TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
This month’s interview was one of those times when I had never spoken to the person before the interview. I always look forward to meeting someone new and this new person in my life knocked the cover off the ball. Ryan Pallas is many things and they are all good things. Among other things, Ryan is a son, a brother, an Ironman finisher, a TCSD member, a Marine and absolutely an American hero.
Craig: What was your athletic background before you got involved in triathlon?
Ryan: I grew up playing soccer and baseball until I got to high school. My sophomore year I started with track and field and got involved with the field events (javelin) and ended up getting recruited as a Division I athlete to the Naval Academy to throw javelin for them. I never really swam competitively in my entire life and only did the combat survival swimming at the Naval Academy and during flight school. It was pretty terrible learning to swim against people who were collegiate swimmers and trying to keep up with them on workouts. Needless to say, swimming is, and always will be my least favorite event. I even had a t-shirt made that said, “I can’t swim, but I can TRI.”
Craig: What inspired you to become a triathlete?
Ryan: I read, “Where Men Win Glory” by Jon Krakauer and it told the story of Pat Tillman and his life in the Army. Pat actually did a half ironman during one of his off seasons in the NFL and I thought to myself, “How hard could it be?” I was living in North Carolina at the time (roughly November of 2009) and was intending on moving to California in about 4 months (early part of 2010) so I found a triathlon out in San Diego and signed up for my very first triathlon, known to most as the Superfrog put on by the Navy SEALs. I owned a road bike at the time and that was about it. I signed up in November of 2009 living in North Carolina and moved to California a few short months later and started training for the Superfrog. I didn’t know how big triathlon would be in my life the very next year or how much training actually goes into it. But like I said, if Pat Tillman could do it, so could I and in April of 2010 I finished my very first triathlon.
Craig: What happened on May 5, 2010 that changed your life forever?
Ryan: On May 5, 2010 my very good friend and fellow Marine, Captain Brandon “Bull” Barrett passed away during combat operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. It was his second deployment and I got the call early on May 5th that he had passed away. I was living in Pacific Beach about to head into work. I recently finished the Superfrog and had been toying with the idea of doing a full distance Ironman. The decision had been made for me. I signed up for my second triathlon, the full distance Silverman that would take place in November of 2010 in an effort to raise money for a scholarship I started for Bull the same week I found out about Bull passing away. I competed in some sprints throughout the summer to stay current in my transitions, but most of my time was spent training for the Ironman. I didn’t even have a training plan, I just knew as a Marine, I had to travel 140.6 miles, and I would not come up short. This was the competition of my life, at least I felt that way. It would be something that would change my life forever—May 5, 2010 would be a day in my life that would have a huge rippling effect for years to come. I would forever be changed.
Craig: How did you honor your friend?
Ryan: I honored Bull by starting a foundation at the United States Naval Academy. The foundation is still underway and will be fully established once $50,000 dollars has been raised. We have had fundraisers every year since his passing to raise money, but it will be an on-going process for quite a while I assume, but in my mind, Bull traded all of his tomorrows—the least we (meaning the general population) can do is honor him by raising money in his name. I wanted to do the hardest thing I heard people talk about on the Saturday training rides and throughout the Tri Club, and Silverman was it. 10,000 feet of elevation on the bike and 2,000 more feet on the marathon—what better way to honor a hero? I think the Ironman distance has a distinct mystery about it that only the curious and dedicated dare undertake and as a Marine I figured if I was to go, I would go all the way. I spent the better part of 7 months training everyday and probably overtrained since I had no clue what I was doing. Bull’s mother, brother, and friends flew in from all over the country for the race and his mother allowed me to wear his dog tag’s during the race. Upon crossing the finish line his mother was there to greet me with my finisher’s medal and I in turn placed the dog tags back around her neck. It was a moment I’ll always remember. I wish I could have done more for such a great American, it eats at me every day, but I try to live my life in a way to honor the ultimate sacrifice that he gave me along with every other American in this great Country—he gave us all the gift of freedom and he paid with his life.
It was the race of my life and it was the last race I competed in and it went flawlessly—finished 2nd in my age group in 12 hours, 24 minutes, and 29 seconds. Bull was with me that day, I didn’t cramp once, feel nauseous, or get stomach cramps—it almost seemed surreal.
Craig: How can people support the Foundation?
Ryan: If people would like to donate they can write a check to:
USNA Foundation, 25 Maryland Ave., Annapolis, MD 21401, Attn: Capt. Ed Wallace
(Please make checks payable to “USNA Foundation” in the “for” line of the check put Captain Brandon A. Barrett)
Craig: Why did you decide to join the Navy?
Ryan: I joined the Navy by getting accepted to the United States Naval Academy. I saw an A & E television special when I was 7 years old with my parents. I jumped up and told my dad, “I’m going to go there!” He laughed and said, “Ok.” I don’t think he believed I was serious, but about 13 years later I got my appointment to go in July of 2003 and I would attend. I attended two years of college prior to going to the Academy and shortly after September 11, 2001 (my freshmen year of college at The College of New Jersey) when the Towers were destroyed by a terrorist attack, I signed up for Officer Candidate School for the United States Marine Corps. My mom and dad were less than thrilled that I did that without talking to them first and I was still waiting to hear from the Naval Academy—but I knew without a doubt I would serve as a United States Marine. When my acceptance to the Academy came I took it without blinking an eye, it was a lifelong dream. I knew I could get commissioned as a Marine from the Academy so I could have the Academy and my dream of being a Marine but it would take four more years of college. I was the luckiest guy alive. I have had the job I loved since the age of 20—not many people twice my age can say that. I count my blessings every day. No one in my family is in the military, my grandfather did his two years of service during World War II, like most grandfathers I think, but my dad is an engineer, mother is a hairstylist, and my brother is an engineer. I am really the only one in my family in the military and I wouldn’t have it any other way. In my eyes, I can protect those people and those things I love the most. I don’t want my brother doing this—he’s watched over me my whole life, it’s time for me to return the favor.
Craig: What were the greatest lessons you learned while at the Naval Academy?
Ryan: The greatest lesson I learned was that good things happen if you work hard and never give up. It wasn’t easy, I’m not the greatest when it comes to academics, but I knew that they would have to drag me out of the Academy as my heart stopped pumping because I wouldn’t quit. I served with the best this Country had to offer—men and women who were Division I athletes with full rides to Harvard, Yale, and any other top 10 university in this Country and they said, “No thank you. I’m going to serve my Country.” They turned down full scholarships at schools most kids our age would kill to get into, and why did they do it? When a nation was on its knees, they answered the call. I was in awe of the people I served with at school, and I still am every day. I guess it’s inspiring to work with people you consider heroes. I walk with heroes every day. Like I said before, I’m the luckiest guy alive.
We all signed up post 9/11 which meant only one thing for certain–we would all go to combat.
Craig: How many times have you deployed and what is a typical day or week like for you when you are deployed and how much do you work?
Ryan: I deployed once from July 2011 until February 2012. I was stationed at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan as a CH-53E helicopter pilot. For anyone who has done the Cove or Shores swims or the summer Aquathons, we are the huge helicopter that flies over Torrey Pines all the time. The 100’ long helicopter with a huge rotor on top. The typical work week advertisement on deployment is 12 hours on 12 hours off, but it gets elongated into more like 14 or 16 hours. There are no Saturdays or Sundays on deployment, every day is Monday there and there are no weekends. In the life of a helicopter squadron we have flights out 24 hours a day which requires constant planning and maintenance. Our Squadron is in direct support of the men and women on the ground—and if they don’t sleep we don’t sleep. They need supplies, we fly them out. They need a ride, we pick them up—it’s that easy. Even though you don’t fly every day if you aren’t flying, then you are planning for your next flight the following day or your next mission. I’d say roughly we work 100+ hour work weeks for 7 months straight. Not only is it physically exhausting—mentally it takes its toll. To put it into perspective, the men and women on the ground work 16-20 hour days for 7 months. We have it much easier than they do—I count my blessings.
Craig: Not that there is very much of it when you are deployed, but what do you do with your spare time?
Ryan: In my spare time when I had the energy I’d crossfit. I think it serves the purpose of maintaining, or try to maintain some sort of fitness level. They have no pools there, and the roads are not the greatest and there aren’t traffic laws, so you have guys who barely know how to drive on the roads—would you go for a run? They have some stationary bikes and rowers, but that’s about it. I jumped rope a lot and working out became an outlet for stress. I’d say I was in pretty bad shape coming home. People do own mountain bikes and hybrid road bikes over there and ride to and from work (about 4 miles each way) and that keeps people in fairly decent shape—but not anything as compared to training for an actual race back in San Diego.
Also, throughout the deployment you are focused most about getting everyone home alive, working out quickly falls off your scope and due to cumulative fatigue you become mentally exhausted. Your job isn’t to come back in Ironman shape—your job is to successfully keep everyone alive and execute the mission given to you by higher headquarters. You work out when you can, and when you do it’s not always the greatest workout, but it’s time to reflect and think about home. When I would run over there I would picture the Pacific Beach Boardwalk where I always run when I’m home—and it was hard sometimes not to get homesick. The first thing I did when I got home was throw on my shoes and sprinted down the boardwalk. I didn’t make it far, but I knew, I was alive and free, and for that I am forever grateful. I successfully executed the greatest race of my life—it wasn’t an Ironman, it was surviving 7 months of combat operations.
Craig: Regarding military service, what would you like civilians to be aware of that they might not know?
Ryan: Your support means so much to us. The letters, the signs, the facebook posts about races you did for a friend who is deployed—it means the world to know we are on your minds even though we are thousands of miles away from home. Don’t think your support doesn’t mean anything to us. I can’t tell you how many strangers have extended a hand to shake and just said “Thank You.” It gets emotional sometimes. I don’t feel like I am anyone special—I work with heroes, but I am not one. When someone comes up to me I wish they could see the people I work with, the real heroes. The men and women who have been deployed 5 times in 5 years away from family and friends in harm’s way. It’s hard to explain to them you work every day with the best this country has to offer. Not only are they the best—they do it with humility and quiet confidence. You won’t find a better group of individuals. I wish the good stories were reported in the news as much as the bad ones that make the headlines.
Bottom line, your support means everything to us. Thank you. Also, next time you ride the 101 in the sun on a Saturday for the TCSD group ride, look around, there are no road side bombs, terrorists, gangs, or snipers waiting for you. I think sometimes people take that for granted. We as Americans live in the greatest Country in the world—I can’t emphasize that enough. There are horrific places in the world. San Diego is not one of them.
Craig: What is the Recovery Flight?
Ryan: Tough subject to discuss without getting worked up emotionally. A Recovery Flight or “HERO” flight is when we as helicopter pilots fly to an austere environment—either a forward operating base or somewhere in the middle of Afghanistan on some dirt road and pick up a fallen servicemember who gave the ultimate sacrifice. I was privileged enough to be able to successfully execute this honorable service twice in combat, and I will never be the same. However much I wish I never had to fulfill this duty, it was a distinct honor I will never forget. I felt it a great honor to do this deed, but I will tell you it is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my lifetime. You see the broken bodies brought in by other service members, the brothers and sisters they served with in combat, and you can’t help but feel an overwhelming emotion that brings tears to your eyes. That is someone’s son, brother, sister, daughter, niece, nephew, and spouse. You have to get them back to the main airbase in order to be flown back to the United States. This is something the military takes very seriously. We do not, I repeat, we do not take this lightly and they get full honors even if in the a dusty field in Afghanistan, and by full honors I mean there are certain procedures for loading and unloading a HERO onto an aircraft, and it doesn’t matter if there are bullets flying around, the military does not and will not ever compromise this standard. I’ll never forget the flights I did while in Afghanistan. Even now it brings up a wave of emotion, but I did my part and that gives me peace of mind. I brought them home as quickly as possible—to their loved ones. It’s something I take great pride in.
Craig: What is your favorite benefit of membership in the TCSD?
Ryan: TCSD has some of the best people I’ve ever met, Tracy Cohen, Tomas Majek, Nathan Boward, Cathleen and Chris Stafford, and who doesn’t love Trent and Maggie Sakamoto? I’ve been very blessed to have met these fine people. I can’t put into words the amount of inspiration these people have given me by going through life with a “can do” attitude and a smile. It gives me the motivation to keep doing what I do. It makes life that much easier—these people cherish every day they have, and for that I am grateful.
Craig: What are your future goals?
Ryan: My lifetime goal is to serve my country in the United States Marine Corps—make it a lifetime career. Triathlon has influenced my life, but my life is the Marine Corps. The good, the bad, I’ll take it all. It’s like a marriage—you have to be willing to accept all of the USMC in order to thrive I believe. I have no illusions that my line of work is hard and takes certain sacrifices, but in my eyes it’s an easy choice. It’s black and white, I love my country, love what I do, why would I give that up?
Triathlon and endurance sports have a certain mystery and draw about them—how far can I go? I realized on deployment I no longer have to prove myself to anyone or anything—only to myself. If I never step foot back into the arena of triathlon I will look back on it with fond memories and know it shaped me for my future and helped me successfully negotiate 7 months of combat operations—want to talk about a long endurance race? Mental fatigue? You got it, go to combat. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I toy with the ideas of doing Badwater, Ultraman, or Leadville in the future—but I know it’s just a matter of mentally preparing yourself and putting in the training. I will tell you, though, at the forefront of my priorities is to be a United States Marine. Always has been, always will be. The idea of pushing myself in a physical arena such as an organized race falls a distant short to the hardships I faced while in Afghanistan. I will tell you in my line of work there are many people who have it much harder than myself—and I make no illusions about it. I am lucky to have the job I do and support the grunts on the ground. I would trade everything, the job I have as a CH-53E Pilot, and everything I’ve worked for as long as I maintain the title of United States Marine. You can call yourself an Ironman, and I will applaud anyone who has crossed the line finishing 140.6, however I will tell you it falls a distant second to those men and women who raise their hands and answer the nation’s call saying, “Here I am, send me.”
Craig: Ryan, thank you so much for sharing your story. It has been an absolute pleasure getting to know you. You are humble beyond words. Trust me, dude. You are an American hero! Thank you for your service to our country and the world. The Tri Club members will keep you in our prayers.
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or email@example.com.