The last weekend in January, I participated in an all-night endurance event (minds out of the gutter, thanks) called the GoRuck challenge (GRC) (affiliate link). Conceived by a mil-spec backpack company as a testing ground for their wares, they’ve become rather popular, and the company is now running events in a number of states, varying in length and insanity.
The premise is simple — team-based Special Forces style training. Each participant is expected to arrive with a backpack (a ‘ruck’ in military parlance) and six bricks. The team (generally strangers) is also expected to supply a “team weight”. Something that weighs in excess of 25# to be carried for the duration of the event. With a stroke of genius by Jon (J-Money), we bring a heavy tow chain. Combined with carabiners from Jared, they become a bandolier. This will be important later.
I opted for a significantly cheaper and locally-crafted Osprey instead of the recommended GoRuck GR1. The GR1 is definitely functional (and rather stylin’), but for the price point, it had also better be the be-all, end-all of my luggage needs for the rest of my natural life. A friend who had done a previous GRC said at his event in Virginia, “there was one guy with a North Face, and the rest were GoRuck.” He theorized that ratio would be different in Colorado, given that everyone here already has some sort of hiking pack. My main fear was that I’d be the asshole with the off-brand ruck who tore a strap or ended up with some kind of equipment malfunction. Knowing that I probably wouldn’t be alone, I felt better.
I stashed a running GPS unit in my ruck with the intention of including the track with this post. Strictly verboten — no watches, clocks or phones of any kind are allowed during the challenge. After completing the challenge, however, it felt wrong to divulge the exact route out of respect to future participants, so instead I’m going to chronicle my observations and memories in a hopefully more general way.
9pm. I arrive at McCabe’s to meet the rest of my team. J-Money and his friend Mike are already there, splitting a plate of fries. Jared arrives soon after and opts not to eat. One by one, other people arrive — Ruth, Daniel, and Daniel’s ‘shadow’ (essentially a walk-along who follows the Cadré during the challenge). Total strangers for the moment.
Sometime between 9 and 10, the starting-line jitters begin. I eat wings. Nervous chit chat. Daniel explains how he blew out his knee during the 1am Challenge the night before.
A final prerequisite is that our team bring our own American Flag. Jared has bought one, but none of us have thought to bring something on which to fly it. After arriving at the starting location, we try a segment of fishing pole that Mike has in his car. The entire length of pole is no longer than the flag’s hoist, so it’s a no-go. As we’re experimenting, we see a Jamaican restaurant across the street closing down for the night, and bringing in the American and Jamaican flags out front. J-Money and Ruth run over and attempt to either barter for or purchase their flag pole. The restaurant won’t give up the flag pole, but offers a long broom handle. Two zip-ties later, we’ve got the stars and stripes flying.
Cadré Joel delivers us “a present” — an empty Pelican case. It’s large. It’s awkward. It only has one handle. We’re told that neither our rucks, the Pelican, nor the chain are to touch the ground again without his explicit say-so. Our American flag is to remain at the front of our formation at all times. After inspecting our bricks, we begin with a series of marching practices and calisthenics. One team member throws up.
Time Hacks are our mandatory deadlines for accomplishing “missions”. Penalties for missing Time Hacks include grueling physical tasks, from flutter kicks to monkey-fuckers, to alligator crawl.
Team Leaders are appointed by the group at various times throughout the night. They are taken aside by the Cadré, and given our next mission in private, to relay to the rest of the team. In my mind, this sets up an interesting situation; Is (s)he acting as an agent of the Cadré, responsible for meting out unpleasantries for missing a Time Hack, or simply a mouthpiece, charged with organizing the group?
First Team Leader Lucas is charged with getting us across the river. We’re to enter beneath a specific bridge, and reemerge on the far bank after finding ‘another bridge’ upstream. By the time we exit, we are expected to have the Pelican 1/3rd filled with rocks. The air temperature is hovering around 32°, and there are patches of ice glazing the stones of the riverbed. Knee-deep in the ice cold river, we begin second guessing ourselves… “we didn’t pass a bridge, right?” One team member becomes silent and hugs herself to stay warm. While hunting for rocks, we make an effort to avoid the granite rocks in favor of anything lighter.
After emerging, we learned several military tactics for advancing and evasion. J-Money is appointed second Team Leader. Our destination is a park outside of town which none of us know precisely how to get to. Time Hack: 1 hour. To make things more interesting, there’s a “toll” to cross every bridge we decide to use, and fire hydrants are IEDs with a 20m blast radius. They can be disarmed, but the process is unpleasant. Being caught by one is 5x as unpleasant.
Carrying the Pelican is miserable. It’s impossible to get purchase on, and weighs as much as our brick-laden rucks. Carrying the chains is no easy feat either, but everyone is eager for a turn. I think everyone feels (to some degree) that carrying the chain exempts them from taking as long a turn with the Pelican. It also looks and feels bad-fucking-ass. Especially in combination with the American flag.
Turns with the Pelican feel like torture. Its shape burns muscles and its corners bruise forearms. It’s hard to breathe. Walking becomes a slog. It makes your ruck feel heavier. One team member remarks as he hands it off to me “This could be fun, if it weren’t for this god forsaken thing.”
We miss our Time Hack. By 89 minutes. After we make reparations, third Team Leader Jared is directed to move us from one point in the park to another. In addition to IEDs and bridge tolls, we can now be ambushed by enemy forces. Jared explains how we will use a tactic from earlier to evade patrols which have caught us. We make our Time Hack, and are given a moment to regroup.
I’m selected as next Team Leader. My mission is:
“Get your team to the base of The Incline. You have 90 minutes. If you accomplish this mission, I will lighten the Pelican.”
The team looks beaten and overwhelmed as they form up for me to deliver the mission briefing. Everyone came into tonight knowing a trip up the Manitou Incline was on the menu — but perhaps not after being broken down quite so thoroughly as we were. In spite of this, news that making the Time Hack would earn us a lighter Pelican for the ascent was a welcome relief. After forming up, we nearly sprinted toward Manitou. With no watches and no concept of time, we feared that any lost minute might lose us our prize.
After opting to pay one final bridge toll to enter Manitou Springs, we were again given a moment to regroup (as a safety measure, water stops do not count against our Time Hack clock). From downtown, our objective is in sight and again, we are renewed at the thought of losing a few of the rocks we’d been carrying since the river. A final charge with Pelican slung overhead cemented our success.
Our team is like wide-eyed children in a candy store as Cadré opens the Pelican and begins selecting rocks to remove. Ruth assumes the mantle of Team Leader for what we hope is the final leg. We’re given two hours to ascend the Incline. The freshly-lightened Pelican is still heavy as hell, but at least for the moment, feels like a feather. The stairs are uneven, and each step is deliberate. I remember reading online how many stairs there are, but I can’t remember the figure, thankfully. All I think with each step is “that’s one more step I don’t have to take again”. After a short time, one team member begins struggling. His hip is hurting, and he can’t go more than a few stairs without stopping. He contemplates quitting. He doesn’t, but neither makes much progress between stops. We are 100% dedicated to all seven of us finishing. We shout encouragements, offer climbing tips. Every time we stop, the Pelican feels slightly heavier. Soon we forget our excitement for its new, leaner weight. Finally until our collective frustration escapes from the mouth of one teammate: “How about a little less chit-chat and a whole lot more FUCKING CLIMBING.”
Seemingly out of other options, Lucas steps up and takes our struggling teammate’s ruck. Pulling double-duty, Lucas hauls nearly 90# up the unending stairs, freeing up our other teammate to climb unencumbered. Progress resumes, if slowly.
We finally summit the Incline. Cadré informs us that our ascent took two hours, eight minutes. One final Time Hack missed, one final penalty to pay. A 20 foot “alligator crawl” now stands between us and the finish line. One teammate bursts into tears halfway through, being so close to the end, but still. not. done. yet.
When Cadré finally announces “Congratulations, you have completed the GoRuck Challenge.” it’s simultaneously anticlimactic and an indescribable relief.
The GoRuck Challenge was an amazing experience. I’m undecided on whether I will ever do it again, or any of the other GoRuck offerings, but I would recommend it to anyone. It is truly a singular event.
Thank you Lucas, for carrying an extra ruck to help us bring it home. Thank you Jared for taking more than your share of time with the Pelican on the Incline. Thank you Jon, for the chain-coupon. Thank you Ruth, for helping our hurting teammate to the finish. Thank you Daniel for knowing the civil codes for where hydrants should be, and for your geology expertise in the river. Thank you Mike for running to disarm every fire hydrant so we could keep on moving. And thank you Cadré Joel, for giving us a little slice of Good Livin’.
For the rest of the photos, see Naomi Sever’s photostream on Flickr.
Final takeaways / observations
- I’m really glad I was never in the military.
- Everything that’s ever been said about breaking a team down together bringing them closer together is 100% true. By the end I knew and loved every one of my teammates.
- In spite of the military being such an obviously authoritarian institution, and American attitudes in general, I found the team training to be remarkably Marxist in its outcome. “From each according to his ability, from each according to his need” was in full force. Every time one of us had the fucking Pelican, we held onto it as long as we physically could and longer, to avoid burdening someone else with it, but when you could no longer carry it, there was always an open pair of arms to take it. Someone carried two rucks just to let someone else carry none, for crying out loud.
- Even though I was on board with the “everyone finishes” philosophy we adopted, I did feel myself developing something of a “Gomer Pyle” frustration with our lagging teammate as he was complaining and threatening to drop out, but not doing so. He had done a lot of heavy lifting for the team earlier on, and I desperately wanted him to finish with us, but I also desperately wanted him to quit so we could just keep moving.
- Money becomes meaningless beyond a certain point of physical stress. We offered to buy a walking stick from a passerby on the Incline. “$5!” He said, and kept walking. He didn’t realize how serious we were, or that he could have gone as high as $100. Mike said to J-Money: “Hey, I’ll give you $20 if you fish through this pocket in my ruck for my chapstick.” Jon did it, but turned down the cash… $20 didn’t get him any closer to the finish line.