Originally posted at Huffington Post
This is the third and final post in a series on GORUCK and the GORUCK Challenge. Read my first post on the GORUCK brand, GORUCK: The Most Passionate Brand Following in the World and my second post on the GORUCK Challenge, The GORUCK Challenge: Bringing People Together Under Really Big Logs.
The hardest part of the GORUCK Challenge was probably signing up.
I’d learned about GORUCK, a military-grade backpack company, through the indispensable Pack Light Go Fast blog. It was also through Pack Light Go Fast that I learned about the GORUCK Challenge, a team event which puts its participants through a Special Forces-inspired physical and mental ringer. The Challenge always struck me as a bit too intense for me – 15-20 miles of running, PT exercises, all while carrying a backpack filled with about 50 pounds of bricks. I didn’t see the appeal.
My attitude towards taking the Challenge changed when I saw pictures and read about the capstone, alumni-only event in the Colorado Rockies, Ascent. It looked like an absolutely amazing, inspiring trip. If I had to complete a GORUCK Challenge to be eligible to go, fine, that’s what I’d have to do.
Of course, this was easier said than done. While I was fairly athletic in high school and college, I’d spent most of the last seven years working at a desk, with only intermittent periods of committed exercise. I hadn’t gone for a run of more than two miles since college. I was out of shape and would have to lose a bunch of weight to even feel like I was capable of trying the Challenge.
But I wanted to challenge myself. I was a few months away from turning 30, engaged to be married a few months after that, and feeling like I was about to enter a major new phase of my life. Finding out if I was tough enough to go through this Challenge seemed incredibly important. This past October I began considering doing a GORUCK Challenge. I knew I needed at least three to four months to get in better shape, but that timing would put me in a Challenge in winter.
I decided the Challenge in Baltimore at 1 a.m. on February 11th was the best date for me, winter weather be damned. I spent at least a week with my browser parked on the registration page. I’d fill out all the information, including my credit card, and panic, abandoning the registration attempt for another night of thought. When I finally hit submit, I was overcome with a wave of panic and nausea. What had I just committed myself to?
The fine folks of GORUCK like to say that anyone can do the Challenge, that it’s more mental than physical. This is certainly true, but I’m glad that I didn’t do my Challenge on the day I signed up. Had I, I would have either quit or endured some serious pain to finish. Fortunately for me, I had time to train to get myself physically ready for the Baltimore Challenge.
When I signed up, I was a bit above 240 pounds and in just about the worst shape in my life. I figured I’d want to drop about 30 pounds to be ready (and to not unnecessarily weigh down any of my teammates in buddy carries). Since I was effectively starting from scratch physically, I built up slowly on my cardio and strength training. I did a mix of strength conditioning with free weights, kettle bells, and body weight exercise, as well as indoor and outdoor cardio, and bootcamp classes that were influenced by crossfit, but not actually crossfit workouts. I aimed to do a lot of muscle confusion and emphasized building up leg strength in particular, as I’d be traveling a long way under weight.
Short runs on the treadmill evolved into longer treadmill runs. Eventually I moved to running outdoors and built up my mileage to the point where I began to do weighted ruck runs. Let me tell you, losing 20 pounds then adding it all back in the form of bricks really shows you how bad a place you started from. To make matters worse, through the course of my training I found out that I had exercise-induced asthma. Getting that diagnosed and taking medication helped, though I as still susceptible to asthma attacks in my more intense training sessions.
With a month to go in my training, I’d gotten my non-weighted runs up to 14 miles. In the closing weeks I pushed my ruck runs up and got to 14 miles as well. One thing that’s worth noting is that running with a backpack filled with 6 bricks and a few liters of water, which approaches 50 pounds, is less like running and more like a steady jog. The value of training with the ruck on was to break it in and get my body used to moving with the weight. Ruck runs also build up a ton of needed leg strength.
By the time the week of the Challenge rolled around, I’d lost 30 pounds. I felt great. I was healthy, though concerned about the chances of having asthma attacks during the Challenge. While I don’t think it’s possible to be truly ready for a Challenge which is always different, I felt physically and mentally prepared for it. I knew I was in for a whole bunch of Suck, but thought I’d be able to gut through it as long as I didn’t get injured.
The weather in the Mid-Atlantic has been unseasonably warm all winter. A week out the forecast for the night of the Challenge was calling for clear skies and temperatures in the upper 40s. But right before the Challenge, the weather took a turn for the worse. Suddenly it was going to be in the 30s, with a chance of snow. One of my greatest sources for worry had been what I would wear during the Challenge. I’d developed a good system of layers for running in cold weather, but I hadn’t trained in the rain and I expected that we’d be getting wet at some point in the Challenge, regardless of precipitation (the previous Challenge in Baltimore included time in the Inner Harbor).
I eventually decided on a water resistant set of gear that would hopefully dry quickly once wet, but still be breathable enough to keep me cool if I got too hot. I had changes of socks, gloves, and baselayer in my ruck, along with snacks for along the way. I was definitely nervous about my choice of clothing, but at a certain point I had to stop worrying and just do the Challenge.
GORUCK Challenge Class 110 started at 1 AM in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore. When we started, the temperature was in the low 30s and a mix of rain and sleet were falling. One of my concerns was starting a Challenge in the middle of the night. If you’re worried about this, don’t be – your adrenaline will be pumping so hard that you will not be tired in the slightest.
Class 110 started off with 26 people, about a third of whom were GORUCK Tough alumni. Our Challenge was lead by Cadre Lou and a new Cadre, Devin (Devin would be lead cadre on Class 111 the following night). After signing our death waivers and having a basic safety talk, Cadre Lou set us off and running. We moved towards a park not too far from Fells and were quickly doing Indian runs around it. We ran for a while, working on a pace that everyone could keep up with. In addition to our brick-filled rucks, every class has to have a team coupon (redeemable for extra good livin’). Ours was a twenty-five pound, five foot long slosh pipe, filled with water and nicknamed Carl Gustav. We were also given an extra ruck filled with a case of beer. And since one of our classmates was having a birthday, he was given a chunk of concrete that probably weight around twenty-five pounds. As we ran, each of these coupons were kept at the front of our line, an early exercise in teamwork.
We did Indian runs for a couple miles and then were brought into a park to have an orientation to PT exercises. As we entered the park, the sleet had shifted to snow. This is not orientation in the college freshman sense, with parties and too much flavored vodka. Instead orientation was an opportunity to do a lot of exercises until we got them right. Push-ups, flutter kicks, squats, military press, mountain climbers, lunges, buddy carries, and more that I’m surely forgetting. This was undoubtedly the hardest part of the Challenge for me. While I had trained with a lot of these PT exercise motions, I’d done almost no training with an extra 50 pounds on my back. Not training PT exercises with a ruck on was a mistake I will not repeat if I ever do a Challenge again. I gutted through it, but felt pretty awful and was worried that if we were in for another 10+ hours of this, I might not make it.
Fortunately for me, we moved on to our first mission around 3am (no watches are allowed during a GORUCK Challenge, but my guess is we did 1.5-2 hours of running, PT and exercises). GORUCK began integrating missions into their Challenges last year and the missions both provide a closer replication of Special Forces training and move the Challenge more clearly into a leadership development model that tests teamwork and mental strength, as well as physical fitness.
In our first mission, we had to navigate our class across the park we were in while escaping detection by our cadre, who were guarding our next rally point. We broke into teams and moved low and slow across a few hundred yards of grass and hills. Much of our movement was through low-crawling. It had been a mix of snow and sleet for a few hours, the ground was soaked and beginning to accumulate. Between this and our PT exercises, we were all soaked to the bone. I had water sloshing in my shoes and if I squeezed my hands into fists, water would come streaming out of my gloves. It was so wet that I realized all my agonizing over what to wear had been a joke, nothing would have stood up to this wet onslaught.
Movement was incredibly slow as our teams pressed forward. At one point, we spotted the cadre and had to hunker down for a long wait. Given how cold and wet we were, this part of the mission sucked particularly hard. But still, I was having fun and embracing the Suck made it easier to keep working together as a team. By the time we were making it to our objective, though, the Cadre had spotted us and we had failed the mission.
When the mission had started, we were told that if we were spotted, we’d have to low-crawl all the way back down to our starting point. Given that we’d low-crawled most of the way there, this apparently no longer seemed like a suitable punishment for us. Instead it was back to running and a new mission. Along the way we picked up a new coupon – a filthy, discarded couch which we would have to carry the rest of the Challenge, along with a busted up tube television.
I don’t want to reveal too much else about the content of Class 110’s Challenge. I think the mystery of what you’ll be doing in a Challenge is a big part of the mental challenge itself. That said, there are a couple more points I want to make.
After about six hours of snow and sleet, the sun rose and we had a bit of a break to refill our water and eat some food. Shortly after that, I was tapped to be team leader for our third mission. Serving as team leader tested me in a way I hadn’t expected to be tested. I’ve never served in the military and I was a GORUCK Challenge rookie, but watching how our previous team leaders had operated gave me some clues as to how to fill this role. My main responsibilities included keeping an eye as to how people were doing and if they needed breaks, as well as liaising with the Cadre about our mission and mitigating various punishments inflicted on us were key parts, as was navigating the class. Being team leader afforded me an opportunity to learn more about my strengths and my weaknesses than I probably would not have had otherwise. As a result I’ve spent more time thinking about this phase of the Challenge than any other since it was completed.
Since it’s common to every Challenge class, I have to say a couple words about our giant freaking log. Our final mission included carrying a fifteen foot log that easily weighed over 800 pounds and possibly closer to 1000 [Update: Hearing Cadre Lou in a podcast on the Challenge, I have to revise my estimates upwards. This thing was definitely well north of 1000 pounds, could be as high as 1500 pounds]. In addition to this, we had two smaller logs – each over 200 pounds – to go along with our couch, our slosh pipe, our rock, and our extra weighted ruck. Our big log was completely irregular in shape, making it a real challenge to get people of different heights positioned in ways that distributed the weight evenly. I think most every one’s experience was either bent over too far or with it crushing them downward. We had some real heroes during this part of the Challenge, but I can’t say I was upset when we were given permission to put the logs down and start running towards our finishing point.
There was a point on our run back to Fells Point where I knew I was going to finish and a tremendous feeling of excitement washed over me. I had trained for months and worried about my ability to do the Challenge. I was going to finish without injury (actually, this was despite myself as I took two hard falls while carrying multiple coupons – I was seriously lucky I didn’t get hurt). And I was going to get the GORUCK Tough patch that would quietly speak towards my hard work.
Class 110 completed the GORUCK Challenge in a bit under twelve hours. We finished in Fells Point, right where we started. I don’t know the exact mileage we covered, but it was long and it was hard. Mother Nature fought us tooth and nail the first six hours and really heavy things fought us the rest of the way. But we came together as a team and built the bonds we needed to get through the Challenge. While I was able to escape injury, a few others in Class 110 had to fight through serious pain to finish and I can’t begin to say how much I respect the heart and grit these members of our team displayed.
I’m GORUCK Tough and I’m proud of my accomplishment. If you’re reading this and remotely curious if you could do it, know this: you can and you should. Maybe this Challenge isn’t for everyone, but it is for everyone who is interested in seeing what they’re made of. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and you’ll join a community of extraordinary people who know that they are capable of incredible things. Find a GORUCK Challenge in your area and do the work to join this community, I’ll be waiting for you.
…As an end note, I want to extend special thanks to the people who encouraged me to do the Challenge, who helped me get ready for it, and who got me through it: my loving and understanding fiance, Lori; Sophie Pollitt-Cohen, Jason McCarthy, Cadre Lou, Cadre Brian, and Cadre Devin of GORUCK; Devin Maier of Balance Gym; Uri of Pack Light, Go Fast; Mike Petrucci of ITS Tactical; and every single member of GORUCK Tough Class 110.