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What Everyone Can Learn From the Marines 16-Hour Race Challenge

We never stop becoming. To achieve at the highest levels, honor others and fight complacency.

It’s foggy and cold at 3:30am on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

 I’m here with our research team to collect data on Marines running the grueling Recon Challenge race.  I prepare my bunk at the Reconnaissance Training Company Barracks, and we’re ready to chase after competitors in the day-long competition  celebrating the Marine Corps’ vaunted Force Reconnaissance, and to honor Recon Marines who have sacrificed their lives in battle.

We’re due to report at the Reconnaissance Training Center at 3am to begin collecting data.  Dubbed, “Recon Christmas,” the Recon Challenge is a 16-hour endurance race that challenges competitors in land and sea.  About 50 Marines are on hand to compete in two-man teams as they tackle a 4 AM swim through about a half mile of shark infested ocean outside of Camp Pendleton.  Following the swim, competitors begin a 25 mile thrash comprised of 10,000 feet of elevation gain, pulling a 250-pound tire out of 15 feet of water (after they submerge it, of course), cognitive tests and range exercises.  The most competitive teams finish in about 10 hours.  Most important of all, each team competes in the name of a fallen Recon Marine.  The event also serves as an open house to welcome friends and families to watch the competition unfold and share in recognizing the sacrifices made by the Recon community.

“A little light rhabdo…”

Our research teams from the PSI and the Center for Body Computing were there to measure the toll that participating in the Recon Challenge imparts on the body using wearable devices and an app we designed for the day. During the event, competitors can lose as much as ten pounds, endure heat stroke, dehydration, and in some cases kidney dysfunction in the form of rhabdomyolysis. Note that rhabdo can be a deadly disorder that afflicts those who in a single event push their bodies well past their breaking point.  In Recon parlance, Joe, our guide and medic for the day referred to it here as “A little light rhabdo.”

The night before, I meet Brooks, the CBC scientist I’m rooming with in the barracks.  “I just need to grab your sheets from the laundry room real quick” he says as we enter the main commons area.  I’m greeted by the scent and scene of a dorm common area mixed with a gym locker room.  Marines are there preparing and weighing their packs for the next day, assiduously assembling their kit of wetsuits, fins, food and tactical gear they need for the next day.  I meet a Recon Marine as he is making the decisions on what to bring with him — his wetsuit, he tells me, will weigh too much once it’s wet to justify carrying with him all day considering he only needs it for the 4am swim.  So he is going to complete the 1k swim in just his “cammies,” and then wring them out on the beach before rucking for 14 subsequent hours. Keep in mind, the water temp for the day is in the high 50s with a stiff on-shore breeze — not exactly a nice lap around the YMCA. “Yeah sounds like a plan,” I say, trying to sound supportive and as if I have any idea what I’m talking about. “Thanks! Going to be awesome!” he replies. He’s excited to compete but a bit nervous since competitors can be disqualified for something as simple as putting their knife in the wrong pocket, leaving a piece of gear behind or failing to meet any checkpoint.

In what was a flashback to dreary dorm laundry, Brooks returns sheepishly with a wet armful of sheets and says, “let’s just get a clean set from the Private manning the check out desk.” Sounds good to me, though the guy behind the desk looks a little confused about the request for clean sheets.  This makes more sense as we arrive to Brooks’s room to unfurl my sheets, yellowed from years of hard work swaddling sweaty men, and including a wonderful smelly bonus sock and a few stray hairs.  I figure out the cleaner side of the sheets, use a spare shirt for a pillow case, set my absurd 2:30 alarm and try to get some rest.

The alarm doesn’t motivate me up so much as it gradually nudges me from slightly asleep to slightly awake.  Brooks stirs as well and we’re out the door to head to the beach.  In what I can only take to be the official quote of the day, Brooks says in a slurry yawning half-pidgin on the way over to the meeting point “Early morning gets the bird I guess!”  Indeed, I do feel like giving the early morning the bird at this point.

We pass by the Recon pool at 3 AM shivering and slap happy to be out on the base and we convene in the parking lot with instructions for where to head.  A line of modified jeeps and jacked up trucks belonging to the competitors awaits to be loaded  and a few shuttles begin loading competitors with their 45-pound burden.  The Marines not only look like nothing is out of the ordinary, but seem to be taking pity on us. One of the trainers looks at us and offers a condolence “Yeah, welcome to the suck. Today is going to be awesome.”  We join the caravan through the night-drenched base and park at the beach.  We wander to the starting area, whirring with generators and portable lights everywhere, illuminating the black peaking waves as they throw forward a contrasting white spray of foam and churn.

The competitors are on the beach lined up and taking a final inventory of their packs, stretching and looking focused yet at ease with the idea of pushing their bag and bodies out into the wet darkness. For most of the competitors, this is a rare chance to meet old friends from Basic Reconnaissance Course where they first became Recon Marines, former instructors, friends and families.  They seem to delight in the bewilderment of what they’re about to do: more than a competition, this is a festival of dogged suckiness. 

At 3:59, the 50 or so competitors are lined up, at 4:00 exactly, the starting pistol is fired, and they’re off into the water.  Except for one competitor, who made it into the waves only to turn back since he left his fins on the beach and had to re-launch.  We cheer as the competitors pick their way across the soccer ball sized rocks and into the breaking waves and pushing their bags under the crashing swell.  They are marked with small green glow sticks and as they swim the 500 meters out and it looks like a pack of fireflies bobbing with biological rhythm as they fin their way out of visibility.  We, being the hardy spectators we are, make comments about the cold and wish “someone could set up an espresso machine and it would be pretty nice.”

About 30 minutes later, the fastest competitors start emerging from the dark and pick their way across the beach and back into the tents to change shoes and get ready for the first 8 mile run.  We leave the beach and head to the obstacle course on the other side of the hill.  Well, that’s not technically true; we actually leave the beach and go out to breakfast and coffee in San Clemente before coming back on the base.

We join back at the obstacle course and watch the competitors come in and run the 100 yard course and climb the 25 foot ropes.  By this time, they’re pretty gassed and yet not even halfway through the day.  Some of the teams, after their swim and 8-mile hike already have little left to give as they work their way up the ropes and many have to take a few tries at it.  We comment on their form and technique and share a few winces as they make their way over the bars and hurdles. As a surprise to the competitors, the race organizers have added a 50-lb ammo can to their load to carry up the nearest hill. One of our handlers for the day remarked, “oh yeah, that’s how they get you — you think you’re good to go until they add something like that or make you improvise.”

At the next stop, we’re at the other pool — 10 more miles down the road — to watch the competitors lift a 250 pound tractor tire, place it in the shallow end, push it 25 meters down into the deep end and submerge it 15 feet below and then team up to lift it back up, return it to the shallow end, and then pull it out of the pool and leave it on the deck for the next team. Amazingly, the USO has set up a display of snacks and coffee — they must have heard our comments on the beach!

At this point, they’re just about half way through the day and the competition is taking its toll on the competitors.  As they jog by us on the pool deck, many of them have had the skin rubbed raw from their wet packs; we see the red marks and blistered skin outlining where their straps have been riding and chafing and we imagine what it must feel like to re-load one’s pack on top of those blisters and carry on for another 6 hours.

The next phase of the competition sends the teams back up into the hills for more tactical and cognitive testing, so we decide to go back to the main Recon center to await the finishers at the finish line.

Force Recon holds a special place in Marine Corps lore and they take pride in their close knit family. Throughout the day, we conducted interviews with the competitors and family members to learn more about their mindset and what being a Recon Marine means. We saw in these interviews, the same traits and thinking that helps high performers in any discipline.  The soldiers of Recon are diverse and they have unique motives and reasons for aiming for the designation.  We asked many of the competitors and community to define what they thought about becoming a Recon Marine and when they actually identified as a Marine.  

“You earn this every day; you never rest and never get complacent.”

The key lessons from these interviews:

  1. Most of the Marines we interviewed said that they “never really felt like a Recon Marine. The title of Recon Marine is earned everyday.” I had expected the Marines to speak in platitudes, that feeling like a Recon Marine meant having a sense of belonging, pride, etc., but what I heard from them surprised me and fit much better with the models of high performance we are so interested in creating.  The identity of being a Recon Marine is never earned completely, never static or expected, and must be re-engaged everyday through commitment, training and sacrifice.
  2. Their performance in the Recon Challenge was greatly motivated by the purpose of recognizing their community, that when they were tired and de-motivated from 25 miles of grueling terrain, the memory of the Marine they sought to honor would pull them through the tough moments and help them excel.

In other words, the efforts one takes to become an elite performer are never bound to be “reached.” By definition, those who strive are not striving for a static place or homeostasis of achievement, but are driven beyond reason to a constantly moving horizon.  Similar to a long bike ride up a hill, for the rest of us, we watch for the impending relief of a flat surface, but those who strive to be elite treat the climb itself as the motivation and true test.

The end of the course was perhaps the most meaningful.  After the 25 mile slog, the Marines carried the banner and dog tags of a fellow soldier lost in battle to a memorial at the finish line.  The competitors kneeled and paid respects and dedicated their work that day to their fallen brother and many wept a meaningful tear of remembrance and relief for what was lost, but also accomplished.  In so doing, complacency is shunted and gratitude, the great motivator, takes center stage.

Photo credit: United States Marine Corps Twitter (@USMC, 2017)

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