Meet Washington National Guard's Spartan Warrior
“Put one foot in front of the other,” Julie Keppner kept saying to herself.
“Focus on the little goal right in front of you,” she added, standing in position, waiting for the signal at the start of her latest attempt to conquer another Spartan Race.
“Anything is possible.”
Keppner, 36, lined up next to hundreds of others, all of them revved-up and set to leave everything out on the course in order to get the fastest time. That is, after all, what a Spartan Race is all about. The mentality is also what makes her a clear champion in the Washington National Guard, and gives her the potential to be the state’s very first female Infantry Officer. She’s a Motor Transport Operator, 88M, but things are changing quickly for her.
Off to the races
The Spartan Race is a series of obstacle courses of various lengths designed to test the willpower, endurance and stamina of anyone who attempts them. They range from three to five miles with 20-23 obstacles, a Super at eight to ten miles with 24-29 obstacles, a Beast at over 12 miles with more than 30 obstacles, to the Ultra Beast at 26+ miles at more than 60 obstacles. Complete all three distances (Sprint, Super, Beast) and earn a Trifecta.
To the average person, this might seem like a totally absurd situation to voluntarily put yourself in, but to Keppner this is just another weekend.
"I've done almost 50 Spartan Races, including three Ultra Beasts, and over 100 races all together,” recalled Keppner, who calls Kent, Washington home. "I've done seven marathons and 21 half marathons."
Keppner wasn't always an enthusiast of endurance races. In fact, it was just in April of 2012 when she ran a half marathon on a whim. She flew down to California to visit a friend and found out that her friend was going to run the race by herself.
"I wanted to support her and help her out. And so, I ran the half marathon without training for it," Keppner said.
It was at that moment, after running 13.1 miles without training that Keppner realized the human body can do so much if you just put your mind to it. "If I can simply walk on and complete a half marathon without training, what else can I do?" Keppner thought to herself. Her motto became, 'If you Believe, you can Achieve.'
"That first year I signed up for several half marathons and three obstacle races," Keppner said.
Over the course of the next couple years, Keppner just couldn't help herself. She signed up for all the marathons, half marathons, obstacle races that she could find. It started off every couple of months and then quickly turned into nearly every weekend.
One race was not enough.
"How can I make it harder?" Keppner asked herself.
She started making half marathons harder by adding a ruck sack, wearing boots and cargo pants on obstacle races, completing only men's obstacles, multiple races in a day, back-to-back races in a weekend and following up shorter distance races with longer ones, such as a Beast and Ultra Beast.
She's even gone so far as to book flights to Spartan Races around the country.
For Keppner, submitting herself to these grueling and exhausting endurance races isn't just about proving to herself that she can conquer them, it's about finding guidance in her life.
"I think, overall, between obstacle racing and the military, they have helped with always looking forward and having a vision of where I want to go. Having these races to look forward to has helped me stay motivated in life."
Challenging the status quo
Prior to her military career, Keppner was in a traditional relationship based in a religious culture that was family-oriented.
"It was not common for wives to work outside the home or be in the military. It was the husband's job to provide for the family, and the mother's job to care for the children and tend to the home," Keppner said. "I accepted it at the time, and it is a great culture, but it's very difficult for ambitious, goal-oriented women like myself who's main role is to be the homemaker. Once I left, I decided to go after all the things that I couldn't do."
One of those things was enlisting in the military.
Keppner, 32-years-old at the time and a recently single mother of two, started her own business as a fitness coach. She volunteered much of her time preparing Marine Corps poolees (those who have passed all the prerequisites for service, have signed a contract and are awaiting shipment to boot camp) and those wanting to enlist for the rigors of recruit training. She coached them on physical fitness in order to help give them a running start at boot camp. She also took on clients on an individual basis.
Keppner has a passion for inspiring people to be the best version of themselves. That's why the Marines kept returning to her to motivate and train their newest recruits.
"The thing with my business, as well as coaching in general, was that it focused on dreaming big and living out your passions and helping other people," she said. "I wanted to be a part of that. Also, my lifestyle of coaching and obstacle racing really ties closely to the military."
Being around and coaching all the eager and motivated recruits inspired Keppner to be a part of the very organization she was helping to strengthen.
"I looked into the Marine Corps but I was too old for them so I couldn't enlist there," she recalled. "I considered the Air Force and the Navy but the reason why I chose the Washington National Guard was that I felt that with the Guard I would be able to live where I wanted to – have my family here, run my business and be in the military at the same time. I would have that flexibility."
So, in December of 2013, she enlisted in the Washington National Guard and soon joined Officer Candidate School with the hopes of being an officer.
"I chose the officer route because as an officer I could have a larger base of people that I can inspire and influence," she said.
Fun for the whole family
When Isaac, 11, Keppner's youngest, was six years old, she brought him to a local obstacle race. It was fairly small and was geared toward the younger crowd. There was a one-mile course and a three-mile course.
"At first, he told me that he didn't want to run at all," Keppner recalled. "I told him that it's okay, you don't have to if you don't want to."
As Keppner continued on to the starting point, Isaac spoke up and said that he wanted to give the one-mile course a try. So, they got Isaac registered and they started the one-mile obstacle course. As they came upon the end of the first mile, they had the option to quit now or continue on to complete the three miles.
"At that point, at the cutoff, he decided to keep going," she said. "He went from not wanting to do anything, to wanting to do just the one-mile course, to wanting to do the whole three-mile course."
But once they got to the end of the three miles, Isaac spoke up.
"I want do this again," he announced.
So, he did...two more times. At the end of the day, Isaac and his mom completed about nine miles of the local race, turning what was supposed to be a quick jaunt into an afternoon affair.
"At that moment, I really saw myself in him," she said.
Little Isaac is not the only Keppner child to tackle various mud runs with their mother. Hannah is Keppner's oldest. She's 14 years old and recently ran a Spartan Sprint in Big Bear Lake, California and earned her first Trifecta. Keppner remembered the struggle Hannah had during this particular race.
"She really struggled with this one due to the elevation," Keppner recalled. "I told her 'Look. Look around you. You're not the only one that's having a hard time. Everyone is having a hard time. Just take a deep breath, you're going to be fine and we can continue when you're ready.'"
Keppner reassured her daughter once they crossed the finish line of the Big Bear race. She treated Hannah's experience as a teachable moment for her. Life is not always going to be easy. Life is full of obstacles and we shouldn't quit when we start to struggle a little bit. When we stop and look around, we realize that we're not the only ones struggling.
Both have been racing with their mother since 2012. Hannah has done 30 races and Isaac has completed more than 40.
"They really like the bonding experience of doing [races] with me," she said. However, when she continued her thought she couldn't help but notice the irony in her children's affinity toward these races. "They like the obstacles and yet they don't like the obstacles. They like the challenge of them and they like doing them but yet they hate doing them. It’s a weird concept," she chuckled. “All obstacle racers understand this concept and do the races because of the struggle and challenge of doing them.”
First comes Infantry, then comes Ranger School
When Keppner first enlisted into the National Guard, the Department of Defense was still reviewing its initiative to open combat arms occupations to female service members. The idea to be an Infantry leader hadn't crossed her mind in the early stages of her career.
That all changed on the side of a mountain in Temecula, California in 2014.
While Keppner was in Officer Candidate School (OCS), she had a weekend off and took the opportunity to fulfill her itch to do a Spartan Race. She was coaching a client at the time and flew to Southern California to do a Spartan Race with her.
"There are two ways to do a Spartan Race," Keppner explained. "One way is if I'm doing it by myself, I go for time. The other method is with other people. You are there to provide assistance when they need it."
In this particular race, she was there to provide support for her client. This was the first time the Temecula Spartan Race held their event in September as opposed to the more reasonably temperate January. The temperature exceeded 100 degrees and people weren't prepared and started dropping out of the race left and right. Even Keppner's racing partner dropped out after six miles. The heatwave that weekend gave rise to the race's new nickname, "Hellmecula."
"It was so hot that people started getting heat exhaustion and heat stroke," Keppner said. "They didn't have food, didn't have water."
Keppner, who is 5-foot one and 128 pounds, went into action. She spent the next eight hours tending to exhausted racers – helping them in any way she could. She would run up and down the side of the mountain bringing people safely down and getting them much needed food and water.
Keppner posted about her experience on Facebook and the sergeant major of OCS noticed. He reached out to her and asked if she would like to attend a certain premier Army school.
"He contacted me on Facebook and asked me if I wanted to go to Ranger School," Keppner recalled. "He said that I demonstrated a lot of the qualities and abilities of what it takes to be a Ranger."
The military recently opened its combat arms occupations to women, including Infantry, Rangers and Special Forces.
That was all the convincing that Keppner needed. Keppner dropped out of OCS in order to go get a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). An MOS is required before going to Ranger School. She chose 88M which is a Motor Transport Operator. She wanted to be one of the first females to attend Ranger School but due to an unforeseen funding issue she was not able to attend that first class.
That meant that Keppner had to wait because she missed the cutoff to get back into OCS. During that year-long wait she found herself being pulled toward the Infantry.
"Right before I went back into OCS, I went to a career fair," Keppner recalled. "One of the presenters said that they needed female infantry officers." With the integration of females into combat arms, one of the stipulations is that there needs to be a qualified female officer appointed in a leadership position before they can start filling positions with lower enlisted women.
"The Guard was standing up a new infantry battalion and needed infantry officers," she said. "So I said 'As long as you send me to Ranger School.'" It's been three years since Ranger School was opened to females in that first class, and she is finally able to attend.
“Keppner is a driven soldier,” said Staff Sgt. Virginia L. Adolfson, Keppner’s sponsor/mentor throughout last year’s Washington National Guard’s Best Warrior Competition, which saw Keppner score high marks. “Her focus and strength is an inspiration to her fellow soldiers.”
As Keppner stares down this next long road of Army schools that she is about to go down, she can't help but recall the words that go through her mind at the beginning of a Spartan Race: "Put one foot in front of the other, focus on the little goal right in front of you, and anything is possible.”
"I attack my military career just like I attack a Spartan Race, I focus on the next immediate task, be it an obstacle on the course or the next school, and I get past it," she said. "Then it's on to the next one and the next one."
Keppner's next school is Infantry Officer Basic Leader Course (IBOLC) at Fort Benning, Georgia. After that, she goes on to Ranger Training Assessment Course (RTAC/Pre-Ranger School) and if all goes well, followed by Ranger School, also at Fort Benning. Once Keppner completes IBOLC and is fully branch qualified, she will be Washington's first female Infantry Officer.