by Frank Bozanich
My story starts long before I entered into the Marine Corps in September of 1967. I think my toughness started at an early age as I grew up on an island in Washington State. My father was a commercial fisherman who fished for salmon in the summer and Dungeness crab in the fall and winter. My time growing up in the 40s and 50s was spent outdoors doing lots of physical challenges and working with my dad on the boats. As I grew older, I worked on fishing boats for other skippers which allowed me to attend college. I also had some tough coaches in high school who believed in hard work. I didn’t have problems in officer candidate school (OCS) with tough physical tasks or with having a drill instructor (DI) in my face as I had experienced that quite often from my dad and other skippers. In those days, the skipper was boss and if you didn’t do it the way he wanted you might be looking elsewhere for work.
After OCS and The Basic School (TBS), I attended Artillery Officer’s Basic and then Forward Air Controllers (FAC) school before heading to Vietnam in late September of 1968. I was initially assigned to third battalion fifth Marines (3/5) as an forward observer (FO) and was immediately sent out to the “Arizona Territory” to join my unit as the previous FO had been shot the night before. I didn’t spend much time at the main base at An Hoa as we were constantly on patrols, it was a baptism by fire. I remember coming in from one patrol only to head out for another long one eight hours later. My 12 months with the grunts on the front lines was an invaluable experience as I started my running career and especially ultrarunning. The things I saw and did, prepared me to adjust to many tough situations.
When I came back from Vietnam I had no intention of making a career out of running, but started to run again to prepare myself for the physical fitness test (PFT). Back in the states, I was initially assigned to 2nd ANGLICO at Camp Lejeune. I had been a sprinter in high school and college and had run some cross-country, so I had some experience with the middle distances, but I found that I enjoyed the longer runs. I did well in the only competitions I entered, which were track meets on the military base. I have always been competitive by nature, so I went looking for other races to push myself. There were not many competitions at that time, but finally in late 1971 after training for nearly two years and getting up to some 20 mile long runs on my own, I found and ran a 10 mile race in Ahoskie, NC. I knew I could cover the distance, but didn’t know how fast. I ended up ninth overall in a time of 59 minutes, which I was happy with. I then found a marathon in Raleigh called the Duraleigh. I entered it and went there with the intention of running as strong as I could.
You need to know that in those days, there were no aid stations nor mileage markers. When the gun went off, we started racing, and soon I was sitting in fourth place and held this until 20 miles. I came to a train crossing and just as the train was passing, the three runners in front of me made it across and I was stuck watching the train cars pass by. Of course, other runners caught up to me and once the train passed, it became a 10k race to the finish. I was able to hold them off and placed 4th in 2:42 with no time adjustment for the long delay.
You may ask, how did being in combat help me? Combat is often a dynamic, unpredictable situation. You often do not know what is going to happen or how things will suddenly change; you have to improvise, adapt, and overcome. This can be applied to ultrarunning as well, you go into an ultra with somewhat of a plan, but things change and you have to adapt. You learn to be aware of your body when it is being stressed and how external factors affect your performance and attitude. Once in combat, we ran out of food on a long foot patrol and not didn’t get resupplied for several days. I learned that the human body can do wonders without food, allowing you to be able to still fight and move when needed. In the early days of running, we didn’t have watches, gels, water bottles, or hydration packs or vests. We knew that we could cover the distances without taking in food or fluids. We did not have the electrolyte replacement drinks but we made our own, my go-to was flat Coke and water. The few aid stations that were there, had only water and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches.
I remember running my first Western States 100, where the aid stations were mostly 12 to 15 miles apart and only had water along with the PB&J’s for fuel. We didn’t think twice about it and just ran, that was the sport of ultrarunning at the time. Today, runners are pampered and tend to want a smorgasbord setup at each aid station. The thing that strikes me is that they are not running any faster than we did back in the 70’s and 80’s, when we were lucky to have an aid station. Because of my experience of having gone days without food while in combat, I knew I could cover long miles over hours without having to eat. I did the Old Dominion 100-mile trail race in 1980 in 15 hours 17 min on only flat Coke and water with no gels or solid foods. I never felt any discomfort and was strong the entire run with pretty even splits.
I think the key to running well is mainly the training and not the diet. You should be more concerned with how hard you are training and the miles you are putting in over having some special diet. The last meal I eat before any race is 12 hours before the start and I skip breakfast. Even in training, I run before I eat breakfast. The body is a wonderful organism that can adapt to most situations. I also learned that I can adapt to most situations after having been in numerous fire fights and large battles in combat, literally facing death and somehow surviving. I do not treat my races as life or death situations to get me to the finish, but I listen to my body and make adjustments along the way. The race is just a race and not some kind of battle to live; it is something to enjoy and to test yourself. You can learn from DNF’s by reviewing what you did and how you can better make adjustments for the future.
I consider myself a runner and not just an ultrarunner, I always have. Yes I made my name in the ultras and especially on the roads, but I love all distances and think the shorter ones can also make us better and stronger for the longer races. Don’t let yourself be caught up in one venue or genre of running, as they all have a place in our lives. I was wounded in Vietnam and learned that I could survive and would be able to recover to do other things. This relates to ultras or any distance as you can have bad races or even injuries and still come back to conquer the distances.
Go out and enjoy your runs and training, running should be fun. On your easy days, enjoy the experience and take the time to stop and smell the roses. When you have a hard day scheduled, do the work required because this is where improvement occurs. We had some difficult times in combat, but we also had some relaxing times when we could take it easy and get back on track for another round of patrols and firefights. You are going to face some doubts and have fears of some distances, but you can conquer these with good training and knowing you have properly prepared. I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t scared at all in Vietnam, but was able to overcome them by trusting in my training, knowing my job, and knowing that I had good Marines around me. You have a family and friends who will be there for you in your running.
The Marine Ultra Runners Club of America (MURCA) is our running family for all of us and a great way to get support from others and to have friends in places that we may go for a race or just a visit. I always knew that my wife and kids were safe when I was deployed because as Marines we took care of our own and that included our families. I am available for advice and to answer any questions you may have concerning training and racing. I learned from the best in the world when I was younger and they were willing to pass on their knowledge to me, so I want to pass that forward. I had a great and successful time running and would love to see you all improve and reach your goals. There are no great secrets to running and winning. You just have to work hard and follow a good plan.