ALTUS AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. — “I’ll get an excellent when they pay me extra for it.” “75.1% is trying too hard.” “If they wanted the minimum to be 80%, they would have made the minimum 80%.” “I’m just not built for running.” Have you ever heard (or used) these excuses for not doing so hot on the run in the physical fitness test? They are all things that used to come out of my mouth all the time.
For the first 10 years of my Air Force career, I couldn’t care less about running. It was a necessary evil to deal with twice a year. My maximum time to pass the 1.5 mile run on the fitness test was 14 minutes; I could usually slide in at around 13 minutes, 40 or 50 seconds. That strategy didn’t help me in 2010 when they changed the weighting of the fitness standards. On my next PT test I performed better all around. However, my score dropped by five points because of the new weighting and I failed by only scoring a 74.2. That just made me hate running even more.
I deployed to a staff job in 2013 and had some coworkers that were into fitness and running. They pointed me to a useful website (www.usafmarathon.com) and encouraged me to run. I read something about running slower and keeping a lower heart rate helps you learn to run faster. My co-worker, Tech. Sgt. Lashandra Farrior, ran with me every third day and I felt like I was improving. I even ran a 5k at the end, the farthest I had ever run in my life.
Well, after busting my hump for five months, I brought my time down to, wait for it, 13 minutes, 21 seconds. All that effort for a measly 30 seconds. Forget running. Besides, I had heart conditions, Atrial Fibrillation and Supraventricular Tachycardia, and I didn’t want to strain too hard and blow up my heart. That was my excuse anyway. Turns out the fact that I gained 10 pounds (thanks, unlimited dining facility) on that deployment didn’t help.
Upon my return I moved to Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma. Running fell by the wayside after that. My next fitness test was on a Monday in September and I had a 5 a.m. simulator right before the test. That morning I was tired, stressed and probably dehydrated. It was hot, humid and really sunny. I attempted the test running six laps around the track. During lap five I began to feel lightheaded and dizzy. I could feel tunnel vision starting to set in. My heart was pounding. I was apparently weaving across the lanes on the straightaway. I crossed the line heading into the final lap. I soon realized I wasn’t going to make it. My body was shutting down. I decided to aim for the grass and collapse voluntarily or else soon I was going to collapse involuntarily. I was taken to the flight doctor who verified the heart pounding was indeed my SVT kicking in. He signed a waiver allowing me to re-test within five days.
My commander called me into his office to talk before he signed it. “Will this one be any different? Are you in better shape now than you were on Monday?” I didn’t have a good answer for him. I retook it and luckily it was cooler and I was rested. I ran a 13 minutes, 55 seconds. Passing by five seconds.
That was my “something’s got to change” moment. I was sick of wondering if I would pass every time I took the test. I hated being the last one to cross the line. So I did what any normal dude would do. I bought a running watch with a GPS and heart rate monitor. I think that was the best purchase I ever made. I revisited Dr. Mark Cucuzzella’s Running School on the Air Force Marathon website I used on my deployment and studied a couple of training plans. I eventually settled on a beginner 5k plan and programmed it into my watch.
Starting was pretty tough. Most of the running in the first few months of the plan was “easy effort” and my heart rate had to stay below 150 BPM. That meant walking if necessary to keep it low. My pace was averaging in the 13 to 14 minutes per mile range. I felt stupid going that slow. It was a far cry from the 9 minutes, 20 second pace I needed to pass the test, but it slowly improved. I was building a base of endurance upon which to build speed. I was teaching my body to burn fat instead of sugar for fuel. I got to push the pace up every once in a while.
I started to hate running less. There actually came a point where something flipped in my brain and it was mentally more painful to be sedentary than it was to run. I was also losing weight. With the help of running and sticking to a plan, I had gone from 195-pounds to 165-pounds in six months. By the time my next fitness test rolled around in March, I was ready.
The weather was perfect that morning, 54°F and cloudy. I ran as hard as I could and finished first in the group. I had run 1.5 miles in 10 minutes, 43 seconds! Over three minutes improvement in six months! My score went from 76.3 to 94.8 and I scored an excellent.
Now it was time to start racing. I entered a few local 5ks, but my first “real” race was the half marathon at the 2015 Air Force Marathon. I ran it in 2 hours, 14 minutes and decided it was the hardest, craziest, most painful but rewarding thing I had ever done. I ran that race again in 2016 in 2 hours, 1 minute. I have also ran two full marathons and felt that same way about every race. This year I will race the full 26.2 miles at the Air Force Marathon with a target goal of 3 hours, 35-45 minutes. My long-term goal is to qualify and run the Boston Marathon. Eventually, I want to run an ultramarathon to see how far I can push the limits of my body.
I have conquered a huge obstacle in my life and have turned a weakness into a strength. I love to run and will always push myself for that next personal best. I have helped others to do the same through workshops I facilitate. I teach runners that “you are not training to make it easy to run fast, you are making it fast to run easy.” Once you figure that out, you can run faster and further than you could ever imagine. According to famous ultramarathon racer Ken Chlouber, “You’re better than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can.”