Two Wisconsin Army National Guard members are part of the inaugural All Guard Endurance Team.
Sgt. 1st Class Jason Kirch and Staff Sgt. James Ross were among the 63 National Guard members from across the nation to compete in the Endurance Team time trials Aug. 29-30 at the Nebraska National Guard’s Greenlief Training Site. Thirty-four were selected for the team, including Kirch and Ross: 20 men, 10 women and four masters qualifiers — participants over the age of 50.
Wisconsin’s participants finished in the top half of qualifiers, with Kirch 10th overall, and Ross 16th.
“The Endurance Team promotes physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle, which creates excellent Soldiers,” Kirch said. “Units should support Soldiers and their desire for physical fitness and competition by encouraging them to attend events like this.”
The All Guard Endurance Team is an expansion of the National Guard Marathon Program. The Marathon Team continues, so both teams will represent the National Guard at approximately five events per year. The program is funded by the National Guard Bureau, and is an opportunity to recruit and retain more versatile Soldiers and Airmen to the National Guard.
Ross, a Lyndon Station, Wisconsin resident who serves as a drill sergeant on drill weekends for the Recruit Sustainment Program (RSP), said he was in the right place at the right time to try out for the Endurance Team.
“Originally I was looking to be part of the marathon team because I have a passion for running,” Ross said. “I also like to go above and beyond what I expect from others to be physically fit to be an example for my peers and new recruits. So when the opportunity came about, even though I was still coming off an injury, I accepted the offer to try out so I could be the example for RSP recruits.”
Endurance competitions are not just displays of physical stamina, but perseverance as most athletes encounter some kind of obstacle during the event.
“That’s what life is like,” said Capt. Ferne Ryder of the Vermont Army National Guard, who placed third among female participants. “You’ll be running and you’ll hit an obstacle, but it’s about how you’ll get through it that matters most.”
The inaugural time trials are an example of that mindset, as the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in event cancellations and rescheduling. Originally scheduled as part of an established Spartan Sprint Race, the qualification event was reconstructed around the permanent 18-obstacle course at Greenlief Training Site. Thirteen different endurance challenges were divided into four categories — DEKA Strong, the Army Combat Fitness Test, Obstacle Course Racing and distance running.
DEKA Strong is itself a 10-event fitness course with each event immediately preceded by a 500-meter run. Events include 30 alternating weighted reverse lunges, 500-meter row, 20 box jump/step-overs, 25 medicine ball sit-up throws, 500-meter ski machine, 100-meter farmer carry (carrying a separate weight in each hand), 25-calorie air bike exercise, 20 deadball wall-overs (pushing a weight over a four-foot wall), 100-meter tank (weighted cart) push-pull, and 20 weighted burpees (standing position to push-up and back to standing position).
Joe DeSena, the founder and CEO of the Spartan and Death Race events, was on hand for the inaugural Endurance Team time trials.
“I’ve done a hundred Spartan Races, I’ve done lots of 300-mile runs, 3,000-mile bike rides,” DeSena told the competitors the night before the time trials. “I did the Iditarod by foot in waist-deep snow. The DEKA [Strong] event nearly killed me — so good luck, that’s all I can say.”
Ross said most competitors were out of breath after the first 15 minutes of DEKA Strong.
“From the start I knew it was going to be a challenge, and it was,” Ross said.
Only after completing the DEKA Strong event did competitors tackle the remaining challenges, which included a sand-bag carry, knee tucks, obstacle course, T-pushups, ball toss, plate carry, tunnels, grenade throw, a second obstacle course, deadlift, sprint-drag-carry, and a final run to the finish line.
“The sand-bag carry was the most difficult for me,” Kirch said. “I was able to get one over my shoulder and the other I grabbed by the end and couldn’t hold on long. Later, I saw others were able to get both over the shoulders, or bundled in front of them. That definitely would have saved me some time.”
Ross said there was no relaxing on the remainder of the course.
“The entire course kept you moving and yet trying to catch your breath when you could,” he said. “Most definitely my favorite and most challenging thing about the trials was the staggered start — every six minutes the next two would start, and you better not get caught or you had to start from the beginning after everyone has gone.”
Kirch said his experience as a marathon runner helped him conserve energy, noting that some competitors ran out of steam during the DEKA Strong event.
“The people who try out and qualify as members of the Marathon Team and Endurance Team are people that don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, don’t give up or make excuses,” said 1st Lt. Gary Parks of the Indiana Army National Guard. Parks placed fifth overall during the time trials.
Kirch, who also participates in the National Guard Marathon Team and Biathlon Team, agreed.
“Finishing 10th on the team lets me know I am still too young to give up,” the 40-year-old Soldier said. He wore eight-year-old boots worn during his last deployment to run in for the trials, as his new boots had not arrived in time.
“They still gave me a blister,” he said.
Kirch said the time trials gave competitors a chance to network with other endurance military athletes across the country.
“They will feed off each other and give them a reason to continue and be rewarded for their lifestyle,” Kirch said.
“I have always loved running and traveling and being part of a team, being around those that you can build and build from,” Ross said. “Being part of this team is that for me.”
Ross said his participation on the Endurance Team will benefit his unit as a practical demonstration of the drive to go beyond just meeting the standard.
“I’m 30 and out-perform a good majority of these new recruits coming out of high school,” he said. “I can be the example.”
Sgt. Lisa Crawford and Staff Sgt. Heidi McClintock, Nebraska National Guard, contributed to this report.