Back to Top Skip to main content Skip to sub-navigation

Ultra-Endurance Military Athletes: What Motivates Them?

Image of U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Duane Zitta on top of a mountain. Click to open a larger version of the image. U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Duane Zitta competes in the most extreme endurance events in support of the Coast Guard Foundation. In June, he completed a 12-peak challenge in 23 hours, climbing to the top of Alaska’s 12 tallest Chugach Front Range summits – each more than 5,000 feet above sea level – in one continuous push, covering more than 39 miles and gaining over 19,000 feet in elevation (Courtesy of Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Duane Zitta).

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Physical Fitness

For some, sports are simply a way to stay fit, for others a way to de-stress. But for endurance athletes - who push themselves to go faster and longer for events such as marathons, cycling races, cross-country skiing, triathlons, and long-course swimming - it's a mental and physical challenge with themselves.

Such is the case of Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Duane Zitta, intelligence chief for Sector Anchorage, on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. Zitta has embarked on the world's most extreme endurance events ever since he ran his first marathon at age 23 just "to see" if he could run that far. (He completed it in just over three hours -- 3:09 to be exact - which is a far better time than the average marathoner, who takes about 4.5 hours).

For Zitta, endurance sports began as a way to let his energy out.

"When I was young, running was always something that I enjoyed," he said. "It was an outlet for me, I was a super hyperactive kid with a lot of energy. And running was a way to get that energy out."

Later in life, it became a way to give back to the Coast Guard community. After losing a fellow Coastguardsman during a helicopter search-and-rescue operation, these ultra-endurance events became a way to raise funds for his colleague's children.

Since then, he's competed in high-profile events to raise funds for the non-profit Coast Guard Foundation, which provides college scholarships for the children of fallen "Coasties."

Competing in extreme endurance events "for fundraisers that have such a personal connection for me also made some of the hardest events so much easier," he said.

"When your body wants to quit and you remind yourself that you're out here raising money for somebody's children to go to college and they're not around anymore, that motivation makes any of these endurance events that much easier."

He's completed many events that others would deem impossible. The list includes climbing 12 back-to-back mountain peaks in Alaska in less than 24 hours; completing several Ironman triathlons, including the competitive Hawaii Ironman World Championship triathlon; swimming 12.5-miles around Key West in six hours; climbing 10,000 feet across 20 miles from sea level to the top of the Haleakala Volcano in Hawaii; and finishing one of the most grueling 100-mile races in eighth place overall.

And on every birthday, he runs the distance (in miles) that corresponds to his age -- just for fun. This November, he will run 41 miles in Anchorage's snowy terrain and sub-freezing temperatures.

Military personnel riding a bike
U.S. Air Force Maj. Judith Coyle of the U.S. Armed Forces Triathlon races a bicycle on her way to win gold in the 2019 CISM Military World Games in Wuhan, China, Oct. 26, 2019 (Photo by: EJ Hersom, DOD). 

"Running is so primitive," he said. "It's like the simplest form of movement, and we were designed to do that."

Extreme athletes can be found across the military, which is a career field that can appeal to these athletes. Some service members also find that preparing for competitive events can dovetail well with other military training programs.

"Due to the extreme nature of their career and previous experiences in combat deployments, many service members enjoy high-risk, challenging and thrilling activities," said Nicole Leth, a certified personal trainer, health educator, and director of the Armed Forces Wellness Center in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.

"Training for these events brings structure to workouts."

Getting there is a balancing act

Training for ultra-events like these takes extreme dedication, discipline, commitment, and proper training - which includes incremental training, rest, recovery, and proper nutrition.

It also carries risks, like overtraining, misguided supplement use, burnout, malnutrition, and overuse injuries, Leth said.

Most injuries are due to overuse. "Mostly tendinitis, joint pain, and stress fractures," Leth said. "I would also say mental fatigue and reported poor mental health."

That's why it's key to follow a research-based training plan from an experienced coach that includes rest and recovery.

"Programming rest and recovery days into your regimen will reduce symptoms of overtraining and allow muscles to rebuild as long as proper nutrition is in place," said Navy Lt. Sarah Alferos, a physical therapist with the Physical Therapy/Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Team at Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Athletes can find training support through the Military Health System.

Military personnel completing the 2019 Ironman World Championship
In another ultra-event, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Duane Zitta completed the 2019 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, in 11 hours, 10 minutes, and 14 seconds. The race consists of a 2.4-mile open-water swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon (26.2 miles) run (Courtesy of Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Duane Zitta).

"The Wellness Center staff are able to guide service members to reputable, evidence-based resources for training and would cover healthy exercise, eating habits, sleep and stress management in accordance with the individuals' needs along with performance fueling information," said Leth.

Registered dietitians at military medical treatment facilities can offer dietary guidelines for training and performance fueling.

Proper gear, like wearing the right shoes, bringing a headlamp or reflective vest for oncoming traffic, and proper hydration and nutrition, is also key. Whether you have a support crew ensuring you have these along the course or carry them with you in a fuel belt or pack, experts recommend training over time with everything you will wear and consume on race day to avoid surprises.

"Every company creates different types of shoes depending on your foot type, whether you need a neutral shoe due to a high arch, or a stability shoe due to low arches," said Alferos. "Visit a local shoe store and have them identify your arch type and toe box preference, assess your running form, and recommend an individual shoe for your foot."

Zitta appreciates having access to proper care through his primary care manger. He also has a coach who "keeps him in check." And over his years of ultra-endurance events, Zitta has only suffered one injury that set him back.

"It was a stress fracture just below my knee and my tibia," due to "just ramping up the training too quick one year. But I have been really fortunate to remain healthy over the last decade of competing."

To prepare, he explained he tailors his life around every specific event, not only in terms of training but also nutrition and balancing his time between work and family.

"Everything shifts in preparation for that specific event," he said. "If it's a running event, then obviously all my training will be primarily focused on running, and as training intensity ramps up, then so does the intensity of my kitchen prep - food is very important."

In general, the lessons learned over the years have allowed him to "become really good at balancing the time it takes for me to invest in events of this nature," he said. "But now, my time with my family is more important to me than any event ever could be."

Over the years, Zitta has grown to enjoy the comradery among the other athletes who compete in these elite events.

"The endurance community is extremely special," he said. "Whether you're doing Ironmans, or ultra-marathons, or ultra-swims, the people are all so genuine and welcoming, and generally pretty happy, so I've learned a lot from the people in these communities."

He believes the human body is a tool that is never used to its full potential. "But there is something special with endurance athletes, somehow, through time, they're able to train their minds to go further."

"Once people work on being in tune with themselves, in their mind and their body, the possibilities are endless."

"I mean, people are running 240-mile races now with no sleep," he said. "So, to me, that indicates that the potential for the human body and the human brain are far beyond what a lot of people realize."

You also may be interested in...

Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune Nurse Powerlifts Her Way to Winner's Podium

Article
4/19/2022
U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Holly Vickers competed in the United States Powerlifting Association’s Virginia Beach Classic on March 26, 2022, taking home the top spot for her weight class. Photo used with permission from DVXT Images. (Photo: Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune Public Affairs)

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Holly Vickers competed in the United States Powerlifting Association’s Virginia Beach Classic on March 26, 2022, taking home the top spot for her weight class.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Physical Fitness

Brain-Boosting Meal Plans Help Service Members with TBI

Article
3/30/2022
During the NICoE intensive outpatient program (IOP), staff nutritionist Ruth Clark teaches hands-on classes in the on-site patient kitchen. (Photo: Tahira Hayes (Ctr), NICoE/WRNMMC, NSA Bethesda)

Research has shown that dietary changes may help relieve symptoms that might complicate recovery from a traumatic brain injury (TBI), such as chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and sleep problems.

Recommended Content:

Traumatic Brain Injury | Nutritional Fitness | Total Force Fitness

Caring for Recruits' Injuries is Key to Success at Basic Training

Article
2/23/2022
U.S. Marines wait for instruction from their Senior Drill Instructor after concluding a motivational run at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, on March 11, 2021.

Injuries at bootcamp can end a military career before it starts. That’s why trainers and drill instructors take countless precautions to ensure trainees stay fit and healthy.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Physical Fitness | Readiness Capabilities

The Chief of the Army Dental Corps Talks Dental Health & Readiness

Article
2/22/2022
The Army’s top dentist talks about what service members should keep in mind about their dental health.

Here’s what the Army’s top dentist thinks service members should keep in mind about their dental health.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Total Force Fitness | TRICARE Dental Care

Enjoy Your Super Bowl Snacks with a Side of Food Safety

Article
2/11/2022
Military personnel grilling food

While millions watch NFL players battle it out in the Super Bowl, the real MVPs on Sunday will be chicken wings—more than 1 billion will be consumed before, during and after the game! Whether you bake, roast, fry or order in your chicken wings, don’t forget the four food safety steps that night.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Nutritional Fitness

Heart Health Month 2022

Video
2/11/2022
Heart Health Month 2022

Love letter from your heart. Happy Heart Health Month!

Recommended Content:

Heart Health | Total Force Fitness | Heart Health Toolkit

Women’s Heart Attacks Symptoms Can Differ from Men’s: Know the Signs

Article
2/11/2022
Signs and symptoms of a heart attack can differ between women and men. If you have any of these symptoms, call 911 quickly.

Doctors say women sometimes fail to recognize their unique warnings signs for heart problems.

Recommended Content:

Heart Health Toolkit | Total Force Fitness | Medical and Dental Preventive Care Fitness | Heart Health

Don't Fumble Food Safety on Super Bowl Sunday

Article
2/10/2022
Marine with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit participate in a football tournament in Spain.

Here are some USDA food safety tips to enjoy a safe Super Bowl Sunday.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Nutritional Fitness

Why Today’s ‘Gen Z’ is at Risk for Boot Camp Injuries

Article
2/8/2022
Military personnel during boot camp

Today’s military recruits are more likely than ever to sustain a serious injury at their initial military training. Here’re some tips for how to prepare before shipping out.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Physical Fitness | Nutritional Fitness | Readiness Capabilities

How a Dietitian Can Help You Lose Weight and Maintain Readiness

Article
1/31/2022
Military personnel posing for a picture with a banana

Working with a professional dietitian or nutritionist can help people reach and maintain their weight management goals safely and with positive, long-term results.

Recommended Content:

Nutritional Fitness | Total Force Fitness

A Healthy Mind and Body: The Psychological Aspects Weight Loss

Article
1/27/2022
Marines with 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, participate in a regimental run to celebrate St. Barbara’s Day at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Jan. 13.

It’s essential to dispel the belief that weight loss is a reflection of willpower or discipline – basically, that you can’t lose weight because you don’t want to or you’re not trying hard enough.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Physical Fitness | Nutritional Fitness | Psychological Fitness | Weight Management for Lasting Health

The 'BodPod' Measures Body Fat and Fat-Free Mass

Article
1/27/2022
Meagan Loughanne, a health educator at Aberdeen Proving Ground Army Wellness Center, Maryland, conducts a BodPod assessment on Sgt. Abdel P. Moluh. This simple and effective assessment provides clients with an accurate measurement of their body fat percentage, fat-free mass and fat mass in pounds. Based on the client’s goals, the health educator will provide tailored education and coaching.

The BodPod is an egg-shaped machine that will give a detailed analysis of your body composition in five minutes, including measuring your fat mass, your fat-free mass, including blood, organs, and muscle.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Physical Fitness | Nutritional Fitness | Health Tools

Ask the Doc: The Dangers of Yo-Yo Diets and How to Avoid Them

Article
1/26/2022
Senior Airman Thomas McMurray with the 387th Expeditionary Support Squadron Force Protection prepares for a bench press at Al Mubarak Air Base, Kuwait, May 13, 2021

Find out what you can do to avoid "yo-yo dieting" or "fad diets" such as Keto, intermittent fasting, Paleo? And what are the dangers of these types of diets?

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Physical Fitness | Nutritional Fitness | Ask The Doc

You’d Be Surprised How Eating Habits Affect You, and Your Readiness

Article
1/20/2022
Military personnel picking out broccoli

From Overweight to Fit: Experts Advice

Recommended Content:

Nutritional Fitness | Total Force Fitness

Six Immediate Health Benefits You Will See If You Lose a Little Weight

Article
1/14/2022
A soldier assigned to the 256th Combat Support Hospital, Twinsburg, Ohio, drinks water from a gallon-sized jug during Combat Support Training Exercise 18-03 at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, March 26, 2018. The 256th CSH implemented a goal setting competition, dubbed Dandy Camp, to teach and encourage soldiers to monitor their total carbohydrate intake during the field exercise. The overall goal of Dandy Camp is to educate soldiers about healthy eating choices and encourage soldiers to set and meet goals for themselves.

Losing even a little weight now can have a major impact on your health and quality of life. This long list of benefits might help motivate you to adjust your habits to achieve a happier, healthier lifestyle.

Recommended Content:

Physical Fitness | Women's Health | Heart Health | Nutritional Fitness | Psychological Fitness | Sleep
<< < 1 2 3 4 5  ... > >> 
Showing results 1 - 15 Page 1 of 7

DHA Address: 7700 Arlington Boulevard | Suite 5101 | Falls Church, VA | 22042-5101

Some documents are presented in Portable Document Format (PDF). A PDF reader is required for viewing. Download a PDF Reader or learn more about PDFs.