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Superfrog, Supermen.
By Tom Demerly
Tom Demerly at superfrog

Part One in a Series on the U.S. Navy SEALs and Endurance Sports.

The upscale ice cream parlor on Coronado Island sold so many smoothies their blender was broken. I ordered raspberry sorbet instead.

Waiting in line in front of us were two young lads. Tall, trim, tan. Welcome to California. Their T-shirts fit snug at their shoulders and hung around their narrow waists. They wore shorts with belts. Their trousers did not hang low in that ridiculous way. Given their shoulders maybe they were college swimmers.

These things gave the young men away: One wore sandals but showed a tan line half way up his calves. He spent most of the day in the sun, in boots. He wore a weathered Casio G-Shock wristwatch. His hands were dry from salt water immersion. His baseball cap had an American flag in desert tan subdued colors with Arabic writing. I don’t know what it said. I can’t read Arabic. On the back of his cap in tan thread stitched on the matching fabric was the word “INFIDEL”. His associate wore a sweatshirt with the silk screened motto “Forging Elite Fitness”. He was tan except for the boot lines and a distinct goggle outline on his face. The two men had identical haircuts; short and precisely trimmed. The second man wore the ubiquitous Casio G-Shock wristwatch also. It was bleached from sea salt, sun and perspiration. I noticed it was displaying 24 hour time.

We got our ice cream, paid and stepped toward the door. My car keys in one hand, ice cream in the other. Seeing this through the back of his head one of the young men slid swiftly to open the door for me, “Thank you” I told him.

“Yes Sir”. He said at audible volume with precise diction.

We stood outside eating our ice cream. The young men came outside. The taller of the two had an improbably large mound of ice cream overflowing a paper bowl. He made short work of it, eating as though he were being timed. The other man set his ice cream on a table and pulled his cell phone from his pocket, flipping it open.

“Hello” He listened for about 20 seconds.

“Roger that.” He slapped the phone shut and replaced it in his pocket. We left.

Something I’ve noticed about the most dangerous predators, on land or sea, is that you often hear, read and speak of them but rarely see them in person. You may be close to them and not realize it until the opportunity for a glimpse has passed. They are, by nature, elusive and enigmatic. It is how they operate: Quiet, low key, precise, subtle.

That was these two young men. They were Navy SEALs. Quiet, courteous, fit, professional, low key. The very finest athlete soldiers fielded in the history of our species. The word “elite” gets thrown around a lot, but in the continuum of military species, these two young men are at the top of the food chain.

I went to SEAL country, Coronado, California to understand the link between this elite military culture and endurance sports. While the Navy SEALs have begun recruiting from the endurance athlete demographic, endurance sports have been part of the SEAL/Frogman ethos since before triathlons began. SEALs and their Frogman/UDT evolutionary sub-species have been doing a deadly serious version of triathlons since World War II in the Pacific, D-Day and in most U.S. military actions and non-actions since.

This weekend the Naval Special Warfare Center was hosting the Superfrog Triathlon, the Navy SEAL Triathlon. The race is, on paper, a relatively straightforward half Ironman distance triathlon. But if it involves the SEALs, there is going to be a catch. You may have done a half Ironman but you haven’t done it SEAL style. Superfrog is held in the very crucible of SEAL suffering, a valve through which lowly tadpoles must pass on their grueling pilgrimage toward SEALdom. We would race here, on this sacred beach where so many men have suffered, most have quit and very few have gone on to wear the gold Trident insignia of the Navy SEAL. Racing here is an honor; a privilege. It is crossing swords in the Roman coliseum, snapping the ball at the 50 yard line of the Superbowl, standing on Alii Drive or feeling the sand on Omaha Beach. This is a place where multisport is used as a filter to weed out the very best of men. 364 days of the year it is about survival. Today, for one day, it is for sport.

In any discussion of military persons, especially when they are deified, you confront the untidy reality that they are warriors. War is awful. My examination of the U.S. Navy SEALs is a cultural investigation. In the same way I would explore a shaman’s devotion, a monk’s devoutness and an Ironman winner’s fixation on training I wanted to see the SEALs unflinching dedication to endurance training. For a SEAL training is not preparation, it is surrogate war, something they must survive. There are no “attaboys”. The instructors torture and antagonize the students, then temp them to quit.

Picture training for triathlons being like Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUD/s): All your training would be assigned by “coaches” screaming at you. You can’t do anything fast enough. Exercise is meted out as punishment. You are never comfortable- always cold, wet, caked with abrasive sand. Everything is done under duress. Nothing is adequate. Sleep is stolen and fitful. It is a constant process of failure, frustration, repetition and negative reinforcement set against a backdrop of men telling you, “You can quit any time, are you sure you want to this?” When you get to the pool in the morning the lady behind the desk asking for I.D. suddenly barks out, “TOO SLOW! GET DOWN!” Before you know it the pool maintenance staff is squirting you with a hose, the lifeguards have thrown the contents of your gym bag into the pool, and the lady behind the desk is now in your face barking, “You move like lead! GET IN THAT POOL NOW!” Later in the afternoon when you go for a bike ride it isn’t any better. Your bike has been disassembled and you have less than five minutes to restore it to working order, or else. You are assigned another cyclist to ride with and you better not stray more than six feet from them, or, you guessed it, more abuse. After training like this for weeks you get a schedule of non-stop training with almost no sleep and totally inadequate nutrition for five days. The entire time your so-called “support crew” is telling you that you won’t make it, you should quit. Picture yourself running through an aid station at mile 20 at Ironman; Instead of helpful volunteers the people in the aid station bark, “You look weak, you’re pathetic. You don’t belong here; you need to pick it up. You weren’t made for this. Quit now and it will all be over…”

This is a different approach to endurance and perseverance than we see in recreational triathlon. There is a lesson to be learned here. In the new pop culture of endurance sports Ironman finisher’s medals are trophies collected after a 16 week cookie cutter training program. The questions athletes ask include “Am I doing too much?” to “Can I finish Ironman on this little training?” The SEAL ethos is the polar opposite: “The only easy day was yesterday.” “If it isn’t miserable we don’t do it.” “We fight like we train; the more you sweat in training the less you bleed in combat.” It is a disgrace to even consider not going the distance, not taking the toughest route. The only positive reinforcement is a lack of negative reinforcement. Trying is failure, the only acknowledgement of surviving is the SEAL doctrine, “There is no second place, it pays to be a winner.”

It is brutish and primitive and it is the nature of endurance sports and war. What can we learn from it?

It boils down to one thing: Focus.

A freezing cold, soaking wet, sleep deprived BUD’s candidate during hell week enjoys only one luxury: Single minded focus. They must live in the present. They do not worry about mortgages, Wall Street or their “In” box. They worry about surviving the next training evolution. There is no condescension toward “balance” in life. There is only survival and perseverance. It is the Shaolin Temple of endurance. If they are distracted that distraction undermines their devotion. It becomes a chink in the armor that spreads to a crack. It is only a matter of time before they grab the lanyard and ring the bell three times. They are out. Focus is the haven of the devotee, and SEAL candidates enjoy the luxury, the necessity of focusing only on what they are doing. This is the lesson: Focus. Do one thing, do it 100%. Live in the moment. Never back down, never back off, never give up: Focus.

In the five days I spent in Coronado learning about the Navy SEALs I came to envy this quality about them. They live like monks. Their quiet, peerless devotion is demonstrated in everything they do. They live for one purpose: To be a SEAL. Endurance sports are their penance and their sacrament, their punishment and their reward. These are the stoic monks of endurance sports.

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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