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Interview with Michele Graglia: beyond the limits, towards freedom

By Denis Piccolo

Photo Storytellerlab

 

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Michele Graglia was born in 1984 in Sanremo but his incredible history took him first to the United States, on the most important high fashion catwalks, and then through the Death Valley, the Atacama Desert and the Sahara Desert, but running this time. In fact, the fashion world is not what Michele really wanted, nature was calling him towards an ideal of freedom that until a few years before he did not know and which took the form of ultra running.

Tell us something about your journey to become an ultra runner.

I would say that my journey has been quite particular! It all started in 2007, I was 24 years old and I was working in the family flower export company. I often traveled abroad, especially in the United States and that’s why, in September 2007, I decided to move to Miami for a short period to learn English better and expand sales. The first week in South Beach a woman stopped me, I would later discovered that she was working in the fashion industry, and asked me if I had ever been a model. From that moment my life took a direction that I never expected! In a short time I found myself catapulted into that glamorous and glossy world that I had only seen in movies.

For years I’ve lived as a king but in reality it was nothing more than a bubble of perfection that disconnected me from the outside world. In 2009 I moved to New York to work with the biggest brands in the sector, but after a few years I needed a break: I no longer could find the meaning of what my life had become. I had everything I wanted, yet material success was not the same as being successful in life. I felt trapped. I was 27 years old and I was looking for a way out.

In 2010, in Union Square, I was wandering into a bookstore when I saw a book that immediately attracted me. On the cover there was an ultra marathon man, I read a few pages and got caught  immediately. An idea struck me. Shortly thereafter I bought a pair of shoes and started running in Central Park. I was fascinated by the concept of ultra, of going beyond running, but I didn’t know how to train. I started to do a lot of research and came across “Ride in the Wind” written by Anton Krupicka. I started following this guy who used to run shirtless, with his hair to air and unshaved, who literally dragged me out of my world, towards the image of a freedom that I didn’t know. A few months later I threw myself into my first experience, a 160km race that ended tragically because at the 130th km I had been taken away in an ambulance! But I was completely enraptured by the concept of ultra running, I didn’t feel discouraged and started again. I won my second race and then the third. I started thinking that there was something in me. So this huge passion was born, driven by a great search for freedom.

Did running help you discover parts of yourself that you didn’t know existed?

What running taught me was to rationalize certain feelings and face my fears. It is a thought that transcends sport and that has helped me in any part of my life, in addition to making me grow as a person. The fundamental aspect for me was to understand that fear does not actually exist, rather it is a feeling that blocks us from what we want to do. Obviously, it is necessary to listen to it, especially on the mountains, in order to behave rationally and understand where that same fear is originated from. Questioning yourself is fundamental to overcome it and find your inner strength. Tackling what scares us helps us to grow, perhaps failing along the way, but always giving us fundamental lessons.

 

How’s your typical day like?

I work in a gym in Malibu that could be called “elitist”. I teach yoga, meditation and various physical activities, but above all I share my interpretation of life with important Hollywood actors, CEOs of big companies and internationally renowned personalities who have great material capital but are very unstable in the end. It’s nice to help them find a balance. My typical day starts at 5 am, I usually train for 20-25 km, then I teach and in the afternoon I run for another dozen km. On weekends I am more free and my training changes according to the races that I have scheduled. I often run in the mountains, but in that case I take less into consideration the km and value the times more. The idea is to get used to being outside, fully experiencing the moment, feeling the fatigue and going further.

I do what I like and it is very rewarding, however my dream would be to be able to live fully of my passion.

 

How important are training, yoga and your lifestyle in percentage to reach your performances?

There is a funny saying in this sport sector that claims that 90% of ultra running is mental and the remaining 10% is in your head. Clearly physical preparation is fundamental, however, the key to going further is always to find the right motivation to overcome moments of crisis and difficulties. Yoga was something I discovered while running thanks to stretching, and that helped me get closer to meditation. By practicing I understood how it was preparatory and similar to ultra running. When you meditate you are still, while running clearly you move but in both disciplines you arrive at a certain point where you transcend from the physical body and detach yourself from what is pain and fear, and this allows you to fully live in the moment.

What does solitude, distance and fatigue represent for you?

Solitude, as well as meditation, helps you disconnect from everything else. Many people think that  solitude is like loneliness, but in fact it is necessary to take away all the distractions, in order to listen to your thoughts.

Distance is the most beautiful part of ultra running. You can be the most trained person on earth but you will always get to a point where your body gives in, that’s when you have to go further, a sort of spiritual journey that takes away everything you had built in society and allows you to become who you really are.

Fatigue, as well as pain, is necessary to grow. Every evolution always exists only after a moment of crisis. It’s what helps you to become the best version of yourself. Pain is inevitable in many aspects of life and especially in ultra running you can only accept it and face it.

 

You’re married. How did your wife live your change?

I met my wife in 2010, at the beginning of my running experience when I was a completely different person. But I can say that it is thanks to her if I found that book that changed my life! In fact, we had an appointment but she was late so I entered that famous bookshop I was talking about. We have always had a beautiful relationship and still today I am very grateful that she stayed with me during the hardest period of my life.

 

You’re married. How did your wife live your change?

I met my wife in 2010, at the beginning of my running experience when I was a completely different person. But I can say that it is thanks to her if I found that book that changed my life! In fact, we had an appointment but she was late so I entered that famous bookshop I was talking about. We have always had a beautiful relationship and still today I am very grateful that she stayed with me during the hardest period of my life.

“Distance is the most beautiful part of ultra running. You can be the most trained person on earth but you will always get to a point where your body gives in, that’s when you have to go further…”

Back to the present time, what are your near future goals?

For me the most important thing has always been adventure. Going further into unexplored territories. I have always been very fascinated by the deserts and from the beginning I had the dream of crossing these large, unexplored spaces. After the Badwater, a 135-mile ultra marathon that starts from the Badwater Basin in Death Valley, I chased this dream. I put together a team and crossed the Atacama Desert in 8 and a half days. Since then, a huge project started, 4 consecutive years that would have led me to cross the 4 largest desert in the world. Atacama, Gobi, Mongolia, Sahara and then end up with Antarctica. Then there is still a whole world!

But this is the beauty of adventure, there is always something to explore, to live, to see that teaches us to grow and increase our experience as people.

What struck me the most was the possibility of being able to relate to different cultures, experience the world and see it for what it is, without filters and preconceptions and understand that, in the end, we are all part of the same thing.

 

What is your top 5 experiences and goals?

Surely the Atacama that was not a race but a real adventure shared with friends and in such an intense way that it is difficult to express in words. Then the Badwater, a truly unique experience that was very important for me since it has always been considered THE ultra race par excellence. Other equally beautiful adventures were the Milano Sanremo, which has always had an emotional value for me and the Angeles Crest 100, another wonderful race that has been memorable to me. Then there is the Cro-Magnon that starts from Limone and arrives in Cap d’Ail near Menton, a competition that for me has always had a particular emotional appeal since Limone, in Piedmont, is where I spent all the winters skiing when I was a child.

 

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I think I will run my last race this year. I’m kind of losing that emotion that competing gave me because I discovered I could live those same feelings without having to prove anything to anyone, without the need for a stopwatch, a result, without expectations and pretensions and this makes the experience more relaxed but more intense. Just running for the adventure.

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