There is a lot of writing in our community about fitness, and rightfully so, it is very important. The root of the Shoot Move and Communicate game is not Shoot, it is Move. From JM's dreaded PT admonitions and stories of personal workout standards and load bearing abilities, to Max’s seemingly impossible ruck humpin' program. What you've probably not read, I certainly haven’t, is any article about fighting fitness, not for a young Airborne Ranger, but for a middle-aged guy looking to shore up his defenses and up his chances in a hostile world. All the better if that article is from the perspective of a guy who will tell you straight up about his warped path from “Army Strong” to wheezing, overweight slug and back again. I’m that guy.....
Before I joined the Army, I rode mountain bikes and did a little racing on road bikes and I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. At my best I weighed in at 185 but cycling doesn't build a lot of upper-body strength. Thanks to my wise-ass, Army drill sergeants were happy to hammer some upper-body and core strength into me. I ran my time in the military at 190 - 195 pounds.There had been Army PT most days, and I also raced mountain bikes on my own time. Of course I was in pretty good shape when I left the Army at 30 years old despite my cigarettes. I worked in the bicycle industry running shops, operating a small side business that made a few mountain bike parts and managing a pro race team while going to school. I was deeply involved in that industry and for another three years after the Army, I stayed in racing shape.
When I left the world of bicycles after school, riding had become more like work than fun, and I stopped doing it. I stopped doing anything that would maintain even a semblance of fitness and a nasty ten-year, downhill slide began. I ate fast food every meal, and kept sucking down my damn cigarettes. I didn't really gain a lot of weight fast, a couple pounds a year. Didn't seem like much and I was always planning to get back on the mountain bike and knock off those ten pounds...twenty pounds….and slowly climbing.
During this time after mountain bikes, I started shooting and training with a couple other Desert Storm-era combat vets I knew, keeping our skills fresh and generally having fun with guns. I was noticing those activities and drills were harder than they should have been, but it didn't bother me, after all, I hadn't been keeping up on that particular sort of fitness for a few years and besides, so I convinced myself, I was a few years older and of course the cigarettes didn't help.
Lets fast forward to August 2013, less than a year ago, after ten years of not cycling and working with computers for a living for the past ten years. Developing world record blood pressure and having to go on medication didn't ring my bell. Being able to feel, and fear, the impending heart attack, to the point that I went to bed every night wondering if I’d see the morning, didn't ring my bell. Since all my weight was directly on my front, in the mirror, it didn't look too far out of spec, I lied to myself, so my size didn't ring my bell. What finally rang my bell and spurred me to make changes, were two events from the same day.
A group of off-roaders from Phoenix and Tucson were taking a trip on some trails around the Mexican border in southern Arizona. In the military, I had done a lot of patrolling and surveillance down there and know the dangers available to the unwitting. This is a rather soft-shelled bunch of folks and they were too naive to accept the idea that their route was not entirely safe despite my warnings. The sheep-dog in me kicked in, and I offered to take three guys in two trucks, and run advanced security for them about 20 minutes ahead of the main group of trucks and jeeps. At one point I needed to dismount and scout ahead on foot to recon a valley we were about to drop into. A 100 yard walk up a mild incline with a light fighting load kicked my ass and had me wondering if the heart attack was coming now. What the crap!?! That should have been an easy walk! I was ashamed of myself. I was there leading these guys on this security run, they were looking to me for leadership and I couldn't even walk my dumb-ass up a little hill. Granted none of my team were Spartan warriors either, but surely they were expecting me to be able to do this job better than them.The bell was half rung. A few days later, someone posted pics from the run. One of the pics included me during our lunch stop, taken from an angle I was not accustomed to seeing myself. My reaction was “What the hell is that!?! Is that me??? Fuck THAT!” Bell fully rung! What finally hit me hard enough was the disgust I felt for myself that I’d let myself get to the point that I couldn't walk up a slight incline and being forced to accept what I looked like. I was up to 240 and in my mid forties, time was running out.
This gets me closer to my point and what applies to our discussion about preparedness and physical fitness. For six months prior to that trip to the border, I’d been reading Max and Mosby and dusting off my old patrolling and light infantry knowledge. I had a small group of like minded friends to whom I wanted to teach contact and patrolling as soon as summer was done and the weather cooled. I knew that I was going to have to be able to run and move around to with these drills. I figured I could still do that in short bursts and I’d get in better shape as training progressed. I was still strong. I could put on an 80 pound ruck and move around the backyard. I could do 10 push-ups. I spent the last winter and summer shuffling around at IDPA pistol matches. I felt OK, not Ranger fit, but OK. That day on the border last August slapped me in the face with the realization that I was not OK enough, as I’d been telling myself, and that I couldn't get in shape through training. I had to get in shape enough to be able to train.
The magic here is that there wasn't some iron-willed determination to achieve a goal against all odds like some silly Rocky movie. I simply had to accept some harsh realities and take simple steps to change them. One of those steps was admitting defeat after years of believing I could make changes on my own, and seeking help. First was admitting that I didn't have the ability to change my eating habits on my own. All I knew how to do was drive over to Taco Bell and order way too much crap. I chose a highly regarded diet program that taught me permanent changes to my lifetime of poor eating habits. With a regimen that leans on accountability (through heavy guilt trips and stern lectures when I slip into old habits), the weight started falling off.
As the weight began to come off, I knew it was time to get out and start moving around. For a very long time getting out and doing some PT had worked up in my head as this behemoth I had to take on. By dwelling on it, I had over thought it and made it much more than it was. The first time I got out and did something was an epiphany. I was sitting around the house after dinner, as usual. There was nothing on the TV worth my time and I was feeling restless. Without a conscious thought, I got up off the sofa, went to the closet and put on my running shoes and on my way out the door, I hollered to my wife that I was going for a walk. That was it. As I was heading down the street, I was marveling at how simple it was. Just go do it, don’t make it out to be this big, cumbersome thing you have to grapple with and find the motivation to do. It’s not a fearsome dragon you have to defeat; just get up and walk out the door. Walk away from the house for a half hour, then turn around and head home. A one-hour walk--two and a half or three miles--is that easy.
I started with long walks of two or three hours at a time. Maybe I should have started with shorter walks, but the cavalry trooper in me took over and I wanted to make it hurt. Or maybe I just wanted to punish myself for the past ten years. It’s hot here in Phoenix through October so I’d go out at night. I get bored easily, so I’d add some objective to a walk and make a little recon or surveillance mission out of it. To keep it interesting and unique, I’d go to Google Earth and find something that looked odd or out of place on the satellite image about three miles or so from the house, I’d write down a few questions I want answered about the location, I’d drop a map, some water and a notepad in a day-pack, and set out on foot. After only a few weeks, I started carrying a load of 10, and then 20 pounds on my night-time recon missions. Then I started climbing a steep hill near my house once or twice a week. In the dark, the trail up the hill can be treacherous and it added the challenge of honing my night vision and ability to read the surface of the ground in the dark and react to sliding on the loose granite coming down the hill.
The next phase of this odyssey takes me to late October 2013, when Mosby came to Arizona. I was now (barely) in good enough shape to take the his Combat Rifle class. I was down 20 pounds already and feeling great. I figured a refresher course wasn't a bad idea. I expected that I would learn some new things from John, but mostly I just wanted to meet Mosby in person and see if I could network with some new folks from the Phoenix area. That plan took me to a whole other level with my goals.
At that class, I met Jason, a fellow cavalry vet with some combat experience. We quickly became friends and in a couple months started talking about starting a school of our own. That added more pressure on me to get stronger and be able to run faster. It was time to finally drop the cigarettes. I was at a point where I could tell that I could do more and better PT if I could breath. I kept at it and was having more fun working out. I’d added more strength training and was hiking four miles with a 30 pound load at least once a week.
Then came Mosby's Patrolling class in February of this year. I was down to 200 pounds. Jason and I had been getting Sierra12 set up and I felt ready for four days of Mosby's patrolling class. Two days before the class, I climbed my hill in the dark with a 60 pound ruck on my back. During that class, something weird happened: after running the first fire and movement drill, I sat down and rested with my team, when I stood up again, I damn near fainted. This went beyond lightheadedness or one of those head-rushes you sometimes get when you stand up. I just about blacked out. With John’s full understanding and support, I took it easy for the rest of the class and didn't stress myself very much, not certain what was wrong with me. I saw the doctor a couple days later and got some very good news. I’d improved to the point that my blood pressure medication was now driving my blood pressure too low, hence the near blackout. My doctor cut the medication in half and a month later, removed it completely.
In the next couple months, leading up to Sierra12’s first class, I kept working out, more strength training. I added burpees in full 36 pound fighting load and plank holds to strengthen my legs and my core. By running the drills in my gear, I’m able to tell what areas I need to work on. For example, at a combat-oriented rifle match we attend every month and run in full fighting load, I could feel my legs going weak when getting up to bound and sprint on long stages, thus the burpees. I've started running more. It’s still dismal, but it’s getting better. Last week, I tuned up the mountain bike and have been hitting the trails every other day. This past weekend, I went up the hill for the first time in a month and it felt easy, so I ran as much of it as I could then ran the whole way down and kept running another half mile back home. I also built a 60 pound sand bag this week and started working out with it. I’m up to 25 pushups without pause, and I’ll admit that I should do more of them. There’s no reason for me to not be up to 30 or more in one shot at this point, but I just don’t do them as often as I should.
In just eight months, I've improved myself from a state where it was a miracle that I was still alive, to a point where I can function in a fight if I have to, and I can perform an extended patrol. I’m fit enough to run a class for two days in a field environment and demonstrate the drills to students at (mostly) fighting speed and then run the drills with them. I’m at 190 pounds and will probably settle at this weight--maybe five pounds less.
Jason and I discussed adding an article on fitness to our blog and I wanted to tell my story. Partly because I’m excited about what I've managed to do for myself and want myself to be an example to other “over 40’s” out there who have let themselves go as I did and think they can’t get to where they want to be, and partly because it’s a perspective on getting back into shape, as opposed to articles on what shape you should be in. I also wanted this article to show that by getting out there and doing something, getting some training, more remarkable things can happen than just improving your life and fighting skills. That day on the border started a chain reaction that led to many other, bigger things for me. I met Mosby and his lovely wife and daughter, whom I now count as friends. I met Jason, who quickly became a trusted friend (like lime and shovel friend) and now business partner, everything that is now Sierra12 happened because of this story I wanted to tell. All these things fell into place because I stepped out from that vicious cycle of “next week I’ll do something” and “I can’t do that because I have a sack of hollow excuses” and just started doing it.
In every article on fitness and PT that I've read in the last year and a half, every one of them had comments that were full of the same excuses I used to use. If you're feeling like the road ahead is too long and it’s too late to start down it, I think Mosby put it perfectly last week in clarifying his stance on PT when he wrote, “[it] doesn't mean you have to be able to pull off any given physical feat today. You just have to be trying to improve. If you are doing more today than you were yesterday, and tomorrow, you do more than you did today, you’re doing the right thing."