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06.25.10

The Petraeus Workout

The general’s infamous, run-til-you-drop exercise regimens are often called crazy. But Chris McDougall says commanders with the most obsessive fitness routines are the ones who win wars.

You can’t watch an aging fitness fanatic take a face-plant on national TV without wondering if we really want him leading our country into battle.

Even though he’s eligible for senior meals at Applebee's, General David Petraeus engages in a daily workouts so intense that soldiers and journalists alike can’t describe them without sounding like air-crash survivors.

To recover from these self-imposed beatings, the general treats himself to a total of one meal per day and four hours of sleep.


Gen. Petraeus falls ill at Senate Hearing.

At 57, the newly minted leader of the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan still likes to start his day at sun-up with a five-mile run, blazing out each of those miles in under six minutes. Then it’s straight to the weight room, where he ignores all those cushy-seated machines and heads for his torture device of choice: a single iron bar, lag-bolted eight feet overhead. A Petraeus pull-up is nothing as simple as hoisting your own body weight up and down a few dozen times. Instead, he slowly jack-knifes from the hips until his shoelaces are level with his face. After 20 of those babies, he drops to the floor for a crisp 100 or so pushups. And to recover from these self-imposed beatings, the general treats himself to a total of one meal per day and four hours of sleep. This, from a guy who a year ago was being treated for prostate cancer and survived getting shot in the chest when a soldier tripped during a live-fire drill.

Petraeus’ rough-riding of his own wrinkling hide is often regarded as an indication that the general is a bit off his rocker, and the court of public opinion was quick to raise a finger and say “Aha!” after Petraeus fainted during a Senate hearing this month. Politics Daily observed that “while the 57-year-old Petraeus has been a lifelong athlete and overall high achiever, his ambitious personality may have pushed his body too far this time.”

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The implication: Now that he’s taking on the crushingly complex task of defeating the Afghan insurgency, a job with a historical success rate of zero, isn’t it time to quit jangling the spurs and surrender to age, scar tissue, and national responsibility? Maybe challenging 20-year-olds to push-up contests and sprinting through 10k races under a blistering desert sun is OK when the only ones who have to endure it are your own eye-rolling kids. But not when thousands of other kids—from nervous young soldiers on rookie recon to pre-schoolers in Kandahar eyeing the skies for Hellfire missiles—are counting on you to know your limits.

Or is Petraeus, with his Princeton Ph.D. in international relations, in on a little secret the rest of us have forgotten? Only in our lifetime has exercise become synonymous with injury and early aging. We’re constantly told that running will ruin our knees and outrage our hearts, but for nearly all of human existence, it was associated with freedom, vitality, and eternal youth. In ancient Egypt, Ramses II had to legitimize his hold on the throne by performing a long-distance run every few years, a ritual he performed until he was over 90 years old. In 2088 B.C., King Shulgi of Sumeria wanted to make a splash with his subjects by attending two of their festivals in two different cities, so he ran 200 miles from one to the other. Jack Kirk, aka The Dipsea Demon, was still tackling the notorious Dipsea Trail Race with its 671-step cliffside climb at age 96. “You don’t stop running because you get old,” the Demon liked to say. “You get old because you stop running.” 

Endurance, after all, is the only reason we even exist. We think of ourselves as nature’s deadliest animals, but the truth is, a naked human is the biggest wimp in the wild. We have no fangs, no claws, no strength, and no speed. Usain Bolt, the fastest man on the planet, couldn’t catch a squirrel. But long before we came up with the idea of making weapons, we figured out how to use the only one we were born with: our ability to run really far on really hot days. For nearly 2 million years, our ancestors survived and thrived and spread across the planet because they could run other mammals into heat exhaustion. 

Little wonder, then, that endurance became America’s defining national characteristic. Long before we became the world’s tough guys, we were famous for toughing it out. Plymouth Rock, Valley Forge, the Pony Express, the Gold Rushers, the outgunned battlers of the Bulge—our country was founded on the wonderfully democratic notion that anyone could be a winner just by gutting their way to the finish. Consider the Sylvester Stallone Starpower Paradox: How could an actor too untalented for porn become a Hollywood giant? By creating characters who could do one thing and one thing only: Go da distance.


Gen. Petraeus runs the runs Grand Prix 5K in Florida.

But when does endurance slip into self-destruction? I once put that question to Marshall Ulrich, an amiable dog-food manufacturer from Colorado who had his toenails surgically removed so he could celebrate his 50th birthday by running back and forth across Death Valley four times—640 miles, in heat that hit 200 degrees on the tarmac. Lopping off body parts, running in weather so hot you dehydrate simply by breathing, sleeping so little that you see hallucinations of phantom bikini girls skipping down the yellow line—wasn’t the whole thing a little nuts?

“Actually, it’s out there where I feel the most sane,” Ulrich explained. “I’m away from all this unnatural stuff-–cars, TV, cellphones, Hollywood bullshit, and advertising-–and I’m back to what people were naturally designed to do. We’re all ultra-runners by heritage. By genetics. Early man used to run ultras as a matter of daily preservation. We’ve got the same DNA, so maybe the crazy thing is to ignore it instead of use it.”

Petraeus has his own way of sniffing out that ancestral code. "When we bring a new guy in, I take him out for a run," Petraeus has said. "I'll go out hard, then ramp it up around five miles to try to waste him. I want to know how he'll react and respond to the challenge, what his strength of character is." That might sound stupidly macho, and yeah, the chest-thumping backbeat is unmistakable, but the old warrior knows his military history. If one thing unites the great commanders from Attila to Washington, it has been their raw ability to sleep less, eat less, and drive harder than anyone else on the battlefield. The Duke of Wellington caught some nice breaks at Waterloo, but he also made his luck by spending 10 hours a day in the saddle on a single cup of tea, sleeping two hours a night, and limbering up each morning by walking briskly for 30 minutes while swinging a riding crop.

In Afghanistan, Petraeus is taking on the ultimate Ironman, a backcountry cat-and-mouse campaign against mountain tribes and mujahideen who have perfected the art of outlasting every invader. He's got the world's best firepower at his disposal, but maybe more importantly, he won't give up his mastery of mankind’s best and most-enduring weapon. 

Christopher McDougall is a former AP war correspondent and author of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and The Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.