It was 10 PM and I was cold standing in front of the Neptune Statue in Virginia Beach. I wasn’t as cold as Esther, who forgot to bring a jacket, but I was cold and it was windy. We were standing with the people who would become GORUCK Challenge Class 157. Some people I had communicated with via Facebook, we had coordinated our 25 pound team weight, a team t-shirt and days leading up to the event, where to buy bricks. Each of us had a backpack, in military parlance, a ’ruck”, loaded down with bricks, taped up, wrapped up. I had meticulously wrapped my six bricks in Gorilla Tape, bubble wrap and duct tape, I had tried different combinations of wrapping and unwrapped and learned quickly that more padding was better.
’Hey, form up on me.” a man said. This was Devin, our Cadre, our tour guide. He would guide us through Virginia Beach for the next couple of hours. He briefed us on the next few minutes, filling out the infamous ’Death Waiver”, gathering gear and finishing our check-in. ’Death Waiver”? Yes.
The GORUCK Challenge is not for reasonable people. It is an unreasonable undertaking in terms of the risk you are assuming. While past injuries have been at a minimum, physical strains are extreme. You are going to be running with bricks in a backpack. This can be extremely hazardous.
Once we had finished the processing, Class 157 filed onto the beach to learn about Devin and the rules. Devin is active duty Green Beret, multiple tours in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa, he is no joke, tough as nails. He laid out a few simple rules that would get us through the night:
- Rucks never touch the ground
- Coupons never touch the ground
- Don’t complain
- The cadre is the boss
So with that, he explained that when is was in Afghanistan, he learned how to pronounce ’sugar cookie”, which roughly translated to ’cooke suucker” and while I am guessing his translation was intentionally angled towards the gutter, the meaning became clear. Our first task was to run to the ocean, get ourselves wet from head-to-toe and then cover ourselves in sand, so that we could be sugar cookies.
From here we did calisthenics, pushups, flutter kicks and the like. Then came buddy carries. We were in two lines of 16 and people started to line up with people who were about the same height and weight. We had a race between the two lines and Devin reminded us that it pays to be a winner, so I knew that if we lost, it was not going to be fun. I ended up with a guy who was about a foot taller than me, and weighed about the same as I do, so when I got him in the fireman’s carry position, it was easier than I expected, although his body weight bearing down on the ruck on my back let me know that I was in for a long night, see Rule 1. Needless to say, I stumbled when trying to get over the two sand berms, but we recovered quickly and Devin was impressed that I carried a guy that was taller than I was. I piggy back rode him back, which was only made more difficult by the weight that he on his front and I had on my back. The mechanics were awkward at best. Unfortunately, my column lost, so punishment was forthcoming.
Me and my buddy going over the berm
The buddy carry race was followed by bear crawls over sand berms. It wasn’t that bad, except for the bear crawl I had the team weight, a bundle of fire hose that was 6 feet that when standing easily draped over the shoulders, but when on all fours dragged on the ground, see Rule 2. After the bear crawls, we had to pay for our loss. My column interlocked arms, walked down to the water, turned to face up the beach, put our rucks on our chests and then sat down to do flutter kicks. This wasn’t too bad, except as soon as the ruck was on my chest and I was down, a wave over topped me and I felt as close to drowning as I have ever gotten. I panicked, flailed and then got myself under control and finished out the kicks.
Near drowning experience
Devin let us come out of the water and explained to us that we were all on the same team, that the team was the most important part of the evening’s exercise, so to prove that the team was important, the team that won the buddy carry race had to do inchworm pushups lower in the surf.
We formed two columns, parallel to the surf, laid down and assumed the push up position. The difference between pushups and inchworm pushups, was the fact that each person had to put their feet over the shoulder of the person behind them. When the Cadre said ’Up”, everyone pushed up and formed a plank held up just by the arms of the members, we held the up position until he said down. This was incredibly hard. I know that I didn’t do a great job. Each time when we completed an inchworm pushup, the person as the back of the line ran to the front of the next line. My column was in the surf, but as completed each pushup, we moved higher up the beach, while our buddy carry victors had to move into the water.
This is the point when one of our teammates voluntarily withdrew. Either he wasn’t ready for the cold or didn’t understand what he signed up for. I sure hope that he tries another Challenge at a later date.
When the entire group had finished, we got out of the water and got our first break of the night. I was cold, sandy and wet.
After chomping down some peanut M&Ms and some water, we were briefed on our mission. I don’t know if every GRC has a ’mission”, but this definitely helped us focus on the tasks at hand and gave us common terminology when we were referring to the things we picked up on the way. To get our mission under way we formed into our lines and began running. Indian sprints, where the last person in line runs to the front of the line, were in order. We moved south on the Boardwalk and eventually stopped to recover our first coupon, the log.
The log is a mainstay of Challenges. Every Challenge has one, all of them are large, heavy and take the entire team to move them. Our log was no different. We broke into ’Talls” and ’Shorts”, but I managed to be somewhere in between, so I was too tall for the ’Shorts” and to short for the ’Talls”, which means that I was either completely ineffective or I was hunched and had my shoulder digging into the log.
We started moving the log North on the beach. It was slow going. We traded out between the two height groups often, but roughly. At some point we stopped keeping those who weren’t under the log in two columns, so the Cadre informed us we needed to run circles around the log as it moved up the beach.
At some point, we needed to recover some ’ammo” to complete our mission. A small element went and did reconnaissance and ended up recovering three Pelican cases that weighed between 50 and 120 pounds. By themselves they weren’t bad, but if you had to carry them for any length of time, they became awkward and heavier as the time went on. For those keeping track, we now are carrying 30 to 40 pound rucksacks, a 900 pound log, three ’ammo” cases weighing between 50 and 120 pounds, our 25 pound team weight and some where along the way we picked up another ruck which was acting as our emergency blowout kit–a medical kit to treat life threatening wounds in the field–which weighed as much as the rucks on our back.
When we reached 42nd Street, we stowed the log and prepared to conduct surveillance on an ’enemy position”, the Cavalier Hotel. We broke into four person fire teams and my team had one of the Pelican cases, so our rush across the street and low crawl up the grassy hill was slow as we tried our best to advance up the hill with our anchor. Our mission was to observe what we could about the hotel, what lights were on or if we saw any people moving. My fire team didn’t observe much, except two people riding bikes, laughing at us or in Challenge parlance, we were cut off by two possibly hostile natives.
The weather was starting to roll in, thick clouds, strong wind and the air was much damper than even a little bit before. After a short break, we got back under the log and started to move from 42nd Street, north towards First Landing State Park, the only problem was that we had a hard time getting moving in a fluid manner and eventually we ’broke contact”, our formation broke up into smaller elements, which was not a good thing.
Breaking contact brought the punishment of going strapless.
Going strapless means that we had to carry our packs without the use of the shoulder straps by putting them on our shoulders, holding them by the top handle, or in my case by holding on to the industrial zip ties that I had attached via the MOLLE on the outside of the bag. The huge zip ties were great to hold over the shoulder and while it wasn’t fun to go without straps, it wasn’t all that bad. I am really glad that I added them at the start.
We tried to move towards our objective, but it was very slow going. We had a hard time getting into an efficient rhythm and when it appeared that we might not make our objective, Cadre let us have our straps back. Needless to say, we were very motivated to keep our ranks tight and the log moving.
It was the longest 23 blocks I could possibly imagine. We swapped the ’talls” and the ’smalls” under the log regularly and eventually we got pretty good at it, but that was no consolation for the weight of the log on my shoulders.
Finally, we reach 64th Street and we make a left turn towards the park. The road goes up hill, not too steep, but when you are carry a log or a pelican case, you definitely know it. When we reached the end of the cul-de-sac we set down the log and the Cadre and our Team Leader and Navigator began to inspect the fence in front of us. After a minute or two, it became apparent that the hole in the fence that was there during the Cadre’s recon wasn’t there any more. We got a nice break, decent in length, although we had to be very quiet, as our rest stop right in the middle of a a couple of houses, whose residents would be pretty freaked out if they saw 30 sketchy people with backpacks standing at the end of their drive way. After an element went with Cadre to find our new way into the park, we quietly gathered our things, re-hoisted the log and moved over one more street. When we reached the end of the street, we moved the log into the woods, we had stashed the bomber parts in a secure location, and then proceeded to silently, without headlamps, make our way through the woods into First Landing State Park.
The park was closed, so we should have been there, but that is half the fun. We made our way into the park, found a small parking lot with a port-a-john and water fountain and had our longest rest. Everyone tanked up their hydration system, chowed on whatever they wanted and after a little bit some parts of our group headed into the woods to recover the ’nuclear device”, or as I call it ’the cheese wheel from hell”. It was like a watch battery, about two feet across and 8 inches thick. Whatever it was, it weighed a ton and it’s size and shape made it very difficult to carry. A member of our team brought a pirate flag, why I don’t know, that we set the ’nuclear device” on and wrapped the edges around it, tying them up. A little bit down the trail, we figured out that we could put a stick through the knotted bundle and two people could carry the weight making it almost easy. Almost.
By the time we started to move out, it was getting light. Light enough that I estimated the time to be about 5:30, which I think was pretty accurate given the time that we finished. We moved into the next phase of our mission which involved us rescuing at least 3 pilots somewhere in the park. While we were searching for the pilots, we had to be sure that we didn’t cross any bridges, something about them being ambush points and having to earn the rights to cross them. I was not happy at this point. I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep, or the fact that I had just gotten warm from the cold, windy and wet previous couple of hours, but I was really not looking forward to trudging through the cold wet swamp and bay water of First Landing State Park. Not at all. Of course, what was the first obstacle on the trail that we were on? A bridge. So in to the muck we went.
After hoofing it down the trail, we eventually came to a bridge that couldn’t be maneuvered around. We had to cross a bridge, but before we could we had to earn it. We had to bear crawl in reverse across the bridge, then we had access to move across the bridge as normal. This was so we could move the group objects across without it being impossible. We started moving across and when we finished we all ’took cover” along the trail. Once the heavy objects were across, we got pulled out of our cover by the team leader, so we could get our punishment. We hadn’t done a good enough job bear crawling across the bridge, so we had to redo the exercise. Right as we were getting our assignment, the blowout kit got dropped, which now meant we had to reverse bear crawl across the bridge and crab walk across it. We repeated the exercise and thankfully this time we got it right, although I nearly choked myself on the backpack when I crab walked across the bridge, and the team took some strains in the form of cramps.
We continued down the trail and eventually took cover while a recon element went to find where the pilots were located. I found a spot on the off the trail and some how managed to get comfortable enough that I actually started to doze off. It was the most blissful non-sleep I have had in a long time. I vaguely remember some weird dream, but not well enough to put it in words. I just remember waking and chuckling to myself at the absurdity of the micro dream that I had in the middle of the park.
We began to move out to our briefing point, where the plan of attack was laid out. We had to bypass a bridge by going into the water, and then follow the coast line to a beach where we would assault the beach, rescue the pilots and then move the pilots to an evacuation point further down the trail.
More time in the water, just what I wanted. We started getting off the trail and into the water, that started ankle deep and eventually got waist deep. We made our way along the coast until we saw the beach that we had to assault. Orders came down the line to assault the beach and low crawl up to, and then past the beach to the brush just off the sand. Everyone got low in the water, submerging our entire bodies as we moved towards the beach. We all shimmied over the sand and found spots in the scrub brush that sat about 3 meters up from the water. We took a little bit of a break while the pilots were located, they turned out to be 3 sections of log that weighted several hundred pounds, and one part of a railroad tie, all definitely a little overweight for a bomber pilot.
The railroad tie pilot was easy to move, a two person version of the large log, but when we tried moving the log chunk by manhandling them as a group, that didn’t work great. We had a single litter, but three pilots to move, so we had to figure something out. Eventually, someone in the group, I don’t know who, had an excellent plan. We took two GORUCK bags, laid them on the ground and used a carabener to attach the top handles. The bags were then placed with the straps toward the sky, the straps loosened and the log placed on top. Four people grabbed the straps and they were able haul the logs efficiently. Everyone got a turn on the field expedient stretchers or one of the other team weights. Our packs, the 25 pound team weight, one ’nuclear device” carried by two people, one blowout kit which actually contained the litter and beers, or Advanced Cellular Repair Technology, which were now being consumed, the ’ammo” three cases, and now one lightweight and three heavyweight ’pilots”.
We needed to transport our pilots to an evacuation point. The team was moving very efficiently now, we were swapping between time off the weights and relieving people who had been on heavy weights very fluidly, without having to stop and hand them off each time. We made it to the evac point in short order, which was good. We had a time limit that we hadn’t been told about, and we decimated it. We moved our pilots into the cover near the evacuation point where ’local friendly forces” would aid them in their evacuation. For our work, we received a little bit of a break in which I downed more peanut M&Ms.
Our break ended and we were informed that we needed to make an expeditious exit. ’Something about tides and submarines and shit. I don’t know I’m Army.” as Devin put it. We needed to move back along the trail, avoiding bridges, and we had to finish in 30 minutes. Devin said it was about a mile and a half, but I don’t know that that distance was completely accurate. We started to hustle down the trail, moving slowly at first, we were all starting to feel the effects of no sleep and lots of movement with heavy objects, but as we got closer to our time limit our speed picked up greatly.
By the end we were in a full run with all of our gear and weights and even with our improved pace, we were not successful. As a result of our failure to complete our objective, we took ten ’casualties”. That meant we had to buddy carry ten of our teammates for the rest of the trail. This was not an easy task. Our lack of sleep was starting to show, we had a hard time getting paired up, getting people to volunteer to carry people or gear. I volunteered to carry some casualty’s gear. I think in the end I was carrying three packs, including my own, but it felt like more, partly because I had an ALICE frame digging into my right hip. We humped it out and on the last bridge, things got sticky. I was in the rear of our formation and crossed through some pretty deep swamp that went up to mid thigh. It was hard enough to do when we were not weighed down by extra pack or our buddies, but with the extra weight, I sunk right in. I managed to work myself free and kept moving, but the guy behind me, wasn’t as lucky. He sunk in and got stuck in some genuine quicksand. He knew exactly what to do, but after a few minutes of struggling, a few other teammates had to help him extract himself from the slop.
Now we needed to make it back to the beach. As fast as we can, without breaking contact. We had finally gotten a good pacing and rhythm in passing off our weights and moving at way more than a ’pop-step” pace, we were actually running. I won’t lie. I was feeling burnt out. My arms were heavy, I couldn’t hold the weights for very long and the distance seemed to go on for ever, but at least we were motoring towards our final destination, King Neptune.
We clearly had done something right in getting to where we had, Cadre let us run down the boardwalk instead of the soft sand, this was much appreciated. What was not appreciated, by the people staying in the hotels on the boardwalk, was our chant and marches to keep up our pace. I don’t know if they were really disturbed by them, it was mid morning at this point, but I know we drew our fair share of on lookers as we hustled down towards the statue. As King Neptune got bigger as we go closer, I felt energized, I grabbed hold of one of the sticks that had a ’ammo” case dangling in the middle and powered through until we reached the good king of the sea. We stopped for team photos and I thought we were done.
Nope. Cadre called us onto the sand. We had our last challenge, a group buddy carry, staying in line from the sea wall to the surf. In fifty seconds or less. I found a guy who I had been pacing off for most of the night, we paired up and I told him I was going to do the carry. He was light, or I had a runner’s high, because I tossed him over my shoulders and we started moving out. The punishment for not making it to the water, was diving back in the ocean and making ourselves sugar cookies, the event had come full circle.
The great part about this run was Esther and the kids were there to see it. They saw me hoist my teammate up on my shoulders and take off down the beach. They also got to see us fail our tasking, everyone then interlocked arms and marched into the water. We sat down, everyone got soaked, this time relishing the waves crashing on us, we stood, turned and dived into the sand, rolling around, covering each other up and loving every second. We were raw, sore, tired, hungry and verging on delirious. When everyone was covered, we stood and circled around Devin.
He told us that we had really gelled as a team. We all knew what he meant. He thanked us for signing up, thanked us for the part of our sign up that went the Green Beret Foundation, and then shook our hands and handed out our patches. The GORUCK Tough patches are always earned, never sold, so the three inch by two inch velcro backed patch is very special. I definitely earned mine, as did very single other person in Class 157.
I started at 10 PM on Saturday, April 28, nervous, dreading the sleep deprivation, the ocean’s cold water and the sand. I finished at 11:30 AM on Sunday, April 29, a changed man. I’m not 18 and invincible, but I’m turing 30 this year and I know that if I train hard, give it my all, and work as a team, I can accomplish anything. I will be doing more GORUCK Challenges, and I won’t be able to do any other event and not try to do it GORUCK style, with a weighted backpack, like a maniac. The thing that I learned about myself is that I take my goals too seriously. Before an event, I get quiet, introspective and withdrawn, and I don’t need to. I signed up for the event, I can do it, because now I have proven to myself that I am GORUCK Tough.