Like most athletes, Michael Miraglia has a competition mantra: “Let future you worry about it.” Unlike most athletes, though, “future” Michael’s path on this freezing morning in February is paved with pain: a 250-pound tire flip, a 300-pound yoke walk, and a 70-pound farmer’s carry, each for a full mile. That’s because the 29-year-old fitness coach is tackling the world’s first Strongman Marathon, a race of his own sadistic design.
Over the course of a grueling nine hours and 18 minutes on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, the former rugby player turned rock climber turned elite obstacle course racer turned CrossFitter, would grunt through 14 miles of running with a 20-pound weighted vest, alternating each mile with a different strongman movement. In addition to the tire flip, yoke walk, and farmer’s carry, there were burpee broad jumps, a “dummy” fireman carry, handstand walk, 200-pound sled push, 200-pound sled drag, 200-pound sandbag carry, kettlebell toss, and walking lunges.
And while the endeavor would cause nearly every muscle to seize from overuse, it would also pose an enormous mental challenge. When the scenery was endless miles of frozen salt, with no crowd of screaming spectators, and the reward for releasing one muscle group from their flood of lactic acid was the chance to hammer at another set, how did he find the mental toughness to endure?
It was pitch black and well below freezing at 6:00 a.m. when Miraglia stood, watching his breath hang in the air, at the start line. Alongside him for support were his girlfriend, father, and a camera crew from his sponsor, apparel company Ten Thousand. Traveling back and forth between three 800-meter markers as he ticked off each mile, Miraglia subsisted largely on warm chicken broth and 80-cent ramen packets to maintain electrolytes, and loads of banana bread to replenish glycogen stores (and “because I like banana bread a lot,” Miraglia confesses).
At the start of Mile 6—the handstand walk—Miraglia had his first moment of doubt. The burpee mile (Mile 2, completed in total darkness) had exhausted his shoulders and almost as soon as he kicked up into his first handstand, his muscles failed to support his weight and he crumpled to the icy floor. “I was chipping away five feet at a time,” he recalls. “I couldn’t feel my shoulder, it was completely numb. The ground was rock solid and frozen over. I was like ‘I’m going to be here forever, I don’t know if I can finish.’ ”
Every athlete—seasoned professional and weekend warrior alike—is familiar with that moment of crippling doubt. In the middle of a marathon or a tough CrossFit WOD or even a group spin class, you suddenly become acutely aware of your aching muscles and the knowledge it’s just easier to quit. Miraglia was ready for that moment, and his strategy was to focus on the challenge ahead instead of the pain at hand.
“I knew, as hard as this is, I wasn’t going to quit in the first couple hours—that’s just embarrassing. I just kept going and once Mile [Six] was done, it was a weight off my shoulders. The hardest movement is out of the way, I can start really chipping away now.”
Miraglia, who has never run a strict marathon (though he’s covered similar distances in obstacle course races), prepared for his strongman marathon primarily by doing CrossFit WODs, five or six days a week, often twice a day. He also credits a background in rock climbing for honing his grip strength and rugby for endurance. Then there’s the visualization: To get mentally prepared, Miraglia ran through the event—envisioning each footfall, what it would feel like to push, pull, and carry heavy metal implements across uneven ground, and the exuberance he’d feel crossing the finish line—over and over until he knew each sensation by heart.
Training plans for most marathoners peak at close to race distance, to prepare their bodies for the full mileage and tell their brains “this is something you can do.” But because Miraglia never covered a full mile of the strongman movements, or ran the full mileage in training (let alone with a weighted vest), he would have no such confidence. Instead, Miraglia relied on his overarching view of training and competing: “Plain and simple, it’s just fun.”
“Exercise is my form of meditation,” he explains. “That’s how I put everything else on the side. I don’t have to think about any stressful events. I don’t have to think about whatever else is going on in my life at that point in time. It’s just me and whatever is directly in front of me at that moment.”
By the time he released the weight from the last of three fireman carries, all that lied ahead for Miraglia was a weighted vest run for two tenths of a mile. But Miraglia never does anything according to plan, so instead of stopping there, he completed the full mile: out to the 800-meter post to pick up the 45-pound axel bar that was used as a distance marker, and back. He hoisted the bar to his shoulders and sprinted to the finish line where he slammed it to the ground. Doubled over to catch his breath, Miraglia flipped his shoulder-length blond hair to reveal a huge smile. “Something no one has ever done,” he announced, as he high-fived the cameraman.
And while all of this might seem like a bit of athletic showmanship, or purely to raise his profile in the field, Miraglia sees it as a way to tackle everyday hurdles. “I believe fitness overlaps in every aspect of my life,” he says. “Every time we train, we’re overcoming obstacle after obstacle, asking: ‘Is this possible?’ ‘Can I do this?’ The more you get familiar and comfortable with breaking these barriers, the more it translates to every other aspect of your life….You can have that mindset of ‘Yes, I can overcome this.’ ”
Unsurprisingly, Miraglia already has his next wild challenge planned: he’s going to attempt all 31 “The Girls” CrossFit WODs back to back. He figures it will take around six-to-eight hours to complete. It’s a challenge that is certain to be grueling, but future Michael is ready.
Curious about the brutal breakdown? Here’s what 26.2 miles of hell looks like:
The Strongman Marathon
Mile 1: Vest Run (20lbs)
Mile 2: Burpee broad Jump
Mile 3: Vest Run (20lbs)
Mile 4: Dummy Fireman Carry (120lbs)
Mile 5:Vest Run (20lbs)
Mile 6: Handstand Walk
Mile 7: Vest Run (20lbs)
Mile 8: Sled Push (200lbs)
Mile 9: Vest Run (20lbs)
Mile 10: Sled Drag (200lbs)
Mile 11: Vest Run (20lbs)
Mile 12: Dummy Fireman Carry #2 150lbs
Mile 13: Vest Run (20lbs)
Mile 14: Sandbag Carry (200lbs)
Mile 15: Vest Run (20lbs)
Mile 16: Tire Flip (250lbs)
Mile 17: Vest Run (20lbs)
Mile 18: Yoke Carry (300lbs)
Mile 19: Vest Run (20lbs)
Mile 20: DB Farmer Carry 35’s
Mile 21: Vest Run (20lbs)
Mile 22: Kettlebell Toss
Mile 23: Vest Run (20lbs)
Mile 24: Lunges
Mile 25: Vest Run (20lbs)
Mile 26: Dummy Fireman Carry #3 200lbs
Mile 26.2: Vest Run (20lbs)
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