The Colorado National Guard’s Captain Robert Killian rises before dawn to swim for about an hour. At lunch, he runs for 50 minutes, covering eight miles. In the evenings, he logs up to 2½ hours on his bike. Three workouts, one day. And that’s only his triathlon training.
In the winter, he skis and trains vigorously on his marksmanship. In the summer, he regularly runs 26.2 miles. For anyone wondering how someone can be so committed to conditioning, Killian, 30, offers a simple explanation: He loves the outdoors, he loves competing, and he just wants to be the best. “You’re always wondering, ‘What’s the next thing I can do to test myself?’ ” he says.
Command Sergeant Major (Ret.) John Burns, a training specialist at the Warrior Training Center at Fort Benning, GA, who has helped train Killian and who works with elite-athlete Soldiers every day, has another theory.
“He’s a freak of nature.”
Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find a Soldier-athlete in the Guard who’s fitter and stronger across so many disciplines. Killian, of the 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, travels the world representing the National Guard in not one, but three sports: marathon, biathlon and Ironman triathlon. The Army’s male Athlete of the Year in 2010, he’s also Ranger-qualified and finished sixth this year in the Best Ranger competition, setting course records in two categories.
And if he hasn’t already pushed his body to the max, Killian is currently in the Special Forces Qualification Course, more commonly known as Q-School, to become a Green Beret. Add all of this up, and Burns’ assessment of Killian makes more and more sense. Some comic book superheroes have lesser credentials.
“The best way of explaining [Killian],” Burns says, “is that he’s one of those guys that is just physically more capable than just about anybody you’ve ever worked with before.”
A PATH TO FOLLOW
Of course, he didn’t become one of the world’s best athletes overnight. Killian’s development began decades ago, when he started following in the footsteps—literally—of a relative.
Killian was raised by his uncle and guardian, Lieutenant Colonel Taube Roy, in the small town of Hampton, SC, near Charleston. As a boy, Killian saw his uncle continually push himself to achieve greatness: Roy is a Ranger-qualified National Guard Soldier who commissioned from the Citadel.
In the seventh grade, Killian began running with Roy, jogging one mile at a time. Although they weren’t covering extremely long distances, his uncle was adamant about them running every day to build a strong endurance base. Before long, Killian was able to join the high school varsity track-and-field team while still in junior high.
In high school, he started running the 1/2-mile, 1-mile and 2-mile distances for the team. Killian says he placed runner-up in the 5K cross-country event every year at his school’s state championship—“There was always this one guy who could beat me”—but the finishes helped him receive a scholarship in the sport.
Like his uncle, Killian chose to attend the Citadel as a member of the school’s track team. He quickly excelled, combining weight training and sprint intervals to increase his speed and agility. He was running the 1,500-, 5,000- and 10,000-meter races for indoor and outdoor track and cross-country events, eventually becoming the fastest runner at the Citadel three consecutive years.
Killian graduated in 2004, commissioning as a second lieutenant in the Active Duty Army. Five years later, he joined the National Guard to become a Special Forces Soldier, drawn to the elite group’s unique mission.
“To go to other countries and train a group of our Allies to be able to defend their own land, that’s one of the most respectful things you can do, protecting your home and freedom,” he says.
In 2006, while Killian was stationed at Fort Polk, LA, preparing for a 12-month deployment to Iraq, he decided to try a new sport. He was living in Leesville, a sleepy town with “not a lot going on,” he says, so it was the perfect time for him to begin training.
On the steamy Louisiana roads, Killian began logging his first miles training on a clunky mountain bike. In addition to the cycling, he started running longer stretches and eventually picked up swimming.
In June of that year, Killian competed in his first event, a sprint triathlon at Fort Polk consisting of a 400-meter swim, 10-mile bike and 5K run. The tri was in reverse order from a typical race, with the run first and the swim last. After the run, Killian was already in first place, putting a significant distance between him and the next-closest competitor.
During the second phase of the race, Killian’s mountain bike got a flat tire with half of a mile left on the course. But instead of giving up, he carried his bike through the final push into the transition. Still, no one could catch him. He completed the leg minutes ahead of everyone.
He turned in a solid swim and crossed the finish line far ahead of the runner-up. And he was hooked on the sport.
Only months after taking his first training ride, Killian made himself a promise. After he returned from deployment, he would compete in the ultimate triathlon experience: an Ironman.
Triathlon has four types of distances: Sprint, Olympic, Half Ironman and the Ironman, which is the most demanding. The Ironman consists of 2.4 miles of swimming in open water, 112 miles of biking and a full 26.2-mile marathon. There are no breaks between events, and athletes must complete each segment within a specified cutoff time or they’re disqualified.
Training for an Ironman is just as grueling as the actual race day, and maybe more so. Top athletes commit to months of strategically planned workouts, healthy food and proper hydration merely to finish [design: need ital] the race. To win or place in the top percentile of a division takes natural talent, an absolute dedication to training and perhaps a bit of insanity.
Killian has all three. “He is gifted with the right physiology and the right mentality to push him to make maximum use of the physical gifts he’s been born with and that he’s worked hard on,” says Lieutenant Colonel Mitch Utterback, Killian’s biathlon teammate in the Colorado National Guard.
Killian began planning for his first Ironman during his Iraq deployment in 2007–2008. By day, he worked as a communications officer-in-charge of base computer networks and communications devices; at night, he would run on a treadmill or around the FOB to build his endurance. On the weekends, he often traveled to Baghdad to run in races that mimicked events being held in the U.S., like the Army 10 Miler.
Killian researched tips for competing in an Ironman, setting his sights on the Coeur d’Alene Ironman in Idaho, one of 10 Ironman races in the United States. Being deployed for a year helped him save money to purchase a top-of-the-line tri-bike, which can cost up to $10,000 but is necessary to be competitive on a national level.
Killian returned to Fort Polk in 2008 and immediately began training for the 2009 full-day race, often working out 25 hours per week. When race day came in June 2009, his game plan was bold but simple: Push 100 percent the entire time. “I had no idea what to expect as far as pacing,” Killian recalls. “I was just going to go out there and hit every event as hard as I could.”
It worked. Killian finished the Ironman in nine hours and 36 minutes, coming in 26th place overall and securing a spot at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii—the Mount Everest of Ironman races.
Since that first Ironman, Killian has raced in four others, culminating in the 2010 Ironman World Championship, where he posted his personal best to date—nine hours and 30 minutes—and won the military division.
Killian’s preparation for any sport is a bit unorthodox, veering from typical training plans or advice from professional coaches. He prefers to trust his own instincts about how much and how often to push his body. (For a sample workout of his, see page 74.)
“I’ve found that training on my own, and doing what I feel is a proper workout depending on how my body feels, works out better than someone who has a set program,” Killian explains, noticeably passionate about the subject. Every training program, he adds, should be created specifically for the individual and should fit their lifestyle.
What some trainers may call stubborn, Killian considers best practices for peak performance. “If I feel like I want to do a bike ride for 50 miles one day and do it again the next day, I’ll do it,” he says with self-assurance.
Most of the military and endurance sport training comes naturally to Killian; his lean body is built for long hours on the road and on a bike. For example, when training for a triathlon, Killian will sweat out a long training session on weekend days, such as running 20 miles on a Friday and riding 60 miles on a Saturday.
But training for a biathlon required more of an adjustment. The skiing and shooting competitions were unique to him when he joined the Colorado National Guard’s Biathlon Team during the 2010–2011 season.
He had never skied a day in his life, but the biathlon coach convinced him to give it a shot. He trained at Camp Ethan Allen in Jericho, VT, that winter, falling on his face hard and often. He was not used to being a novice, but it didn’t take long for him to adapt—and excel.
At the 2011–12 National Guard Bureau championships, he placed first in the novice division, securing a spot on the All-Guard developmental team aspiring to make the Olympic squad. He went on to win the Western regionals for the National Guard this year—all only months after putting on skis for the first time.
“He’s the fastest biathlete in the state of Colorado,” says Utterback, Killian’s biathlon teammate. “The civilians groan when he shows up to do a race because they know that he’s going to win.”
In a race last winter, the Colorado team couldn’t find anyone fast enough to partner with Killian for a 7.5K relay event, so he skied the course twice—and still won. “He and his partner—himself—beat everybody, even though he had to do a second lap. He still beat every team that had a fresh racer doing it,” Utterback says.
He began dominating summer biathlon, too, in which competitors either run or
mountain bike 5 to 10 kilometers, stopping during the race to shoot targets in two positions, standing and kneeling. He won the 2011 U.S. National and North American Summer Biathlon championship, competing against Soldiers and civilians.
Utterback is still clearly astounded at Killian’s rapid ascent: “He becomes a champion in a sport the first year he picks it up.”
Training, obviously, plays a huge part in Killian’s success. But another facet involves knowing how and when to push himself once a race has begun. When he’s in a competition, he’ll give himself incremental targets to move up in the field.
At the halfway point of this year’s Lincoln National Guard Marathon, Killian was in first place for the National Guard but was in eighth overall. “So I said over the next 13 miles, I want to pass three guys,” he recalls. “That’s my goal. I could see how far ahead they were—one was 100 meters, another a half mile. I told myself to keep pushing. Go for that guy. Go for the next guy.” He passed all three, finishing fifth overall.
PUSHING THE LIMIT—AGAIN
Outside of training for an Ironman, Killian cites his preparation for the Best Ranger Competition as some of the most physically demanding he has ever endured. Each time he has competed, in 2009 and this year, he trained for more than two months at Fort Benning, GA, for the 65-hour course that’s “designed to eliminate teams,” according to Burns, Killian’s Best Ranger Competition coach.
The train-up tested the competitors’ mental and physical limits, “from the time they woke up until the time they went to bed,” Burns explains. The competition combines endurance activities with military-specific tasks like road marches, assembling weapons, land navigation and an obstacle course.
“There is no built-in sleep plan, there’s no built-in rest plan, chow plan, or anything like that,” Burns says. “From the time the competition starts until the time that it ends, they are physically doing something or rotating through a task.”
Less than half of the teams starting the competition end up crossing the finish line. But the event has never shaken Killian. In this year’s three-day course, he and his partner, First Lieutenant Nicholas Plocar, finished first in three events (day land navigation, grenade toss and the 2.5-mile buddy run) and set course records in two others: the obstacle course, known as the “Darby Queen,” and the Tri Tower Challenge, a 60-foot rock climbing tower and rappel followed by two more towers with rope ladder and knotted rope climbs.
Keeping up with his fellow competitors, whether in Best Ranger, a triathlon or other event, stokes Killian’s fire during his training. “I know the other guys are training just as hard, so anything I can do to give me an edge over them is motivating and keeps me going longer on those days when I just want to cut a couple miles off a workout,” he says. “I’m also in it for the feeling of accomplishment I get, or what they call ‘runner’s high.’ It’s almost addictive at times, like a shot of adrenaline.”
In addition to his relentless inner drive to be the best Soldier-athlete possible, Killian says family and friends are a source of motivation. Killian’s fiancee, Maxine Bone, attends every race, cheering him on and posting his results on the Web.
Bone is Killian’s source for sustenance, too. To keep pace with his hyped-up metabolism, she cooks three or four times what she would normally prepare. “I always tell myself to cook way more than you think you need to,” she says, laughing.
During his toughest workouts, Killian can burn several thousand calories per day. To prepare for a full Ironman, he begins “pre-loading,” or consuming more calories than he needs in a day. That ensures his body has enough fuel on race day. By carefully tracking his caloric intake and athletic performance, Killian knows his body needs about 600 calories per hour to offset the 9,000 calories he’ll burn during a full Ironman.
Although Killian will be in Q-school until 2013, he still plans to continue training as much as possible to compete for a third time in the Best Ranger Competition, prepare for another run at Kona and attempt to make the biathlon developmental team to train for the Olympics. He’s also getting married this fall.
Spreading his time among all those different sports and events might be unusual for other elite athletes, but Killian thrives on the variety. “I have people tell me I should just focus on one sport and get really good at it, but I just like doing all of them,” he says with childlike enthusiasm. “It’s fun to do everything instead of being tied down to one particular sport.”
That attitude, along with his positive energy, rubs off on the people around him, his peers say. And the impact he has on other Soldiers may be just as impressive as any individual record. Like all great athletes, Killian serves as a role model for people of all ages.
“[Killian] has a very infectious personality when it comes to training and athleticism,” Burns says. “There are many people who don’t have that talent or drive yet, but because of his personality, they start to get it.”
Utterback counts himself as one of those who has gotten the fever. “He’s a gift to be around. Here’s a young Soldier so good at something that he inspires people with many more years of service and higher rank,” he says. “I’m lucky to know him.”
Story and photo courtesy of GX magazine. GX magazine is an official publication of the Army National Guard.