California resident Nate Dressel finished his military active duty in September of 2014 and the former Special Forces man now is focused hard on his Pro career. He talked to slowtwitch about some of the challenges he faced while in the military and some of the new ones he tackles now.
Slowtwitch: It is good to chat with you.
Nate Dressel: You too; thank you very much for taking the time to talk.
ST: How is life in Carmel?
Nate: Gorgeous! It has been in the mid 70s and sunny every day for the past week or so; it’s a pretty rough January. I can’t imagine a more picturesque area or better climate to make my full-time training base. Unfortunately I’m just getting over a head cold that wiped me out for a few days, but it seems to be clearing up so I’m looking forward to getting back out there and putting miles in this week.
ST: Did you inherit that cold from your child via the Kindergarten, or did that just happen?
Nate: I’m really not too sure; it came on after a two 20 plus hour training weeks, and the 2015 launch of our local triathlon club for whom I’m the director so it was probably a combination of kiddos and just being a little bit tired.
ST: Carmel though is a long way from New Hampshire.
Nate: Haha, it sure is. We actually were back in NH for a week before Christmas visiting family and it was great. I grew up skiing and mountain biking in NH and VT, so that will always be home, but I have not lived in New England since I joined the military in 2004 and while there are many things I miss about it, I have really enjoyed the journey and destinations I’ve lived and seen over the past decade.
ST: Your military career ended last fall. Is it a bit odd for you now to not have that structure in place?
Nate: Well, I left my last stint of active duty in September, but I still maintain my status as a National Guard member. As far as structure goes, when stateside, my military occupation allowed for quite a bit of operational independence and I could maintain my own physical fitness and work schedule. I am missing some of the, “task, condition, and standards,” part of my military career which provided my guidelines and definitions of success.
Tasks, conditions, and standards are still essential to our new pursuit of the athletic career, however they are not dictated to me from above anymore; they are now defined by me, my family, and coach, Paul Duncan. IE: What do we need to do to earn a paycheck and pay the bills? What is the training process to break through to the next level of professional racing? How do we measure success? What are the waypoints and criteria to know we are achieving the goals?
ST: How does your wife feel having you around much more?
Nate: The last year in the military, I was constantly traveling for work and attempting to train and race. I think on average I was on a plane and living out of a hotel every other week for at least three or four days so there was quite a bit of time apart. We went from that lifestyle to living in a 35-foot motor home and moving to Central California so we got a crash course in space awareness. We were in the motor home from August until just about five days ago when we signed a lease on a little place in Carmel Valley. After six months in a motorhome with a kindergartener and two large dogs, without anyone going crazy, I’d say our marriage is pretty solid!
ST: Talk to us about your time in the Special Forces.
Nate: I think that ending up in Special Forces was hands down the best thing that could have happened with my military career. My Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) is 18D, Special Forces Medical Sergeant. I have worked with the bravest, most upstanding, selfless men in America, traveled around the world several times, and acquired a mental fortitude and set of skills which will benefit me throughout the rest of my life.
Travels have included Iraq, The Philippines, Thailand, Japan, Germany, Austria, and various bases all around the United States. In addition to the combat side of the Special Forces job, what a lot of people do not realize is the amount of civil affairs projects we do. For example, as the senior Medical Sergeant on my team I was responsible for providing medical support to the local populace surrounding our bases during deployments, as well as planning and executing medical missions to remote locations which have not had access to medical care for years. As a team, we also took part in a large number of schools, wells, road, and market building projects to ensure the safety, health, and growth of the local population and economy. While guns, guts, and hand grenades certainly have their time and place in this job, it is by no means the daily norm, or even a large percentage of what our real mission is.
Some of the more memorable events of the Special Forces career include;
Sky diving in Thailand with the Royal Thai Army, The Japanese Special Operations Group, and members of the Malaysian Navy
Patrolling jungles in the Philippines on and off for about 9 months… you’d think I could race better in the heat and humidity.
Getting stuck in Japan for a week (The rumor was Biden commandeered our plane because he forgot his golf clubs. We never knew the truth; we just got our plane back a week later and continued to Zamboanga City.).
And, as the Medical Sergeant, dealing with the real world situations you are dealt in combat and austere environments, both the good; when you can save a soldier and friend and send him home to see his family again, and the harsh reality of this type of job; losing soldiers under your care.
ST: When you see folks dying, is death also closer to you, or on your mind?
Nate: In the moment, when I’ve been working on patients, preventing death is what’s on my mind. I think due to the training required to be an 18D, we practice medicine in an interesting way; even if it is a team mate and friend lying on your stretcher, or if you’re lucky enough to get them to your aid station, the approach is very objective. “What is the most critical issue to address right now? Airway, breathing, circulation… how do I maintain those functions. Can this person get oxygen? Can they sustain their own respirations? Where are they losing blood and how rapidly?” Once there is some degree of stability with the patient, you might realize that it is your friend, they have a wife and kids at home, that they are only in their twenties. Those thoughts do not have a place when time is critical though.
After dealing with any situation where you have lost a soldier, there is always a period of regret, doubt, second guessing, and often self-condemnation that follows. I think the majority of Special Forces team guys have a sense of selflessness and would rather be the one to take a bullet than see a team mate go home in a body bag.
ST: When you originally joined the military, what did you have in mind in terms of where you would end up and how long it would go on?
Nate: When I enlisted in the Army in 2004, I signed a four year contract to be in the Airborne Infantry. I completed Infantry school, the mortar course, and then attended the Airborne School all at Ft Benning, GA. I had orders to be assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft Bragg, NC, however about a week before the end of Airborne School, a Master Sergeant with a Special Forces tab, Ranger tab, and a whole stack of specialty skills badges told me my physical scores were high enough and I should try out for the Special Forces.
I had no idea what the Special Forces actually was, but being a 20 year old private and brand new to the Army, I did as I was told, signed the piece of paper he handed me, and a week later got on a bus to go to the other side of Ft Bragg. Two and a half years later, I donned the Green Beret and was assigned to 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), in Ft Lewis, WA.
ST: Do you have a special place for that Green Beret?
Nate: Not for the Beret; you could walk into a military surplus store and find a green beret. Everyone who has earned their Beret and Special Forces Tab has a sense of pride and accomplishment though. When you graduate the Special Forces course, you are issued a serial numbered knife called The Yarborough. I do hold that in a fairly high regard; that is not something you can just go out and buy.
ST: Do you think the discipline required in the military helps you in your quest as a triathlete?
Nate: I believe that reaching the level of professionalism I’ve reached in the military gives me the confidence to do well as a triathlete, but I’m not sure it’s so much a military discipline factor. The majority of the top professionals have not followed my career path and they seem to be doing alright.
ST: I believe it was a friend who talked you into entering your first triathlon.
Nate: It was; my friend, also Nate, convinced me to participate in a local sprint tri with him while we were in the Special Forces training pipeline. I figured I had a mountain biking background, had to run every day for the military, and all these skinny guys in spandex do it; how hard could it be?
ST: When was that and what about it hooked you?
Nate: I think that was July of 2006 at The Mission Man Sprint Tri in Burlington, NC. I did not drown, completed the bike on a borrowed yellow steel Schwinn, and puked three times on the run. It was awesome!
ST: Are you still friends with him?
Nate: Unfortunately I have not heard from him in a couple years. I think the last time we saw each other was actually at the funeral of one of our best friends whom we lost in Afghanistan in 2009. That’s not to say we had a falling out of our friendship; the military just sends guys all over the place and it’s sometimes tough to stay in touch with everyone on a regular basis.
ST: You have a Pro license now, but do you feel like an actual Pro?
Nate: Hahaha, you must have looked at my 2014 results. But really, it is a very good, honest question and a good reality check for athletes at my tier.
What is an actual pro? Is it the top 5 to 10% of pro license holders who repeatedly win enormous races, grace the covers of magazines and ST features on a regular basis? If that’s the case, the rest of us holding licenses are nothing more than camera fodder for the big guys to pretend they actually have competition.
If an actual pro is someone who supports their family, encourages newer athletes to find their love for endurance sports and healthy lifestyle, and generally makes their career through racing, coaching, and being an ambassador for the sport, then yes, I think I’m doing a decent job as a pro.
This tier of professionals is real and attainable; we participate in the local triathlon clubs, the masters swim groups, the group rides, and the fun runs. We are the base of the professional pyramid and the accessible resource for all the newer athletes trying to gain insight into triathlon or looking to improve upon their own PRs.
ST: Have you set some kind of standard you want to reach?
Nate: Well, I guess that would elaborate on the previous answer. I would love to be a regular top 10 finisher at the professional level, but I love my local tri club (go TTC!), I love training and competing, and I do not want to lose the love and fun I have with triathlon. Racing professionally is a job, but it should also be a very enjoyable job.
My wife and I have discussed it at length and this is the year to go all in on training, racing, and coaching. Since moving to Carmel, we have put together an amazing sponsorship team for 2015 and I think this is the year I will begin reaching the podium. The local gym, healthcare providers, and businesses have really stepped up and provided the support, belief, encouragement, and resources to back this season and make it amazing.
ST: You mentioned that you and your family lived in a motorhome. Was that lifestyle always on your mind?
Nate: The motorhome was certainly not our lifestyle goal, but at the time we made the decision to motorhome full-time, it was a necessary step to get on with our lives and pursue this career. We knew that we wanted to be somewhere in the Monterey Bay area, but we had no jobs, no guaranteed income, and really didn’t even know where in the area we actually wanted to live. My wife’s family had gone to Moss Landing when she was a kid and I have raced Tri California’s events for years so we just knew it was gorgeous, temperate, and would be a great place to train year round and give this a go.
The motorhome life is not nearly as glamourous or free spirited as it may seem at first. They are cumbersome and expensive to move, cramped and smelly inside, and you are an on-call plumber, electrician, carpenter and general repair man. Unless you have no kids, no pets, no real job, and no desire to own wine glasses (I can’t count how many have broken on turns and speed bumps), I wouldn’t recommend the full-time motorhome life. But then again, I now have the coolest place to stay at the races this year and my own shower and bathroom.
ST: We are planning to do a feature about Pros and their cars, but I am not sure if motorhomes will make the cut.
Nate: Would it really count if it’s not what gets you to the pool and back every morning? Tell you what; I’ll give you the grand tour at Wildflower. It will be like the endurance junkie version of Cribs and Pimp My Ride.
ST: You may have some folks trying to crash in your place at Wildflower.
Nate: Use of the RV Shower, $5. Race morning bathroom use, $10. I would also accept payment in beer.
ST: What is your first race of 2015?
Nate: Oceanside 70.3 is the first race of the year, but what I’m really excited for is Wildflower in May; it’s been my favorite event since the first year I raced it, and I ended up in the hospital on race morning last year, so I’m chomping at the bit to see what I can do there in 2015.
ST: Oh, and what about this rumor about you being an Olympian?
Nate: Haha, the Flagstaff bike Olympics. It's quite a spectacle. ST should consider covering it one year. Kids bikes, beer, powdered donuts, knives and occasional fire. How could one not enjoy it?
ST: Main target for this season?
Nate: Since we’ve made Carmel our new home and are really trying to grow roots here, I think my target events will be Tri California’s Wildflower and Triathlon at Pacific Grove, as well as Vineman, which isn’t too far from here. The local sponsors have stepped up in such a big way for me, that it would be great to give them some recognition on the podiums.
Aside from racing, I have a great job as coordinator for The Treadmill Triathlon club, so I am really focusing on making that the best family and training group I possibly can.
ST: Anything else we should know?
Nate: I guess since I have the forum, I’d like to take the opportunity to publicly thank my incredibly supportive family and sponsors for helping get me this far and invite people follow the 2015 season at my website, natedressel.com. Also, if anyone is ever out in the Monterey Peninsula area, feel free to contact me for info on all of the great training opportunities available here.