How an Overweight Professor Transformed Himself Into an Ultramarathon-running Badass

Nathan Dewall
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The ultrarunner: Nathan DeWall, Ph.D.

Age: 37
Home: Lexington, KY
Height: 6’ 2”
Starting weight: 245
Current weight: 175
Total pounds lost: 70

When it comes to having the mental discipline to lose weight, Nathan DeWall, Ph.D., has a little bit of an advantage over the rest of us.

As a psychologist, introductory psychology textbook author, and professor who specializes in the study of self-control and self-motivation, DeWall was well-equipped to know what he needed to do mentally when he tipped the scales at 245lbs in 2011—a weight that put him in the “obese” category, he was informed.

But before you get the idea that his weight loss was an academic exercise, or before you conjure up the stereotype of a wimpy college professor, know this: DeWall is a badass.

The dude runs. And runs. And runs. Not settling for piddly marathons, his idea of a real race is 100 or more miles. At one such race, the Rocky Raccoon 100, DeWall tore his entire calf muscle while tripping on a tree root 60 miles in. He still finished the remaining 40 miles (even though he was relegated to crutches for six weeks afterward).

Exhibit B for badassery: completing the six-day, 147-mile Marathon des Sables in June. In the freakin’ Sahara Desert.

His Exhibit C starts on July 10, when he will attempt the Badwater 135—a nigh-inhumane race that will take him 135 miles across the furnace of Death Valley.

But DeWall was hardly a born ultrarunner. His fitness journey started relatively late in life, with the sudden death of his mother, which caused him to re-examine his life. It continued when he took up running again, starting out with a couple miles, then completing his first marathon in 2012, then a PR of 3:40:06 at the Kentucky Derby Marathon in 2013, then moving on to ultramarathons.

Where will that journey end? Perhaps with a Forrest Gump-like run across the country. We caught up with DeWall to understand how he might just make it happen.

Men’s Fitness: Did you participate in any sports in high school?

I was in track and cross country and played football until I broke my neck on my 16th birthday. My earliest memory is of me running with my dad as he was training for the Sioux Falls marathon in the 1980s.

So your climb up to 245lbs started in college with the Freshman 15? Grad school?

Research actually says the average college freshman gain is 10lbs, but I’m an overachiever. I focused on something other than my health: the classroom, and trying to get into the choir at St. Olaf. I put all energy into that. In grad school, personal health was not on my daily to-do sheet. My thought was, “You’ve got other big goals and dreams, and let’s devote our time to that.”

Was it a surprise to be told in 2011 that you were obese?

It wasn’t something I was thinking about. At some level, there is a gender difference—it’s a surprise to the guys that they need to lose weight.

Besides that scale, what motivated you to turn things around?

I never thought my mother would die in an accident at the age of 60. When she died, it caused me to re-evaluate things. I knew I needed to focus less on things that I thought were going to bring me success, like my work. It’s about doggedly pursuing a meaningful life.

So, how does running and ultramarathoning fit into that meaningful life?

The bigger point of running is that it’s a way where I get to know who I really am. For most of my life, I believed all of these lies that said, “You’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, you can’t run a marathon, you can’t run 100 miles.” By doing this, I learned not only that those are lies, but there was this little speck of awareness that if I underestimate myself in this one area of my life, I was probably underestimating myself in other areas—that I could be a better husband, father, teacher.

What is your average workout week like?

I usually do about 80-100 miles per week. Sometimes lighter, sometimes heavier. This week, getting ready for Badwater, I’ve run five marathons in five days, Saturday through Wednesday.

With all of your work, and with a wife and two kids under three years, how do you find the time to train?

I wouldn’t say I find time. I would say I allot time. I treat it the same way as my writing, my teaching, my weekly date night with my wife. It’s on the calendar. These are things that are my big priorities, and I must make time to do them. Part of that is that I’m cursed with the knowledge of the psychology behind it: If you make a contract with yourself beforehand, you’re way more likely to do it.

You must have an awfully understanding wife to support you through all of the training and the long races.

There’s no way I could do any of this without Alice. Zero percent probability. When it came to me wanting to do these things, at no point did she say, “What about me?” She said, “I’m proud of you. What can I do to help?” I try to do the same thing with her. I try to support her as much as she supports me. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do as much, though. She’s incredible. We decided early on that this was going to be something we would do as a family, and that the moment this stopped being fun for our family, I’d stop doing it.

“Fun” isn’t the word most people would use to describe races like the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara. What was it like?

It was a magical, painful place. I had never been to the Sahara Desert. It was in many ways an alien environment. There were so many times I thought, “This is the most beautiful place on earth.” Then there were times I thought that my organs were baking inside of my body. But other than that, it was great.

Given the pain involved in these races that you voluntarily endure, as a psychologist, would you diagnose yourself as a masochist? This is a half-serious question.

I’m constantly in pursuit of meaning and fulfillment. It’s completely different when you set your mind on something, and you know it’s going to be painful and you just say, “This is worth it. This is part of it.”  The best way to grow is through the experience of pain. My life is infinitely better when I’m not obsessed with comfort. That doesn’t mean I’m constantly seeking out pain, though.

Any concerns you will go back to being an overweight slug again?

No. This is way too good. I do think about it. What I think about more is, “What are other adventures that I get to do now?” That’s pretty cool.

So, what other adventures await?

My dream is to run across the United States. That’s my ultimate dream. For me, it was so cool seeing a friend of mine run across the U.S. and how magical an experience that was for him. But that will be many years in the future. I have a very full life. Dynamite wife, very full career.

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