Ultrarunning: Reservist finds strength in strides

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

When the word hobby comes to mind, activities like reading or video games or knitting or fishing or baking make their way to the surface. Activities that are relaxing, yet oftentimes somewhat productive, to counter the stress of everyday life.

The Oxford dictionary defines the word hobby as an activity done regularly in one's leisure time for pleasure. Keywords “leisure” and “pleasure.”

Activities that probably don’t immediately come to mind are ones where a person physically and mentally exhausts themselves for hours, sometimes days, in the rolling ridges of the Appalachian foothills in all her elemental glory.

As an ultramarathon trail runner, Lt. Col. Carmel Weed, 403rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., chooses gauntlets of physical and mental exertion over scarf knitting during his free time.

“It’s kind of an interesting story how I got into trail running and ultramarathons,” said Weed. “A buddy of mine, Caleb, from church was thinking about getting into it. At first he said ‘trail’ running but then he said, ‘Well, it’s more like ultra-running.’”

Ultra-running? Weed said he wasn’t familiar and asked him what that entailed, and he described it as long-distance running.

“What does THAT mean?” Weed questioned further to which his friend relinquished the details of races that were anywhere from 30 to 100 miles long.

Though Weed was somewhat of an experienced runner having completed a standard marathon in the past--something he said he never wanted to do again--at age 49 at the time, he wasn’t too sure about this friend’s proposed exploit.  But a chance opportunity during a camping trip in Oak Mountain State Park would sway him.

“Every year my son and I would travel to Hoover, Alabama for the (Southeastern Conference) baseball tournament, and I decided that particular year that I wanted to take my camper and stay at Oak Mountain nearby,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about it all week while we were there for the baseball games but one day as we were driving in I saw signs for a Memorial Day 6 and 12 mile run, military runs for free.”

Comparing the tournament schedule to what he believed would be an “easy peasy” 6-mile run that started at 7 a.m., Weed figured since it was free and he had time, why not?

“I didn’t really understand what running up a mountain was—until that day,” he said.

Out of the 100-plus participants, Weed figures he was one of the last ten to finish, noting that he counted five 12-mile race participants lap him. From his gear to his approach to his fitness level, he was wholly unprepared.

“I was ashamed and mad and the competitive piece of me got me,” he said. “I went back home and told my buddy about it and he just laughed and said ‘You didn’t know.’”

As any logical thinking person would respond to one’s account of all but failure on a 6-mile course, his friend invited him to do a 24-hour ultramarathon in Canton, Ga., where he would be racing the 100 mile event. And as any logical thinking person who just recounted their 6 miles of uphill horror where they “felt like they nearly died four times on a 900 foot incline” would respond, Weed accepted the invitation, signing up for the 50-mile portion of the event.

It took 19 hours and 45 minutes for Weed to complete what he endearingly called a “suck-fest,” his first completed ultramarathon of many.

Why choose to endure the physical pain? The often adversarial elements? The mental tug-of-war between continuing on and giving up?

“It’s about seeing how far I’m capable of pushing myself,” said Weed. “How much can I endure and push past to reach my goal? How can I better myself each time? You get to know yourself when you’re out there and you can do way more than you think you can.”

While he has since completed 19 more races including a 48-hour, 100-mile race, his organized suck-fest experiences haven’t all been sunshine and daisies.

Take his first attempt at the “Race to the Top of Alabama 50K” in 2020 for example, an annual trek to the top of Mount Cheaha, the highest natural point in the state of Alabama reaching an elevation of 2,413 feet.

Unlike other races he has participated in, the Mount Cheaha event came with a cutoff crew bringing up the rear. Their purpose: send stragglers who don’t make it to aid stations in time packing.

“That day was just not my day,” recounted Weed. “I way overestimated my running capability and way underestimated that trail, and it kicked my tail to the point where I had to come off the trail at mile 18 after falling twice onto rocks and rolling my ankle.”

Like his experience after that unimpressive performance during his first 6-mile trail race, Weed’s response to his failure to finish the trek up Mount Cheaha was not one of dejection, but instead of competitiveness and determination. He said he marked the next year’s event on his calendar.

Some things in life are more important than personal vendettas against tectonically affected portions of Earth though, and he had agreed to accompany his wife to a marriage seminar the same weekend as the next year’s event, so his attempt to conquer Mount Cheaha would have to be put on hold.

Two years after that failed attempt, Weed had four goals:

1. Make it farther than the first time.

2. Finish.

3. Avoid any serious injuries.

4. Finish in under 9 hours.

“This time I was smarter—I hoped,” he laughed. “But I didn’t get to train that much leading up to it, I was the heaviest I had been, and I had a broken toe, so I had those factors working against me. But I figured I had my faith in the Lord on my side and what’s better than that? Plus my buddy Caleb was running with me.”

Once again, Mount Cheaha presented no walk in the park for Weed and company—more of a run, climb, contemplate giving up at mile 23 because they were far behind the cutoff time, walk in the park. But Feb. 26, after 9 hours and 29 minutes, Weed became a “Race to the Top of Alabama 50K” finisher.

“Overall, it was a great experience,” he said. “I finished and while my ankle is a little swollen, I made it out unscathed. I didn’t make it under the 9 hour mark, but that’s something I can look forward to accomplishing if I decide to do that race again.”

The draws of the sport, beyond the challenge to push his limits and better himself, come in the forms of fellowship and camaraderie and spiritual fulfillment.

“The environment is such an encouraging one,” he said. “Everyone you encounter on the trail is just pushing you on and encouraging you and it’s just a great time. It’s also a great opportunity to just be in the woods with my maker.”

As for how this leisure activity translates into other facets of his life, Weed says he has a better understanding of what he, and really anyone, is truly capable of.

“It’s a great conversation piece when people learn that I do this,” he said. “They start asking questions, and I’m able to turn it around on them and say, ‘Peel your own onion back a little bit. How far can you go?’ Because wherever you think the line is, trust me, you can go way past that. Typically your limitations are what you put upon yourself.”

If there was ever an aircraft maintenance operation parallel to the highs and lows of 24-hour trail runs, Weed’s 403rd AMXS Airmen could lay claim to it.

Weed took command of the squadron in November and noted the difficulty of trying to be an effective leader as a traditional reservist who only comes in four or five days a month.

The squadron is responsible for the maintenance of 10 WC-130J Super Hercules Aircraft assigned to the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron Hurricane Hunters, and whether it’s in support of winter season operations or hurricane operations, the unit could be called upon at the drop of a hat all over the United States, including in the Caribbean and as far out as Hawaii, requiring around the clock attention from the 403rd AMXS to maintain mission capability.

With careful preparation and a good team around him, Weed is able to approach his duties and the mission much like he does his running, at a methodical pace rather than burning out on an uphill drill weekend sprint.

“Any experienced ultramarathon runner will tell you when you are starting out: run the flats and walk the hills,” he said. “As a wing, we are training ourselves to think in a process improvement, compliance mindset. That doesn’t come overnight. We have to walk those hills of learning before we can run those flats of execution. Whatever challenges come our way, if we remain focused and persistent and don’t give up, we can hold our heads high whether it’s during an exercise, a unit effectiveness inspection or a real world situation knowing we’ve changed our culture and ultimately our direction towards success.”