From Top Model to Top Ultrarunner
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How Michele Graglia went from photo shoots to podium finishes
Once-upon-a-time super model Michele Graglia in his new incarnation as an ultrarunner. Photo courtesy of Michele Graglia
When Michele Graglia surpassed stiff competition to finish second at the recent Angeles Crest 100 in a time of 20:25, every sweat-soaked, dirty inch of him reflected the top ultrarunning competitor he has become since attempting his first ultra three years ago.
A bandana covered his head and a beard covered his face. Two water bottles stuck out of a vest on his chest. Arm warmers, pulled down toward his wrists, revealed sculpted yet lean biceps.
Originally from Italy and now living in Los Angeles, Graglia used to be known in Miami, New York and Milan for a much different look: that of a top model who specialized in underwear ads and other bare-chested spreads for clients like Calvin Klein, Nike and Armani. His gleaming six-pack abs, beefy arms, gelled hair and sultry expressions graced the pages of W, GQ, Cosmopolitan and other fashion magazines.
Ultrarunning did much more than affect his look and style. “It completely changed my priorities and goals. It completely changed my life,” says Graglia, who turns 31 on August 30 and is getting ready to compete in his first stage race, the 170-mile Grand to Grand Ultra in Arizona and Utah from September 21-27.
Last March, Graglia won the 175-mile, single-stage Ultramilano-Sanremo road race from Milan to his hometown of Sanremo in the Italian Riviera. He hit the 100-mile split in 15:33 and finished in 31:49. Prior to that, he ran 300 miles over four days in December, from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, to help raise money for an Italian charity.
Graglia, a former law student, says he never aspired to be a model. Rather, he was discovered in 2007 in a way that sounds like a dream for fans of America’s Next Top Model.
As Graglia tells it, he was walking down Ocean Drive in Miami and ducked into a Johnny Rockets restaurant to seek shelter from a tropical storm. He had quit law school to work in his father’s floral export business, and the business of selling flowers and greens overseas frequently took him to Miami.
A woman in the restaurant came up and introduced herself as Irene Marie, director of a Miami-based modeling agency.
“I recognized her from the MTV show 8th & Ocean that I happened to watch back in Italy that same summer. It was extremely exciting, and after a brief chat she invited me upstairs to where the agency was,” Graglia recalls. “To my great disbelief, we immediately signed a two-year contract.”
Photo courtesy of Michele Graglia
Graglia worked in the upper echelons of modeling from that point on until 2011, when he began to transition away from the career and lifestyle. In spite of the glamor and high pay, being a model left him with “an overwhelming feeling of emptiness inside.”
“I needed an escape—I needed something different,” he says when asked why he got into running. “I didn’t see any purpose to my life besides taking pictures and making money off it. I wanted to find something deeper.”
“The more I started to look like a runner, the less jobs I was getting,” says Graglia. Running shed more than 20 pounds from his 6’1” frame, dropping his weight to around 150. Above: winning the Ultramilano-Sanremo 175-mile race March 30, with his crew crossing the finish line with him. Photo by Stefano Michero
He says his life in Miami was “a life of vices and excesses. … You’re going out to restaurants and clubs and everything is handed to you—you’re rolling with these people who have more money than you could ever imagine—and after a while you take it for granted. This easily slips out of control, and you get involved in a whole lot of stuff you didn’t plan on. It’s fun to a certain point, but there’s more to life than partying your heart out and taking a lot of pictures.”
Photo courtesy of Michele Graglia
He then moved to New York and took up running casually in 2010. He loved running as a kid, he says, but running track in high school drained the fun and freedom from it.
Then, around Christmastime of 2010, he stumbled upon Dean Karnazes’ book Ultramarathon Man. Karnazes’ memoir about improving his life by impulsively running 30 miles on his 30th birthday resonated deeply with Graglia, who went on to voraciously read several more books about the sport.
Scarcely six months later, he toed the line at his first ultra. Rather than gradually graduate through progressively longer ultra distances, he picked a 100-miler for his first big event—the Keys 100 in Florida—and took the lead. But his inexperience with nutrition and hydration caused him to collapse dehydrated and DNF at mile 84.
He won his next race, the Everglades 50-miler in January of 2012, and completed his first 100-miler later that year, the Virgil Crest (2nd place in 21:53). Last year, he finished the Leadville 100 in 31st place in 22:10.
Meanwhile, his modeling career shrank as his ultrarunning expanded. “Being a model is not just about waking up and going to a shoot. It’s about consistently maintaining your look and persona. … The more I started to look like a runner, the less jobs I was getting,” he says. Running shed more than 20 pounds from his 6’1” frame, dropping his weight to around 150.
He did his final photo shoot last year and now works in sales for his family’s floral export business, which has flexible hours so he can make training a priority.
What do his friends from the fashion world—the other models and photographers who worked with him at the peak of his career—think of his new direction?
“The majority think I’m crazy to leave that sort of environment [of the fashion industry] to dedicate myself to something so extreme, and as many would say, so pointless,” he says. “Most of them are completely amazed; it’s just that a lot of them don’t understand it.”
As for what the future holds, Graglia is engaged to be married next year to Lauren Arps, an aspiring actress whom he met in 2009 while taking a workshop at the New York Film Academy. He hopes eventually to gain sponsorship so that running can become his main job.
Next year and beyond, he wants to compete in high-profile races such as the Western States 100, Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and Badwater—but “I have a bunch of ‘personal quests’ I plan to undertake in the next few years, besides running races. My biggest dream would be to cross all the major deserts on earth on a record-setting mission … a big and long shot, for sure.”
Whatever he ends up doing, it’s doubtful he’ll miss the trappings of his old life. “I haven’t been going out to clubs or bands or anything. If I can, I try to go camping,” he says. “And now I can grow my hair as long as I want!”
Sarah Lavender Smith is a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner and, like Graglia, will participate in the Grand to Grand Ultra self-supported stage race in September. She wrote this feature article for the magazine after the event’s inaugural year in 2012 and is blogging about this year’s race at TheRunnersTrip.com.