SAN DIEGO — Marine Gunnery Sgt. Douglas King, lean as a whippet and possessed of a commanding, rapid-fire voice, set the tone quickly and without equivocation as he addressed the Saturday morning assemblage of civilian runners.
“You’re going to get motivated, the Marine Corps way!” he bellowed. “You’re going to get it whether you like it or not.”
And with that, the 11th annual Boot Camp Challenge was underway — 2,000 civilians vying for the bragging rights that come with completing a three-mile obstacle course designed for recruits at the boot camp here.
For the weekend fitness crowd, three miles may not seem like much of a challenge.
But this is a three-mile course with tunnels, trenches, logs to jump over, logs to crawl under, walls to climb, hay bales to jump, push-ups to perform and more — much more.
All along the way, drill instructors with those demanding, otherworldly voices were pushing the runners to keep moving, quitting is not an option, etc. Instruction was done close up and at high decibels.
GO, GO, GET DOWN, NO STOPPING, NO STOPPING, NO STOPPING!
Sometimes sarcasm was in play.
IT’S A RACE, IT’S OK TO RUN, PASS SOMEBODY! NOW!
There is method to the apparent madness, the Marines explained. Since 1923, young men have been coming here to see if they are tough enough to be Marines. To many civilians, the insular Marine culture remains a mystery.
The Boot Camp Challenge allows civilians to glimpse a portion of the grueling 13-week process of turning young men into Marines, said Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, commanding officer at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
“You get to see some of the physical and mental stress they go through,” he said.
Matt Pederson, 44, a high school biology teacher from Phoenix, wore a T-shirt (“Proud Dad. Erik Pederson. Platoon 2123") honoring his son, a recent boot camp graduate now receiving infantry training at Camp Pendleton. “I want to see what he went through,” Pederson said.
Walt Smith, 64, the oldest runner in the “elite” group (those who can run a mile in under eight minutes), wanted to make sure he still has the right stuff. He’s a retired colonel in the Marine Reserve.
Glenda Smithson, 32, a software designer in Los Angeles, was just plain curious.
“You hear about the Marines, but you don’t really know what they do or how they do,” she said. “I’m going to find out even if it means getting sore feet and legs.”
Part of being a Marine, of course, is learning how to respond — affirmatively, quickly and loudly — when given an order. King explained the secret.
“There’s a vein in your neck, " he told the group. “You scream loud enough, it pops out.”
At the end of the race, the exhausted, sweat-drenched runners returned to the grassy area near the start.
Rock music was blaring, T-shirts were selling briskly and some adventuresome souls were getting Marine high-and-tight haircuts for free. Others were getting pull-up training from the drill instructors. Beer, water and energy drinks were available.
The DIs were a common topic of conversation.
“In the beginning, they’re in your face,” said Herbie Greene, 29, of San Diego. “But by the end, you don’t hear them; you just keep moving.”
Rachel Paul, 20, of Escondido heard the DIs every step of the way. “They were insane,” she said — adding that she’ll probably come back for next year’s race.
The question to runners at the finish line was direct: How was the race?
“Awesome,” said Cory McAllister, 22, of Rancho Cucamonga.
“Brutal,” said Frank Esqueda, 46, his uncle.
What was the best part?
“Finishing,” uncle and nephew said in unison.