7 marathons on 7 continents to help veterans, first responders find new mission, new life
BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - If Zack Garner was a cat, he’d be halfway through his nine lives. Were it not for the knee brace he wears while working out, you’d never guess he was anything other than a well-oiled fitness machine.
He squats his six-foot-plus frame low, grips a tractor tire, and flips it five or six times to warm up. “For the last year, it’s been a recovery mission for me.” the former green beret said with a grunt.
After four deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, a traumatic brain injury ended his army career and almost ended his life. Back home, while competing in a Half-Ironman Triathlon, Zack was hit by a car. A broken hip, a broken leg, and internal injuries set him on a long road to recovery, and into life number three. “Every 5000 miles we go in for an oil change, filter change, brake check,” he said. “Why don’t we do that for our bodies?”
In 2020 it was flesh-eating bacteria. “It spread into my bloodstream, into my bones, and into my heart,” Zack said. “And literally started eating my body from the inside out.”
Over the next two years, Zack spent more than 10 months in hospitals. He underwent more than 30 surgeries and suffered two strokes.
“I didn’t want to go to the gym and workout because I didn’t feel like I belonged anymore,” Zack said. “I used to be known for how strong, how fast, how strong my endurance was, and now I didn’t have any of that. It took a real gut check, and being able to drop my ego and the discipline to not worry about what everybody else thinks.”
Zack is using the lives he has left in hopes of saving another. “We’re using our bodies as test subjects to study human performance,” he said. That’s he’s sweating out another workout at Geaux CrossFit in Baton Rouge. Zack is deadlifting, squatting, running, and rowing to prepare for the performance of a lifetime.
He’s part of a team of special operations veterans and professional extreme athletes pushing themselves to their limits to learn how to better treat the physical, mental, and emotional trauma suffered by soldiers and first responders. It’s called the 7X Human Performance Project -- seven sky-dives, seven marathons, and seven swims on seven continents in seven days. And it’s more than just an awareness campaign; it’s real science.
Along with the dozen or so athletes making the 168-hour jaunt across the globe are scientists, researchers, nutritionists, and doctors like EJ Casterson. “We want to be able to give some guiding tips that are -- you already know,” Casterson said. “Eat right, sleep right, exercise, build strong foundational relationships, treat your body the way it should be treated, and then that builds the mind to a strong safe place.”
These doctors and researchers will measure every aspect of each athlete’s performance and apply that to the types of traumas seen on the battlefield and the streets. More importantly, they’ll also record how the athletes recover.
Zack said recovery is a place where all branches of the service can do better. “When you return from a tour, there’s time to do maintenance on your guns. There’s time to do maintenance on your vehicles. Time to do maintenance on your other equipment,” Zack said, “but there hasn’t been time for us to take and maintain ourselves.”
The soldiers’ way, Zack said, is to muscle through injuries, to bury emotional and mental trauma because they don’t want to be pulled from their team. Those problems aren’t usually addressed until the soldier leaves the service. “Instead of trying to deal with all the problems from a 20-year career at the end of that 20 years, why aren’t we doing that between every rotation into a war zone. Guys are carrying that load and working through injuries for years and years and years. Until eventually, it just stops, whether it’s because the injury finally takes over and you can no longer do it, or on the mental side, it culminates in suicide.”
A 2021 study by Boston University found that more than 30,000 veterans have committed suicide since 9/11. That’s four times the number of soldiers killed in combat at that same time.
Athletes and scientists hope to turn this project into a documentary and a training manual of sorts that all branches of the service can use to help soldiers transition from the battlefield back to base, or from military to civilian life. All profits from the project, documentary, and manual will go to seven different organizations dealing with veteran physical and mental health.
Zack and the others make their first jump in Antarctica, on February 17. You can follow the mission at americanextreme.com and donate at birdseyeviewproject.org.
They’re hoping this research can help retired veterans and first responders find a new mission -- one that leads to a new life.
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