Welcome to Pushing The Limits, the show that helps you reach your full potential with your host, Lisa Tamati, brought to you by lisatamati.com.
Lisa Tamati: Well, hi everyone and welcome back to Pushing The Limits this week.
Now today I have something a little bit different than my usual format. I've actually used an interview that I did on the H.V.M.N. podcast with the amazing Geoffrey Woo. He has an incredible podcast and company that I'd love you to check out as well. I'll put all the links in the show notes. And he did this interview with me and I told my story and a little bit of my background. And particularly we went into the story behind the Libyan desert, which was an illegal crossing that I did across the Libyan desert, a long, long time ago, beginning of my career. And I thought it would be quite interesting to share this little backstory with you. And also, you know, we go into a deep discussion around high performance and being the best that you can be.
So I hope you enjoy this interview. something a little bit different than having my usual guests which will be back to next week. I do have coming up in the next few weeks, some fantastic guests. I have James Nestor who is the author of Breath, which is an incredible book, all about the art of breathing. And you would be amazed at the science behind optimizing your health and everything with breathing. And then I also have Patrick McKeown who is also the author of The Oxygen Advantage. Again, all about nasal breathing in the bodega of breathing techniques and just absolutely incredible. Both New York Times bestselling books, top authors, top experts in this field. So, I hope you make sure you tune into that.
Also coming up on the show in the next few weeks. I have Dr. Brian Walsh, who is one of my teachers and incredible, incredible—a super brain of a man. Who's going to be talking to us about detoxing. So those are a few episodes coming up in the next few weeks. So make sure you do stay tuned.
Now before I go over to the interview, I just want to remind you. Now Christmas is coming up. If you haven't got your Christmas presents, check out my jewellery collection online, it's called The Fierce Collection and it's all about inspiring and motivating people while you're wearing some blink, while you’re wearing something that's pretty cool. So sports jewellery, it's hard-wearing, it's the sort of things you can dress down or dress up with. And I hope you enjoy that collection. You can find it in my shop on lisatamati.com.
Also, on that note with Christmas coming up, got to remind you to go and grab one of my books, either Running Hot, which was my first book, Running To Extremes, which was my second. Both of those chronicling all my adventures around the world. And my third book, which has just come out this year, Relentless, telling the story of bringing my mum back after her massive aneurysm and all the brain damage that she had and being told that there was no way forward. It's an empowering, inspiring story, a love story. And it's a story that is really—a book that it's actually—I'm getting feedback all the time from people telling me how much it's changed their lives, their approach to taking ownership over their own health and not just leaving it up to everyone else. So, I hope you enjoy it.
Now head over to the show in just a moment. But if you could also do a rating and review for the podcasts I really, really appreciate that. And I say it every week. But I do really appreciate getting any reviews. And if you've got any questions, please reach out to us. You can reach me on email@example.com. We're also taking on a few clients at the moment on a one-on-one which we don't usually do just because of the sheer volume of work that we have. But I am taking on a very few people. If you've got a health journey that you want help with, you want someone to help navigate some tricky waters that you're going through, or challenge, or if you're setting yourself up for a mess of big sporting challenge, obviously, mindset or anything like that, then please reach out to me. I do enjoy working one on one with just a handful of people at a time because it does take a lot of resources. So, if you're interested in that reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And now over to the show with the interview with Geoffrey Woo.
Announcer: Coming up in this episode
Lisa: Our little boy Joseph suddenly came early and he only survived for two hours and he died. And this was heartbreaking. Our last chance basically, to hold your baby and to watch him struggle and die and that was like the worst thing I've ever been through.
And even in this horrifying situation, if you like, there were moments of joy and moments of blessings. And the blessings that our little boy brought to us. It took me a few weeks. When I now think of my little boy, I think, what he left behind, like the changes he created in me, the changes he created in my husband, our surrogate parents were extremely close now—to our surrogate parent family, to their children. My husband is a firefighter, and he's now become an officer, which he wouldn't do before. Because he was like, ‘Ah, I'm too shy, and too, whatever’. And now he's like, ‘No, my little boy didn't get to live, I'm going to live for more he suffered. So little Joseph bought blessings in a way that we couldn't see at the time. And I don't wish that on anyone. And I certainly don't want to go through that again. But it could either break you or you can try to find something in there that has meaning for you, and a reason for you.
And so, no matter what you're going through in life, try to think of it as, ‘Well, this is going to be a part of something that I'm meant to be learning and I can turn this around’. And that's I think your job when you're on this earth is to try and have these lessons and become stronger and better and not let it break you.
Announcer: Welcome to the H.V.M.N podcast, what we do with our bodies today becomes the foundation of who we are tomorrow. This is Health Via Modern Nutrition.
Geoffrey Woo: Hey, everyone! Welcome to this week's episode of the H.V.M.N. podcast. And this is going to be an especially fun one because my guest today is Lisa Tamati. I had a wonderful conversation on her podcast. So, for today, we're going to flip the script, flip the table and have Lisa share her experience. In a lot of my conversations over the last few years now, when you really talk to world-class specialists in one specific domain, they oftentimes touch and become generalist experts across a multitude of domains. I think that's just the world that we live in. To be really, truly world-class, one can't just be in that one specific tunnel. One really gets the best practice from a number of domains. I think Lisa really encapsulates that for me. So Lisa, great to have on the H.V.M.N. podcast.
Lisa: I’m so stoked to be here. Geoffrey, it was wonderful to have you on my show. And yes, now the flip-the-script is going to be exciting. I can't wait to do a deep dive.
Geoffrey: Yes. One area that you have a tremendous amount of experience and I have a little bit of a taste of is ultramarathons, long-distance running. I think that seems to be your initial entry point into high performance, human physiology. Love to hear your background story of how you got into it, competing Badwater, some of the most prestigious well-known ultramarathon races. What was your journey into this specific field?
Lisa: Yes, thanks, Geoff. So I've been doing ultramarathons now for over 25 years, and I've had, in that time, the chance to sort of run and compete and train over 70,000 Ks in that time. So that’s three times around the equator if you add it all up.
I've done mostly desert. So I've done a couple of thousand kilometres in the Sahara Desert from the Moroccan Sahara, a couple of times to the Tunisian, Arabian Desert, the Libyan desert, Niger, Jordan. Also the Gobi desert in China, Death Valley in the USA, a couple of times, in different parts of the outback of Australia, which is closer to home. And I've also at one stage ran right through New Zealand, doing 52 marathons in 42 days, raising money for charity. So that was another—a really amazing mission.
But the funny thing about my story is that I'm a so what from average, as far as talent goes. I don't have any special genetic abilities. No Dean Karnazes or David Goggins, or anything like that, as far as ability and speed go. But what I did have was a really, really super strong mindset. And when I decide I want something, I just do it until I get good at it, even if I'm hopeless at it at the start. And certainly, I was asthmatic as a child, so I was in and out of the hospital. I had a very poor lung capacity. Very poor v02 max. So I wasn't really made or built for this type of thing, but I never let that stop me doing anything, really.
Geoffrey: Yes, so what kicked it off? When I talked to a lot of folks that end up being—just long careers in endurance sport, oftentimes, it's realizing that in middle school that they were really get the 5k compared to the other middle schoolers? Did you have a story like that where you ended up running and you realize, ‘Hey, I'm pretty good at this. Everyone else is tired, I'm pretty good’.
Lisa: That was absolutely bloody, hopeless setup. To be honest, Geoff. What happened is I was really into sport, I was a gymnast as a kid. I was good at gymnastics. And so, I did that from the ages of 5 up to about 15. And I was on sort of track to be a national sort of gymnast. But then when I went through puberty, I grew up too tall, and I grew up very muscular and athletically built. And I just didn't have it. Once I went through puberty, I knew I just wasn't going to make it.
And so that was a real blow to me because that was all I'd done. And I've grown up in a family, where the expectations were really, really high. And I was expected to represent my country and I was expected to be the best at everything that I did. I had amazingly loving, amazing mum and dad, but my dad was also very hard on us. And that, I think having that early childhood—being pushed into that really strict discipline that gymnastics requires, was in some ways, a really good learning curve and other ways it was quite damaging.
So as a young woman—so from 13 to 15, before I started, stopped, gymnastic—I really struggled with my body image. And I was the heaviest, biggest girl in the group, if you like and, and was always constantly ridiculed for that. And so that started a path of self-loathing, and very low self-esteem. And when I failed at gymnastics, I thought, ‘Well, that said, I'm never going to represent New Zealand’. But I sort of had that dream in back of my mind the whole time.
And then in my early 20s, I met an Austrian guy who was cycling through our country here and had an accident on our mountain, got hit by an avalanche. And my mum, being the sort of mum she was, she always picking up strays and bringing them home and looking after them, as mums do. And she bought this young gentleman home, and we fell in love and doing lots of adventure stuff around the world. So we cycled around 25 different countries, climbed mountains, quiet, did all that sort of adventurous stuff. And that sort of opened my eyes to the world of travel because I've never been outside my country prior to that, into the world of adventure and to what I was capable of.
But it was also at the same time, a very abusive relationship. And once again, I was never good enough. I was never what I was supposed to be. It could never live up to the expectations. I wasn't fast enough, strong enough, good enough. I was accused of having bad genes. And this sort of culminated. I did a crossing of the Libyan desert, an expedition with a partner and two other guys, this was a really extreme illegal crossing of the Libyan desert. And we only had like two litres of water a day because that's all we could carry on our backs with this distance of 250 kilometres that we had planned.
And no one had been through—no Europeans have been through this part of the desert at this stage. There were no maps. We managed to get some pilot maps of US military, don't ask how. And we started off on this crossing and two litres of water a day, and 40 plus degree temperatures with 35 kilo backpacks. It was a recipe for extremely on the limits.
Geoffrey: That’s a serious rock. Yes, that’s a serious rock. Wow.
Lisa: Yes, especially when I was like 58, 59 kilos at the time. So, it was more than like, now, nearly two thirds of my body weight. And this ended up being not only physically really demanding, but the boyfriend ended up leaving me in the middle of the desert on day four.
You can imagine you have your relationship breakups. We've all been there and done that, but to do that in the middle of the Libyan desert, in the middle of this crossing. And the reason was, we were all suffering and very irritable, as you can imagine, when you can't—you got no water. And so, timbers were short, and he wanted to move faster. And we were doing a book on the expedition. So, photographing it, and he was a perfectionist, and wanted to set up all these photos and wanted me to help. And the leader of the expedition said, ‘Look, we got to keep moving. So, you can take your pictures, but you got to keep up with us’. And so he wanted me to help with that. And I physically was just unable to run around, do anything extra other than put one foot in front of the other. And so that went down like a ton of bricks. And after a couple of days of frosty temperatures in between us, he said, ‘That's it, I'm leaving. I'm heading off over the sand dunes. And you can stay with the other two guys’. And that's it, the relationship’s over.
So that was a real deep turning point. And it sounds quite funny now, but it wasn't at the time, I can assure you. And we're in desperate straits by this time. The dehydration is so, so bad. I don't know where the heat is going to survive, whether we're going to survive, what's going to happen. And in that moment, I really learned I had to compartmentalize things in my brain. So I had to be able to function despite the emotional turmoil that I was going through. And that was a really good lesson to learn so that you can actually still function and do what you have to do to survive to get out and not fall to pieces. And of course, I owed it to the other two guys, too, who are like, ‘Oh, my God, we've got a hysterical woman here. Now, what do we do now’?
Geoffrey: This story deserves more attention. I mean, just from the emotional capacity, obviously, a breakup with long-term partners of emotion is a massive emotional turmoil. And then it sounds like there was questions of even surviving. So...
Lisa: Yes, there was.
Geoffrey: ...at the time, did you think that everyone could have died? How serious? I mean, it sounds like it was pretty serious. But did you have regrets or thoughts racing through your mind? Were you like, ‘Hey, like, why did I do this? Am I going to die in the desert? I'm stupid’. Can you walk us through that kind of a thought process there?
Lisa: The thirst was just unbelievable, like the suffering that goes on when you don't have enough water is really, really horrific. So your mouth swells, your lung, your tongue swells, you just got no saliva, so you can’t eat, obviously. And we were covering around 45 kilometres a day, or we were trying to so that we would have enough to get out. So we had a schedule that we had to keep. And we were trying to avoid going in the very hot hours of the day, but there was often no shade, so you just sort of put your backpack up and try and hide under it.
So it was extreme, as far as would we survive? And it was a military bad area as well. So leaving the oasis was really dangerous and getting out from outside the military camp and then disappearing into the desert without being followed. And by the same token getting back. And so you had all that sort of stuff going on as well. If you've been caught in this area, you would have been in deep, deep trouble, shall we say?
So, there was all sort of elements to it. And then, when the partner left, I had to just stop thinking about whether he would survive or not. I knew that he was extremely strong and strongly fit, but all it takes is one twisted ankle and you're gone. There was no one to come and rescue you. There's no one to help. There was no outside help at all. And there was no water on route. So there wasn't much chance of survival if anything went wrong. Now as with the other two guys, and the leader of the expedition was a survival expert from Yugoslavia and he was amazing. All I had to do was really follow him and do what he said. And that's what we did.
On day five. I had real—we had a sand storm hit and just as the evening broke, and it came in so suddenly. Because I was doing most of my drinking of the water in the night-time and because that's when your cells could take it up. If you drank during the day, it would just evaporate out of your body really quickly. So, we were trying to drink the bulk of our supply for the day in the evening. And I'd also been squirreling away part of that two litres a day. So I was actually only getting a litre and a half in because I was so scared of running out so that I had more left in the backpack than I was meant to have and on this particular night, the sand storm came in, and I didn't get to drink my water because it was just—we just got in hour sleeping bags and just hunkered down. We basically got buried by the sand storm. You couldn't do anything for the next five or six hours while this passes through.
And then at about three in the morning, we got up again and we got going really quickly and I only had a small drink and then I got underway. And finally, by now I was not really feeling the thirst anymore and was walking in the early hours of this morning and I just kept passing out and my body was starting to shut down. But Elvis was on such a mission to get to the certain point that he'd see on the map. So, then he would know where we were exactly and that we would survive, that he was just on a mission. He wouldn't stop to let me get water out of the backpack. And they keep pulling me back on my feet. I'd go along for another 20 minutes, and then I pass out again, they’d put me back up again, I'd walk along again, then I passed out again. This happened like five or six times, until we got to this place where we could see this—it’s called the barbecue depression.
So you were up on this table top, landscape, and then you're looking down. And so, then he knew where we were. And by now I was hallucinating. So, the rocks were becoming monsters. And I didn't even know to ask for a break. If that makes sense. All I was doing was functioning by putting one foot in front of the other, and I couldn't think straight, my vision was closing in, hallucinations, and so on.
Geoffrey: What kept you going? I mean, it sounds like—was it just reptilian survival instinct, just one foot after another? Was there something higher? Or like, ‘I'm not going to die today’? Where were you in this state? It just sounds like you are so...
Lisa: So close.
Geoffrey: ...baseline functioning, right? It was just like you're essentially just baseline survival function at this point?
Lisa: Yes, at this point, there was no higher thinking at all. There was just, I'd been doing this for days, just following the footsteps of the guy in front of me. And that was what I was mesmerised on, this little white flicker of his shoes in front of my eyes. And that's all I focused on doing because just could not think any higher thoughts. When you run out of glucose and when you run out of water, your brain functions it's like being completely out of it.
So I was just doing everything I could just to stay upright and keep moving forward and not thinking and not being intelligent. You're unable in this case to make clear decisions or anything like that or to say, ‘Look, hey, I need to stop and get some water guys’. And you're on the sort of mission, and you're just going, and it's just pure survival that keeps you putting one foot in front of the other.
And then once we got to this place, he helped me down these cliffs and we got to the bottom and he said, ‘Right, I want you to get out your water and you're going to drink and we're going to sit here for the extra hours. And you're going to slowly drink your whole day supply because your body's starting to shut down’. And he said to me, ‘Look, he'd been in the desert a lot’. He said, ‘I've known of people who have died in the desert with 20 litres of water and next to them because they've been squirreling it away for so long’. He said, ‘It's better in your tummy than in the backpack’. In other words, I hadn't been having enough just to keep surviving and you can actually die next to a whole big ton of water because you're squirreling it away for too long. And then your body shuts down, and then you're gone, can’t go too far.
So the upshot of this adventure was anyway, we did get out, we did survive, obviously. I had some major kidney damage and health problems after this. The boyfriend also got out and there was a lot of undoing of misty relationship stuff, as you can imagine, in the aftermath. But that was a time in my life where I went and never again, will I let myself be controlled by anybody else. Never again, am I not controlling my own destiny.
And it took me two years to do anything again because my body was just wrecked and emotionally, I was wrecked. But then one day I was reading this magazine. And it was about the Marathon des Sables, which is a very famous ultramarathon in Morocco. And I was reading the statistics and comparing it to what I've been through the Libyan desert. So we've done 250 Ks, we'd had 35 kilo backpacks, two litres of water a day, right? And Marathon des Sables is touted as, that time, as the toughest race on Earth, 240 kilometres, 9 litres of water a day, doctors, journalists, airplanes, helicopters support.
Geoffrey: You’re like, ‘This sounds easy. This sounds like a luxury clamp glamping’.
Lisa: Luxury cruise.
Lisa: Yes. So, you had to carry everything in your back, as far as the food goes, but that was like, between 9 and 12 kilos. And I thought, ‘Hang on a minute. I reckon I could do this’. And so, I hadn't even run a marathon but I signed up for this 240 k event. And that was the first time I'd done something on my own. As a girl on her own now, it was really important to me to prove to myself that I wasn't useless.
And I went and I did this race, and I just absolutely loved it. I did really, really well. I didn't win anything but I was in the top 10 woman and I just had an absolute ball. I was surrounded by people who were positive and encouraging and empowering, and there was 700 people in this race and the whole camp moves every day. It was like a huge military operation. It was just mind blowing.
And then after that experience, I started to get my self-confidence back that had been on the ground for the last two years. And I became addicted to that experience if you like because I was like, ‘Ugh. Give me more of this, this is awesome’. And I was good at something for change. I was told I was doing really well, and the other people were so uplifting, that then I became addicted to ultramarathon. So, then I just signed up for every race I could possibly find, interested in one after the other, and sort of worked it out as I went. And so long story short, that's how I got into ultramarathon running.
Geoffrey: Now I understand why you put mindset as first year as well, the ultramarathon. I mean, it sounds like almost from your perspective, your mindset and that emotional and cognitive resilience to go through when you were 13 and 15. As an adolescent athlete towards some of these survival trips. Would you say that's accurate? You almost see yourself like a mental ninja or a mental resilience expert ahead of being an endurance athlete at this point?
Lisa: Yes. Yes, definitely. Certainly, it's become that over the—even last 20 years, especially. Whereas like I've said, I never hadn't had a lot of talent. But I realized I had I did have really good mental strength when it came to certain areas, especially in sport. I had a mindset that I could just go and I would go to the point of killing myself, nearly, which also became a problem on occasion, because you just wouldn't pull out when you should pull out. And now I'm a lot wiser and don't advise people to do that. And now we coached, you know, hundreds of athletes around the world, and we try to get them to pull out way before that point.
You know what the greatest benefit of doing all these ultramarathons and pushing your body to the limits like this is that it teaches you mental toughness, it teaches you resilience, it teaches you that failure is a part of the game as well. That if we only go through life being scared of failure, we're never going to take risks, we're never going to push the envelope, we're never going to find out what we’re truly capable of. And if there's one thing I've learned through this whole journey, it's that failure is a part of pushing to the limits. When you're going to that sort of level, even in business or in whatever it is in life, you are going to have failures and that is part of it. And you have to get over that and you have to learn resilience.
And I think resilience is a word that is totally underutilized in our society. And something we should be teaching all our kids about the resilience to be able to get up when you're knocked down. The resilience to be able to believe that you can still achieve even when things are stacked against you or when people are telling you, ‘No’ and ‘It's impossible’. That’s the thing that has helped me most. Running from A to B and some artificial human made race, if you like, or climbing a mountain or doing any of these things, it's a conduit to learning who the hell you are.
Geoffrey: Yes, it's an artificial construct. It's like a game to actually bring out that resilience at that person, that character, that integrity. This is something I've been thinking a lot about, I'm glad you're bringing this up. For the specific resilience, where do you think that resilience came from? Do you believe—I mean, this might be like a nature versus nurture question. Do you think that there's some sort of genetic disposition that predisposes certain people towards having this kind of emotional and cognitive resilience?
But also part of that is that sounds like through your childhood, through your environment, through your upbringing, you had pretty early—shall I say, traumatic or formational experiences as you're competing, that probably gave you some sort of either a trauma that you healed really well from, or gave you a lot of experience that people never actually face with like a happy normal childhood or whatever you want to call it. Do you think those were powerful formational experiences that led you down that path?
How do you think about it, when you are coaching clients, coaching different folks? Obviously, you realize that some people just seem tougher than others, right? Like you hear like—I think your story reminds me a lot of David Goggins’s story who was a former Navy SEAL, ultra-endurance athlete, had a lot of trauma through his childhood. How do you synthesize your personal experience as well as the experiences that you've called and pulled through your coaching and your journeys around the world?
Lisa: Yed, that's a really good question. And yes, like David's stories are incredible and his childhood—terrible, obviously. And it's what made him who he is, a lot of it.
I actually think there's a combination of nature and nurture. So I'm right into epigenetics and we use a system called Ph360, which is looking at different types of people and different health types. And I am what they call a crusader, which is someone who's always going to be dopamine driven and on a mission, tendency towards addictive behaviour, whether that's running stupid distances or eating too much chocolate. Same sort of thing.
And so this, I think—and my brothers often say to me, ‘Why are you always on a mission? Why are you trying to conquer the world all the time in everything that you do? Why can't you just sit back and relax and have a day at the beach like we do’? And I say, ‘It's like asking a table not to be flat, this is who I am. This is my makeup. This is the way I’m made, and I can't do anything much about that’.
So I do think that a big part of the drive and the determination is genetically predispositioned. Like mum said, even as a three-year-old, I would be off diving into the pool when I couldn't swim, or I just had no fear, I would be doing stupid stuff. As a kid without any sort of idea of what the heck I'm doing. And that is always been characteristic of my nature to just jump into things and work it out on the way.
So I think there is a big portion of genetics. And by the same token, I think the combination of that with some very harsh experiences. And these are experiences, too like, don't get me wrong, the self-esteem, the lack of confidence in after that relationship, there were massive depression, suicide attempts. There’s a lot of staff that are not going into the details of—to come out the other end, if you know what I mean.
So it wasn't like you're just like, wow, the super resilient person who just gets back up again. It certainly wasn't in that young years, when I didn't have the toolkit, either to be able to cope with the emotions that I'm feeling. And when you're younger, you've got a whole lot of hormones and stuff going around, and very dramatic, as you know, with all teenagers are all dramatic. I was probably super dramatic.
So, there was a lot of stuff and this is a process. And I'm older now. It's very easy for me now, look back at the journey. I'm 51 going on 18, I still think I’m a teenager. Looking back over that time and going—actually, I can see the progression, I can see how I developed, I can see the highs and the lows, and it all makes sort of a sense now, if you like. And we don't always have that benefit of hindsight when you're in the middle of it, all you know is that you're depressed and you don't want to be here anymore.
But if you can actually look at things from a longer term perspective and go, ‘This might be a part of making me who I am’. And now every situation that I get into that really blows me to pieces—is really hard or tragic, and I've been through quite a lot in my life. I now look at it and the first thing I try to think is, ‘Where is the learning here? Where is the silver lining? What is it that I'm meant to be learning from this experience? And how can I turn this into a positive’? And it doesn't always come to me quickly.
I mean, last year, we had a situation with my husband and I've been trying to have a baby for four years. We've lost one when I was 46 in a miscarriage. And then I had a surrogate mum, and we were over the moon. We thought we’re finally going to have a baby. And six months into it, our little boy, Joseph, suddenly came early, and he only survived for two hours and he died. And this was like, heartbreaking. Our last chance, basically, to hold your baby and to watch him struggle and die. And it was like the worst thing I've ever been through.
And even in this horrifying situation, if you like, there were moments of joy, moments of blessings, and the blessings that a little boy brought to us. It took me a few weeks. But when I now think of my little boy, I think what he left behind, like the changes he created in me, the changes he created in my husband, our surrogate parents—we’re extremely close now to our surrogate parent family, to their children. My husband is a firefighter and he's now become an officer which he wouldn't do before because he was like, ‘Ah too shy and too whatever’. And now he's like, “No, my little boy didn't get to live, I'm going to live for more he suffered’.
So little Joseph bought blessings in a way that we couldn't see at the time. And I don't wish that on anyone. And I certainly don't want to go through that again. But it could either break you or you can try to find something in there that has meaning for you and a reason for you. And so no matter what you're going through in life, try to think of it as, ‘Well, this is going to be a part of something that I'm meant to be learning and I can turn this around’. And that's I think your job, when you're on this earth is to try and have these lessons and become stronger and better and not let it break you.
Geoffrey: Yes, well, I think that's an incredible framework that you've really—I think—internalized and really test it to the limits, right? How do you turn every single injection, interruption, happenstance that occurs in one's life? And how do you take the positive from that, and it sounds like you've been able to really internalize it so well, that you're really testing the bounds of human experience there.
Lisa: I think—and also, I mean, we've gone pretty deep, and it's pretty emotional in this topic. To lighten things up a little bit. I mean, I've had the most crazy adventures and most fun, running things like Death Valley in the US, which is a really well known race that you probably know about. And our friend, David Goggins has done Dean Karnazes and—in doing those events, where it's just been absolute highlights of my life to have those achievements.
So by the same token that you have these horrible things such happened to you, when you have to get through them, then you have these amazing experiences that were obviously challenging and hard and the discipline and all that sort of stuff that you learn along the way. But these are also life changing moments where you've achieved something. Like Death Valley was a dream for 15 years of mine before I actually got there and got a slot in that race and had enough money to go.
And the boyfriend that left me in the Libyan desert, he'd cycled through Death Valley in the middle of summer. And so, he was always like, ‘A year, I cycled through Death Valley’. And so in the back of my mind, I was like, ‘One day, I'm going to run through these valleys like the way’...
Geoffrey: I’m going to show him.
Lisa: I’m going to show him, and I did. I did. I ran through it twice. I've done it twice and it was a crazy—that was another life changing event for me because it opened up the world. I ended up doing a lot of documentaries after that, books and so on.
So, there's been some amazing things, and this is the beauty of life. We don't have to be stuck in a box. We have the ability to reinvent ourselves. I mean, you Geoffrey are a prime example of somebody—Stanford University, computer scientist. Now you're just creating a new you, in a new world, and a new direction that actually is what you want to do now. And none of us have to be limited anymore and I certainly not this day and age by one profession. Like, I write what I do, it's everything from podcasting, to filmmaking, to book writing, to coaching, to mental toughness courses to everything. And none of that is a contradiction.
Geoffrey: Yes. I want to step back and just maybe turn us into more of a culture commentary. Because I feel like a lot of modern society and culture is—at least I sense—there's a lot of its form of anaesthesia, just numbing, kind of an existential angst of why, what is one's purpose? And then I think there's also a big stream of living vicariously through others, right? People aren't doing the Death Valley run themselves, they're watching you, Lisa, doing that Death Valley run—or watching and living through other people.
Lisa: And that is a hallmark of our time, really. With all the movies and social media. It's very easy just to sit on the couch and think, ‘Wow, I've just been to all over the place’.
Geoffrey: Right, and I think it's a little bit of both because I think a lot of people have this, they live vicariously through others, which gives us that excitement, but it's also the anaesthesia for the day to day, boredom or angst of not being satisfied with what they're doing. I mean, do you sense that with the broader cultural context of our times?
Lisa: I think there's a real massive disconnect nowadays from the way human beings used to be—so out in nature all day, digging the fields, hunting deer, building their houses, doing whatever, pushing the limits, exploring. We don't have to do any of that anymore because we live in a world where it's all—that's all done for us. And yet we live in the stressful times of computers and technology and crazy jobs and a lot of confinement. And we're going from one box of in their house to another box in the car to another box at work and then office. And all of us as disconnected us from our true roots in our ancestral way of being and this is at odds with our DNA, I think, and the way our bodies are meant to function.
And so I think this is causing a disconnect, especially with young people who don't know that they have to get outside and get in the sunshine and get their vitamin D on their skin and get away from those damn computers and video games and all that sort of stuff. And so, when that happens, we have all sorts of problems come up, hormone dysregulation, circadian rhythms are stuffed up, woman with their cycles are stuffed up. We disconnected from nature. And I think the more that we can get outside, get back to some very basics that the human body needs.
So I run my businesses, I'm 24/7 sort of thing around, going for it all the time, but I make sure every day I get time to train in nature, push my body out in the—physically—outdoors, and connect with the sea, the forest, the mountains, wherever I can. And even if I've only got 10 minutes to sit in the city park, I know that it's important for my soul to be able to connect with nature. And that's important on a hormone level, it's important on a personality level, and all of these areas that are just being neglected now.
And we can sit at home and be entertained 24/7 on our devices. And this is a huge danger I think for the human race because we shouldn't be living in the matrix. We need to be out there actually experiencing it ourselves, getting in the water, going for runs, walking in the park, whatever it is, and interacting with other human beings on a eye-to-eye level. I mean, we luckily have this technology, and I can connect with you, which I never would have been able to do in the past.
But by the same token, it's important that I go today, and I see my family and I look them in the eye and I have that social interaction with them. And all of these things are missing from many people's lives. So there's the element of loneliness, there's the element of all these dysregulation that's going on in our bodies and our circadian rhythms, and hormones, and so on.
This all leads down a track of very often depression, being dissatisfied in life. And then maybe you're in a job that you feel trapped in or you don't have a job. You don't know what you want to be. We have to create our own framework and our own destiny, and we have the power. We live in a time where we can actually—through this amazing technology—access so many things that we never could have before. There is no reason for any single person to not be doing something on a mission, creating their own business, doing something on the side to get them out of the job that they don't like, whatever. But it's up to you and your mindset to understand, there is no white knight in shining armour coming to save you. You have to make things happen.
And you just do that, obviously. You just decided I'm into the keto and the intermittent fasting, right, and I don't know the whole story, obviously, I'm going to go and make this happen. Then you start a new business and you started the business and sold it at 23, you know, like I didn't know which way was up at 23. To be honest.
Geoffrey: I think if you look at just how every single story, every single interesting, whether it's historical figure, everyone started from somewhere and someone decided to do something, and it compounded and grew and you learn over time, right? And I think one interesting, maybe first step, to inspire people to build that mental toughness—at least for my experience—was doing some of these longer runs.
I remember the first time some of my colleagues at H.V.M.N. who are marathoners and triathletes, they kind of just challenged me casually do a half marathon. And never was a good endurance runner and the notion of running for an hour was—just seemed like very intimidating. And I imagine for most people that are casual athletes, casual folks that go to the gym, running a mile on a treadmill is like a pretty solid day, warm up or pretty solid effort. But I think what I took out of that experience and having done a couple ultramarathons was that going back to your point, I think is more interesting for me as a mental challenge than a aerobic bout. It’s just being in your own head for a couple hours for three hours, four hours, five hours, not listening to music. That's almost a forced meditation, in some perspective.
Lisa: It is. It is.
Geoffrey: And I think—especially in our day and age, you never are really alone without your devices for 2, 3, 4, or five hours. I think that's an interesting little small entry point into tapping into that notion of resilience and self-actualization.
So, I'm curious to get your thoughts on that route. But also just going back to the notion of creating one's own destiny. And I think just from a historical perspective, you look at all the great historical figures from Steve Jobs to Genghis Khan. Everyone was some child with some interesting upbringing and they figured out some things went well, they made some mistakes. But I think the thing is, they didn't really stop right, I think your story is definitely a story of not stopping.
Lisa: Yes, congratulations for stepping up to those challenges and doing those runs. Because the thing is, it's the same as when, like, someone might look at you and go, ‘Wow, what a brain and he's super intelligent, and I could never do that’. And I bet you just went, ‘I'm just going to take this one step at a time, I’ll start my degree, or do this paper or do’—and suddenly you will start to expand, doesn't it? And you're capable, and then you find out, ‘Holy heck, pretty amazing what I've achieved’.
And it's the same thing with running. You start off and we coach 700 athletes now, and I've coached thousands over the years. And I've taken people from running from one lamppost up to running hundred milers. So, I know that process. And you start with people, you don't talk to them like, ‘One day, you're going to run 100 milers’. You start with them like, ‘We just got to get to that lamppost down there and I'm going to teach you the way to run and the way to breathe’. And a lot of people don't even know how to breathe, and then they suddenly realize, ‘Oh, heck, I actually can run for half an hour, I thought that would be impossible’. And once you have those initial successes, you get the breathing correctly, you get and taking smaller steps for starters, you teach them a few technique things, and then they get that there's those first initial wins. And that's where you start.
And then within weeks, you can have them running the first 5K, often. If they're healthy, normal people, they just don't know how to run. And all of a sudden, now the horizon is lifted to that level. And then you repeat that process up to 10 Ks, up to 20Ks and then they run into a brick wall, and they don't know how to get from a half marathon to a marathon. And then you show them the way through that and they may have a couple of failures on the way where they run out of glycogen. And you deal with these things as they happen. And then all of a sudden, they're signing up for the first ultra, and then the world's open to them, then they understand that this is just one foot in front of the other, having a good coach, having good structure, not burning yourself out, doing things in the right order, getting your recovery, doing all of that sort of good stuff. And then all of a sudden, the horizons are lifted.
And this is a beautiful thing when you cross the finish line or something like Death Valley. It is a moment that is a combination of in that case 15 years’ worth of work to get there. And you've stood on the shoulders of all your teammates. You've learned so much about who you are along the way. It's not just about that journey, and then you're capable in your life, there is nothing that is going to hold you back. There is no limitations into what you can do.
But you also have to realize you have to be willing to pay the price for all of those things. You have to be willing to go to the nth degree. You have to be willing—when you did those runs, I bet there was times where you're in a lot of pain and you’re suffering and your body's screaming at you, ‘Why, Geoff? Just sit down. Why are you doing this? Who are you trying to impress here’?
Geoffrey: Yes. I just remember that one of the first half marathons is like it was on the team lunch, I think on a Wednesday and then, my former colleague Brianna, who wrote for Great Britain and converted to doing Iron Mans was like, ‘Hey, you should do a half marathon this week’. And I'm like—just like running around the Embarcadero in San Francisco. I'm like, it's like mile seven and like, ‘Why am I doing this’? Like my feet start hurting? You’re just like by yourself. Everyone, all the tourists are just like confused like, ‘Why this person's running like these back and forth along the Embarcadero’?
Maybe I don't want to be overly conceited but I feel like at a certain point, like humans were just designed to be able to run 5, 10 miles. And I feel like in a more healthful society, it should be almost table stakes to be able to just blast out 10 miles on a dime, right? Like, I think I would love to live in a society where that’s just tables where you would expect people to be able to walk across the street? Any healthy person should be able to run a few miles.
Lisa: Yes, I mean, obviously you've got disabilities or whatever, it's different. But if you're just a normal, healthy human being, then yes. There’s a book by my friend, Chris McDougall, Born to Run. And that's all about the fact that humans are born to run and we had a TV series along this line that we tried to get off the ground. We got the pilots down, and we looked at, in historical stories of long distance running in different cultures all around the world, from the mountain Hiei monks to the Kalahari Bushmen to the Navajo Indians to the Maori in New Zealand, all of these ancestral people covered huge distances on foot. Whether that was running, walking, but they were moving—pedestrian, that's what we are. We’re made, we're born for this stuff. We're probably not born to do 100 miles, to be honest, like I think we do those things because we want to find out where the limits are, but we all made to be doing 10 to 20Ks a day. I truly believe that that's what our bodies...
I often get asked, ‘What are you wearing at your joints’? My joints are fine, and I've run 70,000 Ks, and I don't have knee troubles. And where the problems come is when you don't do your strength training, when you don't do your mobility work. So, in the past that would have been working in the garden and stretching and lifting and all of those things that we often just run and then we come sit at our computer. And that's a bit of a dangerous combination.
Geoffrey: Yes, I think the argument that running is bad for your joints is definitely a misconception, right? Like, when you actually have looked at studies, that's basically an untrained person going from zero to 10 miles, and it's like, yes, you don't expect someone that's untrained to be able to become like a computer programmer without some probably some ego damage, not necessary physical damage. Or you go from not being able to bench press 200 pounds is expecting someone to just lift a lot of heavy weights.
Lisa: Yes. And that is actually a bit of a danger. Like I see people going on—I'm an ambassador for a race next month, my husband's running it as well. It's an 8K, and I'm watching some of the people who have signed up in the Strava accounts and then not training and I'm like, ‘Oh, shoot, we're going to have carnage’. Because you need to prepare your body. Like going out and running a half marathon because you're a fit young man, and you do other stuff, you can get away with it. But that's not what—like if you were to extrapolate that and go,’Well, next week, I'm going to run a marathon’, well, then we'll start running into trouble because you do need a structure and build up and periodization and all those other good things, too. Because your ligament, like your cardiovascular system will do it, no worries. Your ligaments and your tendons will not.
Geoffrey: Like it's not used to the pounding. One thing that I wanted to ask about, it’s actually, I'm curious in terms of talking to folks who have done incredible endurance feats is the mindset during the bout. And I think you reflected upon it just a little bit earlier, where in the moment, there's often times we're in pain, you want to stop, you want to quit. I remember a conversation with Pete Jacobs, who was an Ironman World champ, talking about trying to harken back to a notion of gratitude of love and trying to pull up that emotion as he's trying to finish some of these longer races. I'm interested in some of your mental tricks as you're doing Badwater, your hundred miles in, it's really hot.
Lisa: You're sick and dying.
Geoffrey: Are you on autopilot survival mode? Yes. Are you trying to recall happy moments? Or are you more of like a David Goggins, where you trying to recall painful, hateful moments? Are you a Zen monk? What are your tricks?
Lisa: I've got a few tricks, definitely, and it's a bit of all of the above. The gratitude one, he's a bit of man, I find it quite hard, and at one I'm definitely a bit more David Goggins style as far as—especially in my early days when I was trying to prove something and wanting to be loved and accepted basically and being okay.
And so a lot of the motivation here was to prove that I could and that I was strong and that I was not useless. And that's a really—I don't care even if it's a negative motivating factor, if you like it some negative rather than the gratitude one, but it's a powerful one. Because you will pull out all the stops. You can hear that person's voice in your head going, ‘You're useless’. And you're like, might be breaking down and you might be in hell pain you're going you but I cannot let that I cannot let them win, I cannot give up. And that can be a powerful force.
Now later on in my career, it became more things like doing things for a charity and especially during things for a particular person who had a disability or something, that would get me going. Because I'd be like, ‘Well hang on’. I've run for kids with cancer and things like that. Then you start to pull on other things, like, ‘I'm so grateful I don't have cancer and get over yourself, because these kids are dying of cancer and going through chemo and all of this, and they're putting a brave face on. Get your shit together”, basically. And so you put things into perspective.
One of the couple of the other tricks I use is, if I was really in a desperate situation in a race, I'd say to myself, things like, ‘Okay, you've just crashed in a plane in the middle of the jungle, or the desert, or wherever you are. And you've got to run 200Ks to save your mother because she needs help. And she's stuck in that plane. Now, you're exhausted, and are you going to quit when your mother's life depends on it? Or are you going to find the power to run another step’? And the answer was always, ‘I would not give up. I would fight, I would find another way to take another step’. And therefore, you can do it. It's all a matter of the motivation. It's all a matter of how bad do you want this thing. And if somebody, one of your loved ones life depended on it, you can bet your bottom dollar that you would run that 200K or that hundred mile or whatever it is, you wouldn't give up. You’d die trying, wouldn’t you?
And that when you can pull those resources out of yourself and fight through, there’s this constant battle. So when I'm running along, I'm often got this battle, what I call them, the lion and the snake. And you've got the lion who's going, ‘Come on, you can do it. You're so strong, and you're amazing, and you've got this’. And all the positive people that have been in your life represent that line. And then you've got the snake on the other side going, ‘You’re useless, you’re never going to make this. What are you thinking? You couldn't do this, sit down, no one's going to care’. All of this sort of battles going on in your mind. And as the day wears on, and the nights or the days wear on, this battle gets bigger and louder and stronger. And this snake tends to get more and more control and you're just hanging on for dear life trying to not let that snake beat you.
Like when I ran through New Zealand and I had 2250 Ks ahead of me. And I've been busy, so busy with the logistics of it, I hadn't actually thought about running what it takes to run 500Ks a week. And I got to the start line, and then all of a sudden it's set on me like an elephant and I had a panic attack. And my mum was—and this is like five minutes before I meant to start I've got all the media, I've got the crews, I've got everything right, been planning this for four months, raising money for charities, etc. And I just had a meltdown.
I went over to my mum, and I'm bawling and I can't breathe and I'm having a panic attack and I go, ‘Mum, I can't. I can't. 2200, I can't do it’, and cry my eyes out. And she, like mums do, puts them in a bear hug and she says, ‘Stop, stop, stop stop. I want you to think about getting to that power pole up there. That's all you have to do right now. You don't have to run 2250 Ks, you have to run to that power pole. And then we're going to get through the first half an hour. And then we're going to get to lunchtime, and then we'll see’. And by doing that she pulled my focus back into the here and the now instead of projecting into the future, which was overwhelming and terrifying. And that's how we broke it down step-by-step.
And there were many times along that journey with a pain was just so intense, and my body was breaking down, and I just could hardly even got to a point at one stage where I couldn't even walk without sticks. And I had to let alone run. I managed to just keep moving forward. And all of a sudden, after two weeks, my body hit the absolute rock bottom and then it started to actually improve again, it was like—and I've heard other ultramarathoners like Charlie Engle and Raisa have crossed the Sahara. Say, it gets worse, worse, worse, worse, worse.
And then you hit the rock bottom and it's almost like your body goes. ‘Well, she hasn't quit. So we better get our shit together. We better get organized here because she's keeping going anyway, we're throwing everything at her and she's still going’. And then I actually got better and better as the whole time went on and got stronger. And by the end of that race, well that run was actually stronger than when had been in the first two weeks, which was really bizarre to understand.
Yes, these are some of the tricks like you know, association and disassociation, like taking yourself off to your happy place. I often go swimming with whales in my head, someplace, it's completely away from what I'm dreaming. And then if I have a crew which is some races you do, they’d be telling these stories and trying to keep my mind occupied so that I just keep out of my own body. And then other times I'll be in my body and checking in with it and saying, ‘Am I drinking enough? Have I had my electrolytes? Have I had my whatever — enough food’? So, you're doing all that checklist stuff going through your head.
So, it's a combination of all these things to keep fighting through the hard moments, don't for a minute believe that you get to the Zen state of flow, and you stay there, and that's it. And you're just amazing. There are people that do. And like the guys that run the Self-Transcendence race, 3100 miles from New York City. That's what they're aiming for this zen state of transcending their body, I've never got there. I tried and I would have moments of it, or even a couple of hours of it, we know completely in this flow state where I can even feel my body, it's like a camera, like, my eyes are like a camera, and I'm just floating through the air. But those times the short loads unfortunately for me because I haven't cracked the code. I haven't probably meditated enough to get there. But it is probably there and it's probably doable.
Geoffrey: Definitely an interesting spiritual, I think, concept I think I've tapped into very rarely as well, or just everything just feels easy. And it's like, wow, I could just do this forever. And if you can hold that, that seems like it would be a magical—if you want to get tapped into that consistently.
One of the things I thought was interesting was this notion of just breaking down decomposing a large problem to smaller and smaller bits. And I think this is an adage, or a maxim that I think everyone has heard about, through teachers or stories. I think one thing that I've found through people that really live well-lived lives is that you have such visceral experience, pain, scar tissue that anchors that adage to a real experience. And I think that when I step back and think about all the different—whether that's Zen Cohen, or these books with all these best practices and best tips they're very curt, nice little encapsulated sentences, but they're really almost raisins, or all the juice behind those simple statements of, ‘Hey, break down the marathon into just running to the next lamppost’. But someone who's never done that is like, ‘Oh, of course, that makes sense. I get it’. But they actually don't get it. And it sounds like you've collected so many of these adages with just truly a broad spectrum of life experiences both very, very positive, and some that are quite sad and quite unfortunate.
A kind of opening up, I mean, are there other kind of interesting adages that you just feel like you have real—a depth of understanding, because you've just lived through it?
Lisa: Yes, and you’re so right. I mean, sometimes it's a good Instagram posts that you see with little quotes, and I've used them too, and you don't actually—it's hard to convey the actual experience. And until you've actually lived through it—and these things have a real value, like breaking things down into minor chunks and keeping your focus close to you and so on. But it is hard for someone who hasn't experienced that to actually know what the hell you're talking about until you're faced with a situation.
But the more you learn about the stuff, then when you are doing your next marathon ultramarathon, Geoff, you will have more of these tools already in your head and you say, ‘Oh, Lisa said, have a go at trying this’. And then you try it out in your own body and you realize, ‘Hmm. This is working, I'm going to work more on this aspect of this tool’. And you do get better at things once you've actually had the experience yourself.
I did want to share one really life-changing event with your audience if I may, Geoff, and go into the story with my mum.
Lisa: Yes, so throughout the interview, I've mentioned my mum a couple of times as being this amazing, wonderful woman and she's always supported me and all my crazy endeavours and so on, and never ever limited me in my belief of what I can do, was just an amazing woman.
And she four years ago had aneurysm which is a bleed in the brain and was rushed to the hospital. We got that horrible phone call, rushed up there, mum's collapsed. The ambulance driver said to the doctor, I think she's having a stroke. The doctor decided to ignore that and said, ‘Ah, she's just having a migraine’, which was an absolute disastrous misdiagnosis, if you like. We spent six hours in the ED there, not knowing—I got caught out. I didn't know what to ask for. I didn't know what was happening to her. I knew she was in deep trouble and the doctor was just ignoring us. Painkillers weren't working. She was in extreme pain.
And I had a paramedic friend who’d crew for me on many of my races and I rang her and said, ‘Please can you get up here? I don't know what to ask for. But there's something major wrong with mum’. So she came out and took one look at her and said, ‘She's having a neurological event of some sort’. Went and got the doctor and shook him out of his stupidity. And to get her a CT scan right now. She's having a stroke or something like that.
They took her through after six hours and had a CT scan and it came back blood right throughout the brain, aneurysm. And they didn't expect that she was going to live. It was horrific state of affairs by this time. And that experience was for me, like my mum's life's hanging in the balance. And I've been caugh