AVAILABLE on PODCAST
I can’t say it’s something I like to do. It is something I ought to do and when I’ve done it I feel better, though it wasn’t always that way. I learned how to run a lifetime ago, when I joined the military. Life in the Army meant running, at least two miles at the minimum, because the Army Physical Fitness Test or APFT involved two minutes of push-ups and two minutes of sit-ups and a two-mile run. Anyone who’s been in the Army knows that running is part of the program and marching, well that’s how troops move, on their feet.
I had been fleet-footed as a child. Everyone knows the fastest runner in class. I was fast and beat most of the kids, sometimes all of them. It wasn’t a big deal though. What I remember about that age is my awkward height and lanky, leggy body when other girls began to fill out their Jordache jeans and training bras. Online shopping wasn’t a thing and neither were long pants. A 35-inch inseam meant ‘high-water’ pants and late puberty meant initiation into the IBTC, the Itty Bitty Titty Committee. My legs would become an asset on track and the dating scene, but it would have been hard to convince me at the time. The high school coach saw potential. He managed to get me in a few races but my parents didn’t think track was good for my studies.
When I got to Cadet Basic Training, I found out soon enough, that I had none of the mental toughness or stamina for going the distance. Days were jammed to the brim with training and fueled by testosterone, stress, and sweat. Physical Training or PT began at o-dark thirty, the first order of the day. After tossing our bodies around the grassy parade field, doing calisthenics and stretches, the cadre barking orders and corrections the entire time, we moved into run formations.
Each unit formed into groups, cadets lined up row on row, dressed down on the man in front and to the right. The sun hadn’t even broken the horizon, which was good because the summer heat at West Point was oppressive, the humidity, thick. The earlier we got going, the better.
I might have thought I could run. The hundred-meter dash is something all-together different than the PT formation run. On one side of me was Mintz, a pale Californian who was there to play football. On the other side was Cashman from Vermont. Both were tall, over six feet, because the ranks were sized by height and I was the tallest woman so I stood towards the front of my squad. These two guys knew something about running. Both would later join the infantry and earn Ranger tabs. The platoon sergeant started marching us off the fields and onto the road.
When the order came to DOUBLE – TIME!!!! MARCH!!! All of us began to shuffle along, our feet in unison, kind of like jogging. They ran us those first few days for a couple eight to nine minute miles or around that pace, breaking up the stragglers from the speed demons. They eventually broke us into groups but at first, we hung together. My legs shuffled along and I felt the wind going out of me in the first runs, but I held on. The next days, I felt myself slipping back. The burn in the chest and the dizziness were things I wasn’t used to. These big guys in the front, Cashman and Mintz, were strong and fast, and they knew what they were doing. Why hadn’t I run more at home? Why hadn’t I conditioned myself? The bane of early success in school and on the track in short sprints gave me a confidence that eroded quickly. I sucked at running. I sucked at keeping my smirk off my face and being the stoic soldier, the expressionless do-what-you’re-told plebe. I sucked.
Plebes had four responses: yes sir, no sir, no excuse sir, and sir I do not understand. There was no response for falling out of a run, except shame and embarrassment. Often a good hazing. My squad leader was a decent man, thank goodness. He was stout and fair with glasses, a thoughtful gaze and a big brain. He taught us stuff, how to shine shoes, make up our room, look out for each other. He was a buffer for the cadre chomping at the bit, ready to take a bite out of us, especially the fall-outs and screw-ups.
I caught so much flak I don’t remember it all. It must have been a coping mechanism, to shut it out, to block out the shit. Classmates amaze me with the level of detail they recall from those days, by name and exchange. Basic Training lasted six weeks. In an early run, when I fell back, I dropped behind formation, walking and sulking. I picked up the pace and noticed it had rained. I hadn’t felt as tired after walking and began to jog. I saw a puddle and stomped in it, as my company stretched into the distance. I stepped into another puddle. Those missteps brought down the wrath. Someone had been watching. You think this is fun, huh Brewster? Your classmates hoofing it and you joking around?
Word got out and I was a lightning rod, bringing on the heat with so many strikes I didn’t know who was burning into me for what, or from where, catching it from all sides, the breath and spittle of cadre inches from my face. They put me into the sprinklers to address and salute the company; they hazed me at meals and stopped cadets at my table from eating when I screwed up. They stopped cadets at other tables from eating when I screwed up. I stopped eating and that brought on more heat from other platoons. There were reasons why I caught heat. If I had to guess why: a withdrawal into myself, a defiance that smacked of insolence. The officer-in-charge stopped by during one of these sessions and whispered in my ear, Remember it’s just a game. You can imagine how that went after the table commandant learned what he had said. Years later, a classmate reenacted a scene at a reunion, the cadre berating him, WHERE IS BREWSTER!? Given my propensity for attention, puddle jumping was a kind of catalyst for them to really let loose.
Meanwhile and in spite of the hazing I brought on, my body was becoming conditioned to the daily PT, and I didn’t quite know it. My brain said I sucked. I didn’t believe I could hold on for the long haul. What I didn’t know then is, running is about conditioning and it’s also about mental toughness, making the body do what it doesn’t want to do, knowing it is capable of more, even when every ounce of flesh and nerve is screaming. You can still go on. You may not know it at the time, but training is about pushing limits, physical exertion, personal courage. What can I do under pressure, under the stress of it all, under exhaustion? And, the army is about teams. No one was going to run for me. But they would run with me.
Next run, around that mile or two-mile mark, I felt myself falling back. It was early and I could feel the pace picking up. The ground was black, my feet pulling the asphalt behind me, the slap of sixty some sneakers on the pavement in unison. Thud thud, Thud thud. The sergeant barking, “C-130 rolling down the strip!” And we repeated, “C-130 rolling down the strip!” “Airborne daddy on a one-way trip! Mission top-secret, destination unknown! We don’t know if we’re ever coming home.”
The smell of sweat and grass and bodies in close, the movement like a horde in a crowded theme park, in formation, 1400 of us, snaked out like a long river undulating with the road . I steadied my eyes on the person in front of me, keeping distance when the body slowed or stretched ahead, an accordion of humans, the front rank setting the pace. How long would I last today? The runs got longer over the course of training. And I could feel the weakness, the fear setting in.
That’s when it happened. Cashman reached out and touched my arm, willing me to stick with it. It was a feeling of lifting me up. He said something to the effect, “Come on Brewster, you got this.” Right, OK. I could hang with the group, fighting the cramp I was sure to get, fighting my own will or lack of it, the disbelief. Mintz reached out to touch my other arm. The G-2 guide-on or flag was bouncing in the runner’s hands ahead of formation, the four-person front to our four squads. These two guys wanted me to finish. Cash and Mintz believed in me when I hadn’t believed in myself. I don’t know if they talked ahead of time or they just did it. They lifted me out of my hole.
I pushed. I didn’t know I could but these guys seemed to know. We hit pace and I was still hanging, keeping up. Then it happened. We were heading back in and the hard part was behind me. I was coming down, running home. I had done it. I would finish.
From then on, three miles, five miles, six miles. I learned to run. I did it for Cashman and for Mintz. I did it because I knew I could; I had the strength in my legs and I had belief in myself. I was part of a team. The companies broke into run groups: black for speed, gray for average runners, and gold for the stragglers. The runs came easy for me after that. By the end of training, I moved into the black group. The next year I walked down to the field house and tried out for the track team. I ran every day. I ran fast. The team elected me captain senior year.
Many years later, Cashman surprised me when he said that he loved to tell that story to his new recruits. When they showed up and had never run two miles in their lives, they would fall out. They would fail. That was ok, he told them. He’d seen it. This fall-out girl who couldn’t stick with the runs, but with the support of peers, with practice, with belief, she learned to run.
He said, “I told that story every basic training cycle and always had two or three soldiers who were compelled to approach me afterwards and thank me. Compelled. To approach the Commander. As a basic training soldier. I have no doubt you were responsible for making a difference in many young people’s lives. You inspired me as well.”
When I learned this from him, I was touched. I had a lasting and deep feeling, knowing that somehow my long-ago hardship could live on, become a thing of its own, inspire others. Cashman breathed life into that story every time he shared it.
Running was not something I ever learned to love. It was better when I had a baseline of conditioning. There are moments when it all comes together, a kind of runner’s high. There were more of those moments when I was a collegiate sprinter. And as a young adult. Fewer as a young parent. Fewer still at mid-life. Now I hike and walk and sometimes cycle. I was never a distance runner. I like to be done. Even as a sprinter, I was slow out of the blocks and took a good part of the track getting to speed. I hit my stride around the 300-meter mark, what quarter-milers call the wall. I would break away then, because I felt my strength when my opponents were running out of gas.
The gift Cashman and Mintz gave me was a lasting one. It was about more than running, what I learned in that sticky summer in 1987. I learned that I could do tough things. I learned that I would fail and that others would know I failed. I learned that I grow more from failure than from easy success, that teamwork and friendship make the challenges bearable. The things in life that are worth it, are hard. Like running, they require a strong baseline of conditioning or practice, and mental toughness.