by | Apr 18, 2024 | Isabella Maldonado, The Writer's Life | 11 comments

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.

RUNNING the FBI Training Course

Image of the FBI National Academy seal: Goldren eagle carrying olive branch and bunch of arrows over USA flag shield on light blue circle. Beneath: Knowledge Courage Integrity in simicircle, serif font. Ringed in Gold, then dark blue, then gold.  FBI National Academy on topside of dark blue ring, three stars on bottom. A thin dark blue ring is next, then crimping of the seal, in jagged circle and topped with crowning design. Atop all NA in dark blue and white box. Entire image gives impression of a military-style pinnable medal.

The academic portion of the training was highly enjoyable for me. Studious and curious by nature, 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 spent their nights dreaming up 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.

RUNNING the FBI Training Course

The tree at the starting line (background is other thin tall tree trunks, seems to be Fall) covered in signs top to bottom, tree continues out of frame. 
Signs in various read top to bottom:
PRIDE (bottom half wahing away)
ADRENALINE (fading in center)

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?” I asked between gasps.

He grinned. “Running with you.”

“No, you can’t.” I was determined not to let him sacrifice his only shot at breaking the current record. “Your name has to go up on the wall.”

He dashed ahead a few steps 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 protesting. 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, and my muscles felt 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 in the picture.

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,” she said, falling into step with Tim and me.

RUNNING the FBI Training Course

Isabella climbing a rock face on rope, she is smiling looking tired but exhilarated. She has dark hair in a ponytail, bangs, and a gray tshirt. Rock face is gray with dappled shadowing. Branches litter the browning ground far below below.

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.

RUNNING the FBI Training Course

Four competitors running on a rode, each with arms around the others shoulders and tilted forward in motion, matching gray shirts darkened with sweat. Shadows from the trees fall across their laughing faces. Background: Grassy hillside extends up left of image and roadway, mostly leafless trees frame the image, cut throw at an angle along the roadways. The sky is bright, cloudless blue.

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.

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

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

“I’m going to cross the line with you.”

“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. Inspired 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.

That humbling and powerful experience changed me in many ways.

These are the five life lessons I learned in my journey along the aptly named Yellow Brick Road:

  1. If you’re better at something, help others. 
  2. When you’re the one struggling, swallow your pride and accept help. 
  3. No one makes it through the rough patches alone. 
  4. Coming in first doesn’t mean you won. 
  5. We are all capable of far more than we believe.
"Yellow Brick Road FBINA 232" in black on a yellow brick to left. FBI Training seal to right on marble square. A black pen in front inscribed with FBINA. All on a dark wooden table. Background: browns and creams of a wall.

Isabella Maldonado: Author of Looking for a Real-Life Hero

Wall Street Journal bestselling and award-winning author Isabella Maldonado wore a gun and badge in real life before turning to crime writing. A graduate of the FBI National Academy in Quantico and the first Latina to attain the rank of captain in her police department, she retired as the Commander of Special Investigations and Forensics. During more than two decades on the force, her assignments included hostage negotiator, department spokesperson, and precinct commander. She uses her law enforcement background to bring a realistic edge to her writing, which includes the bestselling Special Agent Nina Guerrera series (which is being developed by Netflix for a feature film starring Jennifer Lopez), the Special Agent Dani Vega series, and the Detective Veranda Cruz series. Her books have been translated into 22 languages.

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  1. Karna Small Bodma

    I’m in absolute awe of your talents (and perseverance) Isabella!!! NO wonder your books are bestsellers – what with your background and experiences like those at the FBI. Thanks for an inspiring story!!!

    • Isabella

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Karna! Hoping people connect with the stories.

  2. Tosca Lee

    Darn it, Isabella, this made me cry.

    • Isabella

      Aww Tosca, I’m so glad to hear that. I wanted to write this post like a story. It really was a life-changing experience.

  3. Chris Goff

    That’s what makes you and the other officers great law enforcement people. The selflessness they showed makes them the best of the best. I am in awe—and it made me tear up, too!

    • Isabella

      Thanks, Chris! I have seen my fellow officers do the most amazing and self-sacrificing things…and it rarely ever makes the news. It’s nice to be able to share the better side of those in blue in my stories so people understand us better. Glad to hear it touched you.

  4. Alex Kava

    Wow! Just wow!

    • Isabella

      Thanks, Alex! Glad you enjoyed hearing about this journey. I really couldn’t have made it without help.

  5. Lisa Black

    That is so super cool! And what a bunch of accomplishments, on everyone’s parts.

    I was lucky enough to take a course in infrared spectroscopy (no obstacle courses required) at Quantico. Coming from the old, OSHA-nightmare coroner’s office in Cleveland, it was like seeing how the other half lived.
    Also did all my Christmas shopping in the gift shop!

    • Isabella

      Thanks, Lisa! Like you, I try to share these experiences with readers, although sometimes it’s hard to translate them onto the page. I do some Christmas shopping at the FBI NA online gift shop too!

  6. Isabella

    Thanks, Chris! I have seen my fellow officers do the most amazing and self-sacrificing things…and it rarely ever makes the news. It’s nice to be able to share the better side of those in blue in my stories so people understand us better. Glad to hear it touched you.