Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Straight from the trenches! Dr. Brandon Larkin talks marathon training and the "Platoon-St. Charles" in this week's #trainingtuesday blog!

Humans are tribal animals. They seek others for support and survival, especially in times of great stress.  That’s why groups of people who live through trauma together tend to be bound to each other for life.  They’ve shared the same horrible experiences and feel as though only those who were there with them can truly understand the emotional toll.  We see this during famine and wartime.  And we saw it this past weekend on the harsh burning trails of the St. Charles Riverfront.

I have never been in the military, and I’ve never faced a situation in which my life was truly in danger. But I’ve seen a lot of war movies, so I’m pretty sure that makes me an expert on the interpersonal relationships of a basic military unit.

Welcome to Platoon—St. Charles.

Let me set the scene.  While war takes soldiers to some of the harshest terrain in the world—the jungles of Vietnam or the dusty deserts of Iraq—our environment was almost just as treacherous.  In striking similarity to the Mekong Delta, the weather at the start of this 17-mile run was 75 degrees with 83% humidity.  5 brave souls headed northeast on the rocky Katy Trail along the Missouri River.  Not all five would make it back.

The cast of characters is usually pretty much the same, whether in the movies or, I’m assuming, in true wartime conflict.  So let me introduce you to our players—the 9:30 minute/mile pace group.  During my weekend long runs, these folks are the ones with which I spill blood, sweat, and tears on the pavement as the miles tick by.

Sarah:  “The Commander” AKA “Coach”
Sarah serves as the leader of the cadre, both logistically and inspirationally.  She’s an experienced marathoner and knows how to get the most from her men.  And women.  And while she’s the spiritual leader of the crew, she is prone to operational errors, like losing track of the correct course or forgetting gear that is vital to mission success—like her pacing watch.

Lisa: “The Grizzled Veteran”
With over 25 years of distance running under her belt, Lisa does things her own way.  And she’s respected for it.  She doesn’t have patience for things like “rules” and “schedules.” If you don’t like how she does things, too bad.  She’s been around too long to take any lip from you, Buster.  “Good luck, kid.  See you on the other side.”

Leslie: “Pancake”
Whether it’s a distraction technique or simply a quirky preoccupation, Leslie’s the one always talking about food.  Pancakes for breakfast after the run.  New restaurant for dinner that night.  She forces you to fantasize about the comforts of home while you’re trudging through the hell of war.  Or in this case, marathon training.  Think Bubba in Forrest Gump.

Brent: The “Go On Without Me” Guy
Brent sweats.  A lot.  Hydration in these high heat, high humidity situations is always a concern.  As the temperature rises, Brent starts to drift behind.  But as a good soldier, he doesn’t want his personal struggles to jeopardize the success of the mission.  So he urges us forward, often at his own peril.  There’s always this guy in the movies.

Me: “Pollyanna”
I try to stay positive, even in the face of massive hardship.  “C’mon guys! It’s a character building exercise!  We’re fine!”  In the movies, this guy usually gets killed in the first 30 minutes.  Sometimes by his own men.

So we set out on our mission.  It’s hot. It’s sticky.  There are a lot of miles ahead of us.  And for the first half of the run, we’re okay.

Me: “C’mon guys! It’s not that bad.  The sun isn’t even blazing yet.”

Assorted grumbles.

Brent’s already sweat through his shirt.  We’re a half a mile in.

At our first stop for provisions around mile 8, some of the squad starts to show cracks.

Lisa: “I’m not going out all the way for the second loop, whipper-snappers.  I’ve done this enough.  I don’t want to get out too far and get in trouble.  It’s about the effort, not the mileage.”

Doubt starts to creep in.  The crafty veteran has made her play.  She’s got a point.  Should we follow? She’s knows her stuff and she’s got a feeling.  Who am I to not trust it?  But Sarah’s in charge.  Follow the chain of command.

Now we set out toward the southwest.  The trail is crowded now.  The carnage is immense.  Marathon and half marathon trainees are littering the path.  Few are smiling.  Most show no emotion.  Steely determination? Or dehydration induced disorientation?

I should mention that at our resupply stop we picked up a new character—Rachel.  Rachel commands another squad, but she’s now running with us.  I can only assume all of her men have become casualties.  She plays the cinematic part of the new leader who takes over after the original one gets killed or wounded or sent back home due to mental breakdown.  Sarah’s still with us, but she doesn’t really seem to be truly “with” us.  We’re all scared.  Rachel tries to pick up morale.

Rachel: “Alright guys, we’re almost there.  Just a few more miles.  Oh, and by the way, I’m knocking off early.  I put enough miles in already earlier this morning.”

Dang it.  That didn’t help.

Brent starts to sag.  He hasn’t spoken since mile 9.  Lisa turns back for basecamp.

Lisa: “Good luck kid.  See you on the other side.” 

We urge Brent to a forward position.

Brent: “I’m no good, man.  Go on without me.”


Brent: “I’m only going to bring you guys down.  You have to go on!”

Brent softly, quietly, turns back and heads to basecamp.  We don’t go after him.

Now we’re down to three and our plus one, until Rachel mysteriously disappears for a few miles.  Captured? Worse? Just kinda tired of all the running?

We’re down to three.  We’re in bad shape.  No one is talking.  Except Leslie.

Leslie: “Pancakes.”

Rachel reappears.  Is she a double agent?  She’s got pep in her step now.  Is that even really Rachel?  I’m not well.

We reach basecamp.  Rachel bugs out with a smile.  I’ve never trusted her.  

We get a visual on Lisa (feet in the ice bath chomping on a cigar—total veteran move) and Brent (in the ice bath, surrounded by medics with two large bore IVs dropping liters of fluids into his thirsty veins).


Three of us set out for the last sortie—Sarah, Leslie, and myself.

Me: “It could always be worse!”

I’m pretty sure sniper fire just misses me.  I assume it’s from a friendly.

Me: “Okay.  This kind of stinks.”

No response.  We’ve hit “The Zone.”

In times of great stress, one often looks to his comrades to survive.  But sometimes he is forced to draw on his own strength to persevere.  The three of us had arrived at that point.  That’s “The Zone.” We had done all we could to help each other.  It was do or die.  Or call on the cell phone to get picked up and driven to the end of the trail in a car.

So as we limped back into basecamp, beaten and exhausted, there was no joy in finishing.  We had lost some good men. And women.  And while it was true that they were technically at camp stretching and drinking water and seemingly doing pretty okay, we knew we would never forget them or the sacrifices they made.  

We left a little of our childhood on the trail that day.  We were no longer the innocent runners we started as.  We did horrible things.  We left Brent behind.  You never leave a man behind.  But we did.  We had seen things that could not be unseen.  We saw some guy with both nipples bleeding through his shirt.  So I’m serious here.  

But we now were bonded together for life.  We had lived through that traumatic August morning, and come out stronger on the other side.

There was only one thing left to do.