Why do this and what is my why?
Now that I have had some time to let the events of the GoRuck HCLS (Heavy, Challenge, Light and Scavenger) sink in, I want to reflect on what got me (and a few amazing friends) through it all.
For me it starts with my “Why”. Part of that is the great quote from Socrates, but specifically it is the unending questions of; what am I capable of? What scares me? What is possible? How can I aspire to be closer to those that inspire me? The ongoing and relentless pursuit of self discovery is a strong motivator for me - to dream more, learn more, do more and become more. This last bit is part of a John Adams quote that has found a permanent home in my head since the first day I read it.
"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." --John Quincy Adams
As someone who leads teams and projects as part of my day job, I constantly struggle with how to be a better leader, which usually goes back to self discovery and learning to be a better follower, something that GoRuck is real good at introducing you to, both quickly and harshly.
So what is a GoRuck HCLS exactly?
First let me tell you what I call it - “The Stupid”. Why you ask? Let’s break it down. “Heavy” brought to you by the letter, “H”. The Heavy is a 24 hour team event, where you strap on 35+ lbs rucks (backpacks) and get led around an unknown area for roughly 30-40 miles. Seems simple until you realize that the 35lb ruck is the lightest thing you will carry all night. For example, we were handed a “pain train” of ten sandbags, ranging from 120lbs to 20lbs, some logs, a 12” diameter PVC pipe, roughly 10 feet long and filled with water (loads of fun to carry up a hill), a 50lb team weight, buckets (soon to be filled with water and sand), and a large sheet cake to celebrate the 240 birthday of the US Marines (more on that later). Also being led around is not really accurate, more like soul crushing PT sessions run by Cadre who are veterans from special operations in the military (current or former Green Berets, SEALs, or Marines) who have zero fucks to give (ah, ah, ah, ah) because they have already done far worse than you or I can imagine. Interspersed between this are things called, “Time hacks” which are simply, get all of your asses and your coupons, (all the extra heavy stuff they gave you), to a new location within a limited timeframe of suffer the consequences. Of course something this fun wouldn’t be complete without extra entertainment of having all your food taken away and doing it on a restricted diet of less than a thousand calories. Oh, but at the end, you do get to eat that cake you carried for over 24 hours, of course it too is a time hack. Cake had to be gone in less than two minutes. Rabid bears could not have finished is faster than us - it was gone in 23 seconds.
Once you have finished the above party, is when you realize that it is only one out of the four events that comprise HCLS, now you get about an hour to prep for the Challenge, brought to you by the letter, “C”. This time only 12+ hours of more of the same and roughly 12-15 miles. After you stumble in delirium to the end, you get to enjoy what feels like a huge amount of rest over the next hour and a half. Now to get your mind right for the Light. The Light is now just fun, PT is so normal at this point, you don’t care and giggle at it, (no joke), partly from how easy it is in comparison and partly because after so little sleep, even push ups are funny.
When you finally finish that little party, you get some real rest, nearly eight full hours before you start the Scavenger, which would normally be about running around the city for six hours, trying to beat other teams taking a photos of themselves in front of all sorts of random objects, but for you and the soon to be nicknamed, “Stubborn 31”, you all are chilling out in a bar/brunch spot seeing how fast you can eat giant plates of pancakes, (less than two minutes btw). Eventually, you head out and rack up some points in the Scavenger hunt, but you know what you really won was HCLS.
Beyond all of the endurance challenges, what made this particular event special was Veterans Day. Every now and again the cadre would sit us down and open up about their personal stories, or stories of others they have served with. These intimate windows into the lives of those that serve was especially meaningful to me as someone who has not served, but respects all those who have. I have always felt limited and frustrated by the generic and nearly meaningless, “support our troops” banners, pins, stickers, etc. Taking the time to experience a fraction of a veteran’s world, felt infinitely more useful in understanding and appreciative of those who serve.
So how did we do?
In the immortal words of my teammate Kristina, "we crushed it!" <insert pantomime of her crushing a can>
As a team we were a relentless force of positive leadership, pack mule power and huddled up penguin heat. From start to finish we put out, helped out and laughed at the silliness of what we were willing chose to do and paid good money to be part of. No doubt this was facilitated by sleep deprivation delirium. Also when I say our team, I mean everyone, including everyone we trained with, and the support team, who were absolutely essential in getting us across the finish line.
For me personally it was a mixed bag. I started off great with tons of energy and enthusiasm. When they brought out the coupons I tried to find something heavy and share it with my teammate Steve. This strategy proved fantastic as we each put as much effort as possible for the other, stretching our collective energy out further than if only one of us was pushing hard on their own. Something I realized pretty quickly, was that there is a sweet spot of giving near maximal effort, but not going over is ideal. Give to little effort and the other person has to work that much harder to compensate for your lack of output. But, push too hard and exceed your own limits, then you can't recover enough to be useful again. It doesn't help the team if one person plays powerlifting superhero, because everyone at some point runs into their limit and you either walk into that wall gracefully or you hit it head first like a battering ram of arrogance.
Around hour 23 of the Heavy I started to approach that invisible wall and found myself in my own private pity party. We were on a near endless hill climb doing 13+ miles that we really needed to push hard on and immediately you could see people well past their limits. At this point I started to resent the other people, why were they not more prepared? Why didn't they move faster? Why do we have to carry their packs? This is bullshit! What was bullshit was my attitude, not them. It's not about me, it's about the team and the person next to you. Once I was able to snap out of this I looked for the person who was having the hardest time and tried to help them. The person I helped was already being supported by someone, so then it became the two of us helping pull a third up a hill. They say when you are at your worst, find someone worse than you, there is always someone worse than you ... Once you start helping them you forget all about your own suffering. The reality is, when you are that fatigued you can only (barely) focus on one thing at a time and once you stop focusing on yourself your pain goes away, you simply don't have the capacity to notice it.
After the Heavy our support team kept the pressure on us just like the cadre, but instead of crushing us they propped us up with the same fury the cadre used to break us down. They never let us focus on anything but the next thing we needed. Eat food, drink this, get in the van, get to next start point, lay down, rest feet, sleep, get up, get gear on, get to start point. They never gave us a chance to think about quitting. If they had, I am sure my demons would have creeped in and told me I had already done enough, that there was no reason to push harder. Instead the demons never got a chance to show up, chased away by Troy and the gang of demon slayers.
The challenge started with a hell of a welcome party - translation is hours of push ups, burpees, flutter kicks, etc on the beach in between runs into the water to, "get wet and sandy" again I have to thank my team and our training. Even after the Heavy I never felt like I had nothing to give, especially on the flutter kicks. Our pre event workouts often ended with 100 four-count flutter kicks for, "durability" which I hated at the time, but now was paying off on event day. I found whenever they asked us for flutter kicks, it was like giving me a free rest period. In my head I could laugh at the cadre and have my own personal victory lap. Again just showing that it is the team that gets you through this, even your training team matters - choose them wisely.
There is this sense of euphoria once you finish the welcome party and it is on to moving heavy stuff over distance. Plus, now there is a ton of more people, since many people sign up, (there was a total of 91, including us), just to do the Challenge. Those folks have no interest in the Heavy, much less “The Stupid”. Things continued to go well until they didn't. Now the effects of sleep deprivation get added to the mix. To be honest there are large chunks of the night I don’t even remember. The low parts I remember - continuing to be under a massive log with my teammate as we get more and more pissed that all the new, fresh people are not carrying more. Again this is where having an amazing team makes all the difference. Out of the blue I see Kristina smiling and checking in on everyone, she seems impervious to, “the suck” and just like that you realize pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. It really is that simple. You can choose to say this is BS and not fair, or you can say, I don’t care what fair is or is not, life is never fair. I am simply going to pick this thing up, carry what I can and keep moving forward. It was not about DFQ - Don’t Fucking Quit, I was not going to quit, not out of some macho proclamation, it just was not that bad, I and my attitude was just making it worse. If you can realize you are your own enemy at this point in time, then you can just stop doing that to yourself.
At this point I become intimate with the phrase, “It could always be worse …” and kept on trucking. Somewhere in the morning I realized we have been going for ten or so hours and that we’re in Golden Gate Park, not sure how we got there, but that I need to buddy carry a fellow teammate or their ruck as we run as fast as we can towards the beach - welcome to the Mogadishu Mile. Once we finished another round of PT on the beach, including getting toppled by a monster wave, we were done with round two.
Again our support crew comes in like the cavalry to whisk us off to the next destination. As always they make sure we are fed, hydrated and that we rest as much as possible in the hour and a half we have before round three - the Light. From this point on a strange level of confidence sweeps over us. There is no way we are stopping. Maybe it could get worse, but we just don’t care. There is this strange sense of certainty that infects you, where you know at your core you have more you can give and that it is enough to handle anything else that comes next. The Light and Scavenger events are now a breeze, just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and moving. Now we have the time to get to know the people we have been spending the last 40+ hours with. We get to hear their stories, share ours and connect with people we have been put through the crucible with and are still standing.
What have I learned?
First and foremost, the good - it takes a team. A team to inspire you to take on things outside your comfort zone. A team to train with, keeping you on track and holding you accountable to show up and put in the work. A team to be there with you side by side, so that in a sea of strangers you can find the familiar smile of the filthy, smelly, exhausted moron who signed up to do, “The Stupid” with you. A team to support you when you step over each finish line, filling you up with nutrients of food, water, rest and encouragement. A team to laugh and hug when it is all over. A team dumb enough to ask, “What’s next?”
Second the bad. I could have done better. Sure I finished and I am proud of that, but my goal was to do HCLS with a smile on my face the whole time and a positive, cheerful attitude. In this goal I came up short.
"It is not the load that breaks you down, it is the way you carry it." — Lou Holtz.
The above statement could not be more true during the event. As you are constantly burdened under massive loads, I found I was at my lowest, not when I was under the most weight, but when I wasn’t carrying myself internally with the right mindset. It was how I carried the load that was hurting me. That being said, to experience the feeling of helping others and crawling out of my own funk was a great learning experience, as well as seeing my other teammates thrive, while also facing the same challenge I was. The challenge to not only keep going, we were real good at that, but to carry yourself with your head up and positive, helping others who benefit from your optimism.
The ugly. My feet were f*cked up. I did not put enough hours and miles in my shoes and with extra heavy weight, (at least 80lbs or more). By the end of the Heavy my toes were banging against the end of my shoes, because I had not broken my shoes in enough, nor prepped my feet for 24+ hours of load. After the Heavy, when I went to swap shoes to my spares, my feet were too swollen to fit in my alternate shoes. By the end of the Light, I took off my shoes for nearly all of the break time (eight hours) allowing them to swell up more. When the Scavenger started each step was a painful mess. As I look at my poor feet I know I going to lose at least two toenails and maybe a third. That is not an indictment of the event’s difficulty, but of my own lack of preparedness in a very specific area. A mistake I don’t ever plan to repeat.
Now what you say? Not sure exactly. Time to rest up a bit and get back to the gym, establishing a baseline before deciding on the next goals to tackle. For me personally, I want to try to take on the Endeavor Team Challenge, gain the next level of instructor certification in Krav Maga and improve in a number of my benchmarks in physical training. Oh and gain back the 12+ lbs I lost during HCLS (weight loss further exacerbated by horrendous bout of food poisoning a week after the event). Other than that. We start back at the top remembering, “The unexamined life is not worth living” How do I get my actions to inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more? Last quote before I go, since it will be the north star that guides the next event.
"Part of the art of choosing difficulties is to select those that are indeed just manageable. If the difficulties chosen are too easy, life is boring; if they are too hard, life is defeating. The trick is to choose trouble for oneself in the direction of what one would like to become at a level of difficulty close to the edge of one’s competence." - Nicholas Hobbs