Face of Defense: Air Force Runner Goes for 'Ultra' Distance
By Karen Abeyasekere
1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division
MILDENHALL, England, Oct. 12, 2012 For many people, running a marathon may seem pretty extreme for a warm-up. But for one U.S. Air Force squadron commander stationed at Royal Air Force Station Mildenhall, it's more like a walk in the park.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Chris Bennett, 100th Operations Support Squadron commander at Royal Air Force Station Mildenhall, England, makes his way along country roads between London and Brighton during an ultra-marathon on Sept. 30, 2012. The ultra-marathon was 61.2 miles and participants had to find their own way to the finish line aided by a map and compass. Courtesy photo by Molly Bennett
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Lt. Col. Chris Bennett, 100th Operations Support Squadron commander, ran the Air Force Marathon Sept. 15 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Just two weeks later, he took part in the London-to-Brighton Ultramarathon.
The 61.2-mile ultramarathon’s course ran through London, Kent, Surry and Sussex, Bennett said.
Placing seventh out of 196 runners who started, Bennett's time was 10 hours, 50 minutes. Just 88 runners finished the course within the required time limit of 13 hours.
"There were a few minor course deviations along the way," said Bennett, who hails from Houston, Alaska. "When I hit the 40-mile checkpoint, I thought I had 17 miles left until somebody told me, 'No, you've got 20 miles still to go!'"
He said he had to mentally prepare himself for the fact that the finish line is static.
"So you're not done until you get there. But having my wife, Molly, there supporting me and cheering each time I passed her along the way really spurred me on," he said.
Considering there were no signs or directions along the way, it's hardly surprising the route took a little longer.
"We were issued a map and a compass, and just had to find our own way," Bennett said. "We had to land-navigate using terrain features, buildings and roads."
Bennett has run 27 marathons, along with an unofficial marathon, known as the "boundary run" around Cambridge in March, which he described as, "purely a training run to prepare for the run around London."
There must be only so many times somebody can run 26.2 miles before needing a new goal. For Bennett, the distance just wasn't a challenge any more.
"The uncertainty of whether I had the ability to finish the ultramarathon was out there, and that was one of the attractions," he said. "I thought I'd try something audacious and this was it! I wanted to do something that was beyond anything I'd ever done before."
Besides running a marathon or two, how does one prepare for an ultramarathon?
"Although the volume of training may not be a lot more than you'd do for a marathon, the focus for an ultramarathon is to spend more time on your feet," Bennett said. "It's not uncommon for folks to go out and do a 30- to 40-mile effort and just make it six to eight hours on your feet."
Bennett said after he'd signed up for the London-to-Brighton Ultramarathon last year, the opportunity arose for him to be part of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe team for this year's Air Force Marathon.
"I debated it for about a second, then foolishly said, 'Yeah, I can do that and then two weeks later, do an ultramarathon,'" he added.
Bennett said after having run so many marathons, he's used to it and his body recovers pretty quickly each time, so he felt fresh and had no problems when he started the ultramarathon.
Bennett said he was happy -- and tired -- at the end of the ultramarathon.
"I was glad to be done, no doubt about it! It was by far one of the hardest things I've ever done," Bennett said.
Bennett said he didn't suffer with any joint or knee issues, although he did have sore shoulders and a sore back after carrying his water backpack, which banged against his back as he ran for hours. He said his biceps also ached after holding his arms at a 90-degree angle for almost 11 hours.
"Spending that much time on your feet, you're worn out," Bennett said. "You can only move [only] so fast. Some of the things you'd think would hurt, didn't. And others that you didn't expect to hurt, did."
The key to recovery from such a long-distance race, Bennett said, was “to keep slowly walking, drink a lot of water, plus have carbohydrates and fats. A good steak dinner was a worthy reward.
"I also take ice baths,” he continued. “They're by no means fun, but when you have a good cup of coffee, the shivering soon stops, and that really helps with the inflammation and the lactic acid build-up. I also ran the next day, and have run every day since then, but staying active afterwards is one of the best therapies to recover and work through all the soreness and pain."
After 27 marathons and an ultramarathon, what's next for Bennett? Is there anything that can top that?
"I haven't picked a race yet but looking longer term, there are 100-mile races and that might be the next thing,” he said. “I wouldn't rule it out," he said. "But there are the challenges of work and four kids, as well as the amount of training it takes to prepare. It's a significant investment of time."
Being a squadron commander and serious runner, it's important to Bennett that members of his squadron are fit as well.
"The biggest thing is to lead by example," he said. "You don't have to be a runner like me. I don't want anyone to think I'm the standard. I enjoy it. It's my hobby, and I'll happily run with anybody, at any pace, to encourage them to run."
Bennett's mentorship is evident in the fact that in May 2011, Col. Chad Manske, then-100th Air Refueling Wing commander, along with the then-100th Civil Engineer Squadron commander and then-100th Security Forces Squadron commander teamed up with Bennett to run the Mont St. Michael marathon in Normandy, France. It was the first marathon for RAF Mildenhall's former 100th ARW and 100th SFS commanders.
"Chris Bennett always motivated our training efforts toward achieving our goals," Manske said. "Whether it was organizing tough training runs, advice on hydration and nutrition during a long race, or the encouragement we needed in ensuring we could reach our goals, Chris was always there.”
Bennett also is a key figure in the "Milden-haulers" running club, which motivates other base members to run.
One of those people is Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Gregory Warren, 100th Operations Group superintendent, who recently ran the Race to Remember half-marathon Sept. 8 at RAF Mildenhall.
"I don't really consider myself a runner, but I know it's necessary for me to maintain the fitness level I need," Warren said. "What encouraged me was the setting for the runs in Brandon Park, Thetford Forest; soft trails, shade, and other folks of all levels of fitness.
"After a few Saturdays of running out there,” he continued, “I had worked up to about 10 miles and figured I could easily do a half-marathon and knew the base was sponsoring one. My inspiration from Lt. Col. Bennett is his dedication to others regarding their fitness, and he exemplifies the standard in this regard."
Warren said Bennett helped him to get to a point of confidence where he could run a half-marathon.
"Now he's been working on me to do a full marathon, though I don't think he's ever going to convince me enough to actually run one! He also paced me on my last fitness test and I cut about 30 seconds off [the previous times]," he said.
Running is a way of life for Bennett, one he says he'll never let go.
"My goal when I'm 80 is to still be running," he said. "Granted, I'll slow down, but I just want to keep doing it and enjoy it, and I really do. I run with my kids and with Molly, as well as with folks in my squadron."
Summing up his thoughts on the ultramarathon, Bennett said it's important to just keep moving yourself forward as the race goes on.
"Your pace naturally slows down to some extent. There were a significant amount of hills in this course. It's not uncommon for runners to walk when they reach hills, and when people ask me did I walk any of it, well, yes I did," he said.
"Coming down the last quarter-mile, you're running down a boardwalk to the finish line,” he said. “There was a crowd waiting, and their applause and cheers as I came to the finish was a welcome sight. Almost 11 hours before, I'd started out not knowing if I would have the ability to finish, but I placed seventh overall and I was proud of my accomplishment.”