Nothing goofy about this challenge

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Mark Lazane
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
About a year ago, Lt. Col. Shelly Rodriguez and the leadership in the 1st Special Operations Wing Safety Office put a renewed emphasis on physical training. As a result, they incorporated mandatory physical training into the work week for all employees.

After a few sessions with the personnel in her unit, it became apparent to Colonel Rodriguez that the individuals in her unit needed a challenge to help keep their motivation level high.

"No one in the office had ever run a five kilometer race before," explained Colonel Rodriguez. "The farthest most had ever run was just the one-and-one-half mile distance as part of the physical fitness test." 

An avid runner, Colonel Rodriguez suggested the idea of the entire unit training for a community five km race a few months away.

The challenge was accepted by the members of the unit. United and motivated, the unit immediately started training for the event.

Meanwhile, half a world away, one of the deployed members of the office received word of their commander's challenge.

Tech. Sgt. Julius Parker was deployed and heard about his office's bold fitness plans through communication back home.

"I knew I needed to lose a little bit of weight," Sergeant Parker said. "Plus, when I found out the people in my unit were training, I got jealous. I was going to show off when I got back."

Sergeant Parker immediately began to incorporate jogging into his exercise routine.

Upon returning home at the beginning of last summer, Sergeant Parker was a shadow of his former self. He had lost 56 pounds during his deployment. He was also comfortably running six miles at a time.

Two months after the challenge was set forth, the members of the office completed the race.

"Everyone finished the race," said Colonel Rodriguez. "We went from couch potato to 5K runners. After the race, I half-jokingly said to the group 'Now that the 5K is over, anyone want to run a marathon?'"

Colonel Rodriguez didn't believe anyone would take her up on the offer. In fact, how two individuals from her office actually came to agree on the marathon idea is still somewhat of a mystery. 

According to Tech. Sgt. Sherri Rodden, Colonel Rodriguez convinced her to run by telling her that Sergeant Parker had already agreed to train for it.

Interestingly, Sergeant Parker's story sounds similar.

"I think Colonel Rodriguez told me that Sergeant Rodden had already agreed to it, so I told her I'd have to discuss it with my wife first," Sergeant Parker said. "My wife told me, 'I'm not going to do it, but I'll support you.' It was something I never thought about. I never thought I'd be able to accomplish something like that."

Regardless of who convinced whom, Colonel Rodriguez suddenly had two people committed to running a marathon with her.

Sergeants Rodden and Parker initially tried to sidestep the full marathon idea by trying to sign up for the half marathon, held the day prior. To their chagrin, that race was already at maximum capacity. 

Already committed to running, they signed themselves up for the full marathon, held at Walt Disney World.

They had six months to train for their race.

As is the case with any new runner, there was some initial insecurity that had to be overcome before tackling such a large project.

Sergeant Rodden, for instance, did not particularly care for the selection of running shoes available.

"I had to keep telling her that running shoes didn't need to be pink," Colonel Rodriguez said. "What matters most is that they take care of your feet."

Over the next few months, the three of them met together often, to plan runs and to ensure the other two individuals were working toward their goals. In addition, the three of them met most Sundays for a long run, either on Hurlburt Field or the Eglin Range.

"We could tell you about every plant or tree on this base," Colonel Rodriguez said.

The trio ran together regularly despite sometimes unfavorable conditions. Some days, temperatures would be in the 30's and the rain would be coming down, but the group would not be deterred.

"If there were only two people training, it would be easy to talk each other out of training," said Colonel Rodriguez. "You can't do that with three people. Just the fact that other people are with you, sharing in your pain, is a big motivator."

Sometimes, nagging injuries affected the quantity and quality of their training runs. Regardless of the external influences, they dedicated themselves to finishing the workouts as planned.

"Eighty percent of running is a mind game," said Colonel Rodriguez, a veteran of three marathons before she pitched the idea. "My goal was to have folks see that running a marathon is not just for marathon runners. It's for people that want to prove something to themselves."

Six months later, on a clear January day, the athletes were as ready as they could be for the 26.2 mile race.

The trio put their names on the front of their shirts so that people would yell for them individually throughout the race.

Sergeant Rodden and Sergeant Parker both also wore personal hand-written messages on a sign pinned to the back of their shirts.

Sergeant Rodden's message read "This is something I never dreamed I could do."

Sergeant Parker's sign said "I lost 56 pounds in four months and my boss made me do a marathon."

"People were telling me throughout the entire race how mean my boss must be," said Sergeant Parker, who didn't have the heart to let them know that his boss was actually running next to him.

The trio continued running regardless of the events occurring around them. One problem in the race was that various points the road became too narrow to accommodate all 22,000 runners participating that day.

This caused many of the runners to walk until they were through the precarious section, when it opened up wide enough so they could commence jogging again.

Another problem had to do with nature, and, unfortunately, there was nothing the team could have done to prepare themselves for it.

"At one point in the race, you run behind Walt Disney's Animal Kingdom, near where the animal waste is disposed," said Colonel Rodriguez. "It was a nice warm morning, with a slight breeze blowing towards us. There was a nice odor in the air."

Prior to the race, the trio decided they would run the race together from start to finish.

The team ran well together through the first half of the race, when a problem slowly started to form.

"I sweat a lot," explained Sergeant Parker. "I thought I had taken enough fluids, but my legs started to tell me otherwise. I cramped up. I couldn't move. I felt like one of those little green Army men because my legs were stuck."

Fortunately for Sergeant Parker, his team had his back.

"We basically pulled him to mile 22," Colonel Rodriguez said. "Then he convinced us to go ahead without him."

"I felt bad," Sergeant Parker said. "I tried to get them to leave me before then so they could finish the race, but they continued to stick with me." 

There was only one point in the race that gave the team members a scare.

"I'm running great," explained Sergeant Parker. "Then, all of the sudden, I feel both legs start to cramp up again at the same time. Then, the ground started coming at me. I couldn't do anything about it."

Sergeant Parker was suffering from debilitating cramps in both legs.

"Sergeant Rodden and I heard someone shout 'man down' and we turned and noticed that it was Sergeant Parker," Colonel Rodriguez explained. "We immediately turned around, ran back to him and started helping him work out the cramps in his legs."

"All I know is, I looked up and it was like I was in a movie or something," Sergeant Parker said. "I have my hand outstretched toward Colonel Rodriguez and Sergeant Rodden and they were moving towards me in what seemed like slow motion."

"The medical personnel kept asking me if I was alright, and I told them I'd be fine," Sergeant Parker said. We basically worked out the cramps in my legs for what seemed like 20 minutes, but it was probably only a minute or so. I got back up after that and just started running again."

"The worst part of the race is that you can see the Epcot Ball (at the Epcot Center, where the race finishes) and then you start to think you are close to the end," said Sergeant Rodden. Then you find out it's still four miles away. It seems like a long run after that."

Eventually, however, the runners reached the end of the race.

"I ran to the finish line with Sergeant Rodden, and just before I crossed, I tried to turn around to go back for Sergeant Parker," said Colonel Rodriguez. "The race officials stopped me though, so I was forced to stand at the finish line and wait. It was the longest 20 minutes of my life while I was waiting for him to finish."

Sergeant Parker got dehydrated during the race to the point where he needed an IV to give him additional fluids immediately after he had finished.

"He came out of that medical tent all excited and feeling so good," said Colonel Rodriguez. "He was on a high from the fluids he had just received."

The high did not last however, and the pain and weakness did eventually return to his body a few hours later, along with massive waves of nausea and all that comes with it.
To help recuperate, the highly sore group took two days following the race to relax at Disney World, splurging on massages, limping their way around the resort and doing a great bit of relaxing in an attempt to rejuvenate their sore muscles.

"The massage hurt, but it hurt good," said Sergeant Parker. "It took me about a week to recover. The first two days were so painful."

The trio all mentioned that the greatest part of the marathon is the interaction they had with others.

Sergeant Rodden enjoyed the friendliness of the individuals around her as she ran the race.

"Getting inspiration for the people around me was the best part of the race," said Sergeant Rodden. "There was an old lady around mile 24 that kept telling me I was almost there, I was almost finished. She even called me sweetie. Seeing people out there cheering for me by name was great. It's a great spirit boost to have the crowds lining the route, cheering you on."

"I met a guy in the race that had had a double lung transplant," Sergeant Parker said. "I had never heard of that procedure. I found out later that the reason you don't really hear about it is because most people don't survive long enough to talk about it. I met lots of incredible, inspiring people."

"Everyone has their own reasons to run a marathon," Colonel Rodriguez said. "People have this idea that you have to run fast in the marathon. The marathon is all about experiencing a life event with others who want to be there."

For all involved, the marathon was beneficial on many different levels.

"I went from barely finishing the one-and-one-half mile run and barely passing my physical fitness test to shaving four minutes off my time," said Sergeant Parker. "Once you say you can do something, you will. It's a great motivator."

In fact, personnel in the wing safety office, through their renewed focus on fitness, and perhaps inspired by their coworkers, have shaved an average of two minutes off their physical fitness run times.

"It was inspiring to see how far they were coming," Colonel Rodriguez said. "Once they got started, it was on from there. At one point, Sergeant Parker hurt his knee and I told him to take some time off to rest it. I was thinking like four or five weeks, but he showed up a week later."

"I felt guilty," explained Sergeant Parker. "I didn't want them to be running without me."
Perhaps the greatest effect the runners had was the effect they had on others.

Sergeant Rodden's daughter has already taken mommy's Mickey Mouse-shaped medal for show and tell. Several people now approach her for running advice and tips.

"Sergeant Rodden and Sergeant Parker were a huge inspiration to the entire office," said Colonel Rodriguez. "They have become experts on running. Before, they struggled to finish a full mile and a half. All of the sudden, they are finishing runs that were three-and-a-half hours long. They did an outstanding job and I am extremely proud of them."

"I can't wait for the next one," said Sergeant Parker, who is trying to convince other family members to join him for next year's race, something he hopes will become an annual event.

Sergeant Parker, though looking forward to his next race, has different plans for the finish.

"Next time, I'm taking my fuel belt with me-with extra liquids to make sure I don't get dehydrated again."

Based on how much they influenced those around them, you can bet that whenever that next race occurs, Sergeant Parker, Sergeant Rodden and Colonel Rodriguez won't be alone on their trek.