It was a beautiful August night at the bottom of the Space Needle in Seattle. Tourists were taking in the sights of Seattle Center, but I had come here to meet a bunch of strangers there who had all signed up to do the GORUCK Challenge.
I knew I had found them when I saw 20-30 people gathered by the Space Needle entrance with athletic clothes on and heavy backpacks at their feet. What followed in the next 8-10+ hours was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I’m writing this article to share my experiences as well as my training plan leading up to that night and perhaps inspire someone to challenge themselves.
The GORUCK Challenge is an 8-12 hour, 15-20 mile “guided tour” of a city led by a veteran of one of the branches of the United States Special Forces who is referred to as the Cadre. All you have to do to come along (besides registering) is bring along a backpack, or ruck, with six bricks in it (if you are over 150 lbs., 4 if you are under 150), and be ready for the “challenges” that the Cadre has in store for the team. GORUCK the company was started by Jason McCarthy, a Special Forces veteran who wanted to create gear for everyone that was tough enough to be used in the field and events to both test the gear and the people who were up for it under their training conditions.
I heard about the GORUCK Challenge in January 2013 after reading a review of it by Brett McKay at one of my favorite blogs on the Internet, The Art of Manliness. After reading the article, I knew that I wanted to do this. While cleaning my room, I found an old fitness journal with the Socrates quote and it had really gotten in my head. In high school, I had been on the varsity soccer team, but I had never really challenged myself physically since then. Over the years, I would exercise, but with no real goal in mind. In the previous year or so, I had started to pay attention to my health more than ever before, but I didn’t want to just get fit for the sake of it- I wanted to develop an all-around practical type of fitness. After reading Brett’s review, I realized the GORUCK was exactly the type of test I needed to prove to myself that I had attained that level of fitness Socrates was describing. I hadn’t signed up, but I began training for it.
A few weeks into training, we discovered that my wife was pregnant with our first child, which gave me an extra level of motivation.
I began to do research on the GORUCK Challenge and discovered that while there were some articles out there, those who complete it are somewhat vague as to what it actually entails in order to keep it a mystery for those who are doing it for the first time. It is hard to know exactly what to train for because no one (and that will now include myself) is forthcoming with the specifics in order to keep the mystery of the Challenge alive. People, however, are usually forthcoming about their training program.
In my mind, there are three phases to getting ready for the GORUCK Challenge. The first phase is to get in what you consider to be in good shape through proper exercise and nutrition. This post is not about this first phase and there are a lot of resources out there to help you if you’re in that stage. It really helps to have a goal to focus your efforts like doing the GORUCK. The second phase is to take your good shape and bring it to the next level so you can begin even thinking about training hard for the Challenge. This second phase took me six months. The third phase is actually training for it.
For about a year before I discovered the GORUCK Challenge, I had been going to Sgt. Mike’s Boot Camp. Sgt. Mike Lawson is originally from the Boston area (just like me) and besides being a great coach, is a wicked charactah. His classes are held in parks around the Seattle area and emphasize calisthenics, bodyweight exercises and running/cardio drills. It is the kind of practical, all-around fitness training that I had been looking for. Sgt. Mike’s classes had gotten me fitter than I had been in a long time and training for the GORUCK Challenge seemed like a great way to build on that. In addition, about eight months before the Challenge I began using a weightlifting program called Stronglifts 5X5 that Brett McKay used when he was training. Developed by a guy named Mehdi from Belgium, Stronglifts 5X5 in its first phase is a series of two short alternating workouts filled with traditional weightlifting exercises that always start with squats. Each workout, you add 5 pounds until suddenly you realize you have made some big gains. I alternated this with Sgt. Mike’s Bootcamp, with its emphasis on bodyweight and cardio, which gave me a great all-around workout.
After training for a few months like this, I decided that I was serious about doing GORUCK and signed up in mid-April for the 8/16/13 challenge in Seattle. Right after that I bought some bricks, wrapped them, and started using a backpack I already had for some training. I put all 6 bricks in the pack to see what would happen and it nearly ripped apart. After that, I decided to go ahead and get a GORUCK pack.
When I received the bag, I was totally impressed. It was just as awesome as the photos on their website make it look. The 26-liter GR1 packs are hand-made in Bozeman, MT out of Cordura fabric and was designed to be tough enough to handle the stress of having loads like the wrapped bricks inside. Not only that, it is attractive enough (once you clean off all of the mud!) to take to work. Now that I had a pack that was able to handle the bricks I started going on hikes, steadily increasing the amount of bricks that I was using. In addition, I did Boot Camp classes while wearing a weight vest.
As the Challenge date drew closer, I began to follow GORUCK’s six-week Challenge training plan. Their program walks you through a comprehensive and sensible training regimen that has you practice the types of activities that may occur during a Challenge while putting progressively more weight in the pack. I also started just wearing the pack around while I was doing my normal activities so I could get used to the weight.
Despite all the training that I had been putting in over the course of nearly eight months, as the date of the Challenge approached, the doubts began to swirl around. Had I trained hard enough? Had I trained for the right activities? All I knew was that I didn’t want to be a liability to the other people on my team. The only way to do that was to kick the negative thoughts out of my head by continually visualizing as much of the Challenge as I could (including finishing) and resolving to finish it while helping out my teammates along the way.
Then, 9:00 PM on Friday, August 16th, 2013 arrived. We stopped goofing off and lined up in front of the Space Needle as Cadre Michael inspected our packs. Once he explained the parameters, we began marching through the streets past absolutely stunned and confused (and increasingly belligerent drunk) people to Seattle Fire Station #2, where we honored the firefighters by doing our first round of calisthenics while being hosed down by Cadre Michael. This was when it became real. I was going to not only reach deep inside but lean on the strength of these people if we were going to survive this thing we had signed up for.
After this, we marched through South Lake Union to Lake Union Park. Cadre Michael ordered us into the not-so-lovely waters of Lake Union where we began the Welcome Party, a long series of calisthenics that could have lasted for an hour, three hours, I couldn’t tell you. All I can say for sure is that doing calisthenics in the water in the middle of the night with 40-50 pounds on your back certainly makes one focus on the present.
There were points during the Welcome Party where I wasn’t sure I could do it. Then I noticed that some of my teammates were having more trouble than I was. I forgot about what was going on in my head and started giving them encouragement and trying to help them. Now that I had gotten out of my head, I realized how badly I wanted him and everyone on my team to make it. We had all busted our asses and pushed ourselves to the limit to get here and now Cadre Michael was pushing us way, way past that. If we were all going to make it, we all had to “embrace the suck” and make it together. A bunch of strangers who had prepared for a physical challenge were forged into Class #733 in the nasty waters of Lake Union.
After the Welcome Party was over, we proceeded to march up Queen Anne Hill (which is the tallest and steepest hill in a city full of them) to another park where we got our next assignment. Partner 1 had to bear crawl with Partner 2 on the ground, their pack on their chest, holding onto Partner 1’s neck.
Once we got to the end of the first leg, we had to switch roles. Here is where I realized that my size and weight were now the business of one of my teammates now that my partner had to drag my ass up a small hill, for which he deserves a ton of credit. He was a large man himself, and we both just had to engage Beast Mode to make it through.
Before we left the park, we discovered our next assignment- a drone had been shot down and we had to bring the “pieces-“ AKA several large logs- back to the extraction point at Green Lake. We made our way down the other side of Queen Anne Hill and up Aurora Avenue in the middle of the night. Another teammate and I took one of the logs across the entire Aurora Bridge. I had never been on the bridge so late at night as a pedestrian. It was eerily calm and beautiful as we all made it across the bridge and stopped to meet the Fremont Troll who lives underneath the north side.
After we visited the Troll, we crossed underneath the bridge to the other side of the street as we made our way to the “extraction point” at Green Lake. At this point, Cadre Michael told us he had received an order that we were supposed to find a “douche canoe.” The “douche canoe” ended up being part of a trashed bookshelf left by the side of a store on Aurora Ave. in which most of the logs except for the biggest one were placed.
We made it to Woodland Park (which is right next to Green Lake) when we discovered a pedestrian walking sign that had been defaced to make the walking man into a walking bear instead. In keeping with the adaptive nature of the GORUCK Challenge, this prompted a bear crawl across the street into the park.
When we got into Woodland Park, it was a bit surreal for me. I not only live nearby and did a ton of training for the Challenge here, but most of Sgt. Mike’s Boot Camp classes take place in Woodland Park and around Green Lake. Now, here I was, just before sunrise hauling the douche canoe with my teammates over the moguls in the BMX dirtbike course that I had run by hundreds of times. It was both surreal and fitting.
After we made it over the dirtbike-turned-obstacle course with the douche canoe, the entire team had to make it back over the course in a certain time and if anyone didn’t make it over the jumps, they would be considered “casualties” that we would have to carry over. We made the time by three seconds.
As the sun began to rise over Seattle, we hiked the rest of the way to the East Beach on the other side of Green Lake. This time, however, we started racking up “casualties” and some of the team members had to be carried the rest of the way.
Once we got to the Green Lake Beach, it was back in the water for more calisthenics and then a simulation of a beach landing. It was tough to see people drinking their Starbucks after staying up all night. Whereas the beach at Lake Union was full of pea gravel, while the beach at Green Lake was just sand. We got out of Green Lake and low-crawled over the sand and then “camouflaged” ourselves by chucking sand all over ourselves. Wet and covered in sand, we began walking up Ravenna Blvd. towards the University of Washington.
This was one of the longest hikes we did but we made good time and we were all in good spirits. When we got to UW, the original intent was to have us jump into the fountain, but once Cadre Michael saw it was at least a five foot drop into the fountain (plus being full of goose poop and feathers), he decided against it and we did some more calisthenics by the UW Medical Center.
After this round of calisthenics, we started the last leg of the journey back to Seattle Center. We ran all the way back to the beach where we had our Welcome Party.
After a “baptism” of Class 733 in the not-so-pure waters of Lake Union, Cadre Michael presented each of us with our GORUCK Tough patches. Every one of the people on the team who started the Challenge had completed it, including myself.
It was a real feeling of accomplishment that I can’t even begin to describe. It had been a long, eight-month journey to get to that moment, and now here I was. battered, bruised, scuffed-up and dehydrated, but I somehow made it. The best part, however, was that everyone who began GORUCK Challenge #733 completed it. We had done it together.
It’s important to be part of a team once in a while that is trying to accomplish a completely unreasonable goal together. Team #733 accomplished something that August night, and I was a part of it. Every step of the way to accomplishing that goal there were people who inspired me, trained with me, and that night, Cadre Michael and the people of Team #733 were there to help me get through the Challenge.
Training for and completing GORUCK Challenge #733 has changed me for the better. For once, I had a physical training goal and I pushed my body and my mind about as far as it has ever been pushed and I made it to the other side. I am no longer an amateur in the matter of my physical training but my mental training as well. While being physically fit really matters, a large amount of what will get you through an event like the Challenge, an emergency situation or just everyday life is mental toughness. You need to relentlessly train not only your body but your mind as well in order to take that proverbial “one more step.” I have found that both the physical and mental training I did has benefited me in all areas of my life. The best part is that I will never truly be done with the GORUCK Challenge as participating in it also gave me a whole new list of improvements that I need to make. Not only that, but the urge to sign up again is always there.
If challenging yourself physically and mentally like this sounds like a great time to you, sign up for the GORUCK Challenge or any of their other events. GORUCK is a veteran-owned business that produces great products hand-made in the USA and puts on events like the Challenge that end up changing minds, changing bodies, and changing lives. This is the kind of truly awesome, inspirational American success story companies that everyone needs to know about. Check out GORUCK, or better yet, become a part of it.
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Special Thanks to David Thomas and Derek Veldkamp for not only tagging along, but for taking such great pictures! David took 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10 and 12 while Derek took 1, 5, 7, 8, and 11. All rights reserved to the respective photographers.