Emily Lilly shares what it takes to complete the most difficult training the U.S. Army offers.

By Emily Lilly as told to Faith Brar
Updated: March 29, 2019

Photos: U.S. Army

When I was growing up, my parents set some pretty high expectations for all five of us children: We all had to learn a foreign language, play a musical instrument, and play a sport. When it came to picking a sport, swimming was my go-to. I started when I was just 7 years old. And by the time I was 12, I was competing year-round and working hard to (someday) make nationals. I never quite made it to that point-and even though I was recruited to swim for a couple of colleges, I ended up getting an academic scholarship instead.

Fitness remained an important part of my life through college, when I joined the Army, and up until I had my children at 29 and 30. As with most moms, my health took a backseat for those first couple of years. But when my son turned 2, I began training to join the Army National Guard-a federal military reserve force of the United States. As you can imagine, there are several physical fitness standards you have to meet to make the Guard, so that served as the push I needed to get back into shape. (Related: What Is the Military Diet? Everything to Know About This Strange 3-Day Diet Plan)

Even after I passed training and became a First Lieutenant, I continued to push myself physically by running 10Ks and half marathons and working on strength training-heavy lifting, in particular. Then, in 2014, the Army Ranger School opened its doors to women for the first time in its 63-year history.

For those who might not be familiar with Army Ranger School, it's considered the premier infantry leadership school in the U.S. Army. The program lasts between 62 days and five to six months and tries to replicate real-life combat as closely as possible. It's built to stretch your mental and physical limits. About 67 percent of people who attend the training don't even pass.

That stat in itself was enough to make me think there was no way I had what it takes to qualify. But in 2016, when the opportunity presented itself for me to try out for this school, I knew I had to give it a shot-even if my chances of making it all the way through were slim.

Training for Army Ranger School

To get into the training program, I knew two things for sure: I had to work on my endurance and really build up my strength. To see how much work I had ahead of me, I signed up for my first marathon without training. I managed to finish in 3 hours and 25 minutes, but my coach made it clear: That wasn't going to be enough. So I started powerlifting. At this point, I was comfortable bench pressing heavy weights, but for the first time I started learning the mechanics of squatting and deadlifting-and immediately fell in love with it. (Related: This Woman Swapped Cheerleading for Powerlifting and Found Her Strongest Self Ever)

I eventually went on to compete and even broke some American records. But in order to make Army Ranger School, I needed to be both strong and agile. So over a five-month period, I cross-trained-running long distances and powerlifting multiple times a week. At the end of those five months, I put my skills to one final test: I was going to run a full marathon and then compete in a powerlifting meet six days later. I ended up finishing the marathon in 3 hours and 45 minutes and was able to squat 275 pounds, bench 198 pounds, and deadlift 360-something pounds at the powerlifting meet. At that point, I knew I was ready for the Army Ranger School physical test.

What It Took to Get Into the Program

To even get into the program, there's a certain physical standard you need to meet. A weeklong exam determines whether you're physically capable to start the program, testing your abilities both on land and in water.

To start, you need to complete 49 pushups and 59 sit-ups (that meet military standards) in under two minutes each. You then have to complete a five-mile run in under 40 minutes and do six chin-ups that are up to standard. Once you're past that, you move on to a combat water survival event. On top of swimming 15m (about 50ft) in full uniform, you're expected to complete obstacles in the water where your risk for injury is high.

After that, you have to complete a 12-mile hike-wearing a 50-pound pack-in under three hours. And, of course, these grueling physical tasks are made worse since you're functioning on minimal sleep and food. All the while, you're expected to communicate and work alongside other people who are equally as exhausted as you are. Even more than being physically demanding, it really challenges your mental stamina. (Feeling inspired? Try This Military-Inspired TRX Workout)

I was one of four or five women to make it past the first week and start the actual program. For the next five months, I worked to graduate from all three phases of Ranger School, starting with the Fort Benning Phase, then the Mountain Phase, and ending with the Florida Phase. Each one is designed to build upon your skills and prep you for real-life combat.

The Grueling Reality of Ranger School

Physically, the Mountain Phase was the most difficult. I went through it in the winter, which meant carrying a heavier pack to cope with the harsh weather. There were times when I was hauling 125 pounds up a mountain, in the snow, or in the mud, while it was 10 degrees outside. That wears on you, especially when you're only eating 2,500 calories a day, but burning a heck of a lot more. (Check out these science-backed ways to push through workout fatigue.)

I was also often the only woman in each of the phases. So I'd operate in a swamp for 10 days at a time and never laid eyes on another woman. You just have to become one of the guys. After a while, it doesn't even matter. Everyone is assessing each other based on what you bring to the table. It's not about whether you're an officer, whether you've been in the Army for 20 years, or whether you're enlisted. It's all about what you can do to help. As long as you're contributing, no one seems to care if you're a man or woman, young or old.

By the time I reached the final phase, they had us operating at a platoon-level environment, working with other platoons, and testing our ability to lead people through swamps, code operations, and airborne operations, which included jumping out of helicopters and airplanes. So there are a lot of different moving parts, and we were expected to operate in those conditions to the military standard with very little sleep.

Being in the Army National Guard, I had very limited resources to train for these simulation tests. Other people in the training with me came from areas in the Army that gave them more leverage than I had. All I had to go off of was the physical training I had put myself through and my years of experience. (Related: How Mindful Running Can Help You Get Past Mental Roadblocks)

Five months into the program (and just two months shy of my 39th birthday) I graduated and became the first woman from the Army National Guard to become an Army Ranger-something that's still hard for me to believe at times.

There were so many times I thought I was going to quit. But there was a phrase I carried with me through it all: "You didn't come this far, to only come this far." It served as a reminder that it was not the end until I finished what I went there to do.

My Next Conquest

Completing Ranger School changed my life in more ways than one. My decision-making abilities and thought process shifted in a way that people in my current unit have noticed. Now, people tell me I have a strong, commanding presence with my soldiers, and I feel like I've really grown in my ability to lead. It made me realize that the training was a lot more than just walking through swamps and lifting a bunch of heavy weights.

When you push your body to such extremes, it makes you realize that you're capable of doing so much more than you think. And that applies to everyone, regardless of whatever goals you've set for yourself. Whether trying to get into Army Ranger School or training to run your first 5K, remember not to ever settle for the minimum. You can always take one more step even if you feel like you can't. It's all about what you're willing to put your mind to.

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