Tony Nguyen is one of my heros. He embodies the essence of an endurance leader. His alter ego, Endorphin Dude, is by far the most powerful super hero of them all. His super power – endurance. His mission – saving the world, one couch potato at a time. Even though Tony is not a traditional corporate leader, he embodies all the traits of an endurance leader. He inspires people to join his causes, he’s creative in his approach, he leverages technology to communicate and monitor his progress, he has maneuvered around obstacles, stayed positive in the face of setbacks, goes at a pace that suits his skills and has built momentum largely by having a clear goal. I sat down with Tony, mid way through his Titanium Challenge (52 marathons in 52 weeks), to get a sense of what it’s like to run all those marathons, raise money for charity and to finally figure out, who makes those great capes.
Jarie Bolander: Thanks Tony for sitting down with me to chat about your amazing journey into endurance athletics and how that makes you a great role model as an endurance leader.
Tony Nguyen: Not a problem. Anything I can do to get the word out about being healthy and my journey back from the brink of illness.
JB: How did you get into endurance athletics?
TN: Kinda by accident. I had a wake up call. It really started back in 2001 when I was first diagnosed with type-2 diabetes. However, I was in denial. I didn’t take care of myself and before I knew it, was gaining more and more weight and seeing my doctor prescribe more and more meds. In my mind, I thought, “I can eat whatever I want because these pills and insulin shots will keep me in check.” Talk about denial! My health continued to go downhill, and one afternoon in 2009, I came home from work and thought I was having a heart attack. Thankfully, it was just stress that lead to this heart attack scare. This was my wake up call.
JB: So, what did you end up doing?
TN: I’ll never forget that look in my dog’s eyes as she barked at me when I was on the floor. My dog Chewbacca, a daschund chihuahua mix also known as “The Chiweenie”, saw that I was in danger, and it really felt like she was growling in order to get help. After things settled, I took The Chiweenie for a walk around the block. That short walk turned into two blocks the next day and before I knew it, I was walking 4 to 5 miles. The mileage started to pile up and next thing I know, I’m taking multi-mile urban hikes all around San Francisco with my dog.
JB: How did you transition from walking to running?
TN: I attended the 2009 San Francisco Marathon to cheer on some friends running the race. It was awe inspiring to see all the people running and cheering everyone on. I wanted to be part of that and wanted to get healthier.
JB: Did you get a coach?
TN: Yeah, I did. My college buddy Charles, a life long runner, offered to be my coach. The first couple of runs really sucked. I couldn’t run more than a mile. It was really discouraging but Charles stuck with me and I found ways to motivate myself.
JB: What were those motivational techniques?
TN: I turned training into something like a video game. I would make each mile an adventure. I would see how far I could get before sundown or to the next level of the game. All of these things made the hurt go away and the experience fun, which helped since I could not take Chewbacca running with me.
During a race, I would just focus on the mile markers. Each one is like an energy pill — kinda like Pacman. I feel like Pacman on the course, gobbling up wafers, eating up all the fruit and nabbing that energy pill at every mile marker. Aside from that, I always think about not being fat again. No more Fat Tony. Ever. That’s what gets me through it
JB: Okay, so, how did your first marathon go?
TN: Well, the first one I did was the 2010 San Francisco Marathon. But before that, I ran a bunch of half marathons to get tuned up. That’s where Endorphin Dude came about.
JB: What do you mean by that?
TN: One of the half marathons I ran was on Halloween and I needed a costume. So, I decided to put on a cape, which actually was a beach towel that was more fashionable than functional. During that Halloween run, I started to feel “runners” high and that switched something within me. It was such an exhilarating experience that I wanted to feel more.
JB: So the towel was the first race as Endorphin Dude. Is that when you picked the name?
TN: No. I would show up to all these races and people would say, “hey there’s the cape guy. I didn’t like that, so I had custom head bands made with my moniker on it and, with the cape, became Endorphin Dude. It also helps that “ENDORPHIN DUDE” is printed in bold letters across my chest. Nobody calls me Cape Guy anymore.
JB: Do you still wear the towel as a cape?
TN: Not any more. It’s actually a kinda funny story. I have a sponsor that makes custom capes for me. Image that! The fat kid who was always picked last in PE is a sponsored endurance athlete. I laugh every time I think about it.
All of my capes are made by http://www.powercapes.com“>Power Capes. The unique thing about my capes is that they are children’s size. Adult capes are hard to run in and I would end up tripping over them. Oh, I did have a utility belt but it was really hard to run it.
JB: So, why do you think Endorphin Dude resonates with so many people?
TN: I think it has to do with me having fun and showing that running can be more than just pain and suffering. Runners are really wonderful people and I feed off that great energy. I have never met an evil runner. Everyone has been so supportive and always smiling when I run by.
I think the other thing is that people like the fact that I do my own thing. I’m not going to qualify the Boston Marathon any time in the near future or anything like that but I do finish and if I can finish, anyone can.
JB: Getting back to your 1st Marathon, how did that go?
TN: It was a life changing experience in more ways than one. I was so nervous that I did not sleep two days before. I was really freaking out. My coach was really supportive. He gave me the best advice. He said, “It’s OK to walk. Just put one foot in front of the other and keep on going”. That really calmed me down because I did not want to fail.
On race day, I felt good. I started out strong. I felt great and was having a blast.
By mile 14, I started to cramp. I even fell. It was kinda discouraging but I kept thinking that I need to save the world. Just one more mile. Get one more jolt of energy. Make it to the next mile marker. I can do it. That motivated me to continue on.
What was truly transformational was passing the 280 freeway exit onto Mariposa Street. That was the exit I would take to work everyday. The exit that Fat Tony, overweight and with diabetes, would drive down everyday. Now, I was running past it. No more Fat Tony. Fat Tony was officially dead.
JB: That’s a powerful story. What mile was that at?
TN: Like mile 22 or 23. I don’t know exactly but I can tell you that I will never forget the feeling of liberation and accomplishment that I made it that far. It was really emotional.
JB: It sounds emotional but it also sounds like a fond memory of a new you. Was that the point where you knew that running and Endorphin Dude would be something special.
TN: Yeah, that was the moment I committed to saving the world, one couch potato at a time.
JB: So, tell me about this Titanium Challenge. Sounds kinda crazy?
TN: The Titanium challenge is 52 marathons in 52 weeks. It came about for two reasons. One, my running club, http://www.marathonmaniacs.com/“>Marathon Maniacs has a Titanium level, which is the highest level you can get and two, I wanted to raise money for Chewbacca’s furry friends.
JB: Chewbacca’s friends. Who are Chewbacca’s friends?
TN: Chewbacca, my dog, is a rescue. I’m raising money to help all rescue dogs. Specifically, I’m raising money for the Peninsula Humane Society. You can see my http://www.endorphindude.com/“>blog for more details. Anyway, wanted to help animals in need. Chewy literally saved my life and if I can encourage people to adopt a rescue dog and walk, I’ve done my job. Remember, I’m saving the world, one couch potato at a time.
JB: Sounds like a great cause but 52 marathons, in 52 weeks, is pretty intense. How will you get that done?
TN: Well, you have to remember, that all I have to do is finish. No personal records or anything like that. I just have to finish. That means, I can take my time and set my pace. I do have to make the cutoff time but sometimes, the race directors let me start early, especially if it’s a longer endurance event, like a 50k or 24 hour race.
I can also double up on races. I did that a couple of months ago. It worked out pretty well.
JB: So, how many have you done so far?
TN: A total of 36. I’m a little behind but confident I can make it up. I have been hurt for a couple of weeks and that has put a hamper on my running. It’s a little frustrating but I know that I can do it. Chewbacca furry friends are depending on me.
JB: Truly inspiring. You are a true inspiration.
TN: Thanks. I’m always happy to talk about my journey and how being healthy is now a way of life for me. It’s funny, I remember way back when I crossed the finish line of my first half marathon — I was on cloud 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13.1. I really do feel like I’ve added 13.1 years to my life when I run these halves, but I gotta tell you, when I run the full marathon, I am immortal!
Tony is a true endurance leader. He has overcome his limitations, pushed past obstacles, endured pain and setbacks to achieve his goals. He has inspired others to follow his lead and get healthy. What’s great about Tony is that he has a great attitude. He sets his own pace and motivates himself by the little wins. He’s practical in that he knows his limitations but he also pushes himself to be better.
If you take away one thing from Endorphin Dude it’s this: You are competing against yourself. The resistance and negativity are within you and the first step is to recognize that so you can defeat it.