How triathlon helped one U.S. Marine Corp Veteran transition into civilian life
by Chelsea Montes
USA Triathlon is proud that many athletes in the multisport community are or were active military members. This Memorial Day, we honor all of those who served or who are currently serving our country. We had the privilege of speaking to a former United States Marine and learned how triathlon and endurance sports has played a vital role in his transition back to civilian life.Veteran Brandon Ostrander (Wilmington, N.C.) enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school when he was 18 years old. He served from 2008 to 2013. During that time, he was deployed to Afghanistan two times for combat as an infantryman on the frontlines. On his last deployment, while working in a truck with heavy machinery, his crew hit an improvised explosive device (IED), where Ostrander sustained multiple head injuries.
He was awarded two Purple Hearts for his service.
What is your triathlon/multisport background?
People always tell you that when you're in the Marine Corp, you are a runner whether you want to be or not. However, I was a huge rugby player, and then in 2017, I changed my mind and switched over to triathlon and started doing endurance sports. I never thought I would get into endurance sports but here we are.
The first race I wanted to do was IRONMAN 70.3 in Chattanooga, but that was one of the first races cancelled for COVID. I had trained for like a year and a half for that race, but eventually I 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 events?
The 70.3 training fits perfect in my lifestyle and schedule. It keeps me hitting the goals I want, without feeling overwhelmed with all of it.
After 4.5 years in the military, did finding endurance sports help you transition back to civilian life?
When I got out of the military, the biggest thing for me was to find transition and healing. When you leave the military, everyone has their own ways of finding how to transition or heal from dealing with depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and all of those types of things. But for me, it's always been about finding something that I can incorporate into my lifestyle that I can challenge my body and challenge my mind a little bit more to better myself. It seems like some of those things people don't always find the best way to deal with them and I think sports is a great way to do it. Triathlon has been huge for me because I started training with some local people before I even started racing. Being part of a community and finding people that were like-minded, whether they were veterans or not. The camaraderie has been huge. What also drew me to triathlon is there is always some way to improve yourself and it gives me a lifestyle and a schedule that helps me to deal with some of the physical and mental things from coming out of the military, because some people are always trying to find that and unfortunately some people don't.
Have you found any physical or mental similarities between training for multisport and how you trained in the military?
Definitely. There are two things that I think have carried over well and the first one is preparation. In triathlon, if you are not prepared, you are going to fail most of the time, such as get dehydrated or falling out of a race. So, you need to be very meticulous about what you have to do, when you have to do it, knowing when your body needs something and knowing how you perform as an athlete. All of that comes into play in training just like in deployment in the military. You must know how much your body can handle such as when you physically need to refuel or is it one of those times where you just need to mentally be tough. However, I think that's one thing people in the military might have a hard time with is thinking they just need to be tough. But there is a fine line. There are times where you need to tough it out and put the pedal to the metal and push yourself through, but there's also those times where your ability to prepare and your ability to plan for what you're doing for a long endurance race is going to come into play as well to get you to the end of the race, not to just finish it, but finish it the way you want to finish it.
Another 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 bit better than some people knowing we can adapt and do things a little bit differently and as a veteran, it gives us a little bit of an advantage in those types of situations.
What are the challenges of transitioning back to civilian life after serving in the military?
It's a process. It's tough. A lot of us did four or five years and then go to college after, so it is different starting fresh from coming out of the military and trying to transition to that, whether it's in the workforce or going to college. I joined the military when I was 18, so when I started college right when I got out, at that point it's hard to relate with anybody and meet people to make friends. You’re still banking on some of those guys that you served with for so long to have that sense of community. You try to find that community elsewhere. I did seek that out through one of the rugby teams I was on and then later in life as I got into triathlon, I found that sense of community.
Has being involved in triathlon helped your PTSD?
Yes. Exercise and sport have always been the key for me. Being able to push my body to those limits that it has helps me deal with my depression, anxiety and PTSD. Just continuing to perform better and find the limits of myself and the human body has helped me deal with that a little 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 it is you can get lost in all of it where it's almost like a meditation. I train in the Blue Ridge Mountains and going to bike and run in those mountains and in those types of places like that it turns into a meditation, not only for your mind but also physically improving your body. Mentally you are just able to clear your head of those thoughts and can relax your mind and your body a little bit. It becomes just you, your body and your thoughts. You get in that meditative state, and you keep going where ever you may be at that point.
In your experience, would you recommend other veterans to get involved in multisport to help them with post-military life and the mental and physical challenges that comes with adapting back to civilian life?
I think the big thing that everyone will be looking for first is finding something to give them a goal. Everyone in the military always wants a goal so that gives them something to work towards and something to improve on. I try to explain that you need to find a way to fall in love with the process of training and making it a part of your lifestyle, not just preparing for a specific race and then you are done. That way you have something to do every single day that you love and can look forward to. You look at as like you're going out as part of your meditation piece whether you realize that's what it is or not. I think there's more the important part for people especially in the military to find instead of going trying to go hard in the pain every day. It helps with the process of healing because healing doesn’t have an end to it, it’s a continuum.