By Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl, U.S. Naval War College Public Affairs
April 11, 2014
NEWPORT, R.I. -- When it happens, it's a complete feeling of Zen. Everything you know ceases to exist. Your body floats effortlessly across the ground. There's no more pain, no shortness of breath, no worries. You're completely in the zone.
"I hope it happens at least 10 times in Boston because I'm going to need it to finish all 26 miles," he said with a grin.
Like most distance-running athletes and for Senior Chief Sonar Technician (Surface) Benjamin Pierson, senior enlisted advisor for U.S. Naval War College (NWC) in Newport, R.I., the runners high is the ultimate experience while beating feet to pavement. For Pierson, when coupled with camaraderie, it can help runners reach the finish line and complete long-distance races.
"My first big race was essentially a failure," said Pierson, reflecting on his past. "I signed up for my first half-marathon in Shiner, Texas, and it happened to be scheduled for the day after I flew in from Hawaii. I never even made it to the race."
Pierson may have been temporarily let down, but camaraderie and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to run in the Boston Marathon, would re-spark his ambition and light the fire of motivation to train and compete again.
For the first 11 years of his Navy career, Pierson had been a dedicated soccer player.
While assigned to the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate, USS De Wert (FFG 45), in Mayport, Fla., a freak accident during command fitness training would take him from being a guy who played soccer all his life, to not being sure what he could do in the future.
"No one was around me. I just stepped, and it felt like somebody hit me in the back of the heel with a rock," said Pierson. "I had a 90-percent tear in my Achilles tendon."
Pierson's injury would require surgery and rehabilitation.
"Even though I was hurt, I was still required to pass the physical fitness test. That was my motivation to get back into running and back on the ship. It would've been hard to see the ship going over the horizon and knowing the sonar technicians were going without their chief."
To the chief, leaving his comrades was not an option. The thought of his shipmates deploying without him fueled his passion and determination. Within four months, Pierson would fully recover, be medically cleared and make his final deployment with De Wert before transferring to Hawaii.
Up until his assignment to Hawaii, Pierson hadn't run more than 1.5 miles twice a year for the Navy's physical fitness assessment or tested his ability to run long distances.
"I remember my sister-in-law came to visit and we signed up for a 10k. The route was around Diamond Head, which ended up being a really cool route to run. That run was the eye opener that made me realize, 'you have it in you to do more than just 1.5 miles twice a year."
During the next year Pierson continued to run 5k's and attended the Senior Enlisted Academy (SEA) in Newport, R.I.
"At the SEA you do The Wave run, which is about 6.75 miles. We did that three or four times throughout the course of the class. That triggered my motivation to start running longer distances."
It was the camaraderie of the class and being able to accomplish that run as a group that anchored Pierson to distance running.
"It's something bigger. Like what you build with the Sailors you've deploy with. Whether you know that person or not, you have that common respect, regardless of what the person looks like or what they're wearing. You get that head nod or wave, even if it's somebody you didn't know. It's camaraderie."
Six months before leaving the island, Pierson's wife, April, and two children decided they would return home to Texas for the kids to finish school.
"That's when I really got into running. When April went back home to Texas with the boys, I stayed with a buddy, Chief Electronics Technician Carter Hollingsworth."
Hollingsworth, a fellow chief, former command fitness leader and shipmate from De Wert, was now serving as CFL for Special Delivery Vehicle Team 1 and would plant the seeds for a culture of fitness to steadily grow.
"Getting out and running with him, I noticed something; they call it a runner's high. You get to a place of Zen, leaving all your worries behind."
Together, the two ran daily on the island. It became their ritual. On weekdays, come home at 4:00 p.m., throw on shorts and tennis shoes, and go! Weekends were an opportunity to pick a new cool spot and go trail running.
"We ran a few times and started out with 4-5 miles. He's barely breaking a sweat, and I'm dying at the end of it. That was motivation right there to quit messing around, and that's when we changed our diets," said Pierson. "Even when Hollingsworth was CFL on the ship, he was a runner. But to see how much he enjoyed it and what he got out of it. That just turned me onto running more."
For the next six months, the camaraderie of running, working-out and eating for peak fitness spread like an unstoppable disease. The seeds had rooted and would continue to grow as he made way east to Newport and the NWC.
The idea to run in the Boston Marathon came from a new shipmate, Lt. Cmdr. Leslie Slootmaker, flag aide for Rear Adm. Walter E. "Ted" Carter Jr., NWC president (PNWC).
"They had this thought of running the Boston Marathon. I put the bug in her ear and if there was any way I could get in, I would love to run it with them."
Pierson secured one of three reserved military spots with Slootmaker and Carter in November, and with only six short months to train. Pierson knew he would need a comrade.
"I was new here at the NWC," said Senior Chief Culinary Specialist Chris Valdez, senior enlisted aide for PNWC. "He asked me 'do you like running?" he said with a laugh.
With no time to waste, the two quickly charted a training plan; run 4-7 miles three times a week and a 13-20 mile run on the weekends.
"Our first half-marathon, we started running in the morning, and it was nice. Once we hit the five miles mark, it started pouring down rain. My legs were hurting; we were soaking wet; cold; my shirt felt heavy; cars are splashing us, but we finished."
"There's no way I could continue running without him. It's the camaraderie. You're not going to give up because they're not going to give upon you either," said Valdez.
Training in Newport has proven to be no easy task this winter. In freezing temperatures with snow coming down, "it's really easy to say, 'no, I'm not going to run today.' I know that if I didn't have my shipmates to run with, I would've fallen off the wagon," said Pierson.
With less than three weeks to go until Boston, Pierson continues to train with his shipmates and remains dedicated to his goal; finish the 26-mile Boston Marathon on April 21.
"His mind is set for the Boston Marathon," said Valdez. "His mind is prepared more than anything else. Whatever we run, we accomplish it. It doesn't matter what pain or obstacles we encounter during the run."
Whatever Pierson encounters during the marathon, he will not be alone. Joining him will be more than 36,000 athletes from across the globe, their friends, family and the community of Boston to cheer them throughout the course.
"I think about it like a deployment," explained Pierson. "We're all leaving together, set out on a common goal. There's going to be highs and lows throughout the race, just like a deployment. I know I can count on the people of Boston and the people around me to pull me up if I'm dragging. I will finish."