Former model Michele Graglia walked away from the runway soon after discovering he preferred running extremely long distances.
The Italian-born model-turned-runner has gone from showing his abs for Nike and Armani to becoming one of the top ultramarathoners in the world. And as New York Fashion Week continues, the 34-year-old former model begins a world record-setting quest to run Chile’s Atacama Desert, a 700-mile course in what is considered the driest region on Earth, with an average rainfall of less than an inch each year.
“Adventure kind of knocked on my door, and showed me a way to get out of the cage,” says Graglia, whose passion for the sport began on runs through Central Park about seven years ago. “I felt trapped modeling, but through modeling I discovered my passion.”
To finish the TransPerfect Atacama Desert Crossing Project Graglia will look to cover 50 to 60 miles a day for two weeks. It’s a combo of crazy and challenging for Graglia, who just a few weeks ago won California’s notorious Badwater 135, a 135-mile run from Death Valley to the top of Mount Whitney labeled “The World’s Toughest Foot Race.” He’s also had to conquer extreme cold, in minus-40-degree Yukon in 2016.
“Moving in 130-degree weather is extremely uncomfortable, that’s why this is called the most dangerous race,” Graglia explains. “But the cold is probably more dangerous.”
Ultramarathons — races over 26.2 miles — are also expensive, with little prize money offered compared with other sports. So sponsorship and some luck are necessary. Graglia, who works as a yoga instructor at the high-end Ashram Retreat, found both several weeks ago when he crossed paths with New York City businessman Phil Shawe, CEO of global business translation services giant TransPerfect, who was at the spa “renewing his body and spirit.” The two hit it off to the point Shawe offered to sponsor Graglia’s race.
“One thing led to another and the conversation turned to me doing these races, and this crazy desert,” Graglia says. “Then everything escalated to the point where Phil said, ‘Let’s talk and see if we could make this happen.’ From there his help made this quest a reality.”
Through sports and business, Shawe sees similarities between Gaglia’s latest quest and his creation of TransPerfect, which he developed in his NYC dorm as a student.
“Our team found him to be inspiring, knowledgeable and truly devoted to helping others,” Shawe says. “All this played a role in our decision to partner with Michele and support his quest to cross the Atacama in world-record time.”
From model to ultramarathon
What goes into a 703-mile desert ultramarathon? Graglia will need supplies of water, food, clothes, first aid gear including plenty of sunscreen, plus a crew of about a dozen people who will record the run. Shawe’s sponsorship will cost roughly $50,000.
“TransPerfect has always prided itself on overcoming adversity, succeeding against all odds, and giving back to the communities in which we live and work. We couldn’t be more proud to play a role in what promises to be a groundbreaking athletic achievement for Michele,” Shawe says.
Training up to the run is comprised of “light runs” of 15 miles plus lots of rest and reflection, “To me, this is my life,”Graglia says. “I needed to get away from modeling. I’m grateful for the opportunity to model but it wasn’t healthy. I’m happy to be living the way I’m living. It’s as exciting as it could get — finding opportunities to push my limits. And here, the challenges are limitless.”
However, what would Graglia tell the next model aspiring to make it in ultramarathoning?
“Don’t do it!” he says, half-laughing. Then he gets serious. “Change is always scary. But discovering your passion is worth every ounce of sweat.”