I remember reading a story about General Petraeus picking his next Executive Officer by taking candidates on a 10 mile run. When interviewed by Runner's World about fitness, Petraeus remarked "When we bring a new guy in, I take him out for a run," "I'll go out hard, then ramp it up around five miles to try to waste him. I want to know how he'll react and respond to the challenge, what his strength of character is…obviously, I'm not just interested in whether someone is a good runner," he said "But there's something about an individual who has self-discipline, drive, basic fitness, and the heart to run reasonably well that indicates the kind of spirit that you are after in people who take on tough tasks."
It is not news that most military members are athletes to some degree. Fitness tests are part of protocol in the military, and the discipline to not just complete, but excel is engrained from day one. Most service members are athletic prior to entering the military since it is a prerequisite to get in, but undoubtedly, entering the military instills certain qualities that will enhance your overall discipline and ability to persevere. At some point in training, success isn't just about innate ability, it requires work ethic. When I think about the Ironman (IM) triathlon specifically, I have no doubts that my military experience prepared me to be a better competitor. Here are ten areas involved in the world of IM that were reinforced by my time in the service.
The Race Selection – You have decided you need a mission to focus on and want to select the Ironman that is the most conducive to your skills. Are you a better hill climber on the bike, or do you need a flat, fast course? Are you more of a runner? If the route is hilly, will you still be able to surpass the competition? The idea is to select a course where you can excel, not just "make it." Selecting a course should be based on your schedule and properly identifying one that best meets your strengths and downplays your weaknesses, including what affects you mentally. Through your military training in leadership, you have learned where your weaknesses are and when to step back to allow others who are better equipped to take the lead. You are comfortable acknowledging that you work in a specific field and that is the course of action you chose to pursue (a pilot won't try to be a cyber-guru and a security operations member will not try to build communications tools). Don't settle for mediocrity: select a course that will play to your strengths and put you in the best position for success.
The Training – Your training plan should be at least six months long, if not longer. It should include regimented daily by swimming, biking, runing, strength training, nutrition, and of course, rest. Every day you must follow a specific routine, and abandoning one area could lead to disaster in the rest. Only you can set your alarm and plan your day. When you are in the service, you have no choice but to balance your daily mission with the goal. Sticking to your daily routines will lead to the success of your mission. If you aren't properly prepped day in and out in every aspect, then when it is time to hit the battlefield, you will fall short. Failure is not an option, and lack of preparedness will directly relate to deficiencies during the event. The goal of completing an Ironman can be a decent substitute for the sense of purpose that might be missing from a veteran's life. You get out what you put in with both life in the military and racing in an Ironman. My work ethic in the sport and ability to balance work with dialy life was enhanced by serving in the military..
The Taper – One of the most painful portions of an Ironman is the lead-up to actually racing it. You have been training on an adrenaline high for months, and now you have to slow yourself down, minimize miles, and increase calories. You'll feel slow and puffed up, and miss the cortisol that comes with exercise. You have to keep in mind that all of this preparation for ensures you'll have a good race. This is a test of patience and trust. In the military, you are often asked to put faith in the procedures at hand.Trusting the process and tolerating the plan takes more discipline than one might imagine. The sudden lack of routine can feel threatening, but much like a military member going into unknown territory, sometimes you have to trust that the plan will work.
The Logistics – Getting yourself set up for an Ironman is not easy and cannot be done at the last minute. You need to find a way to transport your bike to the location by case or shipment, likely buy plane tickets, rent a car, and may need to rent a house so your body can adjust to time zones and/or altitude adjustments. You have to plan your nutrition to a tee and ensure you are packing everything for pre-event, swim, bike, run, transition and emergency. You need to know the pre-race itinerary and rules along with the specifics of the course – there is much uncharted territory to be analyzed. Setting up improperly or not planning far enough ahead will lead to disappointment and failure. The correlations to the military are quite obvious here – logistics and planning are necessary. As a prior Logistics Officer, I can tell you how critical planning truly is from the deployment standpoint to individual roles. There is no leniency in not having the mission organized and there is no slack for improper action if the plan was not executed properly. Identifying the centers of gravity for the mission is dire, and analysis of personnel and equipment is not a game-day decision.
Game Day – This is where the rubber meets the road. Your mental state is pivotal when embarking on the event, and ensuring that all of your areas are set up for transitions is crucial. Going into the event fueled, rested, and mentally prepared for the challenge will set the tone for the remainder of the grueling day. Arrive early, set up your nutrition, be aware of the weather and any last minute changes or popped tires. The Ironman is a dangerous sport and tests your body to the extreme. Just like the military, you cannot be mentally out of the game if you want to succeed. If a military member's wits are not about him or her, then they have no place on the battlefield. Lack of mental preparedness or stability can lead to mission failure and possibly death. The military teaches the Ironman athlete to never assume they are ready, but to put themselves to the test ahead of time and to go in focused.
The Swim – The swim is the most agonizing part for many because of the unknowns. Heart rates go fast in possibly turbulent waters, and 2,000 people thrash their arms and legs as if they are swimming desperately away from a sinking Titanic. Ice-cold water closes around your chest when you try to breathe, and the course is so long that you cannot see the buoy markers in the distance. This leg of the Ironman is an exercise in remaining calm in a sea of fury. No matter what is going on around you, you need to keep focused, breath slow and deep, trust the course, and relax your body to move in an efficient rhythm for the next 2.4 miles of water. The military enforces calm no matter what is happening around you. Remaining calm quiets the fears of others, helps you to accomplish the mission, and aids in leading others to the ultimate success. Mental tranquility, focus, and clarity ensure that no matter what the mission may bring, you will do your best.
The Transitions – Transitions are the points in which you have just a few minutes to get out of your wetsuit and into your cycling gear, and out of your cycling gear and into your run gear. Your plan for each transition is crucial to getting to the next event quickly. Much like chess, your ability to be flexible will directly correlate to the success of your next move. You have to think clearly enough to change clothing and move your body in a different rhythm. Your time in these transitions counts towards your overall time and one false move may set you behind your competitor. Forgetting one nutrition item, not placing Vaseline on your toes, or forgetting to apply sunscreen could mean an end to your entire day within a few hours if you aren't careful. The military teaches us to be flexible, adapt, and overcome in a short period of time. Being able to get to your transition, quickly digest what needs to happen, and then expeditiously move to the next phase is how the mission works. Practice makes perfect when it comes to agility for military and sport.
The Bike – The bike ride is longest portion of the event – 112 miles of unknown terrain and constant pedal pressure. Success here requires speed, power, aerodynamics, nutrition, and mental toughness. Military training has taught you how to handle well the grueling aspects of this portion. Knowing that there is an end in sight and focusing only on the bike instead of tripping about the iminent run is essential. Drink water, consume electrolytes, and fuel properly while keeping your head in the game. That is what will get you through the next half day of cycling. As a service member, you will be put to the test for hours on end in survival school or real-time war games. Staying focused and trusting the process and your training is the only key to success. The Ironman bike is no different: there are plentyof unknown elements and overcoming mental barriers one by one is the answer to overcoming them.
The Run – The gut check, this segment features 26.2 miles of pavement. You'll only be able to concentrate on moving one foot after the other in stride, and that's after having pedaled in a circular motion for hours. This is where your ability to temper your bike energy and keep your legs fresh enough to run forward is put to the test. Hydration, fueling, and cadence matter more than ever as you pass people, or get passed, and exchange glances of agony while everyone waits for the event to be over. 26 mile markers somehow stretch on for an eternity, but this is where determination needs to take over. You have trained and know you can run, but race day is different. The military helps you realize that there is always an end to a struggle, and no matter what pain you are feeling, you can prevail. You will complete each mile even if it means walking, and you will not give up no matter how much it hurts. In the military, you completed missions in utter exhaustion with days of sleep deprivation, and lives may have been on the line. Remember that the last portion of the marathon is nothing compared to that.
The Finish – You see it in view, and the last steps are so painful. You imagine crossing the line and being so excited to make the final step under the clock. You dream of hearing the words "you are an Ironman," and being able to stop pounding your legs into the ground. The cheering and adrenaline is priceless, and you get the last burst of energy to push through and receive your medal. You feel accomplished and very content. Crossing the finish line might feel like receiving meritorious service medals or bronze stars – you controlled what you accomplished on this mission. This was about you, your determination, and your willpower, and nobody can take that away from you.
The Recovery – Taking care of yourself post-event is extremely important. If you don't refuel well or take care of your body, you could put yourself out of commision for months. Proper protein and carb intake and exercise will make for much less pain later. This is your R&R post-mission from service. You know how to shut off for a little while, and are very good at the work hard, play hard concept. Stowing the play-hard concept in the back of your mind will allow you to remember this event more clearly in the days to come, and let you bounce back faster to return to your routine or unit. There is a depression associated with finishing an Ironman and then lacking a sense of focus – a post-partum type of sensation that is similar to what a service member may feel after returning from deployment when they lack a sense of belonging. The recovery period often ends with the athlete signing up for another race as something to focus on, much like a service member who feels the need to sign up for another deployment.
The military teaches a plethora of skills when it comes to athletic rituals, and the Ironman triathlon is a testament to a service member or veteran's training and discipline. Racing in and completing an Ironmans is a self-supported journey that provides personal satisfaction, and is no doubt made easier by the rigors of the service.
After graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2006, and obtaining her masters in Industrial Organizational Psychology, Liz McLean spent five years as a Logistics Readiness Officer. She joined the civilian recruiting world in September 2010 helping both the military and civilian populace find their roles in the workforce. Liz has worked in Corporate HR (Booz Allen Hamilton, CACI and Hewlett Packard) and individual staffing agencies to create robust programs and collaborations between veterans and employers. She currently writes for Task & Purpose and travels for speaking engagements to both the employee and veteran community.