Mike McCastle training in Fort Worth, Texas
Zerb Mellish
Mike McCastle training in Fort Worth, Texas
Mike McCastle at the gym where he trains in Fort Worth, Texas (Photo: Zerb Mellish)

The Record-Setting Life of Mike McCastle

Over the past few years, McCastle has completed 5,804 pull-ups in a single day, pulled a 5,000-pound truck across the Mojave Desert, and climbed a rope the equivalent height of Mount Everest. How on earth has this Navy SEAL dropout accomplished some of the craziest physical feats in recent memory?

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Bethel, Alaska, in January is a bleak and frigid place. A half-hour seaplane hop from the Bering Sea, a flat expanse of snow and scattered weather-beaten buildings sits below a blue-gray sky. In a small house on the edge of town, a burly tattooed man in his underwear is getting ready to be buried in ice.

Michael McCastle, 34, sits in a wooden chair in the corner where the kitchen meets the living room. His seat is surrounded by a frame of PVC pipes, with four walls made of clear plastic wrap. Two fit guys with shaved heads are tearing open bags of ice and emptying them inside the frame.

McCastle disappears from the feet up. His breathing slows and deepens when the ice reaches his arms, which are crossed on his chest over a heart-rate strap. McCastle stands six foot two and weighs 225 pounds; 60 bags aren’t quite enough to reach his shoulders, so the men bring in buckets of snow from outside to finish the job. A recording of a crackling fire plays over a speaker.

It’s hard to imagine a more low-key, DIY setup for an attempt at a potentially lethal world record. No spectators, no paramedics, no TV cameras. Just a few buddies trained in CPR and a piece of paper with emergency instructions that McCastle wrote for his friends, with details like: “Core temp 82.4 F—Severe heart rhythm disturbances are likely and breathing may stop at any time. I’m likely dead here. Throw some shades on me—Weekend at Bernie’s.”

McCastle works as a personal trainer and mental-strength coach for Paralympians, elite rugby players, and adventurer Colin O’Brady. He has been building toward this attempt for eight years. At 1:17 P.M., he starts streaming on Instagram Live. In a halting voice, he explains that he’s trying to break the record for the longest immersion in ice, which currently stands at two hours and 34 minutes. The larger goal is to raise funds for the Brian Grant Foundation, which works on behalf of people with Parkinson’s disease—people like McCastle’s father, Raymond, who died from complications of the illness in 2014.

“One of the symptoms that he experienced was rigidity, the feeling of being frozen,” McCastle says into the camera of his phone, pausing every few words like he’s out of breath. “I can remove myself from this ice at any time, but people who suffer from Parkinson’s disease don’t have that luxury.”

The timer starts. Two hours and 35 minutes to go.

A training session for his “longest full-body submersion in ice,” in Portland, Oregon
A training session for his “longest full-body submersion in ice,” in Portland, Oregon (Photo: Courtesy Julian Smith)

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.”

(Photo: Zerb Mellish)

McCastle trained for six months for his third Labor: flipping a 250-pound tractor tire as far as he could, again for the Wounded Warrior Project. He saw the weight of the tire as symbolic of the burden that vets with PTSD, depression, or traumatic brain injuries have to bear.

On December 19, 2014, the night before he was set to begin, his sister called: their father had just died. He had been struggling to recover after heart surgery, and his body finally gave out.

“Everyone was asking me, was I going to postpone the project?” McCastle says. “I had to make a choice. If this was about me, then I had every reason not to do it.”

Raymond had fully supported McCastle’s first two Labor attempts. “One thing he emphasized was, you have to finish them,” he says. “Don’t go into this half-hearted. If you commit to doing 12, you have to do all 12.”

Sitting in his hotel room in Oak Harbor, Washington, McCastle imagined his father walking through the door and telling him to go for it. “It’s like all the lessons he taught me culminated in that moment,” he says.

Well before dawn the next morning, in a bitter downpour, he started flipping the tire across a parking lot. “I felt like my dad’s spirit was there with me,” he said. When he stopped ten hours later, he had flipped the tire just over 13 miles.

In 2015, McCastle knocked out two Labors, breaking two world records in the process. In May, he climbed 29,029 feet up a rope, the equivalent of the height of Mount Everest. Up and down, over and over. It took him 27 hours.

Less than four months after the rope climb, McCastle went after the pull-up record again. Since his first attempt, the mark had risen to 5,801. But this time he was better prepared, both physically and mentally. His training regimen incorporated more cardio, including long runs and sprints. “I wanted to show that not only can you come back after failure, but you can come back stronger,” he says. Again he wore a symbolic weight, this time a 30-pound pack standing for vets’ physical and emotional suffering.

Despite the extra weight, it felt easier than the first attempt. Averaging about four pull-ups a minute, he did 5,804 in 24 hours. The effort raised $10,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project.

It can be tempting to write McCastle off as an attention-hungry record seeker with a masochistic streak. A cynic might see these Labors as a clever marketing ploy for his coaching business. Even with the charity angle, someone who goes after seemingly made-up world records while identifying with a mythological Greek hero makes you wonder: is this guy for real?

Those close to McCastle think so. “There’s no catch,” says Chad McKinney, a boxer and MMA fighter who has trained with McCastle. “He’s more than just a trainer, he’s kind of my guru. He’s like a really good book that you can come back to and always find more.”

Alexander Kunz, a former SEAL who has known McCastle since 2014, agrees. “Mike is on a whole different playing field,” he says. (Kunz owns the nutritional supply company OP2 Labs, which has brought McCastle on as an unpaid brand ambassador.) “Spiritually, mentally, physically—the things he’s doing are not natural by any human standard,” Kunz says.

For McCastle, though, the physical pain and mental discomfort of the Labors are both the point and beside the point.

“Suffering is a powerful tool for growth and self-discovery,” he says. “But it’s only a tool, not a fix. The goal should be to harness it and use it to move you forward.” Where exactly he’s heading isn’t totally clear. It’s abstract and hard to pinpoint. “The idea of living a life of mediocrity and quiet desperation has always terrified me,” he says.

In the ice box during his attempt in Bethel, Alaska
In the ice box during his attempt in Bethel, Alaska (Photo: Courtesy Julian Smith)
McCastle during his 13-mile tire flip
McCastle during his 13-mile tire flip (Photo: Courtesy Norma-Jean Chattaway)

Across the U.S., 22 veterans lose their lives to suicide every day. During his time in the Navy, McCastle lost two friends that way. There are many reasons vets might take their own lives, and from his work with nonprofits that address veteran suicide, McCastle knew that a sense of inescapable depression and hopelessness was one of them. He was familiar with the feeling, and he envisioned it as struggling alone in a vast desert.

As he planned his fifth Labor, he thought about a place that could represent that state of mind: Death Valley. But for him the metaphor went deeper. “I knew that despite the extremes on the surface, it was thriving with life,” he says. “To me, that means hope—it means your environment doesn’t define you.”

In late May 2016, he rented a 2.6-ton Ford F-150 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, loaded it with 25 gallons of water, and drove to Furnace Creek, in Death Valley National Park, one of the hottest places on Earth. McCastle’s goal was to pull the truck 22 miles across the Mojave Desert.

McCastle had promoted his early Labors through social media, news outlets, and partnerships with the nonprofit organizations involved. But he decided this one would be under the radar. When he arrived at the National Park visitor center, however, a woman was waiting. Jennifer Willis had heard about his plan through his work with Operation Enduring Warrior and had driven from her home in nearby Pahrump, Nevada, to take pictures and, if necessary, help keep McCastle from dying. He asked her to leave. Isolation was the whole point, after all. But Willis was persistent, and finally he told her she could come as long as she stayed far away.

When McCastle strapped himself into the body harness, the only things in sight were wind-sculpted stones and sand dunes. He leaned into the harness and started pulling. The truck wheels kept catching in ruts in the road. The temperature climbed with the sun, eventually reaching over 100 degrees. “The solitude forced me to confront the worst of myself: my doubts, my fears, my insecurities, and everything I had ever come to regret in my life,” he says. He tried to concentrate on memories of his lost friends. But by mile 15, veteran suicide was the last thing on his mind. All he could think about was survival.

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.”

In the late afternoon, the truck tires got stuck, again. He sat down and looked at his satellite phone with tears in his eyes, ready to call it. Failure number three.

He looked up and saw a pair of red lights on the horizon, blurred in the distance. It was Willis’s truck.

“I realized I’d been thinking about it in the wrong way,” he says. “Here I was, trying to fool myself that I don’t need anyone.”

McCastle knew the insidious way that depression creates its own isolation. Better to suffer alone than spread the sadness or ask for help, it whispers.

“How many people are going through depression and push people away?” he says. “That was exactly the message I wanted to put out: even if you feel like you’re alone, you’re not.”

Willis’s presence alone was enough. He ate half of a Hawaiian pizza he had brought and tried again. With a few hard yanks, the truck rolled free. From then on the effort was agonizing. But it wasn’t impossible. He completed his hardest Labor so far in 19 hours.

McCastle left the Navy in 2016 but kept working as an air traffic controller throughout Oregon and Washington. The next year he completed Labor number six: running 20 miles a day for 100 consecutive days to raise money for Operation Enduring Warrior and the National Alliance to End Veteran Suicide. In September 2020, he knocked off his seventh Labor: pulling a full-size pickup for ten miles along Alaska’s infamous Dalton Highway while wearing 50 pounds of chains and enduring Biblical hordes of mosquitoes.

Then he went north to Bethel, where he started working as an air traffic controller at the local airport. Four months later, he sat down in the ice.

(Photo: Zerb Mellish)

After an hour, McCastle seems remarkably clearheaded. He talks to the livestream audience every ten or 15 minutes, answering questions and explaining his process. He has been using Tummo breathing, a technique from tantric yoga popularized by Wim Hof that has been shown to allow meditators to raise their body heat.

“I’m focusing on my breath and visualizing a fire inside my body growing and expanding,” he says to the camera. “The only thing that’s inside me right now is that flame. I don’t have a heart. I don’t have lungs. I’m hollow. All I’m thinking about is that heat.”

His blood oxygen level and heart rate have stayed well within the safe ranges, and his body temperature has actually climbed to 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to melt some of the ice. His friends have to keep adding snow to keep his shoulders covered.

But the pain comes in waves: one moment he’s numb, the next he feels like he’s on fire. His left biceps seizes up shortly after the halfway point. The shivering starts two hours in. He focuses on his visualization, but then his heart rate begins to climb. His breathing becomes strained and his speech starts to slow and waver. After two and a half hours, McCastle’s heart rate has soared to 213 beats per minute.

The timer crawls past two hours and 35 minutes: another world record. McCastle was aiming for three hours, but five minutes later he calls it. “Get me the fuck out of this box.”

His friends carefully slice open the plastic with box cutters, spilling ice onto the floor. They drape his arms over their shoulders, like an exhausted prize fighter, and carry him to the bedroom, where they wrap him in blankets and sleeping bags. A local EMT arrives to check on him. He’s shaking uncontrollably and his heart is beating so fast it’s hard to take his blood pressure. She pinches his toes and shines a light into his eyes. “His pupils aren’t responding as well as I’d like,” she says to his friends. “But overall he’s looking OK.”

After half an hour, he can feel a stabbing pain in his feet—a good sign. It takes another hour until he’s feeling more or less human again. He scarfs a slice of pizza and asks for some time alone. Outside it has started to snow.

His final four Labors will also focus on mental endurance, he says. But after knocking out the first eight in as many years, he’s ready to slow the pace. “There are Labors I have planned for when I’m 60 and 70, just to show what you can do at that age,” he says.

He’ll also have more competition for his time. Shortly before the ice record, McCastle reconnected with a woman he had gone to grade school with in New Mexico. They were married in Bethel in May and are expecting a son in November. The news is still sinking in. Of course it makes him think about his own father, the example he set in spite of everything.

“Doing hard work with a clear purpose, embracing the ups and downs,” he says. “This whole journey is something that my son can see, a guide for a way he could navigate through hard times in his life, even after I’m gone.”

That evening, in Bethel’s only bar, McCastle seems happily dazed. He has a few touches of frostbite and a slight fever.

“That was fucking hard, dude,” he says. “There were some points where I felt like I was burning alive.” But as he hoped, the part of the body he had to push the most was his brain.

In the end, the ice record attempt raised about $800 for the Brian Grant Foundation. It wasn’t much for the nonprofit, which has nearly a half-million dollars of expenses each year. But it was something. And once again the excruciating effort did something for McCastle as well.

“In truth, these Labors saved my life,” he says. “I was in such a dark place. Without them, I would have suffered far more than necessary.”