Running a mile may not sound so tough, but things get a lot harder when you’re wearing a clunky 84-pound blast-proof bodysuit and 12-pound helmet. That takes a few extra spoonfuls of determination, especially when you’re trying to break a world record while doing it. But that’s where Capt. Kaitlyn Hernandez found herself when she was rounding the curves of the outdoor track at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. on April 3rd. Hernandez was trying to beat the previous Guinness World Record for a woman running a mile in a bomb suit, and, needless to say, she crushed it: finishing in 10 minutes, 23 seconds and shattering the previous record of 11 minutes, 6 seconds.
“As soon as it was done it was kind of a whirlwind, so I didn’t really have a chance to take it in at first,” said the solider, who commands the Army’s 717th Ordnance Company, 52nd Ordnance Group (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), in a recent press release. “But I was very happy and excited. The whole process has just been great.”
To give a better sense of how difficult this feat is: an explosive ordnance disposal suit fully encapsulates the person wearing it and is designed to protect the wearer from blast threats. But all that protection comes at a cost, since the extra weight and insulation “puts individual wearers at significant risk of thermal strain and decreased work capacity,” wrote one Army study in 2015.
“The increased weight of the ensembles (e.g., >35 kg) add significant metabolic demands on the individual; while their capability to dissipate heat and maintain thermal homeostasis is virtually eliminated,” the study found.
Given those challenges, Hernandez started preparing for this record run more than a year ago. That meant hitting the track in the bomb suit once a week, on top of her regular CrossFit workouts. She soon found out that running in a bomb suit takes a certain amount of finesse.
“[T]he helmet’s definitely the worst part because if you’re leaning forward or backward it’ll take your whole body with you,” she said. “Overcoming that is more mental. It’s usually a split-second, any time I run and start feeling sorry for myself I just have to get over it and say it’s not that bad.”
The soldier was well-prepared for the event — she unofficially broke the previous world record several times in training. That bar was set by Hernandez’ friend and fellow EOD soldier Ashley Sorenson.
“Whenever EOD goes out in the bomb suits for a manual approach, it’s really important that we’re able to work and sweat in the suit and still be able [to] perform,” Sorensen said when she set the old record in Hawaii in 2013. “So making it a competition when we train helps with that. Running a mile like this is definitely a challenge.”
Hernandez took that challenge and ran with it, literally. What started out as a friendly competition became a bit more official when sponsors signed on to support the event. Headstrong, a veteran-owned nonprofit that provides mental health care for veterans and their families, became Hernandez’s primary sponsor. (Headstrong was co-founded by Zach Iscol, the former CEO and founder of Task & Purpose. He is no longer involved with the site following its sale to Brookline Media last year.)
“For me, the best part of all this was bringing awareness, not only to the organization but to shed some light on an obvious issue that affects way more people than you’d think,” Hernandez said. “That we were able to promote organizations that help veterans through this, it all worked out very well.”
Hernandez also worked with Navy SEAL veteran Sean Matson, who aimed to break the male bomb suit world record before a leg injury forced him to bow out. According to the Guinness Book of World Records website, that record of 7 minutes, 24 seconds, was set by Mark Gibbs of the British Army in 2017. At the time, Gibbs was a captain training to be an ammunition technical officer, and he was also training to run the fastest half-marathon dressed in a full bomb suit (which he also accomplished in 2 hours, 23 minutes).
With Matson out of the running, Hernandez was all alone on the starting line, but, like any good soldier, the EOD tech was well prepared for any situation.
“It’s like any time you go to work out,” she said. “Sometimes you’re feeling really great, and sometimes it punches you in the face. Windy days are pretty rough too, when you hit a headwind it feels like you’re running in mud.”
The captain also had sage advice from Sorenson to keep her focused.
“She was able to give me some advice – just to try and stay calm and remember it’s only four more laps,” Hernandez said. “Once somebody put that in perspective, in my head I knew that I only had to run four more laps, and for the rest of my life it’s done.”
Matson, Sorenson and Hernandez’ friends and family members cheered her on from the sidelines. With all that support and preparation, Hernandez was ready to crush. It also helped that she’s a beast in her own right, her mom said.
“It never ceases to amaze me, when Kaitlyn puts her mind to something, what she can accomplish,” her mother Jennifer Sperduto said. “To see her do that was so inspirational, and she motivates me constantly. When I see her push herself to these limits … she can do anything she wants to do.”
That includes setting a world record.
Hernandez hasn’t slowed down, either. She’s been preparing for to compete in the quarter-finals of the CrossFit Open, an online competition where some of the world’s most swole athletes battle for the title of “Fittest on Earth.” Hernandez could go into that event with a justifiable chip on her shoulder. After all, she’s already the fastest on Earth, at least in a bomb suit.
“I’m just so grateful for this whole experience and everything that happened and everything that’s to come,” Hernandez said. “I’m overwhelmed and humbled by everybody that has reached out, and it’s just been such a crazy experience.”
Featured image: Captain Kaitlyn Hernandez, commander, 717th Ordnance Company, 52nd Ordnance Group (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), trains at Fryar Stadium March 28, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in preparation to set the Guinness World Record for the fastest woman to run 1-mile in a bomb suit. (Army photo / Ethan Steinquest)