The soldiers got 13 minutes to run 2 miles on rugged terrain - in full uniform. Then they did pushups in the sugar sand for two minutes, and it was on to the next challenge.
"It's a smokefest, it's to make you delirious - it's all mind over matter," said Staff Sgt. Mark Gelling Jr., who grew up in New Port Richey.
Other exercises in the four-day military competitions include shooting one bullet at each of 40 targets using an M4 carbine rifle - Gelling said he hit a high of 38 - and packing a heavy load over rough terrain. With a heavy rucksack on his back, he found five markers several miles apart, at night, using a compass, protractor and glow stick.
That Gelling bested other soldiers in his unit - earning honors as first runner-up in the 2008 Soldier of the Year competition at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, N.C. - is accomplishment enough. That he did so at age 37 is all the more impressive.
"Why it's so phenomenal what he did, he's the old man. These guys are all 27, 28 years old," said his father, Mark Gelling Sr. of M. Gelling Roofing, a local roofer since 1973.
Part of the 1st Special Warfare Training Group support battalion, Gelling, who turns 39 this week, is an armorer, or small arms weapons repairman, for the school. He expects he may be posted overseas next year, possibly in Afghanistan.
He said the competitions are valuable because of the similarities to a real-life combat situations.
"You don't know what the other guy is doing ... that's what is scary about it," said the jovial, 5-foot-11-inch, 175-pound Gelling, who works out twice daily. "You've got to be at the top of your game. It's survival. It's hard-core survival."
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Gelling honed his physical prowess early, as a young star in the West Pasco Youth Soccer Association. Property Appraiser Mike Wells coached the towheaded youngster on his son Mike Wells Jr.'s team one year in the early 1980s when the boys were about 11. He said Gelling was unforgettable.
If other kids missed a shot or a ball, it was not usually a big thing, Wells said. "With him, it was a big deal and he challenged himself to the point of almost perfection."
His parents served as his main influences: Gelling got his love for guns hunting at his father's elbow. Mom Linda, who delivered mail for 25 years in southwest Pasco, helped teach him how to fish in the lake behind their home.
"They're two working parents who raised two great kids," said Gelling of himself and sister, Lisa Bachus, a charge nurse at Spring Hill's Oak Hill Hospital.
After graduating from Ridgewood High School in 1989, Gelling dabbled in college courses while working for his father. He was living in Hudson when a neighbor recruited him over his pool table. He joined in 1995 "maybe for the thrill," he said.
He served in Germany and Bosnia before his tour ran out in 2001, three months before the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
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For the next five years, "Junior," as his parents like to call him, was back working at his father's roofing company. He got his roofing license and helped put roofs on some 2,000 houses.
It was "quite a ride," said Gelling Sr., who planned to groom his son to someday take over the family business.
But Gelling Jr., who had remained in the reserve, felt the pull back to active duty. His wife, Lynn, wanted to move back to her native North Carolina, where Gelling joined the National Guard in 2006. His sons - Hunter Lee, 3, and 17-year-old Tyler, a son from a previous marriage who already lived in North Carolina - motivated him to reapply to his former Fort Bragg base. He wanted to provide for them. And, he said, "The part-time thing wasn't me."
The Sept. 11 attacks "played a big role in this, I'll be honest with you," Gelling added. "When I saw all my buddies going overseas doing what they did, I felt like I was missing out. Now I get to see them all again."
He re-enlisted in 2008, and combined some credits earned at Pasco-Hernando Community College with his classes at Fort Bragg to earn his associate's degree. Gelling is now going for his bachelor's in military history at the American Military University at Fort Bragg. Next will be a master's in the same field. "I will get it," he said with characteristic determination.
In his first 18 months back, Gelling rose from specialist to sergeant and then again to staff sergeant. He said his coursework has as much to do with his advancement as the physical competitions. He's had some help along the way from Lynn, who teaches ninth-grade English near their home in Sanford, N.C.
But having "maxed out" in the competitions did not go unnoticed. Gelling said excelling in daily physical training led to being picked to compete for his company's Soldier of the Quarter Award. He won that award, which led to the Special Warfare Center and School competition.
The skills testing can get serious. Land navigation trials have caused Special Forces candidates to lose their careers and even lives. Last year, Gelling was a spotter - waiting for trainees to find him in an exercise - when Norman "Ehren" Murburg III, a soldier from Darby, died 400 yards away from the next checkpoint. The Army initially said Murburg was bitten by a water moccasin, but later said he might have succumbed to heatstroke and dehydration or some other undiagnosed condition.
Gelling wonders if Murburg may have failed to send up a flare or activate a tracking device to summon rescue because failure could banish someone from the Special Forces.
Those in the competitions who can't complete the "land navs" are eliminated, but Gelling finished his and aced the reassembling weapons events due to his work with guns. He said he trains Special Forces soldiers on "small arms" from pistols to howitzers. For instance, an M14 machine gun is a small arm, he said.
The war games won't last forever: Gelling said he hopes to become a warrant officer and maybe one day sit on the sort of boards he faced, cleaned up and in uniform, to answer questions about regulations and current events to clinch the competitions.
In the meantime, he hopes to bring some of his wounded comrades who have returned to Fort Bragg to Florida for a wounded warriors fishing trip.
And he expects to take his dad in January to Army post Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Ala., to hunt some of the same sort of terrain on which he won the runner-up Soldier of the Year exercises.
Being allowed to roam the pristine land is a real perk for the men, who are passionate about hunting and fishing.
Gelling said they'll stay in officers' quarters.