How Special Warfare Training Prepped TSgt Matt Stevens for Spartan’s Toughest Endurance Challenge Ever

Sponsored by our partner, U.S. Air Force Special Warfare

In October 2020, Air Force TSgt Matt Stevens joined 23 other top-tier superhuman athletes in our most grueling endurance challenge yet: the Spartan Games. Over five days, competitors battled through mental and physical feats across multiple disciplines including OCR, ultra running, swimming, mountain biking, functional fitness and other strength and endurance-based events. This 3-part series, AIM HIGH, follows TSgt Stevens as he crushes the Spartan Games—watch each episode for more on his momentum, pain points and lessons learned. Plus, how his intense military training prepared him for this epic test. 

Just a few weeks before the Spartan Games kickoff last fall, U.S. Air Force SERE Technical Sergeant Matt Stevens, 35, got an unexpected phone call. AF leadership asked if he’d go head to head with the world’s top OCR athletes on our brutal, unprecedented five-day fitness challenge. His answer? Hell yes. 

Though TSgt Stevens wasn’t exactly sure what he’d agreed to, he knew his combat training as a survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) specialist paired with his background crushing 25 other Spartan Races, would give him the guts and gumption to survive it. So, TSgt Stevens packed his bags at West Virginia’s McLaughlin Air National Guard Base and headed straight to Vermont for what turned out to be one of the toughest, most rewarding tests of his life. 

Tune in to AIM HIGH, Chapter One: FLY to get the 411 on how TSgt Stevens stays fit and sharp, leveraging his military training to battle relentless obstacles in stride with the pros. Plus, read on for how physical dedication and mental discipline tied to his job fosters grit, strength, stamina and perseverance so he can dominate OCR, too. 

BONUS Q&A: How A.F. Special Warfare Training Keeps TSgt Matt Stevens Spartan-Strong

The Job: Saving U.S. Lives Behind Enemy Lines

SPARTAN RACE: What do you do for the Air Force? In other words, what does S.E.R.E. Specialist mean? 

TSGT MATT STEVENS: I have been in the Air Force a little over 16 years. I am a S.E.R.E. Specialist and a subject-matter expert in survival, evasion, resistance and escape [training all aircrew personnel (and others at risk) on how to handle themselves if they’re ever caught up in hostile territory]. 

My main area of expertise is currently personnel recovery focusing on urban evasion and urban warfighting tactics. A favorite part of my job recently has been exercise planning and watching months of hard work unfold into a successful learning objective for respected pilots in the Combat Search and Rescue mission (CSAR). 

SR: So what does your day to day look like, and why is it absolutely crucial you stay fit?

MS: We are always on our feet and on the go. Once you have established lesson plans, exercise plans and the “desk job” items are intact, then you are out and about. That means working on the street teaching urban rescue, in the woods teaching rural survival, getting extracted by helicopters, talking on the radio to A-10s [a.k.a. Thunderbolt II] flying 50 feet above your head. Not to mention, jumping out of C-130s [a.k.a. Hercules], scuba diving in the lakes, plus teaching aircrew valuable information so that they may return with honor.

SR: What are the toughest parts of your job, mentally and physically? 

MS: I believe the toughest mental part of being a S.E.R.E. Specialist is culminating everything you have learned throughout training, and condensing and translating it all through blocks of training for aircrew members during SRT (S.E.R.E. Refresher Training). It is challenging taking three weeks of instruction and shrinking it down to a 12-hour time block. 

The most strenuous part of becoming a S.E.R.E. Specialist is definitely sleep-and-food deprivation. Once you are out of training and into the Air Force as a whole, the hardest part physically is staying in the shape you once were in, carrying around 70-90 pounds on your back. I stay in top mental and physical condition, but I know for a lot of guys around the Air Force, it is a struggle to balance life, work and fitness all in one.

The Fitness: Workouts, Mental Game and OCR Crossover

SR: You were able to compete in the Spartan Games off the cuff—not something most athletes can do. So, what does your fitness training regiment look like on the day to day? 

MS: My day-to-day fitness routine now consists mainly of quarterly-based training plans. Right now, I am dialed back in heavy weight training and focused more on compromised running in the form of functional fitness to train for events like Spartan races. 

I have become more cardio based recently, running 3-5 miles a day. I have been riding a gravel bike 70-100 miles a week through rolling hills and backroads. My HIIT training, or functional fitness workouts usually last anywhere between 12-25 minutes given what my cardio day looks like. I have also focused on recovery days as well as active recovery days. I live by the motto “motion is lotion” meaning, keep the body moving. I follow [OCR pro] Hunter McIntyre’s HAOS workout programming. 

SR: How do you think your A.F. Special Warfare training translates to your experience in obstacle course races?

MS: I really think that our S.E.R.E. mental fortitude is one of the most extreme attitudes that exist in the A.F. [S.E.R.E. Specialists spend months in survival training—including arctic, open water and pararescue—and then teach those same skills back to service members, so it requires major physical mastery and mental grit to get the job done.] This played a huge factor in competing for five days straight in the Spartan Games. A solid training plan coupled with a solid mental base usually equals success in training and in life.

The Backstory: Refusing to Take “No” for an Answer

SR: What inspired you to pursue a S.E.R.E. career path, and why have you been a good fit for the A.F.? 

MS: I decided to join the A.F. when I was 18 in the spring of my senior year of high school. I knew exactly the path I wanted to go down. At the time, I didn’t care what job I pursued, I just knew I wanted to serve my country. I missed being born on the 4th of July by a few hours, so naturally I am a very patriotic person. After 9/11 happened, the patriotic forces within me really drove my ambition to want to serve our awesome country.  

I had known about S.E.R.E. from a family friend early on in the process. The only problem: there was a year-long wait to be rewarded with a contract for S.E.R.E. (Recruitment was much different back in 2003 as compared to what we have the luxury of dealing with nowadays.) As soon as my first opportunity arose to re-train from maintenance to S.E.R.E., I accepted the challenge. 

But, I went to S.E.R.E. Selection (as it was called back then) and FAILED. I had failed the physical fitness test by ONE sit-up. (Yes, I’m serious.) Long story short, I got sent back to the base I was at and was DETERMINED to give it another shot. Only, the A.F. would have different plans for me. I wasn’t able to push my retraining paperwork up until the following year. (At this point, S.E.R.E. was only accepting E-5 [staff sergeants] to E-7 [master sergeants] as retrainees and I was still an E-4 [senior airman].)  

Three years later, I finally made E-5. I put my retraining package in only to get an email back stating “…we are not currently accepting repeat retrainees at this time.” I didn’t like that answer. So I pushed the limits of the words behind the email. I got seven or eight letters of recommendation from colonels, supervisors, commanders, ALS (Airman Leadership School) instructors and so on. I sent an email back attached with the letters and waited. A few weeks later, I secured a seat in the next class. I was 27 years old at the time, and in the best shape of my life (up to that point). Needless to say, I crushed selection and cruised through S.E.R.E. Specialist Training (SST) with a breeze. Year in and year out, I work hard to hone my craft and become the best Airman and best S.E.R.E. Specialist I can be.

Next Up: Stay Tuned for AIM HIGH, Chapter 2: FIGHT… 

SR: Now that you’ve bagged the challenge, what do you think made you an ideal fit for the Spartan Games?

MS: I actually heard about the event first through my wife and the grapevine of other Spartan Pro racers. I never thought in a million years that anyone would consider me for competing in the games though, until I got the phone call from [A.F.] leadership. I had been training all summer with no goal besides to stay personally in shape. It was fitting that I was in marathon running shape, biking shape and heavy-ish lifting shape. I was all around fit so it was almost meant to be. Sure, there are other more fit people than me, but given my background and knowledge in Spartan and A.F., it was perfect.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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