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Into the Ice

In the Sep 2017 Rant, “The Ego”, I wrote about my near disastrous performance on the 5-mile force march that kicked off the Winter Mountain Leaders Course (WMLC). Here I am again, sharing yet another painful, life-altering experience from the same course. It is the reason we (Marines) posses a cult-like belief that we are the greatest fighting force the world has ever seen. Life in the Corps is a never ending series of trials and tribulations, each miserable in its own unique way. All of them invaluable in their transformative capacity to make us who we were destined to be. It is the reason Im telling another story of personal failure, redemption, the pursuit of that for which our hearts most need.

Back when I was going through the WMLC there was a gentlemen’s code that a graduate would never speak of, in detail, what we went through. The Marine Corps is very vocal these days about the training at the Mountain Warfare Training Center (MWTC) and much has changed since I went through the course. It was brutally hard and unforgiving. Its magic-like ability to crush humans is legendary. Attrition rates of 40% were the norm. Like the playing of taps at the end of the day, Marines who were tough as nails in temperate climates would appear, hold on and linger in the air for as long as they could before disappearing like so many that came before them and the countless others that would follow in the icy cold.

WMLC wasn’t terribly long. 6 weeks of good, hard training. We learned to live and fight in the most extreme environment - the cold. The cold changes people. Strike that, the cold exposes people. It has a way of cutting through the bullshit tough guy layers straight down to the beating heart of the man like a load of double-ought buck. Curious as to who can be relied on when the going gets tough, really tough? Observe them operating out in the cold; it doesn’t discriminate. Men and women, the small and the large, the strong and the slight, the old and the young all fall prey to its never ending onslaught. While a barbell comes close, there is no more effective tool at exposing one’s true character than the cold.

To the untrained and the uninitiated the cold is a creeping death if one is not vigilant against its approach. With just a 1 degree drop in core temperature our speech will slur, our motor function will be diminished, and our judgement becomes impaired. It is not the state in which you want your warfighters operating. As our core temperature drops, our bodies become very singular in purpose - the hypothalamus, the second oldest evolutionary part of the brain, starts to captain the ship. We start to shiver and our teeth chatter. Goose bumps appear as we try to fluff up the fur we no longer have in a futile attempt to warm ourselves. Stopping at nothing to keep the core warm and our hearts beating, it is the reason we feel our fingers and toes turn to pins and needles. The hypothalamus is constricting the blood vessels in our extremities in order to keep warm blood closer to our vital organs. As the blood leaves the extremities frost bite creeps in. Eventually ice crystals form with the tissues' cells destroying them in the process. When we can no longer produce heat faster than we are loosing it we have become hyperthermic and it is what delivers the death blow. Our metabolism begins to slow and we drift off into a comma-like state similar to hibernation. The hypothalamus is in full blown primal survival mode with its only mission to keep the vital organs alive and functioning, if just barely.

The WMLC is designed to teach Marines how to not merely prevent all of the above but how to thrive in an environment as harsh as the extreme cold. It does that and so much more. Living in a snow cave with 3 other marines for days on end. Sleeping in snow coffins. Going off into the Alaskan wilderness with only what you have on you and building a shelter. Miles upon miles of ski patrols in sub zero temps and elevations well above the snow line. Escaping and evading for days on end by foot with too little food and not enough equipment from a well fed, well rested, and highly mobile opposition force (the instructors). And then there is the ice breaker drill. The supreme test of one’s constitution. When operating in the extreme cold, inevitably, expanses of ice will have to be traversed. With it comes the risk of breaking through and plunging into the icy waters. The surest way to speed up the effects of cold is to add water! It does a fantastic job of transferring heat away from the body. Get wet and you will quickly get cold. The colder the temps, the more serious the problem becomes. Breaking through ice is an immediate life and death situation.

The Marine Corps, in their quest to build the toughest, most capable, and supremely confident warriors the world has seen, wanted to make sure we could survive an ice break. One by one we skied into the hole cut through the 8” of ice. It wasn’t good enough to merely ski in. The instructors ensured we went all the way under. Before we could come out we needed to get out our skis and rifle first; they were our lives. Next came the back pack. Everything with which we needed to warm ourselves was in the pack; it had to be hoisted out. Before we could commence pulling ourselves out we needed to demonstrate that we were able to remain level headed and calm. We needed to show that we were able to maintain our composure and remain in control of our emotions, that we were never going to surrender to death’s icy grip. We had to tread the frozen water while we shouted out our full name, the unit with which we served, and our social security number. Only when that was uttered loudly and intelligibly, if not in a slightly higher pitch than normal, were we given permission to use our ski poles like daggers to stab at the ice and claw our way up out of the pit of despair. Once on the ice, shivering wildly and frozen to the core, with fingers that felt nothing - absolutely nothing - we stripped naked. Dropping to the ice we rolled around in the snow performing the “sugar cookie” that started a warming process that ended with plenty of laps moving around a fire, and for good measure a bit of time in a warming tent.

One of the Marines in our class was not quite as successful. He lost his skis. They came off his feet and sunk before he could get his hands on them. All he had gone through, the weeks of hard work and suffering were about to mean nothing. Standing nearby was 1st Lieutenant Scott Stephan, one of two young officers that were going through the course with me so that I would be able to evaluate them. Both of them wanted to be stationed at MWTC and serve as my assistant officer in charge; one of them was going to get the job. Lt Stephan had just finished warming himself and was heading back to the hole to encourage the remaining Marines that were waiting to take the plunge. He wasn’t far away while I contemplated my course of action. I knew that I needed to set the example. Even though I was going through as a student, I was still the Officer in Charge of Unit Operations. I couldn’t turn a blind eye to a Marine losing gear. Even more so, I had to demonstrate to my Marines the kind of character that I demanded of them. Begrudgingly I accepted my fate as a condemned man eventually accepts his sentence. I slowly unlaced my boots. In an unceremonious torpor I began to unzip my outer shell. This was not going to be enjoyable. Splash! To the cheers of a crowd of cold, tired, hungry Marines, like the lady of the lake hoisting Excalibur, up rose Lt Stephan, out of the icy waters with skis in hand and the admiration of all.

It slipped through my fingers. My chance. My moment. I saw it unfold. It was painful. It stole my breath. I felt that pit in the bottom of my stomach that one gets when they receive the kind of news on one wants. It is the same feeling that occurs when one starts to realize the mistake they just made is going to haunt them for the rest of their days. It is like a slow acting poison surging through ones veins. A sickening. I swore as I stood there in the cold, lonely, self imposed cell block of defeat, that I would never again let an opportunity to do the right thing and set the example slip past me. In the prolonged decision making process where I languished frozen, stagnant, and ineffective, juxtaposing the benefits of diving in to recover the young Marine's skis with the pain of braving the cold dark waters, Lt Stephan took the initiative and made it happen. That crazy SOB dove into the black. No one knew how deep it was or where the skis were. But he didn’t care. He wanted to show me he was the man for the job more than I wanted to set the example.

2018 is upon us. How many icy black holes will you be staring into? A new meal plan. An exercise regimen. A new product line you are about to launch. A sales call to an important client. Enrolling in a school. Developing employee training plans. Joining a gym. Hiring more help. What ever your sites are set upon for 2018, establish a goal and pursue it using these 3 simple guidelines.

1. Use the SMART criteria:

  • Specific - who, what, where, when, which, why? If unable to answer those 6 questions add more detail to the goal. An example of a goal that is not specific enough is “getting in shape”. An example of a goal that is specific is “Join a gym and attend 3 days per week for the first month”.

  • Measurable - Use concrete criteria that can be measured in order to know when the goal has been attained. Being able to answer questions like, “How much, how many, and how will I know when it is achieved” are helpful.

  • Attainable - Selecting attainable goals means you have chosen things which are important to you and you are willing to sacrifice for them.

  • Realistic - Choosing realistic goals takes some thought. The goal needs to be lofty enough that it will require substantial effort as we tend to let things that don’t challenge us, slide. Pick too easy of a goal and you will get quickly bored and lose interest in it.

  • Timely - Open ended goals, i.e. ones that have no clear end, quickly disappear. Assign a timeline to it. Doing so will keep you motivated because you have a stoping point, the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel”. A second benefit to establishing timely goals is that you can start building upon prior successes. Few things breeds success like, you guessed it, success!

2. Avoid relying on “all in” challenges. All in challenges require an unsustainable level of effort and do little to establish lasting habits. Examples of “all in” challenges are “30 day no sugar challenge”, “50 burpees for 50 days”, “X number of air squats for a month”, and 6 week boot camps. While fun and harmless, they do little to develop the behaviors and strength of character needed to create lasting positive change, and they bring little in the area of measurable improvement.

3. Stay focused on the end game. We are not perfect. We are going to screw up. We are going to fall off the wagon. It is not about what you did today or what you did over the course of a week. The end game is what you will accomplish through out 2018 and where you will be positioned for the start of 2019.

There are 365 days ahead of us. The expanse of ice is vast. The holes are numerous. Make 2018 the year you take the plunge.

In February’s Rant we are going to dive further into the art and science of achieving your goals.

Semper Fi,

Coach Robby


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