IT is precisely 0630 at Fort Benning, Georgia, and all hell is about to descend on the eighty camouflage-clad soldiers lined up in front of a long set of barracks. Over the next sixty hours, working in teams of two, they will do calisthenics, run, swim, canoe, orienteer, climb, rappel, shoot, and parachute. They will encode messages, decode messages, assemble weapons, and hurl hand grenades. They will march most of the night, and then they will march all the following night. They are here, voluntarily for the start of the Best Ranger Competition, probably the most arduous sporting event in the world.
The contest, held each spring in southern Georgia, consists of twelve events that follow one another with little pause for two and a half days. During the competition the soldiers sleep no more than a few minutes at a time and scarcely eat: only two warm meals are served, neither of them during the brutal final thirty-five hours. Were participation coerced, Best Ranger would undoubtedly violate the Geneva Convention.
Not surprisingly, the competition isn't open to the public. To enter, one must first become a Ranger. These soldiers are elite, highly trained members of the U.S. Armed Forces, often used, like Navy SEALS, for hazardous and tactical missions. To become a Ranger, a soldier must graduate from the Army's sixty-one-day Ranger course, widely considered the military's most grueling program. A line from the Ranger credo boasts, "Surrender is not a Ranger word." Rangers are found in all branches of the U.S. military, and also in the armed forces of several foreign countries; all are eligible for the Best Ranger Competition.
The contest was founded in 1982, by the Ranger course's commanding officers, as a way to simulate the strain and stress of wartime conditions--and to identify and honor the most mentally agile and physically fit two-person team in the military. (All Ranger training is done in teams of two, and this format is retained for the competition. Both members of a team must complete every event.) So far no women have entered, and non-American soldiers have fared poorly. In the United States, though, the Best Ranger Competition is regarded as an Armed Forces Olympics, and winning it is one of the greatest noncombat honors a soldier can earn. (The only material reward is an engraved nine-millimeter Beretta.) So many hundreds of Ranger teams are eager to enter that some battalions must stage preliminary competitions to see who qualifies for the big show.
ALMOST to a man, the soldiers who arrive for the 1995 event are sinewy, not brawny; their movements evoke felinity and grace rather than raw power. They are earnest, ramrod soldiers who wear crew cuts and call one "sir" no matter how many times they're told it's unnecessary. Their sentences are peppered with military slang: tired Rangers are "smoked puppies"; blistered soles are "hamburger feet"; an all-out effort is "going Richter."
The team favored to win is a pair from the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division: Captain Michael Trisler and Staff Sergeant Eric White. Both men are entering their third Best Ranger Competition, though it's their first together -- injuries to their previous teammates led to their being paired for this event. Both are obsessed with winning. White, who finished fifteenth in 1993, was in position to win the 1994 competition when a severe case of blisters on his teammate's feet slowed them to eleventh place. Trisler, meanwhile, took third in 1993, and then prepared mightily for the 1994 contest. Like most teams, he and his partner were granted a special dispensation from regular military duty, allowing them to train full time for four months. A momentary lapse in concentration during the marksmanship event resulted in a second-place showing. Trisler was scheduled to leave the Army, but decided to remain an extra year solely to have another shot at Best Ranger. "During the competition the pain is unrelenting and unbelievable--sixty hours of agony," Trisler says, stretching with White a few minutes before the start. "Yet it is somehow addictive. For three years this race has completely consumed our lives."
Trisler and White, fast friends, create an interesting juxtaposition. Trisler, twenty-seven, a West Point graduate from rural Indiana, is farm-boy blond, with ruddy skin and an affable demeanor that masks a fierce competitiveness. At West Point he was a standout swimmer and water-polo player (and, indeed, he has a swimmer's willowy physique). He is handsome, brilliant, athletic -- the kind of person one expects will one day be President. White, twenty-nine, is an enlisted man from the Pennsylvania steel belt, a high school dropout, laconic and introverted, with jet-black hair and sharp eyes. He is less approachable than Trisler, but also less intense. He was reared on ice hockey and now wears his Army cap as if it were a helmet, keeping the brim so low that it shades his entire face. On the backs of White's hands, written in thick black marker, are the initials A, on the left hand, and W. on the right. They serve, White says, as a motivational memorial to his younger brother, Andy, who died of testicular cancer in 1993.
Trisler and White's biggest challenge is expected to come from another team from the 25th Infantry Division, a pair of brash and exceptionally talented Best Ranger rookies, Sergeant David Howell and First Lieutenant Doug McCormick.
The first event is appropriately militaristic: a physical-fitness test. Push -- ups--eighty close-cropped heads snapping up and down in the early-morning light -- are followed by sit-ups, a two-mile run, and then pull-ups. Each event in the Best Ranger contest is scored separately; some are tallied by time, some by place finished, some by a combination of the two. Any given event starts only after all teams have finished the previous one or have been eliminated by fatigue or cutoff time (each event and subevent has a strictly enforced maximum finishing time, ranging from thirty seconds for knot tying to twelve hours for land navigation). This system allows the fastest teams to grab a bit of rest between events, and usually causes the weak groups to drop out swiftly. In an average year half the teams are forced to abandon the competition.
The second event is rifle marksmanship; it is followed by precision parachuting and a long-distance canoe race. All are held in searing Georgia heat; it's the kind of day when shade is worth money. Soon after sunset -- fourteen hours into the contest -- comes the foot march, the event that usually eliminates the most teams. A twenty-mile-plus nighttime race, the march has been scrupulously designed to torment the soldiers both physically and mentally. The route is kept secret until the event begins, and the exact distance isn't announced until the finish (it's always between twenty and twenty-five miles), so the soldiers roam through the blackness not knowing how far they have to go.
The march must be made wearing combat boots and carrying loaded military rucksack--a bulky canvas contraption that weighs sixty-five pounds. Every soldier must also carry an M16 rifle (eight pounds), and one member of each team must haul a toaster-oven-sized field radio (twenty-three pounds; with spare battery, another two).
The Best Ranger Competition is unlike almost all other endurance contests in being a team sport. The pair that develops the best synchronism is usually the pair that wins; two people battling individually are unlikely even to finish. "You need to learn your partner's moods better than your spouse's," one Ranger says. "You've got to know when to yell, when to coax, and when to hold his pack for a few minutes." Trisler and White, for example, have perfected a sort of symbiotic tug-of-war, Trisler wanting to go all-out all the time, White supplying the voice of moderation. The result is a speed perfectly suited to a sixty-hour marathon.
During the all-night march the pair move in a state of almost hypnotic concentration, silently negotiating cadence, scarcely speaking. "Water?" "No." "Pace?" "Fine." And then there is no sound for hours, save for the rhythmic scrape of boots over loose gravel. Trisler and White are the fourth team home, arriving in just under five hours. Their eyes look as dull as the screen of an unplugged television. White's back, chafed raw from the canvas pack, looks as if it had been whipped with a cat- o '-nine -tails . Trisler's socks glisten with blood; his toenails are black.