The Forces Are with Them

It’s been a couple of days since I got back from Camp Pendleton in Southern California. The bad news is that I had a little trouble
transcribing parts of interviews I tape-recorded on the shooting range. I’m sorry. Could you repeat that? The good news is that the ringing in my ears has almost completely gone away.

I was there to hang out with Thom Shea, a Navy SEAL instructor who is also an avid adventure racer. The SEALs, those special-operations ninjas who endure some of the toughest military training in the world, have long been drawn to this sport. (Two years before he created the Eco-Challenge, Mark Burnett–along with three SEALs and a TV producer named Susan Hemond–finished a creditable ninth in the 1993 Raid Gauloises in Madagascar.)

While SEALs have a tradition of applying their Sea, Air and Land skills to Raids and Ecos, Shea is taking things a step further, making the sport work for him. He has begun incorporating some of the lessons of adventure racing into his SEAL instruction.

Such as? I wondered when I heard about this. Trekking poles as interrogation devices? An empty camelBak bladder as an impromptu
breathing device?

Nothing quite so esoteric, says Shea, who emphasizes to his charges that because things tend to go awry in SEAL missions just as they do in adventure races, both require flexibility and creativity in solving problems. “A team leader has to be able to roll with whatever happens,” says Shea, who decreed, after studying the 400-plus-mile course for last September’s Subaru Primal Quest in South Lake Tahoe, that his team would average four mph and rest four hours a day. That squad, Team Warrior Foundation (which raises money for children of Special Forces soldiers killed in action), was thrown off schedule two hours into the race, when its four-person kayak was swamped, then sunk, by choppy waters on Lake Tahoe.

“As in adventure racing, your [SEAL] mission almost never turns out the way you planned it, ” says former SEAL Don Mann. “So we
always say, ‘Be Gumby, be flexible, do a lot of contingency planning.'” Mann is the president of Odyssey Adventure Racing, which puts on, among other ordeals, er, events, the 24-hour SEAL Adventure Challenge in Virginia Beach and a seven-day New Balance Adventure Racing Academy (open to anyone) in West Virginia. Also a Raid veteran, Mann sees many parallels between his sport and his former career. “In some ways adventure racing is easier” than being a SEAL, he says. “When you’re out in the woods at night during a race, you can talk out loud, and you can turn on a light.”

But in some ways, Mann goes on, it’s harder. “Hell Week [the five grueling days that are the heart of SEAL training] is brutal, but you do get four meals a day, and there’s an ambulance nearby.”

Special Forces in general, and SEALs in particular, are given far more rein by the military than are regular grunts. They are encouraged–indeed, required–to be creative and audacious in solving problems. “We’re faced with daunting obstacles, and we have to come up with ingenious ways to overcome them,” says Shea. An example he cites to his SEAL wannabes: When a teammate got a flat during a mountain biking leg at the Primal Quest, the Warriors discovered that they had no extra tubes. Eight teams passed them; none had a tube to spare. In desperation, they stuffed the tire with long grass. “It was loose and floppy,” says Shea, “but at least it got us back on the course.”

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