Wednesday, December 05, 2012

One Ultrarunner's Journey to Measure The Human Spirit - Presenting at Le Web Paris, 2012

Today, I had the pleasure of presenting at a great conference in Paris called Le Web. put on by two amazing people (and runners!), Geraldine and Loic Le Meur. Instead of talking Internet and start-ups, I got to talk about ultrarunning! Specifically, my attempts to use GPS, HRM, Jawbone Up, and other technology to track what is happening in a race and see if I can "measure the human spirit" and learn more about those awesome euphoric moments that we all know so well. The theme of the conference was the "Internet of Things" - all of these new devices that measure and connect to the Internet, like watches, refrigerators, homes, and more.

Here are the slides and my slide notes below. I hope you enjoy it! If I've missed anything important, please do add a comment. I hope to give it a few more times.

Slide 1: Thank you for having me. This is a fun treat for me to be here with you, talking about running. Like many of you, I am an entrepreneur. I have done five start-ups, and am currently at Tenth Dimension Design Labs where we help start-ups and luxury brands develop organic growth strategies. But as you heard from my intro, I also like to run. A LOT. [Photo courtesy of Marc Soller] 

Slide 2: Like 'Forrest Gump' a lot. This guy is my hero. And I find the more that I run trails... [photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures] 

Slide 3: ...the more energy, optimism, and enthusiasm I have for everything in my life. Start-ups, family, friends, music, screenplays, everything. Why is that? Shouldn’t I be more tired the more I run? Where is that energy coming from? What is the source of that power? And with the Internet of Things, maybe it can be measured and understood? This is the journey I would like to share with you today, and hope to leave you with a few thoughts on how to tap into that in both your personal and professional lives. [photo courtesy of Chris Spread] 

Slide 4: Is the destiny of the Internet of Things to make us lazy? You may recognize this picture from the movie WALL-E, where the ultimate evolution of technology enables mankind to never leave their lounge chair, get media served up to them 24x7, and drink cupcake in a cup. Which now that I think about it, sounds absolutely delicious. But joking aside, we all know that convenience is king. Every company presenting here today is making it easier to do something. It is natural to take the path of least resistance. Does this mean laziness is our technology-driven destiny? [Photo courtesy of Pixar] 

Slide 5: Why do any of us do anything hard? Why would Benjamin Cichy build a rover that can land on Mars, when he can make more money monitoring water flow in a government run utility (unfortunately true)? Why does Scott Harrison and Charity:Water try and solve the African Water crisis when he could have sipped Crystal and flashed his Rolex all night as night club promoter? Why strap yourself to a parachute and surf waves backwards with the gang at Mai Tai, drinking gallons of seawater in the process, when you could just sit on the beach and admire? (these are all presenters who were before me) Loic and Geraldine (Le Web creators and directors) – why not just do a webinar instead of create Le Web? That technology exists, and everyone here uses it.

Slide 6: Ask this enough, and you'll inevitably hear the response "because it's my passion". Not a hobby or an interest, but a true passion. Something that demands a life pursuit, giving all your mind, body, and spirit can conjure, and you give it willingly. You’ll take 1,000 brush strokes to get the sunset just right in a painting, then crumple it up and do it all again. You’ll break 1,000 eggs to make that crème brulee perfect. You will spend 15 hours/day making your start-up the best that it can be, so deep in the code that your dreams look like the Matrix, and never question the devotion it takes. Tireless discipline. Courage and persistence. Anything to make that ambition a reality. But those who know will tell you it feels nearly effortless.

Slide 7: Passion is Powerful. It can overcome every obstacle, every no, every impossibility. It gives the human race our greatest breakthroughs and our heroes. Our Olympic champions, our Tour d-Eiffel and Arc de Triomphe, Cezanne’s and Da Vinci’s, our Steve Jobs, our Bill and Melinda Gates.

Slide 8: Passion is Infinite. It never stops. It knows no bounds. And passionate people can’t contain it in just one discipline – it leaks into every part of their life, injecting it with energy and optimism. Passion is amplified when it is shared. In the heat of competition, in a heat of a crowded start up garage office, in the heat of the data center for sites like Pinterest and Evernote who capture passion for others. You can feel it when you enter a start-up. It’s palpable. Just like in rooms like this one, where we all share and encourage each other.

Slide 9: I believe passion is the core of the human spirit. Passion is the greatest energy source I know, and can lead to all-natural euphoric moments. It’s that perpetual euphoria that I want to know more about.

Slide 10: Can passion be measured? There’s only one way to find out. And that’s to dive head first into your passion and measure everything you can.

Slide 11: My passion is ultra running, something I share with ~40,000 fellow warriors around the globe. These are long distance running events of 30-100 miles, usually over the craziest terrain Mother Nature can put in front of us, such as difficult mountain passes, deserts, river runs, you name it.

This is a picture of Anton Krupicka, one of the hero’s of our sport, wearing all the necessary items - shoes, shirts, and a water bottle. That's it. And it could be argued that these items are also unneeded if running naked was more socially acceptable. I should note that we don't all look this fit (although I wish I did); since ultrarunning is as much a battle of the mind and spirit as it is a challenge to the body, lots of body shapes can find success.

Ultrarunning is exhilarating. It is incredibly challenging. It is the purest test of the body, mind, and spirit I have found, and like Forrest Gump, I just can’t get enough of it.

Slide 12: Technology has enabled a number of new ways to measure what is happening in an ultra marathon. The “Internet of Me” can track your movement, sleep cycles, and more thanks to companies like Fitbit, Jawbone, Nike, and Striiv. Advancement in the area has been amazing. Just last week, Basis Science announced the Health Tracker which includes a galvanic skin sensor on the back of the watch to capture perspiration, skin temperature, and even emit an LED light into your veins to measure heart rate. Simply amazing.

Slide 13: You can also now track the world around you in what I call the Internet of Now. Fluid monitors can track your water input, and watches from Polar and Garmin can give GPS, alititude, temperature, and more. One underappreciated technology is the instrumentation of the race itself. Here is a disposable D-Tag which when strapped to your shoe (anyone who has run a large 10k, half marathon, or marathon will recognize these), will not only confirm you've done the whole course, but also post to Facebook in real-time to let your friends know every checkpoint. I’ve had fun hacking this with to send me back a text and let me know where my competition is.

Slide 14: The trick of course is to not go “full Borg” (Star Trek reference) and lose track of the essence of running. But it can tell you a lot about what is happening during an event, and give some insight into those moments of euphoria I seek out. It can also help me explain the different characteristics of road marathons and trail ultra marathons.

Slide 15: To give us a starting point, here is an altitude chart of the Boston Marathon, one of the oldest and best known marathons in the world. At mile 21 is the infamous Heartbreak Hill, feared by runners and responsible for hundreds of thousands of hill repeat workouts around the world. At the last Boston Marathon, I burned 2412 calories, about as much as an average adult burns in a day. I took 27,488 steps, about 4x the daily average, and consumed 50 oz of water, not nearly enough, but there you go.

Slide 16: If you compare the Boston Marathon to a typical ultramarathon like the Woodside 50k near my home in California, you can see right away it’s a different beast. While only five miles longer, the terrain is much more dramatic which requires 50%+ more calories, steps, and water. If fact, what you take in (calories, water, electrolytes) now becomes a big part of the race, and determines your success as much as your raw speed. But this still does not compare to the granddaddy of ultrarunning, the 100-mile run.

Slide 17: Here is the Boston Marathon and Woodside 50k compared to the Wasatch 100-mile run in the Wasatch mountains of Utah. Note that you start at 5,000 feet and do more climbing in the first 10 miles than most people do in a month, burning nearly as many calories as the entire Boston Marathon. Then you only have 90 more miles to go! The numbers start to tell more about the effort required. Over 15,000 calories means you are doing the equivalent of burning almost 5 pounds of fat in a single day. 130,000 steps is nearly 2x the weekly average for a your day-to-day life, and the goal is to finish in less than 24 hours if you can. It took me 27 and change in this race. It is truly a beast.

Slide 18: Wasatch is a tough race, but not nearly the toughest. The Hardrock 100 in Colorado starts near 10,000 feet (~3000 meters), and goes to 14,000 (~4000 meters). And the Leadville 100 never goes below 10,000 feet. Last summer I did the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc, a circumnavigation of Mont Blanc in France, Switzerland, and Italy, (when weather cooperates, that is) and saw these kinds of numbers. And although it’s nice to lose 5 lbs in one day, this isn’t why we do ultras.

Slide 19: This is why we do ultras.

Slide 20: And this is why we do ultras.

Slide 21: When you’re out in Mother Nature, the proportions are staggering. See if you can find the runner in this picture! Each mountain seems impossible, but you break it down, and you do it. And there are glorious moments of euphoria when you do.

Slide 22: One thing I’ve noticed is that each of these races has a similar path to that moment of euphoria. Here’s a perceived exertion scale, where you feel good to euphoric, or bad from rough patch to “please kill me now”. I make a note every 30 minutes about how I feel, and lo and behold, a recognizable pattern occurs.

Slide 23: It's an oscillating cycle. The farther you go, the higher the amplitude, and the more condensed the cycle time.

Slide 24: I've come to know to the down parts as the Wall, the Pit, and the Abyss. You’ve heard about “hitting the wall” – when your body says no more, usually around mile 20. Runners feel this when your body starts giving you clues to stop, like side stitches, cramps, headaches, you name it. But if you get through it, you find a rhythm where you actually feel better than when you did at the start.

Next comes“the Pit”. When your body couldn't get you to stop, your mind goes next by conjuring every "you can't", "you're not good enough", and "you're a loser" you've heard your whole life. You would be surprised how much of that crap is back in your subconscious. I've heard nah-nah-nah's from 4th grade recess. But soon you figure out you can turn it off like a spigot, and that you control those voices in your head, if they are negative/positive, etc., and that you can also choose to just have the silence of your steps.

When the body is tamed and the mind is silenced, you hit "the Abyss" (for me around mile 70-85). This is where you are forced to dig deep. Who am I? What is my purpose? What is my place in this universe? If you want to get out of the abyss, you have to shed yourself of any emotional "drag". You can't be stressing about a board meeting, a fight with your spouse, your teenager's grades on the math test, nothing. If your brain and heart are cluttered at the start, you don’t make it. You have what we call a "DNF" - Does Not Finish. Some DNF's have to happen because, well, you might have broken a foot or can't keep any food down. But most ultrarunners know that a majority of DNF's occur because your mind and spirit weren't ready. You quickly learn the key to success is to start lean with your emotional baggage.

A start up has a similar journey. The Wall is that first product, which as we all know, is very challenging to get live. The Pit is when you finally have a few dozen customers telling you to go in a dozen directions all at once. The Abyss is when you have a near-self-sustaining business based on a completely new business model that everyone is doubting (think Andrew Mason at Groupon). You gotta start lean and be focused, or you will never make it. Don't DNF, guys, get there. And just like in ultramarathons, the support of your fellow warriors can help make that difference.

Slide 25: If you do get through the abyss, you reach the point of euphoria that I’ve been trying so hard to measure and understand. And it’s fascinating to see what the data says about this moment, typically 70-85 miles into the race for me.

Slide 26: One of the most amazing things about this state is that your heart rate actually lowers 10-15% WHILE your speed increases 10%. Your body reaches an optimal state of moving forward, right at the same time your mind is in pure bliss with just the rhythm of your steps. And this is after running 70+ miles! When I share this with elite athletes, they say "yeah, that's called 'flow'". When I talk to Buddhists, they call it Mushin. Yogi's tell me I am enlightened, and can control my body. Coaches tell me I am "in the zone". But the thing is, they all know what I'm referring to - this human condition is well known to many, and can be achieved through meditation, fasting, prayer, practiced visions, and more. After getting feedback, I'm realizing you don't have to run 70+ miles to get there. Now that I know the state I'm reaching for, I can get a taste of it with a 30 minute run in the forest. Similarly, when I see a hot start up like Torbit working hard in many directions and wondering if they are "crushing it", I can help them see what an effortless rhythm feels like. Practicing your passions pays dividends, sometimes literally.

Slide 27: One fascinating piece of feedback that I received was that it could be a chemical called "anandamide", which was discovered in 1992 at Hebrew University when researching the effects of marijuana (shout out to the stoners!). Professors at UC Irvine are investigating the effects of anandamide and how, combined with a healthy dose of dopamine and endorphins, may explain how the body creates that ideal euphoric state with endless energy, pain cessation, and suppressed appetite/caloric needs.

Slide 28: The biggest question I get from others is “what does that feel like”. The best way to explain it is through a quick story. In 100 mile races, we often have a friend who “crews”, meeting up with us every 5-15 miles to make sure we’re doing well. At mile 85 at the 2010 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, my brother-in-law Brian asked me how I was doing. This is what I said (see slide). It seemed to best encapsulate what I was feeling, this connection to all the living things around me, and it's still the most accurate description I've found. I know it sounds a little out there, but it feels AMAZING.

Slide 29: So, aside from the fact that Scott is seriously off the deep end, can we derive any conclusions? This journey has just begun for me, but since it is a passion, it will certainly continue. I'm very excited to collect more data in 2013 and beyond, and to see what the Internet of Things can bring to the table to help us understand it.

I have learned a few lessons of life in general in the process of shedding emotional baggage for these races as well, and would like to share those with you.

Slide 30: Encourage passion in those around you. If you already know your passion, or if you have children, this may seem obvious. Given that I'm talking to 3,000 entrepreneurs, it's likely preaching to the choir. But you would be surprised how many work environments I have seen where people don't even know the passions of people they have sat next to for years.

I’ve found two easy ways to do this. First, just ASK them. Take a co-worker out to lunch, ask them about their passions, and keep an open mind. I've learned more about cricket, spoon collecting, quilting, kitesurfing, building classic motorcycles, what it takes to run a food truck, salsa dancing, poetry, photography, countries and cultures of the world, and more by doing this. It's better than cruising Quora or TED, I tell you. Second, if you are a CEO or Manager in particular, ask them when their next vacation is. If they don’t have one, hound them until they do. Give them free vacation days to pursue their passions if you have to, but don’t let them get eddied in the mundane. One day off will produce man-weeks of results. At my last two start ups, it was mandatory to have a vacation planned for just this reason.

Slide 31: I’m not a fan of the term “work/life balance” because it implies opposing forces. You can be passionate about your work, and allow passion to boost it. Think only in terms of life balance, and how one source of passion can invite adventure into every part of your life. If you ever hear somebody say the term "work/life balance", here's what I want you to do. Hold out your arm, open your palm, and slap them across the face. This works particularly well with Human Resource people, who tend to be the biggest abusers of this phrase. They mean well, though. Just tell them it was my idea. I'm sure they will understand.

Slide 32: I suspect you have all heard the phrase “this isn’t a sprint, this is a marathon”. Well for some of us, a marathon is a sprint. And when that’s the case, you gotta pack lean. In life, this means letting your passions ask the hard questions. Don’t wait for a cancer diagnosis to find out what drives you, just find out. Shed the worthless negative emotions of guilt, envy, hate, and regret to lighten your load. Be ready for the next challenge, and be hungry for it. In start-ups, this also means taking the time to ask the hard questions early with all of your employees, as well as your initial customers. Not just what you are going to do, but what you’re not going to do. Wicked focus. Disciplined strategy. Get lean.

Slide 33: When you identify the known pain stages (wall, pit, abyss) in advance, they don’t seem as bad. Celebrate them. When everyone around you is gritting their teeth, and you’re the one saying “yes! We’re in the PIT!”….then everyone knows an upswing is on the horizon. Passion will get you to that point of euphoria. 

Slide 34: There is no greater feeling than life success through the rigors of passion. If you're not on this path, you need to change direction. Now. Find a passion, embrace it, let it spill over into your lives. Then keep going, because like Forrest Gump knew, it will feel effortless. We all live ordinary lives until a passion comes along and turns it into a fairly tale. Live your life to have good stories, my friends.

Slide 35: This was quite a treat for me to talk about passion and ultra running, and I hope that it was a refreshing break from API's, platforms, and Internet gadgets. Thank you again, and I hope to see you on the trails!


  1. Great Scott... My favorite quote "Don’t wait for a cancer diagnosis to find out what drives you, just find out. Shed the worthless negative emotions of guilt, envy, hate, and regret. Be ready for the challenge" It took me a brain tumor to find what my passion is. Unfortunately many of us need a slap in the face to wake up and realize what drives us. Some will find out without help, others will know if you show them, others will never know.

    Great piece.. thanks for posting..

    1. Luis, you will be happy to know you were an inspiration for that part of the pitch. But wow...what a comment. Thank you!

  2. Nice presentation. Just some typos:

    Slide 2: "than" ==> "that"
    Slide 29: "face" ==> "fact"

    Great read, Thanks!

  3. Slide 6 here should be hear. :-)

  4. Great presentation, thank-you Scott! Talks to runners and everybody else.

  5. Wow Scott! Great presentation, I only wish I could have been there to hear it in person. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Awesome presentation. This applies to so much more of life than just running or start ups. Thanks for sharing it!

  7. Fantastic! I just watched it with my husband Morgan, who specializes in informational design and litigation graphics for attorneys. We're using SlideShare more for our firm (, so we greatly appreciated seeing it not only from a runner's perspective, but also for its presentation and info design. Great job with the slides!

  8. Very inspiring. This tops the post on how to make a necklace with toenails.

    1. Dude, nothing beats the toenail necklace. That post haunted my nightmares for months.


  9. Scott-Don't know if you saw your talk on YouTube

    1. Thanks, Todd! They do a good production job at Le Web. It was fun to have that huge stage too!

      Whoa, now that I see it I can see where I went off the notes and made a few slip ups. Alas...better next time.

  10. You're so right! It all boils down to passion. I run all distances and I hope I'm finally getting the hang of ultra-trails!

  11. Hi Scott, I read an article you either wrote or were in where you talked about the Paleo diet and endurance racing. This is where I also learned about Vespa. Is there a way to contact you where I can talk with you in more detail about both topics. Thanks.

    1. I'm no Paleo pro, but do love the Vespa. You probably read the interview with Rob Evans (still get a lot of click-through in that one). But you are welcome to reach out to me at Scottdunlap (at) yahoo (dot) com.

  12. Great slides. I just saw the presentation on YouTube. I loved seeing my two favorite topics (tech and ultra running) being brought together. Nice Job!

  13. Very interesting presentation. Wish you had a little more physiology in the mix. Did your pulse go up and speed slow in the "pit" lland "abyss"? Don't you then take in a lot of calories and prime the body for the next up cycle? Can't technology plot our blood sugars as well? Sodium? K.? I've always suspected that some part of euphoria is acually hypoglycemia on a cellular level. Would the cycles change if you didn't eat?...Anyway, good presentation and I really enjoy lideas and curiosity.

  14. Great speech on Work/Run.. balance, Scott! ;-) Just kidding, your are spot on about living our lives to the fullest, that is not leaving room for regrets.

    I'm curious: France is BIG on ultra. Did you meet any ultra runner in that professional crowd (assuming they would have dared to let you know)?

    Otherwise, I think the pitch is perfect for an American audience. You may have to localize a few anecdotes or images depending on the audience. You could also draw a parallel between the ultra running experiences and the life of a start-up.

    Thanks for the life lessons. And passion! ;-)


  15. Great presentation, Scott. Thanks so much for sharing!

  16. Hi Scott, glad I noticed the youtube link. I read the transcript and thought, this would be a great TED talk! My husband watches them while IT rolling so I will forward the link to him. Thanks for posting and nice seeing you on the trails today!


I LIVE for comments! Please add your thoughts, let me know you stopped by, etc., and be thoughtful of others. Always best if you sign your name, of course.

Latest Excursions