How I Failed the GoRuck Challenge
Fifteen to twenty miles. Ten to twelve hours of no sleep interspersed with pushups, bear crawls across the sand, surf torture, and hydro-burpees. All of this while wearing a thirty to forty pound backpack. I was sold.
In my mid 20’s I experienced a shift in my philosophy of fitness. After spending years doing curls in the mirror in weight room, I began to wonder what good it was to “get big”, an unfortunate archetype placed on men and reinforced by essentially every magazine and movie in existence. This question was initiated by the hills of Malibu as I hiked from my office on campus at Pepperdine University to our apartment, gasping for breath at the top of the hill. How could I consider myself to be in shape if I struggled with such a mundane task as walking home? Biceps stretch shirt sleeves but were worthless in helping me accomplish day-to-day tasks.
My experiences on the hills of Pepperdine connected with my wife’s then recent experience with CrossFit, which tauted the catchphrase “functional fitness.” At that point, the only thing functional about my fitness was my ability to put a mirror to good use, allowing it to be a functional piece of furniture in our home. After watching her fitness level transform over the course of her first month of Crossfitting, I was hooked. My CrossFit journey began in January of 2014 and I haven’t done a bicep curl since.
My launch into the world of training for function rather than aesthetics fueled a desire to test this new level of fitness. 5ks, a 10k, and a marathon were my first departure from my previous life as a gym rat. Those were definite accomplishments, but running on pavement for hours on end seemed mindless to me and too sport specific to be a true test of overall fitness. It was about this time that I caught wind of the GoRuck Challenge. Originally created as a way of product testing backpacks created by a Special Forces veteran owned and operated company, the GoRuck Challenge has become a test of mental will power by those who have attempted it.
During the GoRuck Challenge, teams of 20-25 random strangers will be formed into a team through group training, goal accomplishment, and “encouragement” from a Special Forces or Tier 1 military operator.
The challenge commences around 9pm and continues on until 8 or 9am. Upon successful completion, you receive a handshake from your cadre and a GoRuck Challenge patch. No one does it for the patch. They do it just because they wonder if they can.
For us, the “good livin’” began with what they call the “welcome party”; approximately two hours of bear crawls, surf torture in the moonlit shadow of the Santa Monica pier, and sprint races in circles across the sand. All of this while carrying a backpack filled with food, water, and the required number of bricks just to make things interesting (over 150lbs=6 bricks, under 150lbs = 4 bricks). The rest of the night consisted of a +15 mile hike up Sunset Blvd and into the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Unbeknownst to the homeowners of the mansions in the Pacific Palisades, twenty five strangers huddled together for warmth in the woods while Cadre Flash, a Force Recon Marine, answered questions about leadership development during his multiple combat tours.
In the months prior to the Challenge, I questioned which would give out first: my fitness or my ability to stay awake for hours on end. The fear of not finishing was a good motivator to train hard. Rucking (backpacking with weights and no goal other than to get really tired), running and submitting myself to self inflicted surf torture at midnight in Malibu were the only things I could think to do which would mimic what I expected to experience. In the end, these would prove to have been pointless.
It’s difficult to describe just how cold you can get while locking arms with two complete strangers laying in the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean. The bear crawls, burpees, and sprints were welcomed breaks from shivering while trying to keep your head above water. Proper planning for the event included packing layers of clothing and I had several. My goal throughout the night was to delay the adding of layers until I couldn’t bear it any longer, for the fear that the night would only get colder after I had added my last. The surf torture is not fun for anyone, but it’s the long +15 mile hike while the wind whips through you, which truly chills you to the bone.
It was during this stretch that I noticed one of our team members shivering. A campus ministry intern and friend of mine, Teller, had packed significantly lighter than me, wearing only a thin long sleeve. Blue lips chattering, he confirmed he was doing ok when I checked in on him. As we hiked on and got higher in elevation, the cold only became more of a challenge. The biggest obstacle of the night was our hour long sit and debrief segment at our highest point of the climb. You would think that an hour’s rest would be everything we would want after what we had been through, but watching your breath in front of you as you shiver, soaked to the bone while struggling to stay awake proved to be unnerving. It was here that I faced my biggest challenge of the GoRuck experience. I was keenly aware of Teller’s shivering and lack of layers, but equally cognizant of my fear of not finishing based on being too cold. As I reached into my pack for my last layer, a windproof hoodie, which added minimal but much appreciated warmth, I suppressed the instinct to pass this on to my teeth-chattering friend. It was in that moment that I failed the GoRuck Challenge. In reality, I was completely fine. Shivering, chilled, wet and cold yes; but I had multiple layers on at that point. Yet my fear of not being able to push through the cold prevented me from passing on an article of clothing which would have drastically improved his comfort.
The GoRuck Challenge ended the next morning with all team members finishing except one who quit during the welcome party. I walked away with the GoRuck patch, yet I left realizing that while I had technically completed the challenge I failed the greater challenge of making a sacrifice for a teammate and friend. I rationalized it the next day and weeks after telling myself that he should have planned better and that he was totally fine. Both of those things are true. But my test really had nothing to do with him. Instead, it was a mental battle with myself as to whether or not I would do what I knew I should have done.
Each of us experiences our own version of a GoRuck Challenge every day. Choices are made based on our desires and intuition that positively or negatively affect our friends, teammates, and friends. My failure to follow what I knew to be the right thing to do was a great learning lesson for where I am at in my leadership development. Much growth is needed. Teller, next time will be different.