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Staring Into The Abyss (Business Lessons from ROTC)

May 15, 2013

2. I Might Die Right Here on This Hill

Have you ever thought you were going to die? I don’t mean in a “Someone broke into my house with a gun,” or “I got mugged in the park” way. I mean, have you ever done something. . .something hard and thought,

“This activity might kill me. . . .I wonder how I feel about that?”

It teaches you a lot about yourself. At least it did for me. My moment came at 6:30 on a cold September morning. In the rain.

It’s not a steep hill, as hills go.
If you are familiar with the Provo, UT area, it’s the road that goes up past the LDS Temple and leads to Rock Canyon. On a warm summer’s afternoon it’s a pleasant walk. I saw it under slightly different circumstances.

I had just joined the ROTC program. I have always had natural athletic ability, but I’ve never really been a runner. You can’t be in the Army, or the ROTC program without being a runner, as I was quickly learning.

This was one of the first runs with the Ranger Challenge Team. Ranger Challenge is the competitive team of Army ROTC. At BYU, any cadet could join the team. And you were a member as long as you wanted to be. You could drop at any time.

Naturally, there’s no small amount of prestige associated with the Ranger Challenge Team. The first morning, we had about 20 people show up at 5:30 am. Major Turbiville was our coach. He led out into the light drizzle that carried just a hint of snow. As we ran for about 45 minutes, the weather got worse. The wind came up a little. It was still very much night at that hour, so we were running in the dark. And unlike when the company ran in formation, we were all mostly running at our own pace.

As we headed back toward campus, the Major turned left and headed up toward the temple. My legs ached, or they would if I could feel them through the numbing cold. My hair was plastered to my head and water was running into my eyes. My shorts and t-shirt were completely soaked. The 4500 feet elevation was making itself felt in my lungs. Every breath was a burden.

As we started up the hill, I knew that it was at least another half mile to the temple, and that was assuming the major was planning to turn around there. It was another couple miles to the mouth of the canyon if he decided to continue that far.

Frankly, I wanted to quit. Not just the run, I was seriously having second thoughts about the Army. I was half the major’s age and he seemed to be running easily.

This is stupid!

No one is forcing me to do this.

Just quit!

But, I thought about what it meant to be a soldier. Then, I thought about what it meant to commit to something. Was I the type of person who would give up when the first difficulty showed up? Would I stop at the first hurdle and pack up and go home?

If I couldn’t even run in the rain, would I walk away if my marriage got hard? Would I quit a job because I had to do hard things? I didn’t want to think of myself as that kind of person. Maybe I am, and I’m just too stubborn or stupid to admit it.

I kept running.

And it got harder. The slope increased. The wind was coming out of the canyon blowing the rain into my face.

Just quit.

I couldn’t feel my legs or my hands. My ears were ringing so bad I wouldn’t have heard a car horn even if anyone had been on the street that time of the early morning.

I kept running.

Now my legs were burning. My thighs started screaming in pain. My back hurt. My breathing was labored. My vision was blurry.

I kept running.

I might die. I might actually fall over and die right here on this hill. Is this really the way you want to die?

Yes. Well, no, I didn’t want to die, but If I was destined to die, I decided it would be while struggling to top this hill. My entire world view boiled down to a single goal. I was going to make it to the top of this hill or die trying.

Interestingly, I don’t remember reaching the top of the hill. I don’t remember the run back to the field house, or how sore I was the next day.

However, I remembered that moment when I chose, I made the conscious decision, to push through the pain, the doubts and the rain. I’ve had to endure hard things over the course of my career. I never again exercised so hard I thought it would kill me. And that’s the point. I knew that if I could survive that run up that hill in the rain, pushing through to complete a project, or land an account, or have a crucial conversation with an employee were things that I could do.

It’s a comforting thing to measure yourself and realize that on that day, at that time, you measured up.

This is the third of five posts about leadership and business lessons I learned while attending the BYU ROTC classes in Fall of 1990.

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