Monthly Archives: February 2012

Driving across Mongolia


I really love this video. It’s incredibly well done, as it shares the experience of driving across Mongolia from within a small car. But more, I love the feel of travel that it conveys, with periods of barrenness interrupted by incredibly interesting interactions or shifts in scenery. Partly it makes me really want to drive across Mongolia, spending the nights camping by the road side. Partly it makes me think that it’s not worth the trouble, given how flat and barren and unforgiving it is. But there’s no doubt that it would be an adventure…

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Becoming GORUCK Tough

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.

Packing for the GORUCK Challenge

I will have a longer post on taking the GORUCK Challenge as part of Class 110 in Baltimore soon, but in the mean time I wanted to itemize out the gear I wore and carried with me in my GORUCK GR1.

Head

  • GORUCK TAC Hat
  • Patagonia merino wool beanie
  • Petzl head lamp

Upper Body

  • Patagonia Merino 3 midweight baselayer
  • Outdoor Research Radiant Hybrid pullover fleece midlayer
  • Brooks Infiniti II running jacket

Lower Body

  • Under Armour compression shorts
  • Under Armour EVO ColdGear legging
  • REI zip-off hiking pants

Feet

  • Injini CoolMax Toe Socks
  • Brooks Adrenaline ASR 7 shoes

Hands

  • Arc’teryx Gothic merino wool gloves
  • Firm Grip construction gloves

In the ruck

  • Under Armour Base 2.0 crew top
  • Injini CoolMax Toe Socks
  • Windstopper gloves
  • Patagonia Houdini jacket
  • Patagonia fleece beanie
  • 100 oz Camelback
  • Food: 2 Clif Bars, 3 packs of Peanut M&Ms, 4 Clif Gel Shots, 2 5 Hour Energies
  • GORUCK Brick Bag (containing food & dry clothes in separate ziplock bags)
  • 6 bricks wrapped with duct tape, saran wrap & bubble wrap and suspended to the top of the ruck with velcro tape

Of the food I brought, I only ate 2 of the Gel Shots and one pack of Peanut M&Ms. I never had a chance to change into any of my dry clothes. I also realized early on that packing my food in the Brick Bag, at the bottom of my ruck, was a big mistake. It should have been much more accessible. I refilled my Camelback once along the way.

In hindsight, I probably would have packed less clothing – maybe only extra socks – and taken less food. Less is more and in the end I probably carried 2+ pounds of stuff for 12 hours that I had no need for at all. Alternatively, I could have swapped these extra things out for beer, as Advanced Cellular Repair Technology was a welcome addition to as the Challenge went on…

Weight Distribution

#GORUCKHumor

Video: The GORUCK Challenge

Only days away until I participate in GORUCK Challenge Class 110 in Baltimore…

The GORUCK Challenge: Bringing People Together Under Really Big Logs

Originally posted at Huffington Post

Outside Magazine recently ran a feature story on the explosion of obstacle racing in recent years. According to Nick Heil, in the last year, “roughly a million people signed up for events in the four most popular series: Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and Muddy Buddy.” These extreme physical challenges certainly allow individuals to showcase their toughness and the events won’t be confused with a casual half-marathon on even pavement.

Unmentioned in Heil’s piece is a challenge which, while substantially smaller than these mega brands, is showing explosive growth in its own right: the GORUCK Challenge. Organized by the military-style backpack company GORUCK, the Challenge is a team event, never a race, and up to 30 people participate in each class. And while the obstacle races above seek to replicate elements of the military’s basic training programs, the GORUCK Challenge strives to replicate elite forces training. Jason McCarthy, GORUCK’s founder, and lead cadre Brian Richardson, met during their Green Beret Selection course. It is this experience which the GORUCK Challenge most closely strives to replicate.

The GORUCK Challenge markets itself as being “8-10 hours. 15-20 miles.” That said, their motto is “Under promise, over deliver.” Challenges have no set time and no announced course, but they will commonly go well over 10 hours and well over 20 miles (In fact, I’ve heard of recent Challenges going over 16 hours and as far as 27 miles). Unlike the larger obstacle races, there are no special obstacles that the people doing the Challenge must overcome. The Challenge moves from city to city and aims to profile the best parts of a location, be it monuments or bridges or famous beaches.

There are, however, some common elements common to every GORUCK Challenge. The first is the ruck – everyone must bring a backpack (preferably a GORUCK bag) with them. If you’re under 150 pounds, you must have four bricks in the bag; if you’re over 150, the requirement is for six bricks (teams must also share an additional 25 pound-plus weight of their own choosing). Thus a 180 pound person doing the Challenge will carry a bag that could weigh close to fifty pounds, with drinking water. The second common element is that, as described by GORUCK Challenge Director Sophie Pollitt-Cohen, “there will be a lot of the Challenge – whether you want to measure the Challenge in hours or miles to go before you sleep, you’re going to do a lot.” Whether you’re running laps on the biggest set of stairs a city has to offer, doing PT exercises in shallow surf, or doing bear crawls on the beach, the Challenge will change your definition of intense.

The third common element is perhaps the most defining one of the GORUCK Challenge: the log. Somewhere along the way, the team will be given a large log – a found object that could be a full-on tree, or a heavy railroad tie. The point is it’s big, it’s wooden and it will weigh hundreds of pounds. The team will be responsible for moving it for a significant portion of their Challenge.

GORUCK founder McCarthy describes the importance of the log in the process of a Challenge. “The log is a great metaphor for the Challenge. When it begins, there’s total disbelief at how heavy it is. For the first hour, the class struggles against working together and assumes that they”ll be allowed to stop before long.”

“During the second hour, there’s a slow acceptance and recognition of the need to work together.” McCarthy gets excited as he reaches the conclusion, “In the third hour, the class just doesn’t give a shit. They’ve figured out their system and how to implement it as a team.”

And yes, in case you missed it, McCarthy is saying that the class will often have to carry logs that weigh more than 600-700 pounds for over three hours. The process is one where individuals must move past their breaking points and learn to work as a team.

As a result, while being a muscular Super Man may work for something like Tough Mudder, it doesn’t guarantee success at the GORUCK Challenge. In the context of replicating the training of Special Forces operators, working together as a team is critical. Lead Cadre Brian notes that, “Leadership comes in different forms.” McCarthy adds, “Leadership isn’t just being able to push a tractor. Everybody has a strength.”

Before Brian signed on to help lead the GORUCK Challenge, he was skeptical that anyone would actually want to participate in it. “I thought the GORUCK Challenge would be nonsense. I had to do this sort of training, but I was paid to do it. Why would someone pay to go through this?” Richardson then went to witness an early Challenge. He says, “I saw how the Challenge brought people together and I believed in it.”

This sentiment is echoed by recent participants. Devin Maier, 31, the Managing Director of Balance Gym in Washington DC was in Class 095. He says his favorite part of doing his first Challenge was “the camaraderie and great sense of accomplishment once you finish.” Likewise, Collins Roth, a forty-one year old father of four, reflects, “It’s not for everyone – you have to be ready for a real mental and physical beat-down. But it was unbelievably fun.”

McCarthy’s perspective on the Challenge shows his deep commitment to the idea that this is an experience that is valuable for the participants and something that they’ll want to share. “The ultimate goal is to bring people together and allow them into a community for organizing themselves.” Given how many people do multiple Challenges and how the Challenge has grown in popularity, McCarthy seems to be hitting his mark.

GORUCK Challenge recently put on their 100th class. They’re expanding beyond the main event to include special, alumni-only events. This past summer Ascent brought GORUCK Tough alums to the Rockies, where they summited as many 14,000 foot peaks in four days as they could. Beached will put people through four days of survival in and around the waters of Key West. They’re also doing a spy craft style event called Trek and are now doing scavenger hunt events in a core set of major US cities. Each of these events seeks to replicate the field craft skill testing America’s elite military forces go through.

As more and more people turn away from marathons and triathlons to more extreme obstacle races, expect the GORUCK Challenge to keep growing, as individuals seek to test themselves not just as athletes, but as team members and leaders.

This is the second post of a three-part series. In my first post, I looked at the GORUCK brand history and its recent growth. The final piece will look at my own experience in GORUCK Challenge Class 110, this February in Baltimore.