SEAL stories originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle in May, 2006.

SEAL trainees’ screening test is a challenge for all

Dean Karnazes, San Francisco’s own “ultra-marathon man,” looked over the requirements for the Navy SEAL physical-screening test (PST). It’s a set of timed tasks recruits must pass to enter training. We were about to see how much right stuff we possess — though he and I are well past the age limit (28) for SEAL recruitment of civilians.

“This looks like a pretty good baseline measurement for general fitness,” he said.

It’s certainly that. And more.

Karnazes, 43, has run 262 miles in 76 hours, and won the Badwater-to-Mt. Whitney ultra-marathon. He’s at the top of the civilian fitness spectrum. I’m 55. One glance will tell you that I’m nowhere near Karnazes’ level. I’m much more a fitness Everyman.

But I’m also a veteran of many American fitness trends, as well as a broad array of outdoor sports. I clearly recall the day in 1963, when President Kennedy sounded an alarm about the growing flabbiness of U.S. youth. His Council on Physical Fitness recommended that U.S. armed forces adopt a regimen of exercises devised by Canada for its military. Swiftly, school gym classes and Boy Scout troops (including mine) got on board, seeking to measure themselves by the same criteria.

It’s a point to ponder: Would a nationwide call to health generate anything like that response today?

My interest had been stoked by a visit to the Special Warfare Center at Coronado on San Diego Bay. I watched comparatively pudgy recruits take the PST so they could join a SEAL training class. At the SEAL compound, dedication to enhancing strength, endurance and vigor seems absolute. Civilian athletes might measure themselves against the SEAL standard.

“Don’t let the anxiety of taking a test get into your mind,” a SEAL instructor told recruits at the Coronado pool. “That drains your energy. Stay calm, make your movements smooth.”

For me at the Sequoia YMCA pool in Redwood City, however, anxiety won the first round. I pushed off and went into the breast stroke. I felt nervous because my wife and a Chronicle photographer were watching. Then I thought about recruits having tough instructors observe them. Then I thought about recruits being forced to swim in a different exercise, with hands and feet bound — and how much I’d hate that, because I’m claustrophobic. Which made me recall times I’d been trapped underwater (pinned by a log after a whitewater raft capsized, running out of air inside a wrecked freighter during a scuba dive).

Ballooning anxiety bumped up my heart rate, ruined my breathing and chopped up my stroke. Only after I saw I had lost all chance of attaining the PST swim standard could I calm myself, smooth out my stroke. I finished my 20 laps at 15 minutes, 46 seconds — a whopping 3:16 over the PST goal.

Karnazes, despite little experience performing the breaststroke or sidestroke, did well, pulling his lean form through the laps in 12:17.

As I battled through the rest of the test, a SEAL recruit I’ll call “X” kept coming into my mind. (The Navy asked that full names of recruits not be used.) Mister X had passed the PST merely to get to Coronado, where he could apply to enter SEAL class No. 260. Once there, challenging exercises without much recovery time sapped his powers. X was young and muscular, but bore a “spare tire” of at least 20 pounds of fat.

At the pool in Coronado, he thrashed to the end of the swim a second over the required time.

 “You look like Play-Doh,” a SEAL instructor snapped. “Why are you here?”

“To pass the PST, sir!”

“I’ll give you a break. But show me 12 pull-ups.”

Mister X managed only four. His face became a mask of rage and frustration.

X was the last recruit to finish the 1.5-mile run. Instructors gave him a medical check.

“Your pulse rate is only 145,” an instructor complained. “Where’s your hustle? I didn’t see you puking out there.”

As I struggled with the PST, I felt more sympathy for Recruit X. But I tried to focus on lessons I learned from watching him, too: keep emotions in check; and make sure my heart rate revealed I was challenging myself with actual physical work, not anxiety.

Karnazes pounded through 72 push-ups in two minutes (42 are required). However, making that extra effort sabotaged his sit-ups, so he fell 10 short. But he then performed more than twice the required pull-ups.

And the run — well, giving any running challenge to Karnazes is a bit like tossing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch. Despite wearing clown shoes (my size 12s were the only combat-type boots we had available for his size-9 feet), he smoked the run in 9:47. And me? I did it in a lousy 13:50, about the same as Recruit X. But at least my pulse was 165 at the end. Take pride where you can.

Karnazes had run the Big Sur Marathon route twice the preceding weekend, and planned to run the Miwok 100K trail run a day after our test. But he says he didn’t feel fatigued. Rather, he felt intrigued enough to want to train for the PST and try it again.

“I used to live in Southern California,” Karnazes said. “I saw those SEAL guys run on the beach, and wrestle their rafts over the breakwater at the Hotel Del.

“I did consider enlistment after grad school. I had friends in the SEAL program. They told me about adventures that sounded incredible. That’s one regret in my life. I do wish I had gone through that training”

Photojournalist Lance Iversen now takes assignments in Reno, Lake Tahoe and the Sacramento Valley. Contact: