Former Navy SEAL David Goggins has spent the past two decades exploring the outer limits of human performance, both in the armed forces and as an endurance athlete with more than 60 ultras under his belt. But what makes Goggins truly unique is the hardship he faced long before he began his athletic career. A brutally abusive father. A learning disability. Depression. Even obesity—he once weighed nearly 300 pounds. Goggins found strength in putting himself through hell and relying on mental toughness to find his way through. Christopher Keyes spoke with him about his remarkable journey and the tough-love lessons in his new memoir, Can’t Hurt Me.
Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Interview with Chris Keyes.
Peter Frick-Wright (host): Let me introduce you to David Goggins, a man who spent the last two decades pushing himself to the outer limits of human performance.
David Goggins: I started doing this triathlon and endurance sports ultra runs just to test my soul.
Frick-Wright: When we started the Sweat Science series here in the podcast, his name just kept popping up in our reporting. He used to hold the record for pull-ups in 24 hours, which we talked about in the first episode, the Pull-up Artists. He also went through the pool training that we talk about in the second episode, Don't Waste Your Breath. The guy is everywhere, including the magazine's January issue where he gives advice on working out, his undisputed area of expertise.
Goggins: Usually every day I wake up at three o'clock in the morning and I run anywhere from 10 to 15 miles in the morning and then I live about 25 miles from work, so I get my bicycle, commute into work, do a normal work day -- at lunchtime around noon, I'll run again anywhere from five to eight miles, whatever it may be -- come back work and around 530 arrive back home, 25 miles on my bike. If I'm feeling good and I want to get more miles, I get off the bike and do like a short three or four or five mile run.
Frick-Wright: People sometimes call Goggins the hardest man alive, but what makes him truly unique are the number of hardships he had to overcome just to get to the part of his life where he could start an athletic career, like a brutally abusive father, the murder of his mother's fiance, racism in his small Indiana hometown, a learning disability, depression, even obesity. He once weighed nearly 300 pounds. It's a catalog of obstacles that sounds maybe too exaggerated, but it's all true.
These days, Goggins keeps putting himself through hell. Quite literally if you count his three rounds of attempting the grueling Navy SEAL hell week. He also ran his first a hundred mile race off the couch without any training other than what he was already doing as a SEAL. He broke the pull up record, and he once entered a three day ‘ultraman’ triathlon, including more than 200 miles of cycling despite not even knowing how to fix a flat tire. So we wanted to talk to him and he had just published a memoir, so he was around, not off running a hundred miles to the desert every day. Outside’s editor Chris Keyes called them up.
Goggins: Hey Chris, how you doing man?
Chris Keyes: I'm doing well. Thanks man. How are you?
Goggins: Doing good.
Keyes: (voiceover) Goggin’s new memoir, Can't Hurt Me is written in part as a self help manual. The opening line delivers some uncommonly blunt advice, especially for a genre better known for telling us we just need to learn to love ourselves. Here's how Goggins greets you on the first page: “Warning: you're in danger of living a life so comfortable and soft that you will die without ever realizing your true potential.” Yikes. I began our interview wanting to know what's up with that. WhyI start a book by immediately putting readers on the defensive?
Goggins: Cause I want people to know right off the bat what you're about to dive into. This isn't a soft book. We live in a very soft society. So my lifestyle, my words, the way I do everything is not for everybody. I don't want to waste your time. I am asking people to go away within themselves to find a lot more.
Keyes: And did you get any pushback from your editors? They're like, come on David, can we make it a little bit more accessible?
Goggins: I actually ended up self publishing my own book. I had two of the top five give me a nice offer. I mean $300,000. And I was getting ready to sign with one of them. And I sat back and the book you just read, I'm like, you know what, $300,000 isn't near enough, and if somebody were to give me $300,000 right now to relive that book, I would tell him, go to hell.
Keyes: (voiceover) Read the first few chapters of Can't Hurt Me, and you'll quickly understand why $300,000 sounded like a low ball offer to Goggins. Goggins grew up in Buffalo, New York where his father ran a roller skating rink and nightclub called Skateland. To friends in their upscale neighborhood, the Goggins seemed to be living the American dream. But inside their tidy suburban home, Goggins and his older brother Trunniss along with his mother were in during a nightmare. All three were frequent victims of horrific beatings from Goggins’s alcoholic father. On some days the boys stayed home from school to avoid having to explain their bruises. When Goggins was eight his mother finally had enough and she orchestrated a harrowing escape fleeing with her two boys to her parents' home in Brazil, Indiana. I can't help but wonder why, after surviving the hell of his childhood, he'd want to voluntarily put himself through misery so often as an adult.
(to Goggins) I’ve heard aspects of your stories before I'm on podcasts. I'd never read it in such detail. Your childhood was just -- no other word I can think of -- brutal. Obviously I can't ask you to catalog everything in there, but give us a sense of what you were facing as a kid.
Goggins: I was facing pretty much every odd possible and I'm a big believer that you need a good foundation to start life. My foundation was so jacked up by having a very abusive father, um, that it just kinda snowballed from there. So from there, being abused by my father for several years and then moving to a small town was tough for me. Also, ybeing one of the very few blacks in that small town. And then on top of that even learned disability. So all these things start to add up in your mind. And I had no way out pretty much but through myself.
Keyes: And it didn't seem like -- like in a lot of stories in a somewhat similar vein that I've read before, there's usually kind of one person that's really looking out for that person that helps them through. You didn't seem to have that.
Goggins: No, I think that's what made it tough. But also that's what made me who I am today. I had to figure it out. And that's why I don't give anybody a get out of jail free card because I realized through my journey in life, what we are all capable of doing, if we truly want to accomplish something. If we truly want to achieve excellence, you don't need to have all these special tools and special gifts and special parents and special schools and all this special crap. You have all the tools you need inside. And it comes with great, great, great discipline. I wish there was a different word besides discipline. Discipline sounds too easy, but it's just the truth.
Keyes: And so just to give people a sense of some of those moments in your childhood, if you would I'd like you to describe that day that you and your mom left your father and how that unfolded.
Goggins: Well, it was a typical day for us. A typical day for us is, there was several abusive mornings, abusive nights. My dad was an alcoholic and so his physical abuse was pretty brutal, but I would call him probably one of the best psychologists in the world in a bad way. He had a good way of getting deep in your head and telling you what you're not going to be. So this morning started with, typical morning, him drinking a scotch, smoking cigarettes before he went to Skateland and he just got on the phone and was bad mouthing my mom. And so the night before that happened, she got dragged down the stairs by her hair. So he almost knocked her out, dragged her down stairs by her hair. I had a really, really bad whipping that night for doing something very small, so bad that they had to write a letter to school for me to miss school cause I was so bruised up.
Keyes:And how old were you?
Goggins: I was eight years old. So I'm sitting there at the dining room table and me and my brother and my mom hears my dad talking crap about her at the dining room table and pretty much she walks by -- you know, when you've had enough -- it's been 17 years for my mom and she's been going back and forth for 17 years and this episode just cracked her. I think what cracked her was how badly bruised I was that night. So I was trying to hide how badly bruised I was. And I was in my bed and she pulled the sheets away from me and saw how badly my dad had beaten me. And I remember looking at the face that she had and her face was like she saw a ghost. I think that stuck in her head saying, I gotta get my kids out of here.
So the next morning my dad's talking to somebody on the phone and was talking crap about the family and my mom, stuff like that. And she walks by, looks at me and my brother and my dad and my dad's on the phone and looked at me, my brother and said, Hey, you can go or you can stay, but I'm getting the hell out of here. I jumped up, started packing my bags and we start heading to Brazil, Indiana. I was, at that point forward I was the man of the house.
Keyes: (voiceover) In Indiana, things didn't get much better. Shortly after arriving. Goggins saw a kid get run over by a school bus. Not long after that, his mother's fiance was murdered, gunned down at his front door. She was never home. With his mom working and trying to get through night school, Goggins was largely on his own. He cheated his way through classes, if he went at all, and frequently got into trouble as a teenager.
(to Goggins) And so by the time you got to high school, you're pretty directionless but you start to have this dream; your grandfather was in the air force and you were interested in being a pararescueman. So how did you go about pursuing that?
Goggins: Well, I cheated all through school, so I didn't take one test on my own, whether it be, a written test, a homework assignment, whatever. And so when it came time for me to join the airforce, I had to take a ASVAB test, which is what I call a very watered down SAT test. So my junior year, I went to the recruiter's office and he said, okay, you gotta take it an ASVAB test. So like I always do, I went back and got my buddy and I came back next day to copy off of him. I brought him in, He had no plans on joining the military whatsoever. So he has test A, I have test B, so I couldn't copy off this guy. He ends up joining the military and I still failed the test.
So I have 30 days to come back and retake the test to get a higher score. I need to get like a 50 and I had like a 20. So I went back thinking maybe I could guess a little bit better -- I ended up getting like an 18. So now I have one more chance to take this test. And this is when it was funny how it happened. My mom got a letter from school saying that David is failing almost all his classes. Even though I copied, I never went to school. I hated school, didn't go to school a lot, but she never knew it because she's working so many jobs. So make a long story short, she got me a tutor and I had to learn pretty much from third grade -- because in third grade I started cheating -- from third grade all the way to my junior year out, had to learn all that in six months. We can only afford a tutor one hour a week for six months. So what I had to do is I like -- the only way I can learn is I have to literally memorize everything. So what might take you an hour to learn, may take me four or five days to learn the same material. So I have to literally get a spiral notebook and write down every single word on that page. I have to do that and do that repeatedly and repeatedly, before -- so I get like a photographic memory. So for six months I realized that I had to get out of Brazil. I had to get my life started and that's how I learned. Went back and smoked the test and that's how I got in the air force.
Keyes: Like what suddenly kicked in that made you say, okay, I got to actually do this.
Goggins: So I had this front that I was this tough kid and I went to the mirror -- after I got that letter from school and my mom gave it to me and I went in the mirror in the bathroom and I looked at my hair, I looked at my clothes, looked at my dress, looked at everything about myself, and I was a clown. We have this voice in our head that's always talking to us and if not, I had a voice in my head that was always saying, you're taking the easy way out. It was very loud and clear, but the thing about it is I knew I could always be successful, but I knew the kind of work I had to put in was to be excruciatingly painful, and the suffering involved with me learning, with me trying to overcome my past -- in that mirror, it wasn't like a one night thing. It was over a lifetime. I had to sit there every day and hold myself accountable because I saw my future and I was hearing it very loud and clear in my head that this is where I'm going. And it wasn't pretty and I didn't want to be what everybody thought I was going to be.
Keyes: And you call it your accountability mirror. So were you literally talking to yourself there or in your head or like out loud?
Goggins: No, I was talking to myself out loud.
Keyes: What were you saying?
Goggins: I mean, I can't tell you now cause it's a million cuss words. I was angry. I was very frustrated with who I was. I was talking about what I saw in the mirror. I was calling myself out for the truth. A lot of us don't like telling the truth to ourselves. We like to skirt around it and like to tell ourselves what we like to hear, not what we have to hear. So I was telling myself what I had to hear. I told myself I was dumb. A lot of folks don't like to hear that. Oh don't say you're dumb. Well if you're dumb, you're dumb. I was just telling myself everything that I was and that's the only way I fixed it was to call myself out.
Keyes: That's one of the things that I found so surprising about your book cause it’s antithetical to everything that you would read in a book like this normally, which is you should love yourself. But you're a big believer in being completely blunt with yourself.
Goggins: Yeah. I believe in loving yourself, but you have to earn that. I knew that if I worked my ass off, I would respect myself first. And then in respecting myself, I would then love myself. I wanted to be a permanent fix. I didn't want it to be temporary, and a lot of these books give you a temporary “I love me” moment.
Keyes: (voiceover) Once he got into the air force, Goggins tried out for the pararescue team. or PJs, an elite squad tasked with jumping out of planes to recover and provide medical care for wounded soldiers. The training is two years long and it's brutal. Around 80% of those who enroll drop out, largely because of the infamous segment known as confidence training or water con. Think hours in the pool performing difficult mental and physical tasks, some of which are designed to simulate the feeling of drowning. Despite being terrified of the water, Goggins thrived during the first few months; his other classmates gave up. But then he got the results from a medical test that showed he carried the sickle cell trait in his blood. This was the late 90s and though the research wasn't totally conclusive, having the sickle cell trait was believed to puts you at a higher risk for cardiac arrest. The science is complicated, but the upshot: Goggins had an out if you wanted it.
Goggins: What gets most people in special operations is they try to borderline drown you. No, they don't really drown you, but they make you very, very, very, very uncomfortable in the water to the point where you're like, am I going to drown? Some people do shallow water blackouts, whatever. I was so uncomfortable that I didn't sleep for six weeks, ever, just for fear of going back to the water. But I stayed in the program, I stayed in the program, and the sickle cell gave me a way out and I thought to myself, wow man, they may kick me out. So during that week, while my class is still in training, I'm on the pool deck watching my guys get their ass kicked and I'm thinking, well maybe this whole sickle cell thing, they will medically discharge me from the military. I'm like, okay, this is great, so I won't quit, they'll medically discharge me and that's great.
So week goes by and the doc calls me into the office and he says, Hey David, we're gonna let you back into training. Cause at this time I was second in my class for honor man. And he said, we don't really know what can or what can't happen to you right now. You're doing great in training and let's just keep you in training right now because you're doing good. And on my way back, I started thinking, God, okay, let me see. I had four weeks left. So I get back to my CO's office and I said, Hey Sergeant, they’re gonna let me back into training. I'm thinking that they're gonna put me back right where I ended. And the guy said, no, I'm sorry, I'm glad you're back in the training, but you gotta start from day one.
And when he said that, my mind went right back to that soft kid, that soft kid that I thought I had fixed in Brazil, Indiana. So I sat there real quick and I formulated a quick lie. And the lie was, Hey Sergeant, I'm very nervous about the sickle cell thing. The doc was talking about some guys had died from it and he didn't really give me a good ex -- I don’t any good excuses or good reasons why I should go back and this is really bothering me. And he took all that and he said, okay, we will medically get you out of training. So I never officially quit, but I knew I did because it wasn't sickle cell that got me out of training, it was the water.
Keyes: (voiceover) So let's review. Goggins was given an entirely legitimate reason to quit and he did. And while most of us probably wouldn't think twice about it, for Goggins, that decision represented a turning point in his life. Reasonable excuse or not, when he went to his accountability mirror, he had to face the fact that ultimately he took the easy way out. And as he’d tell me later, when you quit something that's meaningful to you, you will be haunted by it for the rest of your life. And he was. Goggin served four years in the air force, working in the tactical air control party, or TACP. After he was discharged, he moved back to Indiana, got a job as an exterminator, and ballooned to 297 pounds. He was 24 years old and essentially eating his way through depression. Then one night he came home from work, turned on the TV and found a program on Navy SEALs. Something clicked.
(to Goggins) What was calling to you from that show?
Goggins:You know what, I don't know if it was so much that show calling me because this voice was always in my head. And I think that I'm a big believer in something above us. Call it God if you want, call it whatever. I don't know where it is. I don't care what you believe in. But I believe in something much bigger than David Goggins, and that's the voice in my head saying, Hey, you know, you're not done. You haven't even started yet. And that show, this happened to kind of kick it over and it kind of linked the voice in my head with the show and it said, you have to face this or this voice was going to literally haunt me and I had to make a decision right then to get off my ass literally, and face the water in the worst kind of situation possible, which is go try to be a Navy SEAL. Which is, looking back on all this being 43 years old now and 185 pounds, having done all I've done in my life, I look back on that moment and it's amazing what a human being can really do and how much we leave on the table because it can be very easy for me right now to be 43 years old and still be 300, 350 by now, and still be spraying for cockroaches having never known what was inside that guy. And I could have easily chose to just sit down on that couch and just watch that show and say, wow, those guys are amazing. They're much better than me. And I didn't do that. So I think that's what separates me from a lot of people.
Keyes: (voiceover) This is the part of the book where you can't help but see a pattern emerging. Goggins seems to excel at digging himself a huge hole and then finding his way out. He stacks the deck against himself. For most people, the challenge of enduring SEAL training on its own, that would be enough. The Goggins situation made that prospect even tougher. He had to drop more than a hundred pounds in six months just to qualify. And he did. And remember how he'd been told after the sickle cell diagnosis that he'd have to start back from day one, and that's ultimately what made him quit. Well, that happened again in SEAL training, twice, but he never took the out. He got sick, he broke his kneecap, then he got stress fractures in his feet. The first two times he had to start over from day one. The third time through he just gutted it out.
Goggins: My third time going through Navy SEAL training was a time that, once again, I keep on finding different levels of mindset that we don't want to go to because it's very painful both mentally and physically. But in that third time going through with all the stress fractures and me taping my feet up and duct taping them up and going through -- that's when I really realized my God, man, you should have made it the first time and you should've made the second time, even with that broken kneecap. Cause I started realizing, man, my mind was really shackling me. Like I start diving into something very, very deep in my mind. And it became very interesting to me. I became a scientist of David Goggins and being so weak growing up, I was fascinated by the human mind and the amount of strength that we all have, but we're unwilling to tap into it because of the pain aspect of it all.
Keyes: Yeah, and you have several instances during your hell week experiences where you kind of tap into this like -- you're at a low moment and you find this kind of second wind. How do you do that?
Goggins: It's very easy now looking back on it. There was no mental toughness classes. There was no talk about -- this whole mental toughness rave that everybody wants to talk about -- there was no talk about that crap. We didn't have these steps and all these mental jargon, bull crap that we have now. It was like, find a way. So I had to find a way and I found a way through all my insecurities and all my past situations and feeding off of other people and feeding off of all the energy in this world. But a lot of us don't have the patience to do that. I had the ability to slow my mind down in hell. In chaos, when your mind is the most crazed and it wants to get out of hell, and it's like, this sucks, this is horrible. I gotta get out of here. I'm able to think very clearly in that moment. And it was over training my mind to do this over a long period of time, knowing that, okay man, I know why I'm thinking this way. I know why my mind is panicking. You have to figure out a way to make a rational decision in a very unrational situation.
Keyes: And did you not learn that lesson until the third time through?
Goggins: No, sometimes it takes people a long time, and for me it took three times to learn that lesson. But the thing that allowed them to do is they never learned the lesson because they never go back and back can be anything. Most people never learn any lessons because they never go back to hell. So why I was able to learn all these lessons is because I wasn't afraid of failure. I wasn't afraid of pain, I wasn't afraid of suffering, I wasn't afraid of looking at myself in the mirror saying, my God, I suck. So why I was able to learn so much about myself and about life and about the mind and about how to push past these different perceived limitations is because when I fell once, when I fell twice, when I fell three times, four times, five times, I kept on saying to myself, there has to be a way, I just haven't figured it out yet. I just haven't figured out a way on how to make this thing work for me. And so I was able to dive back into it every time.
Keyes: (voiceover) After becoming a SEAL, Goggins was poking around on the internet one night and saw an article on the Badwater ultramarathon, the 135 miles Suffer-Fest starting at the bottom of Death Valley and ascending more than 8,000 feet at the flanks of Mount Whitney. He thought it might be a good way to raise money for wounded soldiers. So he called up Chris Kostman, the race director -- cold called him looking for an in.
Goggins: I hadn't ran in like over a year pretty much, maybe 20 miles the whole year. And I call him up on a Wednesday and he tells me how to qualify for Badwater and he says there's two races left and one's on Saturday. So I had like three and a half days to get ready for this 24 hour run around a one mile track. And that's kind of how that thing started. But I try to get in off my Navy SEAL experience and going to Ranger school and having that kind of stuff on my resume. But Chris Kostman wasn't hearing that. I ran a hundred miles in 24 hours and that was his prerequisite and I hadn't done that yet. And this was in November and I had to have it done by January and now I'm 43 years old and I've done over 60 ultras. This is still the worst pain I've gone through my entire life.
Keyes: You mean when you do that race or just that original one was the worst?
Goggins: That first race that I talk about my book that I was not prepared for. Physically, it is the worst pain I've ever experienced in my entire life.
Keyes: (voiceover) He basically approached his first ultra like it was a 5k Turkey trot on Thanksgiving. When he told me this, I started to think that these obstacles, the holes he digs for himself, really are by design. Most athletes set a goal for themselves and then focus on a training plan and dial in their nutrition. Maybe they throw in a little mindfulness training for good measure. But Goggins constantly puts himself in situations which he's completely unprepared for, voluntarily. So why does he do it? I think he's stumbled on a pretty radical idea. Maybe fitness and nutrition and preparation are all essentially meaningless compared to the importance of mental strength. And the only way Goggins can hone that is to find ways to push himself up to that line again and again, that breaking point we all have where quitting seems like the only option -- then he finds a way to push past it.
All that preparation makes these endurance events easier. Goggins wants stuff to be hard. There's an invincibility that comes from that and it's the kind of thing you can't tap into by simply eating right and following a strict training regimen. You gotta suffer.
(to Goggins): I imagine like what I was thinking when I was reading that and you finished is -- did a part of you say like, Holy shit,I just finished that after four days, I just did a hundred mile race. If I had locked down this training stuff and nutrition stuff, I could crush the sport.
Goggins: You know what, I thought about that. But I didn't think about that until later. What I thought about was, once again, it went back to mindset. I realized what I had just done, which was the biggest feat of my entire life. It blew away SEAL training and blew everything I'd done. In that 18 hours and 56 minutes that I did a hundred miles with no training at all and the story is pretty grotesque as you read in the book, that really once again put me on a whole another mental level of my God, what in the hell? And I was scared. I was scared. I’m not sure if scared or having fear is the right word. I thought about myself at 300 pounds. And I thought about if I didn't make that decision to face myself, if I didn't own that --what made me nervous or kind of put a little fear in me is that I could still be that 300 pound guy never knowing that, look at me now. This guy was in that fat, insecure, helpless, worthless human being. And that's what really started making me realize like people got to hear this shit. Like a lot of us walk around never knowing what the hell is truly in us. And a lot of us will die that way because to get to this, it's not like you wake up one morning and say, Oh I'm gonna go do this. The training and the self discipline -- it’s not discipline, it’s self discipline, cause nobody woke me up, no one told me to go do this. No one told me to go do that. It's all on you. That's why I don't believe in all these quick fixes. I don't believe in it. I believe in the permanent fix and the permanent fix is to do what I talk about in the book.
Keyes: So what’s the permanent fix? Goggins is a former Navy SEAL. He's not scared of much, but twice during our interview he mentioned something that does scare him: the realization about how easy it would be to get soft again, to not hold himself accountable, to be that guy back in Indiana now weighing 300 pounds. For Goggins,the permanent fix is the one thing that eliminates that possibility: inner drive. If you've ever wanted to make a serious lifestyle change, exercise more, eat better, but couldn't quite do it, you probably blamed a lack of motivation. But what Goggins has learned through suffering is that motivation is crap. In fact, it's one of his favorite expressions. That's because motivation comes from the outside. Drive, that's what's left, when you strip all that away. It's what allowed Goggins, even when he was shattered physically his third time through Navy SEAL training, to start intentionally antagonizing his instructors. asking for more. He knew they could no longer break him, no matter what they threw at him.
At the end of our interview, I asked what he meant by motivation is crap. His answer might be the best explanation for why cultivating inner drive, something you can only do by pushing yourself when you're feeling your worst, is so important.
Goggins: A lot of these, all these quotes are straight from me. I didn't get anything from anybody in this book. And once again, it's from me living my life through personal experience. There's been several times I've been in a nice -- like right now I'm doing this interview -- I'm in a 72 degree house and the outside temperatures, 69 degrees, sunny, little bit wind. I got a nice TV in front of me. Big screen and have a glass of water. Nice. chill water. This is the optimal time for your mind to think how bad ass you are. If you were to watch a motivational video right now in this scenery, boy, you're going to think you are a bad ass. You're motivated right now. You are strictly motivated and you are ready to destroy life.
And I've been that way several times in my life where I’m like I’m going to conquer the world. It’s crap though. Why? Once you get out of this nice environment from 72 degrees and say you go from 70 to 32 you go outside now it's not nice and windy and it's not sunny and now it's windchill of minus 20 and all these things start to suck. You don't have any water. You're dehydrated and you don't have a big screen TV. You have nothing. You're out in the woods, you know you're out there just sucking it up. That's when that motivation goes away. So that's why I talk about motivation. Motivation is crap. It means absolutely nothing because once you're in extreme situation, if you're motivated, I guarantee your motivation will go away. But if you're driven, I guarantee you'll find a way.
Frick-Wright: That's David Goggins talking with Chris Keyes. This episode was produced by Chris and myself, Peter Frick-Wright, with Robbie Carver and Mike Roberts. It was brought to you by Strava and its new podcast Athletes Unfiltered. Find it in whatever app you're using to listen to this right now. The Outside Podcast is a production of Outside Magazine and PRX. We'll be back in two weeks.
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