Kaylo Littlejohn overcomes racism, isolation to flourish and finish 240-mile ultra
Kaylo Littlejohn grew up angry, isolated and abused. He acted up in school, one of the few African-Americans in the predominantly white community in Maine where he lived.
“It was kind of rough for me in the sense that I always felt pretty isolated from everyone else,” Littlejohn says. “In general, my mental state was not the best when I was a kid. I was in special ed for a long period of time. I would basically act up at school a lot, and unfortunately, a lot of teachers don't know how to deal with an angry black child. They kind of labeled me as ‘the kid with autism, or the kid with Asperger's, etc.’”
Without mentors at home, Littlejohn needed someone outside to serve that role. He recalls a teacher who he trusted until one day everything changed.
In his TED Talk, Littlejohn recalls the teacher saying, "Kaylo in 10 years, you're going to be like other black men. Dead, in jail or addicted to drugs."
It was a defining moment for the then-10-year-old.
‘A catalyst moment’
“The teacher had been upset because I was acting up at the time,” Littlejohn explains. “Basically, every kid acts up. Every kid essentially gets in tussles with other kids or there's some kind of problem here or there. But this teacher just decided to say this horrible thing. I know some people act out of frustration, but what he said was definitely not OK and it just kind of stuck with me.”
Littlejohn decided to channel that hurtful comment into motivation to overcome the odds stacked against him.
“It was a catalyst moment in my life,” he says. “From that moment, I made a decision in my mind that I'm not going to be what this person thinks that I'm going to be. I'm going to try to achieve more and make something of myself. It kind of just sparked a fire under me. I'm going to make it somehow, some way.”
Fueled by a new drive to succeed, Littlejohn still had to overcome what he refers to as the “negative programming in my head.” No easy task for anyone, especially a 10-year-old minority without a functioning support system at home.
“Until about age 16, I was still that same guy,” he says. “I just felt that I had a fire in me but I didn't know how to direct my energy. Even throughout high school, at least the first couple of years, I would still get in fights with other kids. I still had a pretty rough ride.”
Enter the mentors
At the time, Littlejohn weighed 285 pounds, feasted on Hot Pockets and drank a gallon of milk daily to bulk up for football.
Enter Mitch Markowitz, a counselor, and Patrick Kelly, Littlejohn’s high school wrestling coach.
“These two people showed me ways that I could use this energy that I had in ways that were productive,” he says.
Littlejohn put down the junk food and video games, and picked up healthy habits. He began eating healthy food, embracing meditation and reading self-development books, all in the name of self-improvement.
His renewed focus helped him lose 90 pounds, gain confidence he lacked and win a state championship in wrestling at the 195-pound weight class.
“I just had a conversation with myself in the mirror,” he recalls. “I looked at myself and I'm saying, ‘Dude, this is not bulking up. This is becoming a fat person. This is not where I want to go.’ In that moment, I stopped eating all those Hot Pockets, filled with gluten, etc., and basically tried to learn as much as I could about health and fitness. I experimented with a lot of different kinds of diets like being vegan, vegetarian, keto, paleo, all kinds of things.”
Developing mental toughness
The state championship proved to Littlejohn that hard work pays off and he’s capable of overcoming challenges.
Now, Littlejohn is pursuing his doctorate degree in is Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at University of California at Berkeley. His current work focuses on brain machine interfacing and theoretical neuroscience.
He is also an ultra marathoner, completing grueling races such as the Moab 240 and Bigfoot 200.
Ultra runners often have backgrounds in wrestling. The grit, determination and other lessons learned on the mat often translate well to ultra training and racing. The mental toughness learned as a high school wrestler pays off.
“Wrestling was the first time in my life that I actually felt like I achieved something significant,” he says. “It gave me a lot of confidence and taught me that if I work hard at something specific and I want to achieve it, I can do it. This did translate to the 200 races, especially because I didn't have much experience. Part of the experiences from wrestling, in combination with a whole bunch of other factors, gave me the confidence to know if I focus, there's a high probability that I can finish a 200.”
‘This is sick’
Most ultra runners progress from the marathon distance to a 50K or 50-miler, then try their hands – or feet — at a 100K, and for a very few a 100-miler. Even fewer have attempted and finished a 200-mile race.
And Littlejohn is among the youngest finishers ever of a 200-mile race. He may be the only one who also made that distance his first ultra. He first became inspired himself to try a 200-miler when he listened to a Joe Rogan podcast with Cameron Hanes.
“Ultra running kind of manifested itself as an extension of a lot of the personal development work that I had been doing, like going on meditation retreats and listening to various podcasts,” he says. “One of the things that I had qualms with about the personal development community is I feel a lot of times its goals are very esoteric and not tangible in the sense that, believe in yourself, be amazing, you can do it. A lot of it is this rah-rah mentality. Once I heard Cameron Hanes talking about running 200 miles, I just felt like, oh damn, I can sign up for this? This is sick. I felt that was an extension of personal development, pushing yourself to expand beyond any limitations that you may have had before.”
Soon Littlejohn learned he could just sign up for Moab 240. No previous experience necessary. No wait list. No restrictions.
“This is a perfect opportunity,” he recalls. “I didn't debate it in my mind whether I should do it or not. 240 miles, I'm down. It just felt like a kind of calling.”
Three miles to go
Of course, a 240ish-mile race has its ups and downs. And there are no guarantees, not even with just three miles to go.
“It was a long, crazy hard race,” Littlejohn remembers. “At the end of this insanely difficult race at mile 240 of 243, my mind was so delirious because you're not sleeping much. You're going for multiple days on end without sleeping.”
Hallucinations were screwing with Littlejohn, creating doubt in his mind that he would finish. He got a little lost and ended up by a cliff with the clock heading toward cutoff time.
“It was getting dark again, so if I didn't make it now, there's no making it,” he says. “I laid down as if I was going to sleep. At that moment something in my mind said, ‘I came too far to quit right here and there.’”
Littlejohn was suffering but decided to get up and climbed down a cliff. “Apparently I was on the same trail, the correct path the entire time, but just didn't realize it. I actually veered off the path, climbed down the cliffs and then reached the same path after climbing down the cliff, which is kind of hilarious. I ended up running those last three miles and beating the cutoff.”
The end of such extreme endurance events are vastly different than finish lines at marathons and other much shorter races. There are mixes of jubilation and relief. But for most runners like Littlejohn, it’s hard to process in real time.
“I was excited, but at the same time, a 240-mile run puts you in a different zone,” he says. “It puts you in this collapsed state. I was just so exhausted that I couldn't quite comprehend what I had done until maybe three or four days afterward. I didn't really feel much. It's hard to describe. I was definitely happy. I was definitely very satisfied, but at the same time it was just so exhausting. It's almost like you're waking up out of a surgery or something, you don't know what's going on. It's kind of like this shock feeling.”
How to get blacks into ultra running
As Littlejohn works on his PhD pursuit, he keeps ultra marathon training within reach but not as a focused endeavor. He sees during an ultra once a year or so, as a way to maintain the enjoyment of the sport and to keep connected with the ultra running community.
In this time of civil unrest, the ultra running community has been completely welcoming, Littlejohn says. That’s a far cry from when he was growing up.
“I suffered a lot of racism when I was a kid,” he says. “People would not allow me to come on their premises because I’m black. They didn't say that to my face. They would tell the kids to tell me. Obviously what that teacher said to me was pretty awful and pretty racist. Just in general being called the n-word. It's tough stuff, but that's what happened to me when I was a kid. But as a runner, I haven't faced it too much. Maybe it's because of the races I choose to run. Candice (Burt) does a really good job with putting on her races and making sure it's inclusive. I feel that ultra marathon running in general is like that.”
Littlejohn does point out the disparity in the sport and attributes it to the socioeconomic status of African-Americans. Ultra running can be very expensive, once you add up the gear, GPS watches, race entry fees and more.
“Ultra marathoning has this in common with skiing, skydiving or snowboarding — they're all very expensive,” he says. “I feel that white people in general are the ones that can afford to do that kind of sport. I think one way to introduce blacks to the sport is to have fellowships or scholarships for people from diverse backgrounds or low-income backgrounds.”
‘A chip on my shoulder’
As America comes to grips with its racist past and present, Littlejohn knows there is no one solution that will bring about change and fairness after centuries of hatred and institutional disenfranchisement of blacks. Still, education is part of the solution.
“If you were born in 1850, your parents might have educated you that black people are subservient to white people,” he points out. “But now that needs to change. It has changed a great extent, but it needs to change even farther. To the point where people are educated by their parents to understand that everyone should be treated equally.”
Littlejohn remains optimistic.
“I think it will take a long period of time and progress will happen,” he says. “We don't want one race to feel superior over another. We definitely need to focus on equality for all and educate our children that everyone needs to be treated equal.”
And that change needs to come in all areas of the United States, from the diverse populations of inner cities to the predominantly white areas like where Littlejohn was tormented.
About 10 years after his teacher’s hurtful comment, he did talk with him for about 10 minutes. Littlejohn has clearly moved on to bigger and brighter things.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to have a chip on one’s shoulder.
“Those setbacks gave me a little chip on my shoulder,” he says. “I can't profess to say that it's some kind of super positive reframe or anything. To some extent I might still have a chip on my shoulder. I'm not trying to be like what my teacher says that every other black guy is like. Because clearly I felt like I had potential, but I'm not going to be what the stereotype of me should be. I just felt like that chip on my shoulder kind of just made me feel like, no, screw this. I want to achieve something in my life. Once I kind of put a goal to it, become a state champ or get into XYZ school or run a 200-mile ultra I felt like those setbacks, that chip on my shoulder kind of helped me in some ways.”
Name: Kaylo Littlejohn
Hometown: Camden, Maine
Number of years running: Four
How many miles a week do you typically run: 40
Point of pride: Being one of the few black people currently running ultra marathons, and one of the youngest. Being strong in academia as well as running, biohacking, meditation and other side interests.
Favorite race distance: 200 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Quest bar. Bulletproof coffee.
Favorite piece of gear: Altra shoes
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Heavy Quarantine Spotify mix by Slipknot (crazy, I know ha ha).
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Work for a cause, not for applause.
Where can other runners connect or follow you: Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook: kaylolittlejohn