“What are we doing?” I shouted at the ragged limits of my voice as I led 20 pack-clad GoRucker’s through the narrow cobblestone sidewalks of Portland Maine’s nightclub-studded Old Port district.
“GoRuck!” came a thunderous and coordinated retort from the two teams of ten, now laboring beneath the telephone poles they bore upon their shoulders as they negotiated the crowded streets and droves of party-people spilling out of the trendy night clubs and low lit pubs.
It was only moments before midnight, but we were just getting started, and things would continue on in similar fashion for at least another 9 hours or more. It scarcely mattered, as not one of us carried a watch or phone and time was slowly becoming an abstraction.
I had first heard the term “GoRuck” six months before, when a friend from the Bay area turned me on to what looked like yet one more adventure race in the growing obstacle course/mud race genre. I had just completed the Tough Mudder, and was feeling like a regular Billy-badass, more than eager to take on whatever physical challenge could be thrown my way. This sounded like something worth looking into.
The GoRuck Challenge is 10-12 hours of coordinated team-based missions through your favorite shitty — sorry, city — overnight — with a group of people bound together by two things; a desire to test their inner fortitude, and a pack full of bricks. Yup, bricks.
Every good deal has got to have its catch, and GoRuck is no exception. In this case, the catch is rectangular, dense, rust colored, and weighs in at about 5 lbs a piece. Those participants weighing in at over 150 lbs — nearly all of us — carry six full sized masonry bricks. Those lucky ones who come in under that weight limit carry four. You bring your own.. and a pack to carry them in. Far from a burden, the GoRuck culture calls trekking the urban zoo while wearing this cumbersome load “Good Livin'”, and after the experience, I would have to agree...
After registration - which includes signing the rather thorough death waiver — members of the team are briefed by email or via the website on how to wrap these bricks in duct-tape before the night of the challenge to ensure that they ride well in your pack. Because (yes, I began this sentence with "because") each person wears their ruck for ten hours at the least, proper load distribution is crucial. Here is an image of my wrapped bricks, which now serve as a nice paperweight. Kidding... I keep them around for use in some of my functional fitness training sessions.
Hint: While fashioning handles was a bit of effort added, it was well worth it, as manipulating this 30lb load is rather awkward otherwise!
According to GoRuck’s own lore, the company began as a high end tactical backpack company — Ruck is a military term for a backpack — created by a retired Army Special Forces soldier who wanted to produce reliable and well-made equipment for those who serve, as well as, for those who don’t. In an effort to test their own products and make sure they could stand up to the demands that would be put upon them, the GoRuck Challenge was born.
Apparently this challenge, and a growing menu of events for alumni only, have grown in popularity to the point that the challenge now seems to rival, if not eclipse, the gear producing portion of the company.
That “GoRuck Challenge is a team event, never a race” is one of the hallmarks of this incredibly well developed adventure-trek experience. Here are the basics: You meet up with a team at around 10pm in the city you have chosen to participate in. You also meet your “Cadre” — the former Special Forces warrior who will be coordinating your teams ruck. After a fairly informal briefing on safety and rules, Cadre gives the orders, and you and your team are off and rucking. In our case it was "ruck-up and jog a quarter mile to the beach where pain would commence posthaste". In what has become iconic Special Forces-style training, we were immediately made sweaty and wet and rolled in sand. We spent the first hour in a “smoke session”, basically doing very challenging PT (physical training) in the sand, while being punished for our inability to “follow Cadre’s orders". These included one of the few rules we were given, namely “Do not call me Sir”.
All of this fun was followed by the “Buddy Bear Crawl”, which amounts to teams of two dragging one another across the soft beach — one person on their backs, ruck on their chest, the other partner on top doing a bear crawl, in what is probably the least efficient form of human locomotion possible. The person in the bear crawl drags the person on their back across the beach while they hang on to the person on top squirming in an effort to help from their supine position of physical disadvantage. Sound easy? Try it with two 40lb packs for a quarter mile!
There were moments during the first hour where I thought that I would never make it. I didn’t know what the rest of the night was going to be like, but if it was going to be more flutter kicks there was no way I would survive it. Our pain-wisened Cadre knew how to read his crew, and just when my hip flexors couldn’t generate one more flutter, it was over. We were ordered to line up, about face, and march, arm-in-arm, into the ocean for a waste deep saltwater soaking. And it was just then that the real challenge began. We were warmed up, very wet, and at this point only one of us had vomited!
As we were ordered out of the surf and reestablished our line, Cadre shouted out “What’s the name of the Dwarf in the Lord of the Rings?”
“Gimli Cadre” came the answer from several places in the line up. I knew then that I was about to be made an example of. Cadre pointed to me, said without humor "your name is Gimli", (yeah, laugh it up) and ordered me to the side. I was about to be made team leader for the next several hours.
My orders were to navigate the team, shuffling along in formation for about a mile, towards two large and very heavy telephone-type poles located in an abandoned train-car yard at the edge of the city. These were to be hoisted onto our shoulders and carried to a classified location some undisclosed distance away. All I knew was that we were to take them down Fore Street, the epicenter of Portland’s nightlife, late on a Saturday evening. Knowing the city somewhat well, I was sure this would be one of the more difficult and high profile assignments of the night. This is the bar district, and there would be people everywhere. The streets were narrow, and full of intersections, cars, bicycles, and obstacles. These poles were heavy, awkward, and not particularly easy to keep airborne. It was my responsibility to keep them in the air, hold the team together in both body and spirit, and keep us from dropping a pole on ourselves, an onlooker, or someone else's property. Oh.. and to navigate all the while.
After negotiating these once large trees through the throngs of curious, if not mildly intoxicated, onlookers I was told to lead us out of town and away from the city. I thought we would be setting these logs down at any moment. A mile later I still thought that anytime now we would abandon these "coupons" (GoRuck nomenclature for awkward heavy items you end up carrying along the way). Two miles later I thought for sure we would be done soon. 3 miles later, I had sort of accepted our condition — it would end when it ended. My throat was raw from shouting orders (putting my public speaking skills to a novel new use) to try to keep morale high. The team was amazing and made up of very fit and motivated folks, but they were smoked. These poles weighed hundreds of pounds apiece, and each person still bore their rucks — full of bricks and water upon their backs. Still, we pushed on.
Finally, around 2am we reached our target. The poles were delivered to their final resting place, and I was “fired” as team leader so that someone else could take the lead, and have the opportunity to hold our team together during this next phase of our mission. In the moments of rest we were given, I changed my wet socks, ate a bit of the superfood goo I had made, and awaited our new orders. If you're wondering, these involved six tractor trailer tires and 25 more masonry bricks that needed carrying! We bore these for another 3 miles at least. And this was still the first part of the night...
Some Thoughts on the “Meaning” of the Event
The GoRuck Challenge is all about the team, all about getting through what seems impossible together. Everybody has to step up, take responsibility for not just themselves, but also for the person next them. Everyone is tired, everyone is cold, everyone's feet are swollen and wet, but everyone wants everyone else to finish. No one gets a free ride, and there are no guarantee’s, that's why you are required to bring twenty bucks in your ruck, just in case you quit and need a cab ride home! Everyone needs everyone else, it just can’t be done alone. You start off a disjointed assortment of individuals, you pull together under the weight of mutual suffering, and you prevail together, in the end a bonded team.
Several hours after sunrise, miles of buddy carry’s (picture carrying someone on your back with, you guessed it, your pack still on), and a handful of team leaders, we arrived back at our start point. When we were finally instructed to set down our rucks — until this point no ruck was allowed to touch the ground — there was a palpable, almost ecstatic sense of camaraderie, accomplishment, and personal satisfaction. You knew you earned it, and you knew everyone else knew they had earned it too.
Immediately upon our un-rucking the tone and demeanor of the Cadre changed. He went, in an instant, from ice-cold sociopathic drill instructor to jovial longtime friend, and he spoke to us now as equals, no longer as the jelly-soft neophytes that he was amused to abuse. He congratulated each of us on our accomplishment, praised the way we came together as a team, and shook every hand as we were awarded the holy grail we had all come here in search of, the coveted GoRuck Tough patch. Something that is never for sale, and can only be earned.
I must admit I really love this patch, and what it reminds me about myself whenever I see it. From here on out, whenever I see another one I will know what the person wearing it is capable of. We are a family of individuals who are willing to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good... For the Team.
But wait, there's more
Once you have completed the GoRuck Challenge you are cleared to take part in other GoRuck events — sans bricks (ahhhh) — that are more specialty adventure than back-breaking challenge. I am already signed up for GoRuck Navigator, a four day navigation adventure through forested back country of New Hampshire. I can hardly wait...
GoRuck gives you a coupon code for 20% off of their gear when you register for the challenge. I ordered the SK26 in sand (that's the name of the color) before the event. The pack was so nice, and the quality so good, that I just couldn’t justify trashing it on a nights ruck (not at that price! $!!!). Instead I used my TAD Lightspeed (ok, not any cheaper), which is my tried and true “Go Bag”, and a pack I have come to trust through plenty of adventure immersions. I carried this pack into the Grand Canyon - on a trip to the most remote village in the continental United States (Havasupai Reservation) - and it performed just as well on this challenge. Most of the folks in my challenge wore a GoRuck pack, but there were several of us with other brands as well. There was zero pack-snobbery, so if you decide to do a challenge but aren't ready to invest in a GoRuck pack, take heart, it's a judgment free environment. That said, my GoRuck pack is amongst the finest bags I have owned to date, and I can confidently recommend one to you without reservation. Incidentally, if you choose to bring something else, make sure it wont blow out in the midst of the evening... you don't want to do this with an armload of bricks!
What I wore
Triple Aught Design Force 10 Cargo Pants. Ok, I have to come clean, I have eight pairs of these, and at the time of this writing I find them to be the most utilitarian and fashionable pants on the tacti-cool market. Usually, the only time I am not wearing these is when I have the shorts on. On the GoRuck Challenge I went Commando, no panties. Next time... definitely panties.
SurThrival Transcend Domestication T-shirt... I had to represent the spirit of ReWilding!
Icebreaker Oasis 200 Merino Wool long sleeve base-layer shirt. Enough said.
Smartwool Toe Socks (with a spare pair in a water tight bag — the second pair was crucial! Even after 4 miles my socks were still wet from our earlier dip in the drink!). These are an important part of my Vibram Five Finger philosophy.
Vibram Five Fingers Spyridon LS. At present I have three pairs of these, if that serves as an indication of how much I like this model. As a side note though, my feet were conditioned for years - I wouldn't recommend a ruck like this in five fingers unless you have put in the conditioning time.
Triple Aught Design Ranger Jacket LT. I wore this more than I expected. I packed it in my ruck thinking if I didn’t need it I could use it to prop up the bricks in my pack. I was colder than expected so I wore it much of the night, certainly enough to justify bringing it. It also served well when I loaned it to a teammate to use as a shoulder pad during the log carry, so it saw some use then too.
Arc'teryx LEAF Merino wool cap. I don’t ever get too far away from this mission-critical piece of equipment.
Buff Merino Wool neck gator. I don’t go anywhere without this essential piece of gear either. It is incredibly versatile, and its weight and bulk are so minimal that I can’t imagine not bringing it everywhere I go. Together with my wool cap it functions like a kind of modular balaclava.
UnderArmor knee and elbow pads - volleyball type. These gave me a real advantage, being able to take a knee without discomfort. I was surprised more folks hadn’t worn something like this. The knee pads were definitely worth their minimal weight. The elbow pads were probably overkill.
Mechanix Original Woodland Camo Gloves. I have been using Mechanix gloves for some time now because their size small fits my mythic-dwarf hands better than any other brand I have used. I don’t remember ever taking them off during the entire Challenge. These were a must for me! Incidentally, they have been dead weight on all of the obstacle course/mud races I have done, and always end up in my pockets.
What I carried
Triple Aught Design LightSpeed pack. This pack is awesome, and I have been using mine for over a year now. It has performed flawlessly, and is incredibly modular. Mine would be hard to recognize from month to month as I customize it so often. Currently my Lightspeed lives near my bedside and is ready to go at a moments notice, packed with everything I would want — within reason — if I were required to leave home in a hurry.
Petzl Tactikka headlamp. Nothing fancy here, just a fantastic, simple headlamp from an incredibly reputable brand. It has a red cover that flips over the 3 LED’s to make it a red lamp - this protects your (and your friends) night vision and is less visible from a distance - which I prefer over units that have both red and white LED’s. The settings are simple and intuitive. It isn’t very bright, but that works for me since I carry a high output flashlight with me as part of my EDC (Every Day Carry) anyway.
Source 3 liter hydration bladder. Those who know me, or know my work will be well aware that I am a huge proponent of glass as a material for drinking water vessels. I rarely use plastic, but in this case glass just wasn't a great option, and I needed something with a large capacity that would give me the ability to drink on the move. I’d spent a couple of years looking at different hydration systems before getting one, and am convinced that the Israeli made Source bladder is the best out there. In addition to its many great utilitarian features, it is BPA free and uses a “glass-like” polymer that doesn't leech. Its a great alternative to glass for this kind of pursuit.
ITS Tactical EDC trauma kit. As a former - and soon to be current - EMT, and a big believer in the value of emergency medical training, I have made it a personal discipline to carry a small “blow-out kit” with me whenever possible. I really like this one from ITS, and really recommend their website too. I am an ITS Crew Leader, and for the $50 per year, its a great way to support a really valuable community and web-resource!
Small IFAK — Individual First Aid Kit. I brought plenty of tape and moleskin, as I was concerned about blisters on my feet, or those of my teammates. Incidentally, I never needed or used anything from this kit. Still, better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
What I ate and drank
In my water bladder: 3 liters of fresh spring water, 3 lemons squeezed, a pinch of Maine sea salt, and stevia extract to sweeten. This was in my hydration bladder, so it was always within reach, and was a huge moral builder for me throughout the night. It was so hydrating, and every sip I took was relished. I managed to make it last right up until the end of the ruck!
For food: I made a mixture of grass-fed Jersey cow butter, raw local honey, Colostrum, crushed Cacao beans and Kola nuts (to keep me up through the night) mashed into a paste that I filled a small baggie with. I squeezed this into my mouth through the night like frosting from a pastry tube. Somebody should produce this commercially, it was amazing!
SurThrival Immortal Velvet Gold, this was to keep my joints nourished and for its overall stimulating effects. I think it really helped aid my recovery time too!
SurThrival Immortality Quest Chaga to keep the anti-oxidant intake high and guard the immune system during what could have been a very taxing evening.
Sign up for the GoRuck... Seriously. Just sign up. You will be connected to a Facebook event page where you can connect with your future team, and where you can set up times to do practice rucks to get yourself ready. This event was more than outstanding, and I am still riding a high that has lasted all month!
“What are we doing?”