• Brad Stulberg

What’s Behind the Relentless Pursuit of Excellence?

Sculptor: Emil Alzamora

For many athletes, passion is the driving force behind their relentless pursuit of excellence. Michael Gervais, PhD, sport psychologist and counselor to some of the world’s best athletes, puts it simply: “Sustained passion is a hallmark of mastery.” Many groundbreaking athletes, artists, and intellects describe the feeling as an eternal hunger. Irrespective of what they’ve accomplished, or of what they’ve lost and given up, great performers struggle mightily to be satiated, to be content. But what is the source of passion? And why does it persist? We talked to three lifelong athletes to find out what drives them to continue pushing the boundaries of their physical and mental capabilities.

Biological Underpinnings

When Ann Trason was just two years old, her parents tied bells to her shoes. “I was always running around and they needed a way to track me,” she recalls. Although her childhood predated the recent surge in the diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Trason, now 55, would have been a fine candidate for the label. She remembers struggling to sit still and pay attention in school. “Running became my outlet, a place to expend all of this bottled up energy.”

In addition to struggling to sit still and focus, individuals with ADHD tendencies tend to be less sensitive to the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. For an article in the January issue of Outside investigating the connection between ADHD and adventure, Florence Williams wrote that those exhibiting ADHD symptoms seek out “charged activities” in order flood their brains with dopamine.

Dopamine excites and arouses us. Under its influence, we feel revved up and alive. Unlike other neurochemicals that are released after we’ve achieved something, the far more potent dopamine is released prior, when we are longing for or desiring something deeply. In other words, those that crave dopamine don’t become addicted to winning; they become addicted to striving, addicted to the chase.

“I often wonder about dopamine,” Trason told me. “I always had this yearning to push, push, push—to see what I was made of, to beat myself. It never went away.”

Shortly after high school, Trason discovered ultrarunning. It gave her a way to express her energy and test herself. Pounding out 100-mile training weeks and races yielded an otherwise elusive sense of fulfillment. But it was always fleeting.

She could have been satisfied many times in her running career, like when she won the American River 50 Miler in 1985, the Western States 100 in 1989, or when she set both the Western States 100 and Leadville 100 course records in 1994. Instead, Trason kept coming back for more. “I always had this urge to see what else I could do,” she says. “It was never about beating others or proving myself or anything like that. I just felt so alive out there. I loved it.”

Perhaps the only thing stronger than Trason’s love for running was her love for her then-husband, Carl Anderson. So in 2004, when Anderson’s body broke down and he could no longer run, in an act of courage and support, Trason stepped away from the sport with him.

During her career, Trason broke over 20 world records, won the prestigious Western States 100 14 times, and set countless course records, many of which still stand today.

Her competitive running career may have ended, but her incessant longing for challenge had not. To fill the void, she and Anderson threw themselves into endurance cycling. But when their marriage ended in 2013, Trason stepped away from the bike. “It was never fully my thing,” she explained.

Trason became depressed. Not only because of the divorce, but also because she felt she had nowhere to “channel [her] drive.” Thankfully, with the encouragement of friends, she tried her hand at coaching and race-directing and loved both. They are the two pursuits to which she currently dedicates herself.

Though biochemistry isn’t everything, Trason herself told me that she suspects the same hardwiring that forced her parents to attach bells to her shoes at age two is at least partially responsible for her seemingly endless energy and inability to be content. “I’m really working on ‘balance,’” she says, “but it’s hard for me. I’m not really sure I’d want a 9-to-5 job anyways.”

Something to Prove

Much like Trason, Rich Roll latched onto endurance sports (at the time, swimming) in school. But for Roll, it wasn’t so much about expressing otherwise bottled up energy as it was about proving himself. “I grew up kind of lonely,” says Roll. “I look back and think that, at the time, I really wanted to prove myself; both to myself, and to the outside world.”

Roll was raised in a very goal-oriented family. “Drive and achievement was an ethos of how we grew up,” he says. He struggled academically (“struggle” is relative term for Roll, who was, after all, accepted to Stanford University) and didn’t excel in any of the traditional sports. No surprise, then, that when Roll discovered his strong swimming ability, he threw himself wholly into the sport. “It was a chance to define myself, to show that I, too, could succeed.” First in and last out of the pool, Roll blossomed into a superb swimmer, good enough to compete for Stanford.

Fast forward about ten years and Roll once again felt he needed to prove himself. Again he was lonely, this time grappling with addiction issues: “drugs, alcohol, and food,” he told me. Thanks to the help of rehab, he sobered up, but he was still 50 pounds overweight; walking up a flight of stairs left him massively fatigued and pained. This time around, Roll devoted himself to triathlon and running. He went all in and became one of the best ultra-endurance athletes on the planet. In 2009, Men’s Fitness featured him on a list of the “25 fittest men in the world.”

Roll isn’t dismissive of the idea that endurance sports serve as the perfect outlet for addictive personalities. “It’s a place where you can be addicted, but shrouded in a healthy tunic,” he says. But he also explained that the tangible progression inherent to something like triathlon provides a wonderful way to “prove oneself.”

Alan St. Clair Gibson, PhD and MD at Northumbria University in Newcastle, England, agrees. Gibson, who specializes in sports medicine and integrative neuroscience, has spent a lot of time thinking about the intersection of mind and body. He believes that passion may be rooted at least partially in something that Freud called “ego-fragility.” In order to block out damaging events from one’s past, Gibson says, people repress bad memories and experiences, relegating them deep into the subconscious. But these emotions can only stay bottled up for so long. Eventually, according to Gibson, they are “released through external drives or desires, often manifesting as energy put fourth toward an unrelated activity.” A telltale sign of this transference, Gibson says, is “fanatical attachment to projects and goals.”

A recent article in the journal Sports Medicine, “The Rocky Road to the Top: Why Talent Needs Trauma,” found that a common thread among many elite athletes is the presence of uncommon challenges— what the authors call “trauma”—in their early years. For example, athletes who make it to the highest level of their sport have a greater number of siblings (increased competition for their parents’ attention) and are significantly more likely to have parents who divorced. The researchers concluded that “talented potential can often benefit from, or even need, a variety of challenges to facilitate performance.”

Going through trials and tribulations doesn’t just make someone tougher or “grittier”—though it certainly does that, too—but it also creates a profound hunger to perform. Gibson says it’s as if someone takes whatever negativity or inadequacy they felt from past events and uses it to fuel unbelievable accomplishments. “Trauma from times past,” he says, “creates an ‘inner mongrel’ which refuses to give up until the ‘prize’ is won.”

Interestingly, even though Roll has proven himself (i.e., he’s won the “prize”) and is no longer racing competitively, he continues to push. Like Trason, Roll currently channels his energy into helping others, through his inspirational podcasts, speaking engagements, and writing. Ironically, he is perhaps even more prolific in non-athletic work than he ever was in his training.

“I’m still wholly passionate,” says Roll. “I certainly wouldn’t call myself balanced, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s just that now I feel driven by a greater purpose: to inspire others to live a big and full life, to pursue their dreams, and to overcome their own personal demons and challenges.”

In an interesting twist, it turns out that where Trason and Roll ended up—motivated by a greater purpose—is where some great performers begin.

This post first appeared in Brad’s “Do It Better” column at Outside Magazine.

Brad Stulberg   |   bradstulberg.com   |  bradstul@gmail.com