SPGT: Tell us about yourself?
JG: I consider myself very fortunate in my mid-40s now to be living a life that brings me a lot of joy and fulfillment. I’m well into my 2nd career now, working for the past seven years full-time as a coach, motivator, and writer. I spent nearly 18 years in the corporate world before that, and have been passionate about endurance sports since the mid-90s. I’m originally from Tennessee, and have been based in Switzerland the past 9 years, enjoying the mountains and lakes of the Alps. One of my most profound experiences in endurance sports was to complete SEALFIT Kokoro back in 2010. It made such a huge impact on my life that I worked my way onto the coaching team and traveled back-and-forth from Zurich to Encinitas 15 times to coach at SEALFIT events and work with the world-class participants and coaches drawn there. My coaching work has been an incredible experience for me, including running a CrossFit gym for five years, giving motivational speeches at companies, and ultimately writing my first book. I’ve taken on every project and idea that has inspired me, succeeded at some, failed with others, and most importantly, have had the happiest years of my life through the relationships that have developed along the way.
SGPT: Tell us about your new book “Flow State Runner: Activate a Powerful Inner Coach’s Voice” and how did that idea come about?
JG: I was never an elite athlete, and have only been on a podium once, in a local triathlon, where I think there perhaps were only two of us in the category! I’ve never shied away from challenges though, and once I fell in love with endurance sports in my 20s, I quickly gravitated to ultra distance races and events. With a body that wasn’t as genetically gifted as I would have liked, I had to explore every potential way to maximize my performance. I sought out and learned from excellent coaches, tapped into my years as a musician, my studies of yoga, and my love for high performance car and motorcycle driving–anything that I thought could use to make a difference in my running. I then tested these ideas in a series of extremely challenging events, from a mountainous race in the Alps that took me 37 hours to the weeklong Marathon des Sables in Morocco. Later, I would coach others using these ideas and constantly challenge myself to learn and integrate the most effective physical and mental techniques and to share them with others. After teaching these ideas in workshops for several years, I decided to chase a dream I’d always had of writing a book. I wrote the Flow State Runner: Activate a Powerful Inner Coach’s Voice on my own, without a ghost writer or publisher, and without a handbook on how to write a book! It took over 18 months to complete the project, three times as long as I envisioned, but it was an exciting project and absolutely worth it for the joy that seeing a dream through to completion brings us all. It has been well-received as well, so that brings a sigh of relief, as a book really feels like you’re putting yourself out there!
SGPT: You were overweight at one point in your life and working a corporate job. How did you make the massive shift to where you are now?
Jeff Grant: In my mid-20s, I was fully focused on building a corporate career, and doing so in a way that completely ignored my health and put me on a dangerous sedentary path. At that time, I had a 5-year streak where I was consistently gaining 10 pounds a year. I finally reached a breaking point and decided that I had to take ownership of my destiny and stop my unnecessary and ridiculous march toward a host of lifestyle diseases.
I decided to change, but wasn’t sure how best to take action to get to a new me. Not long after, I watched Ironman Hawaii on TV, noticed how fit those triathletes looked, and decided that I would finish an Ironman within a year and be fit like those people. I picked a race in Florida that was 10 months away, signed up for it, and then started the process of learning what racing that distance was all about and transforming a lazy body into an endurance athlete’s. I finished that first Ironman, lost 65 pounds through vastly improved nutrition and consistent training, and went on to finish many Ironmans, ultra marathons and other adventures over two decades and counting. While my initial motivation was simply weight loss, I found an awesome lifestyle that made me much happier in life, more successful in my job, and surrounded by incredibly positive and inspiring friends I’d have for decades.
While I transformed my health and fitness in the 90s, I stayed with the corporate career until 2010, with many of those years in high stress roles, which I tried to balance with always being in training for epic physical challenges. As my experience with endurance sports had grown, so had my love of coaching and inspiring others. This passion grew to such a point that I ultimately decided I’d find more fulfillment in life by coaching full time, thus I began to orchestrate my escape from the relative stability and good earning potential of the corporate world.
My most profound moment in the transition from corporate life came one month after I left and founded my coaching company Hillseeker. My former employer called and offered me a lucrative consulting opportunity. I could return to that world and earn in 3 months what I’d be lucky to earn in two years of launching my own business. I thought of a hundred reasons to accept the job—from being able to afford to lease and outfit my own training center to having a cushion of financial security to make the initial years of launching a business much less stressful. Ultimately though, I picked up the phone and politely rejected the offer. I wanted to wake up each morning excited about doing something new and doing what I loved. I wanted to be under pressure to develop services to offer and to build a client base. I wanted to be hungry! While it seemed a little crazy to turn down a “sure thing” and financial security, it was incredibly liberating and motivational.
That was six years ago—along the way I built up an online coaching business for endurance athletes, operated a CrossFit gym where I live in Switzerland, coached at many SEALFIT events, and discovered I love writing—which led to publishing my first book, with more in the pipeline.
SGPT: Tell us more about your long endurance race in the desert?
JG: One of my most meaningful race experiences over the years was at the weeklong Marathon des Sables in Morocco. In this race, runners carry all of their food for 7 days, plus sleeping bag and survival gear. Stages are between a half marathon and a double marathon, and the terrain is surreal, from endless sand dunes to rocky basins and full-on mountains. While the terrain is a challenge on its own, the weather and temperatures are what make this race special. Sand storms come and go at all hours, and temperatures exceed 120F in the day and leave you cold at night. It’s a ridiculous and wonderful race.
I injured my knee on the first day, and limped to the starting line for the remaining stages. I learned in that race though to push through pain and reach a level of performance that I hadn’t before seen from my body. On the 50 mile stage, I had a powerful experience where I was in flow for over 8 hours. I used mind training and visualization practices to get and stay there, and it allowed me to wring out everything my injured and fatigued body had to offer.
I finished second in my group that day and made a huge and unexpected jump in the overall standings. This experience led to my fascination with flow state experiences, where people make a leap in their performance and shatter perceived limits. I share more stories and lessons from this race experience in my book.
SGPT: What is the hardest race you have been on and how did you keep yourself mentally in the game
JG: The first time I ran 5KM without stopping was one of my hardest “races,” as it seemed impossible at the time and was a self-imposed test to build confidence that I could indeed turn into a runner. I often describe that run as my first ultra marathon, as it felt that way to me, and later meant just as much as finishing my first 100 mile race.
As for a crazy long challenge, my 37-hour run at the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc was the hardest. It’s a 104 mile mountainous course through the Alps in France, Switzerland and Italy, with nearly 30K feet of elevation gain. I enjoyed the first 24 hours of running that race, but the final 13 hours were a major challenge physically and mentally. Unlike a similarly grueling experience such as SEALFIT Kokoro, where you have the strength of your team to help you with the low points and sleep deprivation (and for you to be energized by doing the same for them), the second night of running in an ultra marathon that doesn’t allow pacers is usually a solitary experience, with plenty of time to get lost in your own mind, for better or worse!
I was having one hallucination after another, some humorous, others frightening, including approaching pirate ships, lost hikers in need of rescue, and thousands of bratwurst sausages covering the forest floor. When not hallucinating, I was dealing with foot and knee pain that left me hobbling for hours. I’ll never forget that second sunrise though. I had been playing a mind game for a while, trying to keep myself awake. The game started with basics: simple multiplication in my head. My answers were instant, so I increased the complexity to larger and larger numbers. Again, my answers were instant. I was rapid-fire multiplying 6 digit numbers by 6 digit numbers, and came to the conclusion that in my sleep-deprived state high in the Alps, I was a mathematical genius. Then, right as the sun peaked over the horizon, I laughed and realized that I was just spouting out random numbers, not the correct answers!
That little moment of self-induced humor was enough to snap me out of the fog of fatigue and pain, and I ran the final hours with energy that I hadn’t felt in 10+ hours. This says a lot about the role humor plays in resiliency and mental toughness, even when you create the humor yourself! In my book, I share lots of other great mind tricks for running, from using colors to intentionally training under various self-created emotional states.
SGPT: Here is a question from one of our athletes – How am I supposed to breathe when I run? Nose? Mouth? Both?
JG: Breath is powerful! There’s much you can do with your breath while running, and as a separate training practice to support your mind and body — so much so, that I devoted an entire chapter in my book to the topic of Breath. I’m happy to share an overview of my coaching guidance on this topic below. If you’d like this full lesson on Breath, please join the Flow State Runner Newsletter and I’ll send you the book chapter for FREE.
Breath for the body: My high level guidance is to do what feels natural and avoid shoehorning anything that feels like an awkward, forced breath technique into your running. For most people and common running scenarios, this means breathing through both the nose and mouth.
I encourage you though to avoid overthinking and attempting to over-control this. What’s important to know is that mouth breathing gets air in fast and nostril breathing offers a filtering and warming mechanism, as well as an additional parasympathetic system stimulation (to help you stay calm, focused and in the zone). While nose breathing may prove helpful at the start cold morning run, and while intensity is low, when intensity rises, the brain signals an open the flood gates need for maximum intake of oxygen, thus signaling to bring air in through both the nose and mouth. Let the body do what it naturally wants.
Breath for the mind: On top of your basic respiratory needs, there is benefit in employing breath as a tool while running, so your goal is to become an expert at knowing which breath tools work for you during different running scenarios and when only natural breath is needed. The challenge is separating experimentation with a new tool that will feel natural only after a little practice and a breath technique that simply isn’t a natural fit for you. That’s part of your learning and training journey of discovery, for which breath is a relatively easy tool to experiment.
Breath tools include using breath-only patterns, linking patterns with mantras and imagery, and linking breath patterns to physical movement patterns. I explain and teach these tools in my book, including using Breath as your personal Quick Reaction Force to deal with adversity in races and adventure. Once you learn them, you can shut automatic pilot off and direct your breath for a specific mind control and performance aim. Of note: patterned breathing offers some worthy benefits, including helping with side stitches and dealing with race anxiety, and deep breath cycles (before starting a run or even mid-run under what I coach as a micro-recovery moment) stimulate heightened awareness and help you cultivate experiences in Flow.
Lastly, I envision being asked about breath from gasping runners, standing at the top of a hill sprint, only able to eke out a few syllables of the question per gasp. The moment of max intensity is not the right moment to “control” your breath. Humans have been running since the good ole primal days of chasing down dinner, and the body knows full well how to use its systems to get maximum oxygen intake and carbon dioxide expulsion during a sprint. We tend to overlook our breath potential not at max intensity, but at lower intensity, thus attention to intentional breathing techniques serves you more during pre- and post-run rituals than during the chase. A bonus lesson here is to draw your awareness to the potential that your higher breath rate may be caused by stimulation of your sympathetic system (stressors, including the expectation of an upcoming high intensity interval, thoughts of competition, fear of terrain, etc.). Your ability to train your mind to deal with this (I teach this as managing your Inner Coach and Dome of Awareness) can make a huge impact on your perceived exertion and ultimate performance.
SGPT: many thanks for the interview Jeff and best of luck with your new book.
JG: Thanks very much for the opportunity! I appreciate my friendship with you and motivation from SEALGrinderPT for all these years. I feel a kinship with your tribe and hope I’ve been able to add some inspiration and ideas to our collective journey! “If you’re passing through Switzerland, please say hello. You can find me at https://flowstaterunner.com.
I also have a program written for SGPT: Run Faster: Unlock Your Speed in 8 Weeks.
SGPT Interviews Ultra Runner Elaine Stypula