November Project’s Paddy O’Leary: Failure, Obstacles & the Mental Side of Ultra Running

February 24, 2017

About Paddy O'Leary: I’m a recent arrival to the mountain and ultrarunning scene, having spent the previous 8 years of my sporting life as an international lacrosse player back in Europe. After moving to San Francisco for a postdoc in late 2013, I soon found myself part of the November Project SF free fitness group. This gang of crazies soon led me down a path to running the hills of the Marin Headlands and the healthy trail running community-based over there. As I started to push my distances in 2015, I soon found myself at the competitive end at the TNF Endurance Challenge Marathon Relays. Some local Bay Area 30Ks. The Oakland marathon. Up to 50Ks in Tahoe and the USATF Championships in Marin. Then, the TNF 50 miler championships. Cut to another year later, I’m now racing for The North Face Athlete Team and as a Skratch Labs Taste Agent. This year’s focus is on racing 50-100K races with as much vertical as I can possibly find. And with a couple of short fast road races in between for good measure. 

Racing with Airik Sorenson at the Inside Trail Mt Tam 50K. Photo credit: Let's Wander Photography @letswanderphotography

What is the first thing you do in the morning?
Beeline straight to the bog (toilet in Irish speak). Luckily my GI tract has no issues with the early November Project start in the morning.

What hurts right now?
Been toying with some Achilles tightness as of late. The early Spring has seen me training on the roads quite a bit, as for a car-less postdoc, the Marin trails are less accessible from the city during the short winter days. That repetitive road pounding has definitely took it’s toll a bit. Looking forward to getting into the summer when I can make it across to the softer trails of the Headlands a few times a week. And also ramping up the weekend exploration, when I can head further afield into the Tahoe, Sierra and Yosemite trails.

What food excites you?
Desserts. Back in Ireland, my mam makes a savage fruit pavlova, and quite the blackberry tart as well. As a young fella, I grew up on a dairy farm out in the Irish countryside, so we had no shortage of wild berries from the roadside, and milk/eggs from the farm for cooking and baking. I haven’t quite followed suit as a great baker, but definitely learning. Surprised a lot of American friends at Thanksgiving this year with a banoffee cake. Shocks me that many people over here haven’t a clue what banoffee is! 

How do you manage the mental side of ultrarunning?
Mentally, ultrarunning is a ridiculously challenging sport. Spending hour after hour out there in often miserable conditions can wear the mind down as well as the body. Though no matter how tough it gets out there, I like to remind myself of a couple of things. (1) Run with gratitude. How lucky we are that our bodies are able to complete these physical feats, and feel these pains. (2) Run with resilience. No matter how miserable you’re feeling, your body has got you this far and through similar physical challenges before. Trust it to battle it out some more. (3) Run with appreciation. Look around and embrace these unbelievable trails we find ourselves on. And think about the amazing people we’re fortunate to interact with on the trails, at the aid stations and at the finish line. We’re pretty damn lucky.

What is your typical training day like?
The day starts with a 5:30AM wakeup to squeeze in a trail/city hills run or a November Project (NP) workout somewhere around San Francisco. Then I’ll run home for a hefty breakfast, and off on my bike to work at the lab in UCSF. After work, I’ll head to the bouldering gym with friends a couple of times a week… or maybe even a yoga class (which honestly, I don’t go to nearly enough). Off home for dinner after that, where I’ll relax with friends or housemates over a beer (shoutout to my friends at Sufferfest Beer Company), catch up with my running & November Project emails and try hit the hay by 9 or 10PM.

How do you balance training with everything else?
At times, it is drastically difficult to fit it all in. I try to base a lot of my training and my social life around my community, friends and sport, so that makes fitting it all in a lot easier and more fun. Coming from a large family of five kids and playing team sports like lacrosse, hurling and gaelic football from my youth all the way up to this past year, I really enjoy spending most of my time in a group situation. Body weight exercises and speed workouts with my November Project SF Tribe. Long runs on new trails and mountains with the SFRC crew. I have been fortunate enough to receive great advice on training approaches and how to balance it all. From my coach, Matt Laye. From my fellow teammates on The North Face Athlete Team. And from the November Project, SFRC and Bay Area running communities.

What do you do when you’re not training?
My 9-5 job is as a postdoctoral cancer biology researcher at UCSF. Our team is trying to understand mechanisms of resistance to cancer therapies - and what novel strategies can we use to prevent this resistance developing. We’re primarily focused on tumors caused by defects in DNA damage repair genes, like BRCA1 and BRCA2. My pre-9AM “job” is a co-leader of the San Francisco tribe of the November Project free fitness cult movement (it’s not not a cult). By “job”, I mean we get paid in sweaty hugs, high fives and daily doses of inspiration from our Tribe. And I wouldn’t change that for the world!


What do you struggle with?
Fitting in these critical pieces of injury prevention that I need to be doing as an endurance athlete. After a long day in work and on the trails, sometimes the last thing you want to do is a session on the foam roller or yoga mat, and sitting on the couch with a half litre of cookie dough ice cream sounds much more enticing. I want to have longevity in this sport, so I’m trying to get better and better at making this a priority. (SIDENOTE: I did roll for 5 minutes before typing this answer. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting there!)

What are you most proud of?
I only found my way into competitive trail running in early 2015. In fact, my main sporting passion over the previous decade was lacrosse. Back in 2012, I captained the Irish Lacrosse team to our first European Lacrosse Championship final after some big upsets over Germany, Netherlands and Sweden in the lead up to the final. Leading the team out onto the field the day will remain one of my proudest sporting moments. Unfortunately, we came out on the wrong side of a 15-5 scoreline against England that day.

From a running context, my proudest moment hasn’t come from one single race or event, but moreso it comes every week. I beam with pride when week in-week out I get to stand in front of and lead our tight-knit November Project Tribe with fellow co-leaders, Laura and Zip. This past Autumn, I organised a November Project/The North Face collaborative speaker series teaching people about different aspects of preparing yourself for your first utra. I saw 20+ of our members train and race their first ultra at The North Face Endurance Challenge in Marin, with many of these lads only taking up running over the past year or two. It has been pretty special to pass on this knowledge I’ve been lucky to obtain from the healthy running community.

Do you have a favorite quote?
"What’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom? Knowledge is knowing that tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad." (Quote courtesy of legendary Irish rugby captain and Ireland’s favourite son, Brian O’Driscoll)

What does failure feel like?
In science, failure in an experiment is frequent and inevitable. We shouldn’t fear and bury our failures, but instead learn from them. I feel this is also the case in sport. Failure can feel like an emptiness, and setting a goal and not achieving it can leave a void. But in that void, a fire will kindle to go after that goal again. It’s all about handling those speed bumps and learning from them to help you better prepare to achieve that goal!

In your own words, define "hard"/"challenging".
Something that is challenging is, for me, an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to learn more about your body and mind. An opportunity to grow. To push you to your limits. To make you feel alive.

When did you last quit?
By only rolling for 5 minutes a couple of questions ago! But in all seriousness, I set myself the goal of a top 5 and sub 6:30 finish at December’s TNF 50 mile championships. Unfortunately, I had a rough stretch when I struggled through the large climbs from Stinson Beach (mile 30) and Muir Woods (mile 36), where I lost 15 or 20 valuable minutes and dropped back as far as 13th. At the time, it never crossed my mind to quit, but I did almost give up on believing I had a strong finish in me. But I persevered through the rough section, was able to get out of that dark place and closed strong over the last few climbs and descents - battling back to 9th place and a 6:39 finish. I took a lot from this episode. No matter how shitty your body and mind feels, you CAN get out of it. And you’ll be all the stronger from going through that experience.

Where can people follow your adventures?
You can find me @poleary87 on IG, Facebook and Twitter, and at my Strava profile ( Also if you happen to be traveling to one of the 33 November Project Tribes around the world, make sure you go join one of their free early morning workouts, or follow the movement @novemberproject on IG.

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