Tough Guys

I’ve noticed that people who become very good at one thing tend to become good very quickly at other things they attempt.

Stan Pantovic was a photographer who freelanced for Runner’s World in the early 1970s. On the sole occasion when he wrote an article for the magazine, he did an excellent job. Photography had honed qualities of focus and care that served him well when it came to writing.

Now, then, if you’re driving to the store and the guy in the left lane ahead doesn’t notice when the light goes green, you might want to think twice about tapping the horn.

That moron might be someone like Eric Haney. And if there’s someone you’d be wise not to try to teach manners to, it’s Eric.

Delta Force warriors - Eric Haney is in the third row from top, fourth from left.

Delta Force warriors - Eric Haney is in the third row from top, fourth from left. (Click for larger image.)

Who are these rugged-looking men? If you want to join their club, you’ll have to be a member of America’s elite armed forces: Army Rangers, Army Special Forces, Marine Force Recon, or Navy SEALS. And you’ll need to be among the very best of those special warriors. So this basically a photo of the most dangerous warriors in the world.

Eric Haney is the author of a wonderfully written and beautifully edited book, Inside Delta Force: The Story of America’s Elite Counterterrorist Unit. His qualities of mental clarity and organization, and his emotional care and self-control translate to a clear and engrossing reading experience.

You’ll find the same qualities in Brad Taylor’s outstanding adventure-thriller novel, All Necessary Force. No coincidence – Taylor is a Delta veteran, too.

Haney was one of the Delta Force team members tasked with rescuing the Iran hostages in 1980, a mission that failed because the U.S. Navy sent helicopters that were old and plagued by mechanical troubles, arrived hours late, and were piloted by airmen who, in some cases, were less than enthusiastic about the mission.

What does this have to do with running? For starters, Inside Delta Force offers one of the most suspenseful and engrossing descriptions of a multi-day “running event” I’ve read.

At the Delta Force level, extremely high fitness is assumed. Delta selection isn’t about being gentled into shape. It’s a grueling process, and once the basic physical testing is over, it only gets worse.

For weeks on end, the candidates are challenged daily to navigate mountainous off-trail routes, alone and without ever knowing the cut-off times at the checkpoints, or how long the day’s route will be, or even on which day the testing will finally end. The brutal selection isn’t designed so much to test fitness and endurance, as to measure the individual soldier’s mental toughness and emotional resilience. Of 163 warriors who entered Delta selection in Haney’s group, just 12 were chosen.

Deep into the selection process, he has an awakening:

Never getting anywhere, back and forth across the same mountain. It was a masterful torture. But then I had a revelation:

What difference could it possibly make if I crossed back and forth over this same mountain until doomsday?

A mountain was a mountain, time was time, and route selection was route selection. The only thing that mattered was speed and ground made good. My destination was determined by time; the physical position of that ultimate destination was only incidental to my reason for being here. The frustration and mental torture I had been suffering were completely of my own making – and completely within my power to disregard.

I dropped all thoughts of anything other than making the best possible approach to the next RV, and it was amazing how much mentally and physically stronger I felt.

From then on it was just a hard day in the mountains. And as happens with all days, no matter how difficult, this one, too, came to a close. I finished the day at RV Easy Rider, the spot where Biker Boy had brought his Selection to such a notable conclusion.

            If you’ve ever run an ultramarathon, you may recognize the feeling. There’s a point in the race when non-essentials begin to drop away. The body is locked in relentless forward motion, the mind can no longer summon energy for doubts or complaining, and the emotions are humbled to a painless buzz.

In that emptiness, a grace comes. You feel like a very old, frail person, accepting your fate, centered in the moment and finding it curiously relishable.

Delta Force photo - day after end of physical selection.

Photo taken after the end of physical selection, the day after the last 40-mile hike. Eric is in the middle row, first on left. Six more men were dropped from selection after the photo was taken, of the original 163. (Click for larger image.)

The true inner adventure of an ultramarathon is discovering whether you can preserve a semblance of expansive feelings, even as your body and emotions falter. Veterans of the notorious Navy SEALS “Hell Week” selection process say that a factor that sets the successful candidates apart is that they are able to get beyond their own suffering and fatigue and embrace the team as part of their extended self. In an ultramarathon, the last miles bring the runners together in a simple state of mutual encouragement and support.

That said, I can’t imagine the mental and emotional toughness that’s required for Delta Force.

On a Saturday morning soon after 9/11, I drove to San Francisco and ran across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the hills of the Marin Headlands. At the time, the bridge was being guarded by Army Special Forces soldiers. When I stopped for a whizz at the tourist center, at the north end of the bridge, I saw a warrior in full camo gear who stood stock-still outside the bathroom, his assault rifle at the ready, his face painted with camouflage stripes. He was on guard while a teammate relieved himself in the bathroom.

At first glance I thought he was a statue. When I realized he was alive, I smiled inwardly. I thought, “Man, if you stand there a few minutes longer, every 18-year-old in Marin County will be rushing to the nearest recruiting office to sign up.” The guy looked like every idealized photo of a special-ops warrior, only more so. Tough doesn’t begin to describe him. It was clear that he was a force, fully focused, calm to the core, and very dangerous.

Haney’s adventures in training and on missions to foreign lands, and his clear, well-organized storytelling make the book a pleasure. His selection interview with Delta Force founder Colonel Charles Beckwith and his aides is one of the strongest and funniest scenes of the book, so I won’t spoil it for you.

He describes Delta Force as being different from how special-ops units are usually portrayed in the movies:

If there is one thing that always sticks in my mind about how Delta Force goes about a mission, it is the utterly businesslike attitude of the men. There is none of that Hollywood crap. No posturing, no sloganeering, no high fives, no posing, no bluster, and no bombast. Just a quiet determination to get on with the job.

            I recently watched the fourth season of The Unit, an excellent TV series about the members of a Delta Force team, based on Eric Haney’s book. Eric served as a producer on the show, and from the actors’ demeanor it’s obvious that he insisted on a faithful portrayal, free of Rambo-style emoting. It’s very effective – their understated demeanor has power.

At the end of Inside Delta Force, Haney shares his thoughts about 9/11. (The book was published in early 2002.)

We are a good and moral people, and we form a nation that is the hope of mankind – quite possibly, the last hope of mankind.

Don’t listen to our enemies or the weak sisters in our own ranks who accuse us of all sorts of purposeful atrocities around the world. If we were what our enemies said we were, Afghanistan would be a smoldering and uninhabited moonscape. Iraq would be the same, and quite possibly several other places on the map would be in similar shape.

            I found quite a few lessons for runners in this fine book. Mainly, I was reminded that while few of us may become elite warriors, the search for perfection in our own chosen activities is a deeply fulfilling quest.

That’s because each expansion of our awareness, at our level, opens us to receive a corresponding inflow of joy.

Ian Jackson, a roommate and office mate when I worked for Runner’s World, in the 1970s, talked about the importance of “playing the edges” in life and training.

I find that my most productive and satisfying runs occur when I do just that: when I find an edge and stretch it.

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2 Responses to Tough Guys

  1. Bob Bonn June 18, 2012 at 8:20 am #

    Whatever became of Stan Pantovic. Is he still living?

  2. runbei June 18, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    Hi Bob. Google Stan’s name doesn’t reveal much – just some links to photos he’s published. Wish I knew more – Stan and I had some fun taking pictures at running events in the early ’70s, and at a memorable Golden State Warriors pro basketball game. – Best, George

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