I’m jogging outside a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue. “GO!” A strong glare reflects from the tinted windows that rest just above street level. “RUCK!” It is lunch time and the restaurant is crowded. “GO!” A small child points in my direction and yanks at his mother’s sleeve. “RUCK!” She ignores him and continues to make conversation with a woman sitting across the table. I squint to make eye contact with the boy and give a quick nod. “GO!” I have a GR1 strapped to my back, another strapped to my chest, and a third resting diagonally across my shoulders, each loaded with six bricks, a camelback, and other supplies. “RUCK!” A GRT who has lost the use of his right leg hangs on my right shoulder as I fight to work my fist beneath the strap from the third ruck, which has now jostled itself up my neck directly below my carotid artery. “GOOD!” I turn my head to see members of our squad in the rear of the line desperately struggling to carry those who are “dead” and “wounded.” We have come so far on this journey through the night, but we have little, if any, idea of how much further we must go. “LIVING!” We are cold, wet and covered in dirt. We are tired and hungry. “GO!” Our muscles and bones ache, but we remain focused on one thing…moving forward with the task at hand – to get to the White House…as a unit, by whatever means necessary. “RUCK!”
So this is Good Livin’…
I approached my first GORUCK Challenge like I would any endurance event. I prepared. I ran for miles with a weighted back pack. I practiced burpees, bear crawls and pull-ups. I spent hours on Facebook researching cold-weather gear, looking at pictures from previous GRC’s, and trying to figure out the best way to tape up my six-brick requirement. I’ve completed three Tough Mudders, but never ran through the night before for more than a few hours or a few miles. I can’t tell you how many hours of sleep I lost trying to figure out how I would survive this 8-10 hour journey while wearing a 30-pound backpack that covered 15-20 miles in the dead of winter.
…there’s no better feeling than looking around at your bad-ass teammates with the sense that you are all now a part of a distinct group who know what it’s like to go through hell and back.
Jason McCarthy, the founder of the GORUCK Challenge, would call this “over-gaming” it. So many of those who sign up for a GRC go through the same process that I did. They search for any and every element of the Challenge that they can potentially control and game the hell out of it, from taping and strapping bricks to determining the precise amount of gel packs one will need for energy. But after completing my first GRC last month, I’ve learned one very important lesson – you can never fully prepare for the Challenge–it is an experience like none other.
The Road to GORUCK Tough
My journey to GORUCK Challenge started late last year when the GRC still had a spot on the Tough Mudder webpage. I tried to get a few of my TriState friends to sign up, but they saw the Challenge as a field test for a backpack and the thought of running through the night with a bag of bricks while getting yelled at by a Green Beret was not their idea of fun. I did a little more research and knew that it the GRC was more than just a boot-camp for bag-testing. To me, the GRC looked like an incredible Challenge. In April 2011, during my second Tough Mudder at Bear Creek, PA, I struck-up conversation with a couple GRT’s on a mountain trail. The bag, the patch, the beer, the cool and composed attitudes…it was refreshing and intriguing. I wanted this, but still I hesitated to sign-up.
In August, I launched the Mud Run Maniac website as a resource for mud run training and tips. To provide some variety, I posted a few GORUCK Challenge-inspired workouts and interviewed a friend and fellow-GRT Ryan Erdei. The response to the GRC stuff was great and enabled me to work with the GORUCK Challenge team to introduce original Workouts of the Week provided by GRC Cadre. Missing from the equation, I had yet to complete a GRC and decided that now was the time. I signed-up for Washington, D.C. as a way to complete a Challenge and tell my readers about it, and soon enough, on a cold December night, my journalistic aspirations brought me to the front door of GRC-HQ.
The build-up to the Challenge was interesting in its own right. I joined the GRC event page and started to get to know some of my teammates. In previous Challenges, the GRC would provide a loaner ruck if you didn’t have your own. But a last-minute protocol change meant that I would need to purchase one or borrow one from another GRT. The change came as a bit of a surprise, but the reaction by the GRT was largely supportive I had little trouble securing a GR1 from a fellow GRT who lived in the D.C. area.
I had planned to stop at GRC-HQ to chat with Jason and Cadre Brian before the Challenge and arranged with the always-helpful GORUCK Challenge Director Sophie to have the ruck waiting for me when I got there. The conversations on the D.C. GRC Facebook picked-up steam as we got closer to the event. The group was incredibly helpful with one another from securing rucks to finding parking to arranging travel plans and sleeping accommodations…Really, it was like a family was taking shape before my very eyes. The anticipation was peaking and a ruck-off was set for the Thursday night before our event. And then, it arrived:
DC Team –
You will meet your team and Cadre at Rose Park on the corner of 26th and P Street NW. If you’re taking the metro, take the red line to Dupont Circle. Good livin’ starts now.
And so it begins.
Since I was driving down from NJ, I had agreed to bring a set of bricks for a Class 094 GRT who was flying in to D.C. The plan was to meet at a gym that was a short walk from Rose Park at around midnight. As luck would have it, I was running late and got a bit lost while I scoured the one-way streets for parking. With about a half-an-hour until the start time, I found a parking spot and scurried to change in the car and get my gear set. I pulled up my board shorts, threw on two layers of compression shirts, zipped up my windbreaker and shoved my headlamp, M&M’s, a pair of running tights and an extra compression shirt into my ruck. A few minutes later, I was running uphill toward the gym carrying six bricks that I had taped together and a ruck full of six bricks on my back. I made a turn and saw a large group heading down the hill wearing headlamps and hauling backpacks and 12-packs of Bud Lite…”Yep! These were my new friends!”
Class 094 had already grouped at Rose Park by the time we arrived there. I found Tom and handed over his bricks before spending a nervous few minutes while we waited for the Cadre to arrive. As I looked around, most of the group was wearing full-length running tights. Mine were still in my bag and I started to contemplate whether or not I was underestimating this thing by thinking I could tough it out with board shorts. I had always wore shorts in my mud runs, and didn’t see the advantage of sporting wet compression wear. I figured I would warm up quicker with less clothes. As we anxiously waited, I probably changed my compression shirt about three or four times before settling on the mock turtleneck version. A few police cars approached, and I can only imagine how this quiet riot, dressed head-to-toe in cold gear, sporting headlamps and rucks must have looked. Each time they would approach, they would slow-up to give us a good look, then pass on by. Apparently, D.C. police have grown accustomed to this sort of thing. Finally, the Cadre arrived. They broke the ice with a few one-liners, then went on to distribute rucks to those who had pre-ordered for the Challenge. This lasted about a half an hour, and was probably the only letdown of the entire experience. It was a little chaotic getting everyone their bags, and it seemed to piss-off the Cadre somewhat. After about a half an hour of distributing new rucks to the class, order was called.
We were told to assemble in two lines per class. Since our class had a few less people, the Cadre had made it clear that both classes must be even in size. A few volunteers joined our team and soon thereafter we were passing around our death waivers and signing on the dotted line. Each GRC class must choose a 25-pound group weight that is carried throughout the Challenge. Staying classy, our group chose an Army ruck full of Bud Light. After hearing the news that we were the “beer” group, Cadre Brian chose to lead our group for the Challenge.
Before setting off, Jason stood, leash in hand with Java at his waist and asked, “Who here can do 100 push-ups?” No one responded. This was a quiet group and comprised mostly first-timers…the silence was a killer…it was clear we were all a bit nervous and even clearer we were about to face our fears head-on.
On the Move…Indian Runs
A few rules were established early on:
- No bag may ever touch the ground until the Challenge was complete.
- No coupon may touch the ground unless otherwise specified by Cadre.
- Remaining in formation with your team is required throughout the Challenge.
- Running is required throughout the Challenge.
- Penalties would be distributed each time a rule was broken or a mission was failed.
Cadre Brian, a native of Colorado who is known for running GRC’s extra miles, lead our group through the streets of D.C. Before departing we were given a cinder block, then headed to a park surrounded by woods. Along the way we were to perform Indian Runs on command. If you’ve never done an Indian Run, the idea is that the person at the end of the line will sprint alongside the unit until he/she reaches the head of the line. This procedure is repeated until the destination or goal is reached. Leading up to the Challenge I had imagined how difficult it might be for 20-30 strangers to collaborate in different situations, but I didn’t think of how tedious simply running in line would be. Our team definitely struggled at agreeing on a pace in the early stages, as I’m sure most beginner groups do. Ultimately, the pace is decided for you, as you can only move as fast as your slowest component. As we headed up our first incline and the pace started to settle, I remember feeling pretty good and thinking that my practice runs were already paying off and that I might just make it through this thing. Then we arrived at the park.
I soon realized that the run to the park was hardly even a warm-up. At the park, Brian introduced us to some basic training drills and explained the GORUCK Challenge’s new format, which is now mission-based. With each mission the challenges would grow more intense and the stakes would get higher, meaning penalties would be more severe, especially if we experienced failures. Our goal was to mesh as a team to successfully complete each mission as a unit.
At the park we were introduced to inchworms and practiced variations of the Australian Peel across an open field. By this time, my adrenaline was already kicking in pretty hard, as I didn’t even feel the chilly winter air anymore. The dark made it difficult to see well and I soon experienced my first blunder of the night during our Australian Peel drill. To start, we formed two horizontal lines. The back group held themselves up in a push-up position until the front group got up, peeled behind, and dropped into a push-up position. The only way to keep our bag full of beer cans off the ground was to place it on the back of someone’s legs while he was in the push-up position. When it was our group’s turn to get up and go we quickly picked the bag up, handed it off, ran to position and rested it on another guy’s legs before dropping to push-up position. When it was my turn to pick up the bag, I missed the handle and it fell to the ground. Ugh! Brian handed out a few buddy carry penalties for my gaffe. I felt awful. We ran these drills up and down the field until we finally got it right and Brian felt that we were starting to work as a team. Then it was over and for a few moments things were calm while Brian explained our first mission.
Each GRC has a unique set of challenges. One of the worst things you can do is worry about the big picture. The GORUCK Challenge is designed to test your physical, mental and emotional capacity over the course of 8-10 hours (or more) and 15-20 miles (or more), but concerning yourself with the total time and distance will only make you feel sorry yourself. The updated mission-style format grows more difficult as the journey presses forward and requires a greater investment of cooperation to accomplish. Working together is tantamount toward successfully completing challenges along the way… simple tasks such as remaining in formation, sharing the load of a coupon, or buddy-carrying a teammate are near impossible if you’re used-to operating in a silo. To get through a GORUCK Challenge, you need to be honest with yourself and your team about your strengths and your weaknesses. It’s about finding a balance, encouraging one another and collectively pushing through when times get tough. Yes, it is that simple. It is that basic. If you are not a team player when you first sign up, you will be by the time it is all over. It’s really the only way to survive.
I didn’t learn this right away. It took over 16 miles and 11 hours of awesome, terrible, incredible and some nearly impossible missions and surprises to get it. When things really sucked hard…and trust me there were times that they did…what gets you through is knowing that your team is there to embrace the suck with you. And when good livin’ reaches its high points, there’s no better feeling than looking around at your bad-ass teammates with the sense that you are all now a part of a distinct group who know what it’s like to go through hell and back.
I could sit here all day and tell you about each one of the adventures I went through during Class 093, with the exception of a few that I’ll reserve for reunions with my team. But the only way to truly know what the Challenge is like is to sign-up for one yourself. Making that commitment is the first task and sometimes the most difficult. But don’t over think it…just sign-up. You’ll thank me later.
Here’s some of the highlights from Class 093:
It’s Your Turn
There’s not much more I can say. The GORUCK Challenge is unlike anything you will ever do in your life. It’s not a race, it’s a life-changing experience. It’s an education in camaraderie and test of true grit and will. It’s about survival. It’s about joining a family. It’s about good livin’. Experience a GRC for yourself.