We were sitting in the middle of the newcomers briefing when she said it. It hit me like a ton of bricks and it was all I could do to not react. Not cry. Not scream. Not run from the room. Just sit there, like it was all normal, like everything was okay, like she hadn’t just voiced my inner darkness. Later, much later, B asked me what I was thinking, and I told him I was thinking about a 1.5 mile run. He immediately asked if I needed help, to see someone, anyone. The answer then, as now, is no. I am okay. I just wasn’t expected to be so poignantly reminded of what the trenches felt like so soon.
I suppose I should back up and explain.
The USAF has a fitness test that every member must pass at least annually. If you score in the 90th percentile or above you only take it once a year, but everyone else must run it every six months. If you fail, you get 90 days to re-pass or they are booting you from the AF these days. The test is comprised of several components; waist measurements, situps, pushups, and a 1.5 mile run.
It’s the run that seems to get most people. Guys are supposed to run it in under 10 minutes. Girls in under 14. They either run it on a straight stretch of ground out and back and out and back until they’re done, or they run again and again around the track. It doesn’t seem to matter how good of shape someone is in, none of them like this run. Maybe because they’ve already spent a minute doing as many pushups as they can and a minute doing as many situps as they can. You only get so much rest and then you go. They train for this regularly.
The AF is also currently dealing with major resiliency issues. For those that don’t speak AF jargon, we’ve had a massive spate of suicides since the beginning of the year. B and I lost a friend from our first base back in November, three members of B’s field were all lost within a week of each other in January. And there have been 5 more deaths since February.
The following is how I remember what she said.
If you don’t know what it’s like, I want you to imagine training for the 1.5 mile run. You work at it, you attack it from every angle, you prepare as best you can. And then you’re running it. And you’re on the second to last lap, your legs are burning, your feet feel like lead weights, you can barely breathe. You just don’t know what you can do to keep up the run. You’ve tried everything you can think of and it still seems impossible to finish that 1.5 miles. You’re desperate and ready to just quit and not do anymore. When someone runs up behind you and taps you on the back, ‘come on, you’re almost there, I’ll pace you,’ they say. And just like that there is hope.
There’s more that she said. All about being a good wingman and keeping your eye out for people struggling on their 1.5 mile run. But I couldn’t get past what she had said. The part about no matter what you’d tried, you just couldn’t seem to finish. To make it. To succeed.
I sat in the conference room blinking back tears. The memories are still raw. And yet they are memories. I’ve finished my 1.5 mile run. It may haunt me for some time, but the pains are becoming old pains, the fears are dulling to old fears. The shadows are lurking once more beneath the bed. And the next time I have a 1.5 mile run looming, I’ll know that I’ve finished it, beaten it, before and I’ll just keep running.
If you see someone struggling, pace them. Encourage them. Listen to them. You never know when you’ll keep someone from bailing on their 1.5 mile run.