NEW YORK -- Chris Bergland is the greatest athlete you've never heard of. The native New Yorker and "IronMan" tri-athlete recently ran six marathons.
In 24 hours.
At 8 am on April 29th, the competitive ultraendurance athlete began running on a treadmill in the front window of Kiehl's, the luxury beauty goods store where he works as a salesman in Manhattan. The promotional event for the store was raising money for an AIDS charity. By 8 am the following day -- his rubbery legs collapsing but egged on by cheering staff and supporters -- Bergland had finished running 154.76 miles, setting a new world record.
After breaking the 24 hour record, his body badly in need of sustenance, Bergland's mother brought him his favorite post-endurance event meal: a cheeseburger, fries and a diet Coke from McDonald's. The paramedics standing near by were puzzled by the choice of food. But Bergland eats McDonald's as a reward for every major athletic event he completes.
It's an ironic cuisine favorite given Bergland is neighbors with the man who this year became famous for attacking McDonald's, Morgan Spurlock. Indeed, Bergland frequently dines at the same East Village McDonald's featured in Spurlock's documentary film "Super-Size Me" (and the same McDonald's this writer used to frequent when he lived in the East Village). In the film, Spurlock gorges himself at McDonald's restaurants on over twice the recommended daily allowance of calories a day for 30 days without exercising and -- not surprisingly -- gains weight.
While the message of the film seems to be that most folks are not responsible for their physical constitution and that predatory food companies are responsible for our health and fitness, America's greatest unknown athlete has a different message.
"Jocks are Conformist Dorks"
Bergland wasn't always a fitness buff. When he was 12, his parents separated and went through a really "ugly" divorce. He was shipped off to boarding school in Connecticut where he became "a really angry, rebellious, self-destructive teenager."
What's more, when he got to high school, he adopted an "anti-sports" stance thinking that "jocks are conformist-dorks" and athletics were nothing he wanted to be a part of. He also says he self-medicated with drinking and drugs.
If his sounds like the clichéd story of Pink-Floyd-listening-druggie-child-of-divorce-teenage-rebellion, well, that's because it is. And Bergland knows it. He says he doesn't like talking about his past very much for that reason. But he does, only to reinforce how athletics eventually changed him and transformed his life.
"What Am I Going to Do With My Life?"
The summer of 1984, before he left to go to Hampshire College, Bergland decided to get control of his life. "I went home and slept for about a week and half after high school graduation," Bergland says. "My parents were so consumed with their own problems that they didn't really notice I was MIA -- so I dried out in solitude and woke up thinking. 'Shit, I'm ALONE and I'm a LOSER! I need to take control here. What am I going to do with my life?'
"Since there was no one else around to save me," he says, "and I had gotten myself gotten myself into this condition, I decided that exercise was probably the best place to start in my effort to turn myself around."
He says exercise helped transform his brain chemistry, his sense of self, his entire approach to life. He went from being a poor student to one who was motivated and focused "with so much enthusiasm for learning that I finished the first two years of college requirements in 2 semesters."
But while exercise helped get Bergland out of the dumps, he says he didn't find the right balance in his life overnight. There were more changes to come.
He says in college he swung like a pendulum from one extreme to another. In high school he was apathetic, cynical, and in ill health. "In college," he says, "I led a stoic, ascetic-monkish life -- up at sunrise every day, no sugar, no caffeine, no meat, no dairy. I had so many rules and regulations about what was 'good' and 'bad' in terms of food that I couldn't eat in normal restaurants or even enjoy holiday meals with my family.
"So, I lived in kind of a vacuum; and kind of like the 'boy in the plastic bubble' I felt like there were so many toxins in the world that I had to avoid."
"I Didn't Want to Give All the Power to the Food"
Bergland says he started finding a healthy, balanced and sensible approach to nutrition, diet and health when he worked a summer job in college at Angelica's a "macrobiotic" restaurant catering to vegetarian diners located in New York's East Village. He was still a vegetarian at the time and says he got to know lots of hard-core vegetarians there.
"I made several observations in that restaurant," Bergland says. "So many people were succumbing to same notion that non-macrobiotic food was 'toxic' and that their bodies were fragile, weak and vulnerable. I started to reconsider my dietary choice. Somehow seeing my own neurosis in other people made me aware of how neurotic I had become."
It was working in that vegetarian restaurant of all places that got Bergland eating meat again -- "not to mention Doritos, Dunkin' Donuts, Ding Dongs."
"I didn't want to give all the power to the food," he says. By finally realizing he wasn't powerless before food and that he had control of his own life and choices, he says "I felt more relaxed and in 'harmony' than I did when I was living on twigs and berries."
Bergland believes that too many people with serious weight problems and eating disorders have developed unhealthy attitudes and beliefs about foods and exercise. Food does not have power over us, he says. We have power over ourselves. Bergland thinks that "we all need to live as though we are the rulers of our own destiny" and that when we are encouraged to blame others for our problems, "individual responsibility dissolves."
Today Bergland is a major figure in extreme sporting conquests. The 6'1, 185 lb. "Triple Ironman" champion won three consecutive "Triples" -- in which athletes complete a 7.2 mile swim, a 336 mile bike ride and a 78.6 mile run -- in 2000, 2001 and 2002. When not working at Kiehl's or competing and training in endurance events, Bergland tries to find ways to share with others the philosophy that saved him and transformed him into a world class athlete. He does this through teaching classes and is currently working on a book tentatively called "Exercise Fix: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss."
"Don't play the victim," says Bergland who, when I met him in Washington, DC for the first time told me he was 38 years old. My jaw dropped. With his babyish visage, dye-blonde hair and IronMan physique he looks ten years younger. "The human body is a wonderful, powerful, resilient and adaptable machine but you need to take care of it.
"Exercise is key. Don't be afraid of food or live in fear of certain things but use common sense. Figure out why you don't like to exercise or why you eat too much -- take responsibility, make yourself accountable, take charge and change your behavior."
Bergland knows that not everyone can be a three time Triple IronMan competition winner. But he also says that he's not a "superhuman machine."
"I'm just a regular guy who has figured out how to stay motivated and keep going even when my body wants to stop," he says. "My main athletic goal these days" -- when he's not completing endurance events like the infamous Badwater in Death Valley -- "is to take what I've learned by doing ultraendurance sports and communicate the methods I use it stay motivated and what I get through workouts to the average person who struggles to get through a 20-30 minute cardio session.
"Reduce stress and the risk of heart disease... It's such a no brainer," he says. "This is my crusade!"