Photo by Robbin Cresswell

 

Captain James Bales had a heck of a weekend in early June. On a Friday morning he crossed the stage at the graduation ceremony for his orthopedic residency at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. By Saturday afternoon, he was standing on the podium of the Armed Forces Triathlon Championship at the Ventura County Naval Base in California—a 1,500-mile flight with less than 16 hours before the gun went off. He put his bike together in the hotel room the morning of the race. It’s not exactly how you want to go into your biggest race of the year, but that’s how Bales has raced for the last 10 years.

As an elite triathlete and orthopedic surgeon in the Air Force, Bales knows he shouldn’t eat a chili dog for lunch. He knows he should schedule eight hours of sleep every night. But when you’re a resident at the largest medical facility in the U.S. Air Force, an elite athlete and occasional Ironman competitor, all that strict schedule and diet business goes out the window. 

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the Air Force and in competition, it’s that coulda-woulda-shoulda don’t count for anything.

“During residency, I got about four or five hours of sleep a night”, Bales says. “You pull call about every third or fourth night, so you have to sleep on a cot with your pager. Then there are times when you’re in surgery and the situation demands that you spend 30 straight hours on your feet.” These kinds of demands put a lot of fatigue on the body, and one wonders how he was able to win this year. But if you take a look at his racing history, you’ll see that this year’s victory was a long time in the making, and no easy journey.

Bales showed great athletic potential as a cadet at the Air Force Academy where he swam on the varsity team until graduating in 2001. He started competing in triathlons soon after that, including Ironman Wisconsin in 2002. Shortly after, he decided to make a run at the Armed Forces Championship. But there was one small obstacle: Bales was ineligible for Air Force sponsorship. “As a medical student, I was placed on inactive reserve status, and only active duty members can receive sponsorship”, he recalls. “So I paid my own way to the race in 2003 and 2004.” It turned out to be money well spent. 

Despite the strenuous pace of medical school at Georgetown University, Bales finished in second place behind then-Navy superstar Tim O’Donnell. Coming back on active duty in 2005, the Air Force sponsored his trips to the competition where he gave consistent performances; he finished lower than second place only once, in 2007, when he took fourth. Every other year he took silver, making him good enough to get him onto the all-Armed Forces squad for the 2007 World Military Games. In his view, however, this was all just short of the real goal. 

Even with such a hectic schedule, Bales found time for other endurance pursuits. He raced with the Air Force team in the military division at the 2008 Ironman World Championships, finishing with a time of 9:51:42. For anyone who keeps track of these things (and I do, just to stir the pot), that’s an hour faster than Navy Lieutenant Commander Andy Baldwin’s first go at Kona. 

It may be less a matter of karma than physiology that Bales finally won the AFTC the same year he completed the grueling training that kept him so fatigued during his annual preparations. Asked to retrospectively assess how much impact med school and residency had on his performance, Bales takes a purely analytic view that serves as doctor’s advice to us all: “If there’s anything I’ve learned in the Air Force and in competition, it’s that coulda-woulda-shoulda don’t count for anything. But the fatigue and sleep deprivation absolutely took a toll on my performance. When you train, you create slight tears in your muscle fibers, and sleep is required to repair that. I missed out on essential recovery periods. That’s why I’m excited about getting into WCAP (the Air Force’s World Class Athlete Program).”

The program Bales is referring to is a special directorate that accommodates active duty athletes with assignment to Colorado so they can train at the Olympic Training Center. In addition to returning to the World Military Games (held this year in Rio de Janeiro), Bales now has his sights set on the U.S. Olympic Team trials. But it’s not the facilities or the company of athletes like Hunter Kemper he looks forward to as much as the rack time. “I’ll be working part time as an orthopedic surgeon at the Air Force Academy—with actual normal hours,” he says cheerfully. His duties will be curtailed to allow for training, but even a full 9 to 5 work day would be a huge relief compared to his last 10 years.  “I’ve got some catching up to do with the other athletes in terms of ITU points and training, but I’m confident I have time.” 

He may be right. The Olympics are still two years away, and at the rate he’s going, all Bales needs is an extra four hours a night.

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Jim Gourley graduated from the United States Air Force Academy with a degree in Astronautical Engineering. He served seven years in the Army as an infantry and intelligence officer in the 101st Airborne Division. An Iron-distance triathlete, he writes on technological developments and military athletes in triathlon for LAVA.