The U.S. military is split organizationally along two different lines. On one hand are the traditional leaders, who rely on an institutionalized, formal planning system that’s designed to ensure nobody makes a career-endangering move. Its unspoken basis is “Cover Your A__.”
On the other hand we find the special ops branches of Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.
By temperament, training, and experience, these folks are highly resistant to the CYA philosophy. They are mavericks, adventurers, innovators, meateaters.
In some ways, they’re a lot like runners.
Running is an experience of one. No one can know you as well as yourself. No one can tell you which training will deliver the best results and enjoyment, better than your own body can.
I’m reading the final pages of a wonderful book by Pete Blaber, a former commander of the U.S. Army Special Forces – Detachment Delta: The Mission, the Men, and Me.
The Delta Force operatives are world-class athletes with world-class courage who are calm under pressure. Unlike their movie image (please don’t watch those old Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone flicks), they are not rah-rah boys, but thoughtful, adaptive, ingenious, and quietly professional men. They are the branch of the Army that, perhaps more than any other, is focused on doing “what works.”
Pete Blaber’s book is about the Delta way of thinking. He talks about a way of approaching problems that can benefit us in every area of our lives. The attitudes that stand out for me arere: “Always listen to the man on the ground,” and “Develop the situation.”
When military leaders rely too much on formal plans, and too little on understanding the realities of the situation by listening to the “man on the ground,” trouble invariably follows.
Blaber describes how the traditional military planned the opening battle of the war in Afghanistan – and how the Delta Force and Navy SEAL operatives were able to understand the situation in far greater depth and in real time, with pinpoint accuracy. The result was that the traditional leaders – the planners – landed troop-laden helicopters on a valley floor that was extremely vulnerable to fire from the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists who held the surrounding mountain heights.
Before the battle started, the special ops forces, who were vastly outnumbered – there were just 13 of them compared to 400 to 700 heavily armed enemy soldiers – had a very precise picture of the enemy’s strength and positions. As a result, they were able to save the day and decimate the terrorist forces.
It was a huge victory for the special-ops philosophy. For weeks, the clandestine U.S. soldiers stayed in a safe house behind enemy lines, exploring the mountains until they were familiar with every feature of the terrain. Most advantageous of all, they talked endlessly with the locals¸ who were very sympathetic – most Afghans hated the primarily Saudi Al Qaeda terrorists, who considered themselves culturally superior and wouldn’t even speak directly to the Afghans.
In fact, it was this attitude of Al Quaeda that spelled their defeat. Because there was no communication among them, there was no effective coordination or control. As a result, when it looked as if the terrorists had the advantage, the foot soldiers reacted emotionally and charged into the valley, only to be cut to pieces by the special forces occupying hidden posts on the heights.
What’s the lesson for a runner? Listen to the guy on the ground. Your training will never be optimal unless you can learn to listen to your body first. Don’t let anyone – a coach, friend, or even a well-meaning elite – tell you anything that runs counter to your sense of your own body. Remember that true training is individual. And your intuition is your best guide – the calm, inner feelings that tell you what your body needs.
Lore of Running is the bible of the sport. The author, Dr. Timothy Noakes, is a globally respected sports physiologist. The chapters that deal with how the body works, and the major training systems, are authoritative. And yet they are not the most popular chapters among those who read the book. We are far better informed, inspired, and guided by the chapters that lay out the training and experiences of elite runners, starting in the 1800s.
Why? Because we intuitively sense that when it comes to understanding how to train, the general is always less relevant than the specific. We prefer to listen to “the man on the ground” – those who’ve been there, done that, and succeeded. What they tell us about the details – particularly about how they’ve learned to “listen to their body” – is vastly more useful than understanding how the kidneys work.
The second lesson of The Mission, the Men, and Me relates to situational awareness.
In any situation – in war, running, work, art, or relationships – the first step is to know what’s going on. Before we begin to act or plan, we must know the reality.
Where is my body today? I can surely spin all manner of pleasant theories in my head. I can tell myself, before I’ve examined the “situation,” that because I’ve had two easy days, I must be ready to run long and hard.
That’s the approach of the military planners. It’s based on thinking about what the situation is likely to be – and it’s usually dead wrong, because it doesn’t check the present situation or listen to the man on the ground.
The “man on the ground” is the body. While we’re blithely planning our long run, the body may be subtly trying to tell us “This ain’t the day.”
A slightly swollen lymph node. A drippy nose. A mild pain in the knee. A sourceless malaise. All of these are the “man on the ground” talking to us about what’s real. We ignore that quiet, inner knowing at our peril.
People like Pete Blaber do us a great service when they explain how things work. Their lessons are transferable to everything we do.