“What separates the above-average from the elite is the determination and commitment to stick with it and practice, practice, practice more than other people are. I like to think that I worked harder than just about anyone and therefore was able to maximize whatever natural gifts I was born with. But again I poured my heart into sports because it was a labor of love. It never felt like a real sacrifice to me.”
Over the past ten years, running a marathon, while an impressive feat, has become almost commonplace. They are on many people’s bucket lists, and folks are covering the 26.2 miles successfully. Ironmans seem to be the new marathon. Again, 140.6 miles of swimming, biking, and running is not for the weary, but many are doing it. So what kind of athlete can boast about winning a Triple Ironman in a record-setting sub-39 hours (not a typo, a triple ironman: 7.2 mile swim; 336 mile ride; 78.6 mile run) and holding the Guinness Book World record for farthest 24 hour run on a treadmill (153.76 miles)?
None other than the inimitable Christopher Bergland. To be clear, he would never boast about it. In fact, he only speaks about his illustrious athletic career when asked; there are too many things he’d rather talk about than himself. That said, I forced him to open up in order to learn how to gain his super-human powers.
Christopher followed an unconventional path to becoming a world-class athlete. His father was a nationally ranked tennis player who was trying to groom Christopher to becoming the next Bjorn Borg. Christopher liked the meditative aspect of repeatedly hitting the ball, but didn’t have any desire to compete. After high school, he attended Hampshire College in Amherst, MA (a beautiful town. I know firsthand) where the running is spectacular. This is where Christopher discovered his love for running.
Christopher comments on being discovered, “It wasn’t until I graduated college and JONATHAN CANE (!) saw me running on a treadmill and encouraged me to enter my first local race. Because I went to a non-competitive school I ran in a vacuum and never compared myself to other athletes. I didn’t realize that my 10+mph daily runs on the treadmill were kind of ‘freakish’ until Jonathan pointed it out to me. I had never trained at track or done any real workouts until Jonathan put together a training plan a few weeks before the 5th Avenue mile.” Bergland covered the distance in 4:17.
Running led to duathlons, which led to triathlons. In fact, Bergland taught himself to swim when he was 26. The appeal of taxing his body daily and enduring brutal workouts was exactly the opposite of this description. It wasn’t a fight for Christopher. He describes the zen-like state and what motivated him: “My primary motivation in sport is to take my level of mastery to a state beyond regular FLOW and pierce through to a level of SUPERFLUID performance which becomes almost like a mystical experience where you feel you are performing with absolutely zero friction or viscosity. I wanted to experience what it was like to be that far from the ‘center’.”
The more questions I asked, the more he revealed that he wasn’t built like a super-hero. There was nothing in his physical makeup that was particularly extraordinary. “Technically I think I’m a little too tall and heavy to be an elite Ultra-endurance runner. But like Mary Kay Ash Said, “Aerodynimcally the bumble bee isn’t supposed to be able to fly. But the bee doesn’t know that so it keeps on flying anyway.””In the end, I learned that even though he trained hard, it was his mental state that made him what he was as an athlete. To add further credence to this thought, his former coach Jonathan Cane notes that Christopher’s lab results, while impressive, were not spectacular given what he was able to accomplish as an athlete. “When I took him to the lab I expected superhuman results, but his VO2 max and other physiological parameters were far from off-the-charts. Don’t get me wrong, they were impressive, but not nearly enough to suggest the kind of success that he achieved.”
Christopher’s goal wasn’t winning, as one might think. Winning became the consequence. He reflected on his mental state thusly, “I think the fact that I maintain the ‘co-existing opposite’ paradox of not caring at all if I won or lost but really wanting to do my absolute best and have a transcendent experience in every race.” Additionally, he was smart about his training and used failures as learning experiences. He notes, “I think I’m very pragmatic about failure in terms of looking at it as a learning experience and living by a simple motto of ‘never make the same mistake twice.’”
Christopher no longer competes. Among many other hats he wears, he is the author of The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, and has penned numerous articles in magazines including Psychology Today. Life has taken many wonderful twists and turns for Christopher. As a gay man who has been empowered by sports, Christopher wistfully recalls his treadmill setting record:
“Looking back on it almost 10 years later the thing that I am most proud of was the courage to stick my neck out and say, ‘I am going to set up these treadmills in Manhattan, run next to Dean Karnazes, raise money for YouthAIDS and try to break a World Record.’ Failure never really seemed like an option because the stakes were so high. I think I had a perfect blend of hubris and humility…of thinking ‘I don’t know if I can pull this off, but this is the one time in my life I may be able to so I have to take a chance and strike while the iron is hot.’ I put all my cards on the table and it paid off. But I also learned a lot of lessons about how unhealthy ultra-running can be when I found myself in the ICU on the verge of kidney failure…. and I’m really glad that I had the wisdom to retire at the top of my game and didn’t try to keep reaching for the ‘holy grail’ which would have just ended up driving my body and psyche into the ground. “
I was particularly struck, but not surprised, that the feeling of joy that my other athletes noted also resonated with Bergland. “I think that anytime someone finds his calling in life that it is because he is drawn to something that comes naturally to a degree so that there is joy in the process and it doesn’t feel like ‘work’. That said, what separates the above-average from the elite is the determination and commitment to stick with it and practice, practice, practice more than other people are. I like to think that I worked harder than just about anyone and therefore was able to maximize whatever natural gifts I was born with. But again I poured my heart into sports because it was a labor of love. It never felt like a real sacrifice to me.
“My advice for anyone trying to find his or her sport would be to try a wide variety of things and see what gets your juices going and seems fun to you. As a gay person, individual sports were hugely therapeutic for me in terms of building my confidence and having an outlet for any feelings of rejection sensitivity. I had zero interest in team sports and playing them made me feel more like an outsider. For some people though, team sports fit their personality and social needs better…I would trust your gut instincts and try a wide variety of sports. Mix it up and make the pursuit of JOY your primary driving force.
I think the key to achieving one’s personal best is to find the delicate balance between pushing yourself really hard and expecting the most but also practicing self-compassion, listening to your body and gently nudging up against your limits and not expecting for ‘Rome to be built in a day’ when it comes to mastering anything in life. Be patient. Stick with it. And practice, practice, practice!