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Chasing the 'carrot': Langley Airmen compete in Armed Forces Triathlon

By Airman 1st Class R. Alex Durbin 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

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Fifty men adjusted swim caps and snapped goggles into place, as ocean waves that struck the sand created a rhythmic roar, overpoweing the sound of their deep breathing. Behind them, 30 female triathletes spoke in hushed tones among themselves as they stretched, awaiting their turn in the water.

The male athletes, each poised to run at the start point of the Armed Forces Triathlon, June 1, at Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu, Calif., mentally prepared to swim nearly a mile , bike 24.8 miles and run 6.2 miles. They visualized the strokes, strides and transitions about to take place in the nearly-two-hour-long triathlon.

Among the competitors from the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, and athletes from the Canadian military forces, stood Capt. Mitchell Kieffer and Maj. Melissa Tallent, two Airmen from Langley Air Force Base, Va., selected to be part of the elite triathletes chosen from more than 500,000 Airmen Air Force-wide.

Their hearts raced and excitement grew as the culmination of their nearly 20 hour-a-week training regimens were about to be put to the test. As they waited for their individual groups to begin, they reflected on their paths leading up to the competition.

Kieffer's love of triathlons started while in college when a friend's mother was fighting a battle with Lou Gehrig's disease. Wanting to show his support, Kieffer pledged to lead a 6-month fundraiser in her honor, culminating with an ironman competition, the "ultratriathlon," subjecting participants to a crucible of a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.

"I picked the one thing I thought I would never do in my life, and that was an ironman competition," said Kieffer, an Air Combat Command operations research analyst. "At that point, I had never swum more than 100 yards, hadn't biked since I was 10 years old and had never run more than six miles at a time in my life."

On the day of the ironman competition, he stood next to the 2,500 other athletes and let his competitive nature take over. The moment he crossed the finish line, Kieffer knew the previous six months of intense training had not been in vain. From then on, he had a passion for pushing himself beyond his perceived limits - which led him to the triathlon starting line that  afternoon .

As the crowd silenced, the starting signal sounded and the race began, the male participants dashed across the beach and into the Pacific Ocean as they began the first leg of the race. As the athletes embraced the salt water and started to swim, Tallent and her fellow female competitors, anxious to begin their race, lined up where the males stood moments before.

Tallent, a life-long swimmer, decided to lay down her goggles and cap and drifted away from the sport after her freshman year of college. But like most avid athletes, the hiatus was only temporary.

"There was a time I only worked out to max my [physical fitness] test," said Tallent, 710th Combat Operations Squadron flight commander. "Triathlons brought me back to my competitive mindset."

Tallent was drawn to the diverse challenges and test of mental and physical stamina triathlons provide.

Tallent is now a seasoned triathlete, helping the Air Force women's team win gold medals in each of the three Armed Forces Triathlons in which she competed from 2010 to 2012. As she stood on the Point Mugu beach, her competitive spirit came alive again.

When the starting signal sounded for the second time that day, Tallent bounded toward the ocean with her fellow female competitors, who plunged themselves into the frigid water and began to swim.

As the females fought the pounding surf behind him, Kieffer emerged from the water at the end of the first leg, his stomach churning. Having stayed up most of the night prior to the race vomiting due to an unknown illness, he was slightly fatigued as he donned his protective helmet.

He jammed his feet into the shoes attached to his bike's pedals and surged forward on the next leg of the race.

As a wave of nausea hit him, he reminded himself he was part of a team, and pressed on.

He told himself pushing through pain was not a new concept.

With his lean, athletic build, it may be nearly impossible to tell Kieffer is a combat-injured Airman. While deployed in Afghanistan, his convoy was ambushed, ultimately leaving him with a traumatic brain injury.

"Getting back on the [triathlon] team was my 'carrot', the goal I set for myself to get me motivated," he said. "Just being there with the other athletes was a huge accomplishment to me."

While recuperating from his injuries, Kieffer was unable to compete in two Armed Forces Triathlons, but as a life-long athlete, he would not let anything stop him from reaching his goal of making the Air Force triathlon team for the fourth time.

"It's necessary to say 'no' to your mind and embrace the pain," he said. "I try to push myself further and further each time I train."

As a testament to his drive, Kieffer runs five to seven triathlons yearly and competed in the 2013 Warrior Games, a competition that showcases the resilient spirit of today's wounded, ill or injured Service members from all branches of the military.

Kieffer went home as the competition's "ultimate champion", a title reserved for the top athlete based on individual performance in a 50-meter swim, 10-meter prone air rifle shooting range, 100-meter sprint, shot-put and cycling event. He made Warrior Games history as the first Airman to win the award.

Reflecting on his recent triumph, Kieffer neared the end of the cycling portion. As he jumped off his bike and began to run, he focused solely on pushing through the pain.

At the beginning of the bicycling leg, Tallent flew past a competitor, still trying to get her helmet on her head. As she neared the end of the second leg and prepared to run, her calf grew sore from a tear it sustained the year before. When she hopped off her bike and hit her stride, she dug deep and fed off her drive.

As Tallent finished the first loop of the run, she could see the male competitors nearing the finish line. She cheered for her team mates, mustering motivation to complete the race, relying on her training with Kieffer.

"We're lucky to have each other. We are the only two Airmen on the Air Force team stationed together," she said. "We push each other hard while we train, and help each other improve."

With the intensive training regimen, it could be easy to become bored with constant repetition, but Tallent uses her drive to propel her through all aspects of her life.

"My military and athletic motivation feed off of each other," she said. "If I'm motivated in one respect, it helps me push harder in the others."

Ahead, the familiar cheer met Kieffer as he crossed the finish line. He stopped and took a deep breath as another wave of nausea hit him. Although he was tired, the feeling of accomplishment washed over him, feeling pride in the knowledge he met his goal.

"Whenever you compete, your goal should be to do the very best you can, and leave everything on the course," he said. "You can't always account for weather, your body or any other outside factors - but you can control your effort. It's important to always have that carrot, and devote yourself to catching it."

Not long after, Tallent met her fellow competitors across the finish line and cheered for the athletes still nearing the end.

At the end of the day, both the Air Force male and female teams came in a close second place, winning silver medals. With the taste of triumph fresh on their lips, the athletes savored the sense of accomplishment while it lasted, knowing it would not be long before the chase started again.