How triathlon helped a US Marine Corp veteran transition to civilian life

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USA Triathlon is proud that many athletes in the multisport community are or have been active military personnel. On this Memorial Day, we pay tribute to all who have served or are currently serving our country. We had the privilege of speaking to a former US Marine and learned how triathlon and endurance sports played a vital role in his transition to civilian life.

Veteran Brandon Ostrander (Wilmington, North Carolina) enlisted in the US Marine Corps after graduating from high school at age 18. He served from 2008 to 2013. During that time he was deployed twice to Afghanistan to fight as an infantryman on the front lines. On his last deployment, while working in a truck with heavy machinery, his crew hit an improvised explosive device (IED), where Ostrander suffered multiple head injuries.

He received two Purple Hearts for his service.

What is your background in triathlon/multisport?
People always tell you that when you’re in the Marine Corp, you’re a runner whether you like it or not. However, I was a great rugby player, then in 2017 I changed my mind and switched to triathlon and started doing endurance sports. I never thought I would get into endurance sports, but here we are.Group of U.S. Marines Overseas

The first race I wanted to do was IRONMAN 70.3 in Chattanooga, but it was one of the first races canceled for COVID. I had trained for about a year and a half for this race, but ended up doing sprint and Olympic distance races in Tennessee. Last year I did the IRONMAN 70.3 in Boulder, Colorado.

What do you like about the middle distance races?
The 70.3 course fits my lifestyle and schedule perfectly. It allows me to achieve the goals I want, without feeling overwhelmed by it all.

After 4.5 years in the army, did finding endurance sports help you return to civilian life?
When I came out of the military, the most important thing for me was to find a transition and a healing. When you leave the military, everyone has their own way of figuring out how to transition or heal from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and all those types of things. But for me, it was always about finding something that I could incorporate into my lifestyle, that I could challenge my body and challenge my mind a bit more to improve myself. It seems like some of these things don’t always find the best way to deal with them and I think sports are a great way to do that. Triathlon was huge for me because I started training with local people before I even started running. Be part of a community and find like-minded people, whether they are veterans or not. The camaraderie has been tremendous. What also attracted me to triathlon is that there is always a way to improve and it gives me a lifestyle and a schedule that helps me deal with some of the physical things and mental issues related to leaving the army, because some people always try to find that and unfortunately some people don’t.

Did you find any physical or mental similarities between training for multisport and the way you trained in the military?
Absolutely. There are two things that I think went well and the first is the preparation. In triathlon, if you’re not prepared, you’re going to fail most of the time, like getting dehydrated or falling from a race. So you have to be very careful about what you have to do, when you have to do it, know when your body needs something, and know how you behave as an athlete. All of this comes into play in training as well as deployment in the military. You need to know how much your body can handle, for example when you physically need to refuel or is it one of those times when you just need to be mentally strong. However, I think one thing the military might struggle with is thinking that they just need to be tough. But there is a fine line. There are times when you have to endure and put the pedal to the metal and push yourself, but there are also times when your ability to prepare and your ability to plan what you do for a long endurance race goes to also come into play to get you to the end of the race, not just to finish it, but to finish it the way you want.

Brandon Ostrander participates in a triathlonAnother good thing that comes from the military is knowing that if “plan A” doesn’t work, we can fall back on “plan B”. We are a little better than some people knowing that we can adapt and do things a little differently and as a veteran that gives us a little edge in those kinds of situations.

What are the challenges of transitioning to civilian life after serving in the military?
It’s a process. It’s hard. A lot of us did four or five years and then went to college afterwards, so it’s different from starting at nine to getting out of the military and trying to transition into that, whether it’s in the job market or going to university. I joined the army when I was 18 so when I started college right after I got out, at that time it’s hard to relate to anyone and meet people to make friends. You still rely on some of those guys you’ve served with for so long to have that sense of community. You try to find that community elsewhere. I looked for that in one of the rugby teams I was on, and then later in life when I started triathlon, I found that sense of community.

Has participating in the triathlon helped your PTSD?
Yes. Exercise and sports have always been key for me. Being able to push my body to the limits it has is helping me deal with my depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Just continuing to perform better and find the limits of myself and the human body helped me deal with that a bit more.

When you train, you’re not limited to where or how far you can swim, bike or run – you can literally go anywhere. The beauty with that is that you can get lost in it all where it’s almost like meditation. I train in the Blue Ridge Mountains and going biking and running in those mountains and those types of places like that turns into a meditation, not only for your mind but also to physically improve your body. Mentally, you are just able to clear your mind of these thoughts and relax your mind and body a bit. It just becomes you, your body and your thoughts. You enter into this meditative state and you continue to go wherever you are at that time.

Based on your experience, would you recommend other veterans get involved in multi-sport to help them cope with post-military life and the mental and physical challenges that come with readjusting to civilian life??
I think the big thing that everyone will be looking for first is to find something to give themselves a purpose. Everyone in the military always wants a goal, which gives them something to strive for and something to improve on. I’m trying to explain that you have to find a way to fall in love with the training process and make it part of your lifestyle, not just prepare for a specific race and then you’re done. That way you have something to do every day that you enjoy and can look forward to. You look like you’re stepping out as part of your meditation piece, whether you realize that’s what it is or not. I think it’s more important for people, especially in the military, to find instead of trying to go hard in pain every day. It helps the healing process because healing has no end, it’s a continuum.

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