Unconventional Wisdoms 2/4: Nathan Farrugia (Part 1)

Nathan training in Gozo. Credit: Kurt Arrigo
Nathan Farrugia training in Gozo. Credit: Kurt Arrigo

I met Nathan for a cup of tea, a week ahead of his Spartathlon attempt.  I wanted to know more about this family man, business man, and arguably Malta’s best ultra-athlete.

Spartathlon is one of the most difficult ultras in the world (the only challenges that Nathan really takes part in nowadays, alongside his own record-breaking creations).  

Spartathlon is a 246km (153 mile) road race from Athens to Sparta.  It started in 1983 and takes place 25-26 Sept 15.  The goal of all participants is to finish under the cut-off time of 36 hours.  Battling extreme weather conditions and strict cut-offs for the first 100km, it’s not only the distance that will be challenging. It is a stripped back race, no MP3 players allowed.  Little support and only basic food is given.

Up until last year, Nathan was the CEO of Malta’s largest non-profit organisation that helps people with disabilities.  He stopped to maintain his role as president of the foundation. He set up his own business which helps people/ companies with executive coaching and business development.  He is also heavily involved in foundations and charities for young people with disabilities and health problems.

Nathan has been working and volunteering in the charity sector since 2000 and has raised hundreds of thousands of euros for good causes. His latest endeavours are as director of the Lino Spiteri Foundation, working to create jobs for persons with a disability on a national level.

Me (M): Many athletes with families describe their lives as a daily ‘balancing act’, would you agree that finding a sport/life balance is trickier after kids?

Nathan (N): For me this work/life balance idea is counterintuitive. For me this implies that one must be sacrificed to make room for the other.  I believe instead in trying to maximise quality and efficiency of time, to get the best of everything.  For example I try to bio-hack my sleep, so that I go straight into deep (REM) sleep, so that my recovery sleep is 7 hours but I feel as good as having had 8-9.  Sometimes I sleep less, but I will catch up when I can.  The body has the ability to catch up on sleep as long as it’s not sustained beyond 10 days.

M: You hack your sleep?

N: Yes well-researched, simple things, like sleeping in a cold room, avoiding sugars before sleep, no bluescreens before bed, increasing mindfulness in the day so not going to sleep with a lot on the mind, (doing some meditation to get the brain waves settled into alpha state) so that all the sleep I’m getting is good quality rest.

Credit: Samuel Rondot
Credit: Samuel Rondot

I focus on output and performance instead of time.  It is better to spend two hours of focused play-time with my kids and 100% attention with phone turned off, than 5 hours constantly checking the phone.  Also outsourcing mundane tasks at work, keeping productivity at the top.

M: Do you think that that ‘trying to get as close as possible to ultimate performance’ breeds a perfectionist mindset?

N: Not at all, in fact, I’m the complete opposite of a perfectionist. It’s the 80/20 principle called ‘Pareto’s law’.  I can do a lot in 20% of the time, rather than keep taking forever to get it right.  I am happy with getting to 80% in 1/5 of the time, multiply that and you become hyper-productive.

M: Did this approach come naturally to you, or you had to work at it?

N: The more you do it, the better you get at it.

M: What does a typical day look like?

N: I get up at about 530am most days to fit the training in before the rest of the family awaken.  I usually do a two hour run and then return to see the kids off for school.  I would then get to work either from home or working at a client’s. The day would involve me wearing the various hats in terms of what needs to be done, I would then arrive home around 6pm.

Then if I am preparing for a challenge and need to increase my mileage, I will go for a run with my wife (as she prefers to run in the evenings) that would be something shorter, up to an hour, if not, spend time with the kids, help with homework or play, then dinner, chat with my wife usually with a glass of wine or two, watch something on NetFlix or chat, or sometimes go out, have a meal, a date, or maybe meet friends.

M: Is this every day?

N: Pretty much.  If I am doing something ‘easier’ I might knock the sessions down to 90 mins on the “turbo trainer” (getting a 3 hour workout on the bike this way) or a swim will take no more than one hour, an ironman takes less training for me than an ultra.

I used to play basketball semi-professionally when I was still at university, but I had some nasty accidents and I was getting so much pain it was taking me a week to recover and be able to play again.  So I started instead cycling, running and swimming purely as a way to keep fit and as part of my physio rehab for my knee.

I signed up for a triathlon in 2008 seeing as I was doing the three sports anyway and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the camaraderie with the people who took part.  It wasn’t as competitive as with the basketball, and also doing a multi-sport discipline was a refreshing change, so I thought this was something I could enjoy non-competitively to keep fit, and still have the challenge of pushing a little bit.  However, I got sort of hooked into it and started to go for longer and longer distances, the ironman being something I signed up for within a year of starting triathlons, and then took it all the way up to 666k when we did the UltraMed challenge last year.  It’s always been about an exploration of how far the limits can be pushed.

I always trained hard (2-3 hours a day with basketball).  The difference is that the self-discipline required to do an individual sport is much greater, you always have the opt-out clause available, where as with a team you are required to turn up for training.   Therefore I found it was also better for me in the self-development side of things, in the sense of always being accountable to myself and instilled even more discipline in my time management. My time efficiency improved drastically since I took on a multi-sport choice of exercise.

M: How do you balance your time between training and rest?

N: If I am training for an event I ramp up my training towards that event.  I try to keep a baseline level of fitness, so that I don’t have to start from scratch every-time, but I’m not religious about my training.  I’m happy to skip workouts and then double up on the weekend, my body seems to be able to take quite a bit of pounding. I don’t plan my rest, the balance seems to come naturally.

If I am being competitive for an iron-distance timing, then that is one of the few times that I will change the way I train.  I will plan much more, I have to fit in three sports and rest becomes the fourth discipline.

I listen to my body, I am very intuitive about when I need to rest and how long for.  For me it’s about mindfulness practice.  I do this both in quiet (sitting meditation practice) and when running, cycling, swimming.  Swimming is a great place for mindfulness practice (on the bike or running the mind can drift more easily).  I body scan, I can pretty much guess my heart rate at any point in time, this intuition based on experience is useful to let me know what state my body is in.

The mental aspect is also important so the mindfulness allows me to understand any gaps between what my mind is saying and what my body is saying, as otherwise you can push yourself too far, or more often, the other way around because people don’t push their limits because their brains say: “that’s enough”, when physically they could do more.  So it’s making sure that those two parts are connected. And the third part for me is maybe the meta-physical part of ‘why’: why I run, why I cycle… These three areas are very important to have in front of me when I’m deciding what challenge to do or taking stock of what I’ve done and deciding what is next.

M: Can you describe the mindfulness practice you use during races?

N: I step outside of my emotional state and body scan: look at how my body is feeling, what things are bothering me, what is conditioning me, what is affecting my decisions, and some scenario planning as well: what if I improved this, what if I changed this, what do I need to improve to get that result, etc.

I started practicing breathing techniques when I was 4, when I was diagnosed with asthma.  I found that I could control the onset of my attacks and the severity of my attacks by controlling my breathing. asthma is triggered by excitement, over-exertion, anxiety… The vagus nerve stimulation has a profound effect on the asthma condition.  Therefore at a very young age I practiced breathing meditation, and that has been with me since.

M: Why Spartathlon?

N: For me every event I’ve done has been a progression.  Either a progression on distance, or time, or on environmental variables (for e.g. Marathon de Sables (desert) Mont Blanc (mountains), Spartathlon for me is a progression on distance.  I’ve never done anything like 246 kms.  The longest I’ve run is a 100-miler to qualify for the Spartathlon.  Therefore Spartathlon was high on the list of challenges.  There’s a couple of challenges I’d like to put together, but I don’t have the time to commit to organising them. I’ve always put the priority on balancing my time and how the challenge will impact.  If I want to fund-raise as well, going to an organised event means you can just focus on performance. Own challenges are very exciting as they are multifaceted. Both are useful.

Spartathlon came at a time when I am setting up my own business, so I’m no longer an employee with a pay-check at the end of the month, so it had to be something that I could turn up and just go for.  Unfortunately I have over-estimated how much time I would have to train for it.  So it’s going to be a very uncomfortable experience. I haven’t trained for it nearly as much as I should have.
M: How much have you trained?
N: about 70k a week.  My longest run was 60k, I’ve ran a couple of 30ks, mostly half-marathon distances in the morning, and missing quite a few sessions.  I’ve tried to stay healthy and not put on weight, but from an endurance point of view, I’m doing what I usually ill-advise, which is “winging it”.

To sponsor Nathan for Spartathlon on Saturday please go to the donate page, choose “a one-off donation” and put the amount and “Nathan’s challenge” in the text box.

Nathan’s website is :  http://www.upyourlevel.com/


I'm a Yoga teacher and mother to 5-year old twins, with an interest in health, wellness and movement. In addition to articles on here, my work can be found by searching on Elephant Journal for my name, which will bring up recipes and mindful living articles. Thanks for reading :-)

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