“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” — Kurt Vonnegut
First of all, I don’t follow sports. If there’s any exercising to be done, I am the one doing it. Or recovering from it. But rarely ever spectating it. Which made it all the more surprising on Labor Day weekend when I found myself glued to my cell phone watching Instagram updates from Sara Blakely, the entrepreneur who created the Spanx brand of women’s shapewear.
Sara’s more likely to be found tucking into a box of Cheez-Its after a yoga class than doing anything sporty, but she spent the weekend in New Gloucester, Maine providing emotional support and encouragement to her husband, Jesse Itzler, a fellow entrepreneur who was partaking in an annual torturefest known as The Last Man Standing Ultramarathon. They don’t refer to it as a “Torturefest” — that’s my own terminology. These types of events are referred to as “Ultras,” because they’re brutally long endurance events designed to press the limits of the human mind and body.
The Last Man Standing Ultramarathon race, now in its fourth year, is diabolically simple — run a 4.2 mile loop through the woods in under one hour. Then line up and do it again. And again. In fact, do it over and over until there is only one person left physically able to do it. That person wins.
At The Last Man Standing there are no age groups, no separate divisions for men and women. There is no set overall time limit or distance. Since it starts at lunchtime on Saturday and usually doesn’t end until after lunchtime on Sunday, a good portion of the race happens at night. (Everyone’s required to wear a headlamp for safety.)
Non-stop running, in the dark woods, with no sleep — if that doesn’t sound like much fun to you, then clearly you are not Jesse Itzler, who in addition to creating several highly successful companies is also a best-selling author and public speaker. His work centers on the importance of making the most of each day, by choosing to live consciously and fully. Selecting periodic big goals that force him out of his comfort zone is part of what he calls “building his life resume.” He’s drawn to challenges others would call insane, just to shake off the cobwebs and live his best life.
At 51, Jesse was one of the oldest participants at Last Man Standing, often by a good decade or two. Despite his careful and thorough preparation, Last Man Standing still managed to catch him off guard, namely with its hilly terrain. What was described on its website as “moderate elevation, easy loop” turned out to have some challenging slopes that ate up his precious recovery and refueling time, throwing off his game plan.
But with Sara’s encouragement and a small army of supporters, Jesse pushed through. In the end he completed 19 laps. He spent 17-and-a-half hours on the course, averaging 55-and-a-half minutes per loop. Among the 91 competitors at the starting line, he finished 5th. He was delirious, talking nonsense, had blurry vision and an injured toe. There was more than one moment when Sara was in tears. It was grueling but along the way he proved something. Age is nothing but energy. We are all as young as our energy. And so many of our limits are self-imposed.
After it was all over Sara wrote on Instagram, “It’s a story of commitment, discipline, will, guts, setting goals, determination, friendships, and most importantly love. I had to dig deep too to support my husband’s goal.”
When she asked him what he was thinking as he labored on, he said “When I push my body, my body responds.” Adversity is the mother of grit, which Jesse clearly has in abundance. By pushing himself so far beyond what seemed possible, Jesse created a ripple effect that reaches an ever widening circle. If Jesse can run until he needed to use the handicap elevator for his celebratory restaurant meal, everyone else can certainly walk around the block or make it to the gym for a workout.
The Last Man Standing Ultramarathon might be designed for a rare breed of personalities. But the lessons linger. Jesse said his main takeaway, once it was all over, was to do things that make you proud of you. “Push yourself to expand your ‘I can do more’ muscle, because that translates into business, family and any situation,” he said.
Despite her pain at watching her husband experience self-inflicted suffering, Sara understood his inner drive and motivation. She said, “Surround yourself with the right people, invest in books, podcasts, and seminars that teach positive mindset and practice it daily. You only have one life to live. Make it count.”
Learn more about Jesse Itzler at www.jesseitzler.com.
Information about The Last Man Standing Ultramarathon is available at https://www.back40events.com/lastmanstanding.
Barbara Wayman, APR
Be inspired by my mentor’s legendary feat – Oldest Man Standing