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A TASTE OF THE CORPS

A TASTE OF THE CORPS

Sep 30, 2011

Three miles. Easy. Jump over a few walls, crawl under some wire. Can't be too hard? I was feeling good, maybe even a little cocky, going into the Boot Camp Challenge at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Saturday. Part of Fleet Week festivities, the open-to-the-public challenge puts civilians like me through the same obstacle course that shaved-head recruits brave over the 13-week odyssey that makes them Marines. Then, the woman next to me face-planted. She jumped over the first set of waist-high logs like Marines probably do — all flying feet and momentum — and, boom. Lucky for her, the pit underneath the logs was full of rubber chips. She seemed fine and kept running, possibly with a roughed-up ego. But it scared me. I was already predisposed to crawling gingerly over the logs. I'm not tall, and my 38-year-old knees aren't that happy about high-impact landings. But the depot's drill instructors didn't seem to care about my height, my old knees or my concern for keeping my front teeth. About 60 guys with campaign hats and loud voices were stationed along the course, offering "encouragement." The chief of the drill instructor school, Gunnery Sgt. Tim Fairfield, told us before we left: "I guarantee you they will motivate you back into the course." The "hats" had some good lines along the way: "Who told you you can walk? I didn't say you can walk!" "Get over my logs!" "Get up off my deck!" "Nobody cares! Run!" (For the record, I never walked.) If anyone really wanted to do this to become a Marine, they'd better imagine wearing combat boots and carrying umpteen pounds of gear. Before dawn. And they'll need some luck. It's not as easy as it used to be to get into the Marine Corps. Call it patriotism or the poor economy or good marketing. The Marines have more than met their recruitment goals every year of the past five. Since 2005, enlistment has gotten more competitive. The Pentagon requires that 90 percent of recruits hold high school diplomas. In 2005, about 95.7 percent of new Marines had diplomas. This year, 99.7 percent. Plus, in 2007 and 2008, Marine leaders decided they needed more than 40,000 new recruits a year to fill their needs, based in part on the number of troops who re-enlist. In 2010, the Corps was only looking for 33,000 new shaved heads. Back to the course. I'll admit it: I was flagging toward the end. I ran the Phoenix half-marathon in under two hours in January. But you add in jumping over hay bales, a six-foot plunge off a wall and dropping down for 10 push-ups (twice) — it makes three miles seem much tougher. I chugged up to the finish line with a brick-red face, dirt on my chin, hands and knees, and a little extra humility in my heart. My unofficial time (by my watch): 26 minutes, 3 seconds. That's about 10 minutes slower than the course record. Still, I passed up a handful of 30-something guys along the way who were walking. The smart aleck in me wanted to ask: Navy? But I kept running without comment. Hard to be cocky while panting.

Copyright 2010 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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