My First PFT Story

On Monday, I took my first Physical Fitness Test, otherwise more commonly known as the Marine Corps PFT. Sure, I’ve taken fitness tests in the past… between the Presidential Fitness Challenge in elementary school as a kid, the mind-numbingly painful 2K erg test for rowing, or the swim-bike-run time trial tests to track progression – I’ve been there, done that.

For the record – the wind sprints between grabbing the eraser at the free throw line and bringing it back to the end-line would always get me. Something about wearing slippery shoes and trying to place my object “just so” in perfect position. Major time loss. What can I say? – even as a kid, I was anal. However, when it came to both the pull-ups and flexibility sit-and-reach challenge, my 10-year old-self knew I was a goner.

Anyway…. I digress. Sorry.

For as long as I’ve known N, I’ve known that as a Marine (Ooh-rah!) he is required to take an annual PFT, consisting of pullups, sit-ups, and a 3-mile run. It’s always been a mysterious thing to me: crank out 20 pullups, and get 100 points; 100 sit-ups in two minutes earns another 100 points; and the 3-mile run is timed with 18:00 and 21:00 minutes for men and women, respectively, earning a final 100 points. Even now, I’m not entirely sure how the thing is scored…. or the “old person” discounts for those folks over the age of 25…30….35 (ancient, I know).

Regardless, N’s unit, along with our Family Readiness Officer (FRO) and some pretty motivated spouses are are hosting a 6-month Spouse Fitness Challenge. Initially, I was unsure of how this would work, but now I’m really enjoying the process of getting to know the other spouses, track my activities, and participate in camaraderie-building events. And, part of the challenge is having the opportunity to participate in one’s very own PFT.

Naturally, not being competitive or loving to work out at all, I jumped at the chance.

Yesterday after work, four of us Spouses gathered at the pull-up bars on Camp Pendleton’s Lake O’Neil. We were met by our FRO and a dozen or so Marines, present to assist us with the PFT. I’ll admit – I was sorta nervous. Not go-and-hurl nervous. More like, butterflies-in-the-tummy and I-have-to-pee nervous.

Clearly – not competitive at all.

The Marines and our FRO were all fantastic, and I was so grateful for their support and detailed explanations of what we were supposed to do. They made sure we were comfortable with knowing how to do a proper pull-up (no kipping….elbows locked out!) and flex-arm hang (for those spouses not attempting pull-ups). And also demonstrated correct sit-up technique (arms crossed, back off the ground, elbows touch your thighs) while giving us hints (go fast…scoot your rear to your heels…your partner needs to sit on your feet and hold your knees/calves for support). And they set up a legal 3-mile run course, complete with cones and Marines at every turn (who shouted very positive and encouraging words at us as we ran by) so we knew where to go.

Seriously, if only some of races and events that I’ve done were this well organized. Then again – what can you expect? it’s The Marine Corps, and Marines are awesome. The best.

Our first event was pull-ups/felx arm hang. It’s interesting – in the past female Marines have completed a flex arm hang for their PFT, but now or sometime in the near future, will have the option of completing 8 pull-ups to max out and earn 100 points. I’m not sure of the whys, whens, or hows, I just knew that I wanted to try make 8 pull-ups.

I was close. Er, sort of.

Okay… not really.

It was one of those things. I’ve been practicing at home, but I guess I tend to kip slightly and I’m not entirely positive that I lock my elbows out with each separate pull. So for the PFT, I took extra precaution to have the perfect pull-up each time. (Think shuttle run).

Oh well.

I felt good for the first 3 or 4. At 5, my good feeling was gone. I got about 3/4 of the way up and..and…stopped moving up. I could hear people yelling encouragement and somehow through a festivus miracle, their cheers worked. I muscled my way up with an epic heave and neck crane that allowed for chin-over-bar. #6 wasn’t even close. I got about half-way up and stalled – even a Jay Leno-like chin wouldn’t have helped. It was just physically impossible. My biceps were not happy and had decided to quit – so they did.

Amazing how quickly your body just STOPS.

After all the other Spouses had finished, we moved onto the sit-ups. There were lots of things going through my head…positive things like – No problem! This will be easy! It’s just core and N always maxes out and tells me how easy it is! 100 points – guaranteed!

I was sorely mistaken.

You know that scene from Bridesmaids… where Annie and her friend, Lillian are doing sit-ups from behind the tree? And there’s this guy, this crazy, pumped-up-on-‘roids fitness instructor in the park who is leading a series of women through crunches. And he’s not exactly the nicest instructor because – while hilarious – he’s shouting things like,

Come on! Hands behind your heads! Let’s go! Sit-ups!

And then my personal favorite, and the line that I kept thinking about during the last painful 75 seconds of my sit-up test,

You’re looking like pieces of bacon on a plate.It’s disgusting! I smell the fat!

Needless to say, the sit-ups were a lot harder than I anticipated. The Marines were extremely helpful with their demonstration and how they helped assure we were properly situated for maximum output. My core just gave up a lot sooner than I expected. The first 30 or so were fast, I knew that speed was my friend. By 40 I was feeling an uncomfortable tingling in my abs. At 45 I took a break. At 48, my elbows barely reached my thighs, and the Marine holding my leg counted it as 48. I responded with, “No – that doesn’t count.” I know she was giving me the benefit of the doubt, but I couldn’t justify that half-up on my score.

One minute is a very long time when your body has decided to assume the bacon-on-plate position, and with a few feeble attempts at crunching or sitting-up or even just getting my shoulders off the ground, I felt pretty pathetic. I could hear the other numbers of the women being called out by the Marines, and one was a super-star with 80-something, and the other probably felt about as physically bad as I did. In the end I cranked out 63 situps and even today – two days post-test, can feel it. When the Marines called time, we all slowly got up – there was no fast movement, especially not when we’ve just been very un-bacon-like and attempted to crank out as many sit-ups as possible in two minutes.

The head Marine who was administering the test made some very encouraging remarks about getting our cores warmed up before running and how this was really good….and that after running a 3-mile run, doing sit-ups would not be fun. Um, it wasn’t fun before, I wanted to add – but I didn’t. I’ll freely admit that it was much harder than I anticipated – there was undoubtedly a life lesson in there somewhere, but I was too concerned about our 3-mile run to think about it.

Being more of the running/hiking/long-distance/endurance type, I felt good about the run test. Prepared, if you may. I had completed a 15 minute or so warm-up before the test started, complete with dynamic stretching (Thank you Julia!) and a few 20-second accelerations thrown in for good measure. I was a little nervous about the course, meaning unsure of where to go. But once again, the Marines were prepared and super helpful – with maps at hand they detailed specificially where we would go, and placed Marines in bright vests at every turn. I still wasn’t 100% sure of myself – I have gone completely off course before during smaller-event run races and triathlons when there is just nobody around.

But I was assured to just keep the lake on my right while running out, look for the Marines at the turn, and that we would have someone giving our split at the turn-around point. With a few last-minute instructions about what to do if we felt tired or fatigued, the Marine gave his official command order, which I of course have since forgotten, and we were off.

There’s not really a lot to say about the run. I worked hard, had the raspy-breathing going on, and even though the pace felt aggressive, it also felt manageable. I reminded myself that 3-miles was the same thing as a 20-minute run pieces during a training run. I could feel a little bit of fatigue in the quads from Saturday’s hike, a slight heaviness, but otherwise was just peachy.

The Marines on the course were AWESOME. At every corner, each turn, they were positioned and made sure we were all going in the right direction. Additionally, they shouted words of encouragement and made us feel like PFT-running rockstars. I had no idea where the 1-mile mark was, but wound my way around Lake O’Neil, past the campgrounds, and up towards the Wounded Warrior track and complex.

I occasionally glanced at my watch to see how many minutes I was in. I figured that I would see the turn-around Marine somewhere between 9:30 and 10 minutes….I thought that I had a 19-something 3-mile run in my legs, 18-something on a good day (remember – it’s NOT a 5k…. so no extra .1 mile). Since racing the Carlsbad Half, I’ve been in a recovery mode and this 3-mile run was actually going to be my first bit of speed-work to kick off a new training cycle.

At 8:45 I came around a corner and saw the turn-around Marine. I yelled something intelligent like Is this where we turn? I may have repeated myself. I was confused – I wasn’t supposed to be turning this early. I was convinced that I had to go a bit further, concerned that if I turned here I would be turning around early. It’s that line between I’m working really hard and because my brain is so starved for oxygen, I’m not sure if I’m doing the right thing.

But I listened to the Marine, and turned at 8:53.

Being a negative-split sorta gal, I figured that I could push a bit harder during the second half. Also, now I knew the course, was familiar with the turns and could visualize exactly where I needed to go – so it became a sort of game. Could I go sub 18?

On the way back, I saw the other girls, and they were super encouraging. I tried to shout something at them, but have no recollection of what was said. I DO remember trying to say thank you to every Marine on the course – it was because of them, because they were out there helping us, setting up cones with the unit name, standing on every corner and making sure we didn’t get lost – that this was possible. I wanted to thank more of them afterwards, but unfortunately, didn’t see the ones on the course, as they drove back to work.

The final few minutes were painfully good. It was the line of It huts so good and I can still maintain this pace! At NO point did I feel like bacon-on-a-plate during the run.

The last three or so minutes of the out-and-back course revealed a slight tailwind and downhill trend. Thought it was a beast to run up, the return trip was much more satisfying. In the distance I could see where the finish was, and waved to the CO and FRO who were watching the children of some of the spouses on the playground. Passing the 17-minute mark, I knew that unless I turned into an actual piece of bacon, I could be sub-18. The final stretch was there and then suddenly I was through it, passing the finish line. I could hear the Marines calling off my time – but I confused my 30s for my 20s (something we all do, on occasion).

My final time was 17:25, on a legal PFT course, though short of a full-distance 3-miles. Strava told me it was 2.8, while N said the Marines measured the course at 2.91 miles. Maybe because I cut the corners, like someone running like they stole something? From the Carlsbad Half, where I ran 13.3 miles, I learned my lesson. Oh well. I tried to keep myself from hyperventilating in front of the remaining Marines (they offered me water and gatorade), and did my best to keep my quads from visibly twitching. Suddenly, I felt very much like bacon-on-a-plate.

After a few minutes, I started jogging an easy cool down in the direction of the course. I could see the other Spouses in the distance, and figured I would run in with them. They were all close together, including one SuperSpouse who ran with her stroller and Plus 2. They looked great! We all ran towards the finish together and crossed it – we had done it!

In the end, it was a great experience. We were all so thankful to the Marines, the FRO, and the spouse who is organizing the fitness challenge. Having never done a PFT before, it was a very positive experience to see what N goes through. And it was interesting – I was more nervous about making the run requirement and going fast, while I took for granted my ability to properly sit-up. The take-aways for me are several –

1) Marines are awesome – but I already knew that. But still, the Marines at the test were excellent and really made us feel welcome and like we COULD do it. It’s a bit intimidating trying to do something, in front of a collective group of uniform-clad, hard core Marines. But they were fantastic, extremely motivating, helpful, and I was so happy they were present.

2) The things that I think are easy, or that I take for granted, are the things I should probably pay more attention to. Nothing is a given, including sit-ups. I underestimated how hard they actually would be. And honestly – I’m happy that I didn’t max it. It was good to eat a bit of humble pie (in front of Marines, no doubt) – and know that there are things that – if I want to earn a perfect 300 – I must work on. So I will.

3) MilSpouses are great – some of the best people I know. It never seems to matter the unit that we’re attached to… I’ve been pretty lucky to meet some amazing spouses (men and women) – this group just proves that all over again.

4) Running short distances is fun . I see a 5k in my future.

Thanks for reading! It was LONG – sorry! And no photos… a rarity. But there you go –

Thanks again to the Marines and the FRO. Fantastic!

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