“I suggest we adopt the term grit!” (Tom Coughlin)

Have you ever been to the beach? You know how the sand will cling to you for what seems like forever, even after you try to wash it off? Or have you ever had some renovations done on your house and the dust and grit seems to hang around for weeks no matter how much you vacuum, mop, sweep or dust? That dust, sand, debris is often called “grit” and we’ve adopted that term to describe a trait that can define us as people.

I recently read an article written by Dr. Paul Stoltz who co-authored a book with my friend and mentor Erik Weihenmayer—the Adversity Advantage. Dr. Stoltz’s most recent article that I was reading discussed how Universities and employers should admit and hire people based on their “grit” factor or score. That article made me remember another article I’d read by running coach Jason Coop. Jason Coop discussed some of the key traits in ultra runners. He pointed to grit being one of those key traits. These articles sent me down the rabbit hole of exploring “grit” which caused me to read an article in Forbs which cited research from Angela Duckworth—a leader in grit research.

The Webster dictionary defines grit as “firmness of character; indomitable spirit.” Duckworth says it’s “perseverance and passion for long term goals.” And Coop interprets it as “a trait that allows some people to work harder more frequently and give up on tasks less frequently.” They’re all correct. And Dr. Stoltz is correct in saying grit plays a vital role in our success. It’s not the only factor in determining success, but it is important and it has certainly been critical in my life.

Grit is a trait that’s made up of characteristics such as determination, perseverance, persistence, resilience, toughness, and many others. We admire these characteristics in people and teams. Just like that sand, dirt or dust that refuses to go away no matter how much we scrub. Why? We admire grit because when we have grit we’re never out; we’re always in the fight with a chance to win. And we all want to be in the position to win. So how do we develop grit?

Speaking from experience, grit is developed over time. We learn grit through facing adversity. I have the distinct advantage of beginning my grit development very early. Spending the first six years of your life in and out of cancer treatment is a great way to begin developing grit. I didn’t view those years of fighting cancer as character development until I was in my 20s though. Many of my cancer memories are beginning to fade, but they served their purpose. Those years made me willing to embrace sucky circumstances and situations a little easier. They made me willing to push my body and mind far beyond comfort, sometimes to my detriment, sometimes my benefit.

I got a taste of hard core grit building in July 2008 on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens. Accompanied by my friends Brad Jaffke and Peter Green, we climbed from our camp at 4200 ft to the summit in around five hours. We then descended and got lost in our greedy pursuit of glissading opportunities. So we wound up having to traverse across a broad expanse of the mountain. That traverse included clambering over massive volcanic boulders, tiptoeing across a nearly 60 degree snow slope, and nearly 12 hours in rented plastic mountaineering boots half a size too big for me. As I staggered and stumbled my way into the parking lot I had little cuts and scrapes all up and down my legs, as well as some bashed up forearms and elbows.

Two years later I had a similar experience on Gannet Peak—tallest peak in Wyoming. I’d poorly prepared physically for the demands of a 50 plus mile round trip hike on one of the most grueling peaks in Wyoming. Day one was a grinding 16 mile day with several thousand ft of elevation gain that took more than 12 hours. Half dollar sized blisters on my heels plagued me the remainder of the climb, which for me ended 2000 vertical ft below the summit. Over the course of the final two days of the climb I hiked about 25 miles over grueling rocky terrain carrying a 60 pound backpack and shouldering the disappointment of failing to be the first blind person to summit Gannet.

Those two trips, St. Helens and Gannet, hardened me both physically and mentally allowing me to draw on those experiences when I got into endurance racing. I was able to draw on the physical pain and mental anguish of not achieving a goal during my first marathon to walk/jog my way to a nearly six hour finish despite being severely undertrained. A little more than a year later I again drew on the experience from Gannet and St. Helens to grind out a nearly 16 hour finish at my first Ironman, despite again being severely undertrained—do we see a pattern here?

In 2018 I battled a minor stress fracture in my foot at the beginning of the season which limited my running in my build up to the Boston Marathon. Then at Boston itself I ran my first sub 4 hour marathon in the worst weather conditions Boston has ever seen—40-43 degrees, raining and windy. In June my pilot and I crashed our bike during Race Across America causing me to fracture the radius up near my right elbow. I gritted out the remaining 1500 plus miles to be a part of the first team with all blind and visually impaired stokers to finish RAAM. And later that year, despite frigid water, rubbing breaks, and an upset stomach I gritted my way to a sub 11 hour finish at Ironman Arizona.

Now, you don’t have to have cancer, scramble your way through volcanic rock knowing that one wrong step will send you at best to the hospital and worst to your death, or ride your bike half way across the country with a broken arm to develop grit. More than anything I was able to survive these and many other experiences and big days through the daily grind of life. Comfortable with being uncomfortable is an athlete mindset and mantra that we develop through day in day out simple, consistent, repeatable actions. Consistently push yourself a little further mentally and/or physically each day. The key is to go just far enough so that when adversity strikes you can draw upon those little experiences and say “I got this!”

One of my favorite ways to develop both physical and mental grit is a one month daily challenge. In the build up to Ironman Arizona 2018, my guide, Alan Greening, challenged me to do 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats and drink no alcohol every day during the month of October. The first week was easy, it was the last three weeks that were hard. The physical push of doing the calisthenics every day did get easier but the mental discipline to keep getting after it and the mental exercise of denying myself something pleasurable (a beer at the end of the day) helped prepare me to gut out the last 10k of the Ironman Arizona marathon when in order to hit my goal of sub 11 hours I had to push myself physically and dig deep mentally to deny simple pleasures like water and a quick walk break at an aid station. Sure, I also had years and years of grit and toughness in the bank to draw from, but it starts with the daily push to go a little harder and a little farther.

Maybe you aren’t ready to rip off 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats and give up alcohol for a month. Maybe your not concerned with developing physical grit. You can still adopt these same principles. Say you want to develop mental grit by monitoring your diet. Get a notebook and write down everything you eat, every day, for one month. Don’t use fancy fitness tracking apps or take photos or anything like that. Physically write or type it out. The primary goal here is to build grit with a side effect of seeing exactly what you’re consuming. You don’t necessarily have to consciously make×anges in your diet. I guarantee the first few days you’ll do it no problem and write everything down in great detail. After a while though you’ll start to skip the snacks, skip the sugar packet or dash of creamer you put in your coffee. Don’t skimp! Knuckle down and finish what you started! Later on down the road when your boss comes to you and says they want detailed reports for the next month. As those final days of the month are dwindling away you’ll harken back to that daily log you kept and realize that if you could withstand writing down every single thing that you put in your body you can certainly get this work done that you’re being paid to do. This exercise works with journaling, reading, saving money, whatever you want. Grit development is consistent, repeatable discipline. To borrow a cliche shoe company slogan, “Just do it!”

One response to “Grit”

  1. Your are quite the inspiration! Reading this blog has made me think about some of the goals I’ve set and failed to achieve. You’re right, anyone can achieve their goals, with a little GRIT! Keep sharing your experiences!

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