Airman to Ironman: General practices what he preaches when it comes to fitness

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Elizabeth Magnusson
  • Force

It took 10 years and six races, but Maj. Gen. David Smith, director of Air Force Reserve Plans, Programs and Requirements here, finally made it to the Ironman World Championship race in Kona, Hawaii, earlier this month.

Triathlons are grueling competitions comprising a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, and only 6% of Ironmen participants worldwide qualify for the World Championships. Smith qualified for the 2021 Ironman World Championship by coming in third place in his age group in the 2020 Ironman Florida race. However, the championship race in 2021 was cancelled due to COVID so his entry was delayed until this year.

Smith began running in high school, but it wasn’t until an assignment at NORTHCOM that he was introduced to Ironman races by a Canadian Armed Forces coworker.

“I was doing shift work at the time, and my friend and I talked about doing some training together,” he said. “He was a professional athlete and I asked him if he thought I could do a full-distance race, and he said absolutely. We started training together, and that’s when I did my first half Ironman around 2010. Then I ran a full Ironman in 2012, and the rest you could say is history.”

But this story isn’t just about finishing a race. While only 0.00006 percent of the world population makes it to the Ironman World Championship, Smith firmly believes that what makes those who make it successful is the same thing the Air Force advocates for making better leaders: resilience, dedication, time management and goal setting.

“I believe that athletics and a routine actually contribute to good leadership,” Smith said. “I believe the achievements I’ve accomplished throughout my Air Force career are because I was involved in Ironman. High performing individuals, whether in fitness or sport, are also high performing individuals in their daily lives, whether that be their work or their leadership or their personal lives. It will contribute to your mental wellness and physical fitness and will make you a better leader, no matter where you are in life.”

The general said his goal is to inspire one Airman or Guardian to make fitness a part of his or her life. “I’ll be 54 in November, and if a 54-year-old officer can do an Ironman event, guess what, our 20-, 30- and 40-year-old Airmen and Guardians can too,” he said.

“Just make fitness a part of your life,” Smith continued. “If you look at the spectrum of resiliency General Brown and Chief Bass are trying to articulate to our Airmen, physical fitness covers three of the pillars in the spectrum of resiliency. Fitness helps you take care of yourself by reducing stress, keeping you physically fit and helping your mental wellness. It also promotes peer and social connections because fitness often involves working with others. I’ve made some life-long friends through my racing.”

Smith said he believes in the Ironman slogan: Anything is possible. “While not everyone is going to become an Ironman, if you set your mind to a goal, have a plan to achieve that goal and dedicate your daily routine to achieving that goal – whether it’s running a marathon, doing an Ironman race or even finishing school – you will achieve your goal,” he said.

Tips from an Ironman:

Have a Goal: You can pretty much do anything you set your mind to as long as you have a goal and then manage your time appropriately. Sometimes, goals change due to work/life balance, and that’s OK. You need to constantly evaluate your goals and adjust as needed.

Time Management: People often ask me how I find time to train for an Ironman between my military commitment, civilian job and family. I tell them I’m very deliberate with my time, prioritization is essential and I tailor my schedule to what my goals are.

Accountability: It’s a goal setting thing as well. When you set your goal, you need to be accountable to follow through whether that’s to yourself or someone else.

Take Time for Yourself: I think of my training time as personal reflection time, meditation time or wellness time. It’s time when I separate myself, disengage from e-mail, social media or other distracting events, and focus on my task or training, dedicating that time to myself.

Balance: Balance between work, family and personal routine is extremely important. Everyone must find their own balance. I only try to do one race a year in order to keep my work and life in balance.

Lead by Example: I’m a big believer in our leadership (officer and enlisted) leading by example. I did an Ironman when I was a group commander and as a wing commander. People are always watching, and if our Airmen and Guardians see our leaders making fitness and mental health a part of their daily routine, they’re going to hopefully be inspired to make fitness a part of their lives.

Tailor It: Tailor your training and tailor your time commitment to whatever your goal is.