Greg's Reviews > Living with a SEAL: 31 Days Training with the Toughest Man on the Planet

Living with a SEAL by Jesse Itzler
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really liked it
bookshelves: fitter-happier-more-productive, sports

At one point at BEA I’m pretty sure this book was sitting on a table for Hachette’s Christian imprint. I might be mistaken though.

I don’t really know why I picked this one up. I remember showing it to Karen and saying something like, look it’s a hipster who lives with a Navy SEAL for a month. I was thinking some kind of Perfect Strangers / Odd Couple type thing.

I almost left the book at BEA when I was culling from what my greedy hands had grabbed and I was trying to figure out how I could physically transport all the books Karen and I grabbed from the Javits Center back to Woodside. The book was actually in a pile of books I wasn’t going to take, and then I decided, what the fuck, I like reading about people doing crazy shit to themselves (I’d since read what the book was actually about, but still somehow missed the blurb on the cover, I’ll get to that at some point).

Then even more surprising the first evening I had the book in my apartment I started reading it (the first two books I started to pick through that first night were both non-literary books. I’m not sure if and when I’ll actually get into say the new Jonathan Franzen (answer no-time soon, I gave it to my sister in case she wanted to be read it during her summer vacation).

If you are like me you probably don’t know who Jesse Itzler is. He’s not some hipster, apparently. Imagine that my snap uninformed judgments aren’t always correct. In the early 90’s he had a dream to get on to Yo! MTV Raps, and he succeeded with the song (this came out in 1991, the year I’m fairly certain was the absolute low point for all popular music, it was an awful year), “Shake It Like a White Girl”

This is what he looked like as a rapper:

He then went on to start a company that allowed wealthy people to have the luxury of flying in a private jet but without having to own their own jet, sort of like a timesharing for Lear jets. He made a lot of money with that and some other ventures and according to the internet is worth somewhere around $100 million dollars today. Along the way he married Sara Blakely who (I’m pretty sure this is how the story goes) didn’t like the way her ass looked in a pair of pants one evening, so as a solution she took a pair of pantyhose cut the feet off of them and when she wore these footless pantyhose under her pants it made her ass look great. With this insight born of derriere dissatisfaction, a pair of pantyhose, some household scissors and $5000 dollars Blakely created Spanx (which Itzler says men have probably never heard of (he’s right I never did! until I had learned about her (which I didn’t do for the first time in this book)) but which to women is like the Michael Jordan of women’s underwear (I can only guess at this point he is correct)). Sara Blakely is now worth around a billion dollars. She’s probably one of the biggest modern day success stories that doesn’t involve creating a computer or a website.

I’m going into who these people are because they are definitely not hipsters, and they also aren’t people who necessarily would need to let a stranger into their house on this kind of insane month long adventure.

The Navy SEAL I don’t think wanted his name used, so he is just called SEAL. Itzler first comes across SEAL when he takes part in a team rely ultra-marathon. The objective of the race was for each team to run for 24 hours straight, trading off runners every 20 minutes (Itzler’s team had six people on it, so you can figure out how much running that is for a day). SEAL was at the race, but where as everyone else was part of a team taking part in the 24 hour race, SEAL was running it solo (he would run over a 100 miles in this race).

Before the race, my team stretched in a small circle on the grass. I was nervous and excited, but I couldn’t help notice the guy ten feet away. To say he stood out would be an understatement. For starters, he was the only African American in the race. He weighed over 260 pounds whereas most ultra-runners weighted between 140 and 165 pounds. Third, whereas everyone else was talkative and friendly , this guy was pissed. I mean, he looked angry.

He just sat there all by himself in a folding chair waiting for the race to start. No stretching, no prep, no fancy shoes, and no teammates. No smiling. he just sat quietly with a don’t-fuck-with-me-expression on his face. His supplies: a box of crackers and water. That’s it.

After the race Itzler tracks him down and makes a proposition to SEAL. He invites SEAL to come live with him for a month and be his personal trainer.

SEAL agrees, but with the condition that Itzler does everything he says, nothing is off limits and that by the end of the month Itzler will be able to do a thousand push-ups in one day.

The month they pick to do this experiment is a weird one, I don’t know why if you were going to do this you would pick December in New York City, but that is when SEAL shows up.

At exactly 7:00 am theres a knock on my door.

He has no luggage, No suitcases. No expression. In spite of the fact that it’s December and it’s freezing out, he’s wearing no coat. No hat. No gloves. And there’s no greeting.

He simply says, “You ready?”

Nine minutes later when Itzler is ready he finds SEAL waiting to go on their first run.

It’s fourteen degrees out and nippy. He’s wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and a knit hat. Nothing else.

“Man, I may need to borrow some gloves,” says SEAL.

“You may need gloves?”

“Yeah, or some kinda mittens or some shit like that.”

“That’s it. Only gloves?”

“That’s it.”

“It’s fourteen degrees outside,” I say.

“To you it’s fourteen degrees ‘cause you’re telling yourself it’s fourteen degrees!”

“No. It really is. It’s fourteen degrees. Like that’s the real actual temperature outside. It says so on my computer.”

SEAL pauses for a moment like I may have disappointed him. “On your computer, huh?”

He begins to laugh, just it’s a looming laugh, like the Count of Sesame Street after he just counted: “SEVEN—SEVEN flowers. AH, ah, ah, ahhhh….”

“The temperature is what you think it is bro, not what your computer thinks it is. If you think it’s fourteen degrees then it’s fourteen degrees. Personally, I’m looking at it like it’s in the mid-fifties.”

Rather than argue—after all, we’re still just getting to know each other—I just say: “Got it.”

“You ever spend any time in freezing water, Jesse?” SEAL asks.

I’m thinking to myself, Like on purpose? But I respond with a “no.”

“Well, is it freezing? Or is your mind just saying its freezing? Which is it?” He laughs again. “Control you mind, Jesse.”

“Got it.” (I’m going to have to put that on the to-do list: Control mind.)

“Exactly. Enjoy this shit. If you want it to be seventy and sunny…it’s seventy and sunny. Just run. The elements are in your mind. I don’t ever check the temperature when I run. Who gives a fuck what the temperature on the computer says? The computer isn’t out there running, is it?”

(In case your wondering this trick only works apparently for cold to hot, when it’s hot you just have to embrace how awful it is and maybe make yourself feel better knowing that everyone else is more miserable than you are.)

SEAL becomes a fixture in Itzler’s life, having him train at all hours of the day, going on business trips, family getaways, business meetings and eventually even spending the holidays with Itzler’s family.

For example, on what might have been Christmas (there are no dates just days given) they do 9.5 miles running through the woods in Connecticut, 775 push-ups, 125 sit-ups and spend 21-minutes in an excessively hot steam room. Oh, and SEAL makes him jump into a frozen lake of water and then dash back to the house while the threat of frostbite looms.

Along the way SEAL also buys the Itzler family a fifty pound inflatable raft that comes in it’s own backpack, in case they ever have to get out of Manhattan in a 9/11 style attack that has left the bridges and tunnels shut down. He gets them to reinforce the windows in their vacation home with glass that could stop a machine gum, and offers tactical suggestions how to walk to work with tips such as, avoid Trump Tower today because Trump has been in the news too much lately.

I don’t want to say that SEAL is bizarre, and I’m not entirely sure how accurate the portrayal is, or how much it just makes for an entertaining read to have him be so extreme, but he’s um, very focused. Kind of in a way that if he is half as focused and singleminded as he is portrayed it makes me wonder what the hell is wrong with me that I can’t muster up even a fraction of his determination. Towards the end of the book when Itzler and his friends are going around the dinner table sharing what their resolutions are for the upcoming year—and they are what you would normally think of New Year’s Resolutions—get a new job, move to someplace new, things like that, SEAL says, “I don’t want the same shit you guys want. I’m not looking for anything else. I’m going to do the same shit I’ve been doing,” he said, “only I’m going to do it better”

And a little while later in something like an apology he returns to the group and says, “I just think you don’t give your lives enough credit.”

The book is basically a pretty funny and upbeat book about personal transformation, even though the person who is doing the transformation is already someone who if you looked at you’d be like, um he’s probably got everything I could possibly think I want. He’s successful and rich. He has a beautiful wife. He’s already someone who can run ultra-marathons, so he’s healthy and fit. He comes across as a genuinely happy and grounded person. On the surface Jesse Itzler seems more like someone who should just join a Crossfit gym or something if he’s looking to break out of the exercise rut that he has found himself in.

Instead he went and found one of the toughest guys in the world (he ran an endurance race with both feet broken, there’s a point where it’s pretty unbelievable the things that SEAL has willed himself to push through and do) to train him for a month, with nothing off limits.

I’m kind of a sucker for stories like this, I’m fascinated by people who come up with crazy challenges for themselves or who do bizarre experiments to make themselves better in some way (and yet I’ve never had much desire to read an AJ Jacobs book, go figure).

A lot of this ‘genre’ turns out to be ways of hacking the body to get better results, like reading about ways that people can get more results out of exercise by doing less but in smarter ways; or ways around traditional ideas of diet and sleep. The kind of things that are called life hacks or bio-hacks. This book is at the other end of the spectrum of that. This isn’t the sort of thing that knowing if you can give your body a particular amount of stress you can get the results from an hour of planks in just a series of really short moves; or that in four minutes of the right exercise you can get way better cardio results than running for an hour (running is for suckers as I’ve told Karen).

This is the other side of the coin that those “miracle” actions promise. But it’s the same coin. Everything in this book is fairly simple, there are only a handful of exercises ever done, but it’s the amount of those few exercises that is unbelievable.

Everything in this book flies in the face of what experts say about exercise. There are no rest days. There is no targeting different parts of the body—the exercises are pretty much just running a lot and push-ups. With some other exercises thrown in from time to time, but still it’s just just mainly running and push-ups. And remembering that there are no rest days, it also involves things like doing 100 pull-ups when Itzler could barely do 10, and he was told to stay in the gym until he did a hundred. I can’t imagine what the lactic acid build up must have felt like when he had to go so far beyond what his body could comfortably do, even if it was just one pull-up at a time with lots of rest, and then the next day still have to go out and run (I was thinking that there were going to be push-ups the next day, but SEAL just went with running for the next two days).

Maybe you’ve noticed that I have a real fascination with this stuff lately. I was toying with the idea that I should give myself a ridiculous (for me) challenge of being able to run a half-marathon by the end of the summer a couple of weeks before this book came into my life.

Why a half-marathon? Because I hate to run. I always told myself that I was terrible at it, and when I start to run my brain is just waiting to come up with any excuse it can to give me an out and stop doing this activity for suckers (and it is for suckers). I tried a couple of times to run and I think I was lucky if i made it to a mile before my brain would win and say, awesome job, you ran a bit now rest!

A full marathon just seems ridiculous to me (your muscle is actually being converted into fuel by your body during a run that long, so you are actually in worse shape when you are done with one than when you started (maybe this is true of a half-marathon, too, but it wouldn’t be nearly as bad)—and in my head 13.1 miles running is just as much of an out there thing for me to do, in my head they are pretty much the same thing of, ‘way more than I could ever run.’

So I had toyed with the idea that I would get myself up to being able to run a half-marathon (or run 13.1 miles, the actual running in an organized event doesn’t really matter) and mentally if I could achieve this just about anything else I want to do should be fucking easy. Since remember, I hate fucking running and I’ll take any excuse to stop that my brain will give me.

So this book inspired me partially to actually go out and do it.

Will it make my life better? That remains to be seen, I want to say yes, that doing something this far outside of what I physically felt I could do will have a great impact on me, sort of like the feeling the first time I was able to land a head kick, but with more actual work and mental toughness to get to the end of the his challenge (I’m not saying physical toughness, that’s easy to come by if you can stick with something, it’s almost all mental), but it could just be a huge distraction, which is what my weird little challenges usually turn out to be and make me realize that I’m ignoring large parts of my life in my focus do this one thing.

And because running wasn’t enough, and because I’m too cheap right now to pay for a gym membership I decided that I’d throw in some push-ups everyday, like a hundred of them a day and increase that by fifty every week until I get to maybe 300 a day. After 300 the push-ups would take up way more time that I’d be interested in giving exercise a day, especially with running.

So that is my physical summer challenge, and that is my review for this book, which I ended up really enjoying and maybe you will, too.

Oh right, I said I’d mention the blurb, it wasn't anything too special, but it was by Coach K, the head-coach of Duke’s Baseketball team—and since i’m becoming more and more of a Duke fanboy every year, I kind of have to read a book that Coach K has blessed with his approval, fortunately I don’t spend much time looking through the sports section of bookstores so I don’t have to worry about having to read many more books that he has also blurbed (if he blurbs many, I don’t know if he does), but this is my first Coach K blurbed book.

August 3rd Addition to the review.

Hello. I wrote this review back in the beginning of June. I never posted it. But I’m checking in with some extra stuff.

So how has the “Summer of Fitness” worked out (that was a stupid name, I should have changed it to something better, no one would have ever known!)?

I’ll start with the failure!

I made it though about two weeks of push-ups, and then I got really fucking bored with doing push-ups. So I stopped. I didn’t intentionally stop, just one day I didn’t do them. And then the next I did some, and the day after that I was supposed to do 150 and I did 75 instead and then I just stopped.

Push-ups are boring.

Now a success!

On June 1st, I put on my shitty sneakers and went running. I was aiming to run a mile everyday for five days a week and then the next week I’d run 1.5 miles for five days and so on. I’m not sure how I figured that by the end of the summer I’d be at 13.1 miles, but that was my plan.

I’ll spare the details but on August 1st I ran what I’m calling the “Woodside/Sunnyside Half-Marathon” (it’s a very exclusive race). My time wasn’t very impressive, but I ran the entire 13.1 miles without having to walk at all, and only stopping a couple of times for a few seconds to save myself from being run over by cars.

I’m still not sure if I like running. I have found that if I can get over 4 or 5 miles than it becomes actually fairly enjoyable, but miles 2 through 4 seem to suck each and every time.

I don’t know if I have this book to thank for some of the inspiration in actually doing this very time consuming challenge. I also don’t know if I have unlocked any super-powers or will be able to tackle other tasks with greater ease now that I’ve proven I can push through my mind telling to me to stop and offering a lot of enticing excuses and rationalizations for why it would be better to go do just about anything else than run.

So I’m calling “The Summer of Fitness” a win. I’m not sure if there will be another challenge this summer.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
June 8, 2015 – Finished Reading
June 11, 2015 – Shelved
June 11, 2015 – Shelved as: fitter-happier-more-productive
June 11, 2015 – Shelved as: sports

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by karen (new)

karen SEAL

Greg He never said that it wasn't Seal!

message 3: by karen (new)

karen see?

message 4: by Grafakos (new)

Grafakos White guy rapper (strike one), with Peter Frampton hair (strike two), calling himself Jesse Jaymes (strike three). I would have said 1988 was the low point, but you make a compelling case for (against) 1991. But: Julian Cope's Peggy Suicide.

message 5: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! Holy sh*t! Very cool that you ran a half marathon without stopping! It sounds like maybe endurance running is an activity your body handles pretty well!

message 6: by Glenn (new)

Glenn Russell I'm ready. Sign me up!

message 7: by Richard (new)

Richard Greg, I hate exercise of all kinds, so I'm really impressed that you conquered your aversion to running long enough to meet this challenge.

message 8: by Mark (new)

Mark Chan 10 bucks says you didn't think you could write a review like that.. the book is paying off.

Arash Jamwal Wow what a delightful review :)

David Howell Greg, given your dislike of running, I'm surprised you didn't mention in your review that, and I'm quoting the author, "When SEAL broke both feet .. it wasn't the first time. .. He has a hole in his aorta that surgeons can't seem to close. He asthmatic. And, he truly _hates to run_. But he runs because he raises a lot of money for charity when he does to help the the families of SEALs who died on the battlefield."
You have some comradeship with SEAL in regards to running (hating it but doing it anyway). Good job on running that half-marathon.

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