AUSTIN, Texas - The sun has yet to shine for another few hours, it's hovering around 30 degrees Fahrenheit and Best Warrior competitors are running on merely four hours of rest as they crowd the starting line of a makeshift running trail at a National Guard training center in Bastrop County.

Despite little recovery time from the pains and injuries from the previous day's events, roughly 40 Soldiers and Airmen from the Texas National Guard endure their next task, marching (or running) a 12-mile course while carrying a weighted pack in full military uniform.

The course is unlit with no indication of how far a competitor has traveled. Large and loose gravel exposes weak ankles and is unforgiving of thin boot soles. The winding, hilly trail is a grueling challenge for any experienced trail runner.

Nevertheless, the competitors persevered placing one foot in front of another, fighting mental and physical discomfort, in a race to the finish line against their peers in the Texas Military Department's Best Warrior Competition.

TMD BWC competitors are hand-selected from Texas' 24,000 Guardsmen and are representatives of their respective units within the Texas Army National Guard and the Texas Air National Guard.

The annual competition showcases TMD's most capable Soldiers and Airmen and promotes a lethal, capable and well-rounded fighting force that serves both Texas and the United States for stateside emergency responses or overseas deployments in addition to their year-round training initiatives.

"It's challenging and rewarding. You can't fully anticipate what to expect to run into, whether it's board (interview with senior leaders) questions, mystery events, or running into brush and trees during the night land-navigation course," said Staff Sgt. Josh Pittman, a combat engineer with the 840th Mobility Augmentation Company and a competitor in 2018's TMD BWC. "You have to be ready for anything and everything."

Best warrior competitions take place nationwide on state, regional and national levels and are sponsored by various National Guard or active Army organizations. No one competition is identical to another but what is for certain is that each competition lasts for several days, throughout the night, and will push competitors to the brink of their physical and mental limitations by way of enduring continuous and stressful tasks, exams and challenges.

"Every competition had at least an interview board, ruck march, ACFT (Army Combat Fitness Test), day and nighttime land-navigation courses, various warrior-task challenges and various live-shooting events," said Spc. Hunter Olson, the overall national winner of the National Guard Best Warrior Competition, first runner up in the All-Army national-level BWC, and an infantryman with the 1-175th Infantry Regiment, Maryland National Guard.

"The competition is difficult for the average Soldier, mostly due to the cumulative fatigue the competition can inflict," said Olson. "There were days where competitors traveled over 18 miles with weighted rucksacks."

Traveling long distances while carrying 40 pounds or more of gear may be only one piece of a competitor's pain puzzle.

In 2018's TMD BWC, competitors competed in a nighttime land navigation course where they were tasked with locating markers, spread hundreds of meters apart in Central Texas woodlands, using only a compass, a map, and moonlight. They were not afforded the luxury of using flashlights or lamps.

Competitors traveled by foot up and over thick vegetation and through creek beds with only victory in mind as it continued to rain and temperatures hovered near freezing. The last competitor to complete this portion of the competition crossed the finish line around midnight, leaving roughly four hours of downtime before the ensuing 12-mile ruck march (run).

"The night land navigation portion of BWC was challenging. Starting late at night after going through multiple events all day was mentally and physically demanding," said Sgt. Zachary Schindler, a 2018 TMD BWC competitor and a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System Gunner with the 4-133rd Field Artillery Regiment. "The weather and conditions of that course immediately put everyone at a disadvantage."

By this point in the competition cuts, bruises and full-body fatigue began to set in because only hours before the nighttime navigation course, competitors had just completed a grueling obstacle course and an intensified version of the Army Physical Fitness Test which included a four-mile run. All of these events are held back to back.

Perhaps a more invisible deterrent to BWC victory, other than physical exhaustion or injury, is the mental strain and uncertainty that many competitors face as these competitions near their end.

It is not uncommon to hear from competitors that they feel nervous before a particular event or are skeptical of their ability to perform. However, the competitors' resiliency in the heat of battle usually reigns supreme, as was the case for Sgt. Noe Ochoa, a 2018 TMD BWC competitor and a cyber analyst in the TXARNG.

"The obstacle course was my toughest event because of my fear of heights so I prepared myself mentally by taking every opportunity to climb high structures and get used to the feeling," said Ochoa. "It paid off. I was able to scale the confidence climb in a personal-record best!"

BWC competitors like Ochoa are representative of the resiliency and readiness that all Texas Guardsmen possess.

Despite the individual-based nature of each event, competitors found ways to come together to lift the morale of one another which helped individual performance and created lasting friendships by the end of the BWC, said 2018 TMD BWC competitor Sgt. Schindler.

"The competition is designed to test you as a warrior. And you will be pushed to your limits under conditions you may not be accustomed to," said Schindler. "All the competitors were great and pushed others along at every event. No one was ever truly alone."

Faced with intense competition, difficult tasks, and harsh conditions, BWC competitors perform at a high level and all Guardsmen should consider competing says the 2018 overall winner of the National Guard BWC.

"While winning is a good goal, the high-level training that BWCs offer should be a big motivator to competitors," said Olsen. "If you are goal-oriented and motivated, take the chance to better yourself!"