A few months a go, a buddy from the gym, Guy, said that he was going to do a GORUCK Challenge on his birthday. The stars aligned and the date coinsided, so he signed up. He asked a couple of his friends to do it with him, and while they said they would, none of them signed up. About a month out, I asked him about his training was going, how is friends were getting ready. He let me know that they all hadn’t signed up. He was still committed, but now he was flying solo. I had been one of those friends, so I registered that day. I wasn’t going to let him down.
I had done a GORUCK Challenge (GRC) before, but I had spent months prepping, this time, I was getting ready from a relatively deconditioned state in a month. Having read a lot of the After Action Reports from people who have completed a GRC or longer events (GORUCK Heavy, GORUCK Selection), I took the approach of rucking a lot, with weight. The first week was four brick, the second week was six bricks, third week was six bricks and additional sandbags. At the most I rucked two miles with a 100lbs in addition to my body weight.
Guy and I spent most Saturday mornings hiking around the Noland Trail trying to prep both physically and figuring out how to pack our rucks. I found that I could fit four of my six bricks in the “laptop” compartment of the GORUCK GR1. This kept the weight very close to my back, this point will be important much later. I would have loved to have spent more time in the gym, working on basic PT actions, like pushups and flutter kicks, but the amount of coaching that I had on my plate made almost all of my gym time coaching others, instead of working out.
Guy and I drove up to Richmond and headed to Penny Lane Pub to meet the rest of our group for the pre-event “ruck off”. As much as I wanted to have a beer, I didn’t. Not that I don’t think that my stomach could handle it, but going into the “welcome party” with a little bit of a buzz seemed like a bad idea.
Guy and I got our gear and met our Cadre and class across the street from John Marshall House in downtown Richmond. Cadre Matt told us a little bit about himself and he is a man who has seen the world and fought against bad dudes. He laid out the rules for the duration of the Challenge, which are:
1. Rucks do not touch the ground
2. Coupons do not touch the ground
3. The American flag leads the group
4. We are law-abiding citizens, follow traffic rules
Then we rolled into the “welcome party”, pushups and dive bomber (or cobra) pushups and squats with our rucks over our heads. My pushups started sucking early, that is something I knew would happen. After getting into two columns, we marched on a parking lot that Guy and I had tried to park in earlier. We lined up in two long horizontal line and all 28 of our class members started walking lunges down the length of the parking lot. When we reached a light post we switched to bear crawls and at another crab walk. I was an honest Abe, trying to make the lunges quality movements, with my knees touching the ground, that was dumb.
All of our movements had to be in sync, our lines needed to move together. We did a pretty good job. When we finished, Cadre made us run wind sprints between a start line and the poles sunk into the parking lot. We had a specific amount of time to complete the task (a “time hack”), which we just failed. As payment for failure to make the time hack, we had to box jump up the stairs to the John Marshall House. After 10 rounds, we did pushups until everyone in the class could identifiy themselves and what the did for a living, leading us to 29 more pushups 1.
We formed into our two columns and moved out to the Richmond Coloseium. Cadre Matt gave us our first mission, survey the Edgar Allen Poe house. We had 45 minutes to get there, record as much data about the structure, number of doors, windows, etc., and return. The time frame was going to be a difficult one to make if we didn’t run the entire time. I was one of the flag bearers, leading the group, with the class Navigator close behind me.
We eventually made it down to the Poe House, took some photos, recorded our data and started to hustle back. We couldn’t find a good rythym, so we had to stop and start to keep everyone together. This was also one of the factors as to why we didn’t make our time hack.
To work off our failure, we bear crawled up an entrance ramp to a parking deck. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t find the work to be that hard. In the little bit of training that I had gotten in before the event, bear crawls were prominently featured, so that might have helped.
Again, we didn’t make our time, so we took casualties. Four members of our group were “down”, so we had to transport them to the top of the parking structure to “get them a medivac”. Our group was chaotic and disorganized and we struggled to make it to the top as a cohesive unit. Along the way, we ended up losing a couple of our classmates. Cadre slyly tapped them on the shoulder and told them to hide. Everyone was so concerned about carrying the people to the top that we didn’t notice until we were a few decks above them. We broke off a group and went to try and recover our missing classmates. This was one of our first lessons. 360° awareness and always knowing the number of people you are with are critical, particularly for the team leader.
We only had a few minutes to get people to the top of the structure and we failed. We had to do flutter kicks and leg raises to work off our failure, after which we got a rest. Some classmates were already wondering what time it was, in my mind, it was only 9:15pm, we had a long time to go.
This brings up an interesting twist in the GORUCK Challenge environment: The availability of watches and smartphones. When I completed my first GRC, watches, phones and device that could provide time or distance, were forbidden. I checked with a classmate who had done multiple GRCs and she was under the same impression, but lots of people had their watches on and phones accessible. Sure, I was carrying mine, but it was powered off and inside a case, inside my dry bag, so a pain to get out.
After moving off the roof, again, losing two people, we collected two logs about 3 feet long and large enough round that it was difficult to bear hug them. With these fine coupons in tow we headed to another set of stairs. We had to box jump up the stairs and crab walk down the stairs, 10 sets in 10 minutes. Luckily. Cadre was a generous man. He offered us a 5 minute extension if a particular classmate, “Alphabet” 2 could answer what were the five original X-Men. She couldn’t get the answer from someone else, but we could give her hints. That didn’t work, but when she asked the Cadre if he could ask her a more feminine question, he asked “Who wrote the Great Gatsby?” and indicated that the guy next to her if he knew the answer. He threw out F. Scott Fitzgerald like it wasn’t a big deal, so we got our 5 minute extension. Thank goodness.
Moving South, we had to start working on getting the logs moving efficiently, which was very difficult. We didn’t make as much progress as I thought we would, but eventually we made it to a gas station to refill out water and take a rest.
We overwhelmed this poor gas station, 28 people raiding their Gatorade/Powerade chillers, all of us crammed in their at once. I know the woman behind the counter was a little weirded out by it. While I was waiting to buy a pack of Skittles and a little Gatorade, a “ex-marine”3 told me about a path to get to a little historic island in the middle of the river. I was trying to be nice and he had been drinking, so when I finally got my stuff paid for, I only had a few minutes until we were ready to move out.
Moving out after a break is hard. It is enough time for you to relax and get comfortable, but then “the suck” continues. The class re-hoisted the individual logs and started moving out. While we were underway, we passed under a railway bridge, and Cadre had us stop. He found a railroad tie and let a few classmates who didn’t have a chance to use the restroom make use of a port-a-potty near by. Ah! we had finally found our log. At this point our coupon count is climbing: two “individual” logs, one railroad tie, a sledgehammer that appeared out of no where, and a rock.
We started moving North, slowly, trying to find a way to efficiently trade off people under the railway tie. I was in a crappy place, I was too short to work with the “tall guys” and I was too short for the “small guys” by like an inch or two. I tried to rally a group of ladies to get under the log, because they were more my size, but that didn’t materialize. I felt kind of crappy about not being effective on the team log, so I took an individual log and found that this was going to be my coupon.
Remember my decription of how my bricks were packed? That was crucial to me being able to carry one of these individual logs for about 12 blocks over the course of the evening. It sat on top of the bricks, which only pushed the bricks into my back more, providing better support. I had to kant forward at the hip, but it wasn’t too strenous on my back. The only thing that I needed was a handle to hold the log, but that wasn’t going to happen. I did manage to find a balance point where I didn’t need to use my hands to hold the log. All in all, I found my place under the log and it was efficient.
The class made it’s way to a Brown Island Park. We dropped our coupons and played the game “It Pays To Be A Winner”. We split into two groups, 14 each and we were directed to take photos of the statues of the 5 wise men on the grounds of the State Hosue. The first group back wins, and it pays to be a winner.
My team had the American flag, so I guess that mades us Team ‘Merica. We started heading to the State House, which was about a mile away. Underway, we realized that we were a person short. One of our team mates thought that we should just rush on and get back, maybe Cadre won’t notice.
That is just a stupid idea. Cadre will notice. We broke off two people from our group to go and find our missing person and we would continue to creep towards the State House. Eventually, three people were catching up with us and we made it the State House which was all locked up. We took as good a photo as we could, and then talked to two State Capital Police officers. They were doing their rounds and we asked them if we could get in. They lets us know we couldn’t, they took photos of us, we took photos of them and then started back.
We couldn’t see Team GORUCK. We were trying to get a sense of where they could be. On our way back, we thought we heard them around the corner and we were ready for a race, but it turned out to be another person, with a backpack, running from the State Capital Police. When a bike officer shouted, “Hey, you, with the backpack!” Our entire team stopped until we realized that he was talking to the obviously drunk man who was beginning to cheer us on. Whew!
We made it back, finished getting our open source intel and reported to Cadre. I was sure that we were going to be caught out by Team GORUCK, I was sure that they were hiding off to the side and we were going to be doing some sucky PT. But that was not the case. We were first! That meant we got a nice break while waiting for the other team.
When Team GORUCK reported, Cadre compared our gathered intel versus theirs and determined that we both failed. Our punishment was to low crawl across a field and when finished that buddy carry a classmate back. I thought the field was 100 yards, but after consulting a map later, it turns out is was more like 150 yards, not that a rounding error makes much of a difference. Low crawling was painful, I can attest to that in the aftermath. My arms are rug-burned to heck, and while it didn’t feel that bad during the crawl, it was pretty tender after.
I didn’t want to be the last person to make it across the field, but I was definitely in the last couple of people. When I did finish, the buddy carry options were pretty sucky. I called one of the ladies over to buddy carry her, figuring I could carry her almost the entire way. I started to get her up on my shoulders, but her ruck shifted and we both went down, on concrete, her head first. Talk about a way to feel crappy. She is fine, but was shaken up and not wanting to do a buddy carry. I can’t blame her and I felt like crap about it.
This cut my number of buddy carry options down further. I could carry Guy, who is about 230, or Adam who I sized up at about 240. I told Adam that I was going to carry him first. I got him in the fireman’s carry and got him about 150 maybe 200 feet down the field. I was surprised that I got him that far. After a second attempt and shuffling a little further down, I had to swap with him. He carried me on his back and crushed the rest of the distance. I’m not sure if we made the entire task in the 20 minutes that were alloted, but immediately after we finished Cadre said we were going to take dip in the James.
We scrambled down a steep bank to a sandy beach, where we promptly went in the water. The temperature was perfect, slightly warm, but cooling, like a swimming pool at the perfect temperature. Remember, those forearms? Those stung like crazy. There were a bunch of bricks and rocks that we were all stumbling over. There were a couple of times classmates went under, heck, I almost went under a couple of times. We had to do some PT, pushup, squats with our bag over our head and burpees in the water. To do these we had to have our head above the water in the up position, and then we went under for our exercise. Lovely.
We struggled to meet the Cadre’s criteria for us to get out of the water, but we got it sorted eventually. We scrambled back up the bank and collected our coupons, getting underway, headed further north along the river. As we got underway, Guy pointed out to me that we could hear a couple of birds chriping, which meant that dawn was near. This is a good sign. We ditched the “individual” logs on the way and we moved north until we were close to the Virginia War Memorial.
Cadre had us drop our coupons and told us that we had to earn our right to see the war Memorial. We could accomplish this by bear crawling as a group up the hill to the War Memorial. In the word of Cadre, “The people memorialized up there sacrificed everything, we can sacrifice a little bit”. Never were truer words spoken.
The hill was about 600ft long and I kept going further down the hill to bear crawl up with the people who were in their hurt locker. I settled on bear crawling up with Carrie, the woman I ended up dropping. She was working her way up the hill, but I could tell she needed a little help. I took her ruck and carried it on my front, my own ruck on my back and we moved up the hill. Eventually, some of the people who had finished came and took her ruck from me. It wasn’t unbearable, but it was appreciated.
We got to the top and Cadre gave us a pep talk, reminding us that we are going to be on hallowed ground and that we could rest while we paid our respects. We walked around and looked at the Virginia War Memorial. It was a beautiful place, only made better by watching the sun rise of the Richmond skyline having earned our right to be there.
The moment had to be broken, we said fair well to the War Memorial and started moving out towards Belle Island, team log, rocks, sledgehammer and now half cinderblock in tow. We had to cross a narrow foot bridge to get there and it was weird when the bridge was swaying with our movement, it was really screwing me up. While we were crossing, we had lost the priviledge of using our straps, which had been a theme of the night. About a third of the way through Cadre had us pss the half cinderblock back and when it reached the last person, they had to run to the front and pass it back. Usual GORUCK Good Livin’.
At the island we were giving another time challege, follow a running path around the island in 20 minutes or less. By this point, it was sunny out and people were hurting. Adam, the guy I buddy carried, was cramping bad and moving slowly. There was discussion at the front of our element regarding trying to carry Adam around the loop so we would be guaranteed to finish on time. I was frustrated with this, first Adam was trucking for being in such pain and it really didn’t matter if we finished before or after the time hack. Either way, there was more work to do. Cadre could burn us with PT regardless of how we finish.
Part way through the discussion about how to make the time hack, Adam came blowing through the ranks, heading up to the front of our element. It was inspiring. Adam earned his arrowhead patch right then, for digging deep. He led us running the back third of the path and we rolled in front of the Cadre with time to spare. Cadre sent us to get wet in the river and we regrouped, getting electrolyte tablets to those who needed it.
Once we picked up the team log, we had 45 minutes to get back to the Coloseium. That was pushing it. We were moving well, though. Underway log changes were smooth for the most start, we were really starting to gel as a team. During our push, I took Adam’s ruck and the team weight for most of the push back. I wasn’t going to give Adam an excuse to quit even though he was suffering. We had to keep fighting the light cycles so we could use the pedestrian crossings, a coulpe of time we needed to fudge it, other times Cadre gave us a pause on our time limit.
We made it to the Coloseium, but I’m not sure if it was within the time limit. We were given our next tasking, to take the railway tie, find a place to leave it, then go and complete our earlier mission, photographing the five wise men as a team. We were given 20 minutes, which wasn’t enough time given how ragged some of us were moving. We moved as quickly as we could, but it wasn’t going to happen. When we finally got back, Cadre had a set of pushups waiting for us. At this point I was fried, my pushups looked terrible, but I was angry, so I hammered them out the best I could. We then had to run around the Coloseium as a team in less than 5 minutes. We were starting out fast, but when we realized that it was an easily achievable task, we quick stepped it around the building. Lastly the Cadre had us doing burpees. We were all done, starting to lose cohesion, but managed to get through. When we stood up after our sixth burpee, Cadre Matt congratulated us on completing 11 hours and 19.5 miles. We were done. We shook hands with Cadre, collected our patches and started to the slow walk back to the car.
This was my second GRC. On the way back, Guy and I were discussing whether or not he would do another one. Considering the text messages that I have been getting, I think Guy is hooked. I know that I am too. I’m going to take some time to let my arms recover, build up my upper body strength, but I am definitely down for another one.
Trying to explain to people why do a GORUCK Challenge is hard. Why would you pay for it? Why do it at all. Part of what Cadre said is true: “We honor those who have served their country, by doing stupid things, because we can, because they did”, the other part is pushing myself both physically and mentally. There weren’t nearly as many dark times where doubt was creeping in this time. I knew I could do it, but I was going to work to make sure that everyone else could. To lead, one must first serve and having to work as team, to gel with 27 strangers, work with them to achieve a common goal, serving them when they are hurting, all serve to make me a better leader.
The slogan for the GORUCK Challenge is: Building better Americans. It is true. Not easy, but true.
- Cadre couldn’t hear one member, so we had to do an additional pushup while she found her “man voice”. ↩
- Due to the number of letters in her last name. ↩
- I have never heard a former Marine refer to themselves as an “ex-Marine”. ↩