McCastle’s mother, Gloria, an Air Force nurse originally from the Philippines, was strict and protective during his childhood in Illinois and New Mexico. He was closer in personality to his father, an Air Force police officer from Louisiana: easygoing, soft-spoken, interested in the metaphysical as much as the corporeal.
Raymond McCastle Sr. struggled with a wide range of health issues, including Parkinson’s, cancer, heart attacks, and strokes. But he endured it all with astonishing strength and grace. “My dad was a fighter,” McCastle says.
When McCastle and his older sister were young, Raymond read them philosophy: Plato, Nietzsche, and Viktor Frankl. He was especially fond of the Stoics—Seneca, Marcus Aurelius—and Epicurus, who all believed that self-control and fortitude were the path to living a virtuous and meaningful life. “It was way over my head,” McCastle says. “It wasn’t until I was older that I could understand and actually see what the lessons were and actually apply them.”
McCastle’s parents separated when he was seven. In high school, he moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, with his father. (His sister was already out of the house.) Raymond’s health was deteriorating rapidly, and he needed help with basic tasks like shaving and bathing. It was a huge responsibility for the teenage McCastle.
During his junior year, McCastle came home from basketball practice one day to find his father collapsed on the kitchen floor of their small apartment. He couldn’t speak and his body was convulsing. Fighting off panic, McCastle gave his father an insulin injection and called 911. The ambulance took an eternity.
McCastle quit the basketball team the next day. “I felt like it was my fault,” he says. “I should have been there.”
As Raymond’s health declined, he saw the toll it was taking on his son. Raymond had two daughters and a son from a previous marriage, and one of McCastle’s half-sisters, who lived in Chicago, offered to take over his care. Raymond agreed to move in with her so his youngest son could move on with his life. McCastle wanted to join the Navy when he finished high school. His father supported him, but it was still the hardest decision he had ever made. “I felt like I abandoned him—like I was running away.”
In the Navy, McCastle worked as an air traffic controller, a high-stress job that put him in charge of the safety of thousands of people each day. He learned how to perform under pressure and compartmentalize his emotions. Meanwhile, fitness and strength training became an obsession. He worked out almost every day, running, lifting weights, and doing calisthenics, with long hikes and kayak paddles in between. In 2012, he passed a brutal test consisting of push-ups, pull-ups, running, and swimming that allowed him to try out for the SEAL program in San Diego. But less than two weeks into the two-month training period that followed, he took a bad jump during a beach run and blew out both his knees. He was devastated.
“I lost my identity,” McCastle says. “I felt like nobody.” He started drinking, gained 30 pounds. Although he was never diagnosed with depression, he thinks he would have qualified if he had sought professional help. “There’s a stigma attached to mental health issues in the military where it’s seen almost as a weakness,” he says. “It was like, you just suck it up, you get the job done.”
The worse he felt, the more McCastle isolated himself from friends and family. He was sinking. “I looked in the mirror and thought, this is not someone my dad would be proud of,” he says.
Pushing his body to its limit was the one thing that made him feel the most alive. He started looking for something hard, a challenge that might be just out of his reach. He had never run a marathon but felt sure he could complete one. So in late 2013, McCastle decided to run 50 kilometers around Lake Union in Seattle. To make it about more than just proving himself physically, he decided to dedicate the run to raising money for cancer research at Seattle Children’s Hospital. It had been just over a year since his knee injuries. Still, he chose to run with a 40-pound vest on, to symbolize the weight of a child battling cancer.
For McCastle, the physical pain and mental discomfort of the Labors are both the point and beside the point.
His knees held out and he finished in under five hours. The success pushed back the darkness and left him with a new feeling of freedom and purpose. The run didn’t turn him into a SEAL, and it didn’t help his ailing father. But it was something. It helped someone. “The cause was the key,” he says.
McCastle remembered his father reading him the Greek myth of the Twelve Labors of Hercules. As the story goes, Hera, the queen of the gods, made Hercules go temporarily insane and kill his wife and children. When he recovered his sanity, Hercules was tasked with completing a series of feats so difficult they appeared impossible. His reward for finishing was absolution—and immortality.
McCastle had heard stories about real people doing incredible things when the moment demanded it— mothers who lift cars off their young children trapped beneath, dog owners who fight off bears to save their pets. How much could he suffer, he wondered, in the service of other people? He decided he would create 11 more tasks of his own, each one as close to impossible as he could conceive, and each tied to a charity. For number two, he set his sights on the world record for the most pull-ups in 24 hours: 4,030, set by Navy SEAL David Goggins. This one would be dedicated to the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity and service organization for injured veterans. He trained for six months, building his way up to 1,500 pull-ups a day.
His mother was in the crowd when he made his attempt in a public park on Whidbey Island, Washington, in July 2014. The first thousand pull-ups went fine. But shortly after he passed 2,000, the tendons and muscles in his arms began to fail. He kept going. Some donations were based on his hitting certain benchmarks. But it wasn’t just that. “My pride and fear wouldn’t let me quit,” he says. Day turned to dusk. During rest breaks, he watched his urine turn as dark as barrel-aged whiskey. His body was breaking down his damaged muscle tissue and flushing it out through his circulatory system, a condition called rhabdomyolysis that can lead to kidney failure and death.
After 17 hours, McCastle had to stop. He had completed 3,202 pull-ups, far less than his goal. His body was so wrecked he required four days in the hospital. His mother sat with him and they watched the news on TV: Sailor hospitalized after pull-up challenge—after this break.
Even though McCastle raised over $10,000, it felt like SEAL training all over again. All he could think about was that he had failed. “It was about me and my ego,” he says. Now even the 50-kilometer run seemed self-serving, more about proving something to himself than helping others.
He thought about the idea of amor fati, or “love of fate,” one of the many Latin terms he’d absorbed from his father’s readings. A pillar of Nietzsche’s philosophy, it means accepting, even embracing, failure and suffering as part of existence, and using them as opportunities to learn and grow.
On McCastle’s second day in the hospital, a teenager in a wheelchair rolled into his room. He was waiting for an organ transplant, McCastle recalls. The kid apologized for showing up unannounced, but he wanted to say how much the pull-up attempt had inspired him.
“He didn’t care about the record,” McCastle says. “I saw that even in failure, I could still impact people in a positive way. It was an epiphany.”
McCastle felt his thinking shift as his body recovered. “I no longer had something to prove through the actual physical labor itself,” he says. “I could focus more on the cause and the purpose behind it. Even if I failed, I was OK with it.”