From Top Model to Top Ultrarunner
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.”