By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
If you’ve ever wondered what it would feel like to win a 60-hour competition with nonstop physical challenges, this photo about sums it up.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Erich Friedlein, left, comforts his overwhelmed teammate, Capt. Robert Killian, after they finished the three-day Best Ranger Competition in first place at Fort Benning, Georgia, April 17, 2016. DoD photo by Katie Lange
Most of you have done rucks and runs and obstacle courses during your military careers, but imagine doing 14 of those in a row over three days with practically no rest in between. That’s the Best Ranger Competition – basically an Ironman for U.S. Army Rangers who, like the Navy SEALS and other Special Forces, are some of the military’s toughest. It’s not part of Ranger training, but every competitor I talked to said they’d prepared for a long time, and it’s helped them focus on bettering their weaknesses.
One Ranger watches as his teammate completes one of the many obstacles on Day 1 of the competition. DoD photo by Katie Lange
So what, exactly, was this exhausting adventure like?
Starting before dawn on a rainy, muddy Friday, 50 two-man Ranger teams kicked off the competition by running 5 miles, partially with varying-sized kettle bells. They then bustled through nine obstacles, including rope climbs, scaling log walls and wading face-first through frigid water.
Army Capt. Jason Parsons climbs up a log during one of many obstacles while other participants scale ropes in the background. Photo by Cpl. Alana Morin, Canadian Forces Joint Imagery Centre
Then came a 1.3-mile swim, a five-mile ruck and more obstacles, including pushing 250-pound tires, carrying 135-pound cement balls, scaling walls and carrying a 185-pound dummy through an underground sewer.
U.S. Army Ranger, Capt. Brain Slamkowski carries a 135-pound cement ball during one of many obstacles on Day 1 of the competition. DoD photo by Katie Lange
Then there were the hours spent at the rifle range, and the 18-mile overnight ruck march. And that was just Day 1.
U.S. Army Ranger Staff Sgt. William McDowell shoots an M4 rifle during the stress shooting event. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Justin P. Morelli
Day 2 began about an hour and a half after that. By then, 26 teams had been cut.
The day started with a Spartan Race, which surprised me since civilians were running, too. But they didn’t start until after the Rangers, who clearly just wanted to get it over with. When the pre-race announcer asked the guys to shout “I am a Spartan!” – par for the course at Spartan Races, apparently – the already-exhausted Rangers weren’t having it. Their response? Crickets. And it was hilarious.
Three of the Best Ranger competitors wait to get started on the next part of the competition. DoD photo by Katie Lange
Once they got moving, though, the energy was back in time to throw spears, swim under a wall and jump through fire, all in the mud – lots and lots of deep mud.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Timothy Nelson, center, Capt. Mark Gaudet, right, and another Army Ranger jump over smoldering logs during the Spartan Race that kicked off Day 2 of the grueling competition. DoD photo by Katie Lange
“[It] was pretty tough after doing the ruck march last night,” said Army Capt. David Matthews, a second-year competitor who shared his struggles with his teammate, 1st Lt. Colt Barber. “Every time he’s hurting and I’m good, I pull him along. Every time I’m hurting and he’s good, he pulls me along.”
U.S. Army Capt. Jose Moreno finishes a water obstacle during the Spartan Race. DoD photo by Katie Lange
After the race came the Day Stakes, which included more extreme stuff like climbing towers and repelling down them. They got to use their medical training during a mock rescue, complete with the noise of chaos, real explosions and the smell of gunpowder, and their tactical skills were tested at a grenade range and during a call-to-fire exercise (basically zeroing in on virtual targets and blowing them up).
U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Eric Guevara tosses a decoy grenade during the Day Stakes portion of the Best Ranger Competition. DoD photo by Katie Lange
If they missed the targets, they lost points. If they dropped a glove while scaling a 60-foot rock wall – which I watched one Ranger do – they had to do it again. Any minor errors could cause major point gaps.
Army 1st Lt. Tim Nelson scales the 60-foot rock wall during the tri-tower challenge of the Day Stakes event. DoD photo by Katie Lange
“[It's about] being consistent across the board, even if it takes a couple seconds to verify that you’re not going to make a mistake,” said Army National Guard Capt. Robert Killian, who learned that the hard way. He’s competed four other times, winning second place twice in the past two years. Needless to say, he was motivated. “I don’t want second. It’s been haunting me.”
And he didn’t disappoint. Killian and his teammate, Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Erich Friedlein, scored the most points during Day 2's 11-hour land navigation night event. They were in first place at the start of Day 3, which began about an hour later with the competition’s most difficult event, the 26-obstacle Darby Queen.
It was pretty cool to see each team try different tactics to get through it. Like the Ranger below – it might look like he was flipping downward, but he wasn’t. He was going up, literally gripping a board backward and using his abs to pull himself up and over.
U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Keith Batchelder, left, helps his teammate, Capt. Bert Ferguson, as he flips up onto a platform on the Darby Queen 26-obstacle course on Day 3 of the competition. DoD photo by Katie Lange
I felt like I was watching that Rocky IV scene where Rocky does that insane ab lift while training in Russia. Talk about intense strength.
But I digress. There was also more climbing…
Batchelder carefully scales a rope during the Darby Queen 26-obstacle course on Day 3. DoD photo by Katie Lange
Batchelder jumps one of several hurdles during the Darby Queen obstacle course at the Best Ranger Competition. DoD photo by Katie Lange
And water crawling…
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Michael Polanski navigates a water obstacle at the Darby Queen portion of the race. Army photo by Spc. Steven Hitchcock
Until they had to pack up their sacks, hop on a UH-60 Black Hawk and jump 15 feet into Victory Pond.
Two U.S. Army Rangers jump from a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during the helocasting portion of the Best Ranger Competition. The men had to swim to shore, pulling their water-logged packs with them afterward. DoD photo by Katie Lange
After swimming out, they climbed and crossed a 40-foot-high balance beam, shimmied across an attached rope, dropped into the water, then ziplined from a four-story tower back into the water they just crawled out of. Whew! Easy, right?
One competitor ziplines through the water confidence course near the end of the competition. DoD photo by Katie Lange
Definitely not. At that point, I was exhausted just from watching, so I went to lunch. The Rangers? Not so lucky. But they were almost done!
Once all of the guys finished the water confidence course, they had one last hurdle before the end – a 1.2 mile run. The guys who crossed first, Capt. Mark Gaudet and 1st Lt. Tim Nelson, literally pushed each other forward to the finish.
U.S. Army Capt. Mark Gaudet, left, is congratulated by his teammate, 1st Lt. Timothy Nelson, as they crossed the finish line first at the 2016 Best Ranger Competition. DoD photo by Katie Lange
“Motivating each other and picking each other up when we needed it most was very important,” Gaudet told me.
That team finished that last mile first, but the overall winners were Friedlein and Killian, who finally managed to score that elusive title of Best Ranger.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Erich Friedlein, left, and Capt. Robert Killian cross the finish line as the winners of the grueling three-day Best Ranger Competition on Fort Benning, Georgia, April 17, 2016. DoD photo by Katie Lange
So now you can see why the first picture is so emotional. I’m sure you would be too, right?
If this competition isn’t a reminder that we have the best fighting force in the world who can overcome just about anything, I don’t know what is. Congrats to all of the men who crossed the finish line!
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