December 12, 2018

Endurance Chronicles: At Some Point, It’s All Mental


The Endurance Chronicles are guest posts and interviews from readers and interesting people that have endured hardships and struggles on their road to success. I’ll post them periodically so that we can all be inspired. If you have an endurance chronicle you would like to share, please send it on to jarie at enduranceleader dot com.

This Endurance Chronicle is an interview with Tony “Endorphin Dude” Nguyen. Tony is a Titanium ultra-marathon athlete who completed 52 marathons in 52 weeks. His story of endurance and how he cured his type two diabetes is truly inspiring.

The transcript of the interview is below the video and audio.

Video: The Endurance Chronicles Interview with Tony Nguyen

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Audio: The Endurance Chronicles Interview with Tony “Endorphin Dude” Nguyen

Edited Interview Transcripts

Jarie Bolander: This is the Endurance Chronicles, I’m Jarie Bolander the host. Tonights guest is someone that I have known for a couple of years now, met through Facebook, which is always an interesting story in the human endeavor. I have been really impressed by his shear determination to get done what he wants to get done and there are some things that he has done that I can’t even logistically fathom how he did it but we will talk about that later.

So I would like to welcome Tony “Endorphin Dude” Nguyen to the Endurance Chronicles. Please give Tony a around of applause.

JB: So Tony, how did you get started doing all the marathons, half-marathons and endurance events? What was sort of the inspiration?

Tony Nguyen: Well I. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Endorphin Dude. I’m the guy that runs in a cape at marathons.

It was one of those things that I came home from work one day and thought I was having a heart attack.

Yeah, I was about 70 pounds heavier. I was on a lot of different meds. I was on heart pressure, blood pressure medication, cholesterol and I was on insulin. I was a type two diabetic and one day I came home from work and thought I was having a heart attack and that was kinda a wake up call.

So I took my dog for a walk around the block and it felt great.

And the next day, I took another walk, around another block and before I knew it I was taking these long urban hikes all throughout San Francisco and loving it.

And to make a real long story short, weeks had passed, months had passed and my clothes starting fitting better and one day a buddy of mine says I’m running the San Francisco Marathon and I said to him, not knowing anything about running

“Oh Wow, that’s awesome, what’s that like 10 miles?”

I did not know what a marathon was. I thought a 5k was something like an extension to your tax forms. You know like your 401k.

I knew nothing about running.

So I went out and cheered on my buddy and when he crossed the finish line, I felt what I like to call, all those second hand endorphins. You know that second hand runners high.

Everyone was so excited. So I turned to a random stranger and said

“I’m going to do it!” I’m going to run the marathon next year.

And so I just needed to say that out loud so it would force me to do it.

And then I started training. And then I ran my first marathon in 2010, the San Francisco Marathon.

Let me remind you that was supposed to be my “one and done” bucket list item.

I just wanted to say I ran a marathon but I kinda got bitten by that bug and started running a few more.

That’s my story.

JB: Wow. So one leads to 52. I mean one of the things when we talked the first time I sat down and did an interview with him, I think it was in 2011, if I’m not mistaken, it was right in the middle of, what we will talk about next, which was the Titanium challenge — which is 52 marathons in 52 weeks. Which when you told me you were going to do this, I was like are you going to sleep.

How the heck do you logistically even do that?

So, take us from one and done to 52 in 52. I mean so, how does that happen?

TN: So, that was supposed to be a one and done bucket list item.

I met this women on the shuttle in New Orleans a few months before and she was telling me about this club called Marathons Maniacs and it’s a club for extreme marathoners. These are people who run every weekend and she said to me “Oh yeah, I’m going for the World Record, I’m going to complete 120 marathons in one calendar year.”

And I thought to myself, this women is high on something, give me some of that!

You know, this is ridiculous. I did not believe a word this women was telling me.

And sure enough, I did not even get home yet and when I got to the airport for my layover flight, I jumped on the Internet to check this out and she was legit.

There is a club called Marathon Maniacs and it’s extreme.

To qualify, you have to run three marathons in 90 days.

And I’m just like, I have not even run my first marathon, but I was like,

“OK, I can do this”

My one and done bucket list item became a three and done bucket list item so I can get the jersey.

You know. Do you remember in High School? You had the jocks that wore the varsity jacket with the letter on it. You know.

I was not the jock in high school so I wanted my Marathon Maniacs jersey was kinda like my varsity jacket with the letter you know.

So I was like, OK, three and done.

Well, I got caught up. Well, because in Marathon Maniacs, that’s the first level to get in. Three marathons in 90 days and you just keep going up in levels. One star, two star, three stars and the levels are named by metals: gold, silver, platinum, palladium, all the way to titanium and to achieve titanium status, you have to complete 52 marathons in 52 weeks and I wanted it.

I really wanted it.

You know, I said to myself

“I just ran three marathons in 90 days, who is to say I can’t do 52 in 52.”

You know, because, I was probably biting more off than I could chew.

JB: A lot more

TN: So that’s how it all started.

It was just something I wanted to do just to prove to myself that I could do it.

So, that’s how that started.

JB: So, Okay, so, 3 and done goes to 52 in 52.

So, what’s the logistics of that. I mean, I don’t know how many marathons there are run in a year but I got to believe there is not 52 marathons in the state of California in a year. I don’t know that for a fact but logistically, how do you get that done.

I mean the physical stuff we will talk about in a bit.

Logistically, how do you plan your life? I mean, you have a job right?

TN: Yes, Yes. At the time, I had a job and basically, logistically, the marathons are out there because there are a lot of race directors out there who cater to the world record holder and people trying to achieve mass marathons in a year.

So, there are a lot of very small, local race directors out there who cater to this kind of stuff but I did have to do a lot of traveling.

I mean I probably hit about 7 states during my titanium quest which in hindsight was probably not the smartest thing to do financially but hey, you know, ok, I’ll just admit it.

I’m a bling whore!

I mean if you wave a metal in front of me, I’ll register for the race if you just wave the metal in front of your face so I.

JB: Yeah, shinny objects

TN: That shinny object, so that’s how I base which races I did based on what the metals looked like but I spent a lot of time driving back and forth to Southern California since that’s where most of the races were.

So, logistically, it was very doable.

As ridiculous as this is going to sound, running the marathon was the easy part. It’s only 26.2 miles.

It’s the logistics of getting from point A to point B. Driving 6 hours. Taking a nap in your car at a gas station. Things like that.

Towards the end. Not even towards the end. Towards the middle

I could not afford the motel 6 anymore. I had to sleep in my car and I drive a Mini Cooper so you can just image how.

It was like sleeping like this.

So logistically, it was very doable but it just required a lot of sacrifice.

JB: So, how did Endorphin Dude come about. I mean, tell us that story. Because, like everyone knows you now.

I mean, you go to a race and people will be like

“Endorphin Dude, Endorphin Dude”

So, how did that come about?

TN: Endorphin dude came about because I.

Training is not easy for me.

How many runners do we have in the audience?

Okay, so running for me. I was never a runner. I was never the athletic guy.

I wasn’t. I was the fat kid who always got picked last in PE.

So I had to learn how to run.

When I say learn how to run I’m talking I had to learn how to breath, learn how to stretch, I had to learn what to eat and what not to eat, what shoes to wear. I had to like learn all this stuff and when I trained for my half marathon, that was a pretty big deal. I mean 13.1 miles for me at that time was just “oh my God”. That’s just like “Whoa”.

Once I conquered the half-marathon distance and knew that I needed to get to 26.2 I needed to train and training was not easy for me. Getting up to mile 18, 19, 20 was very difficult. So I have to play mind games. I created a character. It was like a video game to me. Every time I would hit the next mile marker, it would be like an energy pellet, you know, it would give me that energy, that surge to get to the next mile and then the next one.

So I became “Endorphin Dude”. I was the marathon caped crusader out to save the world one couch potato at a time. That’s how all that started.

JB: So, your first incarnation of it did not have a cape or did it. What’s the cape story? That’s the one that’s the interesting one. So go ahead.

TN: I think some of these people where here. Diane, I think you were there at that race when I wore my first incarnation. It was my local running club, Dolphin South End Runners. We have races every weekend ranging from 5k to 1/2 marathons.

My first race with them was the Halloween 4 mile along Ocean Beach and people came in costumes and I thought to myself “I’m going to do the whole endorphin dude thing and tie a beach towel around my neck”.

I had a makeshift bib that had Endorphin Dude on it and I’m running down Ocean Beach, in October, mind you. Running down, feeling good, a nice ocean breeze and then it started to rain. And it started to rain harder.

Have you ever. I mean beach towels and rain water it makes it really heavy.

JB: Yeah, towels absorb water

TN: Yeah, towels absorb water and I’m dragging my butt to the finish line butt that was my first incarnation of the Endorphin Dude Cape. That did not work out well.

JB: Yeah, so then you graduated to other capes.

TN: I did

JB: And you brought one which I would like to show everyone. I think you should tell the story about how you came about with this particular type of cape and what is special about it.

TN: Okay. So the deal-e-o is that I’m only 5 foot 5 and so um I needed a cape to run in and the problem is my lack of height, all of the adult capes were just way too long for me. I did not want to trip over it so I needed a child’s cape.

Image how creepy it is if you are calling a seamstress and saying

“Hi, I’m a grown man and I need a child’s cape so I can run it in. In a marathon.

JB: Just a cape in general people would be like “What?, A cape”. Although people wear them.

TN: So I had to explain my situation was.

My name is Tony, I’m Endorphin Dude. I’m running 52 marathons in 52 weeks. This is my persona.

So basically this company, I believe they are out of Texas. This company. It’s a small company of four women who make capes for birthday parties for kids. They make all sorts of super hero birthday party capes.

So I explain my situation and they made me a cape. It went really well when I wore that cape and I told them I need another one since it was a themed race the next one I had.

I did a race in Ohio. Cincinnati, which was called the flying pigs. So I needed a cape that had a pig theme to it. So, they made me a big pink cape with a pig on it.

So, um, after that, they started to get inquires from people saying

“Hey, I saw this guy running marathon and he told us about you.”

So, they contacted me and said

“Hey, how about we make a bunch of capes for you. We’ll give you 10 free capes. All you have to do is blog about us, name drop us and we’ll give you free capes. We’ll sponsor you”

I was like, “Alright!”

So I’m like I’m a sponsored athlete. Sweet!

JB: That’s pretty cool. So the Titanium Dude Cape.

TN: I had this one especially made after I hit Titanium. This is, it says, if I could find it.

So this is my Titanium cape. It’s very Batman like.

I can’t wear this in a race because it’s an adult cape so I’ll trip over it but all my capes are kids capes. They only kinda go up to my waist.

JB: Sponsored endurance athlete from a cape company. I think that’s the first time in history that’s ever happened.

So when you are running these races, what goes through your head. What are some of the things you use to endure that next mile. I know you talked about the pellet thing. Is there a mantra or saying? Do you listen to music? What are some of the tricks?

I know that in 52 in 52, some of those were back to back. There might have even been one that were three in a row.

TN: Right

JB: How do you get through that? What’s the process?

TN: It really depends on what race it is and I mean it’s one big formula. If you are running a trail race. If you are running something with a real strict cut off time. If you are running something as a double or a triple. Meaning a third day.

What happened to me last year when I did this quest was I was hit by a major injury. I was hit by Sciatica. So I don’t know if anyone has had Sciatica, but my L4 lumbar got dislodged and was pushing against my Sciatic nerve, causing havoc to my left leg.

So my left leg was like constantly shaking and it was very painful. So, I was knocked out of the game for like 10 weeks, which meant I lost 10 marathons and when you are on a tight schedule.

I mean I was on track to hit 52 in 52, one every weekend. So when you loose ten marathons, you have to make them up at the end.

I had to throw in a double and a triple. Another triple and another triple. So I had to do three in a row. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

So to answer your question, I have a real life example, the Tahoe Triple I had to do. Three marathons in three days at elevation like 7,000 feet.

Um, you do what it takes to get your mind off of the blisters, off the pain, off the cramping.

I listen to a lot of music. My song choices are a little unconventional. It really depends on what mile I’m at cus. I mean a lot of people play hardcore jams you know.

There are times when I listen to classical music, you know because classic music just soothes my soul, you know, and it just relaxes me.

So, I’ll listen to Vovaladi when I’m at mile 20 just because I would know that it would relax me and keep me calm because when I’m stressing out about cut off times and stuff like that, I tend to run faster and then collapse.

So, you have to pace yourself for all these races. It does not matter that you are running a 5k or 100 miler, you pace yourself.

So I listen to music and I just kinda visualize. I think what really gets me through is that I never, never, never want to see another needle again because I had to inject insulin for about 5 years of my life and it sucks.

You know, it sucks to take insulin because it wipes you out creativity and physically.

And my mine set at the time was “I don’t need to exercise because modern medicine will save me. I can just take this pill or take this shot.”

Well, obviously, that was stupid of me to think that and so when I’m running, I think back to those days when I had to inject that insulin and remember back to how painful and awful it was to be in the condition I was and that’s my mantra.

That’s what gets me to that finish line every time.

JB: So, it’s the being overweight in the past and the insulin and the pills and just like “I never want to go back to there again.”

TN: Right

JB: Wow, OK, so this year, you did 52 in 52. What’s on tap for this year?

TN: for 2013 or 2012

JB: 2013. Let’s talk 2013

TN: Ok, so when I did 52 in 52 in 2011 I never thought that anything could top that.

Well, my 2012 season did. It just topped it even more because after conquering 52 in 52. I wanted to nail my 1st 100 miler and so that’s what I did in 2012. I nailed my 1st 100 miler on my 2nd try.

On my 1st try, I got to mile 88. I had 3 hours left on the clock and my body just collapsed.

JB: That was Nanny Goat right?

TN: Yeah, that was Nanny Goat. When I tell you the course you are going to just roll your eyes. It was a one mile loop around a barn. 100 miles.

JB: One hundred miles around a barn. I’m sure all of you are going to sign up for that one. Coming up but there is actually a video of.

There is the infamous Nanny Goat Affair where there is actually a video of Tony completely melting down. It’s pretty. I have never seen anyone so raw and so like “I am so done with this” that I need to collapse and then he collapses in a hay thing. It’s literally like. I’ll put it in the write up so you guys can see it.

That’s true like, I am in it to win it kinda of thing but you finally did win or get Nanny Goat the next year.

TN: Yeah, Nanny Goat was such a. To me it was failure to get to mile 88.

I mean as absurd as that may sound to you, 88 miles, that’s good.

JB: That’s impressive

TN: But to me, it was failure because I did not get my belt buckle. For those who don’t know or are not in the ultra scene. Typically if you run a 1/2 marathon or a marathon you get a medal. If you run a 100 miler, you get a belt buckle.

JB: Sounds like a gip to me man. 100 miles and you get belt buckle. 200 miles you get a pin. I don’t know.

TN: So after my Nanny Goat meltdown and it was pretty epic that melt down.

I mean I just collapsed and. He was not kidding. I did collapse into a barrel or I don’t remember what it was. I just remember seeing hay but that was a turnaround for me. That was very important to me because something clicked up here and I was like no, I was very capable of getting the 100 miler.

I still had 3 hours on the clock. I learned from all my rookie mistakes at Nanny Goat. Changed everything around. Changed my whole diet. I just eliminated meat and became a plant based eater. Upped my cross training, increased my cardio and ten weeks later I nailed that 100 miler. I did it locally at a race called run-de-vu, which by the way was another loop but a two mile loop around a, I’m not sure what it was but it was a two mile loop around a forrest. At least I had trees to look at.

JB: Yeah, there is that New Years Eve/Day 24 hour race. It’s basically a one mile loop around Chrissy Field.

TN: Yeah, I have done that one too. I like loops. The reason I like the loops is because I know I won’t get lost. I have a tendency to get lost.

JB: Oh, OK, OK.

TN: That Nanny Goat Loop was ridiculous because you are running a one mile loop around a barn. Yeah, I mean I have seen that goat like 100 times now.

JB: So, does anyone have any questions for Tony? Anything you might want to ah. Go ahead

Question 1: So, are you back to eating meat or are you still plant based?

TN: No, I, um, I don’t miss meat. That’s the thing. Do have to say I am a part time Pescetarian. I’ll sometimes have fish but I don’t miss the meat and I actually feel better physically, with my training and my runs. So it has worked for me.

Different things work for different people and I’m not one of those people that is doing this for political reasons or religious reasons.

I went to lunch with someone the other day and this person that is sitting next to me and said “Would you be offended if I eat bacon?” I’m not one of those people you know.

I do it strictly for health reasons and it’s worked for me.

JB: Great. Any other questions for Tony?

Question 2: Do you still have to take your medications?

TN: No, I’m completely off all meds. I reversed that type 2 diabetes. No longer have the cholesterol problem. No more meds!

JB: Wow, that’s great! That’s excellent. That’s a pretty big component of good health to be in shape. You don’t have to do 52 marathons in 52 weeks or anything like that

TN: The only drug I take is the NyQuil.

JB: Nice. Ok. Any other questions for Tony?

Question 3: What is your next challenge?

TN: So, I conquered the 52 in 52. I conquered my 100 miler. So I looked at everything I had done and seeing where I can challenge myself further because unless you win the Olympic gold medal and even then I’m sure a lot of Olympic gold medalist want to do more to challenge themselves.

There is always something out there to challenge yourself.

I never rest on what I just done.

So, 2013 is all about scaling back. So, I’m not going for quantity this year, I’m going for quality. I want to improve my finish times.

I want to get fitter and I want to get faster. I want to.

I have four 100 miler’s planned for this year and I’ll be honest with you, this is going to sound really ridiculous but my favorite distances are half-marathon, 13.1 that’s a great distance, you get your runners high by mile 10 and then your done. I like the half-marathon distance and the 100 miler.

The thing about the 100 miler is that you are out there, challenging yourself. Your mind goes to a whole new level. When you get your 100 mile finish it feels so good because your body is so messed up and your like this is the belt buckle. It’s dinky but this belt buckle for my 100 miler.

My San Francisco Marathon medal is bigger than that.

But this belt buckle is the one I hold so close to me because I worked my butt off for this.

I looped for 100 miles around a 2 mile dirt path loop for 30 hours with no sleep. So, see that’s what I like. I like that challenge.

JB: 30 hours, wow that’s a lot.

TN: So my plan is to hit 4 of these 100 milers this year and one of which is a qualifier for Western States.

Which of those of you who don’t know what Western States is um, in the Marathon world, the Boston Marathon is the holy grail of marathons. If you can qualify for the Boston Marathon and run it then you are at the top of your game.

Western States is the trail version. The trail ultra version of the Boston Marathon.

It’s a 100 mile race up in the Sacramento area. It’s a very intense race and you have to qualify for it and if you qualify, you have to be in the lottery for it.

I want to qualify for Western States. Because I tell everyone, “I’m not fast. I’m not a fast runner. I run a 5 hour marathon. Which is not fast but if you put me out there for 28,29,30 hours. I can get the 100 miler done.

I know what I need to do to finish 100 miles. I can just keep going and going and going because I tell people all the time that doing 100 milers, ultra-marathons and stuff, it’s not really about athletic ability. It’s all up here because there were guys that would pass me up. There were guys that were 20 miles ahead of me at that race and they all dropped out at the 100k mark, which is 62 miles.

They all dropped out because they went out too fast and I just kept looping and looping and looping and I got the job done.

So, that’s my plan for 2013. I want to get fitter, faster. I want to qualify for Western States. I want to nail more 100 milers.

JB: Wow. Well Tony, Good luck. Thanks for the interview.

Tony Nguyen “Endorphin Dude” Everyone!