While it’s easy to convince ourselves that only super humans can climb the Seven Summits and complete Badwater Quads (584 miles back and forth from Badwater Basin to the summit of Mount Whitney), the endurance athletes we met at the 2nd annual National Endurance Sports Summit (NESS), hosted by Team U at Princeton University, reminded us that when one has the will, there’s most often a way. The common thread amongst the endurance legends at NESS – aside from their good cheer and down-to-earth demeanors – was their passion, perseverance, commitment, and grit. To say that the weekend of inspirational presentations, star-studded panels, and expert-led clinics was the best $75 that I’ve spent all year, is putting it lightly.
Saturday kicked off with a training run led by none other than speedgoat Karl Meltzer, who holds the record for the most career wins in 100-mile races. After a panel discussion on nutrition, the fearless Marshall Ulrich, whose running career commenced in 1979 to survive the loss of his first wife to cancer and to ward off high blood pressure, took the spotlight. Marshall’s accomplishments abound: he completed the Seven Summits on his first attempts, completed a Transcontinental Run Across America (3,063 miles) in 52 days, and was the first to circumnavigate the 425 mile trek around Death Valley National Park – at 61 years old. Ulrich’s message was loud and clear: we are capable of so much more than we think we are, and the human spirit, when challenged, will soar.
Next up was the animated and passionate Dr. David Horton, who has run some 113,000 miles in his time. Dr. Horton stressed the importance of finding people who believe in you as well as believing in others. He instructed that we ask ourselves two questions at a starting line: Am I willing to suffer? Am I willing to pay the price? Amidst the pearls of wisdom he shared, my favorite was, “It never always gets worse.” Next time I’m struggling 80 miles into a 100 mile race, I’ll be sure to remind myself that the next mile may not be as miserable as the last one.
Dr. Rob Gilbert, one of the leading experts on Sports Psychology, asked a panel of ultra legends to reflect on the bend in the road which didn’t end up being the end of their road. We got to ease drop as each of the panel members discussed the various highs and lows that are part of ultra-sports – as well as part of life – and how they have persevered not only in spite of the lows, but because of them. Ann Trason likened each 100 mile race to a “lifetime and a day.” She shared the story of her dog, coach Wasatch, who has taught her to stop and smell the flowers on a run. Most importantly, she reminded us that running is a gift, not a chore. Karl Meltzer , who ended up an ultra-runner as a result of taking risks and making choices, reflected, “Winning never gets old, but we get old and stop winning.” Travis Macy and Lisa Smith-Batchen shared how their endurance path has enabled them to be positive role models for their children. Dr. Simon Donato, geologist, entrepreneur, and host of Boundless, an adventure sports television show, shared a bit about the perils of his most recent swim and run adventure in Scandinavia. There was no one-size-fits-all for each of the athlete’s motivations or endeavors, but a commonality amongst them was their commitment to give back – whether that involved coaching, mentoring, running for causes and charities, or simply cheering on others at races. All of the athletes stressed that their adventures were about the journey first and foremost – not the destination.
Holding the conference at Princeton University had its perks. Aside from the magnificent campus, we had the privilege to sit in room 302 at Frist Campus Center, where Albert Einstein lectured. It was in that locale that we met Christopher McDougall – the author of bestselling Born to Run and the recent Natural Born Heroes, which explores the feats of strength and extraordinary endurance of the Resistance fighters in World War II. McDougall introduced us to the concept of elastic motion and Parkour, which is all about natural movement through urban environments.
The panel on injury prevention led to discussions on the importance of cross training. Yoga, strength training, and cycling were some options explored. Shane Eversfield, triathlete and head coach of Zendurance Cycling, stressed the importance of being in tune with one’s body. Jason Fitzgerald, head coach at Strength Running, discussed the virtues of patience – in regard to both training and to recovering from injuries, which rang true to Ann Trason, who believes in the P’s of ultra-running: patience, persistence, passion, practice. Terra Castro, a professional triathlete who is giving ultra-running a try and training for her 50 mile debut at JFK this November, talked about the emotional and physical burnout from training 40-hours a week as a professional triathlete.
On Sunday, professional trainer and endurance cyclist Vinnie Tortorich, the host of the Angriest Trainer podcast series and advocate of No Sugar No Grains (NSNG) approach to nutrition, shared his story of comeback with us, so that we collectively reflected on how we define failure and how we define success. Vinnie’s mentor Joe Dean, LSU basketball player and later the athletic director at LSU, introduced him to the Failure Quotient (FQ), which is the number of times that you can fail and come back. For those of us pursuing endurance sports, FQ was a vital lesson.
The nonprofit panel explored turning one’s passion into a purpose. Nikolas Toocheck, a young philanthropist who is in the midst of running a marathon in each of the 50 US states for the Seva Foundation, learned at 9-years old that “you don’t have to be big to make a difference.” 22-year old Cason Crane, a Princeton University student, seemed to have mastered that same lesson: he has already climbed the Seven Summits and created the Rainbow Summits Project, an initiative that raised funds and awareness for a suicide and crisis prevention service for LGBTQ youth. Theresa Roden, Founder and Executive Director of I-Tri leads at-risk adolescent girls to finish youth distance triathlons as a way of increasing their self-esteem and fitness levels. Clearly, sports are a great vehicle to raise awareness as well as funds, and to inspire others.
The accomplished Lisa Smith-Batchen, who has won the Marathon des Sables, completed a Badwater Quad, and run 50 miles a day in 50 states over 62 days, amongst other feats, reiterated that running long distance is a great tool to help others. Lisa’s runs are not only about enriching her own life, but about enriching the lives of others. She emphasized that putting purpose behind our passion and helping others via our endeavors enables us to get rich at heart. Her instructions to “be awesome today,” was perhaps a reminder that anything is possible if you are willing to commit.
NESS proved to be a weekend of camaraderie, engaging discussions, and concepts and ideas to ponder. What resonated from each of the speakers was that endurance sports are not about fame and glory. They are about something deeper, something of the spiritual; a connection with nature, with the universe, and perhaps most importantly, with our selves.
The National Endurance Sports Summit (NESS), hosted by Team U, is about elevating endurance. Team U is the only intercollegiate fundraising endurance team, dedicated to improving global health and alleviating poverty. They use sports as a vehicle to empower both athletes and non-athletes alike to make positive changes in their own lifestyles, campus communities, and around the world.