HASTINGS, Neb. – Sixty-three of the National Guard's best athletes descended on the Nebraska National Guard's Greenlief Training Site near Hastings Aug. 29-30 to compete in the inaugural All Guard Endurance Team time trials.
After nearly a year of preparation, including rescheduling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 62 Soldiers and one Airman finally competed for spots on the team.
The All Guard Endurance Team began as an idea to expand the existing National Guard Marathon Program, which promotes the Army and Air National Guard both locally and nationally while bolstering the National Guard Retention Program by instilling physical fitness, self-discipline, and esprit de corps among National Guard members from all 50 states, three U.S. territories and the District of Columbia. The program will now consist of both the Marathon Team and the Endurance Team, each competing and representing the National Guard in approximately five events annually.
Colorado Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Mark Jones, an endurance athlete and All Guard Marathon Team member, coordinated the All Guard Endurance Team Competition. Jones helped connect the National Guard with some of the biggest names in endurance sports, including Michael Caron, CEO and founder of Get Burly, LLC; Yancy Culp, CEO and owner of Yancy Camp and creator of DEKAFit; and his friend, Joe De Sena, CEO and founder of the Spartan and Death Race events.
Day one of the competition was a mental and physical preparation day. The guest speakers shared their stories with the 63 National Guard competitors and then showcased the challenges they were about to face with familiarization training and walkthroughs.
A former enlisted U.S. Marine, Jones credits De Sena and endurance racing with saving his life. Jones had fallen on hard times at the end of his contract when De Sena invited him to participate in a Death Race – an up-to 70 hour, zero-support race in the unexpectedly challenging terrain of the Green Mountains in and around Pittsfield, Vermont.
"He pushed my limits every day," Jones said. "He made me think about what I needed to be doing in life, and he literally saved it … and I became a different person."
"That's what we do at Spartan: we change lives," De Sena said in his opening remarks to the National Guard competitors. "We change lives by asking people to do hard stuff."
De Sena said he had always supported the military, but found a greater appreciation for the National Guard nearly a decade ago when a natural disaster hit close to home.
In 2011, De Sena's family farm and the surrounding neighborhoods in Vermont were devastated by Hurricane Irene. More than 100 people at the farm for a wedding became stranded due to washed-out bridges and mountains of debris.
"We were wiped out," he said. "And then the National Guard showed up … and I get chills thinking about it."
De Sena said over the next 10 days, the National Guard crews cleared 1,000 stumps, repaired bridges, moved debris and "got us back to living."
"They all showed up and took care of business, and that's how you survived," De Sena said, talking directly to his kids who sat in the bleachers with the National Guard competitors as they listened to him share the story.
Which is why when Jones reached out to him about partnering with the National Guard for the endurance team qualification competition, De Sena said he had no choice but to be there.
Originally planned to consist of a single wave at an already established Spartan Sprint Race, the endurance team time trials had to be planned from the ground-up after COVID-19 forced the cancellation of most large-scale endurance races.
Jones and the rest of the planning team honed in on the Greenlief Training Site, which has a permanent 18-obstacle course, to support the qualification event. The competition included 13 endurance challenges in four categories – DEKA Strong, the Army Combat Fitness Test, Obstacle Course Racing and distance running – with the competitors covering more than seven miles of varying terrain.
The 13 challenges were: 1) DEKA Strong; 2) Sand Bag Carry; 3) Knee Tucks; 4) Obstacle Gauntlet; 5) T-Pushups; 6) Ball Toss; 7) Plate Carry; 8) Tunnels; 9) Grenade Throw; 10) Obstacle Gauntlet Part 2; 11) Deadlift; 12) Sprint, Drag, Carry; and 13) a final Run to the Finish Line.
While most of the competitors were familiar with the ACFT, distance running and obstacles, the DEKA Strong challenge – a modern-day decathlon of fitness that combines 10 fitness zones all preceded by a 500-meter run – was perhaps the most challenging, but also the competitors' favorite.
"I've done a hundred Spartan Races. I've done lots of 300-mile runs, 3,000-mile bike rides. I did the Iditarod by foot in waist-deep snow," De Sena told the competitors the night before the time trials. "The DEKA event nearly killed me. So good luck, that's all I can say."
The competitors began the time trials with DEKA Strong, essentially exhausting their muscles with an intense, total-body workout before ever setting foot on the official racecourse.
Jones said planning an entire event usually takes about a year, under perfect circumstances, and that getting it done in just a few months was a challenge he couldn't have accomplished without the Nebraska National Guard team.
"To actually see this in action and to race it myself … it's just such a relief to know it's done and everything went well," he said.
"Mark and his team did a fantastic job planning and coordinating the first-ever endurance team time trials," said 1st Lt. Gary Parks, Indiana Army National Guard. "To be able to pull this off in a month's time – and in the middle of a pandemic – is extremely impressive and just goes to show how motivated and passionate Jones is about fitness."
After being the last person to qualify for the National Guard Marathon Team last year, Parks said he wanted to improve and make the endurance team.
"Ever since then, I have made it a priority to get better," he said. "I have been training for over a year to improve my running and overall strength. So when I was offered the chance to showcase and put my training to the test, I jumped at the opportunity."
Parks said his father always told him to surround himself with excellence, and the endurance team is the epitome of that.
"The people who try out and qualify as members of the marathon team and endurance team are people that don't take 'no' for an answer, don't give up or make excuses," he said. "These are people that wake up 10 minutes earlier just to get a head start on their day; people that don't just 'go the extra mile,' but actually run the extra mile just to even out their weekly mileage."
Parks, who placed fifth overall during the time trials to earn a coveted spot on the All Guard Endurance Team, said he is now looking forward to being part of this team because he knows it will make him a better person, father and competitor.
Capt. Ferne Ryder, Vermont Army National Guard, also believes just training for and attempting an endurance event – regardless of winning or earning a spot of the National Guard Endurance Team – will help an individual grow stronger.
"It's not just about physically pushing yourself; it's also about mental endurance," she said. "Having strong mental grit is a huge asset to have in the National Guard, and these endurance events are all about mental grit."
Ryder made the Marathon Team in 2018 but has never considered herself a marathon runner. She prefers endurance events because, unlike a typically straight 26.2-miles of running, they are all different, fun and resemble real life.
"With an endurance event, you run, but then you hit an obstacle," Ryder said. "All these different tasks get in your way, and that's what life is like. You'll be running and you'll hit an obstacle, but it's about how you'll get through it that matters most."
Ryder said she was very excited to learn the National Guard was expanding the marathon program to include more endurance events. She believes the endurance team opportunity will not only raise awareness and help recruit more athletes into the National Guard but foster better overall fitness in the force.
"Anyone in uniform needs to hold themselves to a high standard, to look the part and be the part and to stay fit and healthy," she said. "When you have a goal to work toward – like meeting the new ACFT standards or competing in an endurance event – it's going to be that much more motivating."
To participate this year, competitors were assessed and divided into waves based on their 10K run times. Next year, however, Jones said selecting qualifiers to compete in the time trials will likely revolve around ACFT scores.
"Men need to be at about 90 percent overall on the test and women you are looking at like 80 percent," Jones said. "We want those all-encompassing athletes that have that ability we are looking for."
Jones said the implementation of the ACFT is just one example of how this is a great period of transition for the military, and the endurance team is a way to capitalize on recruiting and retaining more versatile Soldier and Airmen athletes to the National Guard.
Thirty-four competitors were ultimately named to the 2020 All Guard Endurance Team, including the top 20 males, top 10 females and top four masters' qualifiers (individuals over 50).
While not everyone who competed earned a spot on the All Guard Endurance Team, Jones said they each gave their all, and are now better athletes, Guardsmen and leaders for having attempted.
"The people that showed up performed," Jones said. "I think the majority just wanted a challenge, and they all got that. And that challenge is now going to follow them like a shadow into the future and tap them on the shoulder every time they start slacking off, because they remember that pain and suffering and remember, I need to work on that… and push harder."
The 2020 All Guard Endurance Team:
- Maj. Robert Killian, California – 1ST PLACE MALE
- Sgt. 1st Class Mark Jones, Colorado – 2ND PLACE MALE
- Spc. Bailey Ruff, South Dakota – 3RD PLACE MALE
- Maj. Samantha Wood, California – 1ST PLACE FEMALE
- Sgt. Ayrin Hamner-Ripperger, Iowa – 2ND PLACE FEMALE
- Capt. Ferne Ryder, Vermont – 3RD PLACE FEMALE
- 1st Lt. Jamie Newton, Arkansas
- Staff Sgt. Melissa Mullikin, Puerto Rico
- Capt. Angela Wilker, Ohio
- Capt. Sandra Wright, Maryland
- Lt. Col. Deborah Fisher, Pennsylvania
- Staff Sgt. Jazzmene Loftis, Nevada
- Maj. Amanda Tooke, Texas
- Col. Brian Coleman, Oklahoma
- Chief Warrant Officer 4 Allen Davis, Kentucky
- Master Sgt. Ramon Abreueperez, Virginia
- Sgt. Hill Torres, Puerto Rico
- 1st Lt. Austin Tenelsof, Michigan
- 1st Lt. Gary Parks, Indiana
- Capt. Paul Fitzpatrick, Michigan
- Staff Sgt. Nick Hagerty, Texas
- Staff Sgt. Landon Tomkins, Michigan
- Sgt. 1st Class Jason Kirch, Wisconsin
- Staff Sgt. Timothy Rollings, Arkansas
- Capt. Travis Kirchner, Nebraska
- Staff Sgt. James Ross, Wisconsin
- Staff Sgt. Jerrod Abel, Ohio
- Staff Sgt. Kenneth Wingard, South Carolina
- Capt. Benjamin Smith, Maryland
- Staff Sgt. Stephen Dorcey, Nebraska
- Sgt. 1st Class Paul Hoffman, South Dakota
- Staff Sgt. Anibal Soto, Puerto Rico
- Cadet Ian Frandsen, Utah
- Staff Sgt. Lucas Scott, South Dakota