I’ve spent 15 years in the military with a cumulative 44 months deployed overseas to combat zones, mostly in Iraq. The lessons I learned from combat deployments with the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division and Special Forces units have taught me lessons that apply to my chosen sport in the civilian world, Ultra-distance Obstacle Course Racing or Ultra-OCR. Here are five lessons I learned from the military that transfer to racing whether you are going to run a 5k, completing a half marathon, shooting for the podium of a 12 hour long Ultra-OCR or running a record setting multi-day charity event. 

1. Things are a lot easier when you fuel properly:

One of the hardest military training courses is a two-month long sleep and food deprived test of leadership called Ranger School. Students at the course sleep average around four hours a night and eat two meals a day (usually one around midnight when the patrol ends and the next around 5am before the next patrol starts). This teaches some of the worst fueling habits for endurance sports like Ultra-OCR.  In racing you should fuel consistently in small amounts around 200-300 calories an hour so you have a steady burn of energy instead of spikes and crashes.  However, thanks to the military I learned that even with an awful fueling plan (like you do every day at Ranger School), you can still move forward towards your objective. I feel much better for racing and always bring a cold pre/post-race beverage.

2. You can always take one more step:

Even with poor fueling you can always move forward. Even when the weights are insurmountably heavy and the distances seem impossibly far, when someone asks how many more steps you think you can take, the answer is “at least one more,”  As long as you always have that answer, you’ll always be able to move forward. This is the attitude many soldier have when they attend Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) along with the subsequent Qualification (Q) course. If I hadn’t gone to SFAS and someone told me the weight of the equipment you were required to carry, I would assume they were lying. I went into the event in good shape with a low amount of body fat but in the last 10 days of SFAS I still lost 20 lbs. despite eating three meals a day. Even with such a caloric deficit and being exhausted, like so many other students there, I was still able to take at least one more step.

3. Quitting is not an option:

Some training sessions will not go as planned and some races won’t go well. In the military, especially in combat, quitting is simply not an option. If you are on a mission all day and you are tired, there’s no “Did Not Finish (DNF)” button you can press and come back the following day to complete your tasks. Plus, the enemy always gets a vote so just because you’ve been already out all day doing other operations, it doesn’t necessarily mean you get the night off. This same mindset is my attitude going into races, whether it is a 5k all-out effort or a 24-hour OCR requiring wetsuits to avoid getting hypothermia. Quitting is not one of the choices I present my mind with, it’s always speed up, slow down or go at the same pace. It’s the reason I don’t have any DNFs on my resume despite doing several charity events like 8 OCR marathons in 8 days, 48-hour Ultra-OCR and 24 hours of treadmill running with obstacles interspersed throughout the day. Those were all bad decisions and I wasn’t moving very fast at the end, but I eventually finished.

4. Recover afterwards but don't go crazy:

After every hard military school or deployment, the knee jerk reaction is to celebrate to excessive levels. Many people do the same thing after big races. While it’s not bad to blow off some steam and celebrate a little, do so in moderation. I’ve seen soldiers ruin a yearlong deployment by getting a DUI the week they got home, and I’ve seen people ruin months of fitness binge eating after an endurance event or bodybuilding show. 

5. Accumulated challenges build resilience:

“It’s hot right now, but it’s not as hot as .” “I’m tired but I’m not as tired as .”  “My legs hurt but not as much as they did when .” Doing challenging experiences spread out over time will build a mental reserve of strength. You’ll occasionally find days that feel hotter than when my platoon spent all day digging up caches in the Iraqi desert in the summer, or races where my legs feel more tired than they did when I ran 90 miles at World’s Toughest Mudder, but it is unlikely to be worse on all fronts. Having really tough experiences that you persisted through lets you know that no matter how bad it gets, parts won’t be as bad as some other experience from your past. 

You may have noticed a common theme through all these lessons learned. They all come down to one thing, mindset. At the end of the day, your mind is your best weapon whether it be racing for a podium or surviving in combat. Having the right gear like the appropriate workout attire or comfortable post-race clothing, takes one little stress off of your mind.  You want to be able to focus on the race and moving a little faster not wondering why your shorts don’t fit well or why your compression clothing is causing chafing. Whether you are looking to excel in the military, or give it your all on the race course, going in with the right mindset and the right apparel will make things a lot easier. After watching people succeed and fail in a variety of conditions in a multitude of sports, there’s one big lesson I learned that I think everyone should enjoy, “often the appearance of success is just those that refused to give up.”

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