Will Dead to Red

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:

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 Training School. And then after that, we’ll see from there — I’m really interested in international politics and I think 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 w hen 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.” And I couldn’t be part of the team the next year because I was going abroad to take Arabic. I started the end of my sophomore year where I struggled to run a 5k, then went that December — I went from in April not being able to run a 5k to December running my first half-marathon. And when I came back 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, in a 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.

And it’s 242 kilometers long and we’re gonna run a 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, and a good experience running — it just seemed like a cool thing to do at the time. And I wasn’t the the Captain of the team — there was another guy who had taken charge of logistics — and we got together, the program had a meeting for people who were interested and a lot of my friends were there, so I though, “Okay cool, we have something to work with.” And we already had a Captain but — he 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 run a half-marathon — but most of the people had played some sports in high school, but no one had really run that far before. As I said before, there were a couple people before 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 they could take breaks, but that’s a really huge jump.

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 morning, and that was basically our diagnostic to see where we were at. And 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 gonna have to do.

And I think — in some ways it was really straightforward — 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 falling behind, and the people that are at the back of the pack. Because if they see someone who is at the very head charging ahead, not really concerned about the people behind them, 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 those people to stay part of the team while also encouraging the people that were new to running to push themselves, and really believe in themselves to do something that 1) They’ve never done before, and 2) Quite frankly I don’t think they really believed themselves that they could do it. I mean, a week before the race, there was one guy in particular 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 gonna 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 have all changed. 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, so that by the time we got to the big hills, we had some of the more experienced people.

And it turned out that, because the topography [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 less experienced, 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 actually — 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 more than anyone else on the team. So he actually ran the longest out of everybody.

FG: Wow.

WM: The big lesson that really came to us — and I’d heard it before from other motivational speakers and Navy SEALs — the thing that I really took away from this, and my theory that was primarily proven through this, is that 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 half-marathon, through the night, and 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 we needed to do for our teammates. And I think that realization that we were part of something bigger was what made everybody care moer. And in the end, everybody posted personal bests, both in terms of distance they ran, and times over those distances.

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 drives up to our car and says, ‘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 has 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 were gonna quit, not that we weren’t gonna finish on time, not that we were gonna pack up and drive ahead, just that, alright, we’re gonna have to run a little bit faster. And 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 the fact that I saw my teammates do that. 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 broke, and I know there’s a saying, “You shouldn’t do things just for the trophy, it’s just a piece of plastic” it’s the glory and the grit, and in that moment when I felt that broken clasp on the medal, that wasn’t just a saying, it was something I felt — I saw my teammates do something incredible.

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 were going to push themselves harder, because their own concerns didn’t really matter anymore, and that made things easier. The other thing is, you really, really — just to believe in yourself is such a cliche, but if you’re gonna do something you’ve never done before, it’s absolutely necessary. Negative self-talk wasn’t gonna 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. Or about 15 miles. But I knew that for me to run 10 kilometers was exhausting, that was a hard day. 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 — there is only so much you can do and fortunately, just given the race atmosphere, you feel a lot more to push yourself just because that’s the moment you’re in, but I totally agree — it’s totally forced, you have to believe in the other people.

Another thing — the biggest thing I learned, to be honest — when you stop thinking about yourself thing, and start thinking about everyone else and the greater reality, then things get easier — that’s something that I experienced for the first time there. That wasn’t something, 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 planning to run 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 the lead — that when things started to get easier, because he was focused on these other people.

But if I had to think of 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’ve been up for 36 hours straight or however long, and that really motivated things — how I had to conduct myself for the rest of the time I was in the Middle East and 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 gonna get them through it, or are you just gonna 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 gonna 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 actaully 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 gonna 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 gonna 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’s a part of his past, he doesn’t 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 and if you got above 70 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, but I think its important to realize that 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 gonna 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 gonna 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.

Originally published at FG.