The Toughest Man Alive
An Interview with retired Navy SEAL David Goggins
David Goggins' military background reads like a case of bad “stolen valor” — the retired Navy SEAL chief is believed to be the only member of the armed forces to complete the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/s) course (including going through Hell Week three times), U.S. Army Ranger School (where he graduated as honor man), and Air Force tactical air controller training.
If that wasn't enough, Goggins has also completed more than 60 ultra-marathons — many of them involving running more than 100 miles — and holds the Guinness world record for pull-ups, having completed 4,030 in 17 hours.
Reading through his impressive resume, you would be correct in imagining him to be in excellent physical shape; at 43 years old, Goggins still regularly competes in ultra-marathons and runs anywhere from 8 to 30 miles every day. However, 18 years ago when he showed up at a Navy recruiting station looking to become a Navy SEAL, it was a different story.
Goggins began his military career at age 19 in the Air Force, with aspirations of becoming a pararescuman. The training was difficult, Goggins said, and involved more swimming than he had expected.
“I wasn't real comfortable in the water — I hated it,” said Goggins.
During training, military doctors told Goggins he had sickle cell anemia — a blood disease — and gave him the option to drop out.
“It kind of gave me a way out,” admitted Goggins. “I didn't want to go back in the water, so I pretty much just quit.”
Instead, Goggins became a tactical air controller, serving the rest of his contract with the Air Force in that career field. Still, Goggins said, the reminder of having dropped out of pararescue school depressed him, and he gained more and more weight as he approached his exit from active duty service.
Upon returning to civilian life, Goggins got a job spraying for cockroaches, and gained more weight, coming in at 297 pounds — more than he'd ever weighed in his life.
That's when he saw a documentary that would change his life.
“I saw this show on the Discovery Channel, and it was just guys going through Hell Week. They were freezing, there was a lot of water, and it brought back memories of me going through pararescue training,” said Goggins.
“So at 297 pounds, I decided to try to be a Navy SEAL.”
Already older than a typical Navy SEAL candidate, and far from being within the weight standards to even join the Navy, Goggins began reaching out to recruiters.
“When you tell a recruiter that you're almost 300 pounds and you want to be a SEAL, it doesn't go too well,” he said. “I got hung up on a lot.”
After weeks of determination, he finally found a recruiter who was willing to give him a chance — as long as Goggins could lose enough weight to ship out within three months.
“I had to lose 106 pounds in less than three months — that's really where it became challenging for me,” said Goggins. “I knew that if I stopped training or became stagnant, there were no calories being burned; so I just basically trained all day long.”
In just under three months, Goggins lost 106 pounds, and was ready to ship out to BUD/s.
Because Goggins had already completed basic training in the Air Force, he was sent straight to BUD/s after a short indoctrination period at Recruit Training Command. While he had lost weight, he was not in ideal physical shape, however, and certainly not prepared for what is almost universally considered some of the toughest military training on the planet.
“When you go from 297 pounds to 191 pounds in that time period, and you're running, you're starting to break yourself,” said Goggins. “So I broke myself before I even got into Navy SEAL training.”
Goggins made it to “Hell Week” — an arduous crucible of physical and metal challenges designed to separate candidates who aren't ready to become SEALs — but failed the course due to stress fractures and pneumonia. Since he didn't voluntarily quit, he was instead rolled back to day one, week one of BUD/s.
Not wanting to give up, Goggins pushed through training, but fractured his kneecap before reaching Hell Week. In an attempt to avoid being sent back a second time, he pushed through Hell Week with his fractured kneecap and passed.
Unfortunately, Goggins' injury kept him from being able to keep up with his class, so two weeks after Hell Week, he was rolled back to day one, week one of BUD/s anyway.
“I just had to find different ways to stay in the fight,” he said, explaining why he didn't give up. “And while staying in the fight, it got me tougher and tougher and tougher.”
His third attempt was a success; Goggins made it through Hell Week with BUD/s Class 235, and earned his Navy SEAL trident on Aug. 10, 2001.
Less than a month later, the terror attacks of 9/11 occurred, and the SEAL teams were mobilized for combat. Goggins deployed to Iraq with SEAL Team Five, and served as a training instructor for other SEALs.
In 2005, during Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan, 12 Navy SEALs were killed, and more were injured in brutal fighting. Goggins personally knew every SEAL involved in the mission. He had been through Hell Week with Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, Lt. Michael Murphy and Petty Officer Danny Dietz, and had trained Petty Officer Matthew Axelson. Goggins was devastated by the news.
“I wanted to find a way that I could raise money for their families,” said Goggins.
He learned of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which pays for the college tuition of children whose parents were special operators killed in combat. He realized the best way to raise money was to run races, and learned there was an upcoming race called the Badwater 135.
Goggins, who at this point was 250 pounds and enjoyed weight lifting, had no idea what the race was. He had run approximately 20 miles in the entire year, and had never attempted long-distance running.
Goggins didn't realize that the Badwater 135 is considered by many to be the most challenging race on the planet — a 135-mile continuous run across three mountain ranges in extreme heat. Competitors cannot simply sign up for the race either; they have to qualify for it by proving they can run 100 miles in 24 hours or less.
“I was like, is that even possible?” said Goggins.
Fortunately, Goggins discovered there was a 100-mile race near his home in San Diego in three days, giving him no time to prepare. Somehow, he still managed to run 101 miles in 19 hours and 6 minutes.
“By mile 70, I was destroyed — I was dizzy, lightheaded, peeing blood,” said Goggins. “But I was able to draw on my experiences from BUD/s; I was able to draw on being calm.”
Goggins went on to complete the Badwater 135, finishing the 135-mile race in 30 hours and 18 minutes — fifth overall. Since then, he has completed more than 60 ultra-marathons, and, at 43 years old, has no plans to quit anytime soon.
“Back in the day, what motivated me was overcoming myself,” said Goggins. “Now I believe in being a leader. I've done it all — I'm good. Now, it's about setting an example for others to follow. I can't just talk it — I have to live it.”
When asked what he missed about being an active-duty Navy SEAL, Goggins had a surprising answer.
“Nothing,” he said. “I was that guy who left it all out there. Everything I did in the military, I gave 100 percent, no matter what I was doing. So at 21 years, I was good with it. I did it all, and lived every day like it was day one, week one of BUD/s.”
In fact, he advises current Sailors to do the same.
“Go back to Boot Camp in your mind,” said Goggins. “Boot Camp sucks — SEAL training sucks — but you know what? That's what makes you good.
“It's like a muscle — if you stop going to the gym or stop running, you get weak. The military teaches you these great values, but we don't keep up the discipline on our own and we lose it. So wherever you go, keep that discipline up.”