It didn’t take long at all. We were less than an hour into what would turn out to be an 11 hour long ordeal… but after 45 minutes of lunges, sprint drills, and more, with a 40 pound pack on my back, it was happening. My legs were turning to jelly, and the 1st wave of doubt hit me…
“What the hell am I DOING here? What have I gotten myself into? How the hell am I going to survive this night??”
The GoRuck Challenge: Class # 229
by Frank Schlatterer // Photos courtesy of J. Hilberry
I wanted to write my thoughts on our GoRuck Challenge down. Both for my sake and the sake of anyone else who may be interested in hearing about it. I’ve already found it hard to explain to people what we really went through that night. In a very, VERY small way, it helped me understand how soldiers must feel coming back from war to those they love. I say that with the utmost humility – as I know the difference is huge – but it gave me a small glimpse into that feeling.
As a civilian with no military background, this night was a step into another world: a trip down the rabbit hole into the realm of some of the toughest people on the planet. None of us in our GRC team had the exact same experience that night, but we did this together and we shared the same struggles. This was MY experience, and I hope being able to look back on this writing later will help me keep the memory of GRC Class# 229 fresh in my mind.
“… What I had accomplished was really something special. My eyes were opening to that fact and the lessons from this Challenge were becoming crystal clear.”
Why on earth would someone sign up to do this to themselves? On their day off no less! “That doesn’t sound like my idea of fun” I’ve heard a few times already upon relaying the tales of that night. Am I trying to prove that I’m better than friends or family who would never dream of doing this to themselves? Absolutely not. I’m not the strongest of my family and friends, and I’m not the fastest either. That certainly wasn’t going to change now, as I stepped into the night with these 12 warriors at my side. For me at least, the motivation was something very, very different… but I digress.
My legs were jelly, and I was worried.
As I gathered up my buckling legs to make one final commando crawl to our casualty in the field, the mission changed. We were in the midst of a training exercise meant to mimic a real-world scenario where “the best laid plans of mice and men” go to shit, as I’m sure is often the case in wartime. We were being forced to adjust strategy on the fly. Our assigned team leader for this mission (a member of our group of 13) handled it well. We adjusted our approach, we completed our mission, and – to my relief – I started to get my legs back.
We gathered our “coupons” up (water jugs, chains, bricks and sandbags – mostly 25-90 pound items – all redeemable for free “Good Livin’”) onto our shoulders and began our march away from Heinz Field. I was tired, I was nervous, but I was on my feet, and determined to be in it for the long haul.
Our class’ challenge was administered by a Green Beret we would refer to as Cadre Dan. As the night wore on, Cadre Dan whipped together a mixture of mission training, words of encouragement, no-nonsense thoughts about our failures, and perspective on our nation’s Special Forces. The main ingredient, however, was good ol’ fashioned pain and suffering in the form of Good Livin’. Lots and lots of Good Livin’. Our class of 13 was tasked with carrying the same extra weight (in the form of coupons) as the Friday night class… a class of 28 people. Mercifully, we were not tasked with hauling as much beer, but with our 5 cases of Iron City Beer in tow, we had plenty. Cadre Dan hinted on several occasions that we were probably hauling more pound-for-pound weight than any other team he’s run through a challenge. Not one of us doubted it, I’m sure.
So the Challenge wore on and we marched forward as a team, mile after mile, mission after mission. I’m sure most of us discovered our own strengths and weaknesses along the way. I learned I could tackle PT with the best of ‘em – pushups? Squats? No problem. But I discovered my 1st failure early on: my lack of sandbag training.
I was amazed at the ability of some of my teammates to haul this ungodly thing for great distances. Some of my smaller teammates and I tackled this hellspawn of a sack in tandem, but as the days after the challenge wore on, I couldn’t help but think: how much more could I have done for my team had I trained with a sandbag? The question nags.
We continued trucking along through our challenge. Occasionally chants of “when I say GO! you say RUCK!” would ring out. “Go! Ruck! Go! Ruck!” People would look at us as if we were insane. They were probably right.
Somewhere near the ½ way mark we began our ascent up Mt. Washington. For those not familiar with the Pittsburgh area or Mt. Washington, here’s some perspective:
Our ascent was up a series of steep roads that ran along the side of this mountain. In the hours and miles leading up to the ascent of Mt. Washington, I came to understand the value of “military grade” rucks. As an active man, I already owned a small collection of backpacks that had served me well through light to moderate duty day trips and workouts over the years. Because of this, I elected to entrust my challenge to a trail pack I already owned from a well known outfitter. This piece of equipment was tasked with soldiering my gear through this challenge. This led to the discovery of my 2nd failure: ruck selection.
Ok, let this be said: I’m not a paid spokesperson for GoRuck gear. I did not yet own one of their packs at the time of our challenge. Prior to the challenge I would have had nothing bad to say about the trail pack I took with me that day. But as the night wore on, I saw my teammates’ packs stay put as my cinch straps popped loose. I saw their zippers stay fixed as mine yawned open under the strain. I saw their shoulder straps hold strong as my stitching came undone… and I began to understand.
I wasn’t about to whine about the failure of my gear – it was no one’s problem but my own – and I wasn’t going to let it stop me. It didn’t. That being said, as the days after the challenge wore on, I couldn’t help but think: how much energy did I expend over the course of the challenge reigning in my crumbling ruck? How much more could I have done for my team had I brought the right gear? These questions nag.
Log PT & The Mountain
I’d estimate we reached the top of the mountain just past ½ way through our challenge. We were on Cadre Dan’s time – so no watches allowed, but I would have guessed 2-3 AM. If we thought the ascent was tough with our packs and coupons, we’d be begging for more of THAT had we known what was in store at the top. Cadre Dan chose this moment to introduce Class #229 to Log PT. Log PT may have been invented to destroy human souls.
For the uninitiated, Log PT involves extended rotations of common gym exercises, like shoulder presses, crunches, squats and pushups. The primary difference being that you have a 40 lb ruck on your back. And – oh yeah, I forgot to mention – your dumbbells are replaced with a giant friggin’ TREE. 10-12 miles and 5-6 hours into the night, at the top of a mountain, our Log PT session began. With it, a blurry mixture of pain, sweat, teamwork and the perseverance of human will rang out from a mountaintop field on a perfect Pittsburgh night. It sucked… and it was awesome.
At the end of this ordeal Cadre Dan took a moment to let us know: we’re probably only ½ way through the challenge, and distance-wise, we’re as far from the end point as we’d be all night. Oh, and we still had to get this shit down the mountain. Dan was kind enough to give us our only long-term break of the evening to let this all soak in. We probably got 30-40 minutes to collect ourselves. We all fueled up, filled our hydration packs, tried not to cramp (more on that shortly) and I – for a brief moment – stared up at the stars and had my 2nd wave of doubt: “What the hell am I DOING here? What have I gotten myself into??“ It was a little different this time though. I’d already come so far… I knew I could do this.
“Embrace The Suck.” It’s somewhat of a GoRuck motto. You have to be there for your team, you came here to get this done, so you embrace the suck, and you GET IT DONE. I jumped up, started stretching my legs and prepared my mind for the 2nd half of our Challenge.
Our descent from Mt. Washington represented what was probably the longest uninterrupted stretch of marching we’d do all night. We covered a lot of miles, and I was feeling pretty good. One pack strapped to my back, one pack strapped to my front (30-40 pounds of beer) and our team’s American flag in my hand… we were movin’. We encountered a fair number of staircases as we came down. As we descended each staircase, it became one to two team members’ responsibility to unload their coupons on their brethren and crab crawl down the steps with their pack strapped to their chest.
I’ve done crab crawls before – I’d done them this NIGHT. I’m usually not bad at them either. I felt ready to take this one for the team and started crawling… but my body had other plans. ½ way down the staircase my right calf seized up to the size of my fist in a pretty violent muscle spasm, and it hurt like hell. I gave the calf a few good punches and couldn’t help but think “I’m holding up the team … don’t quit on me now legs! We’re in this shit together”.
This moment – to me – showed me where the TEAM in a GRC comes into play. This is when I truly KNEW my fellow man had my back. The man in front of me snatched my pack up off my chest and the man behind me started fishing around as fast as he could for some GU Gel to get me some relief. I was punching away at my calf to loosen the cramp and I was cursing at the wave of pain I was swimming in. After a few minutes, it passed, and I was back on my feet… a little pissed, and really feeling like I owed these guys. I slung my ruck back on my shoulders and insisted on taking the beer bag back to plow forward. This was my last real moment of doubt that night. No way I was quitting now, and my body was just going to have to deal with that.
The home stretch began with a dip in our last of three rivers. Much like our 1st two river stops, it was time to run the gamut of PT drills: rucks on, waist high in the river… only this time we had our coupons. Me, with a giant trailer chain draped around my neck, and some of my other teammates saddled with coupons of their own. Time to have at it. Pushups fully submerged on the shores of The Mon, flutter kicks with our sopping wet rucks being held high above our heads. Those damn coupons! I really wish I could have heard what Cadre Dan said to the man trying to get his boat in the water! The sun was up though, and we could smell the end. For me, that helped. We climbed out of that river, filled the hydration packs one last time and made our way to Point State Park.
Lessons & Perspective at The Finish Line
As we arrived at Point State Park, Cadre Dan reminded us how far we’d come, how close we were to finishing, and he gave us a moment to soak in the fact that the finish line was now less than an hour away. He took this opportunity to bring a lot of things into focus. Why were we carrying the coupons we were? Why do these bottles have patches on them, and what should we be taking from this? I won’t go into the details of our final hour together, because that moment and our leader’s way of reminding us what we were doing and what we were celebrating that day was something we earned together. It was special.
11 hours, 21 ½ miles, 3 rivers, hundreds of pounds of coupons, and who the hell knows how many bridges after we started, we finished our challenge together. As a TEAM. We shared a few tales from the night, we shared a few donuts, and we shared a few beers. I was fortunate enough to have my fiancee waiting for me at the end to see me finish what I started when I hit “Sign Up” so many months ago. That too was special.
My immediate feeling after slinking painfully into the truck after the challenge was to tell my fiancee “If I ever say I’m gonna do this again, wrap me in a straight jacket and have me taken away.” But as the hours and days after the challenge began to pass, the pain subsided and the pride really began to swell. What I had accomplished was really something special. My eyes were opening to that fact and the lessons from this Challenge were becoming crystal clear.
There’s something very primal and fundamental about pushing yourself to very limits of what mind and body can withstand. It awakens you in a strange way. You discover what you’re made of in that moment. When you feel like you have nothing left to give but you find a way to push through for yourself and for your team… the feeling is hard to describe, but it calls you back for more.
I didn’t do this challenge to prove that I’m better than anyone. I came in with humility and I left with even MORE of it. I came into this challenge to find out what I could will myself through. What could I endure and still keep moving forward? How much could I take and keep getting up for more? I couldn’t be happier that I chose to do this. I left The GoRuck Challenge proud and enlightened… and strangely, saddled with a need to answer some nagging questions for myself again.
I completed my 1st GoRuck Challenge in August of 2012 and wrote this article a few days later. I’ve enjoyed re-reading it a few times since then, but re-visiting this now to edit it for inclusion in THIS project is satisfying in its own way.
Many GRT’s will tell you that completing a Challenge can affect one’s perspective on many things in life (that was certainly the case for me), but it also means you become part of something larger. You become part of a family. Class #229 would be a beginning of many things for me, and more Challenges would follow. Like many others from my extended GoRuck family, I can now share those experiences here – through a resource that I’ve crafted with the help of that family. I’m proud to be able to give back to this wonderful community in a small way through this site. A process that truly began with my participation in Class #229.
Thanks for reading.