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Face of Defense: Airman Trains for Ultramarathons

By Air Force Staff Sgt. Rachelle Elsea
U.S. Air Forces Central

SOUTHWEST ASIA, April 25, 2013 – The appetizer: four times around a 25-mile track in Missouri in September, with 10,000 feet of ascent and 10,000 feet of descent. The main course: a 100-mile point-to-point track with several water crossings and 12,000 to 15,000 feet of elevation gain in Missouri in November. The dessert: a belt buckle or two.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Master Sgt. Robert R. Snyder Jr. runs several miles around a base in Southwest Asia, April 17, 2013, as he trains to compete in ultramarathons. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Rachelle Elsea

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Air Force Master Sgt. Robert R. Snyder Jr., Air Forces Central force protection liaison officer, is a lifetime runner with the goal of completing two ultramarathons within the next year. Each race promises a signature belt buckle upon completion under the designated time.

"My goal is to complete the races in less than 24 hours," said Snyder, who is serving his sixth deployment. "The farthest I have run so far at one time is 40 miles."

The 39-year-old Pana, Ill., native began running as a boy and has pushed himself further and further over the years.

"I grew up on a farm," he said. "Being on the farm, most of my friends lived a couple of miles away. If my parents wouldn't take my brother and me, we would run." He began to compete in track and field in middle school and high school, with a culmination of competing at the state level for several events.

After a year of college and deciding he needed a change from the early mornings and chore-filled days on the farm, Snyder enlisted in the Air Force in October 1994. He continued to keep up the pace, competing in Air Force and civilian-community races.

"I have competed in the Defender Challenge, Peacekeeper Challenge and Atlantic Challenge,” Snyder said. “I also participated in the Bataan Memorial Death March, Austin Marathon, Air Force Marathon, the River to River Relay, a lot of 5Ks, 10Ks, and trail runs."

But ultramarathons take it to a whole new level, which will require intense dedication and self-discipline.

"I do circuit training on Tuesdays. Thursdays I do yoga. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I do weight training or Crossfit," said Snyder, who is deployed from Scott Air Force Base, Ill. "I also run three to four times a week, with my long runs falling on the weekend. I average around 40 to 55 miles a week."

A lot of his runs, he said, include wearing an elevation training mask.

“On my short recovery runs, I run with it set to 6,000 to 9,000 feet, that way my lungs get a cardio workout when I am not trying to push my pace," Snyder explained. "Also, in Illinois, I am basically at sea level, so with the elevation training mask, I can go to races in places like Colorado, where I am thousands of feet above sea level, and be prepared."

His goals also affect his diet.

"I try to eat every two hours, balancing my carbs and proteins and eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, while also taking in a lot of calories," he said. "Back home, I eat mostly organic. My staple meat is venison, which I hunt for myself. Because I am deployed and don't have access to organic, I eat vegetarian a week per month, cleaning toxins out of my system."

Snyder has a firm support team backing him: his wife and three children.

"My son, Trent, runs with me sometimes and is getting more into it," he said. His daughter, Amberly, will not allow him to leave the house with his running gear on unless he takes her with him, he added, so she accompanies him in a running stroller.

When he runs alone, Snyder said, he takes time to enjoy the peace.

"I enjoy the calmness and the quietness, especially if I am trail running, which I prefer over running on the road," he said. "It is nice to be out away from everyone, alone. It is my time to relax."

Though running is enjoyable, Snyder said, he also recognizes it as a career necessity.

"Being physically fit prepares you for the mission," he said. "You need to know what your body is capable of. If, and when, things hit the fan, you may have to drag someone, run long distances or sprint short distances."

He offered advice for people thinking about running.

"Start slow, listen to your body and set realistic goals," he said. "Join a local running club, or even try a program like Couch to 5K. it's a good starting point."

At his home base, Snyder runs with the Road Warriors running club. Air Force Senior Airman Caleb D. Brackett of the 379th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron is a fellow club member also deployed here.

"Everyone in our flight at home station was always nervous when he would lead [physical training], because we knew it was going to be hell," Brackett said. "I enjoyed it, though, and he always pushes people to positive levels and shows me how hard work and determination pays off."

Brackett occasionally joins Snyder on his runs here when their busy schedules allow. He also will accompany Snyder on the last 40 miles of his first ultramarathon as his handler, a common practice in the running world.

"I can say that I am a friend that will push him to dig deep and drive toward his goals," Brackett said. "It's not how fast or far people run, it's what brings us all together -- and that is our passion for running and a healthy lifestyle. When others hear about people running incredible distances, they consider it crazy. But it’s passion, and that's what drives us to where we are today."


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