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CHAPTER TEN - THE EMPOWERMENT OF FAILURE

On September 27, 2012, I stood in a makeshift gym on the second floor of 30 Rockefeller Center prepared to break the world record for pull-ups in a twenty-four-hour period. That was the plan, anyway. Savannah Guthrie was there, along with an official from the Guinness Book of World Records and Matt Lauer (yeah, that fu@king guy). Again, I was gunning to raise money—a lot of money this time—for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, but I also wanted that record. To get it I had to perform under The Today Show spotlight.

The number in my head was 4,020 pull-ups. Sounds superhuman, right? Did to me too, until I dissected it and realized if I could knock out six pull-ups on the minute, every minute, for twenty-four hours, I’d shatter it. That’s roughly ten seconds of effort, and fifty seconds of rest, each minute. It wouldn’t be easy, but I considered it doable given the work I’d put in. Over the past five to six months, I’d rocked over 40,000 pull-ups and was stoked to be on the precipice of another huge challenge. After all the ups and downs since my second heart surgery, I needed this.

The good news was the surgery worked. For the first time in my life I had a fully functioning heart muscle, and I wasn’t in a rush to run or ride. I was patient with my recovery. The Navy wouldn’t clear me to operate anyway, and in order to stay in the SEALs I had to accept a non-deployable, non-combat job. Admiral Winters kept me in recruiting for two more years, and I remained on the road, shared my story with willing ears, and worked to win hearts and minds. But all I really wanted to do was what I was trained to do, and that’s fight! I tried to salve that wound with trips to the gun range, but shooting targets only made me feel worse.

In 2011, after recruiting for four-plus years and spending two and a half years on the disabled list due to my heart issues, I was finally medically cleared to operate again. Admiral Winters offered to send me anywhere I wanted to go. He knew my sacrifices and my dreams, and I told him I had unfinished business with Delta. He signed my papers, and after a five-year wait, my someday had arrived.

Awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for my work in recruiting

Chosen as Sailor of the Quarter, January to March 2010

Once again, I dropped into Appalachia for Delta Selection. In 2006, after I smoked the eighteen-mile road ruck on our first real day of work, I heard some well-intentioned blowback from some of the other guys who were tapped into the rumor mill. In Delta Selection everything is a secret. Yes, there are clear tasks and training but nobody tells you how long the tasks are or will be (even the eighteen-mile ruck was a best estimate based on my own navigation), and only the cadres know how they evaluate their candidates. According to the rumor mill, they use that first ruck as a baseline to calculate how long each navigation task should take. Meaning if you go hard you’ll eat away at your own margin for error. This time, I had that intel going in, and I could have played it safe and taken my time, but I wasn’t about to go out among those great men and give a half-assed effort. I went out even harder so I could make sure they saw my very best, and I broke my own course record (according to that reliable rumor mill) by nine minutes.

Rather than hear it from me, I reached out to one of the guys who was in Delta Selection with me, and below is his first-hand account of how that ruck went down:

Before I can talk about the road march, I have to give a little bit of context in the days leading up to it. Showing up to Selection you have no idea what to expect, everyone hears stories but you do not have a complete grasp of what you are about to go through…I remember arriving at an airport waiting for a bus and everyone was hanging out bullsh@tting. For many people it is a reunion of friends that you haven’t seen in years. This is also where you start sizing everyone up. I remember a majority of the people talking or relaxing, there was one person who was sitting on his bag, looking intense. That person I would later find out was David Goggins, you could tell right from the start he would be one of the guys at the end. Being a runner, I recognized him, but didn’t really put it all together until after the first few days.

There are several events that you know you have to do just to start the course; one of those is the road march. Without getting into specific distances, I knew it was going to be fairly far but was comfortable with running a majority of it. Coming into Selection, I had been in Special Forces for a majority of my career and it was rare when someone finished before me in a road march. I was comfortable with a ruck on my back. When we started it was a little cold and very dark, and as we took off I was where I was most comfortable, out front. Within the first quarter mile a guy blew by me, I thought to myself, “No way he could keep that pace.” But I could see the light on his headlamp continue to pull away; I figured I would see him in a few miles after the course crushed him.

This particular road march course has a reputation of being brutal; there was one hill that as I was going up I could almost reach out in front of me and touch the ground, it was that steep. At this point, there was only one guy in front of me and I saw footprints that were twice as long as my stride length. I was in awe, my exact thought was, “This is the craziest sh@t I have seen; that dude ran up this hill.” Throughout the next couple of hours, I was expecting to come around a corner and find him laid up on the side of the road, but that never happened. Once finished, I was laying out my gear and I saw David hanging out. He had been done for quite a while. Though Selection is an individual event, he was the first to give a high five and say, “Nice work.” —T, in an email dated 06/25/2018

That performance left an impression beyond the guys in my Selection class. I heard recently from Hawk, another SEAL, that some Army guys he worked with on deployment were still talking about that ruck, almost like it is an urban legend. From there I continued to smash through Delta Selection at or near the top of the class. My land navigation skills were better than they’d ever been, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. Roads were off limits, there was no flat ground, and for days we bushwhacked up and down steep slopes, in below-freezing temperatures, taking waypoints, reading maps, and the countless peaks, ridges, and draws that all looked the same. We moved through thick brush and deep snow banks, splashed through icy creeks, and slalomed the winter skeletons of towering trees. It was painful, challenging, and fu@king beautiful, and I was smoking it, mashing every test they could conjure.

On the second to last day of Delta Selection, I hit my first four points as fast as usual. Most days there were five waypoints to hit in total, so when I got my fifth I was beyond confident. In my mind, I was the black Daniel Boone. I plotted my point and moseyed down another steep grade. One way to navigate foreign terrain is to track power lines, and I could see that one of those lines in the distance led directly to my fifth, and final point. I hustled down country, tracked the line, turned my conscious mind off, and started dreaming ahead. I knew I was going to rock the final exam—that forty-mile land navigation I didn’t even get to attempt last time because I busted my ankle two days before. I considered my graduation a foregone conclusion, and after that I’d be running and gunning in an elite unit again. As I visualized it, it became all the more real, and my imagination took me far away from the Appalachian Mountains.

The thing about following the power supply is you’d better make damn sure you’re on the right line! According to my training, I was supposed to be constantly checking my map, so if I made a misstep I could re-adjust and head in the right direction without losing too much time, but I was so overconfident I forgot to do that, and I didn’t chart backstops either. By the time I woke from fantasy land, I was way off course and almost out of bounds!

I went into panic mode, found my location on the map, humped it to the right power line, sprinted to the top of the mountain and kept running all the way to my fifth point. I still had ninety minutes until drop-dead time but when I got close to the next Humvee I saw another guy heading back toward me!

“Where you headed,” I asked as I jogged over.

“I’m off to my sixth point,” he said.

“sh@t, there’s not five points today?!”

“Nah, there’s six today, brother.”

I checked my watch. I had a little over forty minutes before they called time. I reached the Humvee, took down the coordinates for checkpoint six and studied the map. Thanks to my fu@k up, I had two clear options. I could play by the rules and miss drop-dead time or I could break the rules, use the roads at my disposal, and give myself a chance. The one thing on my side was that in special operations they prize a thinking shooter, a soldier willing to do what it takes to meet an objective. All I could do was hope they’d have mercy on me. I plotted the best possible route and took the fu@k off. I skirted the woods, used the roads, and whenever I heard a truck rumbling in the near distance, I took cover. A half hour later, at the crest of yet another mountain, I could see the sixth point, our finish line. According to my watch, I had five minutes left.

I flew downhill, sprinting all out, and made drop-dead by one minute. As I caught my breath, our crew was divided and loaded into the covered beds of two separate Humvees. At first glance, my group of guys looked pretty squared away, but given when and where I received my sixth point, every cadre in the place had to know I’d skirted protocol. I didn’t know what to think. Was I still in or assed out?

At Delta Selection, one way to be sure you’re out is if you feel speed bumps after a day’s work. Speed bumps mean you’re back at the base, and you’re heading home early. That day, when we felt the first one jar us out of our hopes and dreams, some guys started cursing, others had tears in their eyes. I just shook my head.

“Goggins, what the fu@k are you doing here?” One guy asked. He was shocked to see me sitting alongside him, but I was resigned to my reality because I’d been daydreaming about graduating Delta training and being a part of the force when I hadn’t even finished Selection!

“I didn’t do what they told me to do,” I said. “I fu@king deserve to go home.”

“Bullsh@t! You are one of the best guys out here. They’re making a huge mistake.”

I appreciated his outrage. I expected to make it too, but I couldn’t be upset by their decision. Delta brass weren’t looking for men who could pass a class with a C, B+, or even an A- effort. They only accepted A+ students, and if you fu@ked up and delivered a performance that was below your capability they sent you packing. sh@t, if you daydream for a split second on the battlefield, that could mean your life and the life of one of your brothers. I understood that.

“No. It was my mistake,” I said. “I got this far by staying focused and delivering my best, and I’m going home because I lost focus.”

It was time to go back to being a SEAL. For the next two years I based in Honolulu as part of a clandestine transport unit called SDV, for SEAL Delivery Vehicles. Operation Red Wings is the best known SDV mission, and you only heard about it because it was such big news. Most SDV work happens in the shadows, and well out of sight. I fit in well over there, and it was great to be back operating again. I lived on Ford Island, with a view of Pearl Harbor right out my living room window. Kate and I had split up, so now I was really living that Spartan life, and still waking up at 5 a.m. to run into work. I had two routes, an eight-miler and a ten-miler, but no matter which I took my body didn’t react too well. After only a few miles, I’d feel intense neck pain and dizzy spells. There were several times during my runs that I would have to sit down due to vertigo.

For years I’d harbored a suspicion that we all had a limit on the miles we could run before a full-body breakdown, and I wondered if I was closing in on mine. My body had never felt so tight. I had a knot on the base of my skull that I first noticed after graduating BUD/S. A decade later it had doubled in size. I had knots above my hip flexors too. I went to the doctor to get everything checked out, but they weren’t even tumors, much less malignant. When the doctors cleared me of mortal danger, I realized I’d have to live with them and try to forget about long-distance running for a while.

When an activity or exercise that you’ve always relied on gets taken away from you, like running was for me, it’s easy to get stuck in a mental rut and stop doing any exercise at all, but I didn’t have a quitter’s mentality. I gravitated toward the pull-up bar and replicated the workouts I used to do with Sledge. It was an exercise that allowed me to push myself and didn’t make me dizzy because I could take a break between sets. After a while I Googled around to see if there was a pull-up record within reach. That’s when I read about Stephen Hyland’s many pull-up records, including the twenty-four-hour record of 4,020.

At the time I was known as an ultra runner, and I didn’t want to be known for just one thing. Who does? Nobody thought of me as an all-around athlete, and this record could change that dynamic. How many people are capable of running 100, 150, even 200 miles and also knocking out over 4,000 pull-ups in a day? I called the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and asked if I could help raise a bit more money. They were thrilled, and next thing I knew, a contact of mine used her networking skills to book me on the damn Today Show.

To prepare for the attempt I did 400 pull-ups a day during the week, which took me about seventy minutes. On Saturday I did 1,500 pull-ups, in sets of five to ten reps over three hours, and on Sunday I dialed it back to 750. All that work strengthened my lats, triceps, biceps, and back, prepared my shoulder and elbow joints to take extreme punishment, helped me develop a powerful gorilla-type grip, and built up my lactic acid tolerance so my muscles could still function long after they were overworked. As game day approached, I shortened recovery and started doing five pull-ups every thirty seconds for two hours. Afterward my arms fell to my side, limp as overstretched rubber bands.

On the eve of my record attempt, my mom and uncle flew into New York City to help crew me, and we were all systems go until the SEALs nearly killed my Today Show appearance at the last minute. No Easy Day, a first-hand account of the Osama Bin Laden raid, had just come out. It was written by one of the operators in the DEVGRU unit that got it done, and Naval Special Warfare brass were not happy. Special Operators are not supposed to share details of the work we do in the field with the general public, and lots of people in the Teams resented that book. I was given a direct order to pull out of the appearance, which didn’t make any sense. I wasn’t going on camera to talk about operations, and I wasn’t on a mission to self-promote. I wanted to raise one million dollars for families of the fallen, and The Today Show was the biggest morning show on television.

I’d served in the military for nearly twenty years by that point, without a single infraction on my record, and for the previous four years the Navy had used me as their poster boy. They put me on billboards, I was interviewed on CNN, and I’d jumped out of an airplane on NBC. They placed me in dozens of magazine and newspaper stories, which helped their recruitment mission. Now they were trying to stifle me for no good reason. Hell, if anybody knew the regulations of what I could and could not say it was me. In the nick of time, the Navy’s legal department cleared me to proceed.

Billboard during my recruiting days

My interview was brief. I told a CliffsNotes version of my life story and mentioned I’d be on a liquid diet, drinking a carbohydrate-loaded sports drink as my only nutrition until the record was broken.

“What should we cook for you tomorrow once it’s all over?” Savannah Guthrie replied. I laughed and played along, agreeable as hell, but don’t get it twisted, I was way out of my comfort zone. I was about to go to war with myself, but I didn’t look like it or act like it. As the clock wound down I took my shirt off and was wearing only a pair of lightweight, black running shorts and running shoes.

“Wow, it’s like looking at myself in a mirror,” Lauer joked, gesturing toward me.

“This segment just got even more interesting,” said Savannah. “All right David, best of luck to you. We will be watching.”

Someone hit play on Going the Distance, the Rocky theme song, and I stepped to the pull-up bar. It was painted matte black, wrapped with white tape, and stenciled with the phrase, SHOW NO WEAKNESS in white lettering. I got the last word in as I strapped on my gray gloves.

“Please donate to specialops.org,” I said. “We’re trying to raise a million dollars.”

“Alright, are you ready?” Lauer asked. “Three…two…one…David, go!”

With that, the clock started and I rocked a set of eight pull-ups. The rules laid down by the Guinness Book of World Records were clear. I had to start each pull-up from a dead hang with arms fully extended, and my chin had to exceed the bar.

“So it begins,” Savannah said.

I smiled for the camera and looked relaxed, but even those first pull-ups didn’t feel right. Part of it was situational. I was a lone fish in a glass box aquarium that attracted sunshine and reflected a bank of hot show lights. The other half was technical. From the very first pull-up I noticed that the bar had a lot more give than I was used to. I didn’t have my usual power and anticipated a long fu@king day. At first, I blocked that sh@t out. Had to. A looser bar just meant a stronger effort and gave me another opportunity to be uncommon.

Throughout the day people passed by on the street below, waved, and cheered. I waved back, kept to my plan, and rocked six pull-ups on the minute, every damn minute, but it wasn’t easy because of that rickety bar. My force was getting dissipated, and after hundreds of pull-ups, dissipation took its toll. Each subsequent pull-up required a monumental effort, a stronger grip, and at the 1,500 mark my forearms hurt like hell. My massage therapist rubbed them down between sets, but they bulged with lactic acid which seeped into every muscle in my upper body.

After more than six long hours, and with 2,000 pull-ups in the bank, I took my first ten-minute break. I was well ahead of my twenty-four-hour pace, and the sun angled lower on the horizon, which reduced the mercury in the room to manageable. It was late enough that the whole studio was shut down. It was just me, a few friends, a massage therapist, and my mother. Today Show cameras were set up and rolling to clock me and make sure I kept to regulations. I had more than 2,000 pull-ups still to go, and for the first time that day, doubt carved out a home in my brain.

I didn’t vocalize my negativity, and I tried to reset my mind for the second half push, but the truth was my whole plan had gone to hell. My carbohydrate drink wasn’t giving me the power I needed, and I didn’t have a Plan B, so I ordered and downed a cheeseburger. It felt good to have some real food. Meanwhile, my team tried to stabilize the bar by tying it to the pipes in the rafters, but instead of recharging my system like I’d hoped, the long break had an adverse effect.

During first pull-up record attempt

My body was shutting down, while my mind swirled with panic because I’d made a pledge and staked my name on a quest to raise money and break a record, and I already knew that there was no way on this earth I was gonna be able to get it done. It took me five hours to do another 500 pull-ups—that’s an average of under two pull-ups per minute. I was verging on total muscle failure after doing only 1,000 more pull-ups than I would rock in three hours at the gym on a typical Saturday with no ill effects. How was that possible?

I tried to bull my way through, but tension and lactic acid had overwhelmed my system and my upper body was a lump of dough. I had never hit muscle failure before in my life. I’d run on broken legs in BUD/S, run nearly a hundred miles on broken feet, and accomplished dozens of physical feats with a hole in my heart. But late at night, on the second floor of the NBC tower, I pulled the plug. After my 2,500th pull-up, I could barely lift my hands high enough to grip the bar, let alone clear it with my chin, and just like that, it was over. There would be no celebratory breakfast with Savannah and Matt. There would be no celebration at all. I failed, and I’d failed in front of millions of people.

So did I hang my head in shame and misery? fu@k no! To me a failure is just a stepping stone to future success. The next morning, my phone was blowing up so I left it in my hotel room and went for a run in Central Park. I needed zero distractions and time enough to go back through what I’d done well and where I’d fallen short. In the military, after every real-world mission or field exercise, we fill out After Action Reports (AARs), which serve as live autopsies. We do them no matter the outcome, and if you’re analyzing a failure like I was, the AAR is absolutely crucial. Because when you’re headed into uncharted territory there are no books to study, no YouTube instructional videos to watch. All I had to read were my mistakes, and I considered all variables.

First of all, I should never have gone on that show. My motivation was solid. It was a good idea to try to increase awareness and raise money for the foundation, and while I required exposure to raise the amount I’d hoped, by thinking of money first (always a bad idea) I wasn’t focused on the task at hand. To break this record, I needed an optimal environment, and that realization blasted me like a surprise attack. I didn’t respect the record enough going in. I thought I could have broken it on a rusty bar bolted to the back of a pick-up truck with loose shocks, so even though I tested the bar twice before game day, it never bothered me enough to make a change, and my lack of focus and attention to detail cost me a shot at immortality. There were also way too many bubbly looky-loos buzzing in and out of the room, asking for pictures between sets. This was the beginning of the selfie era, and that sickness most definitely invaded my motherfu@king safe space.

Obviously, my break was too long. I figured massage would counteract the swelling and lactic acid build-up, but I was wrong about that too, and I should have taken more salt tablets to prevent cramping. Before my attempt, haters found me online and predicted my failure, but I ignored them and didn’t fully absorb the hard truths couched in their negativity. I thought, as long as I trained hard, the record would be mine, and as a result, I wasn’t as well-prepared as I should have been.

You can’t prepare for unknown factors, but if you have a better pre-game focus, you will likely only have to deal with one or two rather than ten. In New York, too many bubbled up, and unknown factors usually blaze a wake of doubt. Afterward, I was eye to eye with my haters and acknowledged that my margin for error was small. I weighed 210 pounds, much heavier than anyone else who had ever tried to break that record, and my probability of failure was high.

I didn’t touch a pull-up bar for two weeks, but once back in Honolulu I hammered sets at my home gym and noticed the difference in the bar right way. Still, I had to resist the temptation to blame everything on that loose bar because odds were that a firmer one wouldn’t translate into an extra 1,521 pull-ups. I researched gymnast chalk, gloves, and taping systems. I sampled and experimented. This time I wanted a fan set below the bar to cool me down between sets, and I switched up my nutrition. Instead of running off pure carbs I added in some protein and bananas to prevent cramping. When it came time to choose a location to attempt the record, I knew I needed to get back to who I am at my core. That meant losing the glitz and setting up shop in a dungeon. And on a trip to Nashville, I found just the place, a Crossfit gym a mile from my mother’s house, owned by a former marine named Nandor Tamaska.

After emailing a couple of times, I ran over to Crossfit Brentwood Hills to meet him. It was set in a strip mall, a few doors down from a Target, and there was nothing fancy about the place. It had black mat floors, buckets of chalk, racks of iron, and lots of hard motherfu@kers doing work. When I walked in, the first thing I did was grab the pull-up bar and shake it. It was bolted into the ground just like I’d hoped. Even a little sway in the bar would require me to adjust my grip mid-set, and when your goal is 4,021 pull-ups, all minuscule movements accumulate into a reservoir of wasted energy, which takes a toll.

“This is exactly what I need,” I said, gripping the bar.

“Yeah,” Nandor said. “They have to be sturdy to double as our squat racks.”

In addition to its strength and stability, it was the right height. I didn’t want a short bar, because bending your legs can cause cramping in the hamstrings. I needed it high enough that I could grab it when standing on my toes.

I could tell right away that Nandor was a perfect co-conspirator for this mission. He had been an enlisted man, got into Crossfit, and moved to Nashville from Atlanta with his wife and family to open his first gym. Not many people are willing to open their doors and let a stranger take over their gym, but Nandor was down with the Warrior Foundation cause.

My second attempt was scheduled for November, and for five straight weeks I did 500-1,300 pull-ups a day at my home gym in Hawaii. During my last island session, I did 2,000 pull-ups in five hours, then caught a flight to Nashville, arriving six days before my attempt.

Nandor rallied members of his gym to act as witnesses and my support crew. He took care of the playlist, sourced the chalk, and set up a break room in back in case I needed it. He also put out a press release. I trained at his gym in the run-up to game day, and a local news channel came by to file a report. The local newspaper did a story too. It was small scale, but Nashville was growing curious, especially the Crossfit junkies. Several showed up to absorb the scene. I spoke with Nandor recently, and I liked how he put it.

“People have been running for decades, and running long distances, but 4,000 pull-ups, the human body isn’t designed to do that. So to get a chance to witness something like that was pretty neat.”

I rested the full day before the attempt and when I showed up to the gym I felt strong and prepared for the minefield ahead. Nandor and my mom collaborated to have everything dialed in. There was a sleek digital timer on the wall which also tracked my count, plus they had two battery-powered wall clocks running as back ups. There was a Guinness Book of World Records banner hanging over the bar, and a video crew because every rep had to be recorded for potential review. My tape was right. My gloves perfect. The bar was bolted solid, and when I started out, my performance was explosive.

The numbers remained the same. I was gunning for six pull-ups every minute, on the minute, and during the first ten sets I rose up chest high. Then I remembered my game plan to minimize needless movement and wasted energy. On my initial attempt I felt pressure to get my chin well over the bar, but while all that extra space made for a good show, it did not and would not help me get the damn record. This time I told myself to barely clear the bar with my chin, and not to use my arms and hands for anything other than pull-ups. Instead of reaching down for my water bottle like I had in New York, I set it on a stack of wooden boxes (the kind used for box jumps), so all I had to do was turn and suck my nutrition through a straw. The first sip triggered me to dial back my pull-up motion and from then on, I remained disciplined as I piled up numbers. I was on my game and confident as hell. I wasn’t thinking of just 4,020 pull-ups. I wanted to go the full twenty-four hours. If I did that, 5,000 was possible, or even 6,000!

I remained hyper vigilant, scanning for any physical issues that could crop up and derail the attempt. All was smooth until, after almost four hours and 1,300 pull-ups, my hands started to blister. In between sets my mom hit me with Second Skin so I could stay on top of the cuts. This was a new problem for me, and I remembered all the doubting comments I’d read on social media prior to my attempt. My arms were too long, they said. I weighed too much. My form wasn’t ideal, I put too much pressure on my hands. I’d disregarded that last comment because during my first attempt I didn’t have palm issues, but in the midst of my second I realized it was because the first bar had so much give. This time I had more stability and power, but over time that hard-ass bar did damage.

Still, I labored on and after 1,700 pull-ups my forearms started aching, and when I bent my arms, my biceps pinched too. I remembered those sensations from my first go ’round. It was the beginning of cramps, so between sets I downed salt tablets and ate two bananas, and that took care of my muscular discomfort. My palms just kept getting worse.

A hundred and fifty pull-ups later I could feel them splitting down the middle beneath my gloves. I knew I should stop and try to fix the problem, but I also knew that might trigger my body to stiffen up and shut down. I was fighting two fires at once and didn’t know where to strike first. I opted to stay on the minute by minute pace, and in between experimented with different solutions. I wore two pairs of gloves, then three. I resorted to my old friend, duct tape. Didn’t help. I couldn’t wrap the bar in pads because that was against Guinness rules. All I could do was try anything and everything to stay in the fight.

Ten hours into the attempt, I hit a wall. I was down to three pull-ups a minute on the minute. The pain was excruciating and I needed some relief. I took my right glove off. Layers of skin came off with it. My palm looked like raw hamburger. My mom called a doctor friend, Regina, who lived nearby and the two of us went into the back room to wait for her and try to salvage my record attempt. When Regina showed up she evaluated the situation, pulled out a syringe, loaded it with local anesthetic and dipped the needle toward the open wound on my right hand.

My hand during the second pull-up record attempt

She looked over. My heart pounded, sweat saturated every inch of my skin. I could feel my muscles cooling down and stiffening up, but I nodded, turned away, and she sunk that needle in deep. It hurt so fu@king bad, but I held my primal scream inside. Show no weakness remained my motto, but that didn’t mean I felt strong. My mom pulled off my left glove, anticipating the second shot, but Regina was busy examining the swelling in my biceps and the bulging spasms in my forearms.

“You look like you’re in rhabdomyolysis, David,” she said. “You shouldn’t continue. It’s dangerous.” I had no idea what the fu@k she was talking about, so she broke it down.

There’s a phenomenon that happens when one muscle group is worked way too hard for way too long. The muscles become starved of glucose and break down, leaking myoglobin, a fibrous protein that stores oxygen in the muscle, into the bloodstream. When that happens, it’s up to the kidneys to filter all those proteins out and if they become overwhelmed, they shut down. “People can die from rhabdo,” she said.

My hands throbbed with agony. My muscles were locking up, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Any rational person would have thrown in the towel, but I could hear Going the Distance booming from the speakers, and knew that this was my 14th round, Cut me, Mick, moment.

fu@k rationality. I held up my left palm and had Regina sink her needle in. Waves of pain washed through me as a bumper crop of doubt flowered in my mind. She wrapped both palms in layers of gauze and medical tape and fitted me with a fresh pair of gloves. Then I stalked back out onto the gym floor and got back to work. I was at 2,900, and as long as I remained in the fight, I still believed anything was possible.

I did sets of twos and threes on the minute for two hours, but it felt like I was gripping a red hot, melting rod, which meant I was down to using my fingertips to grip the bar. First I used four fingers, then three. I was able to gut out one hundred more pull-ups, then one hundred more. Hours ticked by. I crept closer but with my body in rhabdo, breakdown was imminent. I did several sets of pull-ups with my wrists dangling over the bar. It sounds impossible, but I managed until the numbing agents stopped working. Then even bending my fingers felt like I was stabbing myself in the hand with a sharp knife.

After eclipsing 3,200 pull-ups, I worked out the math and realized if I could do 800 sets of one, it would take thirteen hours and change to break the record and I would just beat the clock. I lasted forty-five minutes. The pain was too much and the vibe in the room went from optimistic to somber. I was still trying to show as little weakness as I could, but the volunteers could see me messing with my gloves and grip, and knew something was drastically wrong. When I went into the back to regroup a second time I heard a collective sigh that sounded like doom.

Regina and my mother unwrapped the tape on my hands, and I could feel my flesh peeling like a banana. Both palms were filleted open down to the dermis, which is where our nerves lie. Achilles had his heel, and when it came to pull-ups, my gift, and my undoing, were my hands. The doubters were right. I wasn’t one of those lightweight, graceful pull-up guys. I was powerful, and the power came from my grip. But now my hand better resembled a physiology mannequin than something human.

Emotionally, I was wasted. Not just because of my sheer physical exhaustion or because I couldn’t get the record for myself, but because so many people had come out to help. I’d taken over Nandor’s gym and felt like I’d disappointed everyone. Without a word, my mother and I slipped out the back door like we were escaping a crime scene, and as she drove to the hospital, I couldn’t stop thinking, I’m better than this!

While Nandor and his team broke down the clocks, untied the banners, swept up chalk, and peeled bloody tape off their pull-up bar, my mom and I slumped into chairs in the ER waiting room. I was holding what was left of my glove. It looked like it was lifted from the OJ Simpson crime scene, like it had been marinated in blood. She eyeballed me and shook her head.

“Well,” she said, “I know one thing…”

After a long pause I turned to face her.

“What’s that?”

“You’re gonna do this again.”

She read my damn mind. I was already doing my live autopsy and would run through a complete AAR on paper as soon as my bloody hands would allow. I knew there was treasure in this wreckage and leverage to be gained somewhere. I just had to piece it together like a puzzle. And the fact that she realized that without my saying so fired me up.

A lot of us surround ourselves with people who speak to our desire for comfort. Who would rather treat the pain of our wounds and prevent further injury than help us callous over them and try again. We need to surround ourselves with people who will tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear, but at the same time not make us feel we’re up against the impossible. My mother was my biggest fan. Whenever I failed in life she was always asking me when and where I would go after it again. She never said, Well, maybe it isn’t meant to be.

Most wars are won or lost in our own heads, and when we’re in a foxhole we usually aren’t alone, and we need to be confident in the quality of the heart, mind, and dialogue of the person hunkered down with us. Because at some point we will need some empowering words to keep us focused and deadly. In that hospital, in my own personal foxhole, I was swimming in doubt. I fell 800 pull-ups short and I knew what 800 pull-ups felt like. That’s a long fu@king day! But there was nobody else I’d rather have been in that foxhole with.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll start calling those witnesses up as soon as we get home.”

“Roger that,” I said. “Tell them I’ll be back on that bar in two months.”

In life, there is no gift as overlooked or inevitable as failure. I’ve had quite a few and have learned to relish them, because if you do the forensics you’ll find clues about where to make adjustments and how to eventually accomplish your task. I’m not talking about a mental list either. After the second attempt, I wrote everything out long-hand, but didn’t start with the obvious issue, my grip. Initially, I brainstormed everything that went well, because in every failure a lot of good things will have happened, and we must acknowledge them.

The best takeaway from the Nashville attempt was Nandor’s place. His dungeon of a gym was the perfect environment for me. Yeah, I’m on social media, and in the spotlight from time to time, but I am not a Hollywood person. I get my strength from a very dark place, and Nandor’s gym wasn’t a phony-ass, happy factory. It was dark, sweaty, painful, and real. I called him the very next day and asked if I could come back to train and make another run at the record. I’d taken a lot of his time and energy and left behind a mess, so I had no idea how he’d respond.

“Yeah, motherfu@ker,” he said. “Let’s go!” It meant a lot to have his support again.

Another positive was how I handled my second meltdown. I was off the mat and on the comeback trail before I even saw the ER doc. That’s where you want to be. You can’t let a simple failure derail your mission, or let it worm so far up your ass it takes over your brain and sabotages your relationships with people who are close to you. Everyone fails sometimes and life isn’t supposed to be fair, much less bend to your every whim.

Luck is a capricious bit@h. It won’t always go your way, so you can’t get trapped in this idea that just because you’ve imagined a possibility for yourself that you somehow deserve it. Your entitled mind is dead weight. Cut it loose. Don’t focus on what you think you deserve. Take aim on what you are willing to earn! I never blamed anyone for my failures, and I didn’t hang my head in Nashville. I stayed humble and sidestepped my entitled mind because I knew damn well I hadn’t earned my record. The scoreboard does not lie, and I didn’t delude myself otherwise. Believe it or not, most people prefer delusion. They blame others or bad luck or chaotic circumstance. I didn’t, which was positive.

I listed most of the equipment we used on the positive side of the AAR, as well. The tape and chalk worked, and even though the bar tore me the fu@k up, it also got me 700 additional pull-ups, so I was headed in the right direction. Another positive was the support of Nandor’s Crossfit community. It felt great to be surrounded by such intense, respectful people, but this time I’d need to cut the number of volunteers in half. I wanted as little buzz in that room as possible.

After listing out all the plusses, it was time to kick the tires on my mindset, and if you’re doing your post-faceplant due diligence, you should do that too. That means checking yourself on how and what you were thinking during the preparation and execution phases of your failure. My commitment to preparation and determination in the fight are always there. They didn’t waver, but my belief was shakier than I cared to admit, and as I prepared for my third go ’round it was imperative to move beyond doubt.

That wasn’t easy because after my second failure in as many attempts, the doubters were everywhere online. The record holder, Stephen Hyland, was light and spidery strong with thick, muscular palms. He was the perfect build for the pull-up record, and everyone was telling me I was just too big, my form was too brutal, and that I should stop trying to go for it before I hurt myself even worse. They pointed to the scoreboard that doesn’t lie. I was still over 800 pull-ups away from the record. That’s more than I gained between my first and second attempts. From the beginning some of them had predicted my hands would give out, and when that truth revealed itself in Nashville it presented a big mental hurdle. Part of me wondered if those motherfu@kers were right. If I was trying to achieve the impossible.

Then I thought of an English middle-distance runner from back in the day named Roger Bannister. When Bannister was trying to break the four-minute mile in the 1950s, experts told him it couldn’t be done, but that didn’t stop him. He failed again and again, but he persevered, and when he ran his historic mile in 3:59.4 on May 6, 1954, he didn’t just break a record, he broke open the floodgates simply by proving it possible. Six weeks later, his record was eclipsed, and by now over 1,000 runners have done what was once thought to be beyond human capability.

We are all guilty of allowing so-called experts, or just people who have more experience in a given field than we do, to cap our potential. One of the reasons we love sports is because we also love watching those glass ceilings get shattered. If I was going to be the next athlete to smash popular perception, I’d need to stop listening to doubt, whether it streamed in from the outside or bubbled up from within, and the best way to do that was to decide that the pull-up record was already mine. I didn’t know when it would officially become mine. It might be in two months or twenty years, but once I decided it belonged to me and decoupled it from the calendar, I was filled with confidence and relieved of any and all pressure because my task morphed from trying to achieve the impossible into working toward an inevitability. But to get there, I’d have to find the tactical advantage I’d been missing.

A tactical review is the final and most vital piece of any live autopsy or AAR. And while I had improved tactically from the first attempt—working on a more stable bar and minimizing wasted energy—I still fell 800 reps short, so we needed to delve deeper into the numbers. Six pull-ups per minute on the minute had failed me twice. Yes, it placed me on a fast track to 4,020, but I never got there. This time, I decided to start slower to go further. I also knew from experience that I would hit some sort of wall after ten hours and that my response couldn’t be a longer break. The ten-hour mark smacked me in my face twice and both times I stopped for five minutes or longer, which led to ultimate failure pretty quickly. I needed to stay true to my strategy and limit any long breaks to four minutes max.

Now, about that pull-up bar. Yeah, it would probably tear me up again, so I needed to find a workaround. According to the rules, I wouldn’t be allowed to switch up the distance between my hands mid-attempt. The width would have to remain the same from the first pull-up. The only thing I could change would be how I was going to protect my hands. In the run-up to my third attempt, I experimented with all different types of gloves. I also got clearance to use custom foam pads to protect my palms. I remembered seeing a couple SEAL buddies use slices of foam mattresses to protect their hands when they were lifting heavy weights, and called on a mattress company to custom design form-fitting pads for my hands. Guinness approved the equipment, and at 10 a.m. on January 19, 2013, two months after failing for the second time, I was back on the bar at Crossfit Brentwood Hills.

I started slow and easy with five pull-ups on the minute. I didn’t strap my foam pads with tape. I just held them in place around the bar, and they seemed to work well. Within an hour the foam had formed around my hands, insulating them from molten-iron hell. Or so I fu@king hoped. At around the two-hour, 600 rep mark, I asked Nandor to play Going the Distance on a loop. I felt something click inside and went full cyborg.

I found a rhythm on the bar and between sets I sat on a weight bench and stared at the chalk-dusted floor. My point of view narrowed into tunnel vision as I prepared my mind for the hell that was to come. When the first blister opened on my palm I knew sh@t was about to get real. But this time, thanks to my failures and forensics, I was ready.

That doesn’t mean I was having any fun. I wasn’t. I was over it. I didn’t want to do pull-ups anymore, but achieving goals or overcoming obstacles doesn’t have to be fun. Seeds burst from the inside out in a self-destructive ritual of new life. Does that sound like fu@king fun? Like it feels good? I wasn’t in that gym to get happy or do what I wanted to be doing. I was there to turn myself inside out if that’s what it took to blast through any and all mental, emotional, and physical barriers.

After twelve hours, I finally hit 3,000 pull-ups, a major checkpoint for me, and felt like I’d run headfirst into a wall. I was exasperated, in agony, and my hands were starting to come apart again. I was still a long way from the record, and I felt all the eyeballs in the room upon me. With them came the crushing weight of failure and humiliation. Suddenly, I was back in the cage during my third Hell Week, taping my shins and ankles before mustering up with a new BUD/S class who’d heard it was my last chance.

It takes great strength to be vulnerable enough to put your ass on the line, in public, and work toward a dream that feels like it’s slipping away. We all have eyeballs on us. Our family and friends are watching, and even if you’re surrounded by positive people, they will have ideas about who you are, what you’re good at, and how you should focus your energy. That sh@t is just human nature, and if you try to break out of their box you’ll get some unsolicited advice that has a way of smothering your aspirations if you let it. Often our people don’t mean any harm. Nobody who cares about us actually wants us to get hurt. They want us to be safe, comfortable, and happy, and not to have to stare at the floor in a dungeon sifting through shards of our broken dreams. Too bad. There’s a lot of potential in those moments of pain. And if you figure out how to piece that picture back together, you’ll find a hell of a lot of power there too!

I kept my break to just four minutes, as planned. Long enough to stuff my hands, and those foam pads, into a pair of padded gloves. But when I got back on the bar I felt slow and weak. Nandor, his wife, and the other volunteers saw my struggle, but they left me the fu@k alone to put in my ear buds, channel Rocky Balboa, and keep grinding one rep at a time. I went from four pull-ups on the minute to three, and found my cyborg trance again. I went ugly, I got dark. I imagined my pain was the creation of a mad scientist named Stephen Hyland, the evil genius who was in temporary possession of my record and my soul. It was him! That motherfu@ker was torturing me from across the globe, and it was up to me and only me to keep piling up numbers and steamroll toward him, if I wanted to take his motherfu@king soul!

To be clear, I wasn’t angry with Hyland—I don’t even know him! I went there to find the edge I needed to keep going. I got personal with him in my head, not out of overconfidence or envy, but to drown out my own doubt. Life is a head game. This was just the latest angle I used to win a game within that game. I had to find an edge somewhere, and if you find it in the person standing in your way, that’s potent.

As the hours ticked past midnight I started closing the distance between us, but the pull-ups weren’t coming fast and they weren’t coming easy. I was tired mentally and physically, deep into rhabdo, and I was down to three pull-ups a minute. When I hit 3,800 pull-ups I felt like I could see the mountain top. I also knew it was possible to go from being able to do three pull-ups to no pull-ups in a flash. There are stories of people at Badwater who reached mile 129 and couldn’t finish a 135-mile race! You never know when you’ll reach your 100 percent and hit the point of total muscle fatigue. I kept waiting for that moment to come, when I couldn’t pick my arms up anymore. Doubt stalked me like a shadow. I tried my best to control it or silence it, yet it kept reappearing, following me, pushing me.

After seventeen hours of pain, around 3 a.m. on January 20, 2013, I did my 4,020th and 4,021st pull-up, and the record was mine. Everyone in the gym cheered, but I stayed composed. After two more sets and 4,030 total pull-ups, I took my headphones out, stared into the camera and said, “I tracked you down, Stephen Hyland!”

In one day, I’d lifted the equivalent of 846,030 pounds, nearly three times the weight of the Space Shuttle! Cheers spread to laughter as I pulled off my gloves and disappeared into the back room, but much to everyone’s surprise, I was not in the mood to celebrate.

Does that shock you too? You know that my refrigerator is never full, and it never will be because I live a mission-driven life, always on the hunt for the next challenge. That mindset is the reason I broke that record, finished Badwater, became a SEAL, rocked Ranger School, and on down the list. In my mind I’m that racehorse always chasing a carrot I’ll never catch, forever trying to prove myself to myself. And when you live that way and attain a goal, success feels anti-climactic.

Unlike my initial shot at the record, my success barely made a ripple in the news cycle. Which was just fine. I wasn’t doing it for adulation. I raised some money, and I learned all I could from that pull-up bar. After logging more than 67,000 pull-ups in nine months, it was time to put them in my Cookie Jar and move on. Because life is one long motherfu@king imaginary game that has no scoreboard, no referee, and isn’t over until we’re dead and buried.

And all I’d ever wanted from it was to become successful in my own eyes. That didn’t mean wealth or celebrity, a garage full of hot cars, or a harem of beautiful women trailing after me. It meant becoming the hardest motherfu@ker who ever lived. Sure, I stacked up some failures along the way, but in my mind the record proved that I was close. Only the game wasn’t over, and being hard came with the requirement to drain every drop of ability from my mind, body, and soul before the whistle blew.

I would remain in constant pursuit. I wouldn’t leave anything on the table. I wanted to earn my final resting place. That’s how I thought back then, anyway. Because I had no clue how close to the end I already was.

CHALLENGE #10

Think about your most recent and your most heart-wrenching failures. Break out that journal one last time. Log off the digital version and write them out long-hand. I want you to feel this process because you are about to file your own, belated After Action Reports.

First off, write out all the good things, everything that went well, from your failures. Be detailed and generous with yourself. A lot of good things will have happened. It’s rarely all bad. Then note how you handled your failure. Did it affect your life and your relationships? How so?

How did you think throughout the preparation for and during the execution stage of your failure? You have to know how you were thinking at each step because it’s all about mindset, and that’s where most people fall short.

Now go back through and make a list of things you can fix. This isn’t time to be soft or generous. Be brutally honest, write them all out. Study them. Then look at your calendar and schedule another attempt as soon as possible. If the failure happened in childhood, and you can’t recreate the Little League all-star game you choked in, I still want you to write that report because you’ll likely be able to use that information to achieve any goal going forward.

As you prepare, keep that AAR handy, consult your Accountability Mirror, and make all necessary adjustments. When it comes time to execute, keep everything we’ve learned about the power of a calloused mind, the Cookie Jar, and The 40% Rule in the forefront of your mind. Control your mindset. Dominate your thought process. This life is all a fu@king mind game. Realize that. Own it!

And if you fail again, so the fu@k be it. Take the pain. Repeat these steps and keep fighting. That’s what it’s all about. Share your stories from preparation, training, and execution on social media with the hashtags #canthurtme #empowermentoffailure.

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