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CHAPTER SEVEN - THE MOST POWERFUL WEAPON

Twenty-seven hours after savoring intense, gratifying pain and basking in the afterglow of my greatest achievement so far, I was back at my desk on a Monday morning. SBG was my commanding officer, and I had his permission, and every known excuse, to take a few days off. Instead, swollen, sore, and miserable, I pulled myself out of bed, hobbled into work, and later that morning called Chris Kostman.

I’d been looking forward to this. I imagined the sweet note of surprise in his voice, after hearing that I’d taken his challenge and run 101 miles in less than twenty-four hours. Perhaps there’d even be some overdue respect as he made my entry to Badwater official. Instead, my call went to voicemail. I left him a polite message he never returned, and two days later I dropped him an email.

Sir, how are you doing? I ran the one hundred miles needed to qualify in 18 hours and 56 minutes…I would like to know now what I need to do to get into Badwater…so we can begin raising money for the [Special Operations Warrior] foundation. Thanks again…

His reply came in the next day, and it threw me way the fu@k off.

Congrats on your hundred-mile finish. But did you actually stop then? The point of a twenty-four-hour event is to run for twenty-four hours…Anyway…stay tuned for the announcement that you can apply…The race will be July 24–26.

Best regards,

Chris Kostman

I couldn’t help but take his response personally. On a Wednesday he suggested I run one hundred miles in twenty-four hours that Saturday. I got it done in less time than he required, and he still wasn’t impressed? Kostman was a veteran of ultra races, so he knew that strewn behind me were a dozen performance barriers and pain thresholds I’d shattered. Obviously, none of that meant much to him.

I cooled off for a week before I wrote him back, and in the meantime looked into other races to bolster my resume. There were very few available that late in the year. I found a fifty-miler on Catalina, but only triple digits would impress a guy like Kostman. Plus, it had been a full week since the San Diego One Day and my body was still monumentally fu@ked. I hadn’t run three feet since finishing mile 101. My frustration flashed with the cursor as I crafted my rebuttal.

Thanks for emailing me back. I see that you enjoy talking about as much as I do. The only reason why I’m still bugging you is because this race and the cause behind it is important…If you have any other qualifying races that you think I should do, please let me know…Thanks for letting me know I’m supposed to run the full twenty-four hours. Next time I’ll be sure to do that.

It took him another full week to respond, and he didn’t offer a hell of a lot more hope, but at least he salted it with sarcasm.

Hi David,

If you can do some more ultras between now and Jan 3–24, the application period, great. If not, submit the best possible application during the Jan 3–24 window and cross your fingers.

Thanks for your enthusiasm,

Chris

At this point I was starting to like Chris Kostman a lot better than my chances of getting into Badwater. What I didn’t know, because he never mentioned it, is that Kostman was one of five people on the Badwater admissions committee, which reviews upwards of 1,000 applications a year. Each judge scores every application, and based on their cumulative scores, the top ninety applicants get in on merit. From the sounds of it, my resume was thin and wouldn’t crack the top ninety. On the other hand, Kostman held ten wild cards in his back pocket. He could have already guaranteed me a spot, but for some reason he kept pushing me. Once again I’d have to prove myself beyond a minimum standard to get a fair shake. To become a SEAL, I had to deal with three Hell Weeks, and now, if I really wanted to run Badwater and raise money for families in need, I was going to have to find a way to make my application bulletproof.

Based on a link he sent along with his reply, I found one more ultra race scheduled before the Badwater application was due. It was called the Hurt 100, and the name did not lie. One of the toughest 100-mile trail races in the world, it was set in a triple canopy rainforest on the island of Oahu. To cross the finish line, I’d have to run up and down 24,500 vertical feet. That’s some Himalayan sh@t. I stared at the race profile. It was all sharp spikes and deep dives. It looked like an arrhythmic EKG. I couldn’t do this race cold. There’s no way I could finish it without at least some training, but by early December I was still in so much agony that walking up the stairs to my apartment was pure torture.

The following weekend I zoomed up Interstate 15 to Vegas for the Las Vegas Marathon. It wasn’t spur of the moment. Months before I’d ever heard the words “San Diego One Day,” Kate, my mom, and I had circled December 5th on our calendars. It was 2005, the first year that the Las Vegas Marathon started on the Strip, and we wanted to be part of that sh@t. Except I never trained for it, then the San Diego One Day happened, and by the time we got to Vegas I had no illusions about my fitness level. I tried to run the morning before we left, but I still had stress fractures in my feet, my medial tendons were wobbly, and even while wrapped with a special bandage I’d found that could stabilize my ankles, I couldn’t last longer than a quarter mile. So I didn’t plan on running as we rocked up to the Mandalay Bay Casino & Resort on race day.

It was a beautiful morning. Music was pumping, there were thousands of smiling faces in the street, the clean desert air had a chill to it, and the sun was shining. Running conditions don’t get much better, and Kate was ready to go. Her goal was to break five hours, and for once, I was satisfied being a cheerleader. My mom had always planned on walking it, and I figured I’d stroll with her for as long as I could, then hail a cab to the finish line and cheer my ladies to the tape.

The three of us toed up with the masses as the clock struck 7 a.m., and someone got on the mic to begin the official count down. “Ten…nine…eight…” When he hit one, a horn sounded, and like Pavlov’s dog something clicked inside me. I still don’t know what it was. Perhaps I underestimated my competitive spirit. Maybe it was because I knew Navy SEALs were supposed to be the hardest motherfu@kers in the world. We were supposed to run on broken legs and fractured feet. Or so went the legend I’d bought into long ago. Whatever it was, something triggered and the last thing I remember seeing as the horn echoed down the street was shock and real concern on the faces of Kate and my mother as I charged down the boulevard and out of sight.

The pain was serious for the first quarter mile, but after that adrenaline took over. I hit the first mile marker at 7:10 and kept running like the asphalt was melting behind me. Ten kilometers into the race, my time was around forty-three minutes. That’s solid, but I wasn’t focused on the clock because considering how I’d felt the day before, I was still in total disbelief that I’d actually run 6.2 miles! My body was broken. How was this happening? Most people in my condition would have both feet in soft casts, and here I was running a marathon!

I got to mile thirteen, the halfway point, and saw the official clock. It read, “1:35:55.” I did the math and realized that I was in the hunt to qualify for the Boston marathon, but was right on the cusp. In order to qualify in my age group, I had to finish in under 3:10:59. I laughed in disbelief and slammed a paper cup of Gatorade. In less than two hours the game had flipped, and I might never get this chance again. I’d seen so much death by then—in my personal life and on the battlefield—that I knew tomorrow was not guaranteed. Before me was an opportunity, and if you give me an opportunity, I will break that motherfu@ker off!

It wasn’t easy. I’d surfed an adrenaline wave for the first thirteen miles, but I felt every inch of the second half, and at mile eighteen, I hit a wall. That’s a common theme in marathon running, because mile eighteen is usually when a runner’s glycogen levels run low, and I was bonking, my lungs heaving. My legs felt like I was running in deep Saharan sand. I needed to stop and take a break, but I refused, and two hard miles later I felt rejuvenated. I reached the next clock at mile twenty-two. I was still in the hunt for Boston, though I’d fallen thirty seconds off the pace, and to qualify, the final four miles would have to be my very best.

I dug deep, kicked my thighs up high, and lengthened my stride. I was a man possessed as I turned the final corner and charged toward the finish line at the Mandalay Bay. Thousands of people had assembled on the sidewalk, cheering. It was all a beautiful blur to me as I sprinted home.

I ran my last two miles at a sub-seven-minute pace, finished the race in just over 3:08, and qualified for Boston. Somewhere on the streets of Las Vegas, my wife and mother would deal with their own struggles and overcome them to finish too, and as I sat on a patch of grass, waiting for them, I contemplated another simple question I couldn’t shake. It was a new one, and wasn’t fear-based, pain-spiked, or self-limiting. This one felt open.

What am I capable of?

SEAL training had pushed me to the brink several times, but whenever it beat me down I popped up to take another pounding. That experience made me hard, but it also left me wanting more of the same, and day-to-day Navy SEAL life just wasn’t like that. Then came the San Diego One Day, and now this. I’d finished a marathon at an elite pace (for a weekend warrior) when I had no business even walking a mile. Both were incredible physical feats that didn’t seem possible. But they’d happened.

What am I capable of?

I couldn’t answer that question, but as I looked around the finish line that day and considered what I’d accomplished, it became clear that we are all leaving a lot of money on the table without realizing it. We habitually settle for less than our best; at work, in school, in our relationships, and on the playing field or race course. We settle as individuals, and we teach our children to settle for less than their best, and all of that ripples out, merges, and multiplies within our communities and society as a whole. We’re not talking some bad weekend in Vegas, no more cash at the ATM kind of loss either. In that moment, the cost of missing out on so much excellence in this eternally fu@ked-up world felt incalculable to me, and it still does. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

Physically, I bounced back from Vegas within a few days. Meaning I was back to my new normal: dealing with the same serious yet tolerable pain I’d come home to after the San Diego One Day. The aches were still there by the following Saturday, but I was done convalescing. I needed to start training or I’d burn out on the trail during the Hurt 100, and there would be no Badwater. I’d been reading up on how to prepare for ultras and knew it was vital to get in some hundred-mile weeks. I only had about a month to build my strength and endurance before race day on January 14th.

My feet and shins weren’t even close to right, so I came up with a new method to stabilize both the bones in my feet and my tendons. I bought high performance inserts, cut them down to fit flush with the soles of my feet, and taped my ankles, heels, and lower shins with compression tape. I also slid a small heel wedge into my shoes to correct my running posture and ease pressure. After what I’d endured, it took a lot of props to get me running (nearly) pain free.

Getting hundred-mile weeks in while holding down a steady job isn’t easy, but that was no excuse. My sixteen-mile commute to work from Chula Vista to Coronado became my go-to run. Chula Vista had a split personality when I lived there. There was the nicer, newer, middle class section, where we lived, which was surrounded by a concrete jungle of gritty, dangerous streets. That’s the part I ran through at dawn, beneath freeway overpasses, and alongside Home Depot shipping bays. This was not your tourist brochure’s version of sunny San Diego.

I sniffed car exhaust and rotting garbage, spotted skittering rats, and dodged sleepless homeless camps before reaching Imperial Beach, where I picked up the seven-mile Silver Strand bike path. It banked south past Coronado’s landmark hotel, the turn of the century Hotel Del Coronado, and a crop of luxury condo towers which overlooked the same wide strip of sand shared by Naval Special Warfare Command, where I spent the day jumping out of airplanes and shooting guns. I was living the Navy SEAL legend, trying to keep it real!

I ran that sixteen-mile stretch at least three times a week. Some days I ran home too, and on Fridays I added a ruck run. Inside the radio pouch of my standard issue ruck sack, I slid two twenty-five-pound weights and ran fully loaded for as many as twenty miles to build quad strength. I loved waking up at 5 a.m. and starting work with three hours of cardio already in the bank while most of my teammates hadn’t even finished their coffee. It gave me a mental edge, a better sense of self-awareness, and a ton of self-confidence, which made me a better SEAL instructor. That’s what getting up at the ass crack of dawn and putting out will do for you. It makes you better in all facets of your life.

During my first real deal week of training, I ran seventy-seven miles. The following week, I ran 109 miles, including a twelve-mile run on Christmas Day. The next week I pushed it to 111.5, including a nineteen-mile run on New Year’s Day, and the following week I backed off to taper my legs, but still got 56.5 miles in. All of those were road miles, but what I had coming up was a trail run, and I had never run on a trail before. I’d bushwhacked a bunch, but I hadn’t run distance on single track with a clock running. The Hurt 100 was a twenty-mile circuit course, and I’d heard that only a slim slice of those who start the race finish all five laps. This was my last chance to pad my Badwater resume. I had a lot riding on a successful outcome, and there was so much about the race, and about ultra running, that I still didn’t know.

Hurt 100 Week 3 training log

I flew into Honolulu a few days early and checked into the Halekoa, a military hotel where active duty and veterans stay with their families when they come through town. I’d studied the maps and knew the basics when it came to the terrain, but I hadn’t seen it up close, so I drove over to the Hawaii Nature Center the day before the race and stared into the velvety, jade mountains. All I could see was a steep cut of red earth disappearing into the dense green. I walked up the trail for a half mile, but there was only so far I could hike. I was tapering, and the first mile was straight uphill. Everything beyond that would have to remain a mystery for a little longer.

There were just three aid stations on the twenty-mile course, and most athletes were self-reliant and dialed in their own nutritional regimen. I was still a neophyte, and had no clue what I needed when it came to fuel. I met a woman at the hotel at 5:30 a.m. on race day morning as we were about to leave. She knew I was a rookie and asked what I’d brought with me to keep myself going. I showed her my meager stash of flavored energy gels, and my CamelBak.

“You didn’t bring salt pills?” she asked, shocked. I shrugged. I didn’t know what the fu@k a salt pill was. She poured a hundred of them into my palm. “Take two of these, every hour. They’ll keep you from cramping.”

“Roger that.” She smiled and shook her head like she could see my fu@ked-up future.

I had a strong start and felt great, but not long after the race began I knew I was facing a monster course. I’m not talking about the grade and elevation variance. I expected that. It was all the rocks and roots that took me by surprise. I was lucky that it hadn’t rained in a couple of days because all I had to wear were my standard running shoes, which had precious little tread. Then my CamelBak broke at mile six.

I shook it off and kept hammering, but without a water source, I’d have to rely on the aid stations to hydrate, and they were spaced miles apart. I didn’t even have my support crew (of one) yet. Kate was chilling on the beach and didn’t plan on showing up until later in the race, which was was my own fault. I enticed her to come along by promising a vacation, and early that morning I insisted she enjoy Hawaii and leave the suffering to me. With or without a CamelBak, my mindset was to make it from aid station to aid station and see what happens.

Before the race started I heard people talking about Karl Meltzer. I’d seen him stretching out and warming up. His nickname was the Speedgoat, and he was trying to become the first person ever to complete the race in less than twenty-four hours. For the rest of us there was a thirty-six hour time limit. My first lap took four and a half hours, and I felt okay afterwards, which was to be expected considering all the long days I’d done in preparation, but I was also concerned because each lap demanded an ascent and descent of around 5,000 vertical feet, and the amount of focus it took to pay attention to every step so I didn’t turn an ankle amped up my mental fatigue. Each time my medial tendon twinged it felt like a raw nerve exposed to the wind, and I knew one stumble could fold my wobbly ankle and end my race. I felt that pressure every single moment, and as a result, I burned more calories than expected. Which was a problem because I had very little fuel, and without a water source, I couldn’t hydrate effectively.

Between laps, I guzzled water, and with my belly sloshing started my second loop, with a slow jog up that one-mile-long, 800-foot climb into the mountains (basically straight uphill). That’s when it started to rain. Our red earth trail became mud within minutes. The soles of my shoes were coated with it and slick as skis. I sloshed through shin deep puddles, skidded down descents, and slipped on ascents. It was a full-body sport. But at least there was water. Whenever I was dry I tipped my head back, opened wide, and tasted the rain, which filtered through a triple canopy jungle that smelled of leaf rot and sh@t. The feral funk of fertility invaded my nostrils, and all I could think of was the fact that I had to run four more fu@king laps!

At mile thirty, my body reported some positive news. Or maybe it was the physical manifestation of a backhanded compliment? The tendon pain in my ankles had vanished…because my feet had swollen enough to stabilize those tendons. Was this a good thing long-term? Probably not, but you take what you can get on the ultra circuit, where you have to roll with whatever gets you from mile to mile. Meanwhile, my quads and calves ached like they’d been thumped with a sledgehammer. Yeah, I had done a lot of running, but most of it—including my ruck runs—on pancake flat terrain in San Diego, not on slick jungle trails.

Kate was waiting for me by the time I completed my second lap, and after spending a relaxing morning on Waikiki beach, she watched in horror as I materialized from the mist like a zombie from the Walking Dead. I sat and guzzled as much water as I could. By then, word had gotten out that it was my first trail race.

Have you ever had a very public fu@k-up, or were in the midst of a sh@tty day/week/month/year, yet people around you felt obliged to comment on the source of your humiliation? Maybe they reminded you of all the ways you could have ensured a very different outcome? Now imagine consuming that negativity, but having to run sixty more miles in the sweaty, jungle rain on top of it. Does that sound like fun? Yeah, I was the talk of the race. Well, me and Karl Meltzer. Nobody could believe he was gunning for a sub-twenty-four-hour experience, and it was equally baffling that I showed up to one of the most treacherous trail races on the planet, undersupplied and unprepared, with no trail races under my belt. By the time I began my third loop there were only forty athletes, out of nearly a hundred, left in the race, and I started running with a guy named Luis Escobar. For the tenth time I heard the following words: “So it’s your first trail race?” he asked. I nodded. “You really picked the wrong…”

“I know,” I said.

“It’s just such a technical…”

“Right. I’m a fu@king idiot. I’ve heard that a lot today.”

“That’s okay,” he said, “we’re all of bunch of idiots out here, man.” He handed me a water bottle. He was carrying three of them. “Take this. I heard about your CamelBak.”

This being my second race, I was starting to understand the rhythm of ultra. It’s a constant dance between competition and camaraderie, which reminded me of BUD/S. Luis and I were both racing the clock and each other, but we wanted one another to make it. We were in it alone, together, and he was right. We were a couple of fu@king idiots.

Darkness descended and left us with a pitch-black jungle night. Running side by side, the glow of our headlamps merged and shed a wider light, but once we separated all I could see was a yellow ball bouncing on the trail ahead of me. Countless trip wires—shin-high logs, slick roots, lichen-wrapped rocks—remained out of sight. I slipped, stumbled, fell, and cursed. Jungle noises were everywhere. It wasn’t just the insect world that had my attention. In Hawaii, on all the islands, bow hunting for wild pig in the mountains is a major pastime, and master hunters often leave their pit bulls chained up in the jungle to develop a nose for swine. I heard every one of those hungry bulls snapping and growling, and I heard some pigs squealing too. I smelled their fear and rage, their piss and sh@t, their sour fu@king breath.

With each nearby bark or yelp, my heart skipped and I jumped on terrain so slick that injury was a real possibility. One wrong step could roll my ass out of the race and out of contention for Badwater. I could picture Kostman hearing the news and nodding like he figured that sh@t would happen all along. I know him pretty well now, and he was never out to get me, but that’s how my mind worked back then. And in the steep, dark mountains of Oahu, my exhaustion magnified my stress. I felt close to my absolute limit, but still had more than forty miles to go!

On the backside of the course, after a long technical descent into the dark, dank forest I saw another headlamp circling ahead of me in a cutout on the trail. The runner was moving in curlicues and when I caught up to him I could see it was a Hungarian runner I’d met in San Diego named Akos Konya. He was one of the best runners in the field on Hospitality Point, where he covered 134 miles in twenty-four hours. I liked Akos and had mad respect for him. I stopped and watched him move in conjoining circles, covering the same terrain over and over again. Was he looking for something? Was he hallucinating?

“Akos,” I asked, “you okay, man? Do you need some help?”

“David, no! I…no, I’m fine,” he said. His eyes were full-moon flying saucers. He was in delirium, but I was barely hanging on myself and wasn’t sure what I could do for him other than tell staff at the next aid station he was wandering in a daze. Like I said, there’s camaraderie and there’s competition on the ultra circuit, and since he wasn’t in obvious pain and refused my help, I had to go into barbarian mode. With two full laps to go, I had no choice but to keep moving.

I staggered back to the start line and slumped into my chair, dazed. It was dark as space, the temperature was dropping, and rain was still pissing down. I was at the very edge of my capability, and wasn’t sure that I could take one more step. I felt like I’d drained 99 percent from my tank, at least. My gas light was on, my engine shuddering, yet I knew I had to find more if I was going to finish this race and get myself into Badwater.

But how do you push yourself when pain is all you feel with every step? When agony is the feedback loop that permeates each cell in your body, begging you to stop? That’s tricky because the threshold for suffering is different for everybody. What’s universal is the impulse to succumb. To feel like you’ve given everything you can, and that you are justified in leaving a job undone.

By now, I’m sure you can tell that it doesn’t take much for me to become obsessed. Some criticize my level of passion, but I’m not down with the prevailing mentalities that tend to dominate American society these days; the ones that tell us to go with the flow or invite us to learn how to get more with less effort. fu@k that shortcut bullsh@t. The reason I embrace my own obsessions and demand and desire more of myself is because I’ve learned that it’s only when I push beyond pain and suffering, past my perceived limitations, that I’m capable of accomplishing more, physically and mentally—in endurance races but also in life as a whole.

And I believe the same is true for you.

The human body is like a stock car. We may look different on the outside, but under the hood we all have huge reservoirs of potential and a governor impeding us from reaching our maximum velocity. In a car, the governor limits the flow of fuel and air so it doesn’t burn too hot, which places a ceiling on performance. It’s a hardware issue; the governor can easily be removed, and if you disable yours, watch your car rocket beyond 130 mph.

It’s a subtler process in the human animal.

Our governor is buried deep in our minds, intertwined with our very identity. It knows what and who we love and hate; it’s read our whole life story and forms the way we see ourselves and how we’d like to be seen. It’s the software that delivers personalized feedback—in the form of pain and exhaustion, but also fear and insecurity, and it uses all of that to encourage us to stop before we risk it all. But, here’s the thing, it doesn’t have absolute control. Unlike the governor in an engine, ours can’t stop us unless we buy into its bullsh@t and agree to quit.

Sadly, most of us give up when we’ve only given around 40 percent of our maximum effort. Even when we feel like we’ve reached our absolute limit, we still have 60 percent more to give! That’s the governor in action! Once you know that to be true, it’s simply a matter of stretching your pain tolerance, letting go of your identity and all your self-limiting stories, so you can get to 60 percent, then 80 percent and beyond without giving up. I call this The 40% Rule, and the reason it’s so powerful is that if you follow it, you will unlock your mind to new levels of performance and excellence in sports and in life, and your rewards will run far deeper than mere material success.

The 40% Rule can be applied to everything we do. Because in life almost nothing will turn out exactly as we hope. There are always challenges, and whether we are at work or school, or feeling tested within our most intimate or important relationships, we will all be tempted to walk away from commitments, give up on our goals and dreams, and sell our own happiness short at some point. Because we will feel empty, like we have no more to give, when we haven’t tapped even half of the treasure buried deep in our minds, hearts, and souls.

I know how it feels to be approaching an energetic dead end. I’ve been there too many times to count. I understand the temptation to sell short, but I also know that impulse is driven by your mind’s desire for comfort, and it’s not telling you the truth. It’s your identity trying to find sanctuary, not help you grow. It’s looking for status quo, not reaching for greatness or seeking wholeness. But the software update that you need to shut your governor down is no supersonic download. It takes twenty years to gain twenty years of experience, and the only way to move beyond your 40 percent is to callous your mind, day after day. Which means you’ll have to chase pain like it’s your damn job!

Imagine you’re a boxer, and on your first day in the ring you take one on your chin. It’s gonna hurt like fu@king hell, but at year ten of being a boxer, you won’t be stopped by one punch. You’ll be able to absorb twelve rounds of getting beat the fu@k down and come back the very next day and fight again. It’s not that the punch has lost power. Your opponents will be even stronger. The change has happened within your brain. You’ve calloused your mind. Over a period of time, your tolerance for mental and physical suffering will have expanded because your software will have learned that you can take a hell of a lot more than one punch, and if you stay with any task that is trying to beat you down, you will reap rewards.

Not a fighter? Say you like to run but have a broken pinky toe. I’ll bet if you continue running on it, pretty soon you’ll be able to run on broken legs. Sounds impossible, right? I know it’s true, because I’ve run on broken legs, and that knowledge helped me endure all manner of agonies on the ultra circuit, which has revealed a clear spring of self confidence that I drink from whenever my tank is dry.

But nobody taps their reserve 60 percent right away or all at once. The first step is to remember that your initial blast of pain and fatigue is your governor talking. Once you do that, you are in control of the dialogue in your mind, and you can remind yourself that you are not as drained as you think. That you haven’t given it your all. Not even close. Buying into that will keep you in the fight, and that’s worth an extra 5 percent. Of course, that’s easier read than done.

It wasn’t easy to begin the fourth lap of the Hurt 100 because I knew how much it would hurt, and when you are feeling dead and buried, dehydrated, wrung out, and torn the fu@k up at 40 percent, finding that extra 60 percent feels impossible. I didn’t want my suffering to continue. Nobody does! That’s why the line “fatigue makes cowards of us all” is true as sh@t.

Mind you, I didn’t know anything about The 40% Rule that day. The Hurt 100 is when I first started to contemplate it, but I had hit the wall many times before, and I had learned to stay present and open minded enough to recalibrate my goals even at my lowest. I knew that staying in the fight is always the hardest, and most rewarding, first step.

Of course, it’s easy to be open minded when you leave yoga class and are taking a stroll by the beach, but when you’re suffering, keeping an open mind is hard work. The same is true if you are facing a daunting challenge on the job or at school. Maybe you are tackling a hundred-question test and know that you’ve bricked the first fifty. At that point, it’s extremely difficult to maintain the necessary discipline to force yourself to keep taking the test seriously. It’s also imperative that you find it because in every failure there is something to be gained, even if it’s only practice for the next test you’ll have to take. Because that next test is coming. That’s a guarantee.

I didn’t start my fourth lap with any sort of conviction. I was in wait-and-see mode, and halfway up that first climb I became so dizzy I had to sit under a tree for a while. Two runners passed me, one at a time. They checked in but I waved them on. Told them I was just fine.

Yeah, I was doing great. I was a regular Akos Konya.

From my vantage point I could see the crest of the hill above and encouraged myself to walk at least that far. If I still wanted to quit after that, I told myself that I would be willing to sign off, and that there is no shame in not finishing the Hurt 100. I said that to myself again and again because that’s how our governor works. It massages your ego even as it stops you short of your goals. But once I got to the top of the climb, the higher ground gave me a new perspective and I saw another place off in the distance and decided to cover that small stretch of mud, rock, and root too—you know, before quitting for good.

Once I got there I was staring down a long descent and even though the footing was troubling, it still looked much easier than going uphill. Without realizing it, I’d gotten to a point where I was able to strategize. On the first climb, I was so dizzy and weak I was swept into a moment of fu@k, which clogged my brain. There was no room for strategy. I just wanted to quit, but by moving a little bit further I’d reset my brain. I’d calmed down and realized I could chunk the race down to size, and staying in the game like that gave me hope, and hope is addictive.

I chunked the race out that way, collecting 5 percent chips, unlocking more energy, then burning it up as time bled into the wee hours. I became so tired I damn near fell asleep on my feet, and that’s dangerous on a trail with so many switchbacks and drop offs. Any runner could have easily sleepwalked into oblivion. The one thing keeping me awake was the piss-poor trail condition. I fell on my ass dozens of times. My street shoes were out of their element. It felt like I was running on ice, and the inevitable fall was always jarring, but at least it woke me up.

By running a little while, then walking a stretch, I was able to forge ahead to mile seventy-seven, the toughest descent of them all, which is when I saw Karl Meltzer, the Speedgoat, crest the hill behind me. He wore a lamp on his head and another on his wrist, and a hip pack with two big water bottles. Silhouetted in pink dawn light he charged down slope, navigating a section that had me stumbling and groping for tree branches to stay upright. He was about to lap me, three miles from the finish line, on pace for a course record, twenty-two hours and sixteen minutes, but what I remember most is how graceful he looked running at an incredible 6:30 per mile pace. He was levitating over the mud, riding a whole different Zen. His feet barely touched the ground, and it was a beautiful fu@king sight. The Speedgoat was the living, breathing answer to the question that colonized my mind after the Las Vegas marathon.

What am I capable of?

Watching that bad man glide across the most challenging terrain made me realize that there is a whole other level of athlete out there in the world, and that some of that was inside me too. In fact, it’s in all of us. I’m not saying that genetics don’t play a role in athletic performance, or that everyone has an undiscovered ability to run a four-minute mile, dunk like LeBron James, shoot like Steph Curry, or run the Hurt 100 in twenty-two hours. We don’t all have the same floor or ceiling, but we each have a lot more in us than we know, and when it comes to endurance sports like ultra running, everyone can achieve feats they once thought impossible. In order to do that we must change our minds, be willing to scrap our identity, and make the extra effort to always find more in order to become more.

We must remove our governor.

That day on the Hurt 100 circuit, after seeing Meltzer run like a superhero, I finished my fourth lap in all kinds of pain and took time to watch him celebrate, surrounded by his team. He’d just achieved something nobody had ever done before and here I was with another full lap to go. My legs were rubber, my feet swollen. I did not want to go on, but I also knew that was my pain talking. My true potential was still undetermined. Looking back, I’d say I’d given 60 percent, which meant my tank was just shy of half-full.

I’d like to sit here and tell you I went all-out and drained that fu@ker on lap five, but I was still a mere tourist on planet ultra. I wasn’t the master of my mind. I was in the laboratory, still in discovery mode, and I walked every single step of my fifth and final lap. It took me eight hours, but the rain had stopped, the tropical glow of the warm Hawaiian sun felt phenomenal, and I got the job done. I finished Hurt 100 in thirty-three hours and twenty-three minutes, just shy of the thirty-six-hour cut off, good enough for ninth place. Only twenty-three athletes finished the entire race, and I was one of them.

I was so thrashed afterward, two people carried me to the car, and Kate had to spin me up to my room in a damn wheelchair. When we got there, we had more work to do. I wanted to get my Badwater application done ASAP, so without so much as a cat nap, we polished that sh@t up.

Within a matter of days, Kostman emailed me to let me know that I had been accepted into Badwater. It was a great feeling. It also meant that for the next six months I had two full-time jobs. I was a Navy SEAL in full preparation mode for Badwater. This time I would get strategic and specific because I knew that in order to unleash my best performance—if I wanted to blow past 40 percent, drain my tank, and tap my full potential—I had to first give myself an opportunity.

I didn’t research or prepare for the Hurt 100 well enough. I hadn’t anticipated the rough terrain, I had no support crew for the first part of the race, and I had no back-up water source. I didn’t bring two headlamps, which would have helped during the long, bleak night, and though I sure felt like I had given everything I had, I never even had a chance to access my true 100 percent.

Badwater was going to be different. I researched day and night. I studied the course, noted temperature and elevation variances, and charted them out. I wasn’t just interested in the air temperature. I drilled down deeper so I knew how hot the pavement would be on the hottest Death Valley day ever. I Googled videos of the race and watched them for hours. I read blogs from runners who completed it, noted their pitfalls and training techniques. I drove north to Death Valley and explored the entire course.

Seeing the terrain up close revealed its brutality. The first forty-two miles were dead flat—a run through God’s blast furnace cranked up high. That would be my best opportunity to make great time, but to survive it, I’d need two crew vehicles to leap frog one another and set up cooling stations every third of a mile. The thought of it thrilled me, but then again, I wasn’t living it yet. I was listening to music, windows down on a spring day in a blooming desert. I was comfortable as hell! It was all still a fu@ked-up fantasy!

I marked off the best spots to set up my cooling stations. I noted wherever the shoulder was wide, and where stopping would have to be avoided. I also took note of gas stations and other places to fill up on water and buy ice. There weren’t many of them, but they were all mapped. After running the desert gauntlet I’d earn some relief from the heat and pay for it with altitude. The next stage of the race was an eighteen-mile climb to Towne Pass at 4,800 feet. The sun would be setting by then and after driving that section, I pulled over, closed my eyes, and visualized it all.

Research is one part of preparation; visualization is another. Following that Towne Pass climb, I would face a bone-crushing, nine-mile descent. I could see it unfurl from the top of the pass. One thing I learned from the Hurt 100 is that running downhill fu@ks you up bad, and this time I’d be doing it on asphalt. I closed my eyes, opened my mind, and tried to feel the pain in my quads and calves, knees and shins. I knew my quads would bear the brunt of that descent, so I made a note to add muscle. My thighs would need to be plated in steel.

The eighteen-mile climb up Darwin Pass from mile seventy-two would be pure hell. I’d have to run-walk that section, but the sun would be down, I’d welcome the chill in Lone Pine, and from there I could make up some time because that’s where the road flattened out again before the final thirteen-mile climb up Whitney Portal Road, to the finish line at 8,374 feet.

Then again, it’s easy to write “make up time” in your notepad, and another to execute it when you get there in real life, but at least I had notes. Together with my annotated maps, they made up my Badwater file, which I studied like I was preparing for another ASVAB test. I sat at my kitchen table, read and re-read them, and visualized each mile the best I could, but I also knew that my body still hadn’t recovered from Hawaii, which hampered the other, even more important aspect of my Badwater prep: physical training.

I was in dire need of PT, but my tendons still hurt so bad I couldn’t run for months. Pages were flying off the calendar. I needed to get harder and become the strongest runner possible, and the fact that I couldn’t train like I’d hoped sapped my confidence. Plus, word had gotten out at work about what I was getting myself into, and while I had some support from fellow SEALs, I got my share of negativity too, especially when they found out I still couldn’t run. But that was nothing new. Who hasn’t dreamed up a possibility for themselves only to have friends, colleagues, or family sh@t all over it? Most of us are motivated as hell to do anything to pursue our dreams until those around us remind us of the danger, the downside, our own limitations, and all the people before us that didn’t make it. Sometimes the advice comes from a well-intentioned place. They really believe they are doing it for our own good but if you let them, these same people will talk you out of your dreams, and your governor will help them do it.

That’s one reason I invented the Cookie Jar. We must create a system that constantly reminds us who the fu@k we are when we are at our best, because life is not going to pick us up when we fall. There will be forks in the road, knives in your fu@king back, mountains to climb, and we are only capable of living up to the image we create for ourselves.

Prepare yourself!

We know life can be hard, and yet we feel sorry for ourselves when it isn’t fair. From this point forward, accept the following as Goggins’ laws of nature:

You will be made fun of.

You will feel insecure.

You may not be the best all the time.

You may be the only black, white, Asian, Latino, female, male, gay, lesbian or [fill in your identity here] in a given situation.

There will be times when you feel alone.

Get over it!

Our minds are fu@king strong, they are our most powerful weapon, but we have stopped using them. We have access to so many more resources today than ever before and yet we are so much less capable than those who came before us. If you want to be one of the few to defy those trends in our ever-softening society, you will have to be willing to go to war with yourself and create a whole new identity, which requires an open mind. It’s funny, being open minded is often tagged as new age or soft. fu@k that. Being open minded enough to find a way is old school. It’s what knuckle draggers do. And that’s exactly what I did.

I borrowed my friend Stokes’ bike (he also graduated in Class 235), and instead of running to work, I rode there and back every day. There was an elliptical trainer in the brand-new SEAL Team Five gym, and I hit it once and sometimes twice a day, with five layers of clothes on! Death Valley heat scared the sh@t out of me, so I simulated it. I suited up in three or four pairs of sweatpants, a few pull-over sweatshirts, a hoodie, and a fleece hat, all sealed up in a Gore-Tex shell. After two minutes on the elliptical my heart rate was at 170, and I stayed at it for two hours at a time. Before or after that I’d hop on the rowing machine and bang out 30,000 meters—which is nearly twenty miles. I never did anything for ten or twenty minutes. My entire mindset was ultra. It had to be. Afterward I could be seen wringing my clothes out, like I’d just soaked them in a river. Most of the guys thought I was whacked out, but my old BUD/S instructor, SBG, fu@king loved it.

That spring I was tasked as a land warfare instructor for SEALs at our base in Niland, California; a sorry scrap of Southern California desert, its trailer parks rampant with unemployed meth heads. Drugged-out drifters, who filtered through the disintegrating settlements on the Salton Sea, an inland body of water sixty miles from the Mexico border, were our only neighbors. Whenever I passed them on the street while out on a ten-mile ruck, they’d stare like I was an alien that had materialized into the real world from one of their speed-addled vision quests. Then again, I was dressed in three layers of clothes and a Gore-Tex jacket in peak hundred-degree heat. I did look like some evil messenger from the way-out beyond! By then my injuries had become manageable and I ran ten miles at a time, then hiked the hills around Niland for hours, weighed down with a fifty-pound ruck.

The Team guys I was training considered me an alien being too, and a few of them were more frightened of me than the meth heads. They thought something had happened to me on the battlefield out in that other desert where war wasn’t a game. What they didn’t know was the battlefield for me was my own mind.

I drove back out to Death Valley to train and did a ten-mile run in a sauna suit. That motherfu@ker was hot as balls, but I had the hardest race in the world ahead of me, and I’d run a hundred miles twice. I knew how that felt, and the prospect of having to take on an additional thirty-five miles petrified me. Sure, I talked a good game, projected all kinds of confidence, and raised tens of thousands of dollars, but part of me didn’t know if I had what it took to finish the race, so I had to invent barbaric PT to give myself a chance.

It takes a lot of will to push yourself when you are all alone. I hated getting up in the morning knowing what the day held for me. It was very lonely, but I knew that on the Badwater course I’d reach a point where the pain would become unbearable and feel insurmountable. Maybe it would be at mile fifty or sixty, maybe later, but there would be a time when I’d want to quit, and I had to be able to slay the one-second decisions in order to stay in the game and access my untapped 60 percent.

During all the lonely hours of heat training, I’d started to dissect the quitting mind and realized that if I was going to perform close to my absolute potential and make the Warrior Foundation proud, I’d have to do more than answer the simple questions as they came up. I’d have to stifle the quitting mind before it gained any traction at all. Before I ever asked myself, “Why?” I’d need my Cookie Jar on recall to convince me that despite what my body was saying, I was immune to suffering.

Because nobody quits an ultra race or Hell Week in a split second. People make the decision to quit hours before they ring that bell, so I needed to be present enough to recognize when my body and mind were starting to fail in order to short circuit the impulse to look for a way out long before I tumbled into that fatal funnel. Ignoring pain or blocking out the truth like I did at the San Diego One Day would not work this time, and if you are on the hunt for your 100 percent you should catalog your weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Don’t ignore them. Be prepared for them, because in any endurance event, in any high-stress environment, your weaknesses will surface like bad karma, build in volume, and overwhelm you. Unless you get ahead of them first.

This is an exercise in recognition and visualization. You must recognize what you are about to do, highlight what you do not like about it, and spend time visualizing each and every obstacle you can. I was afraid of the heat, so in the run-up to Badwater, I imagined new and more medieval self-torture rituals disguised as training sessions (or maybe it was the other way around). I told myself I was immune to suffering, but that didn’t mean I was immune to pain. I hurt like everybody else, but I was committed to working my way around and through it so it would not derail me. By the time I toed up to the line at Badwater at 6 a.m. on July 22, 2006, I’d moved my governor to 80 percent. I’d doubled my ceiling in six months, and you know what that guaranteed me?

Jack fu@king sh@t.

Badwater has a staggered start. Rookies started at 6 a.m., veteran runners had an 8 a.m. start, and the true contenders wouldn’t take off until 10 a.m., which put them in Death Valley for peak heat. Chris Kostman was one hilarious son of a bit@h. But he didn’t know he’d given one hard motherfu@ker a serious tactical advantage. Not me. I’m talking about Akos Konya.

Akos and I met up the night before at the Furnace Creek Inn, where all the athletes stayed. He was a first-timer too, and he looked a hell of a lot better since the last time we saw one another. Despite his issues at the Hurt 100 (he finished by the way, in 35 hours and 17 minutes), I knew Akos was a stud, and since we were both in the first group I let him pace me through the desert. Bad call!

For the first seventeen miles we were side by side, and we looked like an odd couple. Akos is a 5’7”, 122-pound Hungarian. I was the biggest man in the field at 6’1”, 195 pounds, and the only black guy too. Akos was sponsored and dressed in a colorful, branded getup. I wore a torn grey tank top, black running shorts, and streamlined Oakley sunglasses. My feet and ankles were wrapped in compression tape and stuffed into broken-in but still springy running shoes. I didn’t wear Navy SEAL gear or Warrior Foundation garb. I preferred to go incognito. I was the shadow figure filtering into a new world of pain.

During my first Badwater

Although Akos set a fast pace, the heat didn’t bother me, partly because it was early and because I’d heat trained so well. We were the two best runners in the 6 a.m. group by far, and when we passed the Furnace Creek Inn at 8:40 a.m., some of the runners from the 10 a.m. group were outside, including Scott Jurek, the defending champion, Badwater record-holder, and an ultra legend. He must have known we were making great time, but I’m not sure he realized that he’d just glimpsed his stiffest competition.

Not long after, Akos put some space between us, and at mile twenty-six, I started to realize that, once again, I went out way too fast. I was dizzy and lightheaded, and I was dealing with GI issues. Translation: I had to sh@t on the side of the road. All of which stemmed from the fact that I was severely dehydrated. My mind spun with dire prognosis after dire prognosis. Excuses to quit piled up one after another. I didn’t listen. I responded by taking care of my dehydration issue and pounding more water than I wanted.

I went through the Stovepipe Wells checkpoint at mile forty-two at 1:31 p.m., a full hour after Akos. I’d been on the race course for over seven and a half hours and was almost exclusively walking by then. I was proud just to have made it through Death Valley on my feet. I took a break, went to a proper bathroom, and changed my clothes. My feet had swollen more than I’d expected, and my right big toe had been chafing the side of the shoe for hours, so stopping felt like sweet relief. I felt the bloom of a blood blister on the side of my left foot, but I knew better than to take off my shoes. Most athletes size up their shoes to run Badwater, and even then, they cut out the big toe side panel to create space for swelling and to minimize chafing. I did not, and I had ninety more miles ahead of me.

I hiked the entire eighteen-mile climb to Towne Pass at 4,850 feet. As predicted, the sun dropped as I crested the pass, the air cooled, and I pulled on another layer. In the military we always say we don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training, and as I hiked up the winding highway with my blister barking, I fell into the same rhythm I’d find on my long rucks in the desert around Niland. I wasn’t running, but I kept a strong pace and covered a lot of ground.

I stuck to my script, ran the entire nine-mile descent, and my quads paid the price. So did my left foot. My blister was growing by the minute. I could feel it verging on hot-air-balloon status. If only it would burst through my shoe like an old cartoon, and continue to expand until it carried me into the clouds and dropped me onto the peak of Mount Whitney itself.

No such luck. I kept walking, and aside from my crew, which included, among others, my wife (Kate was crew chief) and mother, I didn’t see anybody else. I was on an eternal ruck, marching beneath a black dome sky glittering with starlight. I’d been walking for so long I expected a swarm of runners to materialize at any moment, then leave me in their wake. But nobody showed. The only evidence of life on planet pain was the rhythm of my own hot breath, the burn of my cartoon blister, and the high beams and red taillights of road trippers blazing trails through the California night. That is, until the sun was ready to rise and a swarm finally did arrive at mile 110.

I was exhausted and dehydrated by then, glazed in sweat, dirt, and salt, when horseflies began to dive bomb me one at a time. Two became four which became ten and fifteen. They beat their wings against my skin, bit my thighs, and crawled into my ears. This sh@t was biblical, and it was my very last test. My crew took turns swatting flies off my skin with a towel. I was in personal best territory already. I’d covered more than 110 miles on foot, and with “only” twenty-five miles to go there was no fu@king way these devil flies would stop me. Would they? I kept marching, and my crew kept swatting flies, for the next eight miles!

Since watching Akos run away from me after mile seventeen, I hadn’t seen another Badwater runner until mile 122 when Kate pulled up alongside me.

“Scott Jurek is two miles behind you,” she said.

We were more than twenty-six hours into the race, and Akos had already finished, but the fact that Jurek was just now catching me meant my time must have been pretty damn good. I hadn’t run much, but all those Niland rucks made my hiking stride swift and strong. I was able to power hike fifteen-minute miles, and got my nutrition on the move to save time. After it was all over, when I examined the splits and finishing times of all the competitors, I realized my biggest fear, the heat, had actually helped me. It was the great equalizer. It made fast runners slow.

With Jurek on the hunt, I was inspired to give it everything I had as I turned onto Whitney Portal Road and started the final thirteen-mile climb. I flashed onto my pre-race strategy to walk the slopes and run the flats as the road switched back like a snake slithering into the clouds. Jurek wasn’t pursuing me, but he was on the chase. Akos had finished in twenty-five hours and fifty-eight minutes and Jurek hadn’t been at his best that day. The clock was winding down on his effort to repeat as Badwater champion, but he had the tactical advantage of knowing Akos’ time in advance. He also knew his splits. Akos hadn’t had that luxury, and somewhere on the highway he’d stopped for a thirty-minute nap.

Jurek wasn’t alone. He had a pacer, a formidable runner in his own right named Dusty Olson who nipped at his heels. Word was Olson ran at least seventy miles of the race himself. I heard them approach from behind, and whenever the road switched back I could see them below me. Finally, at mile 128, on the steepest part of the steepest road in this entire fu@ked-up race, they were right behind me. I stopped running, got out of the way, and cheered them on.

Jurek was the fastest ultra runner in history at that point, but his pace wasn’t electric that late in the game. It was consistent. He chopped down the mighty mountain with each deliberate step. He wore black running shorts, a blue sleeveless shirt, and a white baseball cap. Behind him, Olson had his long, shoulder length hair corralled with a bandana, otherwise their uniform was identical. Jurek was the mule and Olson was riding him.

“Come on, Jurker! Come on, Jurker! This is your race,” Olson said as they passed me up. “No one is better than you! No one!” Olson kept talking as they ran ahead, reminding Jurek that he had more to give. Jurek obliged and kept charging up the mountain. He left it all out on that unforgiving asphalt. It was amazing to watch.

Jurek wound up winning the 2006 edition of Badwater when he finished in twenty-five hours and forty-one minutes, seventeen minutes faster than Akos, who must have regretted his power nap, but that wasn’t my concern. I had a race of my own to finish.

Whitney Portal Road winds up a parched, exposed rock escarpment for ten miles, before finding shade in gathering stands of cedar and pine. Energized by Jurek and his crew, I ran most of the last seven miles. I used my hips to push my legs forward and every single step was agony, but after thirty hours, eighteen minutes, and fifty-four seconds of running, hiking, sweating, and suffering, I snapped the tape to the cheers of a small crowd. I’d wanted to quit thirty times. I had to mentally inch my way through 135 miles, but ninety runners competed that day, and I came in fifth place.

Akos and I after my second Badwater in 2007—I placed third and Akos came in second again

I plodded over to a grassy slope in the woods and lay back on a bed of pine needles as Kate unlaced my shoes. That blister had fully colonized my left foot. It was so big it looked like a sixth toe, the color and texture of cherry bubble gum. I marveled at it while she removed the compression tape from my feet. Then I staggered to the stage to accept my medal from Kostman. I’d just finished one of the hardest races on planet earth. I’d visualized that moment ten times at least and thought I’d be elated, but I wasn’t.

Blistered toe after Badwater

SBG’s email to Kostman. He was right: I did finish in the top 10 percent!

He handed me my medal, shook my hand, and interviewed me for the crowd, but I was only half there. While he spoke, I flashed to the final climb and a pass above 8,000 feet, where the view was unreal. I could see all the way to Death Valley. Near the end of another horrible journey, I got to see where I came from. It was the perfect metaphor for my twisted life. Once again I was broken, destroyed twenty different ways, but I’d passed another evolution, another crucible, and my reward was a lot more than a medal and a few minutes with Kostman’s microphone.

It was a whole new bar.

I closed my eyes and saw Jurek and Olson, Akos and Karl Meltzer. All of them had something I didn’t. They understood how to drain every last drop and put themselves in a position to win the world’s most difficult races, and it was time to seek out that feeling for myself. I’d prepared like a madman. I knew myself and the terrain. I stayed ahead of the quitting mind, answered the simple questions, and stayed in the race, but there was more to be done. There was still somewhere higher for me to rise. A cool breeze rustled the trees, dried the sweat from my skin, and soothed my aching bones. It whispered in my ear and shared a secret which echoed in my brain like a drumbeat that wouldn’t stop.

There is no finish line, Goggins. There is no finish line.

CHALLENGE #7

The main objective here is to slowly start to remove the governor from your brain.

First, a quick reminder of how this process works. In 1999, when I weighed 297 pounds, my first run was a quarter mile. Fast forward to 2007, I ran 205 miles in thirty-nine hours, nonstop. I didn’t get there overnight, and I don’t expect you to either. Your job is to push past your normal stopping point.

Whether you are running on a treadmill or doing a set of push-ups, get to the point where you are so tired and in pain that your mind is begging you to stop. Then push just 5 to 10 percent further. If the most push-ups you have ever done is one hundred in a workout, do 105 or 110. If you normally run thirty miles each week, run 10 percent more next week.

This gradual ramp-up will help prevent injury and allow your body and mind to slowly adapt to your new workload. It also resets your baseline, which is important because you’re about to increase your workload another 5 to 10 percent the following week, and the week after that.

There is so much pain and suffering involved in physical challenges that it’s the best training to take command of your inner dialogue, and the newfound mental strength and confidence you gain by continuing to push yourself physically will carry over to other aspects in your life. You will realize that if you were underperforming in your physical challenges, there is a good chance you are underperforming at school and work too.

The bottom line is that life is one big mind game. The only person you are playing against is yourself. Stick with this process and soon what you thought was impossible will be something you do every fu@king day of your life. I want to hear your stories. Post on social. Hashtags: #canthurtme #The40PercentRule #dontgetcomfortable.

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