JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – As an Air Force Academy cadet, Yvonne Spencer hated running.
“It was not fun,” said Spencer, now a colonel and commander of Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center Detachment 6 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. “Running was more of a means to an end — passing the AF Fitness test. It was not enjoyable for me. I didn’t see the benefit of it and I just didn’t want to run.”
That attitude changed when Spencer caught the running bug a few years after earning her Air Force commission in 1994.
“I started running because I wanted to — not because I had to — and enjoyed it more,” she said. “I ran my first marathon, the 1997 Marine Corps Marathon, after linking with a running friend at Langley AFB.”
While training for the Air Force Marathon, her training partner suggested she try the triathlon. She moved up to competing in triathlons in 2000 and finished her first Ironman – a long-distance triathlon consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.1-mile run – in Florida in 2006.
“I became hooked,” she said.
Now – 14 marathons, 15 sprint/Olympic-distance triathlons, 10 half-ironman triathlons and 7 Ironman triathlons later – she says her passion for the challenge of training and competing has helped her become a better Airman and leader.
“When you’re in command or leadership, the organizational pyramid is turned upside down,” she said. “You are charged to take care of the Airmen who take care of the mission. This means giving of yourself to others, that’s what leaders do.”
To take care of those Airmen, Spencer said leaders must be resilient and ready.
“When I am able to get in a good run or swim, it helps me be resilient for the day’s challenges,” she said. “It’s my opportunity to decompress and recharge. I think I’ve become a better leader because I’ve had that outlet.”
The colonel is currently training for Ironman Maryland - to be held Sept. 28 – and the 2020 Boston Marathon which she qualified for last year. She will also compete in Air Force Marathon events – the 5K and 10K races – at Wright-Patterson this month as a warmup for the Ironman.
“Not quite the Fly! Fight! Win! Challenge (the 5K, 10K and half marathon), but close,” she said. “My focus will be on saving my mental and physical strength for the Ironman Maryland the following weekend.”
Spencer relishes the discipline that comes with training twice a day, about 15 hours of running, biking and swimming every week. But she also believes in balance, stressing to her Airmen the importance of balancing all four of the Comprehensive Airman Fitness model’s pillars: mental, physical, social and spiritual.
“They hold you up. When one leg is weaker than the other, our lives and the mission start getting off track,” she said, adding that everybody’s path to resiliency is different.
“Part of resiliency is finding out what you need to do to combat the everyday challenges and stressors of your work and life. Whether it’s spending time with family and friends, taking a fishing trip or going for a hike in the great outdoors,” she said.
“Through the discipline of training, I’ve learned to ‘get comfortable with being uncomfortable.’ This resonates with me physically, mentally and professionally,” she said. “You’ve seen the picture that says, ‘magic happens outside your comfort zone,’ that’s what being physically fit helped has helped me do – grow beyond what I once thought was possible.”
The colonel is also passionate about helping other people identify and meet their fitness goals. For people who want to start exercising or step up their fitness routine, her advice is to start small.
“Don’t think about it. Just do small activities each day. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture when you start,” she said. “Take the stairs, take 10-minute walk breaks – set a timer at your desk and, when it beeps, walk to the copier and back – and ask a friend to keep you accountable.”
She also encourages people to stay focused and positive when setbacks happen.
“Go easy on yourself. We all fall off the wagon at times. Don’t try to start where you left off, that’s how injuries occur,” she said. “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can. Eventually, you’ll get back on track.”
While Spencer takes pride in her accomplishments and has personal goals – wanting to get faster, finish higher and continue qualifying for elite events like the Boston Marathon – she is proudest of what she’s been able to do to help Airmen meet their fitness goals and improve resiliency.
“Being able to influence others – see them identify a goal, push each other and accomplish it – that’s what’s really rewarding for me,” she said.