Five Lessons from the Yellow Brick Road

by Isabella Maldonado

The FBI National Academy is an advanced course for law enforcement executives from around the world. For approximately three months, over 200 men and women move into college-style dorms at the FBI training campus at Quantico.

The academic portion of the program is rigorous, requiring attendees to take classes, undergo exams, and submit theses at a university level. Successful graduates receive 17 hours of credit from the University of Virginia

Several years ago, when I was a captain in my department, I was selected for this prestigious program. Since the training is for those in management, the average age of attendees is 42, and I hit that mark squarely.

The academic portion of the training was highly enjoyable for me. Studious by nature and curious by training, I relished the mental challenge. The expansive library at the facility became my haunt, where I pored over texts and case studies or met with groups to create presentations. When others struggled with the heavy course load, I offered what help I could. Some hadn’t taken college classes for twenty years, and studying is a perishable skill. The physical aspect, however, did not come so easily.

I suspected the PT instructors laid awake at night thinking of new ways to torture us. One of my fellow attendees, a woman with the NYPD who ran marathons in her spare time, coached me on proper breathing and body mechanics. Still, I couldn’t get the hang of it. The culmination of our physical training was completing the infamous FBI obstacle course, which comprises 6.1 miles on uneven terrain in the Virginia foothills. The course is interspersed with all manner of barriers and challenges. I’ll never forget the day I lined up with my fellow LEOs to take my shot at completing what they termed The Yellow Brick Road. The picture below is a tree decorated with signs depicting the experiences each runner can expect during the course. This foreboding image is what you see before you begin.

We were grouped in squads of ten with staggered start times. I eyed my running group. The standout among us was a lieutenant named Tim from a department in Wisconsin who belonged on the cover of Muscle & Fitness magazine. The leader of his agency’s SWAT team, we all figured he would set a new course record. The FBI posted such accomplishments in a place of honor for all future classes to see. Everyone knew Tim would do our session proud, and we patted him on the back and wished him well as he stretched at the starting line.

The whistle blew, and off we went. The thoroughbreds took off, but I kept my draft horse pace, conserving energy for what lay ahead. Hearing footfalls next to me, I turned to see Tim loping effortlessly by my side.

“What the hell are you doing?”

He grinned. “Running with you.”

“No way.” I was determined not to let him sacrifice his only shot. “Your name has to go up on the wall.”

He sprinted ahead and spun around to face me, running backward. “I’m 42 years old, happily married, with three beautiful children and a great career. What do I have to prove to anyone?” His look spoke of utter resolve. “You’re always helping everyone else with the academics. Now it’s time to let someone help you.”

He knew I wouldn’t make it on my own. Deep down, I knew it too. That course was too damned hard.

“Are you sure?”

He gave me a stare calculated to make hardened criminals wet themselves. I stopped arguing and started listening. Tim’s extensive SWAT training had taught him techniques. He demonstrated the proper way to get over a six-foot wall, or shimmy under a mesh grid, (sometimes repeatedly) until I could clumsily follow.

At one point, I had to use a single rope to climb a sheer rock outcropping. Halfway up, my arms and shoulders burned, my muscles like noodles. I had nothing left in the tank. Or so I thought. Tim had already scaled the rock face and was looking down at me. He had total faith that I could make it. One of the instructors stood next to him and snapped a photo of me from Tim’s perspective. He wasn’t allowed to help me physically, but his encouragement gave me the needed boost to hoist myself up. That’s why I’m smiling.

A short time later, my NYPD friend came barreling toward me from the opposite direction.

“What are you doing?” I said, panting. “You must have finished ages ago.”

“I did.” She shrugged. “They recorded my time, then I came back to find you.”

“Because you’re insane?”

“Because I’m going to run the rest of the course with you.”

My wingmen stayed by my side, chatting comfortably as if taking a leisurely morning jog while I sucked air into burning lungs and relied on sheer will to keep my rubbery legs pumping.

While other runners flew past, a captain with the Texas Rangers (from a group that had started a good forty minutes after I did) caught up to us and slowed to match the plodding pace I had set for our trio.

He gave me the customary Texan greeting. “Howdy.”

“Your group is leaving you behind,” I said, gasping.

“Seriously?” I couldn’t believe someone else wanted to help. I must have looked every bit the total charity case I was at this point. “It could take me another hour.”

“Then that’s how long it takes.”

We had become a foursome. Amazed by their sacrifice, I began to pick up the pace a fraction, buoyed by the solidarity they showed. The picture below is of the four of us crossing the finish line together, arm in arm.

Isabella Maldonado

1 Comment

  1. Zung Tran on August 27, 2021 at 2:54 pm

    I recognized this “scene” from “The Cipher!”

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