MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Like many before him, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Kenneth Bell learned quickly that being a triathlete isn't about some lofty, beautiful talent — it's about hard work and dedication.
Late last year, Bell participated in the Mission Trails Regional Park Five-Peak Challenge. The challenge, which takes place in the mountains east of San Diego, is to hike at one’s own pace to the summits of Cowles Mountain, Pyles Peak, Kwaay Paay, and North and South Fortuna — all five peaks in the park. The total vertical elevation surpasses 6,000 feet.
Triathletes and other participants wanted to make it even more difficult and asked event officials if they could run — not walk — the 21-mile course.
“I just saw the challenge and thought that it looked pretty difficult, but I wasn’t going to get a running opportunity like that on Camp Pendleton,” said Bell, a helicopter mechanic with Headquarters Co., I Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group. “It took me five hours and ten minutes to cover the 20 miles and all five peaks. It’s still probably one of the most challenging runs that I’ve ever done.”
Getting in Shape
Bell said he wasn’t into physically demanding challenges or the even concept of fitness until he joined the Marine Corps in June 2000.
An Atlanta native, he played basketball recreationally as a teen, but upon arriving at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, he said he recognized that he was not as fit as he had hoped.
“I realized when I arrived at basic training that I had to run almost every other day, swim long distances, go on hikes and do a lot of pushups and pull-ups,” Bell said. “That’s when the physical fitness aspect of my life ramped up. I needed to get in shape.”
Bell completed basic training and went to his first military occupational specialty school to train as a helicopter/tiltrotor dynamic components mechanic. He said he was not content with that job, but wanted to stay in the same field and do more hands-on work. After four years, he became a helicopter mechanic.
Around the same time, the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program was introduced, and Bell said it gave him an opportunity to challenge himself physically.
MCMAP combines existing and new hand-to-hand and close-quarters combat techniques with morale- and team-building functions and instruction in the warrior ethos.
“My physical fitness peaked once MCMAP was introduced,” Bell said. “That was when I began to focus more on bettering myself, and it became easier when I found friends that had the same goals in mind.”
However, in 2008 Bell deployed to Iraq, where, he said, his training took a backseat. He rarely got to the gym, and, he said, when he came back home he knew his fitness level wasn't sufficient. He said he decided then to always make his workouts a priority and be a model Marine.
Eventually, Bell said, he stopped associating fitness with his identity as a Marine — it just became a lifestyle.
“Physical fitness is my hobby,” he said. “It’s something I take great enthusiasm in. It’s my equivalent to how some people like to play video games, or others who like going fishing or riding motorcycles, but physical training is what I like to do.”
Eventually, the fitness hobby — and, he said, a movie about a bicycle messenger — led Bell to buy a fixed-gear bicycle, which he started using to commute to and from work.
“One day I was zipping by on my bicycle and someone I know told me, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good on that bicycle. You should try participating in a duathlon. You just run, bike and run again,’” Bell said. “After that, I just got hooked.”
After participating in a duathlon, Bell said he was determined to try a triathlon, but he wasn’t a good swimmer. So, he practiced until he found a whole new level of fitness.
Bell said his first few events were unremarkable — he was mostly competing to test himself. It wasn't until the 2015 Ironman 70.3 SuperFrog event that he said he was actually impressed with his results.
“My greatest accomplishment was at the SuperFrog Ironman,” Bell said. “My completion time was five hours and 14 minutes. That race was truly a testament to hard work and consistent training, because I had improved in all three disciplines of the sport and completed each event at my personal best.”
He has now participated in more than 25 endurance training events and was recently named a 2016 Bronze Ironman All World Athlete. Bell said one of his new goals is to earn a professional card as a triathlete.
“I don’t know if that route would turn into a career but, if I got to spend one year as a pro, that would be one of my top achievements,” said Bell.