Feature story: Steve Marra is SEAL for a day | December 4, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - December 4, 2013

Feature story: Steve Marra is SEAL for a day

'Ordeal' barely captures Steve Marra's 24 hours in April

by Dave Boyce

"I am Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, your senior drill instructor. From now on you will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be 'Sir.' Do you maggots understand that?"

The rest of Sgt. Hartman's speech to Marine recruits in the 1987 film "Full Metal Jacket" includes utterances not suited for a family newspaper, but such language is often considered the background music to boot-camp-like situations.

Portola Valley resident Steve Marra, a Navy veteran, would be the first to acknowledge the harsh and unrelenting character of his recent 24 hours of special-forces-like training. But his instructors, including special-forces veterans, did not resort to vulgar metaphors, he says. "Not once did these guys raise their voices," he says. "They were just incredibly professional."

In April, Mr. Marra, 63, traveled to Virginia to spend a day with Seal Training Adventures for a workout similar to that of the U.S. Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, Land) teams. He arrived in a rental car at a National Guard base in Virginia Beach on a Saturday morning in time for the 7 a.m. start.

"The harsh conditions started about 0.0005 nanoseconds after 7 a.m.," Mr. Marra says. No introductions, no explanations, just a muster and a review of how to stand at attention and parade rest. "And then three hours of pretty much non-stop PT (physical training) with never ending corrections on how we were doing our PT," Mr. Marra says. "Within seconds we were dirty, sweaty and feeling pretty grim."

Completing the SEALs fitness test was a goal, not a requirement. It starts with a timed swim of 500 yards, followed by sit ups, push ups and pull ups, then a mile-and-a-half run, also timed. Then into the pool for life-saving drills, team races and extended time underwater without a snorkel, Mr. Marra says.

With a brief break to put their clothes and boots back on, he and his comrades then ran to the beach, linked their arms and walked a short distance into the Atlantic Ocean. There they lay down on their backs facing the surf and high-kicked at the waves as they rolled over them. "You're covered in sand, you're getting absolutely pounded by the water," he says.

The six-hour mark had passed. The instructors, not for the first time, offered relief: Coffee, doughnuts, pizza were available, but with a catch: someone had to quit. Excruciating might not be too strong a word here. No one quit, so they lay there and got pounded.

Ahead were team exercises, including carrying around a length of telephone pole, crawling in dark mosquito-infested open space for four hours to capture hidden flags while instructors with spotlights hunted them from their trucks, a promise of pizza and a campfire only to find the tiniest of fires and empty pizza boxes. They could have pizza if someone would just quit.

"There was never a moment (during which) I thought, 'Well, this is not too bad,'" Mr. Marra says. "After every evolution, I thought, 'Thank god that is over,' only to find the next evolution … worse than what we had just finished doing. It constantly ratcheted up in intensity. We were constantly told to maintain 'combat focus' and pay incredible attention to detail, especially as we started to get tired and beat up."

Harshness aside, this event "was more mental than physical," Mr. Marra says. "Everyone was in pretty good shape to even contemplate participating, but it really was the commitment not to quit that got one through this experience. It really was not brute strength; much more mental toughness."

A marathoner first

Mr. Marra came late to the idea of severe physical challenges. His first long-distance trial came in 2008, after happening upon a time-trial bicycle — an aerodynamic version of a regular bike. Intrigued, he signed up for a triathlon at Donner Lake. His daughter trained with him.

There were surprises. For the swim, he wore a wetsuit that was too small and found himself in very cold water amid a "scrum" of swimmers where he says he was kicked and shoved. Away from the shore, "it was overwhelming," he says. "The feeling of open water, distance, cold water, tight wet suit and knowing I still had to cycle and run. I was not having fun, but just kept going and going and going and somehow managed to come in fourth in my division."

He ran the Badwater 135 in 2012 and 2013, a 135-mile ultra-marathon that takes place in July in Death Valley. It starts below sea level and ends 8,360 feet up on the side of Mt. Whitney.

On Thanksgiving Day, Mr. Marra planned to run 15 miles to his sister-in-law's house for dinner ahead of a New Year's Eve 24-hour run at Crissy Field in San Francisco. "Those 24 hours with SEALs, especially Instructor Hess, are the foundation for me doing all this," he says.

"They pushed us beyond what we thought we could do — for anyone in their right mind," he says. "The ability to go, mentally and physically, orders of magnitude (beyond) where you thought you could go."

"My every day expectations of people have changed certainly," he adds. "I expect when someone says they are going to do something, they do it, that one will never give up on a task, that one will always be a loyal team mate. In everyday life, standards like this are not realistic perhaps, but, boy oh boy, when you are with people with the same values and focus and commitment, be it SEALs or anyone else, it is a sunny day."


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