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Growing from failure


It's funny how our biggest failures and regrets can turn out to be a blessing is disguise over time. One of my "failures" that turned out to a "good that didn't work out" - moment happened to me in 2009.


To this day I cannot really describe what led me to try and join the "Gebirgsjäger" unit over 800km from my home after high school. It must be some something innate that wants to come out and be challengend and I was about to enter a whole new world when I stepped of the train to join the unit early October in 2009. Fresh from highschool, spoiled from a save and protected upbringing I knew I was there to upgrade my character.


I am so glad to this day that I made the decision to gather experience in different environments, they shape us much more than we might think. Being the grunt, scrubbing toilets, having to do everything your commander is saying teaches you a lot about yourself. Let's fast forward to the sporty part of this time that I still draw strength from to this day.




After the inital 3 months basic training everyone went through, the soldiers are split into different units within the organization. You can make a wishlist of the top 3 that you want, like medic, driving a tank type car, becoming an instructor or... joining the elite of the elite units that only take up 3 new members per year. That unit was mainly focused on sporting performance, skiing and running etc. as well as competing against other countries traveling to Italy and France. I've heard of this unit before and I had my eyes on it even before joining - the so called "Hochzug".


You had to apply and talk to your commanding officer in order to be able to join the testing procedure that followed.


We would be tested mainly in 3 areas:

  1. Climbing ability

  2. Ability to ski in deep snow with a 20kg backpack

  3. Running ability in the mountains with a 15kg backpack

Before joining the military I got help from a friend who made it to that unit before and we trained all 3 of the aspects, especially climbing I was new to so I put in the hours to get an acceptable level and cover the a decent level of technique and strength.


During the 3 months of basic training which for the majority of it lasted from 4:30 am to 11-12pm it was difficult to get in the extra running needed to make me confident that I can perform to that level. While we were out training and hiking a lot in basic training, I wanted to do more to make sure I get into that unit. There was no plan B for me and I was deadset on becoming one of the 3 that make it into the unit.


The 3rd month of basic training slowed down a touch and we started to get off normal duty at around 7pm which allowed me to get more run training in. Since I wasn't allowed to leave the base at that time, I was running circles in the base itself in the dark. One loop was about 2-3km so I had to loop around quite a bit to get some mileage in.




Once I received the date to when all applicant for the "Hochzug" would be tested I had two weeks left to prepare. I felt confident in the running department and hoped that the level of climbing and skiing would be enough to join.


Day 1 of testing: Climbing


The first day started with the climbing test in our climbing hall on base. We had 3 different routes we had to make in a certain time back to back. They wanted to see our technical understanding of climbing as well as test load ability to be able to climb consistently back to back. Me and the other 30 applicants waited for our turn and cheered on each other when someone made it to the top. Many didn't make it and fell off the wall, which doesn't mean you're 100% out but your chances of joining are definitely down by a good margin. There were some guys that grew up in the mountains of southern Germany and have been climbing since they were kids and basically flew up the wall with ease. I was one of two "Flachländer" in the whole batallion meaning of the the dudes coming from the flat country (800km to the north west where I grew up). My turn came up. I chalked up my hands to not slip of the wall and got onto the wall. I took it step by step but kept a decent pace since I knew the time would also be a factor. I managed the first two easy to medium routes quite fast and fluent. Route 3 was the one where most guys fell off since your hands started to get real tired and it was easy to miss a grip and slip. I managed the first section well. Just about 2m before the top I had a small scare and slipped off with one hand which was starting to cramp at that point. I managed to hold on with one arm and through sheer will of knowing my dream was at stake I grabbed on again with both hands and hauled my body up the last 3 grips to make it to the top. Cheers from the bottom and I was really satisfied, knowign that I the "flachländer" made the first challenge and set myself up as well as I could on day 1.




Day 2 of testing: Skiing


Day 2 came a few days later when we headed to the mountains for the skiing test. Snow has been really bad that year and everything was more of less green at that point. In order to keep going with the testing procedure the testing staff informed us that this part of the test was to be excluded for this year's testing. I was a bit down since I skiied since I was 4 years old and practiced the skiing with a backpack in deep snow as well. Having weight on your back significantly changed how you skii especially when making small jumps downhill in deep snow. You have to compensate for the weight that drags you backwards and have to lean forward so that you skiis don't slip out to the front. The first times I tried skiing with the 20kg backpack I crashed a few times since I didn't understand how to adjust the body position. We had to rate our skiing ability honestly from 1-5 and were trusted to tell the truth which I did.


Day 3 of testing: The run


The run test was one of my highlights and was weighted heavily into the decision of who makes it - I was told. The route started at the base with the 15kg backpack and after 1km of flat running started the ascent up to altitude of 1800m. The base was on 900m elevation so 900m altitude straight up didn't sound too scary since in training we went up above 2400 frequently. The difference was this was a race and full tilt from the start. I was about to get humbled. I was considering running to be my biggest strength, growing up with handball and always doing run events up to 21km from a young age. Long distance running was my forte since I was young and even in training at about 11km into the run, I felt that my body is only waking up properly at that point. So I wasn't scared of this run (big mistake) and thought I'd for sure come out at the top3 at this event. I knew at least 2 of the guys were proper mountain goats growing up in the mountains and would be very hard to beat. One big "oopsi" I didn't consider in my confidence calculation that I was running well in training and racing before in the flats and undulating terrain.



The end of the run route with turn around at the hut

This run was not going to be that, no Sir. In the picture above you see the curves of the run route leading to the hut as the turn around point. After having our equitment checked and it was made sure everyone had the 15kg of weight required for this run, the 30 applicants started running. I was comfortable in the lead group of 3 in the first flat kilometer of the run. From then on the incline started and the guys started hammering. One trick I learned in the military was to only focus on the feet in front of you and not think and just follow and stay close to those feet. Like a machine, ticking over breathing and hammering out high effort until the top.


We must ve been going uphill at a fast clip for about 25min at that point. My breathing was way up, gasping for air and my quads and calves were on fire. When you run uphill you can switch it up between running more calf dominant or more hamstring & gluts dominant, but at some point the technique just goes out the window and you try to just keep going. I have been running the route before in training since I knew it would lead up there somewhere, so I was familiar with where abouts we are with relation to the top. Knowledge is key in the mountains, since often times when you think you see the top, you are greeted with a plateau on the way towards the actual top. This can mess up your mind big time and break it like a twig.


I knew where we were and I knew we'd have about 15min of grinding to go before we hit the turn around point, at which we would have to smash it downhill again back to base. My mind was set on staying with this group and ignore the physical suffering as much as possible. About 35 Min. into the brutal pace set by the two mountain goats up front something started to change. Yes the legs were still burning, yes I was still out of breath but now suddenly I started to get real dizzy. Just a little bit to start with, so I tried to control my breathing and make sure I get as much oxygen as possible without hyperventilating of sorts. Unfortunantely, that didn't change a thing and the dizzyness picked up properly to the point that I could barely see the single trail in front of me where I was running. I started to crack big time. I had to let the two guys go without a fight and slowed to a fast hike trying to get the dizzyness under control. About 10 Min. later I made it to the top and the two commanding officers scanning my face and how I was feeling. My poker face was gone by that point and I must've looked like I just arrived on Mars. I couldn't see shit and was stumbling all over the place. A quick check and then right back down. My mind was still dead set on the purpose of why I was there. I was there to make it to that unit, no matter what. Was I freaked out by the dizzyness? Sure, but I knew I'd "just" be downhill from that point which was the easy part in my compromised brain.




Once I hit the rocky single trail again the shitshow was about to go down and I was in for it. My naivity of the acing the downhill didn't include me not being able to see straight. I wouldn't failed any police officer drunk test at that stage I am sure. I must've fallen about 5 or 6 times, to the sides left and right and forward as well. I felt like I was running on slippery ice. 3 guys overtook me at that stage and while they were hammering it out themselves asked if I am okay. I must've been quite a site. The "flachländer" / flat land boy showing his inabilty to cope with the real mountains and alitutde. Because that's what it was, the altitude sapped me big time and the lack of oxygen combined with the high effort uphill sealed my athletic grave. I tried to stay upright as much as possible and cover ground as fast as I could. Once the path changed away from fist sized rocky stones to smaller gravel, my footing became better and I didn't fall over anymore. I knew I had about 15 Min. of running downhill left and I had to keep it on the Gas in order to salvage as much as possible from this run-gone-bad. I came in 5th overall, despite my first hand altitude sickness experience. I wasn't over the moon but also knew I just had a gap in knowledge and experience when it came to running in altitude and running uphill hard for longer durations, so I wasn't that hard on myself. I was worried big time though because I knew the deciding officers at the top of the turn around point have seen my probably snowwhite face of death half way into the run. In my mind they would either see it as "the boy can suffer and work hard" or the other option, which I thought they would gravitate to: "this guy can't run for shit in the mountains".





The decision


A long two weeks later, the news about which 3 guys got selected came in. I went over to the board where the letter has been hung up to be seen for everyone. 3 names where on it. A couple of guys were standing around the board chatting. After I made my way through, the news hit hard. My name wasn't on that list. It was the two mountain goats as well as another guy who did okay, but I beat him in both two test days by a fair margin. I was deflated at that point. I coulnd't believe this was happening. I was worked so hard, sharpened my body and mind to make this happen. Why didn't I get to be on that list? My dream was crushed.




The blessing in disguise


On the wishlist which unit we would prefer to be transfered in after basic training, I put becoming an instructor for the new recruits. It was the only one that seemed interesting, but in my mind it didn't matter at that point since I was going to be in the "Hochzug" special unit anyways. The 3 months of basic training were over and I changed to the instructor role. Pretty much bottom of the foodchain still but I got the 1 stripe on my shoulder at that point after graduation which means "Gefreiter" - Rank 1 - better than no rank before!



The graduation of all the cadets from basic training

While I was still down about not living my dream case szenario it was what it was and I was stuck there. Only afterwards I started to appreciate the powerful learnings I received due to being in that instructor position. You lead young cadets of 60 people from place to place on your own walking and commanding them where to go. Some of them might be older than you, but in the the military age plays no role, only rank does. And I was outranking them. While many in the military like to abuse this type of power that comes with it due to insecurity and low self-esteem, finally having power over other people, that never appealed to me. I wanted to be respected by my actions and way of leading by example, not my being the annoying guy making them clean up their room for the 100s time. Don't be fooled though, that unit was a testosterone driven culture and if the 60 cadets sniffed even a tiny bit of doubt or insecurity in you at any time, your power is gone and they will start trolling you. Keeping up this appearance at all time, especially as a more introverted person, took a lot of energy but gave me invaluable lessons in leadership which I would later on use in life. Again I wanted to lead by example, so during training runs in 35 degrees sun late into a 5hr hike when the gas mask drill came up (which is a nasty endeavour) I made sure to put on that mask as well and push them on. If you've never ran with a gas mask in 35 degrees dehydrated late into a summer day, you haven't missed out. 20 Min. in you will have your gasmask half full with water/sweat but taking it off is obviously not an option, since we practice for real life szenarios.


3 months into my new role as an instructor major media news hit all over Germany which related to our unit. Some guys from the "Hochzug" unit I wanted to join where stationed in Afghanistan. They took some stupid pictures with skulls meant as a bad joke and the media released it. That sent the public in crazyness and the only thing the then military commander of the German military could do was to completely disassemble to whole "Hochzug" unit. So everyone who was in my dream unit back then was spread out in completely different units within the battalion and many of them were in complete contrast to what they were used to. That unit was gone and if I would have made it in, I would have also been spread to some shitty branch away from all my mates for the next year with no say in changing to where you want to be sationed. That could mean sitting for months in a garage doing mechanic stuff or sitting around at a computer in the medical department, the exact situations I wanted to avoid when joining the military. I wanted to be challengend, not bored to death.



A helmet is key in high altitude due to frequent stone falls coming from up top

It was around that time that I found out that the 3rd guy on the list that made the "Hochzug" after the two mountain goats actually got kicked out from the unit within 4 weeks of joining. He couldn't ski for shit and lied about his abilities which luckily for him weren't tested that year as I mentioned above. He was a son of a high ranking general, so connected the dots here we can all play Sherlock and get why he made it into the unit and not me.


In the last 2 months of my time in the military they started to re-assemble the "Hochzug" unit from scratch. By that point I found a good mate, also a low ranking instructor, like me and we got after it every single day. We spent hours in the rustic basement gym smashing weights, setting our alarm to 3am to drink the pre-prepared protein drink so our muscles had protein to grow even during the night (our logic back then) and we went out for hard ruck runs together in the snow. I found my one man "Hochzug" crazy guy and we pushed each other as much as we could, I was happy! I also came in 2nd overall in the battallion 15km run (again 15kg weighted backpack) 3 min. down to one of our greatest officers we had who also frequently won trail run events, so managing that was an amazing achievement for me at that time.


One day I got called into the officers chambers and two commanding officers from the "Hochzug" that met me half-dead at the turn around point back then, as well as the trail run officer that won the battalion run were waiting for me. They said they heard I was a fit guy and they wanted me to join the new re-assembled "Hochzug". I was honoured and proud to be asked to finally have made the cut and become one of the elite of the elite, one of 25 soldiers who are the undoubtly the fittest in the whole of the German military (apart from the KSK of course). Since I was about to leave the military and already was looking at studying something joining and/or elongating my time spent in the military wasn't an option for me unfortunantely. While I would have loved to experience what it would be like to be one of the "Hochzug" guys (i.e. they had special rights in the battalion, were allowed to wear normal street wear and more) I knew this chapter would be closed for me.



Enjoying a sunny afternoon in the sun after a hike


Looking back now 14 years later, I can say I am happy with every way it turned out. I am happy I failed to achieve my then-dream. I am happy that I learned how it felt to work as hard as I could and still come short and fail. There is so much growth in that which we don't see at the time but that knowledge often transpires only years later.


I hope you are doing great and this little story can show you that even great losses and dreams crushed at the time, can help you grow and become better in the future.


Chat soon,


Matti

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