Chadd Wright: Chasing Failure

Ex-US Navy SEAL turned ultra-runner, Chadd Wright, has experienced better bests and worse worsts than many in his 32 years.

Ultra-runners never quit, and Chadd Wright has no intention of doing so. Not this year, or the next.

“The furnace of adversity; that’s how we purify gold, man,” he tells us in this exclusive interview. 

As one of the most landlocked places in New Zealand, Blackmore Station, straddling the border of Southland and Central Otagoreally is in the middle of nowhere.  

Isolated, rugged, and boasting merciless weather extremes at any time of the year, this is some of the country’s toughest terrain.  

Still, only the worst will do for adventure racer turned The Revenant Race Director, Scott Worthington, because his goal was to make finishing The Revenant close to impossible. Winning this 190-plus kilometre long ultra-running race takes second place to merely finishing. To put it in perspective, the cut-off time to complete just half the race distance is 30 hours. 

If competitors can stay on course – with nothing more than a map and compass for direction – they will have tackled 16,000 meters of vertical ascent. Those that leave the chosen route face will clock up an even longer climb.  

There is no support allowed for competitors – just a swig of Revenant whisky for the winner and a comforting hug for those forcibly withdrawn from contention for failing to meet prescribed cut-off times. It is meant to feel like hell. Which, somewhat ironically, is absolute heaven for American ultra-runner Chadd Wright. 

“In a race like the Revenant, you get to experience life in a day. Where else can you experience life in a day, man?” he enthuses. 

“What I mean by that is you get to laugh; you get to cry; you get to hurt; you get to climb mountains; you get to see the beautiful view from the summit and smile and feel that sense of freedom and accomplishment. But right after that, you’re headed back down the slope. You’ve got another mountain to climb.” 

At 32, Wright has seen more than most will ever. Along with those beautiful views from mountain summits, he has also witnessed the very worst. For 12 years he served as a United States Navy SEAL. 

“As a SEAL, we had to perform at an extremely high level. The precise and physically difficult aspect of completing missions was hard. Super-hot, super-cold; we were always on the extreme because we are the tip of the spear.” 

Today, Wright looks for the same challenges as un ultra-runner. 

When I was retired from the SEAL team, I needed something in my life that was going to push me on a tough level. Ultra-running has filled that gap. It allows me to reach that real and primal state again,

It is no secret that his role as a SEAL ‘Breacher’ (the first solider to enter a hostile building) would have repeatedly put him in the most primal situation possible: life or death.  

However, a conversation with Wright doesn’t involve war stories; he’s taking those to the grave. Only one tale of duty emerges while we chat about his first post-military gig, running a lawn care and landscaping business.  

“I remember a time when I was on my hands and knees in the middle of summer pulling weeds. A guy walks past in suit and looks down at me gives me a look of disdain. ‘Who is this guy pulling weeds? He needs to get out of my way.’ I just looked up and smiled at him, because I was reflecting on the time that I stood watch at the bedside of the President of the United States of America; while he slept soundly knowing that I had the watch. 

“It just shows that you need to be careful how to judge individuals, how you treat the man working on your plumbing or fixing something on the wall, because you don’t know what his story is, and you don’t know what he is capable of.” 

It is unlikely that President Obama knew how desperately the young man from the back-blocks of north-western Georgia, standing guard at his bedside, had fought to become a Navy SEAL.  

The programme is so brutal that three-quarters of candidates don’t make it through basic training. Wright didn’t even make it through the Physical Screening Test, which included swimming 500 yards in under twelve and half minutes, because he’d never done more than doggy-paddle across a pond. 

“I was definitely underprepared. I didn’t fit the mould of who you would think would be able to go and complete SEAL training. Dude, it goes to show; be careful how you judge other people.” 

With typical bloody-minded determination, he was eventually able to pass the swim test… only to fail the medical. Navy doctors had discovered a pericardial cyst on his heart and classed him ineligible to be a SEAL. 

Undaunted, Wright sought out a surgeon prepared to remove the cyst. The operation was risky and costly; a $150,000 all-or-nothing gamble on his life and on becoming a Navy SEAL.  

Not for the first or last time in Wright’s life, failure was a genuine prospect. And he relished it. 

“The furnace of adversity; that’s how we purify gold, man. You become firmly focused and sharp, then you’re able to go and accomplish your dreams,” he says. 

 

Although in Wrights situation, he appears hell-bent on seeking out nightmares, which explains why he is at Blackmore Station. 

“Until you’re pushing the envelope of what you’re doing; until you’re pushing to that level where you could potentially fail, you’re not growing.”  

Taking that logic, there was plenty of growth on offer during this year’s Revenant ultra-run. 

Only three of the 25 starters finished inside the 60-hour cut-off time. Wright, one of the race favourites, was at the halfway point when the race beat him. 

“I’m coming down a scree slope towards checkpoint 13. It’s the middle of the night, and I’d been struggling with the heat all day which was affecting my judgement. I’m following a game trail down the side of this river, and I found myself at a sheer drop down to the Nokomai River. 

“I didn’t realise until it was too late, and I’m midway along the cliff, clinging on. And it hits you, and you realize that this is serious. There’s a difference between being brave and being reckless. You have to make decisions – right now am I being brave or reckless? And in that moment, due to lack of sleep and heat exhaustion, I was being reckless.” 

He knew his race was over, but he still didn’t stop. Ultra-Runners never do. 

“You go until you get pulled off the course or finish. There is no quitting. A hundred-mile foot race; man, you run the first 95 miles for the last five miles. The first 95 miles, it hurts and all that, but the growth comes in that final push. When you’ve reached the maximum level of pain and suffering and mental fatigue, that’s when all the growth comes when you push through that final section.  

“That last section is where failure will usually happen, or not.  

Philosophical about the result, Wright isn’t okay with it either. 

“No, I’m not content with the outcome this time; discontent is fine as long as it feeds the hunger rather than the nervousness.” 

So, will he beat The Revenant next time? 

‘You bet!” 

Words Shaun Summerfield 

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