Friday, December 31, 2010

Swamp Patrol

In 1988 I was attending the U.S. Army Ranger school having progressed through City week and the Mountain phase I was now located at Eglin AFB Florida for what was called "Jungle Phase." It really should have been called "swamp" phase in my opinion since we spent most of our time knee deep in water. This phase concentrated on platoon size operations and all of us Ranger students had to pass a patrol as Platoon Leader (PL). We were also graded on other leadership positions such as squad leaders or Platoon Sergeant (APL). Upon initial arrival we were given the obligatory speech about how we had had it easy up to this point but that this phase would weed out the wannabes. Our Ranger instructors also showed us a huge American Alligator. This thing was about 20 feet long and lived in a pond surrounded by a fence on the Ranger compound. It had a name but after over twenty years I can’t remember what it was.
Eventually we were allowed to put our gear in the barracks and we spent the next two days taking classes and trying to stay awake. Even though we were in a garrison environment for those two days we still were only given one Meal-Ready-To-Eat a day and four hours of sleep a night or less. At this point after about thirty days of this regimen our bodies were starting to seriously break down. We thought about food constantly and we fought against fatigue on a minute by minute basis. This was supposed to put stress on us similar to what we might face in combat as leaders. Funny thing though, when I actually got to combat later on in my career I was always well fed and I usually got enough sleep, that’s because in real combat the Army doesn’t want a bunch of sleepy, hungry guys performing high priority missions if they can help it.
So during one class on poisonous snakes indigenous to the area, as we were dozing through a PowerPoint presentation, our instructor pulled out a large wooden box and said he was going to show us a live rattle snake. So as he reached into the box he let out a loud yell. “Oh my God it just bit me!!!!!” Then we saw this large snake go flying across the room as he flung it away from himself. He had thrown it towards the opposite side of the room than the side I was sitting on and the students on that side were climbing over each other, over the chairs, and up the walls trying to make some distance between themselves and the snake. When the snake landed it just lay there, upon closer inspection it was discovered that it was a rubber snake. All the instructors where laughing their asses off at all the dumb ranger students that had been trying to run from a rubber snake. Looking back I admit it was pretty funny and he sure kept us awake for the rest of his class.
Eventually class time was over and we started the by now familiar routine of operations order, gear prep and deployment for a ten day patrol in the swamps of Eglin AFB. We loaded deuce and a half trucks and after about a two hour ride in the covered back of these trucks, the Ranger Instructors “encouraged” us to un-ass “their” vehicle and pull security as they drove off down the sandy road. I was prone with my M16 rifle facing out towards the enemy as part of the 360 degree security we established while the student designated at PL got his bearings. I was just a squad member on this first day so I had nothing in particular to worry about. In addition to my regular gear I had a 120 foot nylon rope back-fed into my rucksack for our anticipated river crossing of the Yellow River. The Yellow River meandered its way through the training area surrounded by a large swamp. This swamp was due to the fact that elevation changes where practically non existent as we looked at the map. I was pretty happy about this after finishing the mountain phase of the course I was ready for some flatness. Little did I know that even flatness has its drawbacks.
As we got started on the patrol I was a rifleman on the left flank of the B-Team or the second team of the 3rd squad in the patrol order. Each team consisted of a point man, a Team leader, an automatic rifle man and three rifle man. We were all arranged in wedges with the Squad Leaders and Platoon leader positioning themselves with their RTO’s (radio operators) in the center of each formation. We started walking keeping a separation of 50-100 meters between elements as the terrain dictated. As in most of the south we were patrolling through sandy soil, covered with pine needles from the tall pine trees and short scrubby pines that were growing thick in the area. As we had been dropped off in late afternoon eventually we stopped to conduct a listening halt right around EENT or end evening nautical twilight. This served two purposes, it allowed us to acclimatize ourselves to the sights and sounds of the “battle field” as darkness fell and it allowed our PL to orient himself to our objective.
Our initial objective was a cache of Zodiac rubber boats with which we were to move ourselves and our equipment to our raid objective. The boats were more than a days patrol away so we would be spending the night in a patrol base before we reached them. Eventually after patrolling until about 0100 through the pie forest we stopped as the PL did a leader’s reconnaissance for a night time patrol base. Once an acceptable spot was located we all moved in forming a cigar shaped perimeter with inter-locking fields of fire and automatic weapons strongpointed along likely avenues of approach. As one ranger pulled security the other one utilized his entrenching tool to dig a shallow fox hole. Once everyone was dug in we were allowed to pull 50% security. This meant one ranger could sleep while the other stared into the darkness straining to see the “enemy” or more likely a Ranger Instructor sneaking up to try and steal equipment from a sleeping ranger.
Morning came early after I got about 2 hours of sleep and we moved out again towards our objective. Shortly after moving out we started to encounter the swamp surrounding the Yellow River. From this point on I would not have dry feet for about a week. We slogged through the mud moving now one behind the other in a “Ranger File.” Due to the terrain I couldn’t see anything but the rucksack of the ranger in front of me. My goal became a struggle to keep within arms reach of my platoon mate to the front so as not to break contact. All the while under water roots and branches continued to try and trip me up and the mud tried to pull the jungle boots from my feet. Eventually we reached the bank of the river where several Zodiacs where pulled up on the bank. Each boat could hold 12 rangers. We piled our rucksacks in the middle and straddled the side of the Zodaic with one knee in the center and one on the outside edge with our leg almost but not quite dangling in the water as we tucked it behind us. We launched our boats and tried to get in rhythm as we paddled down the river for what was to be a 12 kilometer movement to our disembarkation point.
Paddling down the river was almost a relief with the exception of trying to stay in cadence with my fellow rangers. Our Ranger Instructor sat in the back giving us “constructive criticism” on our technique and navigation down the river. I said almost a relief because shortly after we pushed off I started noticing some of the local fauna sunning themselves on the banks of the river. The fauna I was seeing was many many alligators more than this Iowa boy had ever seen and certainly the only ones I had seen in the wild. I started being very aware of the leg that was inches from the river and continually tried to tuck it further up under my butt as I kept a watchful eye out for any reptilian predators.
Eventually we beached the boats and the little river ride was over, we disembarked as it was getting dark again. We climbed out straight into the water about waist deep and started to slog our way on azimuth towards our next objective which was a patrol base on the dry side of the river. We would not reach it that night and would be spending the night in the swamp with no sleep. Once we entered the trees and bushes surrounding the river it instantly got pitch dark. The only thing you could see was the luminous “cat eyes” sewed on the rucksacks and patrol caps of the ranger to your immediate front. It was so dark you could literally not see your hand in front of your face, and the branches and roots of the very closely grown together trees in the swamp constantly looked to poke you in the eye or trip you up.
We spent the next 10-12 hours wading through the waist to chest deep water, keeping our weapons above our heads so as not to get them wet and struggling to keep up with the man ahead. At one point we halted and the word was passed back to bring up the 120 foot rope as we needed it for a river crossing. As I struggled to the front of the file I was thinking to myself, that I thought we had been walking through the freaking river for the last 5 hours. One ranger tied the rope around his waist and left all his gear as he swam across the 100 meters to the opposite shore. He then secured the opposite end to a tree and pulled security while we sent his gear across with another ranger. All of us took turns snaplinking to the rope and making our way rucksack, weapon and all across the river.  When it was my turn being, fairly short at 5’7”, I almost immediately lost my footing as the river got deeper. My rucksack actually acted as a buoyancy device and kept me afloat as I held my weapon out of the water and pulled myself with my other hand along the rope. Unfortunately it was also pulling my chest strap across my throat and threatened to choke me out before I got to the other side. Eventually I did make it though and pulled security while the rest of the platoon crossed and we re-stoyed  the rope in my rucksack. The now wet rope weighed about a million pounds as we continued along in the dark.
As the sun came up we entered a clearing that was on some higher ground. While not totally dry it was dryer than anything we had walked on in the last 10 hours. The sunshine was sending its early morning rays through the rising mist of the swamp causing light to bounce off in tiny rain bows. As I looked to the left and right of me my fellow students, muddy, wet and bedraggled looked like something out of the living dead as they emerged from the mist on to dryer ground. I wasn’t in any better shape myself as somehow I had managed to rip a hole in the entire left leg of my BDU pants and my muddy leg kept poking its way out every time I took a step. It is funny how some images remain with you forever. But I will never forget this image of our platoon emerging from the swamp after an exhausting night of patrolling into a bright morning sun. I can see it now in my minds eye right down to my prune-like hands and muddy boots. I participated in many patrols in my career, both in training and combat but this one was one I will never forget.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

So this is Christmas

I haven't been blogging much this month, been pretty busy and also the old creative juices just weren't flowing. I was thinking today however about Christmas past and some of the good times I have had and the things I am thankful for. As you know I am in to lists so I made of my Christmas thanks in no particular order.

I am thankful all my children are safe and productive.
I am thankful for the 20 gauge shotgun my Dad bought me when I was 10, I still have it.
I am thankful my Wife still puts up with my BS, I think we were made for each other which is the point.
I am thankful for the ipod and my forerunner GPS both presents that are the most useful my kids ever got me over the years.
I am thankful I have a job(s)
I am thankful that in 22 years of active Military service through war and peacetime, even though I missed every other holiday and birthday, I made it home for every Christmas. One year I flew in on Dec 24.
I am thankful I like to run
I am thankful I can still run
I am thankful my dogs like me
I am thankful that I live in the United States of America

There is so much else to be thankful for I couldn't possibly put it all down, So I say Merry Christmas to you all and to all a good night!!!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

2010 In Review : Former Action Guy by the numbers

In it usually about this time of year that all your radio stations start their top 100 countdowns or VH1 broadcasts best of the year videos or any number of places select their"best of."  I thought I would hop on the band wagon and countdown my last year by the numbers. So here goes:

 Officiating by the numbers
Football games officiated-77
Baseball games umpired-100
Wrestling matches officiated-100-150 ( just a SWAG on this, I never counted actual matches just dates of tournaments and dual meets)
Top Ten Athletes or Teams officiated-17
Hall of Fame Coaches whose hand I shook- 2 (Butch Pedersen Football West Branch, Iowa High School Coaches Hall of Fame and Marv Cook Football Iowa City Regina,West Branch HS and University of Iowa Hall of Fame also NFL for 7 years with Chiefs)
Number of Coaches that told us good job-5

Running/Biking by the numbers
Ultramarathons complete- 1 (Hawkeye 50K)
Marathons complete- 1 (Quad Cities Marathon)
1/2 Marathons complete- 2 (Rockford 1/2 Marathon, New Bo Fest 1/2 Marathon)
 8.8 mile prediction races complete- 1 (Mall to Mall prediction race)
8K run complete- 1 (Return of Turkey Trot 8K)
5K run complete- 3 (Alliant Energy 5K,Lisbon Kraut Route 5K, Freeze Fest 5K)
Mountain Bike races complete- 2 ( Decorah Time Trials, Sugar Bottom Scramble Iowa State Mountain Bike Championships)
MTB races where I finished dead last- 1
IMBCS points-261
Iowa Mountain Bike Championship Series Cat 3 final standing-18
Cedar Valley Running Association Circuit points-120
CVRA 40-49 age group final standing- 4

Social Media by the numbers

Social media accounts-9 (twitter,facebook,myspace,linkedin,dailymile,googlebuzz,blogger,tumblr,youtube)
Tweets-3967 (yep I have no life)
Blogs started- 2 (Former Action Guy , Former Action Guy 2
Blog Posts-  143 ( again no life and I like to talk about my favorite
Articles published on the internet-2

Emergency Medicine by the numbers

Ambulance Services working for-2
Number of calls-69
Car accidents dispatched to-20
Standby for Fires-1
People that thanked me for saving their life-2

Fandom by the numbers

Times I saw the Troy Trojans- 0
Times I wished I could watch them-12
Times I disowned the Iowa Hawkeye football team- 5
Times I said I wouldn't watch them again -6
Times I watched them-13 ( this counts the bowl game at the end of the month)
Times I disowned the Minnesota Vikings-7
Times I said I wouldn't watch them again-8
Times I watched them-11
Times I disowned the Chicago Cubs-Never mind this is pointless

Random Numbers
Part time jobs I quit-1
Part time jobs hired at-1
Years since Army retirement-6
Years since joining Army-28
Years since graduating Airborne School-27
Years since graduating Ranger School-22
Years since graduating Special Forces Qualification course-20
Post military pounds lost-25
Post military pounds regained-5
Time I miss Special Forces -Everyday
Kids graduated this year-1
United States Practical Shooters Association Matches competed at-2

So there you have my year in numbers. I probably missed some things but I will get them next year.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hawkeye 50K UltraMarathon

OK so the day I trained for came and went and it was everything I wanted it to be. It was challenging, a suckfest (but not a bad suckfest like this but a good suckfest that left you feeling good), and well organized. I had been wanting to run an Ultramarathon for 4-5 years, in fact I was training for one 4 years ago when I tore the meniscus in my left knee and it took this long for me to get back to where the knee could handle the distances. I must admit the weather forecast for race day called for some pretty crappy weather and that part messed with my mind a little bit. In fact I almost wimped out and downgraded to the 25K but I am glad I didn't.

So the morning of the race I woke up and jumped in the car. I stopped at a local convenience store and grabbed a pre race breakfast of Gatorade and honey buns (yum yum) and then drove the 25 miles to the race start. The race was held around the Coralville Reservoir in the Macbride Wildlife area. When I arrived I was able to park only about 100 meters from the start. I got out of the car grabbed my camelbak and drop bag and walked to the start/finish line. I had put my ipod in my pocket and drapped my earphones over my shoulder, big mistake, by the time I got to the drop bag area I had lost my earphones. This was not good, I looked around for about 10 minutes but couldn't find where I dropped them. As I walked back to the car to put my now useless ipod away I was thinking, awesome what am I going to do without the 8 plus hours of carefully selected tunes and podcasts I had hoped to use to take my mind off the whole running thing? Just deal I suppose.

So I got back to the start about 5 minutes before racetime and as luck would have it, the rain started pouring down. It was about 38 degrees at this point which is almost worse than anything else, cold and wet really sucks. All the racers where trying (about 125 of us) to huddle under a little overhang and stay as dry as possible before the race started. The course for the 50K was two 15.5 mile loops that would end up at the same place as we started. Each loop was divided basically in thirds, the first third was along a two lane highway, the second third was along crushed gravel paths around the lake, and the last third was on single track mountain bike trails in the woods.

Well the race director gave a little motivational speech and hit the starter pistol and off we went. The first .5 miles was on a mountain bike trail and it was pretty stop and go as all 125 of us tried to funnel on this trail. Eventually it dumped us out on a service road which we ran on for about a mile before we got to the highway. Did I mention it was still pouring buckets? Just after we hit the highway and people started stretching out a lady ran up beside me and started a conversation. Her name was Dorothy and she is a middle school music teacher. She told me her husband was running the 50K and she was running the 25K, he was somewhere up ahead of us. She also told me she had brain surgery last May, it was pretty amazing that she was out running a 25K. We had a very nice conversation for the next 6 miles as the highway stretched ahead, eventually we turned left as we hit the town of Solon Iowa and we came up on the first aid station. I walked through the aid station and we continued on hitting those crushed gravel paths. These paths were soggy and had a lot of standing water from the rain, but it made for better running on my knee. About mile 8 Dorothy told me to go ahead. I wished her good luck as she started to slow to a walk. I kept running along the paths as they followed the shoreline and through the woods. The houses on the lakefront where all very rich looking and most had private docks. About mile 9 was the second aid station where I grabbed some water and used the porto-potty. I then hit the woods for the third leg, this leg was the toughest as far as terrain, it reminded me of some of the terrain I had walked through on the Appalachian trail. Up and down and around trees and ridgelines and draws. At mile 10 we had a stream crossing, it was fairly wide about 50 meters and about ankle deep. It took me probably 5-10 minutes to pick my way through jumping from rock to rock but I managed to make it without getting my feet wet. Immediately after the stream we had to actually free climb a short section of rock to get back on top of a ridge line and hook up with the trail. From this point forward I started employing a run/walk strategy. The ridge lines where just too steep,too muddy,too many roots and leaves to run up. I would walk uphill using a tree every now and then to get over the steeper sections, I would then run downhill and the flat parts. I still had to be careful going downhill though because the mud and leaves was like skiing at some points. At mile 12 we suddenly popped out of the woods and there was the start finish, on my first lap I was thinking, no way my GPS wasn't off that much! I was right because the course went right by the start and took a hard right straight up another ridge. We continued on about 3.5 miles more of muddy trails until we looped back to the start/finish. It was during this section where I started talking to a lady whose name I never got who said she had run a few 100 miles races. Pretty impressive. When we got back to the start/finish, I made the decision to put on my dry shoes as I was muddy up to my ankles and my feet where soaked. I finished the first lap in 3 hrs 10 minutes and it took me about 4 minutes to change my shoes and socks. I grabbed a banana and a PBJ and headed down the trail. So at 3:14 race time I was back out starting my second lap.

The second time around was a very different race, all the 25K runners were off the course so I ran most of it without seeing anyone to my front or my back. Also the weather had changed from rain to snow. The temperature had dropped about 20 degrees and the wind picked up, it was a blizzard the second time around. My jacket froze stiff as a board and I had snow encrusted on my front from top to bottom. The highway section on my second lap took a lot out of me, just seeing it stretch off into the distance with no one around and the wind howling was a real mental challenge. Along the highway about mile 18 I heard this big clap of thunder. I thought "oh great thunder snow!" I started looking for somewhere to take shelter from lightning but I didn't hear any more. I made it to the first aid station and stopped for a drink. I asked if anyone was behind me and they said " a few." I joked with them and said' I better slow down then." So I continued on to the gravel section, which by now the wind was blowing the snow straight off the lake into my face and all that standing water was freezing into ice.I was running downhill during this section when I got a massive cramp in my left thigh about mile 20. It was horrible never felt anything like that before. All I could think was that I was not going to quit. I walked for about 15 minutes until the cramp went away while downing some power gels and water from my camelbak. That seemed to do the trick as it never bothered me the rest of the race.

Between mile 20 and the next rest area I actually passed two people that had slowed down to a walk. I was still doing the run/walk thing by running 10 minutes and walking 2. When I hit the last aid station about mile 22 I downed the pedialite they offered me and ate half a frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwich while I headed back into the woods for the last section. The second water crossing was a lot different than the first, by now all the rocks where snow covered and even though I tried to follow my original line I managed to fall in and get my right leg wet up to the shin. No big deal though as I was pretty much already soaked from head to toe anway. I scrambled up the rocks and headed into the last 3-4 miles of the course. It was about this point that I crossed into ultramarathon territory having went over 26.2 miles. It had taken me 6 hours, compare this to my last marathon time of 4 hours 44 minutes and you can see how the conditions and terrain affected my race. By now everything was snow covered so I had to contend with leaves,roots,snow and mud as I went up and down the ridgelines and draws. The course was well marked and I could follow footprints of the runners ahead of me so getting lost was not my concern. I rounded the curve at the start/finish as a guy asked me for my number I yelled it at him as I headed up the ridge. As I ran through the woods the wasn't a soul in sight except for the occasional squirrel and deer print. It was very still and all I could hear was the rustling of my frozen jacket as my arms swang back and forth. It was somewhere during this time that the song Will Ferrell sang in Step Brothers kept going through my head.

Eventually I started singing it out loud or at least as much as I could remember, if someone would have seen me they probably would have thought I lost it. I rounded the last corner and saw the building at the start a few hundred meters ahead. I ran up and just stopped. I finished in 7 hours 21 minutes and 44 seconds. The second lap took me 1 hour and 7 minutes longer than the first. Everyone was inside staying warm it was kind of anti climactic at the finish. I grabbed my bag and walked inside. Everyone looked at me all snow covered and said" Did you just finish?" I said " Yeah" They said "Here's your medal good job" I said "Thanks." So I ate another PBJ got in my car and went home and took a nap. Awesome.

I am writing this the next day. I got up this morning and was a little sore but I officiated a wrestling tournament this morning and now I am on duty at the ambulance garage. I think I will be losing some toenails though. This was a great race and now I am seriously thinking about doing a 50 miler this spring more to follow on that