Part One in a Series on the U.S. Navy SEALs and
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
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
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
“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,
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.