by Carrie Adams
[Editor’s Note: This interview began as a conversation recalling Chris Mitchell’s Death Race experience but it quickly became something bigger. These words are words that the Death Racers should hear going into this year’s event and these words are words we should all remember as we navigate our own walks on this Earth.]
“Don’t do yourself dirt.” Chris Mitchell’s grandmother’s words resonate. Mitchell won the Death Race in 2008 and has been back every year since to help out with the event. He’s a part of the Peak Racing team that brings the event to the participants each year and he’s the Race Director for the Peak Warman Road Ride. Now 43 and three years after his Death Race win he talks about what makes a person successful and why failure, engineering your own life, and being honest about what you want for yourself is so important to self-discovery and growth.
“So, I don’t really like running” he starts, “But given the pressures and demands of being the CEO of an organization… the pair of shoes and an hour of time is very convenient.” By 2005, he’d done seven or eight marathons but things changed. While in Berkeley teaching he began training with a student he tutored to prepare for the San Francisco marathon. The student trained hard and hurt his knee just before the event leaving him unable to participate, but Mitchell told him he’d run another marathon with him before he left California if he found one. The student found a 50K trail run instead.
Mitchell recalls telling him, “At 26.2 miles I am done. I can’t even imagine running another five miles. That’s my limits.” Ultimately the student’s pleas were heard and Mitchell knew he’d put in the time, saying “It’s not the event but what you do that leads up to it.” The trail run helped Mitchell find the joy of running again, “it was awesome I loved running again and so that got me really into ultra running.” He was no longer running to offset a busy life. “It wasn’t a burden to run. Now it was fun. The enjoyment was spiritual, emotional, physical.”
In 2008 he was doing one ultra endurance event a month – everything from Ironman to 100 mile runs. He had four or five months to prepare for the Death Race, an event he doesn’t even remember how he found. Through a training program that included intensifying his meditation practices, Mitchell had the physical strength, endurance and mental fortitude to win the Death Race in 2008, a remarkable feat.
These days Mitchell still does events and he also trains friends and family who ask and are willing to put in the time because he knows what is possible with the investment.
He says, “When I train people. This is all about exploration. You can travel around the world but the internal exploration begins with running. When we get to some hill I tell them ‘pick a point far ahead and run.’ You have to relax. Start to run relaxed. It sounds like a Zen thing. Run without running. There is no friction and no resistance because in your head you’re not running. The motion and body is there but you’re in this relaxed state.”
It’s a concept so many struggle to grasp because there is an immediate resistance, force, pushing back of the mind. He explains, “Your mind resists – there is a massive amount of conditioning associated with it. I’m not talking about body conditioning. Anyone can run a marathon. I’m removing the condition that’s been put upon us about running, biking, becoming athletes in endurance. I learned to be out there and forget about it being tough.”
As a coach, Mitchell works with people who are a part of his life and and admittedly he doesn’t know what they are after when they begin. “They see something that they want for themselves. We engineer our own lives but we are not given the tools to engineer those properly.”
He breaks it down, “They aren’t happy and it’s simple. If something isn’t working for you in your life, it’s your responsibility to change it or change your relationship to it.”
Running, especially ultrarunning and races like the Death Race are challenging but they are mentally challenging because they demand honesty. Says Mitchell, “People can be perpetually dishonest with themselves. You can’t in these events. You can’t blame the weather, your kids, it’s just you.”
Mitchell ultimately took his own advice and left his CEO job because he realized the things he was passionate about and the job were not two things he could do at the same time. He remembers the date he made the decision, August 8, 2008.
I told myself, “You can’t do both. I had to ask myself the question was I risking enough? That was it. That’s me making a decision.” Now, he’s a part of several start-up companies. He promotes a mentality of failure being a means of growth in a world where all too often people quit. He adds, “And using honest and harsh words are important at the right time.”
He often asks new people he is coaching to do push ups until they fail. Almost invariably they quit before failure and he’ll ask “Why are you quitting? You didn’t fail. Do it again.”
He asserts, “I tell them ‘you are sabotaging these efforts.’ It’s a form of control.” They need to go through the second round and really fail so that they can know the difference. “I know what they are feeling. There’s pain, everything in their body wants to quit.”
When it comes to racing, to life, to taking risks he says, “You can fail – there will be no shadow. If you quit you will always have excuses but failure is unequivocal. When you quit you always have excuses. When you truly fail – you look someone in the eyes and just say, “I couldn’t do it.” If you start reasoning – you’ve quit. Never quit. Never stop running on an uphill. Stop running on the downhill. Never let that part of yourself tell you it’s okay. Everyone knows that moment when you want to the most. The first time they quit after they’ve felt the difference they start to understand. There is nothing left. Now you know the feeling between quitting and failing. Have to get that into the fabric of conditioning. The toughest thing is people being responsible for their own life.”
Failure is a necessary part of growth and people who don’t fail are people who haven’t pushed themselves far enough. “Failure is a path. If you haven’t failed somewhere monumentally then you playing to yourself.”
The honesty that a race like the Death Race evokes is powerful. “Who you are is going to show up. Whatever you bring there, it’s going to show up. If that champion is in there it’s coming out, it doesn’t matter who crosses the line first it’s what you find out about yourself when you are in the moment. It effects everything.”
Mitchell admits that these are deep things, that conditioning is difficult to overcome and it goes across your life. He coaches to help people recognize that the endurance training like running, yoga, mediation gets results because they are truly time-tested technologies that won’t fail. He’s seen it time and time again and it inspires the perpetual optimist.
For the 2008 Death Race champion, the man who’s chosen his passions, taken risks, and perpetually put himself outside zones of comfort for self-discovery, he’s lived a lot of life and continues to pursue helping others find life for themselves. He advocates to other people to be active and exercise. And engineer their life in a healthy way. Mitchell says, “My shtick for people is go read as much as you want but you have to do and the less you know about what you are doing the greater the outcome.”
Achievement of excellence is never stopping when the self-saboteur arrives. “Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t do yourself dirt.”