Face of Defense: Soldier Grabs Guinness Record
By Roger Teel
Special to American Forces Press Service
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md., Jan. 12, 2010 Army 2nd Lt. Sophie Hilaire does not particularly fit the general image of an explosive ordnance disposal warrior.
Army 2nd Lt. Sophie Hilaire sprints to the finish of the Philadelphia Marathon, setting a Guinness World Record for women by running the Nov. 22, 2009, race in 4 hours, 54 minutes wearing full battle gear. Photo courtesy of Island Photography
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
At 120 pounds, one wonders how she possibly could be strong enough to function in an 85-pound bomb suit, handling the physical and mental demands of defusing improvised explosive devices.
But Hilaire is strong enough to run a marathon in full battle armor. In fact, she holds a world record for it.
After graduating from an all-girls Catholic school in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Hilaire was accepted at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. She graduated last spring with degrees in management and environmental engineering, making her parents, Vincent and Sung-Suk Hilaire, of Longmont, Colo., proud. She was a member of the Army women's fencing team at West Point.
"My dad's uncle was in the Army, a warrant officer, but we really didn't have anyone particularly pushing us to go to West Point," Hilaire said. She used the collective "we" because her younger sister and brother both attend the U.S. Military Academy. Her sister Nicole is in her junior year, and her brother Philip is a freshman.
"We all had to work for it," Hilaire said. "We all had the same values. My mom is Korean and really stressed values in our family, and a sense of service -- you know, of giving something back."
Hilaire said she started a running regimen out of necessity during her junior year.
"After a summer of not running, I was worried about an Army physical fitness test I had coming up,” she said. “I ended up performing better than I expected, and was motivated to continue running afterwards. I started running with a friend who helped me develop a training plan. My idea at that time was to train for a half marathon."
Her running "just took off" from there, she said.
Hilaire ran her first marathon in Virginia Beach, Va., in 2008, followed by the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., later that year. In May 2009, she ran the New Jersey Marathon in 3 hours and 37 minutes, qualifying by three minutes for the 2010 Boston Marathon.
By the time she was in training for her fourth marathon in Philadelphia in November, she was looking for additional motivation.
"I was just killing time until Boston next April, so I started looking for a cause,” she said. “After a Google search, I chose to run for the American Veterans with Brain Injuries.”
Hilaire said she read about the founder's son, Army Pfc. Chris Lynch, a runner who suffered a brain injury that caused a lack of coordination to the point that he no longer could run. Since his injury, he has relentlessly trained and has competed in marathons on a hand cycle.
"After reading about courageous servicemen like Chris,” Hilaire said, “I felt humbled and inspired to do something for this organization. I was also looking for ways to increase my fund-raising. I ran the 2008 Marine Corps Marathon for charity. My goal was to raise $1,000, and I raised more than $1,500."
Her decision to shoot for the world record she now holds was a stroke of luck, she said.
"I just happened to look at the Guinness Book of World Records for marathons,” she explained, “and saw an entry for the fastest time with ‘full battle rattle’ - Army combat uniform, boots, Army combat helmet and the protective vest with full body armor. A British soldier owned the record with a time of 5 hours, 11 minutes.”
That was the goal she originally intended to beat, but Guinness officials opened a separate women’s category for her, she said. “And before I ran the Philly marathon, the Brit's record was beaten,” she added. “I think the current men's record is three hours and change."
Weighing down her slight frame with 30 pounds of additional gear, she focused on her goal.
"It made sense to me to raise funds for [American Veterans with Brain Injuries] while embracing the challenge of running in combat gear to generate awareness of this noteworthy cause," she said.
As she trained, she also engaged social media, notifying her friends by e-mail what she was doing and establishing a Facebook group to collect donations for her cause. She raised more than $4,000 for the organization, exceeding her goal of $2,000.
American Veterans with Brain Injuries officials were overwhelmed, Hilaire said. "They were down to their last $200 when they received my sponsors' donation,” she explained, “so they were just elated."
She also established the Guinness record, finishing the marathon -- 26.2 miles -- in 4 hours and 54 minutes, though she’s not yet listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. "I haven't received the certificate,” she said. “I'm waiting for them to process it."
The lieutenant explained her strategy and noted that once she passed the 20-mile mark, she dedicated the rest of the race to others.
"I joined a five-hour pace group and stayed with them until I pulled away at the end," she said. "I ran the final 6.2 miles for seven different individuals. The first few I texted during the race to let them know; the final few I was too exhausted. I ran for veterans like Pfc. Lynch and Capt. Sam Brown, a personal hero and friend, who was severely burned by an IED."
Hilaire trained with a friend, Army 2nd Lt. Courtney Miller. “She ran with me for the first half of the marathon, despite an injury,” Hilaire said. “She carried my Gatorade and took pictures to document the venture for Guinness."
It's hard to put into words what running a marathon does for her, the lieutenant said.
"At heart, I'm a long-distance runner. It gives me a reason to work out and train, but I had never pushed myself before," she said. "The feeling of being just a couple miles out from the finish line, knowing that you won't hit the wall and are about to meet this goal or time that you've dedicated every day of the last six months to, is incredibly emotional. Crossing the finish line is even better."
Running has helped every aspect of her life, Hilaire said.
"Everything became easier after I started running,” she said. “Basic Army requirements, like the semiannual physical fitness test, became so much easier after I started training for marathons."
But, she added, she’s not a natural runner.
“I've got flat feet, knock-knees and one leg is shorter than the other," she said, laughing. "It's just fun to set and meet goals along the way."
Asked if she’d run in battle-rattle again, the lieutenant replied, "Only if someone beats my record."
In mid-December, while Hilaire attended the Ordnance Branch Officer Basic Course at Fort Lee, Va., she was assessed as part of her request to become an EOD technician. The assessment included two 30-minute sessions of mental and physical tests in an EOD bomb suit and in hazardous materials and chemical suits. The bomb suit weighs about 85 pounds. During the evaluation, candidates are required to carry a 100-pound, 155 mm projectile 100 meters.
"For the typical soldier, this is a challenge," said Army Capt. Rob Busseau, an EOD officer from 20th Support Command, who conducted the assessment. "For a 120-pound second lieutenant, it required a massive amount of determination, motivation and intestinal fortitude."
Hilaire also completed multiple sets of push-ups, side-straddle hops and other demanding exercises. During both suit tests, she maintained a positive attitude and support for her classmates, Busseau said.
"She's an exceptional soldier with tremendous potential," he said. "After the evaluation, I interviewed Hilaire to determine her suitability to serve in the EOD field. She is a modest, yet confident, officer with a true passion for serving in the U.S. Army."
Hilaire was one of four candidates accepted into the Army EOD program following the assessment.
"I talked to a lot of mentors, specifically 1st Lt. Danielle Peek, a 2008 West Point grad who is now an EOD officer," she said, explaining how she came to her career choice. "Everything about EOD appeals to me - small teams, tight-knit working environments, technical skill sets, and most importantly, saving lives. It just fits my personality well, and I decided to give it a shot."
Her immediate plans include finishing officer basic on Jan. 20, then reporting Feb. 1 to Phase 1 of EOD training at Redstone Arsenal, Ala. After Phase 1, Hilaire will report to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., to finish EOD training at the U.S. Navy-run Kaufmann EOD Training Complex.
"It's a funny coincidence, but the family who started [American Veterans with Brain Injuries] resides in both Huntsville and just a few minutes from Eglin. So EOD school will soon bring us together, and we will finally get to meet," Hilaire said.
She also has a date to run the Boston Marathon in April.
"Many of my peers may deploy soon after graduation," Hilaire said. "And it bothers me a little that I will be in a year-long training program. But I believe the benefits of the training will be worth the effort."
(Roger Teel works in the 20th Support Command.)