Ultra Running for Ultra Happiness
Matt ‘Mills’ Miller is co-founder of the successful design studio Ustwo. Despite achieving the business success he spent 15 years chasing, Mills has openly described a lack of happiness and satisfaction that came with it. However in the last year, he has transformed his mind and body through endurance running, yoga and healthy eating. He now describes himself as “truly happy in a way that I have never experienced before”.
He dedicated this episode of his JFDI podcast to Sporting Heads so we could explore his sporting background, his mental health transformation and his passion for running. You may struggle to find a more passionate advocate for the link between physical and mental health.
Click play to hear the podcast (interview highlights are written below)
Was sport an important part of my childhood?
When growing up, sport was all about being good at sport versus being bad and I wasn’t very good. I was always that kid that got chosen last. My God, it was depressing to think about, but I didn’t really care then, because I knew it wasn’t important so I never put much effort into it. I don’t think any teacher ever told me to correlate sports and ambition with potential to be better at business one day or to be better mentally, there was just no correlation between them.
I never would’ve thought when I was a kid that one day, when I’m nearly 40, I’ll choosing to be run on a racetrack in the evening, for no reason other than to get better fitness, incredible. So, no, it wasn’t an important part of my childhood at all.
Throughout your 20s and 30s, you put all your energy into building the very successful company Ustwo. During that time, were you exercising or even thinking about your physical or mental health?
We’ve been going at this for 15 years and I would say for at least a good 13 of those years it was all in 100%, more than 100% if it was possible. There was no blurring of the lines between work and play, it wasn’t a work/life balance, it was work/life merge. We merged the two and I didn’t think at all about the idea of running, and in fact we built all our socials around drinking. We built our business very much for the first few years on community building via parties and festival holidays with everyone. Bonding and building a business was all about the drinking side of it. There was no comprehension of the concept that people might not like to drink and actually get fit or even having a workforce that was fit.
One morning I’d feel very happy, the next I’d feel very down, I would not understand how to deal with that. I didn’t get it and hence I’d drink to medicate that
We often would look back and realise we’ve been out drinking pretty much every night since we started because it broke down our barriers. If we actually spent the amount of money we spent on social activities on getting people much more physically fit and considered they would be so much better at doing their jobs!.
If you treat everyone like an army, you want that army to be the strongest army it can be, so it can take on whatever it’s taking on. So, it’s a bit of a wakeup call to me about when you are a leader, how people are essentially following in your blueprint in many ways. You’re allowing people to say it’s okay to look after yourself, so no I didn’t at all focus in my 20s and 30s on fitness at all, just on drinking.
You ran a marathon a couple of years ago and described it as the worst experience of your life, why?
At that time 26 miles seemed impossible. I said the worst experience because I didn’t prepare, I hadn’t done enough training for it. But actually what I was totally unprepared for was the incredible mind-altering experience of running long distances. I was unprepared for how quick the mind would tell me to shut down and say stop. Now, that beast of a mind, which is why I’ve got ultra-fit is actually the thing I have now trained for. I’m fascinated by what happened in that marathon where my mind was saying you’ve got to stop, you cannot do this, stop right now. And I did stop, I did finish eventually but I thought this is the worst feeling ever. I hated myself. So it was the worst experience but it was also the most wonderful experience because, once I knew that it was something I needed to tackle, I correlated the physical and the mental components together.
Last year you realised you looked and felt awful and decided something had to change.
This is the epiphany. I’ve spent 15 years of my entire life working 100% and craving success. I wanted to be seen by the rest of the world or anyone who would listen as successful. I defined myself by how others felt about me or wrote about me or respected me, then that made me happy. We as a company released a game called Monument Valley which did extremely well, it was the very product that for those 15 years I’d been trying to make and it did extremely well on every level. I thought it would change me and I’ll stop wanting success, I’ll stop needing to want more. Yet I felt no different at all. It was the wrong thing to look at. I now realise business isn’t everything, health is everything.
If I was to be fit, if I was to feel like I could run a 100 km, if I was to feel that actually every day I could bounce out of bed and I could get up super early and just appreciate life. That’s truly got to be what life is actually about.
I’d got everything I’ve ever wanted, and I still felt no better for it. When I woke up I was still saying ”what is the point of life every day”? Surely, I should feel perfect every day now, because I have achieved the success I wanted, the metric that I was using. But once I switched to say let’s take on these physical goals, let’s just push the body, let’s push the mind into really uncomfortable places and truly learn about yourself, that’s what it’s all about.
So, you chose to enter a 100 km run, why?
Because it felt like such an outlandishly crazy thing to do based on the fact that I didn’t enjoy the marathon. I thought no, I’m going to get all in, and once I’m on my feet I go all in on whatever it is I choose to do
I stopped eating meat straightaway and became a vegetarian. I looked at everything, I completely eradicated sugar from my diet. I lost 2.5 stone within months. I got down to a race weight. I now believe there is no better feeling than the feeling that you pushed your body, you’ve expanded every last bit of energy. And the best feeling is the clarity as every day I’m waking up feeling pure.
I watched every YouTube video about this and you find out that there are inspirational videos of other people doing inspirational things which fuels you, you start getting fascinated by the different kits you can wear. You realise you need a coach for that community feeling of working with someone to improve yourself. Everything is about improving yourself as a physical body. It’s not about vanity, it’s about feeling strongest, about strong body, strong mind.
Can you give an insight into the places your mind goes during or after running?
Right, this is fascinating and this is also why I chose 100 km. There is this wonderful video online about an ultra-running film maker. He says that you experience every emotion you experience in the whole of your life on that 100 miles or 100 km. That’s the feeling I love. I love the up and downs on that mountain. It’s just amazing. I did a six hour run the other day and in it there were times I was thinking about my daughter (who is only nine) getting married. I was crying my eyes out.
You experience every emotion you experience in the whole of your life on those 100km runs. That’s the feeling I love. I love the ups and downs on that mountain
You just go through this emotional roller coaster, but you learn to understand that you can come out at the back of them as well. So, you’re feeling super-high one second, you’re so good, you’re forgetting that you’ve been running for two or three miles, then you’re so low. I’m talking low as I’ve ever been before, like you want to stop, you just feel why am I doing this, what’s the point of anything? You keep pushing, you know that your mind is tricking you, so you keep pushing, you keep pushing and bang you’re out of the game.
It’s amazing – I cannot advocate running enough. Running for me is cheap, beautiful, it’s got meditative qualities and the mind becomes more and more creative.
If we could take a scan of Mills’ mental health last year and and another one this year, how would they compare?
Last year there was a lot of frailty, I wasn’t able to deal rationally with issues that came up at work. One morning I’d feel very happy, the next I’d feel very down, I would not understand how to deal with that. I didn’t get it and hence I’d drink to kind of medicate that. I just wasn’t happy at all, in fact my wife talks about being in that stage for a couple of years where perhaps I was depressed.
I’m in different place now, stuff brushes off me in a way like never before, it just doesn’t wind me up anymore. I just feel more prepared for life and I’m just excited. I sit down and I’m just happy, I’m just smiling I just feel really good. I’m appreciating being alive. I don’t think I’ve realised all that time I was building the business that I didn’t take the time to chill for a little bit. Now, I spend the energy in a different way, I love nothing more than waking up going running for long as I possibly can.
I think the scan will also show that I’m in control. I felt like my body was a vessel that just got me from A to B and B was death. But now it’s like my body and my mind allow me to zigzag anywhere I want to go and I’m seeing solutions, not problems. The thirst for life is like nothing I’ve ever experienced and I am just happy in a way that I’ve never experienced before. I see opportunities everywhere I look now.
Do you have days when you can’t face running?
Sometimes again it is about finding that balance between when the mind is saying it’s too tired versus the reality. I think I have a better balance now, I’m able to understand when I feel too tired versus when my mind is telling me I’m too tired. And yes, I don’t beat myself up in the same ways anymore – if I don’t feel like running, it’s because I don’t feel like it. I do know that if I don’t run, I feel like I’m a hand grenade which is waiting to go off and I need to expend that energy.
I’m trying to become more and more spiritual and more and more aware of my body, that’s what I love as I get more in shape. I love yoga. For me yoga is about stretching the body – stretching my body in a way that just releases tension. It unlocks tension which just makes me feel so much better.
If I don’t run because I choose to, there is still something inside me that says you’re going to get fat, but I feel like I need that, that’s my ambition saying you know it’s good for you.
I own what is perceived to be a very successful business and have made multiple products which have gone all over the world. None of that felt as good as waking up at 5am, bouncing out of bed and wanting to get running
If you had to inspire someone to explore the benefits of running, how would you pitch it?
I would probably share a before and after picture of me – I try to pitch through inspiration.
I own what is perceived to be a very successful business. I employ over 300 people, own multiple businesses, and have made multiple products which have gone all over the world and made a measurable difference. It felt good, but none of that felt as good as the feeling of waking up at 5am, bouncing out of bed and wanting and needing to get running. Those runs unlock more and more opportunities for me in my business life too, so it’s like my hobby that enables me to be creative.
If I had this thinking 15 years ago, and I had the more youthful energy, then I would have achieved a lot more. I want to achieve things in life but knowing the rocket fuel is not coming from alcohol, it’s coming from clarity and physical exertion. It’s an eye-opening experience to me, which means I feel like I’m just starting. I’ve had my eyes completely shut, blinkered to only know how to build Ustwo. So, now that I’m 40, I’m seeing the world for what it is and it’s an exciting space. Now I’ve got my body and mind into places to really capitalise on my new appreciation of the world.
I will end by just saying that I believe 100% that you can’t improve your mental health and wellbeing without improving your physical health. They are absolutely categorically intertwined, and I have first hand experience in that.
So get out, do a run, unlock opportunity and know there are little small goals just finishing at one mile, finishing at two miles, finishing at three miles Every time you accomplish a new goal that sense of achievement is wonderful and it drives all other parts of your life.