Team FeXY

Many of you may not know me but I was a staple in the Northern Virginia triathlon community for thirteen years. I also helped Scott, Reid, and company get FeXY off and running. I am happy to see it growing and thriving. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive group of training partners and friend’s before I left the area. Triathlon played a huge role in my life. I was a personal trainer, USA Triathlon Coach, F.I.S.T. Bike Fitter, writer, and taught Computrainer Classes at Spokes, Etc. during the winter. Something in my life was missing however and for the longest time I couldn’t put a finger on it. I actually knew what it was all along yet hesitated in pursuing it because this path had a lot of uncertainty. However, with resounding support from my family, friends, and buddies in the “Teams,” I took a gigantic leap of faith. At the age of thirty-four, I joined the United States Navy with the intent to become a Navy SEAL.

The Navy SEALs along with Delta Force are arguably America’s most elite Special Forces. SEALs (SEa, Air, Land) are an extremely versatile, small, fighting force that can travel by water, HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) jump forty thousand feet from the sky in the dead of night, "ruck" through the desert, or climb over rugged mountain terrain. With a wide range of capabilities, skills, and missions they appealed to me on many levels.

It’s a long, tough road to home to become a SEAL. From start to finish, a man will spend approximately a year and eight months earning the coveted gold warfare pin called “The Trident.” The road just to becoming a SEAL goes through BUDs (Basic Underwater Demolitions SEAL) in Coronado, CA. To get a shot at the SEALs and BUDs you have to first be in the Navy. Only after an eight week boot camp, another eight weeks at a BUDs Preparatory Course, and an additional two months of training/hold time in Coronado I finally had my shot.

Let me preface what I’m about to tell you with this: I’ve done four Ironmans including a 10:40 PR, saved many lives as a lifeguard in Ocean City, MD, surfed big waves in Costa Rica and Hawaii, played four years of college rugby including playing one semester with a broken arm I didn’t know about. I thought I had been through the some tough programs. BUDs was harder than anything I’ve ever done. Anything! Every day at BUDs you are going to do something you don’t want to do, are afraid to do, or have never done before. Every day starts before dawn and ends after sunset. There is no relenting by the instructors. You are wet and sandy almost from the time your day starts to when it ends. Sand in your underwear in your boots, socks, ears, face, and hands. You have a perpetual shiver throughout the day. Average temperature in Coronado during the winter is fifty five to sixty degrees with no humidity. Water temperature is about the same.

At BUDs we ran six miles a day just to eat. It is exactly one mile in each direction to the chow hall. With all the additional running throughout the day, we ran almost ten miles a day in wet, sandy boots and pants. Two (out of the nineteen) obstacles on the O-Course are sixty feet high with no safety lines. Every week we practice “drown proofing.” With our hands and feet tied, we would bob in ten feet of water, float, swim, and retrieve our masks from the bottom of the pool with our teeth. There was log PT; crews of six or seven men doing calisthenics to failure with a two hundred pound, eight foot section of telephone pole. Land Portage; boat crews running with a one hundred eighty pound boat on your head with as it rubbed your head raw, gave some bald spots, and compressed your neck, back, and legs for runs in soft sand up to six miles long. Each week we had one surf torture three sessions of twenty, fifteen and ten minutes of lying in the cold pacific water.

I saw guys each morning that had to tape up blisters the size of half dollars on the backs of their heels. During one surf passage exercise, the waves were eight to ten feet high and the shore "break" was about four to five feet. Boat crews of six to seven men were trying to launch a rubber inflatable boat through giant surf and getting clobbered in the process. That day produced one concussion and two knee injuries. Men suffered from cellulitis (a skin infection that is produced by cuts and abrasions constantly exposed to dirt and water), Viral Gastroenteritis (VGE, an infection that resembled stomach flu), hypothermia, pneumonia, and SIPE (swimmer induced pulmonary edema). Two mile ocean swims were done with a "shortie" wetsuit (no legs), de-inflated vest, mask, fins, booties, belt with dive knife and smoke grenade attached. Not exactly streamlined and draft free with all that gear. Every day at BUDs was like completing three crossfit workouts, plus extra running, swimming, and being cold. I saw some of the toughest guys I’ve ever known break from the physical, mental, and emotional stress. Despite all this misery, I was doing pretty well. I had a few failures but I passed everything enough times to keep moving forward. I was a boat crew leader and I led my teammates admirably. I was looked up to as an older guy. Though BUDs is twenty one weeks long, the first four weeks of it are the worst.

After doing this for three weeks, the fourth week is Hell Week. It starts on Sunday night and doesn’t end until mid-day Friday. During these five and a half days of constant physical torment, a trainee will get less than four hours of sleep and only be allowed to change clothes once. Most of you have done an Ironman and most of you have finished between nine to thirteen hours. Hell Week is approximately one hundred twenty hours long. There are no aid stations, you eat four meals a day, and the instructors control how fast, how slow, or how much pain you endure. The attrition rate is about seventy five percent. Out of the one-hundred seventy eight of us that started BUDs, one-hundred sixteen made it to Hell Week, fifty-four finished Hell Week, and approximately twenty will graduate with my original class without any roll backs in training. We’re not talking about physically weak candidates either. Many were former college and high school athletes, one had played professional football; just about all of these guys could do a Half Ironman without any additional training. While we were at BUDs Prep, two of my friend’s ran the Chicago Marathon in 3:28 and 3:43 respectively without having run more than 12 miles in training.

All of us were physically ready but how does one get mentally ready for the daily fight at BUDs? How can I use these tactics in triathlon? How can I apply them to life in general? We were very lucky to have mentoring classes on mental toughness, ethics, and morals by Master Chief Wil Guile. SOCM Guile is a twenty six year veteran of the SEAL Teams, one of the few enlisted men ever to teach at the Naval Academy, and was a highly recruited football player at T.C. Williams. Master Chief Guile taught us these tactics and strategies that I applied every day in BUDs.


Goal Setting Through Segmenting: All of us have heard of goal setting. However, not all of us do it effectively. Segmenting is breaking a large task into smaller, more achievable goals. Not looking ahead all the time at everything you need to do to achieve the task but staying in the present and looking simply at what you have to do today or before each meal. It’s like the old adage “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Master Chief told us exactly how to break up the humongous task of getting through BUDs. “One meal at a time,” was our motto. Anyone can make it to the next meal. Once you make it to lunch then you focus on making it to dinner. At the start of BUDs, I focused on working from meal to meal but I also broke it down to even smaller parts during surf torture, long, cold swims, and brutal conditioning runs. “Just get to the next minute, the next sand bar, past this section of the beach,” I thought to myself. I also focused on a slightly bigger picture and set an initial goal of just making it to the end of each week. Weekends are rest and recovery time at BUDs and students are free to do whatever they please. Segmenting sounds like such a simple idea but how many of us use it effectively? I think as triathletes we can use segmenting over the course of our season, not just in an Ironman, to keep us focused, patient, and on a path to successful racing.

External and Internal Visualization: “Worrying is praying for something you don’t want. If you worry about it enough, it will happen.” Visualization is the antidote for anxiety, nervousness, and worry. In your mind, visualize yourself successfully going through each step needed to complete the task in detail through your own eyes (Internal). Then visualize seeing yourself successfully negotiating that same task as if you were watching yourself on video. Do this over and over. Go to a quiet place if you can, close your eyes, and visualize yourself internally and externally. When I was coaching, I used to tell cyclists that were afraid to descend at high speeds to focus on where you want to go instead of all the places you don’t want to end up. At BUDs I used this when we were waiting for our turn on the Obstacle Course. We had to negotiate all nineteen obstacles in under eleven minutes. Any obstacle that took you more than three attempts was an automatic failure. Failures were sent to remediation with more physical punishment as a reward. BUDs is hard enough. Avoiding extra doses of pain could mean the difference between passing and failure in another evolution in the day. Even though I knew I could negotiate each obstacle; waiting in line and not wanting to fail could cause unwanted anxiety. Visualization was my weapon against this.

Self Talk: Self talk is self affirmation. “Belief in yourself is the number one thing that will get your through BUDs. Believe in the program, training and where it will take you,” said Master Chief. Action (event), Belief (experience, prejudices, biases, stereotypes), Consequences (possible outcomes). Every task we encounter has these factors surrounding it. “Beliefs” are improved by self talk which equals a better consequence. All of us that compete have had a bad experience one time or another. A bike crash, being unable to finish a workout, bonking, gastric distress, cramps, equipment problems, or battling through an injury. These prior experiences can have a negative influence on a future consequence whether we realize it or not. Talking to yourself, believing in your training, your equipment, and trusting yourself to know what to do in the event things don’t go your way can mean the difference between success and failure. Every morning at BUDs, during the run to chow I would talk to myself as well as talk to God. I’d remind myself how hard I’ve worked to get to this point and that this day would soon pass. I would talk to myself during those cold two mile ocean swims and the dark four mile timed runs along the beach. “Just get to that buoy, just get to those rocks on the beach, you’re not cold” were things I said to myself.

Arousal Control; 4 x 4 x 4 breathing: People can react to a stressor in different ways. For instance, if an individual perceives the stressor as a challenge to his/her control of a situation, norepinephrine, the “fight ” hormone is predominantly released. And, if the stress arousal increases and a possible loss of control is felt by the individual, then epinephrine, another “flight/anxiety” hormone is released. When the stress is prolonged and seen as hopeless, the individual becomes more distressed and feels defeated. This activates the hypothalamus in the brain. What follows is a cascade of hormonal pathways resulting in the final release of cortisol from the adrenal cortex (of the kidney). The HPA Axis (Hypothalmus Pituitary Adrenal Axis) is a term describing the connection between your brain, pituitary, adrenal gland in relation to stress. During times of stress, the pituitary gland releases cortisol and the balance of cortisol in comparison to other hormones (DHEA, Testosterone, and Estrogen) is high. An increase in cortisol naturally occurs during the day and is highest in the morning and later afternoons as well as in times of stress. In a healthy person, the balance of hormones fluctuates naturally throughout the day. During normal, healthy sleep levels of cortisol are low allowing the body to repair and rebuild itself. High levels of cortisol as a result of stress or over training inhibit this process. In addition to affecting recovery, high or prolonged amounts of cortisol reduces blood flow to the muscles as well as limit the amount of glucose that the body is able to use. It affects athletic performance negatively as in the flight or defeat response.

To combat this, Master Chief Guile introduced us to 4 x 4 x 4 breathing in which you inhale for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and continue to perform this rhythmic breathing for four minutes. This pattern mimics REM sleep patterns, controls arousal, and keeps the cortisol balance in check. I found this extremely effective while waiting to do the obstacle course and before "drown proofing" or knot tying. It allowed me to keep my heart rate down, kept anxiety in check, and helped me go into a stressful situation calm, relaxed, and confident.

Before a race, time trial, or for those with the fear of open water swimming 4 x 4 x 4 breathing is an invaluable tool to combat an increased amount of cortisol. It works just as well for a speech, an interview, or presentation.

These tools are the basics of mental toughness and how aspiring Navy SEALs learning early on what it takes to be the best at what they do. Whether you are gearing up for an Ironman, an important presentation, or simply trying to get through a stressful day give these tactics a try.

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This policy is valid from 05 February 2012 This blog is a personal blog written and edited by me. For questions about this blog, please contact: erica@goodsensorylearning.