Steve Ilg, Wholistic Fitness® Coach

Teaches Enlightenment Through Athletics


By Ben Brashear 


Steve Ilg, founder of Wholistic Fitness® and the race director of the fourth annual Winter Warrior 10k snowshoe race held at the Durango Nordic Center, kneels on one knee at the finish line. With snowshoes strapped to his feet and a microphone in hand he commentates for each finishing racer as they sprint across the line. His red and white Clif Bar racing shirt stretched tight reveals his body builder’s physique.

Ilg, at 51, is a modern day warrior. His battlefield though, is one of his own creation.  It is a place of mental and physical competition, toeing start lines, and seeking enlightenment through what he calls, “sacred sweat.”

It was on a tragic day in 1981 and the day that Ilg will later call “a day of blessing,” that his life path took a turn. He was a sponsored rock climber attempting a winter ascent of D7 (IV 5.11c), a 900-foot climb up the north face of The Diamond, on Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Ilg was moving confidently with over 25 feet between him and his last piece of protection. A fall from that high above his piece would equate to a skull rattling fifty-foot fall. Cranking through his last move to a secure gear placement, he reached to a thin hold and pulled down hard. His handhold ripped free from the rock wall carrying with it a massive desk-sized piece of rock sent hurtling toward his belay partner. His belay partner was able to avoid the granite missile but the ensuing fall for Ilg resulted in a broken back and an emergency bivoac hundreds of feet above the trail.

D7 had turned toward the discordant as night settled leaving the two climbers facing a daunting rappel and a seven-mile hike back to their car. With thoughts racing it was an impossible night as Ilg and his partner endured whipping winds that brought spindrift pouring down on top of them. At some point before dawn, with legs numb refusing to respond Ilg came to the conclusion that he had somehow authored the events that led to the fall and his broken back.

“I just knew in the flicker of an instant that I had somehow, on some level, co-designed this situation,” Ilg recalled.

The following day the two climbers managed to safely rappel the remainder of the climb and with Ilg’s belay partner supporting him, the two got back to the car safely.

After several doctor’s visits and x-rays later confirming the damage to his spine, Ilg made the bold decision to forgo surgery and to attempt to heal his back on his own.

“I had a distinct feeling that surgery cuts more than flesh, it cuts spiritual fortitude in some cases, and I knew that this was part of my journey this time around,” Ilg said.

I keep this story in mind as I watch Ilg at the finish line. How he eagerly hopes that each racer has shared in the same self-revelation that he has experienced while testing his own physical limits.

Ilg’s arms rest on top of his thick cyclist’s thigh bearing his weight as he beams a toothy grin over one of his student’s, Lee Rosenthal, who has collapsed to his back at the finish line of the Winter Warrior.

Snow slowly accumulates on Lee’s fluorescent green running jacket as he lay recounting his race. His chest pulsing wildly, a bellows collapsing, sinks then heaves upward as he tries to catch his breath.

Rosenthal is a fitness student of Ilg’s and the Winter Warrior was his test piece, a gauge of sorts to reveal not only his fitness level but also his spiritual and mental preparedness.

Rosenthal’s finishing time was a modest 1:23:54 and good for a second to last place finish but he is smiling. The 6.1 miles of winding single-track and steep 35-degree climbs with names like “Last Gasp Hill,” is one of the hardest snowshoe races around according to Ilg.

“It’s a hilarious sport, I don’t think that in any other sport have I seen my heart rate so high and I move so slowly,” Ilg said.

It is Ilg’s belief and the main emphasis of his training program that all three elements of mind, body and soul, be treated as a whole.

Ilg explained that a training regime that encourages the reliance upon the body, mind, and spirit is not a new concept but one that has been practiced in the East for thousands of years.

But, in the early eighties when Ilg spent his time as a professional rock climber and fitness coach in California gyms, or as he calls them, “iron temples,” it was a radical new concept.

Much of the training in the eighties was focused solely on the physical body promoting the ego and ignoring the spirit, mind, and nutrition said Ilg. Troubled by the implicit neglect of the body as a whole Ilg developed a five part holistic training program in 1981 that he still implements to this day.

His training focuses on honing the athlete’s weaknesses right down to one’s non-dominant nostril while developing cardio fitness, an awareness of healthy nutrition, and awakening the spirit and mind through yoga and meditation.

Ilg’s utilization of yoga and meditation in part stem back to his time practicing the Buddhist dharma under Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of the Shambala meditation centers nation wide.

Much like Rinpoche, Ilg strives to challenge his athlete’s perception of what is and what is possible by creating in them an ever-vigilant awareness of their surroundings and their actions.

“This mindset allows you to instinctually react to changing circumstances, it can save your life, especially in the high mountains where mindfulness can prevent a dangerous situation,” Ilg said.

Developing mindfulness however, is not an easy task.  Rinpoche introduced the concept to his students through the repeated drawing of the Tibetan syllable “Ah,” which connotes those first moments of perception. Drawing the syllable “Ah,” starts with a simple dot and then swoops into completion.

Enlightenment for Rinpoche started when intention took material form and it is the same for Ilg albeit, that precise moment is when that first “dot” of sweat beads up on your forehead.

“Training at higher intensities creates an environment for self knowledge. Intervals are like an altar, it is a chance for spiritual revelation,” Ilg said.

Sweat is the sacred revelation of awareness and the condition of our spirit and mind according to Ilg, and Rosenthal is soaking wet.

With the flick of his gloved hand Rosenthal wipes his forehead dry. Ilg marvels Rosenthal’s efforts to persist through such a difficult race and presses in close to ask Rosenthal how his race went.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve done,” Rosenthal said as he slowly sits up regaining his composure. Ilg helps him to his feet as Rosenthal’s body sways to the sudden drop in blood pressure.

“It was the hills and the pace and I had no idea how hard the hills would be,” Rosenthal continued as he began to laugh as he and Ilg bumped fists.

Coach Ilg’s 5 Tips to Becoming a Stonger Athlete



1. Know Your Highest Podium and Train Your Weaknesses


Dare to challenge yourself beyond what you already know you are good at in order to achieve your highest goals.


2. Mind First, Body Second


Train the mind first and the body will follow. Understand that exercise is not a chore but something that can lead toward spiritual understanding.


3. Train the Core Trust the Breath


The foundation is Prana, or breath, for any athlete. Get rid of imbalances and weaknesses by training the core for success in any fitness discipline.


4. Embrace The Spirit of Repetition


Whoever you are, whatever you do, or whichever sport you pursue understand that true success takes time.


5. Practice, Your Workout is Everywhere


Bring daily awareness to you posture, your breath, create new neuron-pathways using your non-dominant hand, and work toward a holistic you.



Did the Winter Warrior bring enlightenment or an awakening for Rosenthal? For Rinpoche his awakening came at wrecking his car into a London gift shop, for Ilg it was a back-breaking fall while climbing Long’s Peak. How much better then is it for the athlete to find the smaller chards of enlightenment through spiking heart rates, miles of running along snowy single-track, and the daily sacred sweat.














One Response to “EXCLUSIVE ILG INTERVIEW: Enlightenment Through Athletics…”

  1. Ken Doyle says:

    Dear Steve, I love the interview. What motivation. My HP PROP YOGA arrived today. Can’t wait to get started. Love, Kendo

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