“It’s a really challenging thing to do and it’s something I’m still working on. You know, it’s hard for me if I have a bad race like of course, I want to kind of overemphasize the importance of that when in reality, it’s just an opportunity to learn. You have to– detaching yourself from that outcome is such a hard thing to do. But it’s so important and I think that’s ultimately what yields fulfillment and growth over time.”
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JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host Jesse Funk. My guest today is a PhD candidate in immunology at the University of Michigan medical school. He is also an ultra runner I think predominantly on trails, which is often where ultra state place Welcome to the show, Mike Haggadone.
MIKE: Yeah, thanks so much for having me, Jesse. Appreciate it.
JESSE: Well, thanks for being flexible with me. We got started a little bit early, which is always nice. It gives us a little bit more time if we need it. And it’s always nice when people take time out of their day, which we’ll get to here in a minute because time management is always a curiosity of mine. But can you tell me about ultras? It seems like the the ultra group is pretty small, though I’m talking to more and more of them. What was your personal journey of getting into ultras? Because you didn’t you didn’t always decide, hey, I want to go run 50 miles, right?
MIKE: Yeah. I mean, my background actually with running is pretty limited. I really was not an active person, even up to the end of my undergrad degree. So, I kind of got into running very casually after I got my bachelor’s more as a means to get into shape, more than anything. And for the first couple of years of grad school and we can kind of unpack that as much or as little as you want. I ended up leaving my first graduate program and it was kind of this steady activity that I had that is always centered me.
But in terms of getting into racing, it wasn’t until 2016 that I actually ran a formal race. It was a half marathon here in Ann Arbor and that was, I had not run more than seven or eight miles in one go up until that point. So, that was kind of a big jump for me was just to go straight into a half marathon. And then from there, it was about five months until I ran my first ultra and to be honest, the reason for that mostly was because I just found a love portrayals pretty naturally.
And as you mentioned ultras are predominantly run on trail, so I just kind of gravitated towards– I kind of caught the bug. I was thinking about it and I just went for my first 50K, about five months after running my first half marathon. And since then I’ve just– As I’m sure you found talking to ultra people, like it’s an addictive sport, because the community is so amazing and the sport is so amazing, and it’s just such a challenging endeavor. So, I love it and I do occasionally go back to roads.
Mainly if I’m doing pacing for anything, but I would much rather spend my time on trails and like technical trails, I love the stuff that grinds you down. That’s my favorite terrain. So, that’s kind of the condensed journey of how I got into running really.
JESSE: It kind of seems like with ultras, I mean, since you’re going for so long, it almost has to be someplace where you don’t have to deal with car traffic. I know the logistics of like Ironman setting up an Ironman, they have to shut down so many roads or segment off the roads or often you end up having live traffic. But they try to control a lot of that and then you have to have police and all this kind of support which comes with the price tag which is part of the reason, we won’t dive too deep in Ironman, but part of the reason Ironman’s cost so much.
Whereas with ultras, you’re not— you go to a big Ironman, you’ve got a couple thousand people competing, you go to an ultra trail race it’s not a couple thousand people at the starting line.
MIKE: No, not for most that’s for sure. And I mean the cool thing about ultras too like there’s geographic differences. So, here in the Midwest, we don’t have enough terrain really to run like a point to point 50 miler for example or like a point to point 100 miler. So, you often find loop courses, which a lot of people find boring. There’s advantages to that. But you go out west, there’s a lot more open space and you can kind of get these point to point races. So, the logistics vary based on the race and the location but there is kind of this overarching element of community.
And as you mentioned, a lot of ultras you can go to and you get to the start line and there’s like 50 or 60 people there and it’s just such an intimate experience and that’s cool because you can connect with people pretty easily right off the get go. So, it just makes it so much more fun. I really believe in the idea of like the shared struggle, like a struggle is the best experienced when you can share it with other people and that notion of community. So, that is definitely one thing that you will find virtually every ultra around the country is just a really tight knit, close group of people.
JESSE: Do you feel like the people that are the starting line are almost like your team? I know in college I kind of made this T-shirt for my group of guys. So, I was the team captain for both cross country and track for the distance guys. And I kind of play on this saying blood is thicker than water, right? So, I changed the saying to say miles are as thick as blood. It’s that shared struggle, that shared suffering that you go through that it kind of makes you family, whether you like it or not. You’ve all gone through something together and you’re all trying to cohesively do something. So, I kind of wonder do you get that same sense of like, these are my brothers and sisters in arms, basically, at the starting line of an ultra?
MIKE: Yeah, for sure. I mean, my favorite races to be honest, are those that have an out and back section because it’s in those out and backs where you get to see the whole entire field. And to be honest, that’s my primary intention going into racing. I’m not doing it to try to win anything or try, I’m not– The winning and losing to me, those are kind of arbitrary designations that don’t really have meaning at the end of the day.
The primary intention I bring to every race is can I be supportive of other people. Because that’s the beautiful thing about ultras is there is technically a front of the pack, a middle of the pack, and a back of the pack. But everybody is coming to that space with their own goal and their own definition of success. And it’s a much richer experience to be able to support people in those goals and their journeys.
And at the end of the day, you all congregate at the same finish line. And oftentimes these are community events, there’s music, there’s beer, whatever you want to partake in. So, at the end of the day, it’s like if everybody put their effort into the event, and they supported each other, you just get so much more out of it than if you’re trying to do it from an insular perspective where you’re trying to meet a particular time, or you’re trying to finish somewhere in the pack. That’s where I really think it gets back to that kind of shared struggle notion of everything.
So, that’s why I love it. And I love competing, but I particularly love it when it’s– I typically will be near the front of the pack, I don’t always win. And again, that’s never my goal but when you can kind of work with your competitors and encourage each other and you can have those moments where you laugh. I recently ran a half marathon. I was running one and two, and the guy I was running with said, “I feel like I’m going to puke right now.” And we both had a laugh from that just, it’s the ability just to kind of zoom out and contextualize the whole experience and what the purpose is and the purpose from us to have fun. Yeah, it’s absolutely like that sharing struggle is just a beautiful part of the sport.
JESSE: That’s the thing that so I think, if I have to think about this, I think you’re Episode 32. So, the 32nd interview I’ve done and time after time after time after time, it’s always I hope to have fun. That’s something I experienced was that I had my best races, especially I learned this really kind of solidified in college when I just said, “My goal is to go out and have fun. These are my time goals. I think this is what I’m going to do but I just want to enjoy myself.” And I– Nearly 100% of the time when that was legitimately my internal goal, I would have my best time of the season.
And so it’s like it keeps coming back to that; just want to have fun, just want to have fun, just want to have fun. So, where do you think this kind of almost outside perspective and maybe a little bit inside to for somebody, like ultra competitive like me comes from where it’s like, the purpose is to win, you know? And they’re like, “Mike, why didn’t you win that ultra? Like, you could have won it.” And you’re like, “But I didn’t care about winning.” Where do you think that comes from?
MIKE: Yeah, that’s been an evolution because I will admit like when I first got into the sport, I had aspirations of winning everything in. And it’s not to say like when I go to the start line, of course, I want to do the very best that I can. But that’s from a more intrinsic place. And that switch from an extrinsic to an intrinsic motivation has been a huge process for me that has developed really alongside my PhD.
Because that competitive nature is something that I embraced when I started my PhD as well. But over time, I’ve tried to bring the sense of community into that space as well. So, there’s been this co-evolution of really more intrinsic motivation. And to be honest that has been a natural process of competing and failing and revising and coming back to it and understanding like, how much more you get from forming relationships.
But also a big aspect of that, for me has been getting a coach, David Roche as Some Work, All Play running and that’s his amo. I mean, his amo is all about let’s go have fun. Let’s support other people. Let’s contextualize this within the grand scheme of life. And let’s remember That the primary purpose is to just go out and enjoy life to celebrate life. Like it’s all about a celebration.
And having that type of input from someone who I respect and admire deeply, that’s been a huge element of this kind of evolution over time. So, as I said, every time I get to the start line, I want to do the very best that I can. But it’s not to beat other people, it’s to really explore what I’m capable of.
And I always find that when I get to the start line, and all, you know you kind of lower the stakes in that regard. You look at the– I always feel fear. I look at that fear, and I try to put it in its rightful place and just say today is a celebration of life, and let’s just go see what that yields. And as you mentioned, those have always been my best races when I get to the start line, and I’m not thinking about the finish line. I’m not thinking about winning or anything like that. It’s just let’s commit to this process. And yeah, I don’t know, I’ve always had my best runs that way.
JESSE: Yeah. I can’t speak for anybody else. But I know when I thought about success, it’s a personal validation for me. I spent a considerable amount of time. Anybody that’s listen to the show for a while has heard me say this a dozen times. I spent eight years trying to become a professional triathlete not from the sense that I thought I was ever going to be World Champion, though like in your head, you always want to think about it.
But in the sense that I felt like, if I could do that, that would be success. And internally, I would feel like I was worth something. So, I always feel like when you focus so much on I have to win, it’s almost this again, at least personally and probably for somebody else since I don’t know that any human experiences entirely like individual, like I’m probably the first person to go through this is what I’m saying.
It seems like it’s almost a struggle to allay those fears you have about yourself about being worthless or not being loved or we can kind of dive into all kinds of psychological reasons why you’re striving for the success. And kind of where I’m going is that I wonder if part of that is cultural too thinking about, obviously, I’m making very generalized ideas here, but the kind of Eastern versus Western philosophy where Western were very like, individual centric, individual success, individual attainment, achievement.
Eastern, more thinking about the good of the whole, the good of all society, the good of the group, or the family depending on what the case is. And I kind of wonder how that affects us in terms of focusing on that initially about I need to be the best or I need to be a winner to be worth anything?
MIKE: Right. I mean, one observation I’ve had is that we are such a results oriented culture, right? Like we view every result as an assessment… And that’s been, honestly that has been my biggest challenge as a human being is not attaching worth to outcomes. And I think it’s natural when you’re when– In my PhD, I’m in such a high stakes environment in an environment that glorifies outcomes.
And so it’s hard when you experience failure to be able to take a step back and contextualize that, and to give yourself some grace and that failure and to celebrate this courage that you’re showing, and these are more qualitative things, right? We live in a very quantitative culture in a very quantitative society, but these are very qualitative assessments that are so important to be able to again, zoom out and understand that this is all part of the journey.
And so I think that’s been a huge thing for me, as well as being able to look at races and these workouts as kind of just points along the journey, there’s no really outcome. There’s no outcome that we’re really striving for. It’s just all about this growth that is nonlinear and that nonlinearity is just a beautiful part of it. But you’re right, when it comes down from a competitive perspective, as well, we do live in a very kind of egocentric space.
And I think unfortunately, that certainly is permeated sports as well. But I believe that there’s huge value in the kind of win, everybody wins. Everybody wins philosophy, like it’s very simple. But again, it just gets back to that support. And I think that, again, ultra running is a space that really has done a wonderful job of this is not glorifying winners so much and illuminating stories from those– from the people who are at the middle in the back of the pack who are just striving to reach their potential. Just like like everybody else.
So, yeah, absolutely. I love that. And the notion of self worth too, I love that. It’s a really challenging thing to do and it’s something I’m still working on. You know, it’s hard for me if I have a bad race like of course, I want to kind of overemphasize the importance of that when in reality, it’s just an opportunity to learn. You have to– detaching yourself from that outcome is such a hard thing to do. But it’s so important and I think that’s ultimately what yields fulfillment and growth over time.
JESSE: Mm-hmm. I know even I have the tendency to focus on I’ll say the winners or the top people, which is kind of an almost a prerequisite of like having an interview like or having a chat like we’re having now is finding people that perform at a high level and then also perform at a high level in some other capacity like you with your PhD. Like I was speaking to my last interview was a John Kelly, one of only 15 people to finish Barkley Marathon. And– [crosstalk] Yes, so it’s like we do focus on those people but then if you dig deeper, I like John in the Barkley Marathons in the sense that it does get back to that point of those people in the middle, the people in the back; What the hell are they doing out there?
They know they’re not gonna win when they start. There’s no– I think, maybe 1% of the time but like, a very unlikely do they have any ideation in their head of I’m going to win this. It’s, I’m going to complete this. And I think talking to some of those people probably yields more potential lessons about what is life, what is the purpose of this thing, than talking to the people that do win. John mentioned that. There’s this kind of idea that the people that finish the Barkley Marathons often are said to have missed the purpose of the Barkley Marathons because they didn’t reach their limit, because they finished. They didn’t reach a point where they could not go any farther.
MIKE: Yeah. Well, I mean, that’s beautiful. Like from a psycho emotional perspective, I’m fascinated by something like the Barkley, the Barclay event, or also these last man standing events, because the reality is with those like Barkley, you maybe get one, two, I mean, many times zero finishes– [crosstalk]
JESSE: In the last two years zero.
MIKE: And then with these with these last man standing events, you get one technical winner. But at the end of the day– Like finish lines are an arbitrary designation, right, like who says that the race has to stop then? You start– these are very arbitrary. So, it’s all about like in the process up to that finish line, how did you respond along the way, and I think for those people who don’t get to the finish line at Barkley, or for those who are not the last man standing; that’s where the gold is, is being able to see yourself work through problems and challenges and responding with grace and responding with detachment to outcome and responding with kindness to yourself.
Like there are so many points along the journey where you get to learn about yourself and you get to– Again, you get to celebrate this whole nature of existence, which is imperfect. And yeah, I love those events and I love hearing and reading the perspectives of people who don’t finish them because it is, it’s beautiful. That is life that has been immersed in kind of this artificial environment. But still, you get to learn so much about these people. So, yeah, I love those.