dalwhinnie, where a warm roadside inn provided saving grace.

The transition area was located in parking lot next to the inn, and we found an empty, warm room upstairs.  An hour’s nap on a leather couch and two plates of pasta had us ready, we thought, for 16 miles of paddling on Loch Ericht.  “We’ll warm up out there quickly when we get paddling,” I told my teammates, “dress light.”  Heeding my nautical expertise (remember the holiday in New Zealand), they prepared for a leisurely night-time cruise.  As darkness fell and the headwind picked up, we soon realized warming up was a pipe dream.  The situation became desperate as wave after wave pelted us in the face and cockpits slowly filled with frigid water.  So much for stirring happiness and the strait and narrow; this lake was torturing us with a true test for survival.  We discovered the next day that Balance Vector, the true paddling experts from New Zealand, had the sense to pull over and warm up during that night on the lake, but we slogged on until finally reaching the Loch’s terminus at daybreak.

Wick had been in the front of our boat, and a defective sprayskirt allowed his cockpit to fill with ice water.  When we finally reached the end of the paddle, he was, literally, stuck in the boat because he was so cold.  JB and I lifted him out while Jari started a fire, and then we hugged each other until circulation came back.  Up next was a portage (towing and carrying sea kayaks) for over 20 miles, described in the official race handbook as the “Outrageous Portage Section (O.P.S.), which has never actually been attempted before.”

Off we went, still wearing trash bags for warmth.  
Home in Colorado a week before the race, one of my teammates recalled Team Nike’s thoughtful use of inline skates for a boat portage in a previous race.  They had loaded the boats on wheeled carts and then pulled them while they roller bladed.  Might that work for us too?  Having lugged our skates around in the kayak hatches for the entire race, we figured this was the time to give the strategy a go.  Skating uphill while pulling a kayak is surely a challenge, but we flew on the descents.  Whether or not it actually saved us time we’ll never know.

Putting in on another lake, we checked the watch and realized the time to lower the hammer had arrived.  Although we were in sixth place and seemed to be racing well, a cutoff quickly approached.  “Must depart transition by 13:00 hours or face short course and 24-hour penalty,” declared a barely legible handwritten note on my map.  Races often enforce cutoffs at various points along the course to ensure that teams do not get too spread out, but top teams are generally well ahead of these marks.  This was not the case here, and we realized that the next few hours of dragging boats over boggy terrain would determine whether or not a podium finish days later would even be possible.

With two people using ropes to pull each kayak, we stumbled all day across what looked from afar like a flat floodplain but was actually a treacherous swamp with plenty of steep, muddy embankments that were challenging to overcome with kayaks.  The portage was a true race against the clock, and we gave it all we had, racing to make the time.

We learned why legendary racers become legends as Balance Vector’s Nathan Fa’avae strode past us, high-stepping the slick tussock and muddy ravines with ease as he towed a heavy kayak, unassisted.  His teammates struggled to keep up, and Nathan was, simply, leading by example.  
Team Balance Vector reached transition and missed the cutoff by ten minutes, and we followed shortly thereafter.  Five teams had beaten the 13:00 mark and would complete the full course.  We were not one of them.

Missing the cutoff was a huge blow for Teams Salmon/Crested Butte and Balance Vector, and our team was soon slumped in the back of an old bus out in a field, out of the rain (which was nice), and seemingly out of the race (which was not).  Knowing that 6th was now the highest possible finish because the five teams ahead would be doing the full course while we took on an abbreviated route for the next trek, motivation to prove ourselves as a top team was now categorically eliminated.  Getting to this point had taken months of training followed by days of intense racing, and reaching to the finish line would require another sleepless night and more time in the cold.

We were bummed, and ending the cold and misery then and there seemed like a good idea.  When someone uttered the question that was on everyone’s mind—Should we quit the race?—an ominous silence followed.
Struggling gets a bad rap.  Most of us inhabit a culture that’s increasingly focused on quick results, and it’s easy to find simple explanations for success that credit talent, intelligence, and plain old “being smart.”
As a public school teacher, I get to see, firsthand, how the way we bring up our kids leads to an unfortunate and counter-productive aversion to struggle.  An educational climate that increasingly emphasizes standardized test scores as the Holy Grail for students, teachers, schools, and districts encourages teachers, whether consciously or not, to send messages like, “This is the quick way to find the right answer,” and “Here’s how the smart kids do it,” and “You’ve been working on that for about two minutes and seem stuck, so let me help you,” and “You deserve an A because you quickly showed mastery of material that you probably already knew anyway, and that’s the key to success--sticking to the things that come quickly and easily, and avoiding everything else.”  
It only gets worse when we become adults.  Save a few revolutionary companies, primarily in the tech industry, that require employees to try new things and reward them for figuring out what doesn’t work through the process of failure, most companies pay employees to use a pre-determined model to accomplish as much as possible as fast as possible.  If an employee struggles or fails, his productivity goes down and he is paid less.  If you happen to be a teacher, your quest for creativity may be stifled by the standardized curriculum that tries to build teacher-proof courses for test-proof students.  Get from A to B as fast as you can, with no struggling for anybody.  And, especially when we get a few years into a given career, we thoughtlessly slide into spending all of our time doing what we already know how to do; the wheels start spinning and we nest up in the comfort zone.
We constantly send our kids--and ourselves--the message that if you are struggling something is wrong.  If you’re doing something right, it will feel nice and easy; it will be fun.  Struggle should be halted as soon as possible at all times because it will probably lead to suffering and, even worse, failure.
The problem with the message above is that it flies in the face of what we know to be the truth about learning and general progress, namely, that, if you never struggle, growth is almost impossible because lack of struggle only shows complacency within a comfort zone.  Learning and progress require a healthy dose of struggle, and regular failure is a good sign that struggle is occurring.  
Struggle is absolutely necessary.  In school, it shows that you are learning.  In work, it shows that you are getting better and pushing your boundaries.  In relationships, it signifies the deepening of a partnership, evidencing a willingness to move beyond surface-level affection to true commitment.  In life, it shows that you are progressing toward greatness, refusing to accept mediocrity and the status quo.
In ultra endurance racing, struggle is the only sure way to tell that you are gaining fitness in training and improving, both mentally and physically, in races.  Struggling in a long, hard race can generate serious suffering (it’s some of the best mental training around) and serious growth.
Unfortunately, some of the most talented athletes around move away from the value of struggle once they hit a certain level of success.  Working to the point where you have become a sponsored athlete who wins races takes hard work and struggle.  Some athletes, once they reach this level, experience a shift in mindset.  When these elites find themselves going through a hard time at a race, and we all do, they begin thinking along these lines:  “I’m a good runner, and good runners don’t finish in 15th place.  Something is wrong.  My sponsors aren’t going to like the fact that I did not finish on the podium...results like this one don’t show that I’m great, and I want to prove that I’m great.  If I quit the race now, I won’t have to defend my poor finish.”
And then they drop out of the race and move on to the next chance to be great.
Here’s the problem, the best goals are not based on being good; they are based on getting better.
In Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. provides context around the science of being good vs. getting better:
        "Wanting to be good is very motivating and can lead to excellent performance, provided that
things don’t get too difficult.  Unfortunately, when the road gets rocky, people who are focused on proving themselves tend to conclude that they don’t have what it takes--and give up way too soon.  Get better to improve performance.  When we focus on getting better, we take difficulty in stride--using our experiences to fuel our improvement.  People who pursue growth often turn in the best performances because they are far more resilient in the face of challenges" (75).
Focusing constantly on being good comes naturally to many people, and I know that I’ve spent a lot of time doing it.  When I focus on getting better, though, I often find that I actually function much more effectively as an athlete, parent, spouse, and professional; being good is the eventual outcome, and by focusing on getting better I have the patience to allow it to happen in due time.  Like life in general, ultra endurance races are challenging, and the get better mindset rules.
My personal rule of thumb in long races is that the shit will hit the fan.  I plan meticulously, and it usually pays off in one way or another, but I also acknowledge ahead of time and during the race that something (usually many things) will not go according to plan.  I might get lost.  I might get sick.  It might rain, or snow, or get windy, or be really hot.  I might get very sleepy.  I might have to deal with a mechanical issue on my bike or my boat or my pack or my body.  My crew might not make it to a checkpoint, meaning that I have to find some food and water on my own.  I might have a great day, and I might have a bad day.  I might miss a cutoff or fall far from my desired result.  Embracing these possibilities instead of ignoring them and being surprised when they occur makes a significant difference, and I have seen dozens of talented, fit athletes who absolutely crumble in the longer races simply because they can’t or don’t approach the race with a flexible mindset.
Think about everything that could and does happen in the ultra race of life.  You might get a great break for a new job, and you might lose your job.  You might have to stay home because your child is sick.  You might make a poor financial choice.  You might spend time around the wrong people.  You might make a big mistake, professionally or personally.  No, you will make a big mistake, professionally and personally.  Someone you know might get very sick.  Just like my list from racing, this one goes on and on.  If you try to control every single little variable and then crumble when your plan goes down the drain, you’re bound to drive yourself crazy, and my prediction is that you will also miss out on some of your potential to achieve challenging goals that require flexibility and a focus on getting better along the way.  We all screw up and face unexpected challenges; flexibility and a focus on getting better are two of the best ways to continue forward and ensure lasting success and well-being.
In that bus in Scotland, we had to decide whether our team was going to quit the race and maintain face as a “top team that got screwed by a stupid cutoff time” or cross the finish line far from the podium, and in doing so try learn something about ourselves on the way to getting better.  Being good was not an option at this point; were we motivated enough by getting better to continue racing when 6th place was the highest possible finish?
Crossing a challenging course to get to that bus in a field in Scotland had been a monumental struggle.  Getting out of the bus and back on the course would be even harder.  
Thankfully, we made the right choice.  
And so did the Kiwis, who were faced with the same decision, evidencing the ultra mindset that makes them the best in the world.  They took the long view, wagering that getting better by finishing this particular race would pay off later, and they have since won a number of Adventure Racing World Championships.
From that checkpoint, the top five teams completed a taxing yet scenic ridgeline trek through the best of Scotland.  “The mountains there were awesome,” said Team Nike’s Monique Merril, whose posse had by then pried victory from the grips of the persistent French/Swiss Team Wilsa Hellyhansen.  “The first climb was incredibly steep, and we used fixed handlines.  When we hit the ridge, it was totally exposed and incredibly windy, which was quite a challenge so late in a race.  The ridgelines and peaks just went on and on.”  Subsequent teams, ours included, also completed a trek, albeit shorter and less technical, with greatly diminished vertical gain.

From trekking, we hopped back on bikes and began to smell the finish.  Twenty-four kilometers with 2,800 feet of climbing along the West Highland Way offered some provoking descents that probably would have been fun if riding fresh and awake.  JB’s brakes went out, and he and I traded off between riding the one good bike between us and running in bike shoes with the useless one.

Ben Nevis’ lure pulled us through the cycling section, and we sound found ourselves tramping up the precipitous slopes of Scotland’s highest peak on the final trek home.  We scaled the rocky slopes surrounded by clouds, and as we reached the snowy summit, the sun broke through, revealing a breathtaking panorama of high peaks, deep valleys, green lowlands, and the vast sea.  Needless to say, the view was worth it, and we were proud of ourselves for making the right decision in the bus.

Hours later, we finished the race, crossing the line as a proud team.  And, more importantly, we had gotten better, both as adventure racers and as people.

Are you struggling?  If not, is it because your wheels are spinning in a comfort zone?  How do you view your struggles?  How do you talk about them?  Could viewing and discussing your struggles as positive and healthy lead to empowerment and resilience?  When was the last time you failed?  If you haven’t taken on something significant in the last six months that could lead to failure, what have you been doing?  What will you do in the next week to bring struggle and mental training into your life and work?  How will you grow?  How do you currently balance “be good” and “get better goals”?  Might increased focus on getting better generate more resilience and, ultimately, more success?
Thanks for reading,

Sunday, December 7, 2014

So, you want to go pro?

This post is, primarily, a shout out to readers who have always thought about trying to become really good at something (and maybe even make a career of it) but figured it’s just not possible due to time constraints, obligations, limitations, and other “real life” stuff.  That said, the ideas below are just as relevant to you if you work passionately for a company/organization, if you’re an employeepreneur who’s working to climb the ladder, or if you have already found your niche and just want to get even better.  

Hopefully at least one of the categories above resonates with you at least a little bit.  OK?  OK.  Let’s roll.

If you ask me, you’re a certified pro at something if:
  • You’re making or have made a career of it.
  • You make at least a little bit of money doing it.  Or a lot.
  • You rank in the top few percent of the field or hold a pro license.
  • You really like doing it and have set up your life so you can do it a lot.  

So, why would you want to go pro?
  • Maybe you want to spend more time in flowand less in trying to simply make it through the day.
  • Maybe you feel like getting better just for the purpose of growing.  
  • Or maybe you want to be the best. Period.
  • Maybe you want to be proud of yourself.*
  • Maybe you’re ready for a change.

And, most importantly, how do you go pro?

This one’s the key and our focus here because, well, I think it’s important to go pro, in one way or another.  (Hint: one way to start is by thinking of yourself as a pro in something you already do).  Sometimes, people fall into a rut, feeling trapped within a certain job, lifestyle, mindset, field of work, or way of doing things.  They want to go pro with something else, but don’t think it’s possible.  

It is.  Here’s how.  (And even if you are already going pro at something you really do feel passionate about, you might think about applying some of these to your quest therein).

Trav’s Top 5 Go Pro Tips

1. Believe you can do it.
A decade of ultra endurance racing around the world in a variety of sports has taught me that you won't get anywhere without a commitment ahead of time and believing in yourself.  As I say in The Ultra Mindset (for sale now on Amazon), you should, "Have an ego and use it."

2.  Cut the pork.
Going pro is going to take time, and you'll have to get that time somewhere.  They say the average American watches four hours of TV every day.  Four hours per day is enough time to be a pro at almost anything!  Heck, a person could watch two hours of TV and then train for two hours and still be an Ironman triathlete.  You're probably not the average American though (thank goodness).  Could you shift work so that you spend less time commuting?  Could you go pro early in the morning or during lunch break?  Could you go out for a walk or easy run while you're on the conference call?  Could you hire people to do things (housecleaning, accounting, etc.) that are taking time away from your quest?  

3.  Remove choice and make it a habit.
When I was writing my book alongside work, training, and raising kids, a simple if/then rule made putting in the time for writing nice and simple: "If it's between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m., then I will be writing my book."  The rule was set, and all I had to do was follow it.  Pretty soon, I had a book.  What's your if/then rule?  Where do you need to develop a habit?  Or, maybe your key will be to stop doing something that's holding you back.  If you like this thinking, you'll really like "The 4:30 a.m. Rule" in the book.

4.  Be a wannabe.
Here's what John Hanc and I say in The Ultra Mindset: "Get close to the people you want to be like—make the most of goal contagion. By identifying people you would like to emulate in one or more ways, you can find examples of people who are reaching goals similar to your own. Utilize the synergy and push each other."

5. Be vulnerable, ask for help, and get ready to hear "no" more often than not.
I've really been enjoying Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown, Ph.D.  The book is about the significant advantages of being comfortable with being vulnerable.  How does that work?  Read the book.  Or, read my book, which actually addresses the ego topic as: "Have an ego and use it--until it's time to put your ego aside."
If you’re going pro, I’d love to hear about it and support you if I can.  Shoot me a message by replying here or through
I did my best to apply the “go pro” mindset at the USA Track and Field Trail Marathon National Championshipin Moab a few weeks ago.  Race Director Danelle Ballengee, who’s a good friend, put together an awesome course, complete with plenty of very technical terrain and a couple of solid climbs.  I wrapped up the season with a fourth place finish, and I must say I’m stoked for more ultra and trail running in 2015!

Thanks for reading,


*If you ask me, you should already be proud of yourself.  Start with happiness.  Once that's in place, I bet so-called “success” will come a lot easier than when achievement recognized by someone else was a prereq for satisfaction.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Having Kids is a Reason to Follow Your Dreams

This topic was originally planned as one of the chapters in my new book.  We had to cut some chapters to fit the publisher's guidelines for length, but I still want to share it with you.  The book draft material comes first; keep reading for some inspiring commentary from two newsletter readers who are also parents chasing their dreams.

Do you want to be the parent who looks his or her child in the eye and admits, “Well, I had this big dream that was and is very important to making the most of the short life I have here, but you came along and messed it all up”?

Do you really want to tell your kids that?

“Well,” that voice inside says, “I could just not say anything--my kids won’t know I’m scrapping my dreams and using them as an excuse.”  Kids pay attention.  They will know.  And thinking of them learning to give up and to settle for mediocrity by watching their own parents almost brings tears to my eyes.

Personally, I want to be able to say, and to do so honestly, “I have dreams, Wyatt and Lila, and I am pursuing them wholeheartedly because of you.  Because I want to show you how important it is to go for something big, and to show you just how to do it.  I want you to see that I fail all the time, at least as often as I succeed, and I want you to see that I keep on hammering even when I fail, looking constantly for new and creative solutions, knowing that I will eventually win, even if only through perseverance and grit and outlasting the competition.  I want you to see that, as proven by my example, the only real failure is passing through life on cruise control while spending a lot of your time doing something you don’t really care about.  I want you to know that the crazyness and weirdness in our lives and my racing and my work all has a purpose, and that striving to be the best and achieve a dream is more than worth the sacrifice.”

In their excellent text, Raising Resilient Children, Robert Brooks, Ph.D., and Sam Goldstein, Ph.D. identify resilience as the key trait we should be intentionally working to develop in our children.  They describe resilience in children as “the inner strength to deal completely and successfully, day after day, with the challenges and demands they encounter” (1).  And here’s the best part: YOU can play a monumental role by acting as a “charismatic adult,” or someone from whom a child pulls in strength.  “Never underestimate the power of one person to redirect a child toward a more productive, successful, satisfying life,” they write (11).  Any parent or teacher knows that kids are always watching us, and the ultra mindset application of the charismatic adult concept is simple: the best way to teach your kids to follow their own dreams and to give them the strength to make it happen is to show (not just tell) them that you are doing just that, each and every day.

My dad and I got to chase our dreams together early in the month at the US Skyrunning Championships, where I won the Vertical Kilometer event.  Also, if you're interested in some audio on the Ultra Mindset, my interview with Rewire Your Brain to Think Thin is available today and tomorrow only.

Guest Contribution #1

Amy Hatch is a parent and Founder of Garage Grown Gear.  I really like what she has to say:

When Travis asked me to write a few words for this newsletter, I initially thought I might write something about how I’m a better, more present mom when pursuing my own professional and athletic passions. This is definitely true, but really only half of the story.

I’m also a better entrepreneur and outdoor adventurer because of my daughter. To explain why, I present the 3 Ps. (C’mon, who doesn’t love a good a mnemonic?).

Perspective: I picked my daughter up after one particularly stressful day this week. (Launching an online store, as it turns out, is no small feat). On the way home, she asked to stop by the playground. So we did. Before long, I was careening superman-style down the slide. And, later that night, I found myself in a full-fledged contest to see who could sing Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes the fastest. The moral? It’s hard to take life too seriously when you have a kid around to help keep things in perspective.

Purpose: There’s no two ways about it, following your dreams while being a parent is tough. But I’m pretty certain following your dreams while not being a parent is also tough. Inevitably, there will be tremendous obstacles and moments of self-doubt. Being a mom has given me a deep sense of purpose that has seen me through those dark hours. When I boil it all down, the purpose of Garage Grown Gear is to connect people to the outdoors. But when I really boil it all down, I’m building my business so that I have more financial and time freedom to be with my family and play outside.

Passion: One of the things I love most about kids is that they lead with their heart and live in the moment. They don’t run to get exercise; they run because it’s fun. They don’t create an image to get a higher click-through rate; they create an image because it’s fun. Being a parent helps remind me to let passion be my guide. 

About Garage Grown Gear: We connect you to independent outdoor brands making innovative, high-performing and wildly cool gear. We scout for the innovators of today and the icons of tomorrow. We tell stories of individuals with ideas. We do this through an online store and magazine.

Guest Contribution #2

Kathleen Allen is a mother of four, competitive athlete for over 20 years, trainer, Girls on the Run Coach, and all-around "go-getter" here in Evergreen, Colorado.  She shared some compelling ideas about why female endurance athletes often become stronger, more competitive athletes after having children.  For the record, I think some of these apply to guys as well.
  • Forced time off.  We typically push ourselves—and often TOO hard.  A good break from training does wonders!
  • New pain threshold.  Athletes know pain, but pregnancy teaches a woman to differentiate between "bad pain" and "productive pain."
  • Learn to trust the body.  Athletes often feel we are in control of all aspects of our bodies, but pregnancy (and the body becoming a "baby house") reminds us that we need to listen and trust more than simply dictating.
  • Having kids makes you “hungry.”  Before kids, training sometimes felt like “I have to.”  Now, it’s “I GET to!”  I’m too busy to over-analyze things, and having fun makes me faster.

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Thanks for reading,

PS- Here's a great TED Talk on this topic.  

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Got Grit?

The grit bus is on a roll, and I’m grabbing a seat.

Defined by Webster’s as “stubborn courage, pluck, determination,” grit has become a hot topic in academia and education. Angela Lee Duckworth, Ph.D., of the Positive Psychology Center and The Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania studies grit and self-control, and her research suggests that these are two critical personality traits in terms of success. Dr. Duckworth (who has an excellent Ted Talk) has found that grit predicts a dizzying array of achievements, including surviving the first summer of training at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, reaching the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee, retention in both the U.S. Special Forces and among novice teachers, graduation from Chicago public high schools, performance in standardized test scores, and physical fitness. In other studies, she notes, “grit correlates with lifetime educational attainment and, inversely, lifetime career changes and divorce.”

Well, that’s great. But how do you build something as intangible as “grit” (other than by not washing your three-year-old for a couple of days)? I hope to give you some good answers in The Ultra Mindset: An Endurance Champion’s 8 Core Principles for Success in Business, Sports, and Life, which comes out March 24 and can be pre-ordered here.

Until then, here’s a great story that explains how America’s best XTERRA off-road triathlete, Josiah Middaugh, built some of his grit as a kid.

In 1988, Josiah Middaugh was sleeping in a tent on a remote Canadian island in Lake Huron. The ten-year-old’s grandparents rested in their cabin at the other end of the island, and little Josiah was out in the woods by himself. He was a little bit scared, but he slept well because he was so tired.

Josiah had spent the day, you see, deeply engrossed in a lengthy exercise of mental training. A week ago, he had ridden the bus, alone, from the small, rural, Bohemian community near East Jordan, Michigan where he lived with his parents and siblings in a home he now proudly refers to as “simple,” recalling that the floor was dirt for awhile until his hard-working parents built one out of wood. Josiah met his grandfather at the bus station, and they canoed two miles to the island, where the only mark of man was one small cabin.

As they paddled together, the old man explained the boy’s schedule for the trip. Sleep in the tent and wake up early. Paddle to the mainland. Run two miles. Paddle back to the island. Work for four hours, managing the land and mending the cabin. Play in the afternoon. Eat dinner. Sleep in the tent.

Josiah stuck to the schedule, and he worked hard. He was happy when, at the end of the trip, his grandfather paid him $1 for every hour of work he had done. And he didn't whine when his grandfather explained that he needed to give half of that back to pay for the temporary health insurance that had been purchased for his time in Canada. Josiah Middaugh didn't complain or give in to fear or worry about being alone or seek out daily comforts then, and he doesn’t now.

Training hard is part of the reason Josiah is the best, but when push comes to shove, it’s his mental toughness, day in and day out, that sets him apart.

Food for thought:

What does grit mean to you?

In what areas of life are you gritty?

In what areas of life aren’t you gritty?

What will you do to build grit this week?

What stories can you tell yourself to become grittier?

Grit played a big role for me at Ultra Race of Champions: The Ultrarunning World Championship in September. The 100k course climbed about 10,000 feet and occurred between 9,800 and 12,400 feet in elevation. It was a pretty good day at the office and I finished 3rd.

I also enjoyed doing an expert interview with Marna Thall as part of her Rewire Your Brain to Think Thin summit. We discussed Ultra Mindset principles, and the interview will be played here on October 25.

Thanks for reading,


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Thursday, September 4, 2014

“The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.”

I just got back from my morning run on Grays Peak, a 14er close to home here in Evergreen, Colorado. I’m stinky and salty sweat is stinging my eyes, but the ideas are flowing, so it’s time to write.

I spent the last 10 minutes of my cruise down to the truck considering a simple question: What matters to me in life right now?

Here’s what I came up with:

1. Be the best father and husband I can be.

2. Help other people learn, reach their potential, and make the most of life.

3. Reach my own professional potential in racing, teaching, writing, coaching, and speaking.

There it is--nice and simple. Three goals, three ways I should be spending my time. But is it really that simple?

If you’re like me, it sometimes feels like a million things are pulling you every which way, almost to the point of hardly even knowing what you are actually doing at any given moment (which is probably because you are trying to do at least three things at once).

Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, which I listened to this summer via Audible while running in Europe, addresses the situation above. She uses the term, "time confetti," to describe a scattering of small bits of time allocated to various pursuits throughout the day. Schulte presents a variety of points relevant to my life--and maybe to yours as well. Two of her points come to mind as I think about what’s important to me.

The first: “The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.” And the second: We should only spend 5% of our time on things that do not fall within our foundational goals in life.

I really like what Schulte has to say here, and I’m going to spend some more time over the next few days thinking about whether the way I currently spend my days is really how I want to spend my life. I’ll also think about how I can plan ahead to spend less time on things that don’t fall within my focus areas--and maybe even loosen my expectations of myself in those areas to make time for boosting performance in the Big 3 I identified above.

If you’re interested, give it some thought yourself:

What matters to you in life right now?

How do you spend your days? Does the answer align with how you want to spend your life?

If not, what needs to change and how will you make that happen? Remember, you (not negative stories or external forces) are in charge of your life. My experience is that fear of risk and so-called "instability" is usually what holds people back from spending their lives in what they believe to be meaningful ways.

How much time do you spend on tasks unrelated to the things that really matter? How can you shrink this to less than 5% of your time?

As always, I’d love to know what you think.

August was a good month. I particularly enjoyed pacing Emma Roca in her epic win at the Leadville 100 run and conducting a corporate motivational training session for Oracle. I also had fun doing this podcast with Randy Ericksen of Adventure Race World. I just about have a complete manuscript of The Ultra Mindset to send to Da Capo Press, and that's exciting as well!

Thanks for reading,

PS- #1 in palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware's The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Is going big worth the effort? No doubt about it!

[Readers: If you like the following newsletter, please feel free to sign up for subsequent newsletters by email at  I'd be honored to share with you :-) ]

In business, sports, and life, what you get out is what you put in.

In most cases, making the most of and going big in work, play, family, athletics, and life in general requires putting a lot into it.  This summer's six-week Macy Family journey to Europe has been a very challenging--and even more rewarding--reminder of just that.  Amy and I left our home in Evergreen, Colorado on June 10th with our kids, Wyatt, 3, and Lila, 1. Going big requires putting in the effort. For us, that means a crazy scramble that allows us to see the world with our kids this summer.  The photos to the left tell some of the story about why working hard--in this case, fighting the common story, "traveling with little kids is too much work"--really is worth it.

The final weeks before our trip were incredibly stressful for Amy and I as we planned details for the trip, wrapped up loose ends, worked hard on Amy's transition to full-time private college counseling, trained for my races, and tried to make sure our kids had something to eat.

When we got to Spain, the first five nights leading up to my initial race involved "family fun" from midnight until 3:00 a.m. as the kids grappled with jet lag.  Our "fun day in London" ended up being a true adventure race involving transporting all of our stuff and both kids through the Metro system and a series of buses, including multiple stairway relay races in which Amy stood at the top with the kids and I completed intervals of sprinting up and down stairs to ferry each bags, hoping nothing was stolen at the bottom.  We've also struggled at times on the journey with making time for remote work and personal time a midst caring for young children in a structure-less and new environment.  I've spent long afternoons driving aimlessly with the kids asleep in their car seats because they won't nap in yet another new room and Amy needs some work time, and (more than once) I have ended up going the wrong way on a busy, one-way city street or nearly trapped in a narrow passageway that--as it turns out--wasn't actually made for vehicles.

Has it all been worth the time, stress, and general investment of energy?

Without a doubt.

Amy has been able to use a change of setting to reflect on her transition from part-time private college counselor and full-time Director of College and Transition Counseling at Denver Academy to full-time private college counselor. She has successfully worked through the summer using wifi and her laptop, but the shift in place and perspective here in Europe has allowed her to think intentionally about how to do her new work best and to mentally shift away from Denver Academy, a great community that was tough to leave. Like me, she has also enjoyed sharing new adventures around every corner--some profound like a random, 2000-year-old Roman amphitheater in a small Italian town we explored and some simple like yet another waterfall in the Alps in a rainstorm--with her kids and partner.

Wyatt has gotten to see and do many things unavailable in the US, and he's still incredibly stoked about every new castle we come upon (even though there seems to be one around every corner). Most importantly, in a world where too many young kids are constantly distracted by the latest electronic gadget or new toy, a full summer entirely bereft of those options has meant nearly endless time outside with sticks and rocks for Wyatt Jacoby. That's the way it should be, and sometimes making things the way they should be requires putting in the work and planning needed to completely remove yourself from your own little bubble (I'm glad I got out of mine this summer). 

Everyone learns to walk, but I don't know many people who can say they took their first steps high in the Alps in Val d'Isere, France. Lila can, and she's also the only one in the family who speaks as much French as English. 

I competed in three races in Europe, and though I suffered in each challenging mountain run (this newsletter could also be called, "Most good things in life are also really hard") I also enjoyed them immensely.  The Milla Vertical d'Areu in Spain was a steep climb that gained 5280 feet, or one vertical mile, over just 2.6 miles en route to a mountain top finish. I was happy to finish second. Two weeks later, I did another uphill race, the Skyrunning Vertical Kilometre World Championship(same concept, but gaining 1000 meters) in France, finishing seventh.  My ultra run for the trip came at theIce Trail Tarentaise, a 65k ramble over about 15,000 feet of vertical gain and plenty of snow, glaciers, and scree.  I finished sixth, sometimes feeling like (and even pretending to be) Wyatt at play as he runs around the mountains.

The racing has been fun, meaningful, and a chance to experience flow. More significantly, however, by overcoming one negative story--"traveling with little kids is too much work"--this summer, I have been given the chance to reckon with another that constantly stalks me at home: "a father's primary purpose is to make money."  Seeing the various ways people live and find happiness around the world is always grounding for me, and I have also been reminded that the best things I can give my family are my time and my example of how to live a meaningful life.  Don't get me wrong: I'll be happy to be back in nice, capitalistic Evergreen, Colorado (I always am), and making money is one of my goals.  But I will be cognizant of the subconscious pressure to keep up with the Joneses and thankful that my home (rather small by neighborhood standards) is large and plush by world standards.
Checking out of my frenzied homelife bubble has been illuminating, and I know I'll be a better person and professional when I get back.  I also can't wait to get on the road again soon.

I caught up with one of the best in the world at the "life juggle" while we were in Spain to get her thoughts on just that.  Emma Roca is an international endurance racing superstar, firefighter (one of just a few female mountain rescue firefighters in Catalonia), and mother of three.  This video share's Emma's take on how to balance making the most of family, work, and racing. I think she provides some excellent advice here; if anything resonates win you, let us know by leaving a comment.
Along with my co-writer, John Hanc, I'm writing a book called The Ultra Mindset: An Endurance Champion's 8 Core Principles for Success in Business, Sports, and Life.  Da Capo Press is publishing it, and it will come out in the spring.  To research the book--and, more importantly, to improve my own life--I've been doing a lot of reading.

I really liked Seth Godin's The Icarus Deceptionbecause it promotes shooting for the moon, emphasizing the idea that creative, innovative work is actually the new "safety zone."  I like that.  I also liked Carol Dweck's Mindset, which talks about using thegrowth mindset rather than the fixed mindset; this idea has been huge for me and my students at Jeffco Virtual this year.

Whether you do it in your head out on your next run, over coffee with someone you care about, in your journal at a nice spot in the mountains, or right now on your computer (I'd be honored to read your answers), take a few minutes to consider these questions:
What does going big mean to you?
In which three areas could you go big?  Are you doing so already?
Which negative stories, thought patterns, systems, and/or actions are holding you back?  How will you rewrite these stories and alter your actions?
Who will you call on for help?
What step will you take today?

Thanks for reading, and I'd love to hear about the ways you are putting in the work to go big with work, family, racing, and life--and to support you if I can.


Travis Macy
Speaker and consultant
Endurance athlete and coach
Author, The Ultra Mindset (Spring 2015, Da Capo Press, co-written with John Hanc)

PS--Here are 
three quick tips on mountain running in Europe.