Forging a Soul of Iron

Gerry Duffy, a rangy, chiseled 43-year-old from Ireland, ranks as one of the most remarkable endurance athletes in the world. Last year, he took first place in an insanely grueling event called the UK Deca Ironman Challenge that required its participants to complete, every day for ten days, a full triathlon: a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. He has also completed a number of other punishing long-distance events, including one perversely torturous undertaking of his own devising in which he raced a marathon in each of Ireland’s 32 counties over the course of 32 consecutive days. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Duffy, though, is that he used to be just like the rest of us.

At the age of 26 he was a chubby, chain-smoking traveling insurance salesman, 60 pounds overweight, unambitious and comfortable with life. Then one day he saw a photograph of himself taken as he met his hero, golf champion Seve Ballasteros. The sight of the chubby man next to the legendary duffer shocked him. “I said, ‘Mother of…!’” he recalls. “I just felt that I was better than that. I said to myself, ‘I have to do something about this.’” And so he did. Starting with small, easy steps, he began a long journey that ultimately shaved off 30 percent of his body weight and transformed every aspect of his life. From an ordinary schlub, he turned himself by force of will into a man of unparalleled resilience.

Duffy’s story offers a perfect example of a profound but often overlooked truth about human toughness: even the most physically punishing feats of endurance are less about the body than they are about the mind. Sure, Duffy is an incomprehensively fit individual. But it’s how he’s trained his mind that’s allowed him to keep going while his competitors are dropping like flies.

It’s a lesson we all can learn. Though we may not need to run multiple triathlons, we all could benefit by being more determined, more resilient, more resolute in achieving the things that really matter to us. Duffy’s journey serves as an example we all can follow, if to a lesser degree. On his own initiative, he launched himself on a course of self-improvement that bolstered the inner quality that positive psychologist Salvatore Maddi calls “hardiness.”

Underlying hardiness are the three basic attributes that Maddi calls the “Three C’s.” The first “C,” commitment, refers to the tendency to see your task as important enough to merit the full scope of your attention and energy. Commitment means that even when your situation is deteriorating you stay plugged in to your goal. Take Duffy’s example. Completing ten consecutive triathlons is such a brutal undertaking that only the most committed athletes would even think of attempting it; yet even so, 90 percent of those who started the Deca with him dropped out due to injury or fatigue. To cross the finish line, let alone win, requires exceptional devotion to the effort. “I have a phrase that I use a lot,” Duffy says. “’It is when we are at our weakest that we must be at our strongest.’ It’s when you’re most challenged that you have to draw on all the mental powers that you have.”

The second “C,” control, is the feeling that, whatever happens, you’ll keep trying to have an influence on the outcome, rather than becoming passive and give up. “When I was 26, I had a passive existence,” Duffy says. “When I took up running, I was starting to lead an active life, and living actively is so much more rewarding.”

The third “C,” challenge, is an understanding that life doesn’t have to be free of worries to be pleasurable and fulfilling. Stress is natural and that it provides an opportunity to grow and develop. The key to mastering this mindset is to develop a sense of confidence in your abilities. Duffy’s experience offers a case in point. At 26, the only exercise he ever got was an occasional game of golf. He ate too much and was addicted to chocolate bars. Looking back, he sees that he was passive and unambitious. All that changed once he vowed to get himself back in shape. He quit smoking, cut back on his portion sizes, allowed himself only one chocolate bar a week, and started running three times a week. Even more importantly, he started walking an hour after dinner, every single day. “The idea was to walk off whatever food I’d just eaten,” he says, “and to keep me away from the chocolate and that kind of stuff.”

Duffy was no expert in physiology or weight-loss, but his strategy employed sound common sense. He laid out incremental steps for himself that were significant enough to feel worthwhile, but small enough to always feel like they lay within his graps. “The important thing about goal-setting is having a plan,” he explains. “Goals have to be realistic, and they have to be very specific.”

Duffy was able to stick with it. By the time he hit his 30s, he was back to his high-school weight, and ready for more challenges. “Because I got very physically fit, I got mentally fit,” he says. “I felt like I could achieve anything I set my mind to.” Emboldened, he quit a well-paying job, went back to school, and then started his own company.

Six months later, his brother invited him to take part in a triathlon. Duffy accepted the challenge, and took part as a member of a relay team. He only completed the swimming leg, but found himself fascinated at once. “I was immediately gripped by the endorphins,” he remembers. “I said, ‘Wow, life just can’t get any better, what an incredible sense of empowerment I’m feeling.’ I vowed to myself that next year, I’d do the whole lot.” The triathlons paved the way for double-triathlons, the multiple marathons, and so on.

The transformation was so extreme that it eventually carried him beyond what he once would have even been able to conceive. Admits Duffy, “If you had told me even five years ago that I was going to run 10 triathlons in 10 days, I would have said, ‘That’s impossible.’”

Without realizing it, Duffy had taken advantage of some of the major techniques that psychologists have found most effective in allowing people to maximize their hardiness. One is a process that Maddi calls “transformational change.” Instead of panicking in the face of a crisis, the goal is to see the situation from another perspective. Try to understand the larger context and to identify the good things that might come along with the bad. “Life rewards you when you move out of your comfort zone,” Duffy says. “If you can push yourself to go beyond your fears, it’s so empowering.”

Another key tool is social support. In a difficult situation, having a friend by your side can make all the difference. In preparing for his competitions, Duffy had the support of an extensive network of family and friends, but he found that even strangers could provide crucial support in a time of need. During his first double triathlon, Duffy hit a brick wall in the middle of the night after 17 hours of racing. At a rest area he stopped and got off his bike. He still had 80 or 90 more miles to ride, and after that two marathons to run back-to-back. He was exhausted and didn’t see how he could go on. Then a woman from one of the other teams put her arm around him. “Listen, I’ve watched you,” she told him. “You’re one of the strongest guys out there. Just stick with it. The sun is going to come up in three hours’ time, and I guarantee you’re going to get a bit of energy, because I’ve seen the forecast, it’s going to be a wonderful day. Sometime tomorrow afternoon you’re going to achieve your goal, so just hang in there.” She was right. Duffy got back on his bike, and when the sun came up at 5am, he got a boost of energy. “I felt on fire,” he says.

Finally, physical fitness itself can be a powerful component of overall emotional resilience. Lilly Mujica-Parodi, a researcher at Stony Brook University, conducted a study of first-time skydivers and found that those in good shape were better able to control the surge of the stress hormone cortisol that accompanied their terrifying first plunge. “Cortisol affects receptors in your brain, which in turn affects your cognition,” she says. “Individuals with lower body fat produced less cortisol in response to the skydive, and therefore the cortisol didn’t affect the receptors as much, which means that their cognition was not as affected.” Trimmer bodies, in other words, mean clearer thinking under pressure.

Duffy agrees that the toughness he acquired by taking up running now affects every other aspect of his life. “Up until the time I was 27, I was unambitious, unmotivated, I certainly wasn’t achieving anything. It’s only when I started running that my mind was opened into just what I could achieve,” he says. Without running, he says, he never would have had the mental toughness to start his own business, or to overcome a crippling fear of public speaking. Today, he’s a motivational speaker, making a living doing something that was once made him “scared beyond belief.”

But for Duffy, the greatest gift that running has given him is simply the pleasure of running itself. His most intense moments of joy, he says, come not when he crosses the finish line, but the months-long ritual of preparation that precedes each event. “Every morning I go out training,” he says. “That’s what I enjoy the most. I just love it.”

5 thoughts on “Forging a Soul of Iron”

  1. Inspiring piece. I’m going to walk a mile this morning. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Thanks!

  2. Awesome story, Jeff. Thanks for sharing and wanted to say I really enjoy your blog and the work you have put into it.

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