What could almost destroy the body and mind of the only person to complete Navy SEAL training (including two Hell Weeks), Air Force tactical air controller training, and U.S. Army Ranger School? David Goggins is tough, but in an effort to raise money for the Lone Survivor Foundation, he took on a challenge that tested him more than any of his military experiences: the Badwater 135. This is an ultra-marathon event that requires participants to run 135 miles in 24 hours in the peak heat of Death Valley. Goggins wasn’t a runner at the time; he was a bulky power lifter, and he only had four days to prepare for the qualifying race. He needed to run 100 miles in under 24 hours. So how did he do? Here, he tells the story and in doing so shares a lesson on human potential, mental toughness, and why you won’t grow as a person if you always choose the path of least resistance. You can follow David on Twitter and Instagram @davidgoggins and Facebook.
David Goggins: I’m a big believer in doing things that make you uncomfortable. So, we live in a world where we want to be as comfortable as we can. And we wonder why we have no growth. We wonder why—when the smallest thing in our life gets difficult—we wonder why we cower and we run away.
I mean, our whole life is set up that way. Our whole life is set up in the path of least resistance. We don’t want to suffer. We don’t want to feel discomfort. So the whole time we’re living our lives in a very comfortable area. There’s no growth in that. So for me I realized that. The reason I became 297 pounds is because that was comfortable. What was very uncomfortable was running. What was very uncomfortable was being on a diet. What was very uncomfortable was trying to face things that I didn’t want to face. And I also realized when I was really big: I had no growth. Why? Because I was living comfortable. So I realized for me to find growth I had to face all these different things that made me very, very uncomfortable.
One thing I faced was running. I absolutely hated running. But I knew for me to grow I had to do this thing every single day. I wanted to start callus-ing my mind. I wanted to start becoming a better person. And how do you become a better person? How do you gain mental toughness? How do you become the person you want to be? It’s by constantly facing the things that you don’t want to face. If you constantly run away from things that you don’t want to face, how is there growth? How is there mental toughness? I can give you a class all day long about self-talk, visualization, “eat an elephant one bite at a time”, but if you’re never putting yourself in a situation to actually practice these things you’re never going to grow.
We’re all going through a battle in our mind. A warrior is not a person that carries a gun. The biggest war you ever go through is right between your own ears. It’s in your mind. We’re all going through a war in our mind and we have to callus our mind to fight that war and to win that war. So one example I can give you about callus-ing your mind, about doing things that make you uncomfortable. There’s a book out there called 'Lone Survivor' and there’s a guy named Marcus Luttrell. He was on an operation where a bunch of guys died, and I knew all the guys that died. And I know Marcus Luttrell very well. This story touched my heart. And I basically went out there and found a foundation to raise money for it. It’s called the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. You give 100 percent tuition for—let’s say your dad died in the war. He was a special operator. If that guy had a kid, you get 100 percent tuition to go to college. A great foundation, great people working at the foundation. “I’m going to do this.” So I Googled the ten hardest races in the world. And at this time of my life I was not a runner. I maybe ran ten miles the whole year. I was into bodybuilding, I was into weight training, and that’s what I did.
So I Googled the ten hardest races in the world and what came up number one was this race called the Badwater 135. It’s a 135-mile race through Death Valley in the summertime. So I wanted to get in this race. I thought it was actually a stage race—I thought it was a race where you ran like 20 miles, set up a camp, and then ran 20 miles the next day. I didn’t know people ran 100 miles, 135 miles at one time. I didn’t know it was even possible. I had never even run a marathon.
So I called the race director up, his name was Chris Kostman, and I called him up on a Wednesday. And this is in November. He said, “David, to qualify for my race you have to do 100 miles.” And I said, “100 miles in a calendar year?” I didn’t know what was going on. He said, “No, 100 miles in 24 hours or less.” And I thought that was humanly impossible. He said, “So you’ve got to do that in 24 hours or less for me to consider you in my race.” He goes, “There’s a race on Saturday.” And I called him up on Wednesday. That was four days for me to get ready for this race. And I ran ten miles the whole year.
And so he said, “If you qualify, if you do 100 miles in 24 hours or less, I might consider you in my race.” So four days later I’m out there in San Diego and the race was called the San Diego One Day, where you run around a one-mile track for 24 hours to see how many miles you can get. And so I go out there, I didn’t know what I was doing: I had my Myoplex and Ritz crackers. And I had a blue lawn chair. That’s all I had. And I was going to see my crew person every single mile. And I was going to drink Myoplex and have a Ritz cracker. I had no water. I had nothing.
Went out there, got to mile 20, wasn’t feeling too bad. Around mile 30 I started feeling my shins starting to get extremely sore and I started to develop stress fractures, shin splints. I started feeling the metatarsals in my feet starting to break at around mile 50. By mile 70 I was totally destroyed. And I sat down in the blue lawn chair and I was destroyed. And when a bigger person sits down—I don’t know exactly how much I weighed but I was extremely big, I was a power lifter, I lifted a lot of weights and I was not an endurance athlete by any means. So I sat down on this blue lawn chair, looked at my crew person, and I literally couldn’t stand up. I was destroyed. And I couldn’t go to the bathroom. Well I couldn’t stand up to go to the bathroom. So I sat there and I went to the bathroom on myself. I was destroyed. And I was discolored. I was pale. I was dizzy, lightheaded. I was in the worst shape of my entire life.
I had been in three Hell Weeks, Ranger School, all these different training programs, and this was the worst situation I’ve been in in my entire life. I thought I was literally dying. And all I could think about was, “How can I get out of this chair. I have 30 miles to go.” And after everything I had gone through, I realized that the human mind, if you can put it in a very quiet, calm place and get it to calm down and not be so spastic, that you could possibly make this work out for you. “How bad are you really?” So I calmed myself down and I had to make this enormous thing small.
I had 30 more miles to run and my body was in the worst shape in my entire life. The worst pain I ever felt in my life. So I broke this 30 miles thing down. I broke it down to small chunks. I calmed my mind down. I had to get water, had to get potassium, had to get sodium. I had to stop being so dizzy, because I had to be able to stand up. So my dizziness went away after about an hour. I was able to stand up now. And I was going around this track at, like, a 30-something-minute mile.
And I’ll never forget my crew person saying, “Hey.” I got to mile 81. They said, “You’re not going to make the time.” I had 24 hours and I was going so slow, taking so much time. This is when I realized that the human mind, once everything gets connected, once the mind knows you’re not going to quit something, it’s going to try to find more. It’s going to try to give you more. Once it realizes you’re not going to take the path of least resistance—you’re going to stay here until it’s done—my mind and my body and my spirit became one for the first time ever. For the first time ever it became one. And I went to a level that I never thought was humanly possible for myself or anybody else.
And in that shape that I was in, I was able to run 19 miles. And I ran 19 miles and did 100 miles—I actually did one more mile—I did 101 miles in 18 hours and 56 minutes.
I’d overcome so many obstacles in my life, and this was the final crucible for me. And I got through it, and at the end of this race was such clarity to me. And it was just the most amazing thing I ever did in my life. And it was just the most amazing thing I ever did in my life.