Sunday, June 19, 2016

AAR: GORUCK Heavy Class #121

For years, I've been writing "Race Reports" after my marathons and ultra marathons. Today, I "pen" my first "AAR" or After-Action-Report which is essentially the same thing. For many, "rucking" is totally foreign to them and a GORUCK event even more confusing. So real quick for my "regular" readers who are starting from square one:

WHAT IS RUCKING? RUCK•ING [VERB] - “To put weight on your back and go for a walk. More weight or more miles equals more results, more friends and more time together equals more fun.” –GORUCK

GORUCK is a company that was founded by a former special forces guy whose goal was to sell indestructible rucks and photograph people putting them through their paces. What grew from it was a community as people rucked and then official events began forming...but always wearing the rucksack with weight. These events are led by current or former special forces members, e.g. Navy SEALs, Green Berets, Delta Force, etc. The participants, however, can be anyone and many are not veterans even though the events have a very military/patriotic flair to them. These events, in general, fall into one of 3 levels: the Heavy, the Tough, or the Light. The Heavy is 24+ hours, and 40+ miles. The Tough is about half that and the Light is 5-6 hours and has a lighter weight requirement. Guidance from GORUCK says that if you can run a 5K, you can do the Light. This AAR is my recollection of my first ever GORUCK event, the Heavy on June 16/17 in Detroit, MI. Putting all 3 together, the Heavy-Tough-Light, is called the "HTL" and that was my goal going into it all, starting at 6pm Thursday night. The starting time for each event was as follows:

  • Heavy: 6pm Thursday
  • Tough: 9pm Friday
  • Light: 2pm Saturday

I read a few AAR's from others in preps for this and I have participated in a few group rucks in the Cleveland area with the Cleveland Area Rucking Crew (CARC). So, I wasn't going in cold...well, not totally cold, and I have my ultra-running/100 miler experience to call on. Footcare, nutrition, being up well over 24 hours...I have been there before but not under load, only via a 100 mile trail race. A HUGE difference between running a 100 miler or any race and a GORUCK event is individual effort vs. Team. It is all about team in a GORUCK event. It is impossible to finish an event solo. You must figure out how to work together and accomplish the mission. So after reading and knowing how my body has done in the past under stress and no sleep for well over 24 hours, I laid out my gear, along with a full 3L water bladder and 30lb plate and double, triple, quadruple checked my gear and went over my plan in my head. Cash/ID were required items in case we quit and had to call a cab. A headlamp and extra batteries were required. An added requirement was to write down a military mission and be prepared to talk about it. That's the manila card in the middle. We were also required to have the reflective bands on our ruck along with a carabiner. Since I had no patch to go on my ruck, I slapped my American flag on there from my Afghanistan deployment in 2011...seemed very fitting! For fuel, I took four Hammer Gels, three 5hr Energy bottles, half of that bag of jerky, and some M&Ms. I also took some motrin and a baggie with a bunch of Hammer Endurolyte Extremes which are AWESOME. They are essentially 3-in-1 and are very good to help introduce some electrolytes and sodium back into the body when you are losing so much. There was no way I'd be able to keep up with the loss but this would help combat it. Also, I took an extra 3L water bladder (just-in-case mine got broke or even someone else's), a clean dry shirt, an extra pair of socks, BodyGlide, and an extra pair of nip guards. Chafing can end an event FAST! :)

I left for Detroit Thursday morning and arrived early afternoon at a friend's house who is a GORUCK veteran and whose parents live 30min from the start. Much thanks to Bryan and his family for the hospitality! It was enough time to decompress a bit and also get hyped up a bit before leaving. We arrived in plenty of time (like 90min early!) but even then, we weren't the first people there. It is not adviseable to ever be late to a GORUCK event. As 6pm neared, everyone gathered beneath a pavilion as the rain hadn't yet stopped. 6pm arrived and so did our cadre for the Heavy, Cadre Heath and Cadre CT. Before I get into this AAR anymore, I want to put out one disclaimer: I'm not going to give every groovy, dirty, juicy little detail. Some things, in my opinion, are best left out on the trail...or roads...or in the water. They are reserved for those who experienced them and the mystery of these events is also part of the allure. Every cadre certainly has flexibility in what they do and have us do so no two events are exactly the same. Further, how the team actually becomes a team will have direct influence on where the event leads. So it began...

Cadre Heath and CT introduced themselves, took a roll call, went over flag etiquette and inspected our rucks for the required items and weighed them. For me, being well over 150lbs, my weight had to be 30lbs or greater, plus a full water bladder. That made it 37lbs plus those extras I showed you up above. Then began the "Welcome Party" which begins every GORUCK event. It always involves all kinds of physical exercises and really has no limit. For the Heavy, there is an added dimension...a PT test. Officially on the website, it states a 12 mile ruck plus a max push-up effort in 2 minutes plus a max sit-up effort in 2 minutes. We all knew about it but when it would happen was a mystery. So for about 3 1/2 hours, we had all kinds of "fun" and to be perfectly honest, it was during this time I had my first thoughts creep in regarding quitting. Specifically, we were holding our rucks over our heads and told to squat and hold. I just couldn't do it. Ironically, at only a few hours in, that was the one and only time "quitting" got some real estate in my brain. Here are a few photos that were taken during this time, courtesy of Sarah LaBarge. That's me in the red shirt:

Overhead presses. 8 people to a double-sized picnic table. Many, MANY, many of them. 
Old Glory was never far and always led the way when on the move.
The Inchworm...until we did it as a team.
Dips, step-ups, and flutter kicks. Yea, did you know that the birthday of Detroit is the year 1701? None of the 41 of Class #121 will EVER forget that. We found out very quick that we'd be doing 1701 flutter kicks over the course of our 24+ hours. If that sounds like a lot, it is! But, it is far better than what almost happened...1701 burpees...with rucks. No thank you! As night began to set in at some point in the 9 o'clock hour, we prepared to head out of the park. No watches or phones were permitted so time elapsed and remaining was always a best guess only. Prior to leaving, we filled 4 GORUCK bags with 40lb of sand each and 1 bag with 80lbs. These would be carried from this point forward as well as a 50lb team weight. It would be up to the Team Leader (which rotates thoughout the event) to rotate people carrying these items. GORUCK events are also known to include picking up random logs from the woods...or even telephone poles and taking them along for the ride. Remember the "team" concept I told you about? Hopefully, that is making more sense now. Impossible to be an "individual" and be successful in this environment. So the Welcome Party ended (and that's all the detail I'm going to give!) and we headed out...but no PT test. Hmmm....
A few of the local law enforcement
 folks to greet us after some flutter kicks!

The rain had stopped and the skies totally cleared up to reveal a nearly full moon. After spending a short period on the roads, we began miles and miles and miles on either dirt trails or cinder bike-n-hike trails. Getting away from the manmade light of the streets, combined with the illumination from the moon really had headlamps not very necessary at all, with exception of the heavily overgrown areas of the trail that blocked the moonlight. It wasn't more than an hour or so (maybe 2...I'm really not sure!) that we came upon a cider mill and big open parking lot. Lining the parking lot were HUGE telephone pole-looking logs. The first thing I thought was "we're picking those up." Not the case. Little did I know, there was a river flowing nearby and it was time to work off some flutter the water. We split up into 4 teams and went down into the cold water, arms locked, and repped them out. I was in the last group and we got held up for a few minutes due to "something" going on up in the parking lot. Soon, Cadre CT returned to the water to tell us to do the flutter kicks but keep the rep counting (read: chanting) super quiet as we're in a residential neighborhood. Safe to say, the previous groups were NOT silent, in true GORUCK fashion. After finishing, we took our soaked selves up to the parking lot and 6 police cars surrounded us pretty, flashy red/blue lights, just their headlights. I guess things weren't too busy in the area so as to afford us the pleasure of such an audience. We basically picked up our team weights, got back into formation, and got moving. Oh yes, we were also carrying two, very floppy water bladders. They would be used to refill us as needed. We left without incident and never looked back.

As the night progressed, we took our guesses at the time of day and how many hours until First Light. From time to time, we'd take a 5min breather on the trail and gather around Cadre CT. Cadre Heath left us with him for the nighttime ruck and would re-join us at sunrise. During these short breaks, CT would take questions regarding his special forces days, talk about leadership, and also cycle through team leaders. As each team leader (TL) and assistant team leader (ATL) was "fired," we'd hold a short AAR and talk about what went well during the last movement and what could've been better. This was an open and frank discussion to help each other be better and gel as a team. Then, a new TL and ATL was picked and we were off again. The moon was setting so less moonlight provided the assist but prior to sunrise, we found ourselves back on city streets with street lights...and our first time hack. Time hacks are basically this: you have "x" distance to cover and "y" time to get there. Fail and casualties will be assessed. That could be added weight or literally carrying a team member along with their ruck. As we moved along the straight stretch of road to an alleged beach (oh yea, we knew what that meant!), we passed a bank with a clock on it. It was just past 4am. That made sense, too. The skies were getting that first inital lining of light at the horizon. We eventually reached a local metro park that included a lake. At this point, we were in desperate need of water. Our two large bladders were totally empty and most personal bladders dry. It was a priority, for sure. Luckily, there were faucets perfect for filling everyone up. We got a solid 10-15min to do just that, grab a bite to eat and maybe just sit down for a few. At this point, the sun was clearly rising so the 5am hour was upon us...about 11 hours into the Heavy...and Cadre Heath showed up.

Our break time was up and to the beach we went. We didn't go out too far, the water felt awesome, and we got some serious PT in. Ever heard of the Tunnel of Love? You can do just about any PT in the water but this was the PT of choice by Cadre CT before he headed for a nap and Cadre Heath took over. Imagine this...take 41 of us and put us shoulder-to-shoulder facing out...feet just into the water. Now, everyone goes down into pushup position but arches their butt up to a peak. Now, one person at a time crawls through the "Tunnel of Love"...all the way to the other end then gets back up into position to keep the tunnel growing on the other end while it shrinks at the beginning. I scooped a LOT of sand into my pants! (found it in my washing machine last night, actually) Once we were done, we threw a little bit of sand around (literally) and got back up into formation to hear from our cadre. I thought for sure we'd be rolling in that sand but we didn't. What I wanted to do was to go for a swim for 5min and wash all the sand out from INSIDE my clothes! Up on the grass, the TL and ATL were fired yet again and a new one selected...ME.

Quickly, Cadre Heath pulled us aside as he showed us a map on his phone and said "you have 2.28 miles to go to this point on the map. How much time do you need?" I replied with "an hour." He says "Perfect. 40min." Alrighty, then! He told me to brief the team with our objective AND to take the green Army duffle we were carrying and fill it 3/4 full with sand from the beach. Yep...we were taking on a huge, new dead weight that would be carried "litter" style, with 4-6 people at all times. Once filled and ready, we headed on out. As for that navigation, this area was of course, totally new to me. I remembered the best I could from looking at the map on his phone with how to go and major landmarks, like the golf course we were passing. I was allowed one look at the map en route and no more. I used it once and that was definitely the right call as I was about to make a bad decision. Back to that 40min time hack: If we didn't make it, we'd be assessed a casualty every 3 min for going over...a team member to carry. I struggled at first leading the team and rotating out, on the fly, all of the team weights. We had 5 sandbags, a team weight, two water bladders, and 5 people on the litter carrying the monster sandbag. Bryan, who I mentioned earlier, gave me advice on throwing in some bursts of running..or shuffling to get us moving. What I came up with was doing 15sec or 20sec bursts of running without ever stopping and continuing to rotate out everyone smoothly. I was running all over the place, yelling out motivation, making sure no one was about to die, and kept the press ON. It sucked, no doubt. The sun was very much in the sky now and the thermometer was already on the rise. BUT....WE DID IT. We made the time hack and I really don't think Cadre Heath expected us to. We legit did it. Where we found ourselves now was in a wet, grassy field. It was "training" time. Being in spec ops for 23+ years, Cadre Heath has a ton of experience. We did all kinds of training simulating being in a firefight while trying to advance on the enemy. We worked on carrying each other, too. I can't tell you exactly how long we spent training but it was awhile. I can't begin to name all the evolutions, either. I just can't remember what they were called. No matter, though. If you ever get Cadre Heath, maybe you'll find out! :) Before long, it was time to get fired as TL and a new one picked and we headed out again.

This time hack didn't go so well and before we got to the next point, it was mid-morning, the sun was blaring and we took on three casualties. Luckily, we had five ladies on our team so we, of course, used them as casualties as they weighed the least. We filled up water bladders until we ran out after that time hack and played a little "game" of Cadre Heath's. Haha...what a game! (it was a short, little PT session with some childhood humor swirled in to put smiles on everyone's faces) The bad part of it is that one of our own passed out. As someone with vasovagal syncope, I knew what I just saw. Once he woke up, we all gathered around and got him in the shade. He was hard-headed as heck! We forced him to give up his ruck and just walk with us...and to keep hydrating as best he could. The downside to this event is that unlike a race or ultra-marathon where electrolyte drinks are served at aid stations, there is nothing but what you're carrying and anyone who knows much knows that you never put those drinks inside bladders as it ruins them. So, outside of electrolyte tabs and maybe some Hammer Gels, there isn't much to do to keep up with hydration. It really is a losing battle. You just have to be as smart as you can and make the best decision you can at the time and with the information you have. We all carried on as a team.

Let's just say that the "suck" was getting worse now by the moment. The sun was raising the temperature quickly and people's feet were taking a serious beating. No matter how long it had been since leaving the beach, our feet never really dried out due to sweat. Add on the weight of our rucks and the added team weights and we had people with no issues to others with popping blisters making just walking painful. Eventually, we found ourselves on a traditional cinder bike-n-hike trail as we hovered around the early afternoon time, I think. We had some more training on building a litter to carry wounded using tree limbs and a tarp. Cadre Heath also did some training on rappelling. This was a nice time to ground the weights and take care of any issues anyone had. As we loaded up to go again, he told us we had 15min to go ONE mile...with all the weight. You want to talk about coming together as a team?! WHOA! We did...and we crushed it in 14:30. The carrot we were chasing was that if we did it, we could shed all of the sandbags. Now, we had no idea where we were in relation to the end whatsoever.  But, being able to shed hundreds of pounds of sand was awesome.  We did that, got more water, and had nothing but our team weight left. Cadre Heath thought this was also a fantastic time to knock out more flutter kicks so we lined both sides of the trail and did so. After that, it was story time as heard about one of Cadre Heath's experiences in Afghanistan.

At this point, NO ONE had dropped and the Heavy events, per GORUCK, have about a 50% finishing rate. But what's missing from the Heavy? Remember the PT test? We had done plenty of PT, already, but the infamous 12 mile ruck loomed. We had but one final movement...the 12mi ruck. However, instead of it being individual as it often is, we had to finish as a team. With 41 people, we had good to awful in terms of condition...both physical and mental. It was hot and 12 miles is a LONG way to go in our condition. The standard is 3 1/2 hours to cover this distance. Alone, I've covered it twice. Once in 2hrs, 12min and again a few weeks ago in 2:11. This was totally different, though. We'd all been up for well over 24 hours, were beat down, and feet issues plagued many people. Moving quick as a team was going to be hard. The time began and we headed out with only our 50lb team weight and the weighted flag pole, in addition to our rucks. 

Wow, wow, wow....pure guts and teamwork during the next 4 hours. We fought, some shed tears, some carried each other's rucks, but we never quit. The idea of "quit" was certainly looming in many minds but through a few awesome team leaders and others reaching out to those around them, we kept going...and going. Honestly, it seemed like we'd never get there! Here are a few photos from this final movement.

10 miles in, Cadre Heath pulled us aside and stopped the clock. We had started the 12mi on pace to kill the time standard but we fell apart in the last 4 miles. He talked to us, inspired us, but kept it real. He told us what we needed to hear. He was brutally a leader and teacher needs to be. He has led many GORUCK events and has never had a class where no one dropped. With 2 miles to one had...yet. He laid out one final time hack: Cover the last two miles in 30min and it's all over. Out we went....MOTIVATED AS HECK!!! We stuck together, carried other's rucks as necessary and kept throwing running shuffles in there as we could...but left no one behind. Nothing but guts and sweat and pure determination to not quit and finish strong AS A TEAM.

So there we are...arriving back at the start point. We got back into two ranks but guess what? We still owed Detroit 201 flutter kicks so we proudly paid them. 1701 flutter kicks done! With that, Heavy Class #121 was finished and with a 100% completion rate. NO ONE QUIT. The final moments were spent hearing from Cadre CT and Cadre Heath. It was surreal...emotional...incredible.

In most half marathons, marathons, ultra-marathons, etc., you get a medal, a t-shirt, or something like that. With GORUCK, it's all about the patch and "patching" is all that remained. A strong handshake, the patch, and a hug wrapped it all up.

So that's my first GORUCK event and by default, my first Heavy event. But what about the goal of HTL? It was now 7pm or later and the Tough was starting at 9pm and was about a 30min drive away. My situation was this: I hurt...just like many did. My #1 concern was my right foot. It felt like rocks were in there but in reality, two big blisters were forming beneath my skin in my forefoot. It hurt just to walk and this only got worse over those 12 miles. I made the decision to not continue towards the HTL. Cadre Heath talked to us about this before this all began. He made it clear that the HTL is not an event in itself...more of a achievement. He said to finish a Heavy, one should be very proud in that and then assess the situation afterwards and make a decision. There is no shame to not do all 3 events. To quit the Heavy is one thing...or to be med-dropped. To decide to take on the HTL another day is quite another. That was my final decision and even now, I have total peace in that decision. I'll get mine...just not this time around. I had an incredible time, experience, and am stronger through it all. I met some bad@ss people along the way, too. My team of 41...WE DID IT. WE....Detroit Heavy Class #121 did it together!
"Comfort is the enemy of achievement."

I'd like to thank Bryan and his family for the awesome hospitality, Bryan's mentoring all year long as I prepared for this, Cadre CT and Cadre Heath for being awesome human beings and leading us through this, and all of my teammates. A special shout out to a new friend, too...Kevin, who was the one who passed out. Hard headed as ever, he refused to quit. You should be proud, brother! Recover well and I'll see you again!
Myself, Bryan and Kevin
One last shout the "Tenacious Ten"...those who did all 3 events and earned their HTL patch. So incredibly AWESOME!!! Well done!! (yes, those are tutu's...)

I expect to see many, many more photos soon from the Heavy event and will share them on this blog so come on back or subscribe for future updates. In addition, thanks again to Sarah LaBarge and Erik Rambo for capturing all of these photos and sharing them. Much appreciated!

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