Endurance sports were not a part of my life until I reached my early 30s. In fact, before joining the Marine Corps in 2001, I had spent the previous two years in college where the only endurance I used was to stay up all night drinking mountain dew and playing video games. Overweight and feeling useless, I enlisted in the Marine Corps and quickly fell in love with everything it stood for. I was never a stand out at physical training (PT) but I continued to push myself to improve and seek new opportunities. Throughout my first decade as a Marine, I was continually impressed, and let down, by various leaders I would work for. I learned qualities to emulate from those senior Marines I admired, and learned which traits to avoid from others that I did not.
As my own career evolved from a young Marine taking orders into a position where I was that leader, tasked with influencing and guiding the younger generation, the weight of that responsibility began to grow. I would often reflect on what I saw in my own leaders when I was young and try to be the best version of all that I had learned towards my own Marines.
There are many areas where a leader can set a positive example, such as job proficiency, professionalism, and judgement to name a few. Junior Marines are always watching their leaders and any sign of weakness or deficiency they see can be used to justify their own shortcomings. As my career progressed, I continued trying to find ways to push myself and be that example for my Marines to look up to. I became a Martial Arts Instructor, a Water Survival Instructor, and a Marksmanship Coach.
One of the most obvious areas where youth often has an advantage, is with PT. Most mornings start off with PT and in these settings, our physical weaknesses are on full display for others to see. No one wants to be last in a run, or to be the weakest person on the pull-up bar. That pressure is amplified when you are the person tasked with leading the training. I can still vividly remember the leaders I had that would tell us what to do, and those that would show us how to do it. Those that could show were often those we would be more likely to respect and try to emulate ourselves.
In 2012, over a decade into my career as a Marine, I suffered a torn meniscus in my right knee while serving as a Drill Instructor and subsequently developed bone irregularities behind my kneecap. After surgery, my recovery didn’t go as well as I had hoped or expected and I found myself facing the possibility of being separated medically from the Marine Corps. Several doctors advised me that I should not run anymore and recommended additional surgeries. Discouraged, I was fortunate to begin working with an extremely passionate physical therapist that helped me strengthen my weak leg and eventually pass a fitness test and continue serving. During this time, when running wasn’t an option, I began to ride a bike to help strengthen my leg. After several months of therapy and training, I was able to start running again. This rebuilding period sparked a fire in me for seeing how far I could push myself.
After transferring to a new location, I signed up for my first triathlon, an Olympic distance race in North Carolina. I didn’t train for the swim because I was overconfident due to my time as a water survival instructor. That was my first mistake. Almost 50 minutes after the race started, I pulled myself out of the water, suffering for every breath. The bike was uneventful, but the run portion quickly became a game of seeing what the highest number written on a person’s calf I would see pass me. I believe a lady with a 63 on her leg was the highest I saw. I finished the race, and I was hooked.
At work the next day, looking obviously sore and broke off, my Marines said I was crazy for doing something like that. Being completely honest, I enjoyed the fact that people thought something I did was a bit crazy. After recovering, I began to train more and quickly started to improve. Part of military life however, is to expect the unexpected. Shortly after that first race, I was sent aboard a ship to spend the next nine months in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. There’s no swimming pool on a Navy ship, but there are treadmills, spin bikes, and a flight deck. I used every bit of free time I had to ride and run. Running on a treadmill in high seas is something that can’t really be explained. It’s as if the ground opens up and you’re suddenly running on the air, or the opposite happens, and you suddenly find yourself struggling up the side of a mountain. At the end of that deployment, I was in the best shape of my life and motivated to stay with it.
Through my career up to this point, I wasn’t in poor shape, but I wasn’t at the front of group runs or scoring extremely high on my fitness test. As I continued to train and started racing more, my fitness kept growing and I found myself starting to finish our PT runs before more of the younger Marines. I started to take it as a personal challenge to keep up or outperform these ‘kids’. Junior Marines began to ask me advice on getting stronger or faster, and some were encouraged to find local 5k’s or half marathons to run. I enjoyed helping Marines pursue their own goals and I could see the positive influence that my journey into triathlon was having, not only on my own fitness, but on my ability to inspire and lead my Marines.
Forty is right around the corner for me now, and I’m about to transfer to a military school where I’ll be instructing young, 18-20 year old service members from all branches of the military. I’ll be damned if I’m going to go there and be the ‘Old Guy’ that just tells these young airmen, soldiers, sailors, and Marines what they need to do. It might not be easy, and I definitely won’t recover as quickly as I used to… but I’m going to continue to lead from the front and set a positive example for the next generation.
As my military career starts to wind down, and I look forward to the next chapter in my life, I know that I will continue swimming, biking and running, as long as my body will let me. I have unfinished goals that I want to achieve for myself, and I’m still inspired at every race I go to by the enormous variety of individuals I see in this sport. Maybe someday I can be the one with a 63 written on my calf, giving a younger athlete some motivation to keep going.
Phil is an 18 year veteran of the Marine Corps with 5 combat deployments, currently in the process of transitioning with his family to South Carolina. He is a multiple Marathon/Ultramarathon/Half Ironman finisher and is currently training for his first full Ironman at Chattanooga in September. Follow him @phil_the_cup.