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CHAPTER ELEVEN - WHAT IF?

Before the race even kicked off I knew I was fu@ked. In 2014, the National Park Service wouldn’t approve the traditional Badwater course, so Chris Kostman redrew the map. Instead of starting in Death Valley National Park and running forty-two miles through the hottest desert on the planet, it would launch further upcountry at the base of a twenty-two-mile climb. That wasn’t my problem. It was the fact that I toed the line eleven pounds over my usual race weight, and had gained ten of those pounds in the previous seven days. I wasn’t a fat ass. To the average eye I looked fit, but Badwater wasn’t an average race. To run and finish strong, my condition needed to be tip top, and I was far from it. Whatever was happening to me came as a shock, because after two years of substandard running, I thought I’d gotten my powers back.

The previous January I’d won a one-hundred-kilometer glacial trail race called Frozen Otter. It wasn’t as hard as the Hurt 100 but it was close. Set in Wisconsin, just outside Milwaukee, the course laid out like a lopsided figure eight, with the start-finish at the center. We passed it between the two loops, which enabled us to stock up on food and other necessary supplies from our cars, and stuff them into our packs with our emergency supplies. The weather can turn evil out there, and race organizers compiled a list of necessities we were required to have on us at all times so we wouldn’t die of dehydration, hypothermia, or exposure.

The first lap was the larger loop of the two and when we set off the temperature was sitting at zero degrees Fahrenheit. Those trails were never plowed. In some places, snow piled into drifts. In others the trails seemed purposefully glazed with slick ice. Which presented a problem because I wasn’t wearing boots or trail shoes like most of my competitors. I laced up my standard running shoes, and tucked them into some cheap ass crampons, which theoretically were supposed to grip the ice and keep me upright. Well, the ice won that war and my crampons snapped off in the first hour. Nevertheless, I was leading the race and breaking trail in an average of six to twelve inches of snow. In some places the drifts were piled much higher. My feet were cold and wet from the starting gun, and within two hours they felt frozen through, especially my toes. My top half wasn’t faring much better. When you sweat in below-freezing temperature, salt on your body chafes the skin. My underarms and chest were cracking raspberry red. I was covered in rashes, my toes hurt with every step, but none of that registered too high on my pain scale, because I was running free.

For the first time since my second heart surgery, my body was beginning to put itself back together. I was getting 100 percent of my oxygen supply like everyone else, my endurance and strength were next-level, and though the trail was a slippery mess, my technique was dialed-in too. I was way out front and stopped at my car for a sandwich before the last twenty-two-mile loop. My toes throbbed with evil pain. I suspected they were frostbitten, which meant I was in danger of losing some of them, but I didn’t want to take off my shoes and look. Once again, doubt and fear were popping in my brain, reminding me that only a handful of people had ever finished the Frozen Otter, and that no lead was safe in that kind of cold. Weather, more than any other variable, can break a motherfu@ker down quick. But I didn’t listen to any of that. I created a new dialogue and told myself to finish the race strong and worry about amputated toes at the hospital after I was crowned champion.

I ran back onto the course. A blast of sun had melted some of the snow earlier in the day, but the cold wind iced up the trail nicely. As I ran, I flashed to my first year at Hurt 100 and the great Karl Meltzer. Back then, I was a plodder. I hit the turf with my heel first, and peeling the muddy trail with the entire surface area of my foot increased my odds of slipping and falling. Karl didn’t run like that. He moved like a goat, bouncing on his toes and running along the edges of the trail. As soon as his toes hit the ground he fired his legs into the air. That’s why he looked like he was floating. By design, he barely touched the ground, while his head and core remained stable and engaged. From that moment onward, his movements were permanently etched in my brain like a cave painting. I visualized them all the time and put his techniques into practice during training runs.

They say it takes sixty-six days to build a habit. For me it takes a hell of a lot longer than that, but I eventually get there, and during all those years of ultra training and competition I was working on my craft. A true runner analyzes their form. We didn’t learn how to do that in the SEALs, but being around so many ultra runners for years, I was able to absorb and practice skills that seemed unnatural at first. At Frozen Otter, my main focus was to hit the ground soft; to touch it just enough to explode. During my third BUD/S class and then my first platoon, when I was considered one of the better runners, my head bounced all over the place. My weight wasn’t balanced and when my foot hit the ground all my weight would be supported by that one leg, which led to some awkward falls on slippery terrain. Through trial and error, and thousands of hours of training, I learned to maintain balance.

At Frozen Otter it all came together. With speed and grace, I navigated steep, slippery trails. I kept my head flat and still, my motion quiet as possible, and my steps silent by running on the front of my feet. When I picked up speed, it was as if I’d disappeared into a white wind, elevated into a meditative state. I became Karl Meltzer. Now it was me who looked to be levitating over an impossible trail, and I finished the race in sixteen hours, smashing the course record and winning the Frozen Otter title without losing any toes.

Toes after Frozen Otter

Two years earlier I was stricken with dizzy spells during easy six-mile runs. In 2013, I was forced to walk over one-hundred miles of Badwater, and finished in seventeenth place. I’d been on a downslide and thought my days of contention for titles were long past over. After Frozen Otter, I was tempted to believe I’d made it all the way back and then some, and that my best ultra years were actually ahead of me. I took that energy into my preparations for Badwater 2014.

I was living in Chicago at the time, working as an instructor in BUD/S prep, a school that prepared candidates to deal with the harsh reality they would face in BUD/S. After more than twenty years, I was in my final year of military service, and by being placed in a position to drop wisdom on the would-bes and wanna-bes, it felt like I’d come full circle. As usual I would run ten miles to work and back, and squeeze in another eight miles during lunch when I could. On the weekends I’d do at least one thirty-five- to forty-mile run. It all added up to a succession of 130-mile weeks and I was feeling strong. As spring bloomed I added a heat training component by slipping on four or five layers of sweats, a beanie, and a Gore-Tex jacket before hitting the streets. When I’d show up at work, my fellow SEAL instructors would watch, amazed, as I peeled off my wet clothes and stuffed them into black trash bags that together weighed nearly fifteen pounds.

I started my taper four weeks out, and went from 130-mile weeks to an eighty-mile week, then down to sixty, forty, and twenty. Tapering is supposed to generate an abundance of energy as you eat and rest, enabling the body to repair all the damage done and get you primed for competition. Instead, I’d never felt worse. I wasn’t hungry and couldn’t sleep at all. Some people said my body was starved of calories. Others suggested I might be low on sodium. My doctor measured my thyroid and it was a little off, but the readings weren’t so bad to explain how sh@tty I felt. Perhaps the explanation was simple. That I was over-trained.

Two weeks before the race I considered pulling out. I worried it was my heart again because on easy runs I felt a surge of adrenaline that I couldn’t vent. Even a mellow pace sent my pulse racing into arrhythmia. Ten days before the race, I landed in Vegas. I’d scheduled five runs but couldn’t get past the three-mile mark on any of them. I wasn’t eating that much but the weight kept piling on. It was all water. I sought out another doctor who confirmed there was nothing physically wrong with me and when I heard that, I was not about to be a pussy.

During the opening miles and initial climb of Badwater 2014, my heart rate ran high, but part of that was the altitude, and twenty-two miles later I made it to the top in sixth or seventh place. Surprised and proud, I thought, let’s see if I can go downhill. I’ve never enjoyed the brutality of running down a steep incline because it shreds the quads, but I also thought it would allow me to reset and calm my breath. My body refused. I couldn’t catch my breath at all. I hit the flat section at the bottom, slowed my pace, and began to walk. My competitors passed me by as my thighs twitched uncontrollably. My muscle spasms were so bad, my quads looked like there was an alien rattling around inside them.

And I still didn’t stop! I walked for four full miles before seeking shelter in a Lone Pine motel room where the Badwater medical team had set up shop. They checked me out and saw that my blood pressure was a bit low but easily corrected. They couldn’t find a single metric that could explain how fu@ked I felt.

I ate some solid food, rested and decided to try one more time. There was a flat section leaving Lone Pine and I thought if I could knock that out perhaps I’d catch a second wind, but six or seven miles later my sails were still empty, and I’d given all I had. My muscles trembled and twitched, my heart jumped up and down the chart. I looked over at my pacer and said, “That’s it, man. I’m done.”

My support vehicle pulled up behind us and I climbed inside. A few minutes later I was laying on that same motel bed, with my tail between my legs. I’d lasted just fifty miles, but any humiliation that came with quitting—not something I was used to—was drowned out by an instinct that something was way the fu@k off. It wasn’t my fear talking or my desire for comfort. This time, I was certain that if I didn’t stop trying to break through this barrier, I wouldn’t make it out of the Sierras alive.

We left Lone Pine for Las Vegas the next night, and for two days I did my best to rest and recover, hoping my body would settle somewhere close to equilibrium. We were staying at the Wynn, and on that third morning I went for a jog to see if I had anything in the tank. One mile later, my heart was in my throat, and I shut it down. I walked back to the hotel, knowing that despite what the doctors said, I was sick and suspected that whatever I had was serious.

Later that night, after seeing a movie in the Vegas suburbs, I felt weak as we strolled to a nearby restaurant, the Elephant Bar. My mom was a few paces ahead and I saw her in triplicate. I clenched my eyes shut, released them, and there were still three of her. She held the door open for me and when I stepped into the cool confines, I felt a bit better. We slid into a booth opposite one another. I was too unsteady to read the menu and asked her to order for me. From there, it got worse, and when the runner showed up with our food, my vision blurred again. I strained to open my eyes wide and felt woozy as my mother looked to be floating above the table.

“You’re going to have to call an ambulance,” I said, “because I’m going down.”

Desperate for some stability, I laid my head on the table, but my mom didn’t dial 911. She crossed to my side and I leaned on her as we made our way to the hostess stand and then back to the car. On the way I shared as much of my medical history as I could recall, in short bursts, in case I lost consciousness and she did have to call for help. Luckily, my vision and energy improved enough for her to drive me to the emergency room herself.

My thyroid had been flagged in the past, so that’s the first thing the doctors explored. Many Navy SEALs have thyroid issues when they reach their thirties, because when you put motherfu@kers in extreme environments like Hell Week and war, their hormone levels go haywire. When the thyroid gland is suboptimal, fatigue, muscle aches, and weakness are among more than a dozen major side effects, but my thyroid levels were close to normal. My heart checked out too. The ER docs in Vegas told me all I needed was rest.

I went back to Chicago and saw my own doctor who ordered a battery of blood tests. His office tested my endocrine system and screened me for Lyme, hepatitis, Rheumatoid arthritis, and a handful of other autoimmune diseases. Everything came back clean except for my thyroid which was slightly suboptimal, but that didn’t explain how I’d morphed so fast from an elite athlete capable of running hundreds of miles into a pretender who could barely muster the energy to tie his shoes, let alone run a mile without verging on collapse. I was in medical no-man’s-land. I left his office with more questions than answers and a prescription for thyroid medication.

Each day that went by I felt worse. Everything was crashing on me. I had trouble getting out of bed, I was constipated and achy. They took more blood and decided I had Addison’s disease, an autoimmune illness that occurs when your adrenals are drained and your body doesn’t produce enough cortisol, which was common in SEALs because we’re primed to run on adrenaline. My doctor prescribed the steroid Hydrocortisone, DHEA, and Arimidex among other meds, but taking his pills only accelerated my decline, and after that, he and the other doctors I saw were tapped out. The look in their eyes said it all. In their minds, I was either a crazy hypochondriac, or I was dying and they didn’t know what was killing me or how to heal me.

I fought through it the best I could. My coworkers didn’t know anything about my decline because I continued to show no weakness. My whole life I’d been hiding all my insecurities and trauma. I kept all my vulnerabilities locked down beneath an iron veneer, but eventually the pain became so bad I couldn’t even get out of bed. I called in sick and lay there, staring at the ceiling, and wondered, could this be the end?

Peering into the abyss sent my mind reeling back through the days, weeks, years, like fingers flipping through old files. I found all the best parts and tacked them together into a highlight loop streamed on repeat. I grew up beat down and abused, filtered uneducated through a system that rejected me at every turn, until I took ownership and started to change. Since then I’d been obese. I was married and divorced. I had two heart surgeries, taught myself to swim, and learned to run on broken legs. I was terrified of heights, then took up high altitude sky diving. Water scared the living sh@t out of me, yet I became a technical diver and underwater navigator, which is several degrees of difficulty beyond scuba diving. I competed in more than sixty ultra distance races, winning several, and set a pull-up record. I stuttered through my early years in primary school and grew up to become the Navy SEALs’ most trusted public speaker. I’d served my country on the battlefield. Along the way I became driven to make sure that I could not be defined by the abuse I was born into or the bullying that I grew up with. I wouldn’t be defined by talent either, I didn’t have much, or my own fears and weaknesses.

I was the sum total of the obstacles I’d overcome. And even though I’d told my story to students all over the country, I never stopped long enough to appreciate the tale I told or the life I’d built. In my mind, I didn’t have the time to waste. I never hit snooze on my life clock because there was always something else to do. If I worked a twenty-hour day, I’d work out for an hour and sleep for three, but I made sure to get that motherfu@ker in. My brain wasn’t wired to appreciate, it was programmed to do work, scan the horizon, ask what’s next, and get it done. That’s why I piled up so many rare feats. I was always on the hunt for the next big thing, but as I lay there in bed, my body taut with tension and throbbing with pain, I had a clear idea what was next for me. The cemetery. After years of abuse, I’d finally shredded my physical body beyond repair.

I was dying.

For weeks and months, I searched for a cure to my medical mystery, but in that moment of catharsis I didn’t feel sad and I didn’t feel cheated. I was only thirty-eight years old, but I’d lived ten lives and experienced a hell of a lot more than most eighty-year-olds. I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself. It made sense that at some point the toll would come due. I spent hours reflecting back on my journey. This time, I wasn’t sifting through the Cookie Jar while in the heat of battle hoping to find a ticket to victory. I wasn’t leveraging my life assets toward some new end. No, I was done fighting, and all I felt was gratitude.

I wasn’t meant to be this person! I had to fight myself at every turn, and my destroyed body was my biggest trophy. In that moment I knew it didn’t matter if I ever ran again, if I couldn’t operate anymore, or if I lived or died, and with that acceptance came deep appreciation.

My eyes welled with tears. Not because I was afraid, but because at my lowest point I found clarity. The kid I always judged so harshly didn’t lie and cheat to hurt anyone’s feelings. He did it for acceptance. He broke the rules because he didn’t have the tools to compete and was ashamed for being dumb. He did it because he needed friends. I was afraid to tell the teachers I couldn’t read. I was terrified of the stigma associated with special education, and instead of coming down on that kid for one more second, instead of chastising my younger self, I understood him for the first time.

It was a lonely journey from there to here. I missed out on so much. I didn’t have a lot of fun. Happiness wasn’t my cocktail of choice. My brain had me on constant blast. I lived in fear and doubt, terrified of being a nobody and contributing nothing. I’d judged myself constantly and I’d judged everyone else around me, too.

Rage is a powerful thing. For years I’d raged at the world, channeled all my pain from my past and used it as fuel to propel me into the motherfu@king stratosphere, but I couldn’t always control the blast radius. Sometimes my rage scorched people who weren’t as strong as I’d become, or didn’t work as hard, and I didn’t swallow my tongue or hide my judgment. I let them know, and that hurt some of the people around me, and it allowed people who didn’t like me to affect my military career. But lying in bed on that Chicago morning in the fall of 2014, I let all that judgment go.

I released myself and everyone I ever knew from any and all guilt and bitterness. The long list of haters, doubters, racists, and abusers that populated my past, I just couldn’t hate them anymore. I appreciated them because they helped create me. And as that feeling stretched out, my mind quieted down. I’d been fighting a war for thirty-eight years, and now, at what looked and felt like the very end, I found peace.

In this life there are countless trails to self-realization, though most demand intense discipline, so very few take them. In southern Africa, the San people dance for thirty hours straight as a way to commune with the divine. In Tibet, pilgrims rise, kneel, then stretch out face down on the ground before rising again, in a ritual of prostration for weeks and months, as they cover thousands of miles before arriving at a sacred temple and folding into deep meditation. In Japan there’s a sect of Zen monks that run 1,000 marathons in 1,000 days in a quest to find enlightenment through pain and suffering. I don’t know if you could call what I felt on that bed “enlightenment,” but I do know that pain unlocks a secret doorway in the mind. One that leads to both peak performance and beautiful silence.

At first, when you push beyond your perceived capability your mind won’t shut the fu@k up about it. It wants you to stop so it sends you into a spin cycle of panic and doubt, which only amplifies your self-torture. But when you persist past that to the point that pain fully saturates the mind, you become single-pointed. The external world zeroes out. Boundaries dissolve and you feel connected to yourself, and to all things, in the depth of your soul. That’s what I was after. Those moments of total connection and power, which came through me again in an even deeper way as I reflected on where I’d come from and all I’d put myself through.

For hours, I floated in that tranquil space, surrounded by light, feeling as much gratitude as pain, as much appreciation as there was discomfort. At some point the reverie broke like a fever. I smiled, placed my palms over my watery eyes and rubbed the top and then the back of my head. At the base of my neck, I felt a familiar knot. It bulged bigger than ever. I threw off the covers and examined the knots above my hip flexors next. Those had grown too.

Could it be that basic? Could my suffering be linked to those knots? I flashed back to a session with an expert in stretching and advanced physical and mental training methods the SEALs brought to our base in Coronado in 2010 named Joe Hippensteel. Joe was an undersized decathlete in college, driven to make the Olympic team. But when you’re a 5’8” guy going up against world-class decathletes who average 6’3” that isn’t easy. He decided to build up his lower body so he could override his genetics to jump higher and run faster than his bigger, stronger opponents. At one point he was squatting twice his own body weight for ten sets of ten reps in one session, but with that increase in muscle mass came a lot of tension, and tension invited injury. The harder he trained, the more injuries he developed and the more physical therapists he visited. When he was told he tore his hamstring before the trials, his Olympic dream died, and he realized he needed to change the way he trained his body. He began balancing his strength work with extensive stretching and noticed whenever he reached a certain range of motion in a given muscle group or joint, whatever pain lingered, vanished.

He became his own guinea pig and developed optimal ranges of motion for every muscle and joint in the human body. He never went to the doctor or physical therapists again because he found his own methodologies much more effective. If an injury cropped up, he treated himself with a stretching regimen. Over the years he built up a clientele and reputation among elite athletes in the area, and in 2010, was introduced to some Navy SEALs. Word spread at Naval Special Warfare Command and he was eventually invited to introduce his range of motion routine to about two dozen SEALs. I was one of them.

As he lectured, he examined and stretched us out. The problem with most of the guys, he said, was our overuse of muscles without the appropriate balance of flexibility, and those issues traced back to Hell Week, when we were asked to do thousands of flutter kicks, then lie back in cold water with waves washing over us. He estimated it would take twenty hours of intensive stretching using his protocol to get most of us back to a normal range of motion in the hips, which can then be maintained, he said, with just twenty minutes of stretching every day. Optimal range of motion required a larger commitment. When he got to me he took a good look and shook his head. As you know, I’d tasted three Hell Weeks. He started to stretch me out, and said I was so locked up it was like trying to stretch steel cables.

“You’re gonna need hundreds of hours,” he said.

At the time, I didn’t pay him any mind because I had no plans to take up stretching. I was obsessed with strength and power, and everything I’d read suggested that an increase in flexibility meant an equal and opposite decrease in speed and force. The view from my death bed altered my perspective.

I pulled myself up, staggered to the bathroom mirror, turned, and examined the knot on my head. I stood as tall as I could. It looked like I’d lost not one, but nearly two inches in height. My range of motion had never been worse. What if Joe was right?

What if?

One of my mottos these days is peaceful but never satisfied. It was one thing to enjoy the peace of self-acceptance, and my acceptance of the fu@ked-up world as it is, but that didn’t mean I was going to lie down and wait to die without at least trying to save myself. It didn’t mean then, and it doesn’t mean now, that I will accept the imperfect or just plain wrong without fighting to change things for the better. I’d tried accessing the mainstream mind to find healing, but the doctors and their drugs didn’t do sh@t except make me feel a whole lot worse. I had no other cards to play. All I could do is try to stretch myself back to health.

The first posture was simple. I sat on the ground and tried to cross my legs, Indian style, but my hips were so tight, my knees were up around my ears. I lost my balance and rolled onto my back. It took all my strength to right myself and try again. I stayed in position for ten seconds, maybe fifteen, before straightening my legs because it was too damn painful.

Cramps squeezed and pinched every muscle in my lower body. Sweat oozed from my pores, but after a short rest, I folded up my legs and took more pain. I cycled through that same stretch on and off for an hour and slowly, my body started to open. I did a simple quad stretch next. The one we all learn to do in middle school. Standing on my left leg, I bent my right and grabbed my foot with my right hand. Joe was right. My quads were so bulky and tight it was like stretching steel cables. Again, I stayed in the posture until the pain was a seven out of ten. Then I took a short break and hit the other side.

That standing posture helped to release my quad and stretch out my psoas. The psoas is the only muscle connecting our spine to our lower legs. It wraps around the back of the pelvis, governs the hips, and is known as the fight or flight muscle. As you know, my whole life was fight or flight. As a young kid drowning in toxic stress, I worked that muscle overtime. Ditto during my three Hell Weeks, Ranger School, and Delta Selection. Not to mention war. Yet I never did anything to loosen it up, and as an athlete I continued to tap my sympathetic nervous system and had been grinding so hard my psoas continued to stiffen. Especially on long runs, where sleep deprivation and cold weather came into play. Now, it was trying to choke me from the inside out. I’d learn later that it had tilted my pelvis, compressed my spine, and wrapped my connective tissue tight. It shaved two inches off my height. I spoke to Joe about it recently.

“What was happening to you is an extreme case of what happens to 90 percent of the population,” he said. “Your muscles were so locked up that your blood wasn’t circulating very well. They were like a frozen steak. You can’t inject blood into a frozen steak, and that’s why you were shutting down.”

And it wouldn’t let go without a fight. Each stretch plunged me into the fire. I had so much inflammation and internal stiffness, the slightest movement hurt, say nothing of long hold poses meant to isolate my quad and psoas. When I sat down and did the butterfly stretch next, the torture intensified.

I stretched for two hours that day, woke up sore as hell, and got back after it. On day two I stretched for six full hours. I did the same three poses over and over, then tried to sit on my heels, in a double quad stretch that was pure agony. I worked a calf stretch in too. Each session started off rough, but after an hour or two my body released enough for the pain to ease up.

Before long I was folded into stretches for upwards of twelve hours a day. I woke up at 6 a.m., stretched until 9 a.m., and then stretched on and off while at the desk at work, especially when I was on the phone. I’d stretch out during my lunch hour and then after I got home at 5 p.m., I’d stretch until I hit the sack.

I came up with a routine, starting at my neck and shoulders before moving into the hips, psoas, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. Stretching became my new obsession. I bought a massage ball to tenderize my psoas. I propped a board up against a closed door at a seventy-degree angle and used it to stretch out my calf. I’d been suffering for the better part of two years, and after several months of continual stretching, I noticed the bump at the base of my skull had started to shrink, along with the knots around my hip flexors, and my overall health and energy level improved. I wasn’t anywhere close to flexible yet, and I wasn’t completely back to myself, but I was off all but my thyroid medication, and the more I stretched the more my condition improved. I kept at it for at least six hours a day for weeks. Then months and years. I’m still doing it.

I retired from the military as a Chief in the Navy, in November 2015, the only military man ever to be part of Air Force TAC-P, three Navy SEAL Hell Weeks in one year (completing two of them), and graduate BUD/S and Army Ranger School. It was a bittersweet moment because the military was a big part of my identity. It helped shape me and make me a better man, and I gave it everything I had.

By then Bill Brown had moved on too. He grew up marginalized like me, wasn’t supposed to amount to much, and even got bounced from his first BUD/S class by instructors who questioned his intelligence. Today, he is a lawyer at a major firm in Philadelphia. Freak Brown proved and continues to prove himself.

Sledge is still in the SEAL Teams. When I met him he was a big time boozer, but after our workouts his mentality changed. He went from never running at all to running marathons. From not owning a bicycle to becoming one of the fastest cyclists in San Diego. He’s finished multiple Ironman triathlons. They say iron sharpens iron, and we proved that.

Shawn Dobbs never became a SEAL, but he did become an Officer. He’s a Lieutenant Commander these days, and he’s still a hell of an athlete. He’s an Ironman, an accomplished cyclist, was honor man in the Navy’s Advanced Dive School, and later earned a graduate degree. One reason for all of his success is because he’s come to own his failure in Hell Week, which means it no longer owns him.

SBG is still in the Navy too, but he’s not messing with BUD/S candidates anymore. He analyzes data to make sure Naval Special Warfare continues to become smarter, stronger, and more effective than ever. He’s an egghead now. An egghead with an edge. But I was with him when he was at his physical peak, and he was a fu@king stud.

Since our dark days in Buffalo and Brazil, my mother has also completely transformed her life. She earned a master’s degree in education and serves as a volunteer on a domestic violence task force, when she’s not working as a senior associate vice president at a Nashville medical school.

As for me, stretching helped me get my powers back. As my time in the military wound down, while I was still in the rehab zone, I studied to recertify as an EMT. Once again, I utilized my long-hand memorization skills I’d been honing since high school to finish at the top of my class. I also attended TEEX Fire Training Academy, where I graduated Top Honor Man in my class. Eventually, I started running again, this time with zero side effects, and when I got back into decent enough shape, I entered a few ultras and returned to the top spot in several including the Strolling Jim 40-Miler in Tennessee, and Infinitus 88k in Vermont, both in 2016. But that wasn’t enough, so I became a wildland firefighter in Montana.

After wrapping up my first season on the fire lines in the summer of 2015, I stopped by my mother’s place in Nashville for a visit. At midnight her phone rang. My mother is like me in the sense that she doesn’t have a wide circle of friends and doesn’t get many phone calls during decent hours, so this was either a wrong number or an emergency.

I could hear Trunnis Jr. on the other end of the line. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in over fifteen years. Our relationship broke down the moment he chose to stay with our father rather than tough it out with us. For most of my life I found his decision impossible to forgive or accept, but like I said, I’d changed. Through the years, my mother kept me updated on the basics. He’d eventually stepped away from our father and his shady businesses, earned a PhD, and became a college administrator. He is also a great father to his kids.

I could tell by my mom’s voice that something was wrong. All I remember hearing was my mom asking, “Are you sure it’s Kayla?” When she hung up, she explained that Kayla, his eighteen-year-old daughter, had been hanging with friends in Indianapolis. At some point looser acquaintances rolled up, bad blood boiled, a gun was pulled, shots rang out, and a stray bullet found one of the teenagers.

When his ex-wife called him, in panic mode, he drove to the crime scene, but when he arrived he was held outside the yellow tape and kept in the dark. He could see Kayla’s car and a body under a tarp, but nobody would tell him if his daughter was alive or dead.

My mother and I hit the road immediately. I drove eighty mph through slanted rain for five hours straight to Indianapolis. We pulled into his driveway shortly after he returned from the crime scene where, while standing outside the yellow tape, he was asked to identify his daughter from a picture of her body taken on a detective’s cell phone. He wasn’t offered the dignity of privacy or time to pay respects. He had to do all that later. He opened the door, took a few steps toward us, and broke down crying. My mother got there first. Then I pulled my brother in for a hug and all of our bullsh@t issues no longer mattered.

The Buddha famously said that life is suffering. I’m not a Buddhist, but I know what he meant and so do you. To exist in this world, we must contend with humiliation, broken dreams, sadness, and loss. That’s just nature. Each specific life comes with its own personalized portion of pain. It’s coming for you. You can’t stop it. And you know it.

In response, most of us are programmed to seek comfort as a way to numb it all out and cushion the blows. We carve out safe spaces. We consume media that confirms our beliefs, we take up hobbies aligned with our talents, we try to spend as little time as possible doing the tasks we fu@king loathe, and that makes us soft. We live a life defined by the limits we imagine and desire for ourselves because it’s comfortable as hell in that box. Not just for us, but for our closest family and friends. The limits we create and accept become the lens through which they see us. Through which they love and appreciate us.

But for some, those limits start to feel like bondage, and when we least expect it, our imagination jumps those walls and hunts down dreams that in the immediate aftermath feel attainable. Because most dreams are. We are inspired to make changes little by little, and it hurts. Breaking the shackles and stretching beyond our own perceived limits takes hard fu@king work—oftentimes physical work—and when you put yourself on the line, self doubt and pain will greet you with a stinging combination that will buckle your knees.

Most people who are merely inspired or motivated will quit at that point, and upon their return, their cells will feel that much smaller, their shackles even tighter. The few who remain outside their walls will encounter even more pain and much more doubt, courtesy of those who we thought were our biggest fans. When it was time for me to lose 106 pounds in less than three months, everyone I talked to told me there was no way I could do it. “Don’t expect too much,” they all said. Their weak-ass dialogue only fed my own self doubt.

But it’s not the external voice that will break you down. It’s what you tell yourself that matters. The most important conversations you’ll ever have are the ones you’ll have with yourself. You wake up with them, you walk around with them, you go to bed with them, and eventually you act on them. Whether they be good or bad.

We are all our own worst haters and doubters because self doubt is a natural reaction to any bold attempt to change your life for the better. You can’t stop it from blooming in your brain, but you can neutralize it, and all the other external chatter by asking, What if?

What if is an exquisite fu@k-you to anyone who has ever doubted your greatness or stood in your way. It silences negativity. It’s a reminder that you don’t really know what you’re capable of until you put everything you’ve got on the line. It makes the impossible feel at least a little more possible. What if is the power and permission to face down your darkest demons, your very worst memories, and accept them as part of your history. If and when you do that, you will be able to use them as fuel to envision the most audacious, outrageous achievement and go get it.

We live in a world with a lot of insecure, jealous people. Some of them are our best friends. They are blood relatives. Failure terrifies them. So does our success. Because when we transcend what we once thought possible, push our limits, and become more, our light reflects off all the walls they’ve built up around them. Your light enables them to see the contours of their own prison, their own self-limitations. But if they are truly the great people you always believed them to be, their jealousy will evolve, and soon their imagination might hop its fence, and it will be their turn to change for the better.

I hope that’s what this book has done for you. I hope that right now you are nose-to-concrete with your own bullsh@t limits you didn’t even know were there. I hope you’re willing to do the work to break them down. I hope you’re willing to change. You’ll feel pain, but if you accept it, endure it, and callous your mind, you’ll reach a point where not even pain can hurt you. There is a catch, however. When you live this way, there is no end to it.

Thanks to all that stretching, I’m in better shape at forty-three than I was in my twenties. Back then I was always sick, wound tight, and stressed out. I never analyzed why I kept getting stress fractures. I just taped that sh@t up. No matter what ailed my body or my mind I had the same solution. Tape it up and move the fu@k on. Now I’m smarter than I’ve ever been. And I’m still getting after it.

In 2018 I went back to the mountains to become a wildland firefighter again. I hadn’t been in the field for three years, and since then I’d gotten used to training in nice gyms and living in comfort. Some might call it luxury. I was in a plush hotel room in Vegas when the 416 fire sparked and I got the call. What started as a 2,000-acre grass fire in the San Juan Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains was growing into a record breaking, 55,000-acre monster. I hung up and caught a prop plane to Grand Junction, loaded up in a U.S. Forest Service truck, and drove three hours to the outskirts of Durango, Colorado, where I suited up in my green Nomex pants and yellow, long-sleeved button down, my hard hat, field glasses, and gloves, and grabbed my super Pulaski—a wildland fire fighter’s most trusted weapon. I can dig for hours with that thing, and that’s what we do. We don’t spray water. We specialize in containment, and that means digging lines and clearing brush so there’s no fuel in the path of an inferno. We dig and run, run and dig, until every muscle is spent. Then we do it all over again.

On our first day and night we dug fire lines around vulnerable homes as walls of flames marched forward from less than a mile away. We glimpsed the burn through the trees and felt the heat in the drought-stricken forest. From there we were deployed to 10,000 feet and worked on a forty-five-degree slope, digging as deep as possible, trying to get to the mineral soil that won’t burn. At one point a tree fell and missed hitting one of my teammates by eight inches. It would have killed him. We could smell smoke in the air. Our sawyers—the chainsaw experts—kept cutting dead and dying trees. We hauled that brush out beyond a creek bed. Piles were scattered every fifty feet for over three miles. Each one measured roughly seven to eight feet tall.

We worked like that for a week of eighteen-hour shifts at $12 an hour, before taxes. It was eighty degrees during the day and thirty-six degrees at night. When the shift was over we laid out our mats and slept in the open wherever we were. Then woke up and got back after it. I didn’t change my clothes for six days. Most of the people on my crew were at least fifteen years younger than me. All of them were hard as nails and among the very hardest working people I’ve ever met. Including and especially the women. None of them ever complained. When we were done we’d cleared a line 3.2 miles long, wide enough to stop a monster from burning down a mountain.

At forty-three, my wildland firefighting career is just getting started. I love being part of a team of hard motherfu@kers like them, and my ultra career is about to be born again too. I’m just young enough to bring hell on and still contend for titles. I’m running faster now than I ever have, and I don’t need any tape or props for my feet. When I was thirty-three I ran at an 8:35 per mile pace. Now I’m running 7:15 per mile very comfortably. I’m still getting used to this new, flexible, fully functioning body, and getting accustomed to my new self.

My passion still burns, but to be honest, it takes a bit longer to channel my rage. It’s not camped out on my home screen anymore, a single unconscious twitch from overwhelming my heart and head. Now I have to access it consciously. But when I do, I can still feel all the challenges and obstacles, the heartbreak and hard work, like it happened yesterday. That’s why you can feel my passion on podcasts and videos. That sh@t is still there, seared into my brain like scar tissue. Tailing me like a shadow that’s trying to chase me down and swallow me whole, but always drives me forward.

Whatever failures and accomplishments pile up in the years to come, and there will be plenty of both I’m sure, I know I’ll continue to give it my all and set goals that seem impossible to most. And when those motherfu@kers say so, I’ll look them dead in the eye and respond with one simple question.

What if?

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