The Swim

Speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction.” – Mahatma Ghandi

A couple of weeks have passed with no internet connection, fortunately providing me with ample time to reflect on my first attempt on an English Channel distance, open-water swim. The day, now a curious mix of both treasured and unpleasant memories, was nothing if not a day of constant teaching moments.

As perhaps with all Misogi attempts, it was a blend of both failure and success – of profound highs and all-consuming lows. The unavoidable yin and yang of endurance pursuits, I suppose.

In a purely literal, but perhaps disingenuous, interpretation of the word, the swim attempt was a failure.

I didn’t swim the full distance of the English Channel. Eventually, the current became far too strong, the wind far too insistent, my muscles far too fatigued and my struggling metabolism wholly unable to keep my core temperature in a healthy range. After an entire day of sincere and stubborn battling, I threw in the towel and head for the shore, an hour or so before the sun set on the river. I gave almost all that I had to give, and that day, it wasn’t enough to carry my body thirty-two kilometres down stream.

I didn’t do what I set out to do.

This all being said, when I stepped out of the longest and murkiest river my country has to offer, there were absolutely no feelings of failure or defeat. Instead, I was wrapped in feelings of deep satisfaction. I was immensely proud of my efforts throughout the course of the day. I had faced real fear, uncertainty and true adversity for ten hours. Despite my incomparably generous and ever-present support team on kayaks, I was very much alone in my self-imposed, watery predicament – no one could do the work for me, and the wind and river weren’t going anywhere.

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I had been caught off guard by deceptively icy waters, a strong wind and current that had no concerns for my bold plans, and muscular contractions that were failing me with increasing regularity. Eventually, my leg muscles were violently and painfully cramping nearly every hundred metres. If I ever stopped moving to eat or tend to a screaming muscle, my core temperature would drop into hypothermia. These mounting problems arose far earlier in the day than I am proud to admit. Eventually, all the Vaseline and Gatorade in the world couldn’t help me.

But crucially, I kept going, until I simply couldn’t anymore. Things were unbelievably tough for almost the entirety of the ordeal – as was genuinely expected. I had set the bar characteristically high for myself, and in the act of trying to clear it and falling short, had improved my capacity for endurance, my personal growth, and my understanding and confidence in my own ability to put my head down and work against a mounting desire to stop. I put fear of likely failure aside, arguably some kind of reputation on the line, and front-crawled down the river until I was no longer able to.

I had done what I set out to do.

Just three months ago, an Ironman Triathlon distance swim of three and a half kilometres was the definition of a marathon swim for me. How could I possibly finish swimming twenty-five open-water kilometres, my head buried in murky water for an entire day, and feel like a failure?

This is a far-cry from how I might have felt in the past about such an attempt. Shifting away from an unhealthy, perfectionist vantage point is a daily practice for me – I’ve certainly conditioned myself to judge my own endeavours from a completely unrealistic space. The Lewy Horwood of two years ago would absolutely have deemed this effort as a failure on all counts, and would have been suitably heart-broken by it. It continues to take constant, applied work to become less obsessive, less self-deprecating and develop a realistic sense of self. Therefore, being able to very publicly fall short of my intended goal – the entire day being streamed live on social media and GPS tracking – and walk away feeling nothing but a profound sense of pride and gratitude was a huge victory for me.

I stated constantly before the swim that I completely accepted the very real possibility of failure looming ahead of me. The English Channel is a heck of a long way to swim, after all. The day offered a rare opportunity to put my proverbial money where my mouth is, and demonstrate just how willing I am to work against the odds, and to grow and learn when things don’t ‘go to plan’.

We should all do these things more often, I think. Not everyone’s things are swimming down rivers all day, or climbing rock walls, or choking strangers in sanctioned competitions, or running ultra-marathons. But the lessons and their applications are exactly the same. We should be less ruled by the prospect of failure – in fact, we should re-brand and reclaim the word. We should truly extend ourselves. We should bite off more than we can chew, fall short of the ridiculous mark, but find ourselves further than we ever thought we might. I don’t think we really learn a thing when everything just goes to plan – failure is our greatest teacher, by far.

It struck me that the two capacities I am most grateful for are my body’s ability to recover physically (I was able to hit the gym and pool after a day’s rest), and my mind’s capacity for moving forward, win, lose or draw. No part of my psyche was disheartened or driven away from pursuits like this – in the car trip home from the river, I was already deep in thought about the next challenge, and what I would do differently.

I was fortunately taught from a young age not to rest on my laurels or be broken by my failures, and to return to the work.

It seems only fitting to close with one of my favourite Stoic philosophy lines –

No man steps into the same river twice: for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus

Thank you, to all, for your support, and for reading! I am eternally grateful. Here’s to returning to the work.

Have A Little Faith

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” Buddha

I wrote earlier about what we can understand about ourselves when we examine the traits of our role models, of those that inspire us, and what specifically it is about them that captures our imagination. The same is true for the friends and loved ones that we surround ourselves with.

On reflection, I’ve learned that one of my most desirable traits in both a friend and a partner is an innate sense of self-reliance; a preparedness to believe in one’s own capacities, a willingness to try and to suffer for their goals, and a quiet-confidence and humility in their ability. We often see in others that which we hope for ourselves.

I deeply believe that we are collectively capable of so much more than we ever really ask of ourselves. Similarly, I deeply believe that we unnecessarily over-complicate our training lives most of the time, and lack the intrinsic self-assurance to just take the plunge and try. We fear failure, or just simple discomfort, way too much, failing to see such instances as welcome teachable moments rather than problems to desperately avoid. We think that challenges are too grand in scale for us, achievable only for a select breed of ‘elite’, who are seemingly blessed from birth with merits greater than our own.

We lack the capacity to “jump off the cliff, and build our wings on the way down“, when such an attitude is sometimes an entirely viable option. Adopting a mindset of deep and real self-reliance moves us away from this fear and closer to reaching our goals; its price, however, is accepting this risk of failure.

The sea’s only gifts are harsh blows, and, occasionally, the chance to feel strong … I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong, but to feel strong – to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once, in the most ancient of human conditions; facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head.”
Primo Levi, Bear Meat

I want this sense of individualism to further grow within my own self, and so it is perhaps no surprise that two of those closest to me in my day to day life reflect that which I seek. For me, there is something undeniably inspiring and assuring about a person who is prepared to just try – to ‘have their own back’, and trust in the own ability to put their head down and work, with or without the guarantee of success.

I am reminded of this every time I train with Jack.

Sweat-soaked (and occasionally blood-splattered) workouts with him are just one constant and powerful lesson in the enduring capacity of the human spirit – each time, an unwavering testament to the fact that we all have huge reserves of strength and stamina, if we are only willing to push ourselves that little bit more than normal. His abnormal levels of determination, humility and resilience are all praise-worthy, but most admirable is his unrivalled ability for self-reliance. He trusts in himself, and his own capabilities, to the point that seemingly nothing will stop him from trying. He’ll go down swinging – sometimes very literally.

He doesn’t over-complicate his training, or his preparation, or let himself be intimidated by looming obstacles or seemingly immovable tasks.

Jack takes the plunge. He jumps, and builds his wings on the way down. It’s impossible to not find myself moved and inspired by such a rare team-mate. That’s why, with a little over a weeks notice, I found myself next to Jack, covered to my neck in ice in an emptied compost bin, in the heart of a frosty South Australian Winter.

The morning’s workout was especially brutal. We spent an hour in full-contact with the ice, closely monitoring each other for the early signs of hypothermia. We ran ten miles, and we fought each with shaking muscles and shivering skin for another hour. With the mid-set additions of push-ups and pull-ups, the entire ordeal ended up a bone-crunching and freezing five hours.

Purely in terms of elapsed time, this would be a physical output nearly five-times as long as anything Jack had attempted before. I was at least blessed (?) with a lifetime of endurance sports, and although the ice and the fighting were both entirely new to me, the sheer work-load was not. Despite his unconventional childhood, Jack did not have years of dedicated endurance-sport training to fall back on – and he had not prepared.

How would one prepare, really, for climbing out of ice and trying to choke your closest friend unconscious?

What Jack does have, that prepares him far better for such ridiculous feats as five and eight-hour workouts than any impressive resume of endurance races, is an unprecedented ability to put his head down and work through discomfort, and to have faith in his capacity to succeed. He walks the path.

I am similarly blessed to spend my life with a partner who, on an almost daily basis, reminds me both of the simple beauty of exploring our limits in the natural world, and the utmost importance of faith in one’s self.

I turned twenty-four last year, during the halfway point of my first attempt at running one hundred miles. Kilometres sixty through to eighty were, for the most part, something of a shit-show. I struggled on, and Julie met me, as my pacer and a valuable half of my support team, setting out with the intention of cruising through ten kilometres or so at my now-faltering pace.

The trails we covered are notoriously unpredictable and unrelenting – steep ocean cliffs, treacherous rocky outcrops, and sheer miles of soft sand – and markedly different from the one urban half-marathon that Julie had run before this, some years earlier.

Due to a sense of empathy for my carbohydrate-depleted plight, and deep motivation to push herself further than before, Julie ended up running with me the remaining fifty kilometres to the finish line – surpassing in one long, hot day her previous half-marathon record distance, passing the marathon point, and continuing on into the ultra-marathon distance realm.

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She was poorly-rested, dehydrated, fighting illness and menstrual-pain, and yet, in setting out without expectation and with quiet-confidence, she ran over twice as far as she had ever covered, on some of the most infamously technical trails in South Australia.

Even now, over six months later, Julie can still hardly believe the outcome of the day. Most interestingly, had you asked her the day before her unexpected foray in ultra-distance events how much time she would need from then to prepare for a road marathon, she would have said at least six months. She had been conditioned, as we all are, to believe that such achievements sit so far from our grasps, and that it is only with carefully structured, long-term dedicated training that we may be hope to attain them.

That’s not to discount the hugely important role that training has (I hope that this is clear, given all of my writing on the subject thus far, and the decade of my life spent carefully training my mind and body). Simply, we sometimes overstate and over-complicate it. We sell ourselves short.

Here, with far from ideal preparation and absolutely no advanced notice, Julie ran for eight-hours on demanding trails. She didn’t drop dead. The sun came up the next day.

This day, as are many with Julie, was rich in life lessons.

This capacity was always in Julie – she was always capable of this distance, and undoubtedly greater accomplishments. These ‘superhuman’ abilities just came out that day, entirely unplanned, because she was willing.

I am convinced that it is this willingness is the key for all of us – who could really say what we are capable of, if we didn’t fear obstacles, or the opinions or others, or self-imposed limitations, or failure? Julie walked that path, and reaped the rewards. Her unassuming confidence in herself increased, as one would expect, and new challenges suddenly appeared equally achievable.

I would put forward, contrary to popular belief, that neither Jack, nor Julie, nor Ross Edgley, nor myself were born with said willingness – it is absolutely something you can teach, and something we can all learn.

It can be downright painful at times, difficult at almost all times, but putting ourselves in situations that demand more of ourselves – be it more repetitions in the gym, wilder water than we are used to swimming, steeper trails or longer hours – is the way to develop this elastic skill of self-reliance. We can develop our ability to function efficiently and safely when the cavalry is not coming, and build an internal confidence that we have reserves of strength and endurance yet untapped.

Not a single person it merely born with it, and we all may learn to do it better.

Embracing A Work With No End

Strength does not come from a physical capacity; it comes from an indomitable will.” Mahatma Gandhi

The endurance world is dotted by the occasional resilient outlier – those few athletes who seem able to just put their head down and work through discomfort, without condition or complaint, seemingly indefinitely.

Those in a similar vein as famed Navy SEAL David Goggins, noted for his unparalleled capacity for suffering, enduring and succeeding; be it winning the death-defying Badwater 217 kilometre ultra-marathon in Death Valley, enduring the infamous Navy SEAL BUD/S course an unprecedented three times, or completing the most strict pull-ups in twenty-four hours (4030 repetitions).

Obviously, as I have rambled on about it in near every article thus far, we all possess this ability to some extent – and it’s trainable. I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by, and in one case raised by, a few individuals with a remarkably high threshold for resigning to a fate of indeterminate physical work. Moreover, I have slowly learnt what I believe to be a genuinely useful and easily applied method for developing this desirable trait over time.

My father has, for exact reasons largely unknown to me, held this capacity for at least as long as I have been around to see it. Perhaps the greatest example of this was when he joined me in my first dedicated Misogi attempt in early 2018 – an effort encompassing one hundred repetitions of one hundred metre sprints, followed by bench-pressing, dead-lifting and squating a barbell set to a weight of one hundred kilograms, one hundred times each. Needless to say, it was unbelievably tough for a historically endurance-based athlete like myself, and it ended up being almost six hours of maximal strength efforts.

At least I had the foresight of knowing when the event was to take place, and preparing appropriately. My father, on the other hand, arrived with little over a days notice, and without the knowledge of exactly what we were doing, or even exactly what a dead-lift actually was. He just understood that it was going to be tough for a while.

Halfway through the self-imposed ordeal, and struggling, I asked him how long he had been expecting this whole thing might take – to which he replied, “I had no idea, I was just going to keep lifting until you told me to stop.

I don’t know if he realised it at the time, but that one sentence spoken almost twelve months ago has echoed in my mind in most every training session I have undertaken since. He was just prepared to undertake a difficult task with no idea as to when he might finish it, and endure until there was simply no more work to be done. I think learning to adopt this approach may be one of the elusive mental formulas that can greatly increase athletic performance.

A long-time training partner of mine, Danny, rather famously ran a 105 kilometre ultramarathon with me (in an very respectable time) despite muscular cramping and vomiting as early as the nineteen kilometre mark. Most athletes would realise that, at that stage, they are in for at least another ten hours of unavoidably horrific exercise, and understandably pull the pin. Danny evidently is not most people, and instead put his head down and somehow managed to get the distance done while never once opening his mouth to complain.

This bizzare acceptance style of thinking very closely mirrors the BUD/S-required mindset that the earlier mentioned David Goggin’s explained in his appearance on the Joe Rogan Podcast late last year, where he simply resigned himself willingly to a new life of ice cold-water, harsh sand, mental anguish and sleep deprivation for just as long as it took.

This is my new life, this is my new home until I get this shit done.”

This sentiment was again further echoed by Ross Edgley, when he explained how he came to terms with five full months spent swimming around England – six hours on, six hours off, for every single day, without fail. Ross peacefully came to terms with a new established base-line; mild to severe physical pain and cold temperatures were his new home, and pain a welcome and expected friend.

It’s all well and good to stand back and marvel over those few who truly hold this capacity, but the truly useful thing to do would be to learn how to acquire this for ourselves. Such unconditional and unwavering resilience surely reaches further than just the athletic realm, spilling over into our personal and professional lives.

I have found the simple task of training around the hour, rather than a target like distance or energy expenditure, to be unbelievably beneficial in building the capacity for mental resilience. At a glance, it may seem overly simplistic, but my experience in training has found that sessions based around a time-oriented goal facilitate an adaptation to sheer work capacity and endurance better than any other method thus far.

This works for the exact same reason that I have dreaded the idea of a 24-hour race for the entirety of my young sporting career. Simply, there’s nothing you can do. There’s absolutely no control that you can influence over how long a task will take anymore. A late-stage push to the finish line, like in a conventional race, is futile – time waits for no one.

Instead, these difficult races call for a different kind of head-space – the acceptance mindset. You can’t just dig deep, ramp up the intensity and get home before it’s dark and your headlight drops out. Rather, you have to make your peace with such a sudden absence of power, put your head willingly down, and just work until it’s done.

Swimming around the hour, rather than by a distance goal, has so far done wonders for my ability to ease into a three hour swim as if just getting into the bath. I don’t even look at my watch to see how my progress is going anymore. I just swim, and try to relax and let my mind drift where it wants to, until my wrist starts buzzing and the session is complete. The process becomes much more like a form of meditation than athletic training, but the physical results are similarly undeniable. It takes a (fortunately brief) adjustment period, but I have found this kind of mindful training to be unparalleled in its endurance building capacity.

Evidently, ceding control over the outcome of a task to the inescapable passing of time, like the SEALS do, is a very useful way to getting use to suffering without an end insight.

Isn’t that what this is all about?

Mother Nature’s Teachings on Humility

And at once I knew, I was not magnificent.” – Holocene, Bon Iver

I think that we can understand a lot about ourselves – or at least our hopes for ourselves – when we take the time to consider those that we look up to or seek to emulate, and what specifically it is about them that draws us in.

At a surface glance, it is very easy to understand why I am so enthralled by the likes of such remarkable athletes as Kilian Jornet, Alex Honnold and Ross Edgley. Anyone who knows me in person is painfully aware of my eagerness to discuss their numerous merits, usually at great length and great detail. Each of their individual and athletic achievements are surely bordering the edges of human potential.

Six-time Skyrunner World Series champion Jornet is widely regarded as one of (if not) the greatest living endurance athletes, holding the fastest ever ascent and descent records of Mount Everest, Mount Denali, Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn – as well as course records and convincing wins at several of the world’s most prestigious ultramarathons.

Rock-climber Alex Honnold’s 2017 record breaking free-solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, performed entirely without the aid of ropes, was referred to as “one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, ever” by the New York Times, and likened to an elite marathon athlete one day breaking the inconceivable one-hour barrier (which would be a full hour and one minute ahead of the current 2:01:39 record).

Ross Edgley, as discussed on numerous earlier occasions here, became the record holder for the longest distance ever swum consecutively, when he circumnavigated the entire two thousand miles of Great British coastline in a five month mammoth endurance effort.

These unique men are similar in their freakish levels of athleticism, resilience and strength, and the staggering nature of their various accomplishments. Far more importantly, in my opinion, is that they are three of the most truly humble and centered athletes one could ever hope to read about.

I read about these men as a teenager the way others might read about Superman or Batman.

And as much as I might love to discuss the mind and body-bending athletic resumes of the three, on closer inspection it is undeniably the unpresuming manner in which they conduct themselves that most appeals to me. In candid interviews and major press events, they are always quick to downplay the importance of their own physical strengths, and stress the elements of combined teamwork, the role of fortune and their own limitations. The fact that they might remain so incredibly humble, despite the fact that they all truly push their limits far beyond what was once considered even physiologically possible for a human, is truly astounding.

Honnold’s nickname is, famously, ‘No Big Deal‘.

In a world increasingly rewarding of acts of ego and vanity, these men stand out as examples of real people to emulate – for me, both as an aspiring athlete, and a man ever-so slowly growing into a fully functioning adult. They carry themselves with a palpable level-headedness and sense of humility that very few on such a stage seem to possess.


I would speculate, as did Rich Roll in his recent podcast with the aforementioned Edgley, that a likely reason for this is the countless hours each of these athletes have spent in training and performing in some of the most hostile and demanding environments that the natural world can offer.

It’s hard to properly regard one’s self as powerful and indomitable whilst being slapped in the face by the icy swells of the unforgiving Atlantic ocean, or at the mercy of the unpredictable and wild climates of the high-altitude alpines, or suspended five-hundred feet up a sheer and unrelenting granite rock-face. Or at least it should be hard.

When faced with the prospect of a rapidly approaching ocean storm near the Northern tip of Scotland during his circumnavigation attempt, and encouraged by the hollow social media claims of “you’re a beast!” and “show this storm what you can do!”, Edgley was forced to explain to his followers that “you don’t swim through a storm – the way that you beat a storm is that you hide, you hope that it maybe lets you for a brief moment – and if it lets you, then you go out you are allowed to swim. You don’t beat a storm.”

Even for a powerful man with ludicrously high bench-press and dead-lift numbers in the gym, the sense of human limitation is apparent. Ross clearly had an excellent understanding of just how insignificant he is when compared to the overcoming vastness and strength of the ocean; despite his best efforts, he was at its mercy.

Kilian Jornet repeated a similar message, captioning a photo of his scaling of the iconic and formidable Matterhorn, “we are only a tiny dot in the immensity – we can’t battle, race or conquer mountains… we can just pass as lightly as possible, trying to be just a caress.”

Time spent enduring in nature should be a constant reminder to us of our relative scale in the universe. We can’t out-wrestle the ocean and tides, or truly ‘conquer’ mountains and ridge-lines. The Sierra Nevada doesn’t care about your lactate threshold. The Pacific isn’t moved by how much you can press. We can merely do all that we are capable of, on any given day, whilst holding a real appreciation and respect for the forces of nature and the possibility of them derailing our ambitions.

Why is any of this important? Why is being humble important?

Maybe it’s not. I suppose someone could argue that.

There is no golden rule, after all, about how we should conduct ourselves as people or as athletes.

To me, it simply seems to be a better way to live. To favour genuine respect and quiet-confidence over arrogance and self-assurance. I would argue that it perhaps set us up to better deal with the occasions in which we don’t successfully conquer our goals – when we are beaten down by the unrelenting elements of the natural world. I think it is also easier to work ‘with’ nature rather than to fight against it – to “roll with the punches”, as it were. If you can peacefully come to terms with a slower swimming speed when faced with unexpected ocean swells, rather than violently struggling forwards in protest, then I suspect your chances of success are incrementally higher.

The punches are inevitable – our success is not always.

The likes of Jornet, Honnold and Edgley have forged a template for the twenty-first century aspiring athlete – one of eagerness, discipline, humility, resilience and an innate respect for the powers of the natural world. They lead by example, and I hope to one day follow.

While the finer details of my athletic future are not mapped out, I know exactly the kind of values that I hope to carry with me throughout my career.

On Failure, My Greatest Teacher

No man steps into the same river twice; for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus

It seems that even speaking of the potential for failure before any kind of attempt is a bit of a taboo in many circles; as if uttering its name is some kind of ill-fated omen that brings it forth.

Misogi doesn’t subscribe to this kind of thinking. Failure is, and always should be, an inevitable facet of life. It should always be a teacher that we seek out, rather than desperately avoid.

The true possibility of failure should be present in every great attempt that we make; otherwise, what sort of goals are we presenting ourselves? A one-hundred percent success rate in personal endeavours suggests only that we perhaps are not at all as comfortable with genuinely exploring our limits as we profess to be. Rather, it would appear that the idea of a challenge so great that the risk of not succeeding is possible actually intimidates us.

If you’re hitting your mark every time that you try to, then you are simply nowhere near the outer edges of your limits. And you’re selling yourself short.

This kind of criticism can sound particularly unlikely to already established endurance athletes, who may find it easy to brush off such suggestions of intimidation or fear. After all, they may have completed events that may leave non-athletes with their jaw on the floor. I would argue, however, that just as everyone else, we also become acclimatised and familiar with certain kinds of challenges – which become our new norm. They may seem from the outside and to the untrained eye as huge undertakings, but I would wager that, typically, the ‘challenges’ that we pursue with some regularity do not truly garner our real respect, or offer much in the way of true risk.

This is another, slightly more abstract manifestation of both the SAID principle discussed earlier, as well as the training principle of progressive overload. Over enough time, we adapt to that which we practice, and what was once almost impossible for us gradually becomes our new benchmark.

The bar just gets raised to a new level of comfort. A hundred-kilometre ultra-marathon becomes your familiar territory, just as a five kilometre run once seemed. That’s not to suggest that the concept of such a task becomes easy – rather, that we are relatively confident in a positive outcome, as has historically been the case for us thus far. There doesn’t feel to be quite so much on the line as the first time we made the attempt.

Living our lives, particularly our athletic lives, avoiding failure limits us.

Failure is by far our greatest teacher. I would go as far to say that failure is one of the greatest tools in an athlete’s toolbox. When success bestows our attempts, we seldom accurately reflect on exactly what happened to get us to this point. Instead, the feelings of elation and accomplishment overshadow any real analysis of the details of the event. Critical analysis is thrown to the wind.

Is is the act of failure that actually demands reflection – it forces us to be humbled, and to closely ponder the reality of our attempt. Or at least it should. Any truly useful lesson in the athletic realm, I would argue, occurs only in these occasional moments where things did not go as we had planned.

The practice of Misogi, if nothing else, is an excellent source of failure, and an excellent provider of these moments of forced reflection.

When done correctly – in that truly audacious attempts are made and committed to, with or without ideal preparation – failure should be a very real possibility. Almost fifty percent of the time, to be accurate. Misogi begs for a rewiring of how we consider failure – it is not something to be avoided, but rather something we should meet like an old and ever-dependable friend. We ought to seek more opportunities to fail, to bite of more than we may be able to chew, in an effort to genuinely develop as athletes, and as people. That way one can be sure that you are truly nearing your limits.

Do not fear failure – not failure, but low aim is crime. In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.” – Bruce Lee

When I step back and think objectively about my Channel swim attempt in just under three months, I can appreciate the element of something approaching delusion. The swim will be over seven times as far as I have ever swam, in one continuous hit out, in an environment in which I am extremely and profoundly uncomfortable and unfamiliar. To be entirely candid, there have already been many points during training at which I have thought about changing my plans to something less aquatic and uncomfortable; always neatly wrapped in an adequate excuse that leaves my ego intact.

The idea for me is not to pretend that the likelihood of failure is not high – as it undeniably is – or that success is assured. Instead, this kind of attempt is designed to genuinely explore the limits of that which I can perform, while acknowledging that said limit may be far closer than I might have hoped or planned for.

The outcome doesn’t matter so much; what is far more important is the sincerity of the attempt. There is something to be said, I believe, for going down swinging.

One thing that I am slowly learning to accept is that failure does not always come as one might expect it to. It’s surprisingly right there in the title of Alex Hutchinson’s earlier mentioned book Endurance; Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance – I just missed it the first time around.

Elastic. Failure is flexible, but not only in the way that I might hope it to be. Sometimes our limits are actually closer than we may realise, or closer than they may have been at other times. When you set out to explore your outer limits, you will eventually find them, and they will not always be in the same place. This can be due to countless intangible variables – from sleep, to diet, to external stresses, to emotional struggles. I’ve failed at things I once found easy. I’ve relatively coasted my way through certain hundred-kilometre trail runs, and at other times found myself face down on the trail, thirty kilometres into a training run, desperately exhausted and wondering for the life of me ‘what the hell is going on?’

It sounds obvious, but it requires an acceptance of the fact that we are humans, and are not robotic, to properly understand. We do not improve and develop on an unwavering upwards trajectory. We’re not better and better, everyday. The river is never the same, and the man is never the same. To me, this idea is at once both humbling, and empowering.

A curious cognitive balancing act is required, as this acceptance of potential for failure should not have any real impact on confidence, going into a Misogi attempt. When I’m toeing the start line of the Channel swim, I will need to be holding both this aforementioned acceptance of failure’s potential, as well as an unshakeable confidence in my own ability to perform and to endure hardship. It is rather difficult to explain this apparent double-think, and I suspect you might have to have lived it before to properly understanding its topography. Coming to terms with limitations does not equate to lack of confidence. The swim will be an ode for my willingness to attempt what is possibly more than I am ready for, while at the same time trying to maintain complete faith in my ability to get the task done.

The practice of Misogi is not some sort of golden-ticket solution for ensuring that you can truly achieve anything that you put your mind to, every time. It it is the opposite of that. It is a very real tool for putting yourself into situations of looming failure, and developing the techniques and mental and emotional agility to cope with such a scenario.

It will teach you that you can indeed do far more than you may think you are capable of – but more importantly, it will teach you how to deal with the occasions when you can’t.

Expanding Our Scope, or Why Cross Training Is More Than A Side Hustle

The SAID principle – ‘specific adaptations to imposed demands’ – is undoubtedly a universal and unyielding rule of training, and human biology as a whole.

We improve at that which we practice. If you lift a load of heavy weights on a consistent enough basis, a broad range of physiological and neurological adaptations take place in your body – increased muscle fibre recruitment, increased metabolic function, increased skeletal muscle mass, to name a few – and over time, you become better at lifting heavy weights.

In a traditional sense, there’s really no getting around this specificity requirement for our training; hence why it is uncommon to see elite marathoners working on their maximum deadlift in the gym. The chronic physical adaptations in the body required to run a fast marathon time could not be more different than those required to heave three hundred kilograms from the ground.

Therefore, when employing alternative forms of exercise in our training to provide respite or variety (cross-training), we are historically encouraged to maintain a level of specificity in our actions. The cross training may be a completely different activity than our usual chosen sport, but the underlying energy systems and demands on the body remain relatively constant.

This is pretty well Fitness Training 101 material.

However, it can be argued – and has been demonstrated, both academically and anecdotally – that this interpretation of the principle is limited, and perhaps is far too definitive than it should be.

I had this exact conversation with a friend and now-retired elite Australian triathlete, who was baffled by my brazen and perhaps ill-informed choice to train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu consistently in the lead up to my first one hundred mile ultramarathon attempt.

Mixing the two vastly differing disciplines can indeed seem conflicting and counterintuitive at a glance, as outlined earlier, and as pointed out by my friend. After all – what exactly am I asking my body to adapt to, and why am I sending it such mixed signals? Do I want to adapt to be better suited for fighting in short, intense anaerobic efforts, or to be able to aerobically turn my tired legs over, mile after long mile?

I’ll completely accept that the physiological requirements of the two, when applied so literally, are not in harmony. Distance running favours high levels of muscular endurance, and a strong cardiac and pulmonary output at low effort levels – while the more intense Brazilian Jiu Jitsu calls for muscular strength and power, and an ability to function predominantly anaerobically.

But if you apply an only slightly wider interpretation of the SAID principle in training, and look at some of the perhaps more intangible elements of human performance, the choice to train both is perhaps not quite so brazen.

For one, my foray into Jiu Jitsu exposed me to constant, maximal intensity efforts over continuous hours. There was sweat and blood, and bittersweet moments of total bodily exhaustion. It taught me calmness under pressure (while an opponent is trying their best to choke you unconscious) a genuine tolerance for mild to severe discomfort, and a degree of fearlessness matched with deep humility and respect for limitations. It taught me to find reserves of energy when I thought I had reached my maximum output. It’s a pursuit in which you are constantly reminded of the ‘bigger fish’ that surround you, and are forced to make peace with that fact, put your head down and seek improvement. These are all useful tools to have in an ultramarathon running toolbox.

It’s sort of like involuntary yoga.

I’ve never experienced a more tangible and real feeling of ‘the grind’, a word thrown around like so much confetti in the realms of fitness training, than when sparring Jiu Jitsu. What we are actually referring to when we talk of ‘the grind’ is the notion of ‘work capacity’ – the amount of physical exertion that we can both perform and positively adapt to. My work capacity, my ability to function continuously under duress and fatigue, improved dramatically in my year of counter-intuitive training – and I remained injury free, healthy and motivated to learn.

Can it not be argued that the hours spent in the martial arts gym helped me to build and polish skills that actually translate wonderfully to the world of endurance sports, despite the fact that they share select few physiological requirements? Did the work capacity that I built in Jiu Jitsu not spill over into my long distance running ability?

Endurance athlete, and personal hero of mine, Ross Edgley would undoubtedly agree – serving as a testament to the body’s ability to adapt to multiple fitness components at the one time in his 2016 running of a marathon distance whilst pulling a 1400 kilogram Mini Cooper. The ‘freakish’ event highlighted Ross’ capacity for both strength and stamina, which he developed through building an absurdly high work capacity. Ross is famed for his ability and willingness to take on any challenge at seemingly any time, no matter the discipline; and as a result, has become one of the most rounded and high-performing athletes walking the planet today.

It is hugely important that we don’t write people like Ross off as freakish, but rather dissect and analyse how they became the way that they are. Ross didn’t emerge from the womb with the capacity to swim two thousand miles around the English coastline, or rope climb the height of Everest in eighteen hours (all things that he has achieved) – he developed it slowly and meticulously over time with varied yet focused training.

I suppose the take-away from this post is to not be continuously caught up in the finer points of fitness training, and to challenge and question traditional ways of thinking about our abilities. While we should indeed all learn more about existing knowledge and research in the fields of physiology and psychology, we can also benefit from being more liberal and broad in our application of said knowledge. I see a lot of athletes that I know become so obsessive and confined with their approaches to their own training, and I’m becoming more and more convinced that it may not be always necessary. It can limit the ‘wholeness’ and overall ability to perform a range of physical tasks, can limit training variety and interest, and can crucially withhold valuable skills and lessons that can unexpectedly be added to the repertoire of our pursuit in focus.

A common explanation I offered in the last year of my training was that “running an ultramarathon is hard, and so I’m just training to do hard things.” It sounds simplistic and poorly informed, but there is a mounting body of evidence that suggests that we may have been unnecessarily deconstructive and limiting in our approaches to training in the past. I lifted heavier weights, I rock climbed, I fought and swam, and ran a load of miles on the trails. My capacity for handling discomfort and fatigue increased. And I had the best athletic performances of my life, to date.

It’s important that we remember that the body doesn’t differentiate hugely between a carefully tracked and recorded track workout at the Australian Institute of Sport, or two hours of star-jumps on the spot in a hotel room at 2:00AM – it merely responds and adapts to stress and stimuli.

We don’t always need to over complicate it.