FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - The second word most of his fellow officers use to describe 1st Lt. Ivaylo Benov, an assistant operations officer on the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, "Bobcats" staff is "humble."
"You always find out about what he does secondhand … somebody always has to come in and do his bragging for him," Maj. Jason Dye, Benov's superior officer says.
The first word most Bobcats use to describe him is "fast;" very, very fast.
How fast? Fast enough to run 40 miles in just over five hours, 30 minutes -- or, broken down into more digestible terms, fast enough to average about eight minutes, 30 seconds, per mile in a race more than 10 times longer than a typical 5k.
Benov, who was born in Bulgaria and grew up in Durham, N.C., placed first in the Equinox Ultra Marathon in North Pole, Sept. 15, clocking in at 5:36:02. In the process, he not only beat the second-place finisher by 17 minutes, but also set a new course record by 19 minutes.
"I never thought I'd be running distances," he says. "I'd originally trained as a swimmer. I never ran competitively until 2008 while I was deployed, and I didn't follow that up until 2010, when I ran my first Army 10-Miler."
That admission is hard to believe for most of Benov's fellow Bobcats. In the six months since he returned from a deployment to Afghanistan, Benov has placed first in the Army 10-miler tryouts, and was among the top five runners for the first 18 miles of the Mayor's Marathon in Anchorage last June before he rolled his ankle around mile 19.
Benov says the marathon injury set him back in his training for both the 10-Miler team's upcoming competition in Washington, D.C. and training for the Equinox.
"It was a lesson learned," he says with a chuckle. "I'd always assumed that I could never get injured, so when I first felt pain during the [mayor's] marathon, I just ignored it. If I'd stopped two or three miles earlier, the last two months would have been much easier."
As a result of his injury in Anchorage, Benov had to spend more than a month in recuperative therapy before he was able to resume training in earnest, and even after he was back hitting the pavement, he was only able to really train at distances of around 10 miles.
"Part of it is just the focus on all of the 10-Miler team events we have coming up," he says. But part of his reduced training was also out of a healthy, newly-acquired sense of patience. "It's an Armyism to push through any kind of hardship, but in the case of a real injury, pushing through is a loss for everyone," he says.
In spite of his injury and relative lack of preparedness for the ultra marathon; however, Benov was determined to compete in it. Anchorage would have been his first marathon, had it not been for the injury.
"The Equinox completed the healing process for me," he says, explaining why his decision to jump from practicing for 10 miles to competing at 40 miles. "I'd only been training for a couple of weeks prior to the race, so by mile 12 I had some serious doubts creeping in, but something I've learned is that your body can adapt if your psychology is there."
Psychology, it turns out, is perhaps the single most important key to understanding how Benov runs as successfully as he does.
"You have to be relaxed," he tells all of the soldiers he trains with on 1-5's running team, Team Bobcat Rush. "You have to have the heart for it. That's what gets you up in the morning to go and train."
But, Benov is also quick to emphasize that heart and mentality alone aren't sufficient to be a truly successful runner.
"At the end of the day, you have to be efficient in your technique. You have to be motivated to train, fit to compete, but efficient to win. Efficiency will always beat effort, 100 percent of the time."
Benov also tells his soldiers that in addition to training right -- focusing on form and efficiency -- they have to train as much as they can and learn to "push themselves through it."
"If I could give one piece of advice to soldiers who are contemplating starting to really get into running shape, it'd be for them to start running competitively," he said. "That's what gives you something to train for. When you have a race coming up, that motivates you to wake up and train hard for something, gives you goals to set and helps you develop a training plan. That in turn helps prevent injuries," he says.
There's no rest for the Bobcats' fastest man -- also quite possibly the fastest man in Alaska.
Next week, Benov and the rest of the U.S. Army Alaska 10-Miler team will compete in another 10-Miler race at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and later in October they'll compete in the national 10-miler race against all of the other teams from across the Army.
Benov doesn't seem apprehensive in the slightest about the upcoming races. "I may not be where I want to be in terms of fitness," he admits, but adds, "psychologically, I'm good to go."