Date: Wednesday, November 27th
Location: Ink! in Denver, Colorado
Doug Tumminello is preparing for an audacious adventure. In November of 2014 the 47-year-old lawyer from Denver, Colorado will attempt to traverse 750 miles from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole, solo. To achieve his goal of reaching the pole in less than 35 days, Doug will average 20 miles a day, all of which will be gradually uphill against incessant winds and below-zero temperatures. He’ll have nothing more than his thoughts to keep himself company and a pack filled with everything he’ll need to survive.
To an outsider it seems crazy, but to anyone he knows him, it is just Doug being Doug. He sets sights on an audacious goal and chases it with discipline and determination until he succeeds.
In 2006, Doug was the leader of Team No Limits, a private exhibition up Mount Everest. Three years later, he was a member of the 8-person team that set the world record for the fastest row across the Indian Ocean: 3,700 miles in 58 days. He’s run the Leadville 100 Ultramarathon (100 miles at elevations of 9,000 feet and higher) and climbed the highest mountains in both North and South America. Oh, he’s also a partner in a Denver law firm and devoted husband and father of two.
Ask him why and he’ll tell you with a self-aware chuckle, “I have no idea, I’ve asked myself this question a lot but have yet to find an answer.”
The answer might simply be that Doug was born with the spirit of adventure:
You’ve probably noticed this with your own adventures. All good adventures have the hallmark of an ancient epic poem—think the Iliad or the Odyssey. The thing that those epics have in common is that the hero, or the protagonist, leaves society and crosses a threshold from which there is no return and then undergoes a series of defining events throughout the journey—which are dangerous, enlightening, funny, whatever they may be—then the protagonist ultimately has to reenter society and integrate those lessons into their lives. That’s kind of what epic poetry is about. And I think all great adventures are kind of like that.
Doug and I met at a coffee shop in his downtown Denver office building. He’s the son-in-law of my high school guidance counselor turned friend, Sally Craig. In 2012, when I told her about my planned trip to Antarctica she excitedly responded, “You’ll have to talk to my son-in-law, Doug. He’s planning an Antarctic adventure of his own”. A year later, while back in the Rocky Mountains for Thanksgiving, we made our conversation about adventures happen.
Doug’s noticeable characteristics are his calm and confident demeanor; disciplined, yet friendly. Born into a military family, Doug followed suit by going to West Point Academy before joining the Army. His time in the service helped develop the skills of discipline, focus, preparation and persistence. Skill that have supported his continual thirst for adventure; skills he continues to hone as he tackles greater challenges. Before his row across the Indian Ocean he would train on a rowing machine tucked away in a dusty corner of his gym for four hours with no music, no TV and no breaks.
With ocean rowing turning around wasn’t an option. Once the expedition started, their only real option was to finish. The same is true for the solo ski. The ocean was monotonous, painful and long, but the dedicated training gave Doug confidence he could endure the difficult task, but he had company. Antarctica’s challenge will be the painful monotony in addition to solitude and an unchanging scene of snow and sky. Having been overwhelmed by the size, isolation and magnificence of Antarctica myself, the mental challenge of the expedition seemed more daunting than the physicality of skiing 750 miles.
The key, Doug said, is staying present:
Really stay in the moment the whole time while you’re on your feet, find a way to disassociate from the discomfort and the pain of what is truly the monotony. It’s sort of being able to do those two really opposite things at the same time, you know, really staying within what you’re doing and your own presence so that you’re safe and then really putting aside the physical and even mental pain of it. If you think too far in the future you’ll just disintegrate—thinking oh I have 749 more miles. Or it’s easy to get discouraged if you think you’ll average 25-30 miles a day and you only do 5 miles a day.
Listening to Doug reminded me that any big goal (like skiing to the South Pole) is really just a thousand little goals leading up to one exceptional goal: Make it another mile. Make it another mile. Make it another mile.
This was a powerful take away from my conversation with Doug: with discipline to stay focused on the most immediate little goal and persistence to keep pushing forward, the big audacious goal is inevitably reached. This leads to second inspiring take away from coffee with Doug: have a big audacious goal.
In fourth grade, Doug read of Ernest Shackleton’s escape from Antarctica. The story lit a fire within Doug. He decided he would someday replicate the feat of an open-boat crossing of the Southern Ocean between Antarctica and South Georgia island—some of the roughest water in the world. This decision has been impetus for his many expeditions. Everest, the Indian Ocean, the South Pole: these are all intermediate goals inching him closer to his grand Shackleton goal.
Hear Doug, in his own words, talk about the values he tries to instill in his two children:
Doug’s inspiring Shackleton story illustrates the power of a big audacious goal as it creates direction and motivation for living and a framework to develop discipline to overcome big challenges—in life and in sport. Doug’s story isn’t just about climbing mountains—it’s about searching for excellence and adventure, for living life with passion and making the most of the finite time we have on earth.
I left my conversation buzzing.
What is my big audacious goal? What is my own version of Shackleton’s Escape? The thing that will inspire me to be my best everyday—not just for myself but for those I love?
It’s a big question. And a scary one. I can’t be the only 20something guilty of thinking more about the short term rather than setting definite long-term goals, breaking them down into smaller steps and developing a strategy to achieve them. Goal setting is an intimidating (and fear-of-failure inducing) activity. It’s much easier to check Twitter frequently and hope for the best.
While you can make a great living taking life as it comes, the reality is that if you want a Mt. Everest sized accomplishment, you’ll need a plan. It’s scary because when you declare what you want, it’s easier to know if you’ve failed. But Doug puts that fear in perspective:
The risk of failure isn’t something that stops me and that fear of that risk does stop a lot of people. I’m not just talking about climbing mountains or whatever, the risk of failure just stops people in their tracks and I really do hope I demonstrate that you shouldn’t let that stop you. Instead, that’s just part of the deal. It’s part of the game. It’s how we learn. We learn through those failings. But on that point, when people go on expeditions really what they’re looking for is that sense of adventure and often in not making it to the top is where the real adventure happens. you really do get what you’re looking for so to speak, if you know what you’re looking for.
The power of ambitious goals is that the simple act of chasing them leads to growth, learning and best of all, adventure—regardless of success of failure.
Like epic poetry, life’s best stories are those that involved defining moments that result from a meaningful pursuit of something greater. Rarely are stories written about folks with grand ideas they were too afraid to chase.
You can’t be afraid to leave the shores, you know, just because the risk of failure is there. It looms for all of us, you know. We have a very finite amount of time to do what we’re going to do while we’re here.
What will your story be?