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Taunted.
By Sarah Demerly.

 

04:30 hrs. The alarm let us know it. Time to move. It’s race day. Today we would race with the some of the finest military athletes in the world, the U.S. Navy SEALS.

Today was Superfrog.

We checked our equipment and ate quickly. The trip up Orange avenue in the dark to the Naval Special Warfare Center was short.

Greeted at the gate by a young man dressed in a pressed uniform, he asked for i.d. and directed us to the designated parking area. He was polite and articulate. The gates at N.S.W.C. are guarded by Naval Security Officers and private security contractors but it occurred to me the man could have been one of those guys- a Navy SEAL. It seemed incredible. These are the guys you hear about, read about, but never see. Now we were racing them on their home turf, a place where the most demanding military training in the world takes place.

The man at the gate was a Navy security guard. I knew it. SEALS: like smoke in a hurricane; never seen but always there.

The transition area was small and unobtrusive, not at all like most half Ironman races. The razor wire on the fence surrounding the area gave the impression we weren’t supposed to be there. The fence had a black, bur-lap fabric covering it so that spectators from the public beach were unable to see the laborious days and nights of SEAL training. It hid what’s commonly known as the “Grinder” a place where SEAL students test their will and where many wills are broken. It is among Coronado’s best kept secrets and, empty as it was this damp, windy morning, remained full of mystery and menace.

Since we had arrived in San Diego, the talk of the town was the weather. It was rumored that a storm off the coast of Mexico was about to make landfall, setting the record for the most precipitation for the area in over 20 years. Up until race morning, it hadn’t rained a drop. The weather was, as usual, sunny and beautiful. It was as though the storm had missed us and we snuck by unaffected.

Approximately 30 minutes before heading to the beach, it began to drizzle. Athletes used their wetsuits and gathered under some nearby tents to stay warm. Under the tent were volunteers with radios transmitting information about the swim. The wind was picking up and it was now a standing rain. The race was supposed to begin in 10 minutes. An almost inaudible voice came over the radio. “The buoys are drifting. We’re going back out to add more weight. Do you copy? Over?”
“Roger that.” The race volunteer answered.

No big deal, buoys drift all the time. At 07:30 hrs, a voice on the radio instructed the race volunteers to bring the athletes to the beach. I was flooded with excitement until I saw the beach. Fear replaced excitement when I saw the surf conditions. It was much higher than it had been in the previous days. I quietly thought to myself, “Welcome to SEAL country, isn’t this appropriate? “

We gathered for the pre-race meeting and were told that the swim had changed. to three 600m laps instead of two 1000m laps. I was glad. For a brief period, the swim had been shortened to one lap. It didn’t seem right to make the Navy SEAL triathlon easier. After all, if it wasn’t miserable, they didn’t do it.

They sent us off all at once, a good old fashioned mass swim start with a stampede down the beach. As we ran down the beach into the water the enormity of it struck me. What an honor and privilege it was to be here on this sacred beach. So many men had suffered here trying to become a SEAL. Like them, for one day, we would be “tadpoles”, the nick-name given to SEAL trainees.

When I exited the water the first time to run 200m back to the starting cone for laps two and three the surf was building, the wind picking up, the rain falling harder. I ran back into the surf and started my second of three surf passages. This time the surf was too strong. I was thrown back up on the beach 100 meters from the start cone by the massive hydraulics. I re-entered in a bad place and couldn’t make it through the waves. For the first time ever, I wondered if I could finish. I ran back up the beach to the cone and tried clearing the surf zone again.

After battling through the surf I stopped at the first buoy and flagged down a kayak. I was tired, the water was cold, the current was strong. The race was becoming very real. A man in a kayak was at my side in an instant.

“You OK?” he asked, expertly holding position I the strong current with his paddle.

I told him I felt sea sick. His next words hit close to home for me. The man looked me in the eye and in matter of fact tone said,

“You got a long way to go girl, you sure you wanna do this?”

He was taunting me. He was tempting me to quit, to surrender; like instructors do to trainees during BUD/s (Basic Underwater Demolition/ SEAL) training.

BUD/s has a 60% drop out rate. I wasn’t going to be part of that 60% today. I thanked the man and put my head down to continue swimming. His comments made the event even more real. In driving rain, swirling pacific currents, freezing water and high winds it would be easier to quite. But Superfrog isn’t about “easy”. The only easy day was yesterday. Lap three of the swim went much better. After clearing the third swim lap I exited the water and climbed the loose sand berm toward T2.

Before entering the transition area, we were greeted by the fire hose used to weed out the weakest BUD/s students during strenuous PT drills. I was just grateful to be out of the sea.

30 mile an hour gusts made going forward on the bike a big job. We had to complete four 14 mile out-and-backs. Going out was back-breaking but presented an opportunity to eat on the bike. The wind sweeping up from Mexico off the Pacific and across the Silver Strand Highway simply never let up.

Riding the down wind leg was effortless, pedaling was unnecessary. Coming out of the aero position to eat or drink wasted time; a sort of yin and yang similitude to the risks and rewards of the evolutions of SEAL training. The ride was straightforward and served as a nice prelude to what we faced in the hours to come.

Running on this beach is something rarely experienced as a civilian. We were in the SEAL’s front yard.

The run is five 2.6 mile laps on what the course description says is “sand and pavement”. There is no mention of the soft, sandy section over a mile long we were expected to transit five times.

The first lap was slower than the rest. I was cold and stiff from riding in the rain. A few minutes into the run the sun unexpectedly pierced the clouds and warmed my skin. For the first time today, it stopped raining. The water glistened in the sun and the sand shimmered with gold. The whole tenor of the day changed at that moment. It was suddenly light hearted and filled with hope.

An aid station marked the half way point on each beach loop. Other athletes were visible in the distance making the turn to head over a soft, sandy berm to pavement on the other side. The sand wasn’t difficult to run on, but I knew I would be faster on the pavement. I planned to make up time there.

Crossing the berm, my eyes searched for the pavement I needed to help my run split. There was no pavement. Race volunteers atop the berm were recording bib numbers to keep track of the laps each athlete ran. They instructed me to turn left, directly into ankle deep, soft sand. I didn’t account for this. And for the second time today, I thought, “How apropos? Welcome to SEAL country.”

The ankle-deep, loose sand continued for the entire back half of the run. Pavement accounted for only a quarter mile of each loop, a vast difference from the course description. This was the race of unknowns.

Passing the finish line four times to begin each new lap was quite a disheartening feat. In perfect SEAL fashion, the spirit of the weakest tadpoles was tested with each passage. By the third lap, I could feel the weight of this race on my shoulders.

On my fifth and final lap, I passed the last aid station at the top of the berm. I was beginning to wonder if the race would ever end for me. A volunteer shouted, “Last lap 208, you’re finished. HOO-YAH!” It was just the kick I needed. I made it through the sandy road, onto the pavement and through the finish chute. It may sound like understatement, but I was glad to finish this one.

Superfrog was not a day about winning prizes or about setting personal records. This race is about something bigger. It is about standing tall in front of the man. . About having the opportunity so few triathletes will ever have, racing shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. Navy SEALS, some of the finest military endurance athletes in the world. Today we were all tadpoles. And next year, for one day, the opportunity will present itself again. Are you sure you wanna do this?


 

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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