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
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
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
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
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
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?