Lessons from the Ultra(Running) Fail of Tim Ferriss

Being interested in personal development and the creation of better lives, Tim Ferriss is someone to watch.

Between the surprise success of “The 4-Hour Work-Week” and his third and latest (and highly recommendable) “The 4-Hour Chef,” in the course of which he’s been shifting towards a somewhat better understanding of life not being just about brag-worthy experiences and records, he had collected fitness/health/body advice into “The 4-Hour Body.”

The most interesting part of it to me, understandably, was the little “last-minute addition” about ultramarathon running.

4HB Cliffhanger

The 4HB-Ultramarathon-Cliffhanger. Try getting something like this published if you’re not Tim Ferriss…

Sure, it is not the most important part of the book.

However, it has turned out to be the part that most clearly shows the psychological dynamics through which this “hacker” approach to living goes astray.

One of the grand notions of the 4-hour empire is the idea that one needs to look at the outliers and deconstruct skills to find the faster, more direct – more intelligent? – ways to a goal.

Want to pleasure women? Forget about romanticism and an atmosphere of trust and warmth, try these tried-and-tested techniques!
Want six-pack abs? Go for the “minimum effective dose” of this strange trick…. oh, wait, wrong sort of text…

Now, things like the minimum effective dose, the focus on the elements of a skill that will give the greatest result for the time invested, the search for life hacks that will give early wins and, therefore, the impetus to go on, are not bad at all.

However, those outliers might not have anything much to teach, but be “freaks” for whom things really are different, without much of any import to the majority.
The vast majority of people may not find a shortcut for going from 5k to 50k by way of high-intensity training, but does rather need to go for long and slow training runs, just as common wisdom has it.

Why? Simply because there’s still a difference between improving blood levels and fitness indicators – for which HIT (high-intensity training) can do a lot – and running for hours on end. Both physically, and psychologically – and this is where it gets really interesting.

“[A]n ultrarunner’s mind is what matters more than anything. Racing ultras requires absolute confidence tempered with intense humility.” (Scott Jurek, “Eat & Run” 2012)

5k to 50k in 12 weeks ... unchanged since the book came out in 2010/11

5k to 50k in 12 weeks … unchanged since the book came out in 2010/11

Could Ferriss participate in and finish a 50k ultra?

Certainly, as long as both determination and humility are there. – But would a person who wanted to go from 5k to 50k within 12 weeks, something like 100 weeks ago, who has made a name for himself through relentless self-promotion and the collection of strange records (and looking at the “Chinese national kickboxing champion” title, winning “the wrong way”) be content with walking for quite a bit of the distance and finishing somewhere at the back of the pack?

This, to me, is the driving issue: Approaching a problem intelligently is highly recommendable, of course.

When that supposed intelligence becomes all about the quick wins – quick ways to only four hours of work a week (because everything that’s fun is defined as something other than work), quick fluency in a language (because fluency is defined as the ability to participate in an everyday conversation without too many misunderstandings or embarrassing pauses and nothing more) – however, then it becomes dangerous.

Rather than being a highly recommendable experimentation with life, driven and driving at understanding and learning, it comes to support the quickly achieved successes that are nothing more than a little gaming of the usual system.

In words from “The 4-Hour Chef,”


In the first 24 hours, I’ll take you from burning scrambled eggs to osso buco, one of the most expensive menu items in the world. If 28% of Americans can’t cook at all,‡ and if another third are on some variation of mac and cheese, having even one seemingly difficult meal up your sleeve puts you in rare company. [my emphasis]

Compare that to the world of something like ultrarunning:

According to Outside Online, “a record 36,000 people participated in [ultra-distance events] in the U.S. last year.
Given a U.S. population of 313,914,040, that means that those who participated in an ultra-distance event were 0.0115% (rounded up) of the total population… or, in the terms of getting to greatness used by Tim Ferriss, mere participation makes you a part of the Top 0.0115% of Americans when it comes to ultramarathon running…

Move over, “the 1%.” Register for the next ultra, et voila, you’re “in rare company.

Superficial symptoms of success, however, are the exact opposite to the command over and separateness from the usual ways of doing things and the usual, pedestrian, values, leading forward to something better, that intelligent hacks are meant to show.

A better life that remembers what virtues are (and actually, any kind of good life that goes beyond superficialities), is rather like an ultramarathon: It is not achievable through quick hacks, but only by slouching on even when it’s hard, taking pleasure in the grand views as well as the exhilarating descents – and the pain and doubt, as well – taking one step after another whether it is fast or slow, easy or painful.

Will you come along with me?


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  1. Blaz

    I get the whole idea of “hacking” and Tim Ferris quite different.
    If you want to get 6 kg of pure muscle mass, and not take tons unneccesary or counter-productive movement, while doing so, you go (if you can) to best trainers and use all the wisdom that they got from training for eg. Mr Olympia. Knowing the answers does not make you Mr Olympia.
    If you don’t want to become world’s best, but just better Yourself, it is the same (pure) principle that gets you there. Generetions of body builders tested it so you don’t have to.
    I applied some things that Ferris wrote in his book, being amateur runner (almost never running more than 5 km (ca 3 miles), but IMMEDIATELY got better at running (time on my usual 4km route).
    I read Stott Jurek’s Eat and Run, and was fascinated by the story. But let’s be honest, there were a few sentences on running technique itself.
    And TF’s attitude is like: “hey Scott, its all fascinating, but if you were to create a list of 3 main factors to be better runner, what woud they be?”
    And if you want all the romantics, you read other stuff (which is good). But if you are more like: “where the hell is that g-spot?!”, you can attain some good information from Ferris.
    The whole “hacking” thing is something like this for me: you can get opinion, information, and make some rational decision on any subject, from buying a car to training a sport, never driving that car, or training that sport. It doesn’t make you car journalist, or sport champion, but not everyone has such ambition.

    • That idea of hacking is called learning. What Ferriss likes to suggest is a) learning from the outliers, not the common knowledge/practitioners and b) then claiming to be better than just about anyone by virtue of basically no one doing what you are now doing. And still, he failed when it comes to running – for these very reasons, I think.
      I also think – hence, this article – that there’s a lesson in that. Looking at The 4-Hour Chef, these things work much better…

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