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The World's Toughest Competition

The race
Each spring some eighty Army Rangers seek to demonstrate that they are the hardiest and most multi-talented athletes in the world.

by Michael Finkel

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.
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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.

Howell and McCormick appear far healthier. They have finished the foot march in second place, ten minutes ahead of Trisler and White, and are now first in the overall standings. Trisler and White are third. Both teams rest while the slower competitors stagger in. Doctors wander through the finish area, lancing blisters. There are sharp hisses through clenched jaws. Ten teams do not make the six-hour cutoff.

After the march, at two-thirty in the morning, the soldiers begin the competition's longest event, an extensive series of brief cerebral tasks called the Ranger stakes.

• See this pile of metal parts? Assemble an M14 rifle, an M16 rifle, an M60 machine gun, and a nine-millimeter pistol from it. Go!

• See this rope? Tie a clove hitch, an anchor bowline, a Prusik, and a figure-eight slipknot. Go!

• See this map?. . . See that sniper?. . . See this detonation cord'? . . . See these hand grenades? . . . See that target?. . . See this coded message?...And so on for fifteen hours.

The Ranger stakes mark the midpoint of the competition. Howell and McCormick win the event and strengthen their lead; Trisler and White move up to second place. The following event is the climb-and-rappel--a dash up and slide down a sixty-foot tower. Then comes land navigation, which is like the foot march only tougher. Again it takes place during darkness, again the soldiers must carry all their gear, and again the course is unknown. But this time no set route is imposed: the soldiers are given a topographic map and a compass and are dropped off in the woods twenty miles from camp. The first team home after registering at eleven checkpoints is the winner.

BY the start of land navigation sixteen of the original forty teams are gone, and most of the remaining soldiers appear slack, lobotomized. Their movements are disjointed; their minds seem fogged. They are limping, bleeding, groaning. A few are ill. One says nothing but "Ow, ow, ow," in rhythm with his steps. Most teams need nearly the full twelve-hour allotment to complete the course.

The coaches, meanwhile, sit around camp and fret. They are almost always Best Ranger veterans, and they know how their men feel. They have the delicate task of selecting teammates -- most direct several teams -- and are in charge of designing a thorough training schedule. Coaches' theories on Best Ranger preparation vary. First Sergeant William Ulibarri (1987 winner) says, 'You can never train your body to withstand something like this, but you can train your mind. Learn to consider pain and sleep as nonexistent and you'll do well." Sergeant First Class Bobby Beiswanger (1990 winner) says, "If you're in amazing shape, if your body can take anything, your brain has no choice but to shut up and follow." Staff Sergeant Pete Roethke (1993 runner-up, and coach of both Trisler and White and Howell and McCormick) says, "If the boys ain't bitching, you ain't training 'em hard enough."

Trisler and White take second in land nay; Howell and McCormick are right behind them. The overall standings remain unchanged, and with four events to go, Howell and McCormick's lead seems insurmountable. Trisler even mumbles something about remaining in the Army another year.

Still, the competition is far from over; even by Best Ranger standards, the final hours are cruel. Right after land navigation the soldiers must sprint through the Army's infamous Darby Queen obstacle course. Over the nearly 1.5-mile course are twenty-five obstacles, representing just about every possible arrangement of pine logs, many in vast, towering structures with names like Tarzan and Tough Nut and Belly Buster, which must be climbed up, crawled through, balanced upon, and leaped from.

Just before Howell and McCormick are scheduled to run the course, their manic pace and Best Ranger inexperience catch up with them. Howell, who has been complaining of stomach cramps all night, gets sick: he slumps against a tree, poleaxed by pain. Trisler and White, figuring they'd rather drop from exhaustion than finish second, decide to go Richter. In one of the most remarkable performances in Best Ranger history, the pair proceed to break the Darby Queen course record. Their time, just over fourteen minutes, isn't simply a Best Ranger record--it's the all-time best, eclipsing the performances of thousands of soldiers who have run it fresh. The nearest Ranger team finishes more than a minute behind them; Howell and McCormick, hurting badly, turn in their worst performance of the competition--eleventh place. With three events left, the two teams are tied. It's the closest Best Ranger ever.

It doesn't end that way. Trisler and White have seemingly tapped into an extraordinary zone beyond exhaustion, an endorphin-splashed runners' high. They finish second in the water-confidence test, a circus-act event that includes a run across a log suspended forty feet above a pond. They win the distance swim--a quarter-mile lake crossing while dragging a 140-pound load (after they've been dropped into the water from a helicopter). And they take fifth in the buddy run, a 2.7-mile race to the final finish line. Howell and McCormick place behind them in all three, and the 1995 Best Ranger title goes to Trisler and White.

AT the finish the champions wrap each other in a bear hug that is half celebration, half mutual support. They wear the haggard, elated looks of newly freed prisoners of war, their mouths dangling open in jellied smiles, their eyelids at three-quarters-mast. Within moments they're the only competitors still standing. Around them, strewn at their feet as if in supplication, are the forty-two other surviving soldiers, moaning and groaning in varied expressions of anguish. A few will require brief hospitalization, primarily for dehydration. Trisler and White, their wounds relatively minor, embrace for several minutes. But then Trisler pulls away, the ebullience in his face tempered by a wrinkle of confusion. For three years the two have single-mindedly pursued this goal. Trisler looks at White and asks, tentatively, "Now what do we do?"


Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
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