Fighter pilot Mike Gommel uses his Top Gun training at the XTERRA World Championship.
As a kid, Mike Gommel wanted to be a fighter pilot. You know, those hard-core guys who fly F16s and live the life of James Bond slash Tom Cruise? To be clear, it is so difficult to become a fighter pilot that only a tiny fraction of people already in the Air Force actually achieve this status.
In this regard, Gommel is in the one percent.
“I’m very, very privileged that I can fly F16s,” he said. “It’s not about being Albert Einstein and it’s not about being Bo Jackson. It’s something in between combined with a whole lot of luck.”
Currently, Gommel is an F16 pilot in the Air National Guard in Colorado. Together with his time in the Air Force, he’s served about 19 years. In his spare time, he flies for United Airlines.
His journey into XTERRA, however, wasn’t just another risk-taking lark. He began the way most of us do.
“It was spring break of 2015 and I was in San Antonio with my family,” he remembers. “I wasn’t working out and was in a bit of a lull. I had put on a bunch of weight and came back from a dinner where I ate a thousand chips and drank one too many margaritas.”
Gommel, who had previously been a Cross Fit enthusiast, began looking up workouts on his computer. He came across triathlon workouts and then, XTERRA.
“I had always wanted to do an XTERRA,” he said. “I just looked at my wife and said, ‘That’s it. I’m signing up.’”
He registered for XTERRA Lory, wrote up his own training plan, and bought a mountain bike. While he had ridden in high school, it had been years since he abandoned the skies for two wheels in the mountains.
“I did OK at XTERRA Lory and Fruita but was surprised by how mentally and physically challenging the races were,” said Gommel.
Another challenge that popped up for Gommel was a deployment in 2016. It was hard to find a pool to train in, and he was stuck at sea level without a mountain bike.
Despite being gone for most of 2016, he placed sixth in his age group in XTERRA Fruita in September. The following year, he was 11th at XTERRA Indian Peaks and fifth at XTERRA Aspen Valley, both in August. That October he was also fifth at XTERRA Rockhopper.
That’s when Gommel decided to get serious. He had a new job with more flexibility and decided to go for it.
“In 2017 I dedicated myself to do the best that I could do in XTERRA,” he said. “I wanted to get myself into the top half or the top third.”
After hiring a coach, he realized there was more involved in XTERRA than just working out. He had to focus on balancing training with his professional and personal life as well as figure out how to hydrate and dial in his nutrition for races.
“I wasn’t bonking exactly,” said Gommel. “But during races, I was getting run down, so it was important that I learn how to eat and drink while racing.”
Additionally, Gommel appreciated that his coach designed workouts and kept him accountable.
“If I decided to do a workout with four threshold climbs on my bike, I may or may not finish that fourth one,” said Gommel, honestly. “But knowing my coach was looking at my workouts, I did that fourth climb. Additionally, he helped me figure out my nutrition, balance base workouts versus build workouts, and taught me how to peak and taper.”
Gommel’s results speak for themselves.
In 2018, he was fifth at XTERRA Fort Yargo, 12th at XTERRA Oak Mountain, second at XTERRA Lory, 11th at XTERRA Beaver Creek and seventh in Utah at the XTERRA Pan Am Championship. He was also named XTERRA Regional Champ in his 40-44 age group, earning him a ticket to the XTERRA World Championship in Maui.
Gommel admits that the mental fortitude he learned in his military training was helpful.
“I could definitely call on that,” he said. “I didn’t realize when I signed up for my first XTERRA how much mental toughness is involved. There’s the physical portion of course. But there is also that moment when you come around a switchback on your bike and realize you still have a long way to climb. Just like flying an F16, there’s no place for fear. It’s all about execution.”
In other ways, Gommel shows that fighter pilots are just like us.
“I had a lot of doubts,” he admitted. “After I came back from my deployment and was out of shape, I jumped into a sprint and thought, ‘What am I doing here?’”
This past year at the XTERRA Pan Am Championship in Utah, Gommel was riding alone and thought for sure he was dead last in his age group.
“I came out of the water two to three minutes slower than I wanted to be,” he said. “I was all by myself on the bike and didn’t know where I was in the pack. And on the run, it felt like I just kept turning and going up. I kept wondering, ‘Man, is this ever going to end?’”
Unlike in 2017, when Gommel crossed the line and immediately looked at his results, this year, he took a shower, ate, and then went back to get his card.
“I was shocked,” he admitted upon seeing his results, which announced his 7th place finish. “For where I am in life, I thought, this is pretty freaking awesome.”
In addition to calling upon his military background in physical and mental toughness, Gommel also designs mantras for his races.
In Utah, his word was “Grind.”
“That’s what I kept telling myself on the run in Utah. Just grind. I lost track of how many times I said that to myself.”
His approach to the XTERRA World Championship in Maui was similar, but with a few key differences.
“For Hawaii, my mantra was ‘Grind, Hydrate, Embrace.’”
He knew he would need to work hard, and he knew it would be hot and he would need to drink. The word “Embrace” was all about the mana.
“The XTERRA World Championship is special,” said Gommel. “I knew I wanted to embrace Hawaii. I wanted to embrace the situation, embrace the environment, and embrace the experience, you know? Maybe it took me more races than the average guy to get there, but I wanted to embrace the whole week.”
This year, the XTERRA World Championship course in Maui was one of the most challenging in recent years due to rain and mud.
Gommel had a good swim, despite getting a bit pummeled by a wave, and his first mile and a half on the bike felt solid.
“As soon as we hit the off-road portion of the bike course I quickly realized it was going to be brutal because the course was very torn up at that point. It was a lot muddier than I anticipated, and it quickly turned into massive traffic jams with everyone doing hike-a-bike.”
However, instead of getting flustered or frustrated, Gommel kept going.
“I approached the race like I approach my life,” said Gommel. “No matter what's in front of me, I tackle it with everything I have. So that's what I did. I kept moving forward, tried to keep an even head, and help others when I could. I kept thinking, move, hydrate, embrace."
In the end, Gommel finished in the top half of his age group, just as he hoped for. Even more importantly, he realized a goal that was more than a year in the making.
"I had been thinking about crossing that finish line in Maui for 10 months," he said. "At the end of the run, I just started going about as hard as I could. I put the pedal to the floor and just went for it. I caught more people than I thought I would and felt like I was going about as fast as I could at that point. When I hit the beach, it was just so surreal. I remember sitting on my couch a year before, watching people run the beach and thinking, I'm going to be on that beach next year. When I headed up the hill to the finish line, I was spent and finished way behind the time that I had hoped for. But I felt so accomplished and happy it didn't matter. It was a privilege to be there."