Soldiers from the First U.S. Army perform a fireman's carry during the cross-fit training event held Wednesday morning at Ericson Field on the campus of Augustana College in Rock Island. (Photo by Larry Fisher/QUAD-CITY TIMES)

Larry Fisher

It wasn’t even sunrise Wednesday when 150 officers from the First U.S. Army trotted in formation onto the Augustana College football field in Rock Island, the scene illuminated by the Ericson Field lights.

The soldiers, all dressed in exercise uniforms, were ready to participate in a strenuous workout, a distinctive cross-fit training event that coincides with the First Army Commander’s and Family Leadership Conference.

The First Army, which has its headquarters on Arsenal Island, invited reporters from the area news media to not only cover but also participate in the event, and I volunteered to be the Quad-City Times representative. Was it fun? You bet! Was it a challenge? Most certainly! Were the military officials gracious hosts? They could not have been kinder to this civilian who is the Times health reporter.

I was truly the odd woman out. My team, designated “No. 1,” consisted of 10 officers — plus me. My team was comprised entirely of veteran leaders in the First Army, a military unit that traces its roots to 1918, World War I and famous Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing.

Wednesday’s event was initiated by Lt. Gen. Mick Bednarek, the First Army commander and an exercise enthusiast who tends to end his talks with the phrase “Stay fit!” Activities kicked off at 6 a.m. and included 10 stages of cross-fit strength training, ranging from a dash up and down the stadium’s bleachers to flutter kicks, a favorite of the general’s.

I began working out regularly five years ago and figured I could (sort of) keep up with the U.S. Army. How hard could this be?

It turned out to be pretty darned hard.

I didn’t just jump blindly into the contests. First, I spoke to Robert Saxon, the unit’s public affairs contact. How would I fit in? I’m 54 years old and in reasonably good shape, but certainly not in peak physical condition. Saxon explained that I would be with officers who are in my age group and in various levels of fitness. He assured me that I could do whatever I thought I could handle and take a break at other times.

I did much of what was required, with some concessions to reality. The bleacher run was one example. Our team was to run up and down the bleachers — go up one set of steps and down the next one — in formation. We were to continue that pattern the entire length of the stands. I managed to do five sets of steps. I was pretty slow, too.

I did complete an exercise with something called a kettle bell. That’s a weight resembling a kettle with a long handle on top of it. I was to pick it up with both hands, swing it over my head and then take two steps before repeating the exercise. Total distance to be covered: 50 yards, or half a football field from goal line to goal line. Not 50 feet, as I would have preferred.

Those flutter kicks also killed. Lying on my back on the stadium’s soft artificial turf, I began churning my legs in what we used to call the bicycle exercise. Wrong! I was advised to keep kicking, but with my legs only about 6 inches off the ground.

That was tough. I was told it’s something the general can do for an extended length of time, but most others fall off after a couple of minutes. We were supposed to go three minutes; I managed 60 seconds or so.

My best event involved three steeplechase barriers — each resembling the balance beam used in gymnastics. These are 4-inch-wide planks about 3 feet off the ground. They were placed in a triangle and I was to walk over all three of them in succession, something I was able to do pretty easily. The event was for balance and agility training, said Sgt. Maj. Galen Pankratz, one of the designers of the exercise regimen.

Note: It was also done by officers who are more than 6 feet tall, some weighing 200 pounds or more.

The First Army’s senior enlisted men and women staffed the cross-fit course and provided us with lively music (think Bruce Springsteen singing “Born in the USA”) played over speakers, fresh water, lots of cheers and guidance on what we were to accomplish at each stage of the 50-minute session.

This is the second year the First Army has done the cross-fit training, Pankratz said. It is aimed at team-building and to encourage camaraderie among the many officers who participated in the three-day conference.

Bednarek encouraged the course’s design, Pankratz said, suggesting stops that included a medicine ball throw over the Augustana football goalposts, the kettle bell activity and the bleachers run.

That medicine ball, by the way, weighed 6 pounds, and I was unable to heave it over the goalposts. I tried, repeatedly, and my team provided encouragement: “You can do it. Use your leg strength,” they yelled. But it was no go on that one.

Most everyone seemed to appreciate the benefits of the workout. I sure did, but I was tickled when it ended. And there was a bonus: They invited me back!