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Guts, No Glory


I’m a bush fertilizer, not an athlete.

My Army career is defined by an overall lack of bravado—I’m a public affairs specialist, so I take pictures, write stories and teach classes. I don’t do “athletic” with any semblance of dignity. I’m all Wild Kingdom—guts and screaming everywhere.

It’s been this way since my first Army physical fitness test. I trained half-heartedly, barely passed my push-ups, threw out my back (at 21) and ingloriously lost my breakfast in a parking lot after my almost 19-minute, two-mile jog of death. Not my proudest moment, but I passed that APFT.

My tour in Iraq was great motivation to workout with renewed dedication, and my CrossFit coach offered me a bush-fertilization discount. I was going to war, so my sergeant wanted me to score 100 percent according the hardest male standards on my pre-mobilization APFT. My stomach acid rose just thinking about running a 13-minute two-mile and doing 71 push-ups in two minutes.

I’m just not that badass.

He wanted me to nail the doubters to the wall, to make sure I, and soldiers serving with me, would be safe. So for their lives (and my mother’s sanity), I dedicated myself to weight-bearing exercises and metabolic conditioning instead of tests. My coach knew where soldiers fall short in combat. He was worried about me. So was I.

Female athletic standards in the military are pretty pathetic—which doesn’t reflect well on me—and they’re hardly applicable to our physical demands. So when it comes to Army tests, I’m OK with my unimpressive scores. I know what I’d really need in an emergency is the ability to carry heavy weight for long distances, and I can—I backpacked in the mountains of Morocco with burly mountain men for two months with roughly 60 pounds on my back. Overhead or back squats might be a better measurement of athleticism for soldiers, but the Army tends to be a step behind the times. So, I slack.

I’ve been deplorable since basic training. I fractured my collarbone when I tripped on a ruck march and I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to extend my stay in sandy South Carolina. Come testing time, all 17 of those push-ups I needed to pass the APFT were excruciating. Bones don’t heal quickly. I’m neither proud nor tough, but I’m stubborn. It was during that training I discovered as long as I excel elsewhere, tests don’t matter much.

So I rode the APFT’s bottom percentile like a champ, and I advanced in rank without stellar fitness scores, winning accolades for my work, even in training. I’ve made my commanding officers and sergeants proud, and they recognize that my focus is simply directed to endeavors outside of chest-thumping, military bravado. I’ve shaved a couple of minutes from my run and increased my push-ups, but only when motivated by public failure or other athletic endeavors.

Because I prefer adventures to repeating three monotonous exercises daily, I typically reserve APFT training for the month or so before a test. For me, it’s a three-step program a couple of times a week. I do enough push-ups that it becomes routine to breathe while I do them. In the field or in combat, I need a strong back, lower body endurance and firing skills more than the ability to maintain a plank position. So, I’m satisfied stopping at 20 push-ups per test.

I do yoga so I can throw myself down on the mat during sit-ups without throwing out my back. I run a couple of times a week, in misery. I’ll never grow to be one of those people who enjoys running. I never get a second wind. So I run distances of one to five miles and do CrossFit for shorter bursts of metabolic conditioning.

But here’s the new challenge. I moved to Colorado a few months ago and switched units from a group of like-minded public affairs specialists to one made up of hard-core combat soldiers. I haven’t proven myself yet, so the sergeant rank I earned by going above and beyond my duties in public affairs could soon come into question.This new unit will likely focus more heavily on my less-than-awesome physical scores because it’s the easiest way to judge most soldiers’ efforts across the board. It might be bush-fertilizing time again.

If it’s really guts before glory, I should have glory coming in droves any day now.

On Women Training for the Real Stuff

Push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run are unlikely to cause serious, lasting injuries, but soldiers and marines, especially women, are at serious risk for hip fractures from carrying heavy weight over long distances.

Forced to take longer strides to keep up while carrying more weight than their bodies are accustomed to—for three to more than 20 miles—at least a couple of women in every basic training company develop hip fractures.

Drill sergeants try to protect their soldiers by encouraging them, especially the women, to consume a lot of milk, but by the time women are in training, increasing calcium consumption is a minimally effective, retroactive approach. Of course, about 1,000 mg of calcium (about three cups of nonfat milk) and roughly 800 IU of vitamin D is still essential for healthy bone maintenance.

However, service members who know they’re going into training, or women who wish to prevent hip fractures in general, should engage in heavy weight-bearing exercises a few times a week, preferably with a coach. The weight-bearing exercises help maintain or improve bone density, and teach women to properly use their muscles and bones to support increased weight.

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