Interview by Josh Staph
As athletes, we often borrow military terms to describe our endeavors and achievements. We call our game plans "attacks," our contests "battles," our opponents "enemies" and ourselves "soldiers." The military analogy reflects the admiration and respect we feel for the men and women who put their lives on the line for our country. So, it is appropriate to take an inside look at a competition that tests the physical and mental fitness and superior athletic ability of U.S. soldiers-the toughest competitors in the world today.
Each year, the best athletes in the U.S. Armed Forces get a chance to display their physical prowess and mental fortitude at the Best Ranger Competition (www.bestrangercompetition.com)-a grueling multi-day event with no programmed sleep. We spoke with Grady Smalling, who will participate in the 2006 Best Ranger Competition this month. After playing football for Harvard in 1997-2001, Smalling enlisted as an infantryman and is now in the 75th Ranger Regiment, headquartered at Fort Benning, Ga. His achievements as a D-I All-Conference football player although amazing, cannot compare to his performance during two tours of duty in Iraq as a member of the premier light-infantry unit of the United States Army.
STACK: What exactly is the Best Ranger Competition?
Smalling: The competition is a 60-hour event that challenges participants physically and mentally to determine the best two-man Ranger team. We have to complete all the events, and we aren’t told in what sequence the events will be held until we arrive. Historically, only 60 percent of participants finish.
STACK: What events make up the competition?
Smalling: Events include a PT test (a run of an unknown distance, push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups), a low-level parachute spot jump, marksmanship, medical litter carry, a 20-plus-mile road march, land navigation, swimming and tactical tests-including weapons assembly, grenade assault course and calling for artillery fire.
STACK: What event is the most difficult for you?
Smalling: The road march and land navigation are what usually push participants to their breaking points. Both events are over 20 miles with a 65-pound rucksack. But it’s the unknown-distance run that is the most mentally and physically demanding for me.
STACK: How have you been training for the competition?
Smalling: Most of the training focuses on endurance. I run, swim, bike and weight train a lot. I also do a lot of road marches. For each event I try to find a rate I can sustain, anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours. I’m trying to increase my anaerobic threshold-how fast I can move before lactic acid build-up forces me to stop. In subsequent workouts, my goal isn’t to go farther, but harder and faster. In the weight room, I do circuits or continuous supersets to keep my heart rate elevated for the whole workout. I want functional strength I can use over an extended period of time.
STACK: How does the training compare with what you did as a college football player?
Smalling: Football is anaerobic. When I played fullback, I trained to be powerful and explosive for six-to eight-second bursts. I recovered between plays and then went at it again. I tried to develop fast twitch muscle fibers with a lot of explosive training-cleans, plyos and short sprints. Now I have to train for long periods at a steady pace without rest. I train my aerobic system and slow twitch muscles fibers with distance runs, swims and marches. The biggest similarity is the quality of people around me and the friendships that have resulted. I like being around people who commit themselves to a cause that requires a lot of effort.
STACK: How is your body different from when you trained as a football player?
Smalling: I’m a lot leaner now than when I was playing fullback. My weight dropped from 235 to 200 pounds. A large percentage of the loss has been in my legs. I’m not as explosive as before, but I can run a lot longer. In general, I feel healthier. Then again, I’m not taking on linebackers any more.
STACK: Describe the mental element of the competition.
Smalling: In a 60-hour competition, you feel like the end is never in sight. Personally, I focus on putting one foot in front of the other instead of thinking about the competition, or even the event as a whole. However, the mental strength required to participate in this competition pales in comparison with that which the soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan display.