Spartan Race World Champion Robert Killian: From Best Ranger to Best OCR Racer
Special Forces are arguably the fittest and most capable people on Earth. So what happens when you’re the fittest of the fit? The most capable of the most capable? I talked to world-class Obstacle Course Racer and Green Beret, Major Robert Killian to find out what goes into competing in one of the most grueling and mentally and physically taxing events on Earth, the Best Ranger Competition, a contest that Killian holds the record in for most podium finishes.
Where are you right now?
Packing to go back to Colorado. I’ve been here in Fort Benning, training up for the Best Ranger Competition. I like to go on and off what’s called ADOS, which is Active Duty for Operational Support, so you just come on for a specific mission and you’re on for whatever the start and end date are. You can kind of pick and choose what you want to do, it works out pretty good.
You’re training others for the Best Ranger Competition? Or you’re training yourself?
Other guys. They put a stipulation in this year that I can’t compete. I’ve competed six times and they put a limit on the number of times you can compete, which is three. So they told me I couldn’t compete, which is kind of weird. I’ve never known a sport in the history of sports that says, “You can’t compete.” That’s like telling the Patriots that they can’t come back to the Super Bowl because they’ve already won or Michael Phelps that he’s won enough medals.
Is that because you were winning these competitions?
No. Leadership changes and they had a thought process of, “Hey, these guys are training for this three months out of the year. If they do that seven times, six times, that’s twenty-four months.” That’s two full years they think we’re not training or leading, mentoring soldiers. The problem is, those guys, the decision makers, have never done BRC and they’ve never seen the benefits of training for it. We do more training in two months than guys do all year.
At the end of the day, training is training.
Right. And at the end of the day, these competitions utilize skills that you’re supposed to employ in the field, right?
Exactly. They’re Ranger Deployment Tasks, 100%. And you’re maintaining your proficiency more so because we do those tasks on a weekly basis. Every day we’re going to the range, we’re doing ruck marches, doing medical tasks, ACFT, so we’re working on combat fitness. It’s very beneficial.
Not only that, but you’re doing them in a competitive environment, which pushes people to work that much harder because it’s a competition, right?
For sure. And that’s the thing about Best Ranger that’s so unique. It really takes experience and the know-how more so than just being young and fit. There’s a balance of technical tasks and endurance. Shooting and running, for example. It’s not biased to one single skill.
Is BRC a military-sanctioned event?
Yeah absolutely. But it’s kind of weird. It’s sanctioned by the military via the Airborne Ranger Training Brigade. The only requirement is that you have to be Ranger qualified. But you also have to represent a major division. If you’re in the 101st, you’re in 25th ID, you’re in whatever major force ID, you try out for the slot that they’re provided. Back in the day, it was only for Ranger regiment, kind of like a bragging rights thing. And then it kind of built momentum and now it’s the toughest endurance race in the world. And I’ve done almost everything that’s out there. So now they open it up to all branches and units, so long as you’re Ranger qualified.
Can anyone sign up to compete, so long as they’re Ranger qualified
Well, there are a limited number of slots per unit and a limited number of slots for the competition. Usually around fifty to fifty-four. So they’ll start out with 108 Rangers on two-man buddy teams. By day one, you’re down to twenty-seven. They cut everyone who hasn’t accumulated enough points after the road march. And they’re kind of weighted so one event could be worth a lot more than another.
Do competitors know which events those are?
Some years you do, some they don’t. This year they kept it all secret. There were a few years that they needed more transparency because ninety-percent of the wins have come from the unit that puts on the competition. That has to do with the fact that they’re there all year, their friends and coworkers, their platoon leaders know exactly what the events are. So it became a thing like, “Hey, why don’t you guys release these in advance? Let some guys get the same training benefit that you have, knowing exactly what chapter of the book to study.”
So that’s kind of where it changed. They released everything in advance and that’s the year that we won. And then they went back to the other mentality, the one that thought if people knew the weights to the events, they’d sandbag the lesser events. They wanted everyone to go hard all the time, no matter what. But to be honest, if you’re a winner, every point matters. I’ve never gone to an event assuming I wouldn’t do as good because that event wasn’t weighted as heavily. I’m always of the mentality that I could do bad at an event that’s weighted good and doing good elsewhere will still help me.
When is the competition?
It’s usually around the second or third week of April.
So weather’s going to be a factor, because weather in this region is so unpredictable this time of year?
Oh yeah. And it was so hot this year. It was eighty-seven degrees during the competition and a few days later it was in the fifties. Thunderstorms, tornados. All that stuff comes into play down in Georgia.
Take me through the elements of the competition.
So day one, they like to start out to separate the field a bit, you’ll do an endurance run, around an eight-mile run. Right around three miles - and you won’t know this - you’ll have to pick up an IOTV weight vest, full plates, about twenty-five pounds, strap it on and run the next five miles with it. Drop that off at the finish and go straight into an obstacle course. Six pull-ups, going through barbed wire with mud and water in there, so you’re getting all nasty. You’re going across monkey bars, climbing a twenty-five or thirty-foot rope, then do six more pull-ups on the far side. That’s when guys start getting pretty gassed. And then you drag a Skedco and sprint around a circular track and then your time stops when you’re done.
Then you go immediately to a weighted carry event. You have a stretcher with three forty-five pound dumbbells on it that you and your partner have to carry for two miles straight into a swim across a pond. Another run to what we call the Urban Assault Course, which is a bunch of functional fitness stations set up. You’ll go in with some sim rounds, shoot some targets. So it’s kind of a mix of high heart rates with precision. So you’re clearing a building, shooting targets and then doing some deadlifts or lifting an atlas ball, carrying some stuff through windows.
And then you go to the range and shoot everything. Like 240 machine guns, a sniper range where one partner will shoot the gun while the other person will spot. There’s a three-gun shoot where you’ll shoot a 1911, M4, shotgun and then you’ll get on a helicopter, fast-rope into another range and go right to running onto a mounted gun.
And then you get a bit of a break.
Hold on, hold on. This is still the first day?
Yeah (laughs). This is still the first day. So then you get a bit of a break while everyone is catching up, so it kind of pays to be a winner, to get out front. Because then you get to chill and relax, kick your feet up before the road march which starts around nine at night and goes to two in the morning. It’s between fourteen and nineteen miles. What they’ll do is have a floating finish. So every time you get to a spot and see the finish line, they’ll pack it up and they’ll just fuckin drive away. So you never really know when it ends.
After that, they comp all the scores from all the weights. And if you’re in the top twenty-four, you get to stay and if you’re not, you pack up and go home.
So that’s day one.
From the road march, they’ll do a layout to make sure that no one dumped any equipment and that everyone has the same weight that they started with. They’re real strict about that.
And the other stipulation is that you’re only allowed to eat MREs. You get five at the start of the competition to last you three days. That’s not a lot of food, especially with how many calories you’re burning. Some guys get crushed with not being able to eat.
There’s also no planned sleep. So maybe if you get done early, you could kind of sleep while the other guys are coming in. Otherwise, they move into Night Stakes, which are events from about two in the morning until about seven in the morning. This year, there were targets out there which you had to shoot with a flare to identify. All while pulling a wounded guy across the battlefield. Those events often have a time limit. They’ll have an eight-minute cap or something.
Another one at night is weapon assembly. They’ll give you skull crushers or give you an attachment for your helmet so that you have to do weapon assembly in pitch-black dark. Everything will be disassembled in a box, usually four or five weapons. You don’t know what they are. Could be an AK-47, M1 Garand. This year, they did the Sig Sauer pistol because it was new.
It’s real difficult because, on a closeup with the night vision goggles, your depth perception is way off. So you’ll have to focus the reticle to get it to see what you’re doing. So it’s a bit of a learning curve if you’ve never done it before. So that’s for time.
If the weapons all pass functions check, you move to a mystery event. They won’t tell you what it is. This year it was morse code. You had to send a message to your partner and he had to send one in return. Your bonus was like, a Snickers bar. It counted for points but you also got a Snickers bar. A few calories go a long way.
Which, for the guys bringing up the rear with no hopes of winning, some extra calories are way more important than a few extra points?
Oh for sure.
And then the other event was a written test. Principles of patrolling, Op order, Ranger history. Random stuff like that. Zodiac weight. A bunch of different stuff.
Then you’ll move into what’s called Day Stakes. Pretty much all the technical tasks after you’ve done all physical stuff on day one. You’ll have to do a demo lane, construct a charge, enter a bunker, clear it, do a “call for fire” mission. You have some binos, a guy in a bunker a few hundred meters out. Plot a grid, determine his position, and then you’ll have to do a call for fire and do the calling sequence and all that jazz.
Another one is the tri-towers, which is a heavier weighted event. You have to tie two prusik knots, on a rope that goes straight up. Two-inches in diameter. A big thick rope. And you’ll use a prusik knot to climb up the rope.
There’s a rock wall on the other side of the prusik. Your partner on the other side starts at the same time and you meet up at the top. They’ll have two teams going at once, two Rangers on the rock wall side and their partners on the prusik side. At the top, there’s only one slot for you to go in, so if you’re the winner, you’re gonna cut that other guy off and make them lose some time. So it’s a race to the top.
And then you have to repel down the tower. Soon as you hit down, you go to a chain ladder, climb to another platform, do a fast rope descent, then you go right into a military knot exercise. They’ll have five mountaineering knots they’ll want you to tie. Tie them as fast as you can and as soon as you’re done, time stops.
Two other big ones are RFR - Ranger First Responder - which is a medical task. So you’ll go in, you’ll find a guy in a helicopter, one of these really elaborate dummies where the blood squirts out, their limbs move. It’s a very real simulation. So you go through your sequence of treating massive hemorrhaging first, checking the airway, all of the steps to treat this casualty in the right order. Throw a tourniquet on, give him a chest seal if he’s got a bullet wound. You have a grader who will give you penalties for not assessing a wound or causing further harm to the casualty. Carry him over some obstacles, call the medivac, they’ll drop you a Skedco. Hook him up and then boom, that’s the end of that lane.
Then you move into the ACFT. Before it was just pushups, sit ups, two-mile run. Now you’re doing a hex bar max deadlift. Three reps. Max is three-hundred-and-forty pounds. You cannot release the bar and it has to be a tap-and-go. That’ll get you like a hundred points. Then you move into hand-release pushups. After that, you do a sprint shuttle. Sprint, drag, carry. Sprint to the end, drag a sled down and back, then grab two forty-pound kettlebells and run back and for with those. There’s a two-minute time cap for that.
Then you do knee tucks, elbow to thighs, twenty of those without falling. Into a two-mile run.
And that’s all one event?
Yeah, that’s just the ACFT.
There are grenade assault lanes where you go out and throw grenades into targets. Those get progressively harder. And then you go out to the highest weighted event in the competition. It’s where the AMU - the Army Marksmanship Unit - trains. You go out and they have a really elaborate three-gun course set up with an M1 Garand, a shotgun and a pistol. You start with the M1 in a really tiny box so you have to shoot standing or kneeling. You have a bunch of steel targets you have to shoot twice. If you miss a target, it’s a thirty-second penalty. Hit your targets, move through an obstacle course, down a cargo net, up a rope, down another cargo net.
This year, they had these little robotic targets that are programmed to go a certain distance and then go hard left or right. It’s like a guy running at you, zig-zagging. And they have vitals within the target, so if you just shoot him, he’s not gonna go down. You have to hit him a certain amount of times in a certain place. And you only see the target for like five seconds. That’s exciting.
This year, they had them go through another ruck movement where they had to carry a forty-five pound box. They gave them a pipe and they had to construct a Bangalore charge. Then they had to move to a location that was two or three miles away, place the charge correctly and blow it up.
That’ll take you through the day stakes of day two.
At that point, they recalculate the scores and if you made it to the top sixteen, you get to stay.
Then you get on a Blackhawk and fly you up to do some night orienteering from ten at night until six in the morning or so. They’ll give you your grids, your time, your left and right boundaries and tell you to go execute. So you’re out there just land naving, all damn night.
So that’s the end of night two.
Then the last few events are pretty fast and furious. There’s the Darby Queen, which is the biggest obstacle course they have in Ranger School. It’s about a mile long, twenty-three or four obstacles. You have two chances at each obstacle. If you fail twice, you’re assessed a five-minute penalty.
Then you’ll construct what’s called a Poncho Raft and then get on the Blackhawk again that’ll fly you over a lake and you just jump out. You land in the lake and just swim to shore with your rucks and all of your equipment and the Poncho Raft. Then you drop your ruck and all of your equipment.
Immediately after that, you got the CWSA, the Combat Water Survival Assessment. You go over a balance beam that’s thirty feet in the air, down a commando crawl, like a rope traverse. You drop in the water with a pretty gnarly slap. Then you get out, run up another tower and zip line back into the water, get out and run to the finish, which is about two-and-a-half-to-three-miles.
Yeah. It’s about seventy-five miles, sixty-eight hours, twenty-to-thirty events.
How much sleep?
The most I got was about four hours. Two hours a night. You can catch naps here and there but there’s no planned sleep. That’s just if you can get there faster and have time to sleep. One year, they put out rucks out near a mortar range. So we’re trying to sleep and there are guys dropping mortars. But if you’re tired enough, you can sleep anywhere.
You’ve won the BRC before?
I won in 2016. We were actually the first National Guard team ever to win it. And I was only the second Green Beret ever to win it, after my mentor Colonel Liam Collins, who won it in 2007. I’ve also taken second twice and third once. So I’ve got the record for the most podium finishes.
So what are you doing now beyond training soldiers for BRC?
I’m currently in the 223rd RTI in the California National Guard stationed in San Luis Obispo. Camp Slo.
And you’re very involved with the international obstacle course racing community?
I’m actually the chairman of USA Obstacle Course Racing, which is just like USA Rugby, USA Cycling, USA Triathlon, et cetera. Right now, we’re a subsport of modern pentathlon. We’re trying to give it new life. I was invited to run a Spartan race out in Breckenridge by Colonel Collins, got my feet wet, got my ass kicked and finished third. I thought, “Man, this is pretty rad.”
So I qualified for the Spartan World Championships out in Tahoe and I frickin won it on my fourth race. People had these shirts made that said, “Who The F Is Robert Killian?” because I didn’t have social media or anything like that. As SF, I didn’t really put myself out there. But then I got approached by sponsors who asking if I wanted to do this professionally.
What year was that?
It was 2015.
And this is how you make a living now?
Exactly. As long as I’m there for my weekend a month with the Guard, I’m good. It’s no different than someone in the National Guard working as a doctor. This is my job. It’s really cool.
I’m doing about thirty races a year, going overseas for races in Austria, Japan, Iceland, Switzerland. I did World’s Toughest Mudder twice, got a hundred and five miles in twenty-four hours, Top American, second-place overall. Just a stupid amount of accolades I’ve been able to accomplish in the last couple of years.
But now I’m successful enough at it that I can pick and choose the events that I do. I have a lot of obligations to do photo shoots, attend product launches, help these sponsors out. But I have the background of the military that helps me with time management and helps me capitalize fully on all of the opportunities out there.
Outside of winning BRC, what’s the one you’re probably most proud of?
Spartan Race World Champs that year. That was the fourth race I’ve ever done.
Yeah. It was insane.