Michele Graglia hit the jackpot when he was discovered by a modeling agency inside a Johnny Rockets, shortly after moving to Miami from Italy. After a few years, though, it became clear that that jackpot was actually empty.
His search for meaning in life eventually led him instead to ultra-marathon running, all of which he details in his new book, Ultra: Top Model to Top Ultra Runner.
On Author Hour today, Mickey recalls the existential crisis that finally led him to leave modeling, explains why ultra-running is an exercise in understanding the limits of being a human being, or perhaps understanding that there are no limits. He describes what it feels like when you’re at mile 160.
Jane Stogdill: Hi, Author Hour listeners. I’m here today with Michele Graglia, author of Ultra: Top Model to Top Ultra Runner. Michele, thank you so much for being with us today.
Michele Graglia: Well, thank you so much for having me.
Jane Stogdill: First of all, please tell our readers who might not be familiar, what ultra-running is.
Michele Graglia: Yes, well, ultra-running, comes from the Latin word which means beyond and it literally means any distance beyond a marathon, the classic 26.2 miles that we all know. Ultra-marathons include races that usually started about 30, 31 miles, then can go up to 60, 80, hundred, sometimes even 200, and sometimes even longer. So, it’s very much a journey into human potential, and discovering what we are capable of.
Jane Stogdill: Can you tell us a bit about your status within the ultra-running community, not to make you brag but you’re not small potatoes if I understand correctly.
Michele Graglia: I’ve been fortunate enough in these past few years to land some good results, among some of the top ones that can be named are Badwater 135, which I came up with a first place in 2018. That’s considered a top foot race on the planet. Just a couple of years probably at one, the Yukon Arctic Ultra, which is another grueling race up in the arctic circle, hundred miles through the frozen tundra where we reach temperatures of 40 below.
Two big extremes right there and I came off with a win there too. The most recent one was the Moab 240, where I came off on top as well. So, throughout the years, I was fortunate enough to be able to get these good results and you know, now we’re here talking.
Jane Stogdill: Wow, when you say the number 240, does that mean 240 miles?
Michele Graglia: That’s correct.
Jane Stogdill: My gosh.
Michele Graglia: Yeah, that’s long, that’s a long race. I got to tell you, that was a big adventure for me as well because the longest I ran before that was 175 miles, so pushing an extra 65 plus was absolutely challenging but also, an incredible experience because you absolutely throw yourself out there in pretty much the rawest of conditions and discover for yourself what you’re capable of.
Jane Stogdill: I’m sure you’re accustomed to people telling you that’s insane, how are you alive?
Michele Graglia: I get a lot that I’m crazy, so I’m kind of used to that.
Discovered in Florida
Jane Stogdill: This is not where your story started. You’re from a small town in Italy, and in 2007, you moved to Miami to open up a branch of your family’s business there, but instead, something very different happened. Can you tell us about those early years in Florida?
Michele Graglia: Yeah, absolutely. The very first week I landed in Miami, I was actually still crashing on a friend’s couch, still looking for an apartment. One day, strolling around Ocean Drive, got caught by a thunderstorm, dove in the first place across the street, and right there, I happen to meet this lady, which happened to be the director of one of the most famous modeling agencies in the world.
Her name was Irene Marie and just a few looks back and forth and all of a sudden, she stood up, came to me and she introduced herself. She asked me if I had ever been a model and right out of that, she offered me a contract right on the spot, and basically, my life changed that very day. A whole new career started off, this big wave came, and at 24 years old, I found myself in a big city doing something that seemed out of the movie. It was a big surprise of course, but it was filled with excitement and opportunities and that was my life for the following few years.
Jane Stogdill: It was at first, fun and exciting and you describe it as kind of a rock and roll lifestyle?
Michele Graglia: Absolutely. I come from, as you said, a very small town in Italy. I found myself in a big city working with big photographers, big clients and, I was working the family business. I was making this money before, but this was a completely different game. On top of that, I was introduced to the social life and the socialites of the Miami scenes, and so my life kind of spiraled out of control. Basically, everything is handed out, everything is given once you’re in that position because everyone wants to thrive off of that image.
I started really living in a reckless way like I would say most young people do. I was just pursuing the dream, that’s what we see in movies and TV, the image of success, of the good life, hanging out with cool people and going to parties and having fancy things and all of that.
Then came the point, I felt like the king of the world. The other side of the coin though, presented itself a couple of years later, when I came to the understanding that that lifestyle just wasn’t for me and so that’s when the need for a change happened.
Looking for Something Bigger
Jane Stogdill: I was struck by the chapter titled, Rich Kid Crying in the Bathroom. Somewhat of a pivotal moment. Can you tell us about that scene?
Michele Graglia: Yeah, absolutely. As I mentioned, I was introduced to very influential and successful people from celebrities, owners of different clubs and restaurants, and things like that. We started rolling in style. Amongst some of these people, I got to make friends with this group of very wealthy people, and it struck me how undriven and unmotivated they were in life.
They had everything you could ever imagine, the garage filled with fancy cars, and the yacht parked in front of their big mansions facing the bay. Once you first enter the scene, you only see what you think matters.
You say okay, they got all the money, they got all the fancy things, they get to live a perfect life. In the end, the more I got to know these people, the more I realized that you can have all the material things you want, but if you don’t have any purpose and you don’t have anything that fulfills you in life, then you have nothing, you’re left with nothing at all.
It doesn’t matter how big your bank account is, it doesn’t matter how many things you got, it’s really a matter of your purpose in life.
That one episode, that one party that you just mentioned in the chapter happened after yet another fancy party that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for just a few guests.
In the morning, waking up and seeing this guy completely destroyed, completely hopeless in a way, it rang a bell, it changed me, right on the spot. I came to the understanding again that this wasn’t what I needed to pursue. I needed to find something bigger than myself and something that would give me the desire to wake up in the morning and to work on myself.
In a way, I started to line up a whole line of thought that very moment and that’s what changed my life.
Jane Stogdill: The seed was planted but you weren’t quite ready to walk away from modeling. You go off to New York and have another kind of life-changing experience with the photographer, which was so upsetting. Would you mind taking us through that?
Michele Graglia: Yeah, that could be very much introduced as part of the Me Too Movement. Though I never really brought it out that way. I was going through all these episodes which pretty much happened around the same period of time, so there was already the sense of dissatisfaction, there was already the sense of that understanding that I needed to change my life.
This episode, you just mentioned with this photographer, started off in New York but the shoot where we started working on actually happened down in Hollywood Beach, which is right in between Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.
It kind of brought me back again to that environment, but what happened there with this photographer was very unfortunate. He’s one of those huge iconic artists that whether you’re in the fashion industry or not, you know.
It’s a big name, it’s almost like seeing Stephen Spielberg for movies, you know? That caliber. For me, it was a huge career opportunity. I got flown down there to shoot for Vogue Germany, which could have been a great trampoline on top of everything else that I was doing that season.
I went in, extremely excited, extremely thankful for the opportunity and not just to work with the guy but to actually meet him and to get to know this elusive character that everyone is looking for, everybody talked about, and so we start shooting, and everything is fine until it’s not.
He basically started getting kind of excited at the moment, and he came up to me in a very unprofessional way, and he tried to come very close to me and he tried to put his lips on mine. You know, something inside snapped. I just couldn’t take it. There’s a lot of people in that situation, and I cannot argue or discuss whatever decision other people made, but that struck me as absolutely wrong because it doesn’t matter what position or power you hold, I think that taking advantage of other people because you know you can is absolutely wrong.
At that very moment, I just understood that this career wasn’t a matter of being professional, being on top of my game, working hard, it was really all about playing the game and doing what you needed to do at that moment. Something inside of me snapped and I picked up my stuff, I walked away.
I wish I could say this thing ended there but the very following day, flying back into New York, my booker called me pretty upset and he asked me to go straight to the office. As I walked in, he breaks into this big talk, telling me that what happened here, what happened there, about this, about that, and I said, “Well, I went there to work, I didn’t go up there to compromise myself.” So, from that very moment on, basically, they put my whole career on hold just because I didn’t play the game the way they wanted.
That brought an even more bitter aftertaste after the actual event. Everything was just spiraling down at the moment–personal crisis, career crisis–everything was coming to the breaking point, which I’m sure we’re going to be talking about shortly.
A Breaking Point
Jane Stogdill: After that, you write about sitting on the windowsill of your 15th-floor apartment building.
Michele Graglia: That’s about what I was talking about right now.
Jane Stogdill: Yeah, did you think about ending it all?
Michele Graglia: It always gives me goosebumps talking about this because I think in a way, talking about ending your own life or contemplating suicide or just in general, thinking about your whole existence or questioning your whole existence is a very deep and difficult conversation. But I think that in the end, I’m very happy and proud in a way that I opened up the way I did and shared the story. Because I think a lot of people come to think about it and not necessarily with the desire to do it but I think we all come to the question. I think pretty much all of us come to the question of saying, “Who am I? What am I doing in my life? Is this worth it?” That happened to me.
That question came sitting on the 15th floor of a window in a skyscraper in New York on a brisk spring night-morning I would say because it was already close to dawn. I just sat there for a very, very long time. I get goosebumps because it is still a very vivid memory. Just pausing time and not thinking about what you need to do, what you’ve done, what needs to be done, but just sitting there and listening to yourself and addressing those existential issues and problems that I think humans have had since the beginning of time, which is a very difficult conversation to have within yourself.
I think it was necessary for me at that point to confront myself, entertain that conversation and eventually understand that’s not the answer because once you end it, there is no going back. You just quit and that is not a resolution, you’ve just given up and I wasn’t ready to give up. I was 27 years old, I was having a massive, I would say, mid-life crisis even though it was pretty early but, coming to my senses at that moment, I understood that.
I came to understand that what I was doing wasn’t for me. That lifestyle, the whole career, the person I was just wasn’t working and all I needed to do was to make a switch. I really had to dig in the depth of not just my mind but my soul to figure out how to climb out of that pit. My family came to mind first of all and that gave me the strength not to give up. That gave me the strength to pick myself up and to change my perspective and change my view of the world.
That brought me to the understanding that I’m very young. I changed my life before and I can do it again, so that brought back hope.
A Chance Encounter with a Book
Jane Stogdill: Thank you for sharing that. You realized you have to make a change, but you still don’t know what it’s going to be, and then you received a sign of sorts at a Christmas party in 2010. Tell us about that.
Michele Graglia: I was out there in Union Square on the north end. I was waiting for my back then girlfriend, now wife Lauren. Once again, the weather influenced my path. You know, oftentimes I think about Sliding Doors, the movie–tiny decisions shape up a completely new path. So, I was out there waiting for Lauren and this big blizzard started rolling in and I dove into the Barnes & Noble right there at the north end of the square and dove into the sports section.
I found this book cover which caught my eyes. It drew me right in. It was this strong runner popping out of the cover and bold letters saying “Ultra Marathon Man.” It piqued my interest because we all know what marathons are, but ultra, especially I’m talking about 10, 11 years ago almost, it was a completely new concept for me. So, I picked it up, opened up, and read a few pages, and it was so shockingly relatable that I bought it on the spot, brought it home, read it, reread it, and reread it another time in just a matter of 48 hours.
I was completely fascinated and hooked by this whole new concept. Ultra-running, what we said at the beginning, the physical term of the word is beyond the marathon distance, but ultra-running has a metaphysical significance, which is truly going beyond the running, going beyond the physical, and transforming a physical act into almost an introspective and spiritual journey. That was part of my interest. That’s what really tickled my appetite for what I was looking for.
It was almost like a lightning bulb that went off–this book really answered a lot of the questions I’ve had at another time. So, despite the fact that we come from completely different life paths–Dean Karnazes, who is the author, was a successful businessman, he worked for some of the Fortune 500 companies. He was about 30 years old when he came to this understanding that not material success and whatever sense of security that we chase, and the careers were not the answer to his happiness or to finding his purpose in life.
He really spoke my language in a moment of self-doubt and a moment where I needed to find something else. I told myself if you work for him, you know he was able to change his life completely. He left that corporate job and he was able to transform his life through hard work and dedication, he became a professional ultra-marathoner and he’s been living the life of his dreams–living in adventures, an exciting fulfilling life since then and that’s what inspired me.
That’s what gave me the confidence that if he did it, then I could do it too. I started questioning my modeling career, the lifestyle that I was living, and I was willing to give it a try. I bought my first pair of shoes and started running laps in Central Park. We’re talking about the beginning of 2011 and ten years later, I’m very, very, very fortunate, privileged, and honored to say that I did it. I was able to make that change and now I do live an intentional life that fills me with excitement and purpose.
Beyond the Physical
Jane Stogdill: You write that when you’re running, you’re not looking to be something. You realize that you already are.
Michele Graglia: That’s a spiritual part of it. I think ultra-running truly allows you to go beyond the physical, the mental, the brain, in everything we do in life, we talk about how it’s a mind game. It’s the mindset. But I think there is something much greater behind the mind, which is the true self, the inner self, the heart, the spirit, the soul, whatever you want to call it.
When we say ultra-running is a mental game, it’s really about transcending the body. Transcending the mind to allow your inner self to truly come out to really speak. There is a very fitting saying that I really love–the mind is a great servant but a terrible master. It comes into play because if we allow the mind to make decisions it will always take the easy way out, but if you are able to control the mind, to use it as a tool, you can accomplish the impossible because once you’re driven by your inner self by heart, by your soul, by your spirit, you realize that you are infinite.
You realize that you are capable of a lot more than what you think you can, so you begin transcending all your boundaries. You begin transcending all your perceived limitations and you don’t only can achieve the impossible but you can allow yourself to live fully free.
Jane Stogdill: What does it feel like when you’re at mile say 160?
Michele Graglia: Well, I would like to tell you it gets easy after a while but it doesn’t. It gets exponentially harder. The one understanding of ultra-running is it’s a very clear metaphor of life. You cannot expect it to be a smooth ride all the time and you don’t even need to dwell on the fact that the tough times are going to go on forever. What happens in specific in these types of long events is understanding that you go through so many highs and lows–almost like a rollercoaster.
It is a continuous flow of highs where you feel like a hero that you can break through walls and then debilitating lows where you feel like everything is breaking down and you don’t have an ounce of energy left in the body. Throughout those moments, those are life lessons that I think stay with people very much beyond the sport, beyond the discipline, and they can be applied to any endeavor in life.
It is the understanding that you can regain your strength. You can get back on your feet. You can and you will find that spark again that will allow you to rise out of that crisis, out of that pit, and will allow you to live incredible highs once again. When you’re on top, you appreciate them even more.
I think there is also a great sense of understanding and gratitude about the fact that whatever you’re doing, everything is temporary. That brings you back to your human self and it is a wonderful experience that takes you out of your comfort zone because that’s only when you find growth and expand your experience in life. It also allows you to really tune into this understanding that once you break into this highs and lows pattern, once you understand this rollercoaster ride, then you can pretty much go on forever. It’s really about buckling up into tough times and being grateful and enjoying the good times.
Jane Stogdill: Are you telling us that you’re going to run a 350-mile race, Mickey?
Michele Graglia: You know it, it’s next. I got to tell you, in everything that I do it’s pretty much a journey into pushing the envelope and finding out what I am truly capable of. I grew up in Italy, I was very much influenced by Greek mythology that by Greek literature, and I was raised with the idea of the poor Army guy, Pheidippides, running the marathon to Athens, giving the good news, and dying after this 25, 26 miles.
To me, being raised in these environments where we are confined with the limitation that this is what’s possible, what’s humanly possible to achieve and beyond that, you would just die, then discovering that I can run four, eight, ten marathons in a row without stopping, with no sleep, it just completely obliterated all the limitations with which I was raised.
To me, this is not just a journey into a sport but it’s a journey into the understanding of the human potential. This is what truly drives me. I am not interested in running a marathon fast. I’m not interested in running 100 miles fast. I’m interested in finding out where the limit lies and as of right now, last fall, finishing the 240 miles in Moab through rugged desert terrain, high mountains, deep canyons, sand, rocks, and all of that, I was able to run 60 hours straight without stopping, without sleeping.
When I finished, I could have kept going. Now, I’m tickled by, “Okay, how far more could I go?” Now, that’s what drives me. That’s what tickles my curiosity and that’s what allows me to pretty much get up every morning with drive, with a desire to push my limits a little further.
Jane Stogdill: Well, thank you so much for sharing all of that with us. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you and it’s been a pleasure reading your book. Again, listeners, the book is Ultra: Top Model to Top Ultra Runner. Mickey, in addition to reading the book, where can people go to learn more about you and your work?
Michele Graglia: Well, my website just launched. You can find it at michelegraglia.com, so my name and last name .com or I’m pretty active on Instagram as a platform on social media and my handle is @mickeygraglia.
Jane Stogdill: Great, thank you so much.
Michele Graglia: It’s been a great pleasure. Thank you so much.