Last Updated on October 6, 2014 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
Two weeks ago I had lamented to the universe as a whole that I had seemingly missed my last opportunity of the summer to swim in the ocean. Fortunately, my first GORUCK experience took care of that, and though it wasn’t the relaxing swim I had envisioned, I’m still pulling sand out of my ears and seaweed from my hair. Touche, universe.
But let’s go back to the beginning.
I blame Geoff’s sister Jenny and a guy named Kit over at GORUCK* for roping me into this nonsense in the first place. Alas, I was the one who typed in my initials on the waiver and hit the “register” button, so I suppose I shouldn’t point fingers. I knew very little about GORUCK as a whole, other than a lot of my friends in the obstacle racing community are huge fans. I knew we were doing the “GORUCK light” option, which was basically the entry level event (4-6 hours, 7-10 miles) , and I knew that I had to carry bricks in a backpack (two bricks to be specific, as I weigh under 150 lbs). And deep down, I think I knew I had to get in the freezing cold ocean, I just chose to ignore that piece of information.
I really was unsure of how to train for this event. I figured the fact that I’m in decent shape would be enough. I figured a handful of 1-3+ hour hikes with twice the number of bricks required would be good. I figured having raced every weekend for the last two months would be sufficient. I figured surviving the Vermont Spartan Beast that nearly ate everyone alive would have me prepared.
But I figured wrong, for GORUCK is a different kind of beast.
Saturday, October 4th, Geoff, his mom, and I headed to Portland Maine bright and early. We stopped off at an Army Surplus store in Scarborough Maine to purchase our required reflective belts that were to be worn around our rucksacks. I know, I’m just as shocked as you are that we didn’t already own these in our sea of “outdoor gear”. I had been training with an Osprey day pack all along. While I love this pack for hiking, I knew I was going to hate it for GORUCK. The back piece was too stiff, and nearly impossible to get the bricks in and out of. I had tried on other packs and rucks and nothing fit quite right. But in the surplus store, I found a ruck that fit me to a tee…and was inexpensive in comparison to other models I’ve looked at: Red Rock Outdoor Gear Rebel Assault Pack.
The stupidest thing you can do the day of an event/race is to try something new. I’m not often known for wise decisions. I bought the ruck.
We headed to Jenny’s apartment in Portland, ate lunch, and made all of our last minute preparations. The weather was everything you would expect in coastal Maine during October: windy,cloudy, foggy, misty, and cold. The temperature hovered in the mid 50’s at best. I know how much I suck at being cold and wet, so needless to say, I was a little terrified. But I comforted myself in a bowl of spaghetti and told myself to “STFU”, there was no backing out of this one.
We arrived at our starting location, the Portland Observatory, a few minutes before the start 2:00 pm time. Our GORUCK was on the anniversary weekend of the Battle of Mogadishu, and the Mogadishu Mile (of which the movie “Black Hawk Down” was written about), and would be themed as such. Everyone began to gather, and we made our introductions. Even though this was the “beginner level” GORUCK, we had numerous experienced participants on board, some who had even participated in the 12 hour challenge the night before. Having the pros vs. newbies at about a 3/1 ratio eased a little bit of my nerves. They clearly knew what we were in for and immediately took the lead. Christine had brought our team weight, a 15+lb chain covered in duct tape and adorned with the names of the 18 soldiers lost during the battle of Mogadishu. Daryl brought the American Flag. Right at 2:00 our Cadre (the MFIC) showed up, Cadre Joe. He took attendance (24 of us had showed up) and we marched over to his car parked about a block away.
At Cadre’s car, we were handed a bunch of supplies: two giant empty water jugs and a few mystery bags that we would come to know and
loathe love. After a brief confrontation with a woman standing near by who was apparently offended that we were flying our country’s flag (go figure) we all took off running. Running with my weighted ruck was something I had not practiced, but was surprisingly not uncomfortable. Having spent the last few months as a frequent visitor of Portland, I knew exactly where we were headed: the Eastern Promenade, and most likely, the water front. Once we made it down the hill, as expected, Cadre directed us to the beach and told us to line up. Thankfully, the experience GORUCK crowd knew exactly what he was looking for. They lined us up in three rows of equal numbers, spaced evenly apart. Having never been a member of anything more organized than the Girl Scouts, this formation was clearly not something that would have even crossed my mind. Having all of these past participants on hand clearly saved us from getting into a lot of trouble throughout the day.
Cadre gave us an introduction, and a safety run down. He told us that water was to be our “ammunition”, if we ran out of water, we were screwed. He then sent five people off with the water containers and the contents of the bags, which turned out to be these huge water filed tubes (estimated weight 50 ish lbs?) that would add to our team weights. At some point we were quizzed on some facts about the Battle of Mogadishu. I knew none of the answers and was again thankful for those who a) prepared, and b) were in attendance the night before and therefore remembered the answers. We were told to remove our bricks from our rucks so Cadre could inspect them. We were then asked how many of us actually read the Facebook event page that told us to wrap our bricks individually. I of course, somehow missed that. Another fail in my book that would have me doing arm circles with double the weight in one hand that exhausted me immediately.
Bricks back in our rucks. Then came the inevitable:
We marched into the water. I’ll go ahead and give you the disclaimer now that almost everything from here on out is a blur. Anyone who knows me knows that I cannot maintain body heat to save my life. Literally. Add in cold water and I’m as good as done. I started shaking within 15 seconds of submerging my feet. Somewhere around thigh deep we were told to about face and get into pushup position. Then the pushups began. Multiple, because we couldn’t count according to direction the first few times.
Next came an exercise so appropriately named “I HATE YOU”. We put our rucks on our chests, and sat down, chest to back, in a line. On Cadre’s command, we were to splash handfuls of water into the face of the person in front of us. This lasted probably 30 seconds or so, but of course felt like a lifetime. I actually gasped out loud because the cold was so shocking to my body.
Eventually we got out of the water and lined up for the “tunnel of love”. Plank position in a line, the person at the end army crawled through the tunnel. This was my first moment of “holy sh*t, I’m not nearly in as good of shape I thought I was in” clarity. Planks suck anyway, but having a 20+ lb dry, now soaking wet and therefore heavier, ruck on your back makes these significantly harder. Who would have thought? My wrists burned, my arms shook, and I thought I was going to puke. Cold ocean water was pouring out of my ruck and down my neck and face. I had to drop down to my knees numerous times, trying to carefully coordinate it so I didn’t drop down on someone’s head. And this was only the beginning.
I love/hate these moments.
When this finally ended, we were instructed to form two lines and sit back to back. On command, we threw handfuls of sand over our head at the person behind us. I found myself thankful for the hat I was wearing, and highly amused at the ridiculousness of all of this. Later I was told by a friend “in the know” that GORUCK always puts people in the water at the very beginning as a litmus test as to who is going to stick around and who will drop out right then. Most people in the average world are unfamiliar with the discomfort of being soaking wet while fully clothed, and I imagine the sand covering your entire body adds to that discomfort level. Fortunately, I am not most people, and instead spend the majority of my weekends ears deep in mud (fully clothed) so this “discomfort” was a familiar one.
Next came some awful inchworm pushup exercise that I simply couldn’t do. End of story. No excuses. I am weak.
At this point, I learned about a fantastic little survival exercise called the “Penguin Huddle”. The penguin huddle would come to quiet my constant shivering numerous times through the day. Hello strangers, let’s cuddle!
Rucks back on, we headed off the beach and towards a hill. Here we were taught how to lift an unconscious person into the fireman carry. Jenny and I paired up. She struggled a little with me, making me feel guilty about the added 10 lbs (some muscle, some beer) that I’ve put on over the last year. I didn’t struggle with her at all, making me feel pretty kick ass about the 10 lbs I’ve put on over the last year. You win some, you lose some.
Then, we marched. Two by two, carrying the plethora of team gear. We swapped out back and forth between a massive sandbag, the water containers, the two water tubes, a sandbag full of something mysterious (coins? chains? spent ammo? No idea.) our team chain, and the flag.
After switching through a few times, I ended up carrying the empty bag that once housed all of these items. It kept me warm, so very warm, that I started to zone out and completely ignored the fact that I quite literally wasn’t pulling my weight. My “survival” reaction when I’m suffering is to internalize the pain, and almost put myself into a “zen” state. This clearly does not work well in a team environment. Our class was so kick-ass about jumping back and forth relieving each other of carrying things that I found myself subconsciously hanging on for the ride.
Commence uncontrollable shivering.
This went on for, I don’t know, a few miles. We marched all along downtown Portland to many amused and concerned stares from passers by. But it was about to get more interesting. Cadre eventually stopped us and asked who was a first timer. Myself and a few others raised our hands. He looked right at me and said “you”, picked one other guy, and told us to follow him. I handed over the chain I was carrying and followed about 100 feet. There on the side of the road was a massive log. I had heard stories of carrying telephone poles and trees through cities during GORUCKS before, so before he even started talking, I knew what was coming next.
I was assigned “Assistant Team Leader”. I have no doubt this role was given to me because I was clearly sucking at the physical part, so Cadre decided to put me in charge of those who were capable of the physical suck fest. The tree represented CW3 Michael Durant, Black Hawk pilot of Super Six-Four who was shot down during the battle of Mogadishu. We had 5 minutes to get our team to remove him from the combat zone, in addition to ourselves, and all of the team weights.
Once this was done, we began marching back through the city, now carrying a giant tree. The looks from those passing by on the street increased in concern and amusement. As assistant team leader (referred to as ATL, which I didn’t know, until multiple people started yelling in my direction using that name), I wasn’t allowed to carry anything, and instead was in charge of making sure no one got hurt, and there were no breaks in the group. A break of more than 5 feet apart at any given time would result in “casualties”, i.e. more people we had to carry and less people available to carry things.
As we marched around and I watched my teammates struggle with the massive tree, I shivered uncontrollably and felt a lot of guilt. I get that SOMEONE had to be team leader and assistant team leader, and it was a vital position for the team. But I felt bad that I was essentially doing zero work – this class was so GOOD at what they did that they hardly needed me. I did, however, prevent the tree roots from impaling a few store front window panes, so you know, there’s that.
I shivered, we walked. I shivered, warned people of curbs and street signs. Eventually we made our way back down to the Promenade. Down a trail we headed, until Cadre determined it was time to give our fallen comrade (the tree) a proper burial. First, everyone was to do 45 raises from one shoulder to another with their weight…and the tree. Again, I felt like an asshole because I just stood there and watched, making sure everyone was on the same count, while they all grimaced in pain under their massive weights. I think we made it to maybe 30 before Cadre said that was enough. We hummed Taps and tossed our fallen comrade (tree) into the woods.
And we headed back to the beach. At this point my uncontrollable shivering had turned visibly violent. I had a handful of people ask me if I was OK. I wasn’t, but I was. I wasn’t going to quit, so it didn’t really matter how I was doing. I cant’ remember who it was, but someone stopped me and said “Heather, are you mentally prepared to get back into the water again?”
“Yes” I said. I meant no, no way in hell, no, no, NO! But I wasn’t going to quit.
“I’ll be fine.” I assured him.
At the water front we were informed to empty our team weights of water and sand. We then lined back up and were quizzed on our Battle of Mogadishu facts. We failed miserably, and asked Cadre if we could just get the inevitable over. He obliged. We were told to turn and face the ocean. Get into bear crawl position. Crawl into the water.
As the water reached my chest and started to lap over my neck, I shed my first tear. Just one. This sucked. Embrace the suck. Embrace the suck. Embrace the suck. 20 more pushups. Mine were pathetic, but I moved and counted in sync with the rest of the class.
We were told to get on our feet and gather around cadre immediately. He pulled out a piece of paper and read us a paragraph about the Mogadishu Mile, and finished up with: “ladies and gentlemen, secure the gear, your Mogadishu Mile is beginning.”
We ran over, secured the gear, and began running behind cadre. I welcomed the run. I KNOW how to run, and running makes me warm. I was right on Cadre’s tail the whole time, thankful for something I’m good at. Even the hills didn’t phase me. My heart pounding and my lungs burning was a welcome feeling. I think I might break a sweat, bring it on. At the top of the hill, we were told it was time to make a deal:
35% casualty rate (meaning, 35% of our class had to be carried) and an indirect, longer route to the finish…
50% casualty rate and a direct route to the finish.
The team, tired, cold, and wet foolishly chose 50%. We all partnered up. Geoff picked me up and we failed. We failed miserably. I still have no idea why. But we weren’t the only ones. After three or four attempts and barely making it 100 yards, Cadre started yelling that if we didn’t get it together, we would return to the beach and there would be more exercises. A bunch of us re-paired. I ended up with a man named Ron. Ron was one hell of a good fireman carry partner. In addition to carrying his ruck, and me wearing my ruck, we also had the sandbag full of the mystery weight (coins? I still have no idea). We eventually managed to fall into synch and we moved, Ron carrying me, me carrying the sandbag.
Now, one would assume that being carried is the way to go. I’m here to tell you that being carried HURTS. No matter what position I was in, it sucked. I either felt like I was going to puke all over Ron, or I was going to break a rib. No position was even remotely comfortable. Embrace the suck. Embrace the suck. Embrace the Suck.
We had to stop at least a dozen times, as our excellent team work simply started to fall apart as we were all so close to the finish line. Cadre told us every time someone was set down, his stopwatch started. If we weren’t all back off the ground in one minute or less, there would be exercise penalties. Some of us got too far ahead and had to keep back tracking to the rest of the class. There were chants of “DFQ” (dont’ f*cking quit). I lost my hat. Ron and I did a somersault onto the pavement.
Finally, finally, we reached the observatory. Lined back up, in the dark rain. Pushup position. Down, up. “FOUR!” Down, up “SEVEN!” Down, up “TWO”. Down, up “FOUR SEVEN TWO!” Not loud enough, again. Down, up “FOUR SEVEN TWO!” Still not loud enough, again. Down, up “FOUR SEVEN TWO!!!!” On your feet.
5.5 hours later: GRL Class 472, Mogadishu Mile, complete. 100% class pass rate.
Relief. Utter relief. Still violently shivering, but happy.
At the beginning of the day, Cadre Joe asked us think about what we wanted to get out of this event. I feel bad that at the time, I didn’t know…and even at the end, I didn’t know. I still don’t know, days later. I don’t “feel like a better American” because I feel what we did wasn’t even a shadow of what the men and women of our Armed Forces do on a daily basis. I’m just a blogger who deals with her own emotional demons by voluntarily pushing herself hard physically, then I write about it.
Did I have fun? No, absolutely no fun at all. I believe I have more than exceeded the acceptable number of usages of the word “suck” in this post, but just for good measure: that sucked.
But I did enjoy myself, in the “proving I’m capable of enduring shitty situations” enjoyment I’ve come to sadistically love. And I did meet some really cool people in the process. I know my weaknesses, and without a shadow of a doubt being cold and wet still remains one of them. I overcame that, to an extent. In retrospect I wish I could have done more to help the team. In retrospect, I know I could have done more to help the team.
Which is exactly why I need to do this again.
A huge thank you to GORUCK for the experience, Cadre Joe for the sufferfest, Class 472 for your teamwork and amazing leadership, Lauren Hines for shadowing and taking such fantastic photos, and of course, my Geoff & Jenny for being such amazing rocks in my world. Here’s to our next adventure…
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Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.