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Running on Empty

Running on Empty

U.S. Army Command and General Staff College
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

It was August in Tikrit, Iraq, and I was assigned to C Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment (Air Ambulance). The unit’s deployment had been extended from 12 to 15 months and morale was dim — at best. Eventually, though, a light at the end of the tunnel appeared.

With redeployment just two months away, I found renewed motivation to regain a high level of physical fitness before returning home. I started running three to four days a week on dirt trails just past the end of the runway. After a few weeks, I was losing weight, feeling great and my clothes were fitting more loosely. One of the greatest benefits I noticed was how much easier it now was to run to the operations center and aircraft for a medevac mission. My confidence started to soar and I was holding my chin a little higher.

Because of my newfound fitness level, I strived even harder. Running and getting thin became an obsession. Each day, I pushed harder than the day before. The fire within me became hotter with each step. Even better, others were noticing my weight loss and fitness level, which further fueled my desire to take it to the next level.

As anyone can imagine, it was quite hot in Iraq during the summer, with daily temperatures reaching 120 F or more. The cockpits of the aircraft were easily 140 F while baking in the sun. On any given mission, the crew came back soaked from flying for an hour or more in the scorching sun.

I’d never experienced heat like this. When I was off duty, I would run in the mid- to late afternoon, which must have been close to the hottest part of the day. But that was hardly a deterrent. If anything, it made me more motivated. I was driven to lose more weight, so my mentality was “the hotter the better.”

Occasionally, I changed up my cardio routine to ensure my muscles were getting the most from my workouts and started implementing sprints into my runs. I jogged for a short bit, picked an object about 25 to 30 yards ahead, sprinted to it and then returned to my jogging pace. It was during one of these sprints my obsession caught up with me. I was halfway to my chosen marker when it suddenly felt like someone had stabbed me in the right hamstring.

I was forced to stop in my tracks and nearly dropped to my knees. The pain was excruciating. I stretched for a short bit, trying to shrug it off, and then started to jog. But the pain wouldn’t let me continue. I slowly hobbled back to the life sustainment area with my head hung low. With each step, I felt a shooting pain. I soon realized my goal of losing more weight and achieving a greater running fitness level was crushed.

Lessons learned

I guess any athlete has come to grips with setbacks because of the body’s limitations, but it was hard for me to accept my own humanness. I was determined to get back in the saddle as soon as possible and start training again. First, though, I had to evaluate why this injury happened to me.

Dehydration and overexertion were the primary contributors to my severely pulled hamstring. From the scorching heat, flying with 65 pounds of gear in a sweltering cockpit, continuous running and working out multiple days a week, it became clear my body was putting out more than I was taking in. My water intake was not nearly at the acceptable level for the amount of sweating I was doing. My body was running on empty. What’s more, my stretching techniques were not adequate for the type of exercise I was conducting. My disregard for the temperatures while running in the hot sun further aggravated the situation.

I am now a firm believer in proper hydration and respecting my environment. Had I hydrated properly, I would have had a better chance of accomplishing my fitness goals. In addition, by switching my run time to early morning or dusk, when the temperatures dropped to more reasonable levels, and taking the time to stretch more thoroughly, perhaps I would not have pulled such a crucial muscle.

The consequences of my actions directly affected my physical fitness regimen, weight loss and response time, but they could have been worse. I was able to continue my mission as a medevac pilot, but my response time “running” to the operations center and aircraft was drastically slowed. Fortunately, I never caused our aircraft to take off late when responding to a 9-Line.

I also could have been grounded, costing my unit a valuable asset as a pilot responding to lifesaving missions. I saw the consequences of my actions in multiple facets of my everyday life; but, even more so, I felt them. It was a hard and painful lesson to learn.

As Soldiers, we must maintain our bodies, physical fitness and mental alertness — not only for ourselves, but for our brothers and sisters in arms and our mission. Stay healthy, stay hydrated and accomplish the mission!

  • 1 June 2016
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 1215
  • Comments: 0