Nelson Dellis is one of the most interesting CrossFitters in the world.
Nelson is a four-time US Memory Champion. I flew to Manhattan to watch him win his second in 2014, and wrote about the experience in the CrossFit Journal.
He was introduced to CrossFit by a mutual friend in Miami, whose coaches were struggling to remember the names of the athletes in their large classes.
He’s also attempted to summit Everest three times, dragging camera crews along with him more than once. He’s the founder of the Extreme Memory Tournament, the author of “I Forgot Something (But I Can’t Remember What It Was)” and the founder of Climb For Memory, a charity for Alzheimer’s Research. He’s been featured on Today, The Dr. Oz Show and Nightline.
Nelson’s bit on Saturday Night Live is here.
“Client Experience” is one of our 7 Areas of Gym Excellence. When your coach remembers important things about you, your bond is reinforced. Nelson talks about paying attention, remembering details about your clients, and how to make both easier.
Our UpCoach Challenge: Client Scavenger Hunt was a huge hit last month.
Nelson’s most important lesson to me is this: Make massive goals, go after them hard, and take the big lessons.
He also shares a message we can give to higher-earning clients, like accountants and other “thinkers”, on the value of CrossFit to them.
I referred to Brian Alexander’s Legends Program at CrossFit Illumine and our program, Zecutive.
In January, Nelson is taking a group of business owners and CrossFitters to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
You can talk to Nelson at NelsonDellis.com.
Nelson referred to the “Names and Faces” event. In our Ignite program, we do daily BrainWODs. You can try one using the “Names and Faces” challenge at the bottom of this post.
Names and Faces Challenge
Spend up to 3 minutes with the first picture, including names under each face.
Then, an “interference” workout:
50 double-unders (high skill with higher cognitive load)
The workout should take less than 10 minutes and be primarily aerobic.
Then, Names and Faces Part II:
Match the name to the face.
Athletes can use any mental strategy to help them remember.
The music on today’s podcast is Mother Nature, by Scott Holmes.
Recorded on August 15, 2016.
Nelson: 00:00 – The US Memory Championships were held recently and for the third time, the winter was Nelson Dellis.
SNL: 00:05 – Oh, nuts. I wanted to win that.
Nelson: 00:07 – Oh, you competed?
SNL: 00:08 – Competed in what?
Nelson: 00:09 – The US memory championships.
SNL: 00:10 – Oh, you talking jibberish, Nelson Dellis.
Nelson: 00:14 – No, that’s the guy who won; I’m Collin Gibbs.
SNL: 00:15 – No, I’m Cecily Strong.
Nelson: 00:18 – And I’m Collin Gibbs.
SNL: 00:19 – And here are tonight’s top stories.
Chris: 00:25 – My name is Chris Cooper. In late March, 2014, I was in Manhattan for the USA Memory Championships. I was on assignment from CrossFit HQ to write an article for the CrossFit Journal about how exercise helps your brain store and recall memories faster. I figured there was no better place to learn about memory than from the people with the best memories objectively measured in America. I was standing in a very packed lobby waiting to get my press credentials when this guy walks in, and he’s taller than everybody else in the room and immediately everyone turns toward him and starts saying, “Hey Nelson, Nelson Nelson, over here.” He’s a charismatic dude and he’s surrounded by people and he talks to everyone: fans, other competitors, the press. There are people waiting, lining up to talk to this guy. I’m standing on the periphery of a large circle forming around him and I overhear these words: “Are you still doing that CrossFit thing?”
Chris: 01:26 – At that moment, worlds collided. I bought him lunch and he gave me a full hour of his attention in between competitive cognitive events at the highest level. This is the depth of generosity, but the height of wisdom in Nelson is much bigger than the mountains he’s climbed. We’re going to be talking about Everest. We’re going to be talking about his upcoming trek to Kilimanjaro with some business people and some CrossFitters, which you’re welcome to join, by the way. We’re going to be talking about client experience in CrossFit gyms and how you can improve that by knowing and remembering more things about your clients. Especially when you have a big number and it approaches 150, it’s really critical that you can remember your clients’ kids names and their dogs’ names and what they like to do on the weekends to show them that they are valuable to you as an individual person instead of just as the member of a group. Nelson’s going to talk about setting big goals, climbing Everest. He’s gone up Everest three times. Writing a book. He’s done that. He’s launched charities. He started the extreme memory tournament with sponsors and prizes. He’s been on all kinds of shows: Today, Doctor Oz, Science Channel, and as you just heard, he even got roasted a little bit on Saturday Night Live. This is possibly the most interesting man in CrossFit. Nelson Dellis, welcome to Two-Brain Radio.
Nelson: 02:46 – Thank you. Thank you for having me. How are you?
Chris: 02:46 – Great, man. It’s my pleasure. You are definitely one of the most interesting guys in the world of CrossFit right now. I wonder if you would just share the story of what brought you to CrossFit in the first place and then we’ll go from there.
Nelson: 03:00 – Yeah, sure. That’s very kind of you to say. There are more interesting people in CrossFit, but in terms of memory stuff, yeah, I guess so. So I’m a memory athlete. I have trained my memory for the past seven or so years every day just like I go to CrossFit pretty much every day or six times a week. I’m training my mind, and we’ll talk about more what I do exactly later on. But I started because of my grandmother, she had Alzheimer’s and when she passed away in 2009, I suddenly said to myself, OK, well, you know, my memory was average, but I want to make it stronger. I want to see what I can do to strengthen my mind. Now I’m very fit. I like to work out, I work on my body, but maybe there’s something out there I could do for my mind. And, that’s what I started doing, I found out about this memory competition and discovered the techniques that a lot of these memory athletes use to win and to do really phenomenal memory feats. And I learned them just practiced every day. And so now I’m a four-time champion and I’m all about mental and physical fitness. That’s really my jam and my outlook on life is how to keep the entire body healthy.
Chris: 04:22 – Four-time national champion. Tell us just a little bit about what the National Memory Championship looks like. How does that play out over the weekend?
Nelson: 04:33 – Yeah, so it’s a day-long competition. It’s typically held in New York every year in March. And it’s split up into two parts. The morning, you’ll find everybody kind of being tested on four different disciplines, which is memorizing numbers, memorizing a deck of cards, memorizing names and faces and then memorizing poems, poetry. And they’re all timed, so they have different time limits and there are certain amounts that you have to memorize either as fast as possible or as much as possible in that time frame.
Nelson: 05:08 – So for example, a deck of cards, right, you have to memorize a full deck, 52 cards, as fast as possible. And just to give you an idea of where we’re at, some people can do this between 20 and 30 seconds. One glance, memorize the whole deck, or for numbers they can do over 400 digits in under five minutes, things like that. So in the morning we test those things. The top eight overall scores go into the afternoon and there’s a few different play-off rounds, elimination rounds, where we memorize lists of words, facts of people. And then the finale, which is a double deck of cards and that’s just until somebody makes a mistake and then the winner’s crowned.
Chris: 05:54 – That’s incredible. I actually got watch you in this whole event a couple of years ago. But one of the most interesting and challenging for me, and I still do this with my CrossFit athletes today, is the names and faces event. Can you just describe that for the listeners, please?
Nelson: 06:12 – Sure. Yeah. I mean that’s probably the most useful and applicable to real-life situations. You know, you meet people all day, every day, throughout your job, through work, social events, whatever, and you’ve got to remember people’s names. I mean, it makes a huge difference, especially in business and especially as a coach. You probably encounter hundreds of different clients and members and they remember you because you’re the coach, you’re one singular person in their face all class long. But to remember all of your classmates, all of your class members and throughout the day, that’s hard. So in this competition, it’s basically they give us a packet of, I believe it’s 117 photos, face, headshots with a first and last name. So that’s 234 different names. And we get 15 minutes to memorize as many as possible, and then we’re given the same set of photos jumbled up. And we have to write in as many first and last names as possible.
Chris: 07:20 – OK. And actually in the show notes, you can download a sample names and faces exercise to try at a CrossFit group or just people who want to try it out on their own. So Nelson, how did being really, really good at, you know, memory and specifically names and faces bring you into CrossFit in the first place?
Nelson: 07:39 – Yeah, so I actually was contacted by a friend of mine who works for this insurance company and he was like, “You know, we deal with clients and remembering people’s names very often, why don’t you come and speak to my little office.” And just so happened that in that office was a guy who was a part-time CrossFit coach at a big box down here in Miami and he saw it and he’s been a good friend of mine, too, for a while, and he was like, “You got to come and do this exact same presentation.” You know, I talked about the memory techniques and specifically for names. “You got to come talk to our coaches at our box.” You know, exactly what I was saying before. We meet a bunch of clients, members and we need to remember their names. It’s super important. So yeah, that was the start of it. I went to a little Saturday-afternoon seminar for the coaches at this box and blew their minds and they loved it and walked away with something really valuable. And in exchange they offered to let me try CrossFit for free. And that was the start of the long journey. That was four years ago now.
Chris: 08:56 – That’s crazy, man. OK. So one of the things that we teach gyms is culture, and part of the client culture and retention strategy is remembering the client’s face on sight and one or two things that interest the client in their everyday life. OK. So, if I’m box owner and I want to get my coaches better at this, how can I help them?
Nelson: 09:23 – So it really comes down to understanding how memory works. You know, it’s something obviously we all have. It’s in our brains. This is how we are, who we are as a species, right? We remember our life, we learn from mistakes. We apply that to future thoughts and future actions. Without memory, who are we really? Right? So we all have our memories. It’s just nobody’s ever really taught us how to use it properly. And it seems kind of silly. It’s like why would someone teach me like how to breathe, for example? I just remember things or I don’t, that’s the end of it. But it’s actually not the end of it because there are techniques or I mean, you can look at them how you want. They could be considered hacks or little tricks to make your memory better. And what you’re doing is understanding what your brain prefers and taking the information that bombards you every day and making your brain think it’s that kind of information instead of the normal, boring, difficult things that we always tend to forget.
Nelson: 10:27 – Names being one of those. And we forget names often because, I mean a few things. One is we’re not paying attention, and two, because they’re in essence, abstract words. Sure, some names are common, you know, you see a Mike or Chris and that’s a very popular name, at least in Western culture. But to a native Chinese person in the middle of China, Chris might not be the most obvious name. It’s an abstract sound, a group of letters. So what it means is to get better at names is you have to start thinking in pictures and trying to give these abstract things associations to things that you already know that you can visualize in your mind and have already this meaning attached to them. So, you know, when I meet someone named Chris, you know, it’s not just I’m going to remember Chris, that sound, that word Chris.
Nelson: 11:30 – No, I need to tie it to something that Chris evokes in me. And that might, for a lot of names it might naturally evoke something. So Chris, I mean, I know you pretty well, so I would probably just imagine you. Say I’m meeting a different Chris, I would picture you doing CrossFit. Let’s do something a little different. Nelson is not the most common name. So if you met a Nelson, you know, I would think of, and this is typically what people think of, is either Nelson Mandela, Nelson from the Simpsons, he’s a character, or a full Nelson, right? This wrestling move. And these are all different things that we could visualize. Nelson Mandela is super easy to visualize because it’s he’s such a famous figure. Has nothing to do with me, but that doesn’t matter. What you’re going for is a picture that you can visualize in your mind.
Nelson: 12:25 – And then once you have that picture, it’s all about finding a way to store that information. And that’s really where the difficulty comes, you know. When you’re studying something and you repeat it over and over again, that’s one way to remember something, but you could forget that cause it’s not really stored actively where you know where it is living in your mind. And we need to find a way to do that with everything you memorize so that you can access it whenever you want reliably. And to do that with names, what we do is—and by we, I mean the people who train this every day and compete and score really high on these name-face tests, we choose a feature on the person. And this serves as an anchor, something that that person will bring with them whenever they present themselves to you.
Nelson: 13:17 – And as they come to you, that name, that picture, you know, for me it was Nelson Mandela, will be attached to that. So when you meet someone, you come up with a picture for their name and you find a distinguishing feature about them and you imagine or attach that visual, in this case, Nelson Mandela, to that feature. So, you know, I’m tall, I’m 6-foot-6. So if you met me, you’d notice I was tall, Nelson Mandela is the picture for my name. So you’d somehow associate them. You can come up with a little story. The reason I’m tall, you know, what does that have to do with Nelson Mandela? OK. Maybe you can picture Nelson Mandela sitting on top of my head because I’m tall and he wants to give a speech to many people so he’s sitting on my head to get a vantage point to look down on these people and inspire them from above. Right. And that’s the process. It’s really just coming up with a picture and finding a way to store that information.
Chris: 14:17 – Why do we remember stories instead of data or facts?
Nelson: 14:20 – Yeah, good point. So the reason we—nowadays, there’s so many things that come to us and it’s easy not to be paying any attention. And that’s really what is at the core of having a good memory, is paying attention. And because it’s so hard nowadays to pay attention, we really need to find something that our brains will open up wide and just want to remember. And we each have our own interests. You know, if I talked—someone talked to me about bonds and investments and stuff, I’d forget it, I’d glaze over and I’d be thinking about something else. But if you wanted to teach me about that same boring subject, but you use visuals that may be related to CrossFit or mountain climbing or cartoon characters that I know very well, I’m going to remember that a lot better. Because I’ll pay attention and it’ll be something I can visualize, something I can take meaning out of. So we’re not very good at remembering things that are abstract, but we are good at remembering things that have meaning to us. That’s really what it comes down to.
Chris: 15:39 – So Nelson, what made you want to go up Everest the first time?
Nelson: 15:42 – -Yeah, so I tried Everest for the first time in 2011. I went to the south side on a two-month expedition. And you know, I’m not a professional climber. And I only started really actually climbing mountains in 2008. Just on a whim, I said, hey, I want to try things this year, that was in 2008, and I said, I’m going to go take a basic mountaineering course in Washington state and the Cascades and see how I like it.
Nelson: 16:16 And that was on Mount Rainier. It was a week-long course and at the end we had the opportunity to maybe if the weather was good, climb the peak to the top. We were lucky. The weather was great and we actually did summit and that whole week was an up-and-down roller coaster. I mean, I hated it. I loved it. I hated it. I loved it. It was just a miserable experience for the most part, but so rewarding at the same time. And ultimately we got to the top and that just, let’s say ruined the rest of my life, ’cause then I can do now is think of that feeling you get when you put all this work into something and you succeed, you get to the top of that mountain. So after that climb, I just started thinking, what’s the next climb I’m going to do?
Nelson: 17:04 – And I went on and did Mount McKinley, which was amazing. And then I went on to do Montblanc in the Alps. And slowly I was like, OK, you know, I think Everest would be awesome. That’s obviously the biggest one of them all. And you know, maybe I should have done a little more to get more experience. It’s such a serious mountain. But at the same time, I’m one of these guys, I get an idea of my head I work a million times harder just to make sure that dream happens. So that’s what I did. And 2011 I managed to raise money and sponsorship and everything to pay for the trip and went and tried it.
Chris: 17:42 – Tell us the story of that first trip.
Nelson: 17:45 – So I didn’t summit, unfortunately, it was something that, you know, to climb Everest, it’s not just a walk in the park and a lot of things have to go right. A lot of luck is involved. I was, I think, unlucky. I think some of it might’ve been, I was, what, 27 at the time, maybe a little bit young and inexperienced, but it was altogether a great experience, a great challenge and a great journey. I got to what’s called the Hillary step, which is a famous feature high up on the mountain, 50 meters from the actual summit. And that’s where I turned around. I was heading up from the South Col, which is Camp 4, the high camp, 26,000 feet. And when I got to this one section called the Balcony, it’s kind of almost halfway up to the summit from that high camp, I realized that my oxygen mask was not working properly. And so I had to find a way to kind of climb without the mask, which, you know, we’re climbing with supplemental oxygen.
Nelson: 18:59 – You don’t have to, but you know, 99% of climbers do. It’s very difficult to climb without it and increases the risk of frostbite and just dying tremendously. I believe that people who climb Everest without oxygen are just super human, they have some different make-up. I mean, it’s not just something anybody can do. So anyway, so we’re all out of supplemental oxygen to help with those last few thousand meters and my oxygen mask was malfunctioning, so I had to kind of climb without it. And that just, I think ruined me. At the same time, pretty much, that I discovered that we crossed the dead body from the night before. And I think at that point I was just kind of questioning everything and wondering what I was really doing up there and was it worth it and all that stuff. So I kept going. Ultimately I got to that Hillary step and sat down and my Sherpa was changing my oxygen bottle for a new one and I was just, I mean, I could’ve gone to sleep.
Nelson: 20:07 – That’s I think what I wanted to do at that point. And that’s a bad thing up there, cause you’re never going to wake up. So I played around for an hour or so in that area, trying to figure out do I go down, do I stay, do I push? Because it was technically another 45 minutes to an hour to the summit. It’s right there. But then you have to think, OK, it’s another five, six hours to descend back to the camp. And I may not have that energy once I summit, or I think I do, but in reality, I’m giving it all just to get to the summit. So I turned around and I’m glad I did, I think I was very close to dangerous place for my body and health and I survived, but I didn’t summit.
Chris: 20:56 – OK. And then the next time, Discovery Channel along with you?
Nelson: 21:02 – Right. So we had—I’ve been two times more. I went back in 2013 and then again this year. I didn’t summit on either, unfortunately. Each for their own reasons. I think a part of it is I’m quite cautious. I’m starting to realize, I think—not that I don’t push myself. I push myself pretty hard, but I think for me, if I want to summit, I’ll have to flirt a little more with that dangerous line. I don’t know. But so 2013, I tried from the North side, which is a whole different mountain, really. From Tibet. And that one, I got very high, within 300 meters and just had extremely cold hands and feet. It’s notoriously colder on that side and I just didn’t want to lose my appendages. So I just turned around. You know, I wanted to keep being able to do muscle-ups and cleans, you know, that was honestly one of the thoughts I had is like, without fingers, how am I gonna hold a barbell, you know?
Nelson: 22:07 – How am I going to row? So that was that. And then I tried this year and I actually got very sick up high. I don’t know why, I had had lung surgery a year ago, Everest-related, and I wonder if that was a part of it. But anyways, I was coughing up blood and I knew I had to go back. This year, Discovery Channel was there filming a show on the helicopter pilots that do a lot of the rescues, and I was interviewed for a few—they helicoptered me down after my lung issue. So hopefully I’m in the final cut. I don’t know.
Chris: 22:50 – OK, man. So what we teach a lot is trying stuff, you know, because you’re going to benefit no matter what the final outcome is, right? What’s something that you’ve learned from going up Everest three times, being within a softball throw of the summit and then just coming back down?
Nelson: 23:12 – Yeah. It’s a hard thing, because especially with Everest, I mean, each trip, you know, I think about for year at least before it happens, you know, and it’s all that’s on my mind. All my training is for this, all my energy and resources go into that trip. And then suddenly you’re faced with this decision that you have to make: Do I keep going or do I turn around? And it’s really devastating in the moment to have to give up on that dream, especially so close. But you know, I’ve been able to do it three times and I’ve walked away with it. Once I sit down and kind of sit with those thoughts and feelings from a failed climb, you know, you realize it’s the whole experience, the whole journey from that initial thought and training to the actual failed summit and return home.
Nelson: 24:12 – The whole journey is really what I love about climbing. Of course I want to get to that top, that summit, that’s the goal. But I think I’ve learned so much more about myself and about success and pushing myself through those failures than anything else. And it’s not like I want to go climb another mountain to fail so I can learn. Of course I don’t want to do that. But those failed climate have been the most profound learning experiences of my life, and I’m really happy for those long, two-months experiences. I think walking away from those have just been so life-changing, so I’m all about going after these crazy goals and not really worrying if I summit or not, or achieve the goal. It’s more that process that I’m addicted to.
Chris: 25:08 – What did you learn on this last climb? You call it a failed climb; I wouldn’t call it a failed climb, but you know, what do you learn from walking away?
Nelson: 25:19 – Yeah, well this year, you know, you think, OK, the first time I turned around I was so upset with myself when it first happened, and when I got home I realized, what am I upset about? I mean I could have died and I made the right decision. And then I go and try it again and it’s like, OK, cool. My second time—I was so close last time, I can probably do this if things go right. And I got up there and I was just scared to lose my limbs. And I remember at that point I was satisfied with my decision immediately. I was like, this is dumb. I don’t want to lose my fingers. It’s not worth that. I turned around and that was that. No regrets. This time there was more question, I think. Obviously I was spitting up blood, but it wasn’t like crazy amounts like I was vomiting blood, you know, it was just traces of it. And, you know, there’s always the doubt in my mind that maybe I could have pushed a little further and gone to the top and back down just in time and been OK still, but at the same time, we had another member on our team with the same exact situation, although he didn’t say anything to the rest of our team. And he summited, but on the return down, he collapsed. He had nothing left. His lungs filled with fluids and he had to be dragged into his tent and administered dexamethazone and adrenaline. And had to be taken care of and we thought he was dead. He was right there on that line, I think. If somebody hadn’t come to help him in certain situations, he would be dead for sure.
Nelson: 27:11 – So, you know, when I walked away, I think the number one thing I learned is that—it’s hard for me to say this now, just because I want to question it. I want to believe that I still can climb this. But I think the reality is I have to be happy with my Everest. Right? Which I guess is how high I got that first time, the highest point on the Hillary step. And I should be happy with that. That’s my Everest. Why do I need to go to 29,000 feet when I got to 28,750 feet, right? I mean, if my body’s telling me after three times that it’s not the right thing, just accept that. I mean, maybe I’ll give it another chance and that’s fine, but there’s no need to force it. And I think I just need to be happy with the limits that my body has given me and how far I was able to push that, you know?
Chris: 28:09 – And so what’s the next Everest for you then?
Nelson: 28:11 – Yeah. I still obviously want to climb. Everest is a crowded place and it gets a lot of recognition, but this year I saw a lot of people who shouldn’t have been there. And I feel like that’s the growing trend is it’s going back to a place where really inexperienced people are going. And that was kind of scary to see. But I want to shy away from climbs like that in the future and really try more adventurous, exploratory peaks. Some friends of mine are talking about maybe going to the valley where K2 was in Pakistan and trying some unclimbed 6,000-meter peaks. So not as high as Everest, but still challenging. And I really want to try something that hasn’t been touched before. I think that’s a beautiful idea and rare nowadays. I mean, most every single peak in the world has been climbed, but there’s still some in that region that haven’t been climbed.
Chris: 29:18 – OK, man. And you know, just in your personal life, what are you doing next?
Nelson: 29:22 – Oh yeah, right. I mean, my fiancée would slap me on the head if I didn’t mention this. But of course, getting married. That’s obviously a big next step. And obviously a large reason why it was so obvious for me to turn around this past time on Everest. So getting married is definitely a big thing, that’s in a month and a half, so.
Chris: 29:44 – That’s awesome, man, congrats again. Let’s talk about climb for memory. You know, a lot of the reasons that you keep doing this stuff is to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s. What else are you doing there?
Nelson: 29:57 – Yeah, so I started this charity in 2010. I was deep into my memory training and realized it’s crazy that nobody knows about this stuff, that it’s not taught in schools and that people struggle with memory all the time and they don’t know about these techniques. So I wanted to create some platform where I could raise awareness for brain health, memory techniques, Alzheimer’s, which is what my grandmother suffered with. And to do that, I thought a great way to kind of raise awareness would be through mountain climbs since I was so passionate about them. And I always felt like they’re a really cool attention getter. I mean you say Everest and everybody turns their head and wants to know more about it. It’s a fascinating and interesting subject. So I try to organize climbs. In the past it’s been mostly me just by myself around the world to try and raise awareness for Alzheimer’s, but at the same time trying to educate people about brain health and memory techniques. So what I’m trying to do now is get trips organized that others can do with me that aren’t crazy challenging like Everest, but are still formidable goals, like we’re trying to put together a trip to Kilimanjaro in January. And that’s something anybody can do if they train and it would be for a good cause.
Chris: 31:33 – Who do you see signing up for these trips, Nelson, is this like people who just want to accomplish something in life, is it people who are looking for some kind of epiphany?
Nelson: 31:43 – Right. That’s the beautiful thing about these trips, is that it cuts your life. It gives your life a little pause, a little beat. And sometimes I think everybody needs that. There’s going to be those who just want a goal, and, you know, Kilimanjaro, my goal, and it gives them some focus and a directive and something to look forward to and to work towards. But others, you know, I think it’s just a great escape, a great way to reset, to gain perspective, to travel. That’s honestly a big reason why I love to climb, is it takes me to all these places around the world that I would never get to see for any other reason but to climb these mountains. But when you climb the mountains, you go deep into those cultures. It’s not, you know, you land at the airport and you go to the museum and you go to the tourist spots. No, you’re going deep into those cultures and hanging with the locals, eating their food properly, you know, and seeing some of the most amazing, remote places in the entire world.
Nelson: 32:54 – It can be a different experience for different people. But I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s really for anybody. You don’t have to be a mountaineer, you don’t have to be a climber, you don’t have to be even someone who likes sleeping in tents. I know that sounds silly, but you will—I think those people who hate all three of those things will walk away from a climb like that—and it’s more of a hike rather than a climb—feeling the most rewarded. It can do so many things to people, make them discover who they are. Again, gain perspective. Just reevaluate their lives and I think that’s a nice thing to do from time to time.
Chris: 33:36 – Do you need like a specific type of fitness to do that kind of stuff? I mean, Kilimanjaro, it sounds like a CrossFitter would be just fine, right?
Nelson: 33:45 – Yeah, that’s what—a lot of my CrossFit friends are interested in them and they’re like, I don’t know if I could do this. I’m like, you’re fine. If you do CrossFit, I’ve seen you work out, you’re fine. You know, and to be honest, I’ve seen—the last time we did it in 2014, I was surprised with some of the people that I saw on the mountain that should not have been there. Overweight, struggling. And in those cases you saw some of the porters, the local porters, carrying people up to the summits, which I didn’t like that at all, but it definitely showed me that, you know, there’s all sorts of people going into these things. And what you’re actually expected to do—so usually a trip is about week long. And each day you’re hiking for, let’s say from four hours to possibly eight or nine hours.
Nelson: 34:39 – It varies depending on which part of the mountain. And it’s just a walk. It’s really any type of walk you might encounter if you’re in the mountains, in the Rockies, in the Cascades, whatever. There’s no snow. Maybe at the very top you have a bit of snow. The most challenging part is the altitude. Which of course hits pretty hard near the back end of the trip, but we’re all in the same boat. We try to make it a week. Some companies will do shorter, which I think is worse and can make you very sick. So the longer you have is a little better. There are chances that you could get altitude sickness, just that’s the way your body responds. But we do everything safe and if that happens, you come back down. There’s no big deal. But it’s a great, great, challenge. And it’s definitely doable.
Chris: 35:33 – So if a CrossFitter is fit enough to do Killimanjaro, how did your training change? You know, did you ramp up? Did you taper back before Everest?
Nelson: 35:46 – Right. So, well, for Everest it’s different because I’m gone for two months and I don’t get to work out the same and I don’t get to eat the same. So I usually will bulk up, which is fun to do. I just eat a crap load the month before, because I’m going to lose it. I actually lost 37 pounds on this climb. Which I put back pretty quick. But you know, you’re at altitude, you’re burning a lot of calories just by sitting there. And add to that the fact that, you know, food isn’t just in your fridge right there, it’s pretty limited. And so you’re stuck eating your meals a day, but it’s definitely a calorie count that’s coming in that’s way less than you’re used to. And then add the days where you’re actually climbing, exerting yourself, you’re burning a lot of calories, and of course you’re gonna lose weight. So it’s quite similar on Killimanjaro; you’re not going to eat like crazy. You’re going to be burning calories a lot. A week is still pretty short, so you may not lose that much, but, it’s—yeah, it’s definitely a cool experience.
Chris: 37:05 – OK. So how does training change in the time leading up to extreme memory tournament or, you know, the US Championships. How does your CrossFit schedule change for that?
Nelson: 37:19 – So you’re talking about physical fitness, right?
Chris: 37:20 – Right.
Nelson: 37:20 – It doesn’t really change that much other than I add some of the mental training actually into my physical training. So I just like to stay active and push myself every day in the gym. I like to work out every day if I can. If my body feels up to it, I work out, otherwise I’ll take a rest day. But when it leads up to a competition, I’m more interested in figuring out ways to emulate how it will be in the competition. And that means you know, how to deal with the distractions. Is there going to be an audience there? Are there going to be cameras in my face? Am I going to be nervous? Are there going to be new competitors that just show up and then suddenly I’m trying to beat them and not necessarily just coasting as where I feel comfortable?
Nelson: 38:15 – So to deal with those different stresses and nerves and possible hiccups, I try to incorporate some of the memory stuff in my physical training so my heart rate’s elevated, listening to the blasting music in the gym, lifting a barbell real fast, whatever. Those are pretty distracting things and sometimes I’ll throw in memorizing cards in between sets or between rounds or doing—having a coach tell me some numbers while I’m rowing, you know, all sorts of different mixes. I try to vary it up, but that often helps with my focus. When it comes to the actual tournament or competition, I know that I was able to do this under a high-stress situation, so I should be able to do it here.
Chris: 39:05 – If I ask some of my higher-end clients, most of these guys do personal training instead of CrossFit classes. Most of them own a small business or they work with data, you know, maybe they’re an accountant. If I were to say to them, yeah, CrossFit and working out is going to help you with your job. Like, how valid is that statement and exactly how do I explain to them how this is going to work?
Nelson: 39:28 – For me, I like to think that when, no—I don’t like to think. I know this, especially about myself. When I do CrossFit, I feel confident. I feel good, I feel healthy, which in turn makes me feel good about myself and everything just feels more on point. I mean, when I go a week without working out, and this never happens, but if I’m traveling, or don’t have access to a gym, there have been times when I can’t work out. And it drives me nuts and I feel just like garbage and I see results, like negative results, in my training, my mental training. You know, I’ll be a bit sluggish, not as focused. And that’s super detrimental to speed memory. So when I’m fitter and on my game in the gym, I feel sharper. And you know, worst-case scenario is it’s just a placebo effect. It’s not really doing anything, but mentally I just think, hey, I’m working out. I feel good. But that in itself is a good thing to have. So the worst-case scenario, you know, you’re just kind of tricking your mind into thinking that you’re more focused and alert. But in turn that does make you, you know, more alert and more focused. So, I don’t think there’s anything negative that comes with training physically and then how it pertains to the mind and memory.
Chris: 40:59 – Let’s say that I wanted to train more entrepreneurs. How can I leverage memory training into my CrossFit gym to try to attract them?
Nelson: 41:07 – Yeah, I’ve been trying to do this for a while, is convince the coaches here that they need to have some type of mind aspect, not necessarily only memory, but some type of mental tasks sprinkled into their exercises. And I’ve done some demos and we’ve played around with it, but nothing where they’ve done it full time, and I think that’s fine. I don’t think it has to every single WOD, but I love the idea of throwing in little exercises that make you think or that make you do some physical movement while also activating the brain in some way. It’s all just—it’s exactly what CrossFit is, is trying to train you for the real world, to tackle anything that comes to you. But the real story is that’s only training you to tackle anything physical. Sure, there’s some mental aspects there.
Nelson: 42:04 – You know, you’re trying to push through pain and get through difficult situations and achieve the goal, meaning finishing a WOD in a certain time or whatever. But I think if you insert some games, some mental tasks, whether it’s calculations, easy calculations or a little memory games, you’re really now exploring any possible situation. A survival situation, a life situation, work situation, that you might encounter in real life, and you’re training for it. And, you know, obviously you’d like to teach these techniques, some of these techniques in the classes so that maybe they’d have some tools to improve. But honestly, just to get started, I think if you insert them anywhere, they’re going to see improvements just by practicing, even without the techniques. So I think it would be a cool thing to have that kind of sprinkled in with the CrossFit kind of curriculum.
Chris: 43:07 – I can actually give you some examples of where it’s being used right now. Like Brian Alexander, he’s one of the mentors in the Two-Brain program. He teaches this at CrossFit Illumine in their legends program, the over 50 group. And we use it also in Zecutive. So when people are signing up for online coaching, they get the physical workouts, then they also get some brain WODs, too. Yeah, so I think that the opportunity is there, and frankly, I think that there’s a bigger market even for memory and brain training than there is for fitness. OK, man. So, just to wrap up, like tell us about Extreme Memory Tournament and tell us about your book.
Nelson: 43:49 – Yeah, definitely. Extreme Memory Tournament, it’s a competition I started. It’s different than the USA Championship, which I was mentioning at the beginning of this call. But it’s basically a way to get memory sports out there and more attractive to viewers. So it’s shorter disciplines, they’re one-minute memorization sets. You’re playing people head-to-head rather than you against a clock, writing things down like a test. Everything’s digital. So as a viewer you can see exactly what each competitor’s memorizing, who’s winning, what the score is, all that kind of stuff. And finally, lots of prize money. So a lot of these competitions go without much fanfare and prize money, which, you know, anything you add money to suddenly results in competitiveness goes way up. So, that’s kind of the idea, is let’s try and push memory athletes. You know, if you throw money in there, how are they going to perform?
Nelson: 44:50 – And so, yeah, it’s a new competition. We’ve done it for three years. We’re trying to make it bigger, more popular every year now, that’s Extreme Memory Tournament. And, yeah, I did a kids book this past fall and I self-published it, put it on Kickstarter, did phenomenally well. And it’s a little picture book for kids on the basics of memory techniques, which I wrote and illustrated myself. You can find it on Amazon. It’s called “I Forgot Something, But I Can’t Remember What It Was.” Very simple story but great for kids and yeah.
Chris: 45:29 – Fantastic, man. You’re always up to so much stuff.
Nelson: 45:33 – Yeah, thanks. I mean, I don’t have the traditional job, so I’m always trying to hustle, so to speak, and figure out ways to use memory and share with others.
Chris: 45:43 – It is a great book. My kids love it. I’ll post the link in the show notes, but if you could have people take one action after they listen to this, what would that be?
Nelson: 45:55 – You know, t’s to trust your memory. A lot of people think their memories are just total crap and they believe that so strongly that they just accept it and don’t even try to memorize anything. It’s so easy these days to just type something into your phone and never have to think of it again. But I really encourage listeners to take a second and to say, OK, I can have a good memory if I focus. That’s really where it starts.
Nelson: 46:24 – And you don’t have to know any techniques or anything. You can if you want, but if you just want to start and see how good your memory can be, tell yourself when you’re going into a situation, and this works really well for names, that you have a good memory and that you’re going to remember X, Y, and Z in this situation. So I like to play this game with, you know, people who think they have a bad memory is going to a party and tell yourself you’re going to remember 10 people’s names. That’s it. And just by saying that to yourself, you suddenly make yourself focus on it. It becomes a little bit of a game. You become competitive and you will remember the 10 names, probably even more. So, I really encourage people to say for a second to themselves, I have a good memory. I’m going to try it. And by doing that, you’ll pay attention and you will see your memory improve.
Chris: 47:15 – That’s fantastic. And where can people contact you, man?
Nelson: 47:18 – They can go to my website, Nelsondellis.com. And if they want to hire me, I give private speeches or training seminars. They can contact me through there. If you want to check out my climbing and my charity, Climb for Memory, you can go to climbformemory.org, and that tournament, that memory tournament, is extremememorytournament.com.