Portrait of an Athlete: Grant Maughan

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by Jodi Weiss

For those of you who have been fortunate enough to get to know 52-year-old endurance athlete Grant Maughan, you know that he is humble, down to earth, fun-loving, and a great competitor. What you may not know is that he only started running ultras five years ago, at the age of 47. Since then, he has completed over 40 events through unbearable heat, ice, snow, and altitude. In his short span, his accomplishments are noteworthy, with top-ten finishes at Badwater 135 for the past four years, to include 2nd place finishes in 2013 and 2014. He also finished in 2nd place at the Keys 100 in 2014 and 2015; 2nd place at Brazil 135 in 2014; and 2nd place at Tuscobia Winter Ultra 150 mile in 2016. In 2014, he placed 1st at Yellow-Stone Teton 100 and Fort Clinch 100.

A few weeks back, after completing the impossible 333km La Ultra—The High in the Himalayas, Maughan flew across the world and completed Badwater 146, self-supported, solo, meaning he used a cart to hold all of the supplies he needed to travel by foot across the blistering Death Valley with no other help. He completed his trek in less than 50 hours, breaking all existing records.

A native of New Castle, Australia, Maughan is well known to the Florida ultrarunning community as some years back, a boat that he was captaining happened to be docked in south Florida. Aside from his illustrious running career, Maughan has been a professional sea caption for some three decades on various boats, ships, and yachts.

I got to ask Grant some questions that I was curious about – and in true Grant fashion, he shared his answers with me during a short break while he drove across the country. For me, the reminder that racing requires hard work, and that it takes both mental and physical grit to complete races, resonates. We don’t often get to witness legends in the making, but I think it’s a sure bet to say that Grant fits that definition.

At Mount Whitney Summit. Photo: Grant Maughan

Grant at Mount Whitney Summit. Photo: Grant Maughan

What got you started running? What was your life like pre-running?

GM: I used to run as a kid, mainly for sports like soccer, rugby, or Aussie rules football, but I also remember just running or riding my bike to shed off energy. I would run a few miles to a swimming pool, swim a mile, then run back with a towel wrapped around my waist. Sometimes I would get up really early, run about six miles to a local beach where I had my surfboard stored under a friend’s house, go surfing with sun-up then catch the first bus home before school.

I always had lots of energy and kids back then were always outdoors doing kid stuff. We didn’t have cell phones and video games then; we had to find our own amusement. In Australia I grew up practically on the beach surfing and hanging out, riding bikes and skateboards, so I was never short of physical activity. I think that my lifestyle growing up has helped me stay relatively fit and healthy. I gave up running in my early twenties when I started travelling so much and working at sea, not to mention that back then people were always telling me running would kill or maim me if I ran too much.

In late 2011 I was the captain on a large motor yacht and the owner’s son came onboard and told me that he was training for his first marathon. He asked me if I would come out for a run with him. We were anchored off the Amalfi Coast in Italy which is quite mountainous. I told him I hadn’t really run for over 25 years, but went out with him anyway. We ran for three hours, up and down mountain roads. When we got back to the boat, we swam a few laps around the boat to loosen up. I felt fine, but stiff, and I ended up hobbling for a week. Later, he told me he wanted to run a 50 mile race the next year. I laughed and said I didn’t think people could run that far. He gave me Dean Karnazes’ Ultramarathon Man book and that night I read it front to back while on anchor watch. The next morning, I cornered him. “How long has this shit been going on for?” “Decades,” he said. “You need to get on it.”

And so about six weeks later, after steering the boat to Florida, I signed up for the Palm Beach half marathon, but quickly changed it to the full marathon. Why go half measures, I thought? I ran a 3:19 and qualified for Boston first time out of the gate. I had no idea what Boston was all about until somebody told me. I was stoked with my result, and that I even finished, but soon after I started to fret that maybe I just had a good day or got out of bed on the right side and fluked it. So I signed up for the Miami Marathon a couple of months after and ran a 3:16. That convinced me that I could actually do it. That was my last marathon before I started to run ultras.

What does a typical training week look like for you?

GM: Training is hit and miss for me. I do so many events and so much traveling, that sometimes I find I either don’t have time, or don’t need to do much training. A lot of the time I am recovering while on taper for the next race. That said, I have done a lot of hard work to achieve my results. Lisa Smith Batchen was my coach for a number of years, and I found myself gravitating to the Tetons to train and to just be in the mountains. We dragged car tires up Teton Pass for hours in summer or winter, sometimes carrying a 5lb hand weight in each hand and a small backpack of gear and fuel. In between, I would mountain bike, swim, snowshoe, or hike. It was total outdoors and the Tetons is so beautiful it’s not hard to get out in every season.

I am interested in figuring out the formula for the minimum amount of training I can do for the maximum effect. I don’t really have motivation to try and run 200 miles in a week when there are other ways to keep fit. I think the most I have ever run is 125 miles in a week, but that is rare. I believe that to run long distance you need to be fit from top to bottom, not just in your legs, so I do a lot of other sports to cross-train. This also keeps training interesting as running all the time would drive me batty. I have always been relatively fit and I have had a decent diet, so my body adapted to long distance and endurance sports without too many problems. I also know when to back off and take a break so I don’t burn out. I think that has been good for me to date.

Grant in 2nd place at Badwater. Photo: Lisa Smith Batchen

Grant in 2nd place at Badwater. Photo: Lisa Smith Batchen

What was your first ultra-running experience? What do you remember most from it?

GM: My first ultra was the Palm 100km in South Florida, about three months after my first marathon. It’s all on concrete and tarmac and it was very hot and humid. I was really interested to see if I could get through it. I finished in 11:06, and I couldn’t believe how badly it brutalized my feet. For a week, I couldn’t even stand to have the weight of bedsheets resting on them, and I slept with my feet hanging out over the end of the bed. I soon forgot the pain and signed up for the Keys 100, which was less than two months later. I managed to finish that in 21:03 even after spending an hour helping a semi-unconscious runner on the side of the road at mile 80.

How do you choose which races you sign up for?

GM: These days I generally look for races in interesting locations so that I can satisfy my penchant for travelling while doing something really tough. You tend to see parts of some countries that most others don’t when you do an ultra. Obviously, I tend to prefer the really grueling events. I find I am better at the longer stuff. I actually find shorter, faster races harder mentally and physically. I have done a bit of triathlon and really enjoy the multi-faceted race day. I will do some more of this in the future. Naturally the long course is what I prefer, 140.6 mile, but there are also some interesting ultra-man events that I might consider, too.

I have also been trying to work out how to finance rowing across the Atlantic. The boat is expensive and needs to be set up right. I will get around to that one day. Long distance bike-packing is also something I want to explore; it’s very akin to ultra-running, except on a mountain bike, you can set up the bike to lug your gear for thousands of miles.

What have been your favorite and/or most memorable experiences? Why?

GM: In racing, I think getting into Badwater 135 in 2013 and getting a 2nd place finish was really memorable. I recall getting near Darwin and some of my crew running down the road to me yelling that I was in third place—we had no idea until then—and then passing Oswaldo Lopez going up the Portal road to move into 2nd place. The crazy Ronda del Cims in Andorra, which has 46,000’ climbing over 106 miles, was also memorable by its sheer toughness: endless climbing and descent and jaw dropping scenery. The winter races like Iditarod, Arrowhead 135, and Tuscobia are all wonderful if you like being out there alone, cold, tired, and feeling like an arctic explorer. Climbing a mountain solo like the +20,000 feet Stok Kangri in the Indian Himalaya makes you realize how small and insignificant you are. Surfing remote locations like Greenland, Robinson Crusoe Island, and Alaska are also up there on my favorites list.

What do you think about when the going gets tough? (And what has been your toughest experience?)

GM: Like most athletes, I tend to wonder what the hell I am doing out there during some races. The pain, fatigue, and uncomfortable feelings are not lost on me, and I get to thinking about why I am bothering to put myself through it, but of course those moments pass, and I keep going. It’s funny how many times after an event I will tell myself that I am taking a break or going to rest for a long while, then after a few days my brain seems to forget how hard or painful it was and I start thinking about my next move.

That said, just because I survive tough events doesn’t mean that they don’t hurt. The challenges are as hard for me as anyone else. One of my toughest experiences was the 333km La Ultra—The High race in Ladakh in the Indian Himalaya, which I completed recently. It was not just the sheer mileage to get through—213 miles—it was the sometimes debilitating altitude (three high passes of almost 18,000’) and the temperature fluctuations from freezing mountain tops to blistering heat on the plains. On the first and highest Pass, the Kardung La, we climbed from about 10,800 feet to 17,800 feet. I was very well acclimated at the time, but I must have gone too fast on the ascent, and I started to feel the effects of AMS (acute mountain sickness) and HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) at 15,000 feet. I slowed down a bit, but kept plodding skyward. By the time I reached the Pass, it felt like my throat was being strangled shut and I had what’s called a “seal bark” when I tried to inhale, which sounds just like a seal. The course medic followed me with oxygen and drugs for about 1500’ of the descent until my symptoms started to clear up and then he let me go on ahead. I have never felt in so much respiratory distress before. I had two more high altitude Passes to get over in the next 200km, so it was grueling to get through that race.

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Photo courtesy of Grant Maughan

What makes you want to climb treacherous mountains and take on challenging races?

GM: There are the usual clichéd answers to this question. I like to prove to myself that I can do it. I like to finish a job that I start. I want to make full use of my life and see and do things in real life rather than living them vicariously through others. I would prefer to be remembered for what I did rather than what I talked about doing.

There is something more ingrained that I don’t mention often: I am a twin, but the doctors and my mother didn’t know she was having me until my brother was born. I was a small peanut and had to be put in a humidicrib for a long while because my brother had used all the nutrients to beef up and left me with the dregs. This made me a bit smaller as a kid and still compact as an adult. I really think that has driven me to go harder and longer at a lot of things to try and prove myself. I don’t think I have the Napoleon Syndrome, but do feel a need to go after challenges.

I discovered mountaineering the last couple years, and gravitated towards that as a segue from endurance sports. The fitness aspect seems to dovetail right into climbing from carrying heavy packs to pulling loaded sleds and putting in long, arduous hours. When climbing on big mountains like Denali and Aconcagua, I find it hard work, but nothing out of the ordinary compared to running a long-distance ultra. I have alpine climbed solo on a number of mountains and really enjoy that, though it can have some scary and lonely aspects to it.

What have you learned about physical conditioning that’s enabled you to recover sufficiently to compete in multiple major events back-to-back-to-back?

GM: Surprisingly the most important thing I have learned is to rest when I need to. When I was younger, I thought taking a nap during the day was for woosies, but now I am the first to admit that it’s good for recovery. I have spent most of my life working jobs that require long hours and physical labor. Missing sleep was just part and parcel of getting the job done, but now I realize how detrimental adequate sleep is to your health. One time I worked for five days with two hours of sleep on a deep sea trawler. I saw one of the crew asleep standing up at a winch brake. There are so many things that can kill and maim you on those types of boats, and we were all stumbling around half-dead already from sleep deprivation. These days I can still endure crazy sleep deprivation, but I try to limit it. Sometimes during a race when I get super sleepy, all I need is ten minutes of sleep to reset myself to go again. At the recent La Ultra—The High, I stopped twice during the 60 hours and slept for an hour. I was surprised how recharged I felt afterwards.

I am not sure why I can recover so quickly or if I even recover at all? I get asked about this a lot. I don’t have a magic bullet or some magic witches brew. Basically I just take it easy, try to get good sleep, and eat plenty of good protein. I am not one to go for a run the day after a race; I really don’t see the point in that. You have just put your body through so much stress and pounding; why do some more the day after? I like to walk easy or ride my bike in low gear a couple of days after, but no pounding. Swimming is also something that works well to loosen me up.

I have always had a pretty good diet though I am not anal about it nor do I engage in any trendy eating fads. Anything in moderation is okay as far as I am concerned. I eat a lot of protein—that’s about as technical as I get. I love vanilla lattes, chocolate milk, and chocolate in general. After an event I try to drink Ensure or Boost to give me easily digestible calories, vitamins, and minerals; this seems to work pretty well for me. I am tired of some people shoving their theories down my neck about what I should and should not be eating. If you have a special diet that seems to work for you, that’s fine with me, just don’t treat it like a cult.

I think some of my capacity to keep going out and doing long events back-to-back has to do with my mental strength. Some of it stems from my work life, and putting in long hours and physical labor to get a job done. At work, I had to put my head in the right place, accept what had to be done, and accomplish it. There is a certain zone you have to get into when you commit to long, arduous tasks, whether working, running, or even driving. I can get in a car or on a motorbike and go for days, literally non-stop. I find that sort of capacity is something that really helps me get through ultra-races—the ability to turn off your mind to some extent to while away the hours of tedium. When people ask me what I think of for all of those hours during a race, I tell them I think of lots of things, but sometimes nothing. I can turn my brain down to just the basic thoughts of what is going on with my body, self-checks, or just staring at the blackness.

Self-supported Solo Badwater, August 2016. Photo: Grant Maughan

Self-supported Solo Badwater, August 2016. Photo: Grant Maughan

What drives you?

GM: I have been travelling since I was a teenager, mostly alone because I got sick of waiting for others. From a very young age, I wanted to see the world and experience different things. I wanted to work on oil rigs, ships, fishing boats, and go to the most remote places I could get to. At one point, I wanted to be a freelance war correspondent/ photographer but soon realized that their life span was short. I trekked into Everest base camp when I was 19, alone, and travelled across Burma (Myanmar), India, Vietnam, Cambodia and China.

I rode motorbikes across every other desert in Australia and the western Sahara, alone. I worked on deep-sea trawlers in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic Circle, West Africa, and Borneo, and drifted literally from one adventure to the next. I just wanted to do it all and had no patience waiting for anyone or anything. I haven’t changed really. My bucket list is about 100 times longer now than it was when I was 20. I am also a little impatient, sometimes to my own detriment. If I could run more races, climb more mountains, or do more things, I would, but sometimes you have to accept the facts of time, money, and capacity. It’s a tough pill to swallow sometimes. My schedule for the last few years has been pretty crazy; even I will admit that, but it has all been doable, possible, and well within limits. I have survived it with no injury thus far, and I know when to back off for self-preservation. I have no problem letting a training day go by and relaxing when I feel I need to. I want to compete in the endurance sports arena for a long time; I don’t want to be a fly-by-night. At my age—52—I need to be cognizant of when my body needs to stop and rest to maintain longevity. Some may laugh at that statement, but I am aware of my limitations.

Who do you admire most and why?

GM: I admire anyone that “has a go.” Anyone that looks at something with a new eye and sees ways to push the limits or go about it a different way when others say you can’t. This just doesn’t apply to sports but to anything from business to music.

Some people on my list are:

  • Watermen and big wave surfers: Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama
  • High-altitude mountaineers: Ed Veisturs and Reinhold Messner
  • Antarctic explorers: Sir Douglas Mawson, Roald Amundsen, and Sir Ernest Shackleton
  • Musician/Songwriter/Producer: Dave Grohl
  • Endurance athlete: Doctor Lisa Bliss

If you got to choose, what would you most like to be known for?

GM: My favorite word is endurance. That’s what I would like to be known for. Being able to keep going when most others would stop.

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