What He Learned Running a 242km Relay Race

Today we’ve got a great interview for you with Will Beckham, a 21-year-old graduate of Tufts University who shares an inspirational story of leading a 10-person team in a 242km relay race from the Dead Sea to Aqaba, Jordan.

Here is the full interview. Enjoy:

Highlights of this interview:

  • Will is 21 years old from Portland, Oregon, a recent graduate from Tufts University where he majored in International Relations (also studied Arabic and Economics), currently in Officer Candidate Training School for the U.S. Army
  • While studying abroad in Jordan, Will got the opportunity to run the “Dead2Red” race, which starts from the lowest point on Earth (the Dead Sea) and continues to sea level at Red Sea, in a city called Aqaba, which can seen in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Total race length: 242km.
  • How Will took over as volunteer trainer for his team, helping his teammates break through performance breakthroughs, some of whom had never run a 5k before and suddenly had to scale up to running 25k in a matter of months.
  • When one of his teammates who was struggling to even run 5k said “I’m not sure I can do this,” Will responds: “You won’t be able to do it if you don’t believe you can do it.”
  • The power of the team to motivate individual performers to break personal bests
  • What Will’s team did on the second day when the race officials drove up and said, “You’re in last place,”
  • The lessons Will learned from former Navy Seal Eric Greitens
  • The importance of character when the chips are down and we’re really challenged — such as having been awake for 36 hours on a relay race and being told you’re in last place

Full transcript:

Fierce Gentleman: So William, thank you so much for joining us, I would love to kick this interview off by having you give us the thumbnail sketch or who you are and your story of the relay race.

Will Beckham: Absolutely. So you can call me Will, my name’s Will Beckham, I am 21 years old, I’m originally from Portland, Oregon but I’ve spent about half my time in Boston and half my time in Portland. I just graduated from Tufts University where I majored in International Relations. I also studied Arabic and Economics. My immediate goal is to become an Army Officer, which I hope to achieve in April when I complete Officer Candidate School. And then after that, we’ll see from there — I’m really interested in international politics and my long-term goal is to become a part of the humanitarian aid community and respond to national disasters around the world, and whether I can use the military towards that or find my own path, independent of that, is yet to be seen, but that’s where I hope to go.

FG: What we’re talking about today, Will — I’d love to hear the story of the relay race, the challenge, and what it meant to you personally as you went through that experience.

WB: So running has become my sport. In 2013 a couple of my fraternity brothers ran in the Boston marathon. Fortunately they were not injured when the bombing happened. But I remembered hearing about their experience running the Boston marathon and decided that was something I wanted to do, and at Tufts we actually had a team that sponsors people who wanted to run the the Boston marathon to actually do so. So I thought, “Maybe this is something I can try.” I started running the end of my sophomore year where I struggled to run a 5k [in April] to December running my first half-marathon. And when I came [to Jordan to study abroad] in the Spring, the Study Abroad program I was a part of had an opportunity where people from our program could form teams to compete in a race called the “Dead to Red” — we were in Jordan, so the race starts from the lowest point on Earth, which is the Dead Sea, and you run to sea level at the Red Sea, toa city called Aqaba, which if you’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia is the main objective of Lawrence and the Arab rebellion in the first half of the movie.

It’s 242 kilometers long and we were going togoing to run this relay the whole way, it goes all night, and I knew that was something I wanted to be part of because it sounded like it would be a huge adventure. I wasn’t the the Captain of the team — there was another guy who had taken charge of logistics and held a meeting for people who were interested. A lot of my friends were there, and I thought, “Okay cool, we have something to work with.” Our Captain was definitely squared away in terms of logistics but we didn’t really have someone who was as well versed in the running and training components. So I sad, “You know what Nate, why don’t I be your co-captain and i’ll be in charge of the training and the running, and you can focus on the logistics that way.”

So I came up with a plan and I came up with ways for the group to get together and to run — I was one of the more experienced people since I had run the half-marathon, (there was one other girl on our ten-person team who had also run a half-marathon) and while most of the people had played some sports in high school, only a few people had ever run longer than a 5k before (let alone the 25 kilometers/15 miles everyone on the race would have to run), and several who had never run 5k before. That was something they’d never done before, and we needed to get them up to 25k in two months. Granted, running a relay meant they could take breaks, but our starting point still meant we faced a lofty goal.

Our program went on a retreat where we were in the countryside in Jordan for a week and we organized a series of group runs in the mornings, which functioned as a diagnostic to see where we all were at. Some people were going straight ahead and charging off, and some people were really struggling to do one-fifth of the course we had planned out. And that’s when I really noticed how much work we were going to have to do.

I was surprised how straightforward it was to deal with the people that were falling behind: you just need to provide them with encouragement and make them believe in themselves, but you also have to make the people who are far ahead not just think about themselves, they need to focus on the people who are at the back of the pack. If our slowest people only saw the fastest folks charing ahead, they’ll just look at the people in front and say, “I’ll never be able to do that, that person is just naturally talented.” So I had to simultaneously encourage the faster runners people to stay with the slower ones of the team while also encouraging the slower runners to push themselves to do something they 1) have never done before, and 2) something Quite frankly I don’t think they really believed themselves that they could do. I mean, a week before the race, there was one guy who just looked at me and kept saying, ‘I really do not think that I can do this.’ And I just had to give him a square answer — he was really struggling just to do 5k on the treadmill — the answer I came up with was, ‘Well, you’re not going to be able to do this as long as you don’t believe you can do this.’ And I just left it at that, and kept pushing him in the training.

And all of a sudden, when we got to the race, then we started, and it was like, “Oh wow, this is actually happening,” — it was very similar to when you rehearse an instrument or a play and all of a sudden it’s time to do it for real, And the risks and thought processes that are going through your mind all change. And we had this plan — we had a topography of how the course was laid out and where all the hills were laid out, and that’s how we picked the rotation of runners, hopefully so that by the time we got to the biggest hills, we had some of the more experienced people on the road.

We quickly scrapped huge chunks of our plan: it turned out that, because the topographical [map] was totally wrong — welcome to the Middle East — the people that were more experienced actually ended up running the really easy parts, and our team Captain, who was slightly less experienced than some of the others, he had to run up the hardest hills in the entire 242 kilometer course. And because the odometer in our van wasn’t working, the guy that I was mentioning earlier who came up to me several times and said ‘I don’t believe I can do this’ — he actually had to run four extra kilometers and ended up running the longest out of everybody.

FG: Wow.

WM: The big lesson that really came to us and that I really took away from this whole experience — and I’d heard it before from other motivational speakers and Navy SEALs — is that the way you make the challenges you face easier is to stop worrying about your own personal concerns and focus on the needs of those around you. when you’re in a situation where you’re by yourself and you’re struggling, and just thinking about how everything sucks, it’s very easy to lose motivation and things get a lot harder. But when you’re in an environment where the team counts, and it’s not something you’re just saying to yourself, it’s something you believe, that’s what really gets people fired up to keep moving. During the entire race, nobody complained. It was dark and cold and probably the most rustic thing that some of the people had ever experienced. AND they had to run longer than a half-marathon, through the night, in which no-one got more than 2 hours of sleep. but everyone was so committed to the team, everyone knew this was a huge adventure, everyone knew this was — being out on the frontier — a really unique experience, and we knew that the only way we would finish is that we did what our teammates needed us to do.we needed to do for our teammates. And I think that realization that we were part of something bigger than ourselves was what made everybody care more. And in the end, everybody broke personal records, running further and completing 5k legs faster than they ever had before.

But probably the biggest thing that happened on top of that was …. So we started at 4pm on a Thursday and had to finish at 4pm the next day. At about 7:30am into the second day one of the race officials drove up to our car and said, ‘Just so you know, you guys have been running these 5ks at a time, everyone else has been running 1k or 2k at a time, and as a result, you’re in last place because so many teams have passed you. Even the teams that you were passing all night have either quit, or cheated and driven ahead.’

And I was just shocked. I thought we were doing so well, everyone was pushing themselves so hard — but the immediate reaction, because people were just so tuned into that moment, was not that we we were going to quit, not that we weren’t going to finish on time, not that we were going to cheat and drive ahead, just that, “alright, we’re going to have to run a little bit faster and finish on time.” I knew as a leader — you always need to have that in your mind, you always need to be thinking about the hard option, the hard but the right way, and then persuade everyone else to do that, but that was the reaction from anybody. There was no inspiration needed.

And then when we got to the end, there was a banquet, dinner for all the teams that participated, and there was this one guy who was telling me he really wasn’t a runner from another team — and not to bash other people, I know that’s part of the Fierce Gentleman manifesto — he was going on a rant about how he wasn’t really a runner, and he didn’t exert himself on this race, and i was just sitting there thinking how proud I was of my team, and he asked me how we did and I said, ‘You know we finished in last place,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Well at least  you finished.’ And I just felt so much anger because I was so proud of my team and thinking about how much we had exerted ourselves and how hard we had pushed! And maybe if we had done the strategy a little different we would have placed better but that didn’t change that I saw my teammates do what they did. And that is something that will always stick with me. I remember the medal that they gave me, I carried it in my pocket on the way to the d inner, and when I was walking home from the dinner I noticed that the little clasp connecting the medal to the ribbon broke, and I realized I didn’t care. and I know there’s a saying, “You shouldn’t do things just for the trophy, it’s just a piece of plastic” because it’s the glory and the grit that counts. In this moment I realized how true that was because the medal didn’t matter nearly as much as seeing my teammates do what they did.

So just to wrap up: what got us through that race was the fact taht people saw that they were a part of something greater, and when they saw that they were part of something greater than themselves they decided to push themselves harder than they ever thought possible.Their own concerns didn’t really matter anymore, and that made things easier. The other thing is, you really, really need to believe in yourself and those around you if you want to succeed. — To say “just believe in yourself” is such a cliche, but if you’re going to do something you’ve never done before, it’s absolutely necessary. Negative self-talk wasn’t going to get anyone through 5 kilometers, let alone the 25 kilometers that everybody ran on that race.

FG: Yeah, that’s beautifully put, Will, and I would just say, to that last point, it’s been in my experience with teams and leadership — I’ve had people say to me, ‘I don’t believe I can do it, but YOU believe I can do it, so I’ll give it a try.’

WB: Absolutely.

FG: So it sounds like you, as a leader — and it sounds like you really stepped into leadership and created it where there wasn’t going to be that style of leadership otherwise — and congrats to you for stepping up and filling the leadership role, which is something that I preach a lot, leadership isn’t a position, it’s an action, you take it every day, you fill in where you need to — but so, it sounds like what you were doing with these people was, you were telling them they had to believe in themselves, but on some level, they probably felt that YOU believed in them as well. And that’s so key in getting performance from people, to help people break through to higher performance — if SOMEONE believes that it’s possible, that’s a big step. If someone believes I can do it, that’s square one.

WB: And that’s hard!

FG: It is!

WB: Maybe sometimes you actually have some concern, or you just straight up don’t believe! For me — we knew going into this that everyone was going to have to run 25 kilometers. For me, I knew that to run 10 kilometers was a hard run, but at the same time, other People were telling me, ‘I don’t think I can finish 5 at a time.’ That was just two weeks before the race. That was a really disconcerting. But you know at some point you have to just count on yourself to believe in and push the other people.

Another thing, the whole “when you stop caring about yourself and start caring about other people, things get easier” thing, is something I really experienced for the first time on this race, but it wasn’t something I came up with. That belief, that philosophy, came from a guy named Eric Greitens, I don’t know if you’re familiar with him?

FG: No.

WB: He was our commencement speaker at Tufts in 2012 and he started his career at a humanitarian aid worker, but later became a Navy SEAL, and now he is running for governor of Missouri. He was talking about his experiences and how when he was in SEAL training, the more he thought about himself, and how much things sucked, things got harder — but the more he thought about his guys and the guys he had to take care of — especially because he was their leader —things started to get easier, because he was focused on these other people.

A lesson that was indigenous to this Dead-to-Red experience, I would argue that your character — especially when it comes to leadership — has a lot less to do with how you perform and how you respond to things when things are going really well, than when things are going really really poorly.

FG: Absolutely.

WB: I think that’s a really big lesson. I mean, we could have just run this glorious race, and that would have been the end of it, but we got a huge wrench thrown at us. ‘Oh yeah, you’re in last place, because everyone else has either used a different strategy, or they’ve cheated, or they’ve quit.’ At that point, everyone was tired: we hadbeen up for 36 hours straight or however long, and that really motivated how I had conducted myself for the rest of the time I was in the Middle East and in my professional and college career since then. you have to realize, your character doesn’t really count that much when things are going really well. It’s easy to look good when things are going really well. It really matters a lot more when things are going really poorly. When people aren’t sure how they feel about themselves, or about a situation, and they look to you — are you going to get them through it, or are you just going to whine or complain or be pessimistic?

FG: Yeah, that’s so key Will, I’m glad you brought that up — ultimately it’s the challenges and the trying times when we make a difference. It’s easy to go to pieces when things go to pieces around you, that’s what everyone is going to do by default. So the character of a leader, or the character of a Fierce Gentleman, if we’re trying to live up to a higher standard, we build our character when it’s easy, so that when things go wrong, we actually can make a difference, and turn that corner, and help everyone around us, to have that moral strength, that character strength to help those around us, when it’s hardest to do that. I think that’s a beautiful point to bring out here.

So any closing thoughts? This has been a fantastic story, I really love everything you’ve brought.

WB: I hope it was helpful.

FG: I really appreciate you telling the story because you’re probably going to inspire a lot of people, and just be able to reflect on some of the leadership lessons, team lessons, and performance stuff we’ve talked about today, I think will be helpful to a lot of guys. So anything else you would want to add?

WB: Just something — one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is — when I was reading your ebook, and when I read other self-help books or even stories about leadership, it’s very easy to — even though people have overcome a lot, it’s very easy to think of them as in a place where they don’t struggle with things anymore, or in a place where their struggles or their weaknesses are part of their past. Like this guy Eric Greitens I was mentioning, it’s very easy for us to look at him and be like, ‘Oh he had to go through that awful SEAL training, but look at him now, he’s parachuting into Afghanistan with his machine gun in one hand and the candy for the kids in the other and he’s going to save them — good for him, he’s just the perfect human being.’ Or ‘look at Elon Musk, SpaceX almost failed’ it’s very easy to look at him and say, ‘That failure is a part of his past, he does not have to deal with that now.’ Or in my case, when I was looking through your ebook, to be honest — I took the Internet addiction test where if you got above 70 out of 100 you might have a problem, and I took it and I was like, ‘Woah, I got 89’. So there’s all these ways, you can do better, and none of us will ever be a perfect human. Just because we overcome challenges doesn’t mean we don’t have weaknesses left, or we don’t have things left to overcome that are still hurting us. Or things that we do that hurt other people.

FG: Great point, absolutely. I bet Elon still has his dark days and his moments of doubt, I would venture to guess. And that’s true, I think no matter how much of a leader you are, or how accomplished you are, you’re still have those moments and those challenges, and that’s why I think it’s so important for us to continue to work on ourselves and refine our character and also have a lot of compassion for ourselves, because we are human, and as long as we’re having this human experience, y’know, we’re going to have some measure of pain and some measure of suffering.

WB: And destructive tendencies on top of that.

FG: That’s a great point, there’s always that ego — sometimes I delude myself into thinking “Oh, I’m free of my ego,” but it’s never true, the ego is alwyas in the background ready to try to re-assert itself.

So Will, again I just wanna say, thank you so much for being part of the community here, sharing your story, and we wish you best of luck in the years to come!

WB: Thank you! And it really means a lot to be part of this, I’m really glad I can contribute, and I hope to be a part of this project in whatever way I can in the future.

Note: When Will returned to Tufts the next year, he did successfully accomplish his goal of running in the 2015 Boston Marathon.

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