The following is a transcript and related slides & material from a motivational talk I gave to participants of a 12 Week Challenge across the four gyms of Pinnacle Fitness, a few days before this year’s 24 Hour Championships…
Firstly I’d like to thank you all for having me here, and of course Ben and Emma [Stallworthy] and the team at Pinnacle for inviting me. I’m very excited to be in this room with a bunch of people who are tackling a possibly life-changing challenge.
It’s a challenge that covers a reasonably long period of time – 12 weeks – long enough to require significant tenacity to see it through. Lots of things can happen in three months. Lots of factors in your lives can suddenly go Code Brown and mess up your plans and all your good intentions. Lots of circumstances can change. Lots of perfectly valid excuses can be born.
It’s great to be here because this room is alive with possibilities. Each person undertaking the challenge will be bound to the same rules, but each will create their own very unique journey and take away an equally unique outcome from it.
Some of you might feel that others have a bit of an advantage? Is that fair to say? Have you ever looked at the person on the equipment next to you and just gone: “Yeah. He’s a unit. She’s a machine. Out of my league…B**ch!…B**ard!”
The sad truth of biology is that some people are born naturally more athletic than the rest of us. Their muscles seem to respond to exercise like an airbag to a collision. Pff! The rest of us have to work twice as hard to achieve what might seem like half as much…pumping up an inflatable boat that has a puncture in it somewhere.
BUT one of the reasons I’d like to talk to you tonight, and why I’m here instead of someone else (apart from Ben not being able to find anyone better), is to try to shift your perception of where your boundaries might be. Of what us ‘normal’ people can achieve just through persistence and training.
So, why me particularly? Why am I talking to you today? Who am I?
Well, I’m not a star of any sport, that’s for sure. In fact, I’d say I don’t have a sporting bone in my body. I haven’t completed some amazing feat that no one else has done. I’ve never won anything in my life. The best I’ve ever done in a race was third place, and THAT blew my mind. That was beyond any of my expectations.
In fact, the only reason I feel comfortable talking to you today about motivation is because I know a lot of people who say that I’m the one who inspired them to do x, y, or z, or to keep at it. They’re usually too polite to say why, but I know that it’s because they think: “Shit, if JOE can do it, anyone can!” Which is fine with me, because it’s true.
What I HAVE done sits far outside the realm of what I ever thought I was capable of. I would never have contemplated any of it three years ago.
What I DO do, is run some very hard, very long runs. That race where I came third? That was not one of the harder ones, or longer ones, but it was a 50km trail run in the Tarra Bulga National Park, which is quite hilly – I think the total climb was about 1700 metres – and underfoot: it’s sometimes just like you’re running on a carpet of fallen trees…because you’re running on a carpet of fallen trees!
I’ll give you a bit of a feel with this video. When I’m doing runs through amazing places I wear a GoPro on my head – they sometimes call me GoPro Joe – and when I see bits that look particularly beautiful, or I see other runners I want to capture, I hit record and hope that I capture some of what’s going on.
This is footage from the Prom100, which takes in pretty much each of the major, multi-day hikes on Wilson’s Prom. As the name suggests, it’s 100kms long. There’s a lot of rough terrain, a lot of sandy beaches, over 3000 metres of vertical ascent and there are no aid stations, no water stations, so you’re carrying a lot of supplies and emergency gear – the only chance to get help, food or reliably safe water is at the Start Line, which you do pass back through when you’re 80kms in. Some people took over 20 hours to finish. The winner finished under 11 hours. I was just recovering from a 100 mile run a few weeks before, so was very happy to finish under 15 hours.
Hopefully this will give you a bit of a feel for how much fun these ultramarathons are:
You’ll hear a little more about ultramarathons shortly. Firstly, I want to give you a feel for my background. I never really did any sport as a child, beyond the minimum participation I could get away with at school, a lot of which I avoided. I read a lot of books. Enjoyed watching Doctor Who, The Young Ones…eating crisps.
I think if I’d had any innate sporting ability I would have got more involved at school etc, but I really didn’t, and I certainly wasn’t motivated to improve. I moved to Australia when I was 13, which is the first time I at least got interested in sport – who couldn’t love AFL, right?!
Just while we’re on that, the very day I first set foot in Australia, I got off the plane and into a taxi with my older brother (my parents were in another car), the cab took us through the streets of this big city, middle of the afternoon, with all these tall buildings and NO ONE was around. It was like a zombie film. The date was September 30, 1989. Does that date mean anything to anyone?…Do you think I might be a Hawks fan? We watched the highlights on TV that night and I was blown away by this crazy code of football.
Anyway, by that age I already had the self-awareness to know that there was going to be a big gap between me and even someone who was pretty bad at footy. I would have LOVED to have been pretty bad at footy. But I was far too scared to contemplate starting a journey from nowhere. Oh the humiliation!
Fear is something most kids don’t have a good handle on. They either blessedly just don’t have it – and those kids get a lot more out of their childhood (and probably a lot more trips to the emergency department), OR they let it limit them from a huge raft of opportunities they don’t even realise exist. Kind of like adults.
Sooo, by the time I was 15 I was spending most of my time writing songs with my band. I was smoking nearly a pack a day. Drinking most weekends (back then they used to let you into a pub if you were over six foot tall and your voice had broken). And that pretty much sets the scene for the rest of my teens. Moved out of home when I was 17. By the time I was 20 I was smoking bongs pretty much every day. Watching Star Trek videos. Strict diet of deep-pan pizza. Basically, I was a champion.
I can safely say, without exaggeration, that I would never have run as far as 1km before the age of 30. I’m afraid I don’t have a story of some amazing epiphany that happened, changing my behaviour overnight. The reality is more…REAL. As with most improvements in the real world, it was incremental.
I think my mindset started to change as a result of the woman who is now my wife and mother of my three children. It was partly thanks to her that I quit smoking. Unfortunately, my substitute for cigarettes and bongs was the glorious Three B’s: bacon, burgers and beer. I topped out at 108kgs.
By this time I was living with Rachel, and she started going to the gym regularly, which was something I found quite baffling. Then she signed up for a fun run. Just a 5km run around Albert Park Lake. She wasn’t sure she could do it – she’d always had trouble with her knee and hadn’t been training very long.
I went down there to cheer her on, and I remember watching her coming round the last corner and suddenly being filled with pride. Mainly just because she was out there, doing it. On her own in a swarm of other people, facing down her own little challenge. It sounds funny, but I felt my eyes moisten up when I saw her crossing the line.
I didn’t exactly go out and run the next day. But a little seed must have been planted in my head. Over time I bought a bike and started riding to work most days. Then the other guys who rode to work convinced me to do the 210km Around the Bay bike ride with them, even though at the time I signed up I’d never ridden more than 20kms.
I did that ride six times all up, the first four years I was doing it on this heavy mountain bike and the rest of the team all had road bikes. So I was digging pretty deep just to keep up!
I’ll fast forward a bit. Four years ago I started to do a bit of running. I think I must have finally got old enough that I no longer cared about what people on the street might think of me – becoming a father, when all you care about is surviving through the day because you haven’t slept; getting out and about in vomit-stained clothes – you kind of start to care less what you look like.
I would never have had the guts to try running before that: I’m knock kneed, one of my legs is bent funny, in fact my whole body is a bit monged, and I always knew I looked like a spaz when I ran.
All of that was still true, I just stopped caring if someone hollered at me or gave me funny looks…which they did, and still do.
I guess I had got my running distance up to 7 or 8kms when I signed up for Run for the Kids. In training for that I ran 10kms for the first time, and that was a moment I will always remember! I never thought I would run 10kms!
The actual Run for the Kids didn’t go very well for me. I had some issues. But I dragged myself across the line at about 1h20m. All the other dudes I knew who did it were all a long way ahead of me. It was kind of embarrassing.
It was not a great experience, but finishing still felt pretty good and I resolved to sign up for a half-marathon, to prove to myself I could do better. So I ran the Sandy Point Half a few months later.
That also didn’t go very well. I had some issues. I recovered enough to finish under two hours, but it was not a great experience and afterwards I had to stop running due to problems with my adductor.
Shortly after that I was in the middle of a very busy time at work. A big project that had to be done in a short time. Really important. Someone else had stuffed it up and I’d pulled a team together to get there at all costs. We were working late most nights and there was a lot of pressure.
I must have been talking about my frustration with the groin situation and not being able to run and this contractor who was working for me – ‘Dibbsy’ – he lent me a book.
Any long distance runner will have heard of this book, and probably read it. Born To Run. You might have heard of it, too. It’s well worth a read, even if you’re not into running. Just a great story about some pretty kooky people.
But for me, it was the first time I’d heard about folks doing these super-long runs in the bush, usually on tough, uneven mountain trails, for days and nights at a time…getting injured in the middle of nowhere; constantly throwing up; getting attacked by wild animals. I was sold.
Another guy working for me – ‘Benji’ – said that HE was doing a bit of trail running on the weekends and I should come along. And without my injury really having got any better, I just started doing it. My groin didn’t seem to have any issues on the trails. And then I soon found it stopped bothering me when I was running on the roads, too.
So we’d be working 60-70 hour weeks – plus, of an evening, if I wasn’t working at home or dealing with the kids I was either attending lectures for my MBA or working on assignments for it. So then on a Sunday morning I’d be setting the alarm for 4.30am or 5am in order to be home by 9am after running in the Dandenongs. Those brisk mornings in the hills were probably what kept me going, though.
Within a few months I did my first trail race, which was 22kms and over 1000 metres vertical ascent. It’s called the Rollercoaster Run. Then I did my first marathon a couple of months later, the Great Ocean Road.
The marathon wasn’t easy, I had some issues, but I finished under four hours and was over the moon about it. I did a 30km trail run a month later at Mt Macedon, and then a couple of months after that I did my first ultramarathon, a 50km trail run at the You Yangs.
That was 2012. This Saturday – in a couple of days – I’ll be running my 20th ultramarathon, which is the national 24 Hour Championships. Basically, you run for 24 hours and whoever runs the furthest wins. I’m not hoping to win, but if I hit my target of 200kms I’ll be joining a relatively small club of people who’ve done so.
Last year at the same event, 200kms was the top end of my target range, but I knew I’d be happy with anything over 100 miles….it didn’t go very well for me. I had some issues. I couldn’t train much due to doing my back a couple of months earlier. In the race my back held up okay but a couple of different problems hit me quite early on, and after about 100kms I could only walk.
I did the maths and worked out that if I pretty much took no breaks, I might be able to hit the lower end of my target just by walking. So I changed shoes and walked as fast as I could for the next twelve hours, pretty much without stopping, all through the night, which was cold and wet from the dew, and into the morning. About ten minutes before the end, I completed my 402nd lap. I had hit my lowball target. I’d covered 100 miles (161kms).
It wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, but I was happy to finish! And it was actually a good enough result to qualify me in the first half of the field this year, so on Saturday I get to run in the fast lane…which could end up being embarrassing…if I have some issues.
So, through the course of all the training I’ve done and all the races I’ve done, good and bad, I’ve had to constantly face into a lot of difficulties, a lot of challenging situations and find various ways to keep going.
Tonight, I want to try and share some of this with you, hopefully even some tips and tools to help you in your own endeavours. There are a couple of themes I want to talk about. I’ve got little slides on them, so hopefully the Powerpoint is still working…
A lot of our fear we’re not really conscious of, because we automatically filter out a lot of the things we might otherwise consider doing, telling ourselves we’re not interested in doing them, or they’re not practical, or it’s irresponsible because we have people relying on us etc. Now, some of that is quite valid: there is not much wisdom in taking a whole lot of unmitigated risks.
But, without taking it ridiculously far and constantly doing extreme things with no thought for others, I do think there is much more wisdom in the phrase: Sleep When I’m Dead, than it might seem. I will back it up with another tired saying, but the fact is that you really COULD get ‘hit by a bus’ next week.
Now, in retrospect, would the ghost of you want to look back and think: “Geez, I’m glad I made that decision last Tuesday to roll over, get an extra hour’s sleep and shuffle my way through another day’s work!” versus “At least while I still had a body I rolled out of bed last Tuesday, froze my tits off all the way to the training session, busted my bits for an hour in the dark, and walked away feeling ALIVE!”
I gave you that everyday kind of example, because when you’re digging your heels in, when you’re taking incremental steps to improve yourself and hence your enjoyment of life, you’re constantly making these decisions and they’re equally as important – every Tuesday – as, say, making a decision to sign up for an Ironman.
Even each little work out, these week-in, week-out activities ARE the difference between doing nothing and doing something that’s actually quite big, if you have the right perspective on it. What you’re going to be doing for the next 12 weeks is a big thing.
And you don’t have to be good at stuff to get the satisfaction from them. The reward comes from each tiny improvement from last time, or even just from backing up the same session twice in a week when your muscles are smashed!
You’ll have heard it before, but I really believe it and I apply it as a test to how I’m using my time: statistically, you’re millions of times more likely to be killed crossing the road than undertaking almost any other activity. The only safe thing is to stay at home and do nothing.
You could try and run a marathon when you’re 30kgs overweight, diabetic, haven’t trained and have only just put out a cigarette before the start gun, and your chances of survival over the next 4 to 6 hours are probably higher than they would be on another day…because you’re out on a road that’s closed to traffic.
True, you’d have a pretty high chance of failure, of course, but more importantly, you’d have an enormous chance of succeeding versus what your chances would have been if you hadn’t entered the race.
Imagine the rewards if this hypothetical person DID finish the marathon? Imagine the feeling. Actually, things like this happen all the time. I’ve met people like this (although probably not quite so exaggerated). These are the people that inspire me. They don’t let fear constrain their possibilities.
Fear. Last year my big goal for the year was to run the GNW 100 miles. It’s a trail run that’s actually longer than 100 miles – 174km – along the Great North Walk in New South Wales. It has a total combined ascent that’s pretty close to summiting Everest. I think it’s around 7,000 metres of ‘vert’.
It’s extremely bloody hard.
My training was going well until my knee stuffed up. I couldn’t really run on it. I had a lot of treatment with osteos and physios, rested a lot, tried to build up etc, but it was basically no good. I tried a 70km run six weeks before the race and came out of that barely able to walk.
The only thing to do was to try and rest it as much as possible, because nothing else was working. Six days before the race I tried a slow, 5km run around Docklands, pretty much my first run in a month, and my knee blew up after 3kms, forcing me to walk back to the office.
I could have pulled out, of course, but I had paid my money, I had a Sydney holiday planned around it with the wife and kids, and seeing as I was going up there anyway, I absolutely felt I should try my luck. I would tape up my knee to the bejesus and see how I went.
After all, the cut-off was 36 hours. If I could run bits and walk solidly, I might be able to come dead last, which would, after all, be awesome. Key thing being that I’d get to see the amazing trails along the way.
But it’s fair to say that as it got close I was scared. Almost mortally scared. Doing these long races you’re carrying a lot of gear. Lots of stuff can go wrong. It often gets hot and humid. You can run out of water because the aid stations are sometimes 5 or 6 hours apart. You’re going to be running (or walking) through dense forest all through the night, where it’s often hard to know where the trail is and very easy to get lost. I had no support crew to pick me up if it went wrong.
So I found myself once again in my ongoing battle with fear. When I was running it over and over in my head, these words came back to me from my youth. I want to share them with you in the hope you find them useful at some point.
You hopefully won’t experience mortal fear in the course of this challenge – Ben and his team are not going to kill you…too much – but even those little self-doubts that, combined with a runny nose or a bad night’s sleep or a cold morning, can keep you in your bed when you should be at a group fitness class or something: although you might not acknowledge it, underlying all that is often some level of fear.
So, this isn’t from the bible or anything. It’s not from Tsun Zhu’s Art of War. Or some Russian philosopher. It’s from a sci-fi epic called Dune. I loved both the book and the movie when I was younger. The movie is awesome fun, it’s directed by David Lynch and it’s got Sting in it as one of the baddies. You can’t go wrong!
Anyway, there are these sort of mystic, warrior-wizard types in the book, called the Bene Gesserits, and the main character (played by Kyle McLachlan from Twin Peaks, no less) turns out to be their chosen one or something. He has to take on the evil forces and pretty much save the day. In his training, he is taught this Litany of Fear, which crops up a couple of times in the movie:
Deep, huh? And I read a lot in that. “Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” “I”: The core of yourself. That little nugget of human spirit that’s inside everyone. It’s powerful, and it’s largely untapped. THAT’s what will remain when you’ve permitted your fear to pass over you and through you.
Needless to say, that race didn’t go very well for me. I had some issues. My knee blew up after about 65kms. At that point I was making reasonable time, so I grabbed a couple of long sticks out of the woods to keep the weight off my knee with a view to try and walk for the next 27 hours and make it to the finish within cutoff.
Unfortunately, the sticks tore my hands apart and I ended-up stopping at the 100km finish line. They let you record an official finish if you’re still within cut-off for the 100km race, and in fact I didn’t even come last in that race, so it wasn’t a complete disaster. At 3am I was helping them pack up the marquees and everything at the finish line and loading all the gear into a truck.
…which is a good segue-way into:
This flows on well from the topic of Fear because the big fear that I really can’t stand –the one that drives me absolutely bonkers – is the fear of failure. I know people whose fear of failure is SO bad, that when they hear about the next challenge I’m tackling, especially if I’m going in with some issues and not sure I’m going to make it, they actually get really uncomfortable.
It’s like they’re sort of pre-emptively embarrassed on my behalf. “But you can’t do that!” they’ll say. “You’re not going to make it.” And they kind of get all squirmy and look around the room like they need to disassociate themselves from me.
But something we’ve all heard before from people who’ve achieved anything, is that their failures are what got them there. “I am defined by my failures”, said someone impressive.
Now, most people do accept that as being true – for OTHER people, for those IMPRESSIVE people. It’s okay for THEM to have failed a lot, because look at them now – but for ourselves, in day-to-day life, failure is still totally taboo.
At the start of this presentation I gave myself the title ‘Try-Hard Ultra Runner’. That term – try-hard – is a bit negative. Right? It’s used as an insult. I first heard it when I came to Australia, and my 13 year old self got it straight away:
“Ye-ah, try-hards! What a bunch of losers – desperately trying to be something they’re not.”
It’s crazy, isn’t it? The implication is that if you weren’t born with a natural ability that allows you to succeed WITHOUT really trying, then you shouldn’t bother. “Don’t make a dickhead of yourself”. Well, I say: Make a dickhead of yourself (I have it on good authority that this is at least one thing I HAVE been very successful at!)
As you’ve probably gathered I’ve certainly had my fair share of failures, but I never regretted showing up at the start line. Sometimes I DO feel embarrassed telling people about my failures – especially if I’m talking to actual GOOD ultra-runners – but each failure has taught me something, each one has made me stronger, and each one was a few hours – or in the case of that one in NSW, over 20 hours – of my life where I could have been sitting around watching tellie instead.
HAD I been hit by a bus the next week, ghost me would be looking back thinking: “Well, at least you spent most of the weekend out in the NSW bush, covering over 100kms on foot. Seeing some awesome scenery. Meeting some kooky people.”
So, get out there and fail, because you’ve got nothing to lose. And because ultimately, if you do stay motivated and do keep trying again and again, you’re going to succeed way beyond what you were originally aiming to do.
Here’s another vid from a race I ran in Tazzy in Feb. It’s the Cradle Mountain Run, which is the entire length of the Overland Track – 82kms – normally done on foot over five-to-seven days. I’m mainly showing it to you because it’s beautiful, but also listen to the lyrics in the song…
You won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve had to dig pretty deep to keep going, many times. Not just in the course of a 100km mountain run, when I’ve hit the wall for the second time and I’m not sure where I am or where to find clean water, but sometimes just to get up and do a 10km training run, when my legs are smashed from training, I feel like I’m coming down with something, one of the kids has kept me up all night and there’s shit going down at work.
The temptation to have a few beers, eat a dirty pizza, and sleep in a bit the next morning is often there. And it’s not like I don’t do things like that. You need to be able to enjoy EVERY aspect of life, and if you take any one thing too seriously, the lack of balance is going to stuff you up more than the occasional blow out at the pub ever could.
So, when I talk about using visualisation and other mental tricks to keep going, I don’t mean just to get through a big race or challenge or something, I use them over time, and day-to-day to stay on track.
Glowing Coins of Goodness
I learned this from an old, Chinese hypnotherapist…this story is starting off far more intriguing than it actually is: in fact, it was when I was trying to quit smoking and I was referred by my GP to this guy who was covered by Medicare at these shabby rooms on Warrigal Rd, Oakleigh. Not quite Mr Miyagi, after all.
He said to me that he wasn’t going to hypnotise me as such – I would be awake and everything – but he was going to put me in a suggestible state and suggest to me some visualisations that I could use to help me beat cigarettes.
“Every time you feel the need to have a cigarette, I want you to imagine something shiny and valuable. Maybe a gold coin, perhaps representing the money you save with each cigarette you don’t smoke. Now, instead of taking that first puff of smoke into your lungs, you’re going to picture this coin sinking down into your body – take a deep breath in as you do it – it’s sinking slowly down into you and it’s going to sit there, in your liver, like a warm, glowing ember of goodness.”
Basically, what I took away from it was that every cigarette I didn’t smoke, wasn’t a nothing, it was a something, and the more I turned that into something almost tangible, the more I felt like I was getting somewhere and the better I felt.
I use it in lots of situations. If I’m out on a long run and I’m struggling to keep going, I explore all the various points where I could give up and I embrace them, and then each of those little milestones, when it passes, turns into a little shiny coin of goodness. CHING!
Why am I doing this?
I can’t really explain the connection between doing what I do and how that benefits my family, but in some way I feel that it does – that it’s making me a more capable person, and trying to inspire them and show them not to be constrained by their fears.
So many times, in the middle of a long training run or a race, or when I’ve thought about dropping the ball in general, bringing any one of them to mind always makes me feel stronger, because it’s easy to give up on your own behalf, but if you’re thinking of someone you care for it’s another matter.
I think of one of my kids and the happiness I want for them, or my wife and making her proud, and there’s this strong emotion that brings with it adrenaline and drive. It must be connected to our primal instinct to protect our families.
At least I’m not…
This is one of the most useful mental tricks in the toolbox. I use a number of different scenarios here: at least I’m not stuck in a meeting with that guy at work, the one who’s short, always right, and American – the trifecta! Apologies to any Americans here tonight. At least I’m not sitting outside the theatre while they operate on my daughter (that one happened recently).
And of course, you focus on whatever isn’t bothering you. If you’re hot and you’ve got enough water with you, at least you’ve got enough water. If there’s a blister hurting your toe, at least your knee’s holding out. You get the drift.
When I’m really digging deep I have quite specific scenarios I work through in my head. A favourite, for some reason, is the Thai-Burma Railway. I must have read a book at some point where allied POWs are building the railway, out in the jungle in the heat and humidity, not enough calories, forced marches over days and days.
This is a really good one during an ultramarathon, but also when you’re really struggling in an intensity session and think you can’t continue. And the key message to yourself is: I’m putting myself through this, but I chose it and hence I can stop it at any time. At some point, I know it is going to end and I am going to have enough food and drink and – luxuries, in fact – to recover and be pretty much in a state of bliss. So, for now, I’ll keep going, partly because it’s my choice and also to honour those who have born worse and didn’t have a choice.
Even Broader Perspective
So, the Thai-Burma Railway, or whatever scenario you’re using, puts things into perspective doesn’t it? But you can’t really FEEL something like that unless you’re in the middle of enduring something quite difficult – you can’t conjure that up when you’re sitting in your lounge-room contemplating whether or not to hit the bay for a pre-dawn open water swim in winter.
Day to day, I find I have to keep resetting my thoughts, because small things creep forward in your conscious and start turning into big things. Everything gets out of whack. I have to keep stoking that burning ember of drive inside me, and keep quelling those little spotfires of fear. And that requires an even broader perspective.
That is when I zoom out from myself; out from my family; my networks; my job; my next race; Australia; the entire rich first world, where we pretty much have no problems worth mentioning; I zoom out over the vast billions around us who are struggling to stay alive, avoiding various evils they have no protection from; I zoom out further from the untouched wildernesses, the thousands of species of animals going about their amazing business, unobserved by anyone, eventually becoming extinct; and I zoom out the timeline, like you can do on a computer, and the 80, 90, 100 years I might get on this planet are a foot wide, then they’re 10 centimetres, then they’re an inch, a centimetre, and eventually, from deep in the universe and a billion years away, they’re invisible.
Then I turn off the TV and go to bed. And when the alarm goes off at 4.30am, I run.