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Firearms

Over 40 And On The Road To The Tactical Games: A Midlife Crisis of CrossFit and 2-Gun

In summer 2013, I had decided to make a career change: from line cook to game warden with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Three years prior, upon moving to Spokane, I had first learned to hunt at the ripe old age of 27. During the next few years, I became significantly invested in the sport, the region — its land and its critters — and conservation as a whole. I wanted to contribute, to be an agent of good for wildlife.

Except I didn’t fully read the physical requirements until a week before the Washington state Public Safety Test. At the time, the state required 30 sit-ups within 60 seconds, along with a 11/2-mile run with a time under 13:35 for a max score. (They’ve since relaxed these criteria, eliminating the run portion entirely, which isn’t exactly encouraging.)

I hadn’t trained a single day at that point, a week before the test. In my 30-year-old brain, my body was still 20 years old — except it wasn’t. Those college days of me waking up and running a 5K hungover “just because” were long gone.

A week later, my fiancée joined me in Yakima, Washington, and cheered me on from the sidelines while I ran the track the morning of the test. So did the instructors, as I believe they recognized I wanted to be there for different reasons compared to other applicants (which included LE and corrections officer candidates). I was likely 10 years older or more than most others there. I received perfect marks for pushups, both running events, but failed the sit-ups with flying colors.

At our wedding, embarrassed I joked about it to relatives: “Of course a line cook would fail sit-ups.” And that was it. I gave up.

OVER A DECADE OF QUITTING

Attached to my fridge is the passport photo I took ahead of applying for my Kansas CCH in summer 2022. At that time, I weighed 265 pounds. You can see the quitting in my face, in my eyes, recessed in the fat of my cheeks.

In high school, I wrestled for three years, then in college spent my free time in the gym, a habit that continued into my working years in downtown Chicago when I weighed 190 and benched three sets of eight of 285 pounds. But then shoulder and elbow injuries happened. Going to the gym stopped, and bad habits started.

First successful turkey hunt for author (center); Loon Lake, Washington, November 2010.

In September 2022, during one bedtime story my oldest daughter, 5 at the time, told me I needed to lose weight because she didn’t want me to die. Two great-uncles on her mom’s side had recently passed away. Though not the direct cause, they were both overweight, and she associated being overweight with death.

Author with his two daughters. Photo credit: Dara Schwyhart

And that was all it took. After 13 years of struggling with my weight, I cut the BS and stuck to a diet of 500 to 700 calories a day for 21/2 months. I lost 60 pounds. Over the next 31/2 months, I gradually introduced calories until I was at 1,800 a day. By mid-March 2023, I weighed 185 pounds (80 pounds lost over six months).

Author’s first hunting photo following weight-loss journey. Photo credit: Noah Taylor

PRIORITIES SPUR PURPOSE

“Anywhere, anytime, from anyone” was the baseline logic for me choosing to carry daily. The talk isn’t fearmongering. The deluge of news coverage delivered via our social feeds, emails, television, even at the gas pump now — the reminders are there: safety is never certain.

But the decision to carry has never been about me. The two reasons are the same two reasons I lost weight and got healthy.

When I took my concealed-carry class at Home on the Range in Winfield, Kansas, owner and instructor Chris Jarvis made the suggestion, “If you carry, you should consider competing.” So, I started that in spring 2023, attending Steel Challenge matches regularly at Trigger Guard in Wellington, Kansas; then competing in my first Glock Shooting Sports Foundation match in October 2023, placing 35 of 49 in the MOS division. With a time of 96.5 and having placed ahead of a Master, I was content with the results, but kept working.

Wall of WVO Barbell in Winfield, Kansas.

About the same time I started competing, I was made aware of The Tactical Games. The concept of both the stress of competition coupled with physical duress sounded like a next-level challenge. I mentioned the idea to my then-wife, who replied, “Of course it’d take putting a gun in your hands to get you to work out.”

She had such a way with words.

The idea of competing in The Tactical Games was more of a “maybe someday” than a plan until I met Aaron Sutton, our office’s Stop the Bleed instructor during our class in July 2023. At the time, as the Wesley Trauma Outreach coordinator, Sutton was also promoting Hold My Holds. He and I visited on that and how to best share the mission locally and nationally. Then, somewhere along the way I mentioned the concept of The Tactical Games, and I could tell it lit a spark.

Author rowing for distance ahead of other exercises before shouldering rifle with Mantis BlackbeardX equipped.

“My wife owns a CrossFit gym in Winfield,” he said. “She knows all about the training needed.”

CROSSFIT AND DRY-FIRE

I suspect there are two types of CrossFit people: those who want everyone to know they do CrossFit, and those who would prefer no one knows. I fall into the latter. But I’ve enjoyed the challenge, and it seems more conducive, as a whole, for my no-longer-20-year-old body.

Tara Sutton, owner of WVO Barbell and Aaron’s wife, is a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer with a USA Weightlifting Level 1 certification and has been for over 11 years. Her education includes an MA in aging studies and a master’s certificate in public health. “Longevity, health, and general fitness are my primary concerns for everyone that comes into the gym,” she said.

Author shouldering rifle with Mantis BlackbeardX setup. Photo credit: Dara Schwyhart

For consecutive weeks, Tara either led instruction or made suggestions how to best raise our heart rates. In between sets of rowing for distance, step-overs, or suitcase dead lifts, Aaron and I took aim with pistols and rifles set up with Mantis Firearms Training systems. Via a Garmin Instinct 2X Tactical, I tracked my beats per minute and took notes alongside what the Mantis app was registering in terms of accuracy.

“As I’m learning from watching the videos from The Tactical Games,” said Tara, “there are a lot of dynamic movements and weight-bearing exercises that are going to raise your heart rate before you test your shooting accuracy.

“Since we are training for a specific outcome, you want to mimic your ‘test’ as best as possible during training,” she advised. “As humans, we tend to fail at the margins of our experience so the goal is to expose your body to as much similar stimulus so that when the test arrives you’re more likely to be able to adapt and even thrive under the stress.” 

Firearms set up with Mantis Dry Fire Training Systems to enable firearm training alongside CrossFit gym exercises.

Our routines included a string of exercises to elevate our heart rates — examples being riding the attack bike for 12 calories, six kettlebell suitcase dead lifts on each side, holding a pull-up for 10 seconds — followed by either 17 rounds via pistol or 30 via AR, both set up with Mantis’ Dry Fire Training Systems. Initially, my goal was to go fast, to maintain low splits.

GETTING BETTER

Technique over fast became the priority quickly. I worked with Tara to better understand dead lift mechanics, to start slow and focus on incorporating my posterior chain in almost all exercises when possible. Strength in core muscles grew. When shouldering a rifle, I focused on controlling my breathing, trying to lower my heart rate in those moments.

Wearing plates in all things took getting used to. The addition of 15 more pounds wrapped around my chest not only makes it more difficult to breathe when physically spent, but getting used to stock placement in relation to plates has required rewiring my bird-hunter brain slightly.

I also started incorporating Mantis’ Laser Academy free app to track shots via the BlackbeardX laser as well as the Smart DryFireMag with Laser.

“Measured” has become my mantra. Measured breathing. Measured shots.

Over the past three months, I have lowered my resting heart rate from 84 bpm to 65 bpm. Yeah, those February dates were when I filed for divorce (read: high-stress period) and, yeah, likely spent a few nights sorting through grief with a bottle of tequila alone in my kitchen, listening to Taylor Swift and taking every hug my dog was willing to give.

With laser functionality, the Mantis Laser Academy app allows you to track shots when using their printed targets (both basic functions of app and PDFs of targets are free).

But I’m putting that behind me — still keeping the T-Swift in my playlist, though — while focusing on lowering the rate of my heart and healing the hurt.

Long-time friend Dillon Hedden is a technical sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and a physical training leader (PTL) who runs his squadron’s fitness improvement program.

“Recruits in the last five years or so have been coming into the Air Force in worse shape,” said Hedden. “Guys that can’t run a mile and a half in sub 14 minutes. In our unit, the amount of PFT failures has risen in the lower ranks to the point around 80 percent. Of all unsatisfactory tests, most are in the under-25 age category. We tend to see heart rates rocket up to over 170 bpm quickly and stay above this.”

Hedden has shared with me exercises to work on lowering my heart rate and explained why, in the context of accurate shooting, it is so important.

“Usually something simple like sprinting the straights and walking corners on a quarter-mile track will assist with lowering one’s resting heart rate,” said Hedden. “And the better your heart rate and breathing, the better your body performs.

“Better heart rate leads to better VO2 levels, which increases your oxygen in blood content,” Hedden shared. “Anyone who has ever fired a weapon knows the key to accurate shots is controlling your breathing. Lowering your heart rate raises your VO2 levels, which in turn helps control breathing. More controlled breathing equals better shot placement.”

INSPIRATION

When we met at TriggrCon 2023 in Wichita to discuss how best to promote the Hold My Guns mission, Sutton and I visited the Mantis booth and after one pistol demo, Sutton was hooked. He bought their X10 Elite right then and there and spent every day thereafter practicing and running their daily challenge drills. The progress quickly showed up with each subsequent range trip.

Then, last weekend (April 27 and 28) he competed for the first time in a GSSF practice match at Trigger Guard in Wellington, Kansas. The following day, he bested me during a USPSA match. And I was fine with that, but it didn’t stop there, as he shared with me the below days later.

We are both signed up for the Mens Masters 40+ division for the July 13 and 14 Regional in Searsboro, Iowa. I am very much looking forward to seeing who places where. I have never been competitive with others — the fiercest opponent sits between my ears — and when it comes to friends, I celebrate when they come out on top.

The story, in the end, may be his. And I’m fine with that.

PAIN IN FORGOTTEN PLACES

Andre Dubus was one of the authors I included in my thesis list when I graduated from Eastern Washington in 2010. His “Giving Up the Gun,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1997, narrated his rationale for carrying a concealed handgun in the 1980s in Massachusetts, then the reasons he gave up carrying entirely in 1990. His story was the first account I read regarding EDC.

Dead lifts activate many muscle chains and when incorporated for sustained periods, can assist with lowering one’s resting heart rate. Photo credit: Aaron Sutton

At the time, when Dubus ultimately decided to never handle a gun again and instead “sit in a wheelchair on the frighteningly invisible palm of God,” he had lost the use of his legs several years prior. He had pulled over to assist in a roadside accident, only to have another motorist crash into the scene and cost him his ability to walk.

In a story from Mediations from a Movable Chair (I don’t recall the name), Dubus discussed how he had loved to run, that he was a passionate long-distance runner and upon losing the use of his legs, he missed that feeling, especially the pain in the legs that came from training hard.

Flight paramedic Aaron Sutton hydrates following a training session. Photo credit: Jack Hennessy

I’ve thought a lot about Dubus since I started training in January. There’s been a lot of pain — in my legs, certain muscles neglected for nearly a decade; in my side, the stitches that begin irksome then turn debilitating after a mile; the ache in my chest, the labored breathing, and, of course, the metaphorical that comes with choosing to break one’s own heart.

“A certain amount of pain is happiness,” said famous Marquette basketball coach Al McGuire. As I write this, my youngest daughter sits next to me watching cartoons. There’s a dull ache in my legs, my arms, my chest, but not my heart. I’ve been told that at 40, I’m damn old to have a toddler. When she’s 3, I’ll be 41. When she’s 22, graduating college, I’ll be 60. I’m not worried. I am thrilled and energized with every day we spend together.

While the author lowered his resting heart rate to 65, since starting training for the Tactical Games, Sutton has lowered his own resting heart rate from 67 to 59 bpm (average for men ages 36 to 45 is 71 to 75 bpm).

Time is nonnegotiable. Each day we are beset by its mutability. It brings with it hurt, a lot of hard. But we get to choose how to spend that hurt and that hard. We can decide to be subjects of time, or victims. 

Reach out to me on Instagram (@WildGameJack) with any questions or comments.

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