Exorcising Demons: GORUCK Challenge Class #973 Boston AAR

Y'know, one ruck wasn't enough, so why not carry two?  Plus, some water cans and a team weight?  It could always be worse!  (photo credit: Khoa Nguyen)

Y’know, one ruck wasn’t enough, so why not carry two? Plus, some water cans and a team weight? It could always be worse! (photo credit: Khoa Nguyen)

In October of 2012, I attempted my first GORUCK Challenge. I’d purchased the event back over the summer as a “gift” for myself and had been looking forward to the opportunity. I love challenging myself and hearing about GORUCK made signing up pretty easy – they were doing what I wanted to do. And since it had been around 20 years since I’d been in the US Air Force and done some other crazy stuff, I figured the time was right to see how I’d fare.

Unfortunately, earlier in 2012, I’d had back-to-back injuries to my right foot. Martial arts training can do that to you. Thirty years of locks, takedowns, impacts, rolled feet, and stomps to the top of your foot can leave it in some interesting shape. As I started traiing for GORUCK in 2012, I noticed that it was giving me some issues. But I’m stubborn. I pressed on and showed up at the October 2012 Challenge ready to hopefully crush it.

Instead, I got crushed. As we moved from the Start Point to the Welcome Party area, my foot started really acting up. By the time we’d gone a measly mile, my head was already in a bad place. I hadn’t gotten the foot checked out – was it broken? Was I making it worse? These are not ideal thoughts to have cruising through your noggin right before the Cadre starts the Welcome Party. I pressed on, but by that point, I’d already beaten myself. I withdrew at the tail end of the Welcome Party and took myself home. I felt like shit mentally. Quitting isn’t something I do. I don’t run from adversity. And I was pissed off that I hadn’t checked my foot out enough beforehand to be able to quiet the nagging doubts about it. Pain, after all, is one thing. A legit injury is something else entirely.

What made it worse was the email from GORUCK HQ I received the next day congratulating me on finishing and welcoming me to the GRT Family. But I wasn’t GORUCK Tough. Not yet. I knew I wouldn’t rest until I’d gone back and earned the Tough Patch.

I did my own internal AAR in the wake of October’s failed event. I came to the realization that my mental game was off, and yet, so was my physical game. Yeah, I’d done some rucking before the event, but not enough. And my overall level of general physical preparedness was sorely lacking. I resolved to do two things: make sure my foot was in good shape and set about improving myself physically to the point that I would return and get through the Challenge.

In January of 2013, Reebok CrossFit Medfield opened its doors and I joined up immediately. I’m extremely fortunate to have two amazing coaches and I really loved the CrossFit workouts and community. Throughout my CrossFit experience, GORUCK was never far from my mind. One of the other women at the box was already a GRT and we talked about GORUCK things quite a bit. In the meantime, another friend of mine from the dojo made it through his own GORUCK Challenge. The desire to get back to my own Challenge grew stronger with every passing day.

Finally in early March, I was on the GORUCK site checking out the latest news and I somehow wound back up on the Challenge page and upcoming events. April 11th. Boston. It hit me like a wall. And I knew that the time had come to once more put myself “unto the breach.”

I was feeling good. My foot was in good shape and I wasn’t having any pain from the exhaustive workouts we do at CrossFit. I was running (as much as I loathe running) and making steady, solid gains in my strength program. And I still had a credit to use leftover from my failed October 2012 event. Before I could second guess myself, I registered.

April 11th.

I immediately drew up a training plan. The Welcome Party at October 2012’s event had smoked me but good and I was determined not to repeat that. I got the bricks from my previous attempt and dusted off the duct tape they’d been wrapped in. I still had pretty much everything I needed. For the next month, I would do the daily WOD in the morning, and then return when my wife was taking the 5:30pm class to do my GORUCK conditioning.

I did ruck marches with weight interspersed with a lot of PT. Push-ups, flutter kicks, mountain climbers, ruck presses, squats, hip extensions, GHD sit-ups, shoulder-to-shoulders, and more. Sometimes I used the ruck. Sometimes, I used a 40# weight vest. And sometimes I wore both. I would ruck 2-3 times each week and on off days, I would run. My rucks got longer and the weight got heavier.

Finally, April 6th, I strapped on the full weight ruck and set off on a 10-miler all over the town I live in. Mother Nature gifted me with a gorgeous warm, sunny day and I spent nearly four hours moving under weight. By the time I came home, I had only one blister, and felt good. Really good. Yeah my traps were sore and my feet were sore, but I’d detected no real concerns. Moreover, bagging ten miles under weight with no stops felt amazing. I felt ready for the Challenge.

I worked out Monday-Wednesday, tapering my GORUCK conditioning. Tuesday was the last time I strapped on the full weight ruck and did 1 mile circuits interspersed with PT. Three miles in total only, though. Wednesday, I did a 1000m run. Thursday, I took a nice leisurely stroll and foam rolled my muscles, trying to make sure nothing was too tight. I did not do the CrossFit WODs on Thursday or Friday.

Nervousness built up, as it always does, but this time I felt different. My head was on straight. My spirit was resolved. My body felt ready. I wasn’t coming home without that patch.

I said good-bye to my wife and boys at the train station and rode into Boston. The elderly Chinese woman on the train kept eyeballing me like I was some sort of terrorist, but I was too deep into my own head visualizing myself moving from one evolution to the next to care. At Back Bay Station, I got off the train and hefted the ruck (full weight was just under 45 pounds) and set off for the Starting Point at Boston Common. The walk did me some real good, giving my body a chance to get reacquainted with the weight. As I walked, I developed my mantra for the Challenge: Every Rep, Every Step.

That was it. I knew that every rep I did and every step I took would bring me closer and closer to finishing. That was what I kept saying to myself (and a few other folks throughout the event) and it really helped.

At the Common, I met up with a few other folks waiting. We’re pretty easy to spot, after all. A few GRTs were there along with some newbies. I knew I didn’t qualify as a GRT, but I wasn’t totally a newbie, either. When people started asking if I’d done a Challenge before I answered, “Kinda.”

At 9pm sharp, Cadre Logan sauntered into the midst of us with zero fanfare. (Side note: I think it’s a prerequisite for Cadre to be able to appear seemingly out of nowhere and suddenly be right in the middle of the group without anyone noticing. This happened at my first Challenge, too and it’s pretty damned cool.)

I liked Logan’s vibe immediately. I respect the hell out of people who don’t think they’re better than others just because they have expertise in one area. As Logan put it, “I know things that you don’t, and you know things that I don’t. Tonight, I’m hoping to impart some of my knowledge to you guys.”

With that, he gave us a few warnings. One, he was going to be doing things tonight he hadn’t done before (gulp). And two, he cautioned us not to quit. Because, “You’ll feel like shit tomorrow.” I could only stand there and nod my head. I knew that feeling all too well. And it made me strengthen my resolve even more to finish this thing.

At one point, Logan took roll call and mine was the first name he read off. It was time to do this.

Logan immediately assigned our first leader of the night, the youngest in our group at 21. Then he gave her and us our first task: locate his truck on a certain level in the Boston Common Garage and retrieve 13 water and gas jugs from the back of it.

We had fifteen minutes to complete the task.

We managed to find Logan’s truck and the delightfully heavy water jugs. Together, we got them all back to the SP, whereupon we learned that we’d missed the time hack. But instead of starting the Welcome Party, Logan immediately gave us the order to move to a location at Castle Island in South Boston. We loaded up and moved out. I partnered with a dude named Shane to carry the team weight while others grabbed water jugs.

As expected, our group attracted a lot of attention. Most folks aren’t used to seeing 35 people hauling rucks and water jugs and dressed in a variety of workout gear go streaming past them on a Friday night. A few drunks tried to make sense of what they were seeing, which was amusing. My spirits were up and I felt real good about getting underway. I talked to Shane and we kept up the pace of a ruck jog between traffic lights. Down at the Seaport Convention Center, PAX EAST was happening and we were far from the only “weirdos” out that night. We kept moving into South Boston, navigating our way down sidewalks badly in need of repair, over crushed glass from beer bottles, and between other obstacles. While we moved, people would call out “obstacle right” or “bike left” to alert everyone else further back down the line. It was a good indication that we were already thinking as a team. I found myself being grateful that the group I was with seemed really switched on.

At last Castle Island loomed out of the darkness and we scrambled up the embankment. We had to all touch one of the walls, together. We drew to a halt about two feet in front, waited while everyone drew abreast of each other and then took one step forward, touching the wall as one team.

Logan promptly informed us that we had missed our time hack. By 21 minutes. He then directed us to line up the water cans and the team weight and then fall into three lines. This was the Welcome Party.

I grew apprehensive. I’d been smoked silly on my first Welcome Party, no doubt aided by the pain in my foot messing about with my head. But I’d also been doing a lot of training and my foot felt fine now. So I pushed the fear out of my head and concentrated on what Logan was saying. He broke down the exercises, how they would be called, and what he expected us to do in return.

The first thing we did was what I call “Squatting with Logan,” an insidious little game that tests your attention to detail. Since we were over time by twenty-one minutes, we owed him twenty-one squats. Logan would squat – we would squat. Logan would rise and say “up.” We would rise and count the rep, “One!”

Except it didn’t always go that way. Logan would squat. We would squat. Then we would rise before Logan did anything (if at all).

“Nope, that’s not it, Class 973. We start back at zero.”

And so on. It took us about fifteen minutes to get 21 perfect squats executed without screwing it up by not paying attention to detail. Every time we screwed up, Logan would simply say, “Attention to detail,” to which we would respond, “Teamwork is key!”

After the squats, he lined us up and we executed push-ups with our rucks on. Then we moved to flutter kicks. A LOT of flutter kicks. I think there were some bear crawls in there and some mountain climbers as well. Then he broke us up into two teams and made us form two lines for inchworm push-ups.

Ah, inchworm push-ups. Nasty things those. Basically, you lay down and put your head between the legs of the person in front of you. Close. As in, “Hey, I can smell how old your underwear is.” Their legs then rest on your shoulder and you do push-ups in that way.

Or you try to.

The dude in front of me was huge. Seriously, he looked like a Nordic giant. I named him Thor. He had legs like a giant redwood tree and when he put them on my shoulders, I suddenly realized I was about to go into my deep, dark place. There was absolutely no way I could get that dude’s legs up. They weighed too much. So as Logan started calling out the reps for inchworm push-ups, I had to adapt. First get up on my elbows and then drive up to get into the top of the push-up position. Then crash back down to the ground and repeat. I was screaming at every exertion. I could hear other people screaming too. It was impossible. I was gasping for air while my head was surrounded by legs and ass. Fear gripped me. It started to claw at my resolve. I kept heaving Thor up as much as I could manage, which wasn’t much.

Every rep, every step.

But then it was over.

Momentarily.

Logan told us to remain in position and work as a group moving forward in the inchworm crawl to reach the sidewalk at the bottom of the hill. Whoever touched the sidewalk with their forehead first would win. So we started inching forward, heads still up each other’s asses. I felt bad for the poor woman behind me who (sorry to be indelicate here) had my ball sack on her head. But she was awesome, laughed it off and we kept moving forward.

“YOU NEED TO LEAVE NOW!”

I looked up. The State Police had arrived. No doubt someone had called them and told them about the two lines of sickos potentially rim-jobbing each other in the darkness of Castle Island. From a distance, that’s probably exactly how it looked. The State Cop used his loud speaker to tell us to move. Logan quickly formed us up, gave the Team Leader the task to move us across the sand to the other end where the Vietnam Memorial was located while he went to talk to the cop.

I think we were all happy the cops showed up. Happy, that is, until at the other end of the beach, Logan informed us that we could stay and play on the beach. Since Team Two had lost the inchworm crawl, Logan immediately had them drop and start flutter kicks. Someone on Team One immediately said “Team One drop!” and we did, doing those flutter kicks with Team Two.

Logan then pointed at a tree that looked about 100 meters away and told us to run there and back carrying everything. We made it in about 47 seconds.

“That’s your time limit. If you can keep that up, you can lose one of the water cans per lap.”

That sounded good to us. We quickly rotated water cans and with each lap, we managed to meet or beat our time. We started dropping cans, but the toll of the sprints was also beginning to wear on us. Fortunately, we were permitted to catch our breath for about a minute between sprints. We only screwed up once and had to pick one of the cans back up. But in the end, we managed to come together and finish without any cans at all.

The night air had turned cool and rain had spit on us throughout the course of the event so far. Logan marched up and down the line and I think we all sensed what was coming next.

“Headlamps on so I can identify the bodies that don’t make it. Turn around and walk out into the water.”

We waded out into the ocean and the bite of the cold water was horrendous. But that’s what we were here for: to test ourselves. Logan had us turn around and then put us through the ringer of PT. Push-ups in the water that made you gasp at the cold. Flutter kicks. Mountain climbers. Bear crawls.

As we stood there, shivering, he asked us about D-Day and a few of us shouted out some answers. Logan calmly informed us that the water those brave men had ventured into was colder than what we stood in. That we didn’t have machine gun fire coming at us, or artillery shells exploding around us. It can always be worse.

To honor those brave men, we had to get down into the water and crawl out of it. Once we reached the beach we had to low crawl across the sand and all touch the wall at the same time.

A guy next to me was having a pretty hard time as we started crawling toward shore. His backpack (not a GORUCK product) looked like it was falling apart and he was dragging ass badly. I told the line to slow progress and reached back to try to pull him along. He drew abreast of us and we proceeded again, finally all touching the wall as a team.

Immediately, Logan had us up and fired the previous TL and appointed a new one. With our next location in-hand: the Bunker Hill monument in Charlestown, we set off. I’d thought that maybe we would have left the water cans behind for the Light class that was due to start the next afternoon, but no such luck. We were carrying those cans everywhere.

We took a short break outside of a 7/11 for anyone that needed to buy something to eat or water. I had a few handfuls of the Reese’s Pieces, I’d brought along and sucked down some more water that I’d put a few electrolyte tablets into earlier. I was feeling good. Tired, but good. My feet seemed to be in great shape and the shoes I’d chosen were holding up incredibly well. Logan emerged from the store with a nice glazed cinnamon bun that looked awesome and a hot coffee. I don’t drink coffee, but seeing the steam wafting out of the cup made it look all the more appealing. Oh well, I could indulge after this was all over. With several drunks loitering, Logan got us moving again.

The journey to Charlestown thinned our herd by two. One of the guys started showing signs of dehydration and exhaustion and was only somewhat responsive to direct questions. Close to the North End, it was time to say good-bye to him so we tucked him into a cab along with his buddy who agreed to accompany him to make sure he was safe and said farewell.

A short time later, we lost someone else due to injury. Mark had hyperextended his back back at Castle Island and was in agony. Yet, he’d stuck it out through the beach PT and the walk since. Since he’d already done 34 other Challenges, he decided to pull out and get some rest for his back. Definitely the smart thing to do. But I know it sucked for him to have to withdraw. I’d met Mark back at my first Challenge and seeing him before the start of tonight’s event had been great. A few times throughout the course of the night, he asked how I was doing and I really appreciated that. I was bummed to see him leave, and hope he has a speedy recovery.

Charlestown loomed ahead with its narrow sidewalks and one big ass hill. We made it up to the Bunker Hill monument and lined the water cans up before falling into ranks. Logan paced around us and informed us that we’d again missed our time hack by 22 minutes. He wanted to know how we were going to repay it, which meant what form of grueling PT would we choose as punishment.

We were all gassed at this point, but that didn’t stop a few folks from calling out crazy amounts of PT. A few us requested new negotiators – no sense PT’ing ourselves into the ground when there was still plenty of time left in the Challenge. Finally, we settled on buddy carries. Logan initially was going to make us carry from just before the monument all the way down the steps and back, but since it had been raining and the stairs were pretty slick, we were allowed to go to the stairs and then turn around. When we asked if we could do the carries without rucks, he agreed, but that would cost us. So we opted for a whole lot of mountain climbers in exchange for not having to have our rucks on.

I partnered up with a cool dude who told me he weighed only 165 pounds. He either weighed more than that or else my legs were badly shot. I did the proper fireman carry a few times and then switched over to piggy backing him back and forth.

While this was going on, we lost a husband and wife. I heard the early morning birds that meant dawn was close, so I figured we were somewhere around 0400. That meant they had lasted over seven hours – why quit then? I don’t know if there was a medical issue or what, but it seemed like a waste to get all that way only to drop.

Logan chose a new TL and gave us our next destination: Copley Square. We negotiated for time and got a good chunk of it. Our new TL felt confident he could get us there well within the time hack and we set off. By now, the streets of Boston were fairly deserted. We were hustling and humping the cans, but we had a good system down. You manage quick rests when you can get them, which usually happened at traffic lights. We had to wait to cross, so for me, it was put the water can down and bend over to relieve the weight on my back. As soon as we had the light, it was up and go.

We chose to burn time by maneuvering around Beacon Hill instead of the more direct climb over Beacon Hill. There were still a few drunk bar goers out, including the guy on Charles Street who was clearly trying to get one of two women to go home with him as we streamed past and totally upset his mojo. Guess you can’t buy rugged machismo at Brooks Brothers, lol…

Cruising into Copley Square by the Trinity Church and Library, we again arranged the water cans. But we felt good. We’d crushed the time to get there. Logan took the opportunity to have some fun. If we could guess within the minute how long it had taken us to arrive at Copley, we’d get a reward. But if we didn’t guess right within three tries, Logan would get a reward (which meant we’d get PT).

A few people got into it, but I think the rest of us knew it wasn’t going to really matter. We blew two tries and then I could see the TL sweating the third guess. He looked like the weight of the world was on his shoulders and he didn’t want to let anyone down by guessing wrong. I called out to him. “Don’t worry about it. We either lose together or win together.”

We lost.

Logan then told us he would have PT’d us anyway, and marched us over to the fountain. Mercifully, the water wasn’t on. But we got into the bottom and then were told to put our feet up on the blocks so our feet were elevated. We then had to hold the top of the push-up position until someone told Logan a joke that made him laugh.

Shoulders screaming, we all tried to come up with jokes. I was pissed off at myself, because I’ve usually got several. They had vanished under pressure of needing one. I don’t know how long we held that position, but it was brutal. Logan finally cracked a grin and allowed us to recover. He gave the TL a new destination: the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, and we set off.

From our location, the distance should have been easy to cover. Shoot up Boylston Street and then hit Mass. Ave. Twenty minutes tops for all of us. Unfortunately, Logan told us that we had to use the path by Storrow Drive to get there. And the distance was about a mile and a half.

We set off as the first rays of light started breaking in the eastern sky. The fact that the sun was rising lifted my spirits immensely. We trudged on, but failed to meet our time hack.

“Go back to Copley Square and we’ll try it again,” said Logan. We all groaned, but turned around and started heading back.

Along the way, Logan asked if anyone knew yoga. One guy raised his hand, but Logan said he didn’t trust that the guy was serious.

And then people started dying.

Not literally, of course, but our ranks thinned out too much with gaps and Logan promptly killed six people that had to be buddy carried. That meant a lot of weight distribution. As the bigger, stronger guys stepped up to do the buddy carrying, the rest of us took on additional rucks and water cans. As the morning progressed, we were all carrying far more weight than we’d started with.

At the Commonwealth Mall greenway, Logan redirected us. No Copley Square. Instead, we were heading toward the Public Gardens. I wondered if we were getting close to the end. But it didn’t matter. He gave us a small time hack that we had to reach and it seemed nearly impossible to meet. But we hustled (trudged is the more accurate work, but we trudged faster). Every block we’d redistribute weight. People really stepped up and took on some heavy loads. The sun was fully up and I think we all knew the longest part was now over. We just had to keep going a little bit longer.

We streamed into the Public Gardens with seconds to spare and Logan had us assemble in front of the pond where the swan boats ply their trade. I was worried we were going to have to get wet again, but instead, Logan called the dude up who’d told him he knew yoga.

“Okay, this guy says he knows yoga, so you’re all going to do some yoga now.”

We stood there as the guy who said he knew yoga looked at us and let a huge smile blossom on his face. “Does everyone know the Child’s Pose?” We all sort of murmured that we did, so he nodded. “Let’s do the Child’s Pose.”

We got down on our knees and leaned forward, taking several minutes to simply lay on the ground and relieve the weight of the rucks from our backs. It felt absolutely incredible.

He moved us into the Pigeon Pose next, which was a nice stretch on both sides. I have no idea if it was legitimate yoga or not, but it was the best yoga class I’ve ever taken!

Finally, Logan called a halt to it and told us to stand up. With the bright sunshine streaming down through the trees and glistening off the water, the morning was truly a beautiful one. Logan looked at us all and smiled. “Congratulations, your GORUCK Challenge is now over.”

Amid the whoops and hollers and smiles, Logan gave us our AAR. He praised us for a lot of what we did and how we came together as a team pretty fast and well. Obviously we had some issues as all classes do, but overall, we did really well with some nasty stuff thrown at us. There’s a good video of Logan’s ENDEX AAR, so I won’t rehash it here. But needless to say, it felt awesome.

He handed out the patches and we dropped rucks. A few guys had beer and I took a lukewarm can of Budweiser, cracked it, and sucked down the brew. Best beer ever. Full of sand and salty grime from the beach and I didn’t give a crap. I drained it just after 0700 and looked up into the clear, blue sky of a gorgeous Boston day, knowing I had completed my first GORUCK Challenge.

In the wake of the event, we hung out, grabbed some obligatory pix, then helped Logan get the water cans back to his truck in the garage. Funny how they seemed to weigh less now that the Challenge was over. I picked up a couple of awesome T-shirts from some of my new pals and then walked back outside to wait for my wife and sons to pick me up. I couldn’t stop looking at the patch I’d just earned. I’m pretty sure anyone who saw me must have thought I was some deranged lunatic out of his noggin given the smile I had plastered all over my face.

Here’s the thing about the Challenge: when you’re doing it, you think to yourself, “There’s no way I’m doing this ever again.” And then, within about twelve hours of finishing it, you start replaying it and how awesome it was. And yep, you want to do another one. Mine was already nearly a week ago, and I can’t stop thinking about which one I will do next.

There’s a certain glory in shared sacrifice; a bonding that can only occur when people come together amid strife and challenge, when they put forth excellence and stop thinking of themselves for the sake of the team. The GORUCK Challenge is more than just a team building exercise; it’s more than just another event to pass the time on a weekend. The Challenge allows you to find and conquer your demons in the darkest depths of the night, then emerge alongside others who have battled the same, to become part of a powerful team capable of blasting through whatever is thrown at them in order to succeed.

I am proud and honored to call my teammates my new friends. We covered fifteen miles in ten hours lugging some heavy ass shit all the way. And I am thrilled to be a new member of the GORUCK Tough Family.

Class 973…thank you for the privilege of being alongside you last week. Cadre Logan…thank you for an amazing Challenge. And to Jason & the entire GORUCK family…thank you for being.

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