I’ve long preached that you should do workouts that you enjoy. It’s actually pretty easy to make progress, and if you’re consistent about doing those easy things, you’ll soon be achieving milestones that put you far, far, far ahead of the general population.
And how do you know if you’re continuing to make progress with your easy, enjoyable training? You just keep track of some key benchmarks over time, including some standard workouts. If you keep improving in those numbers, you’re doing something right!
For example, easy running guru Maffetone has his athletes run a standard test workout periodically. They run three miles at a pre-determined, low heart rate: if their time improves, they know their aerobic base is improving.
One of my benchmarking workouts is the hike to my favorite camping spot in the Marijuana Highlands. It’s 15 miles of bad, steep terrain. On my first romp out there in 21 months ago, I took a pack weighing 45# (wet) and needed 7 hours to arrive in camp. When I got there I was delirious and sore all over, my feet looked like raw chicken breasts, and it took a long, painful time just to strip off my clothes and boots. On future trips I cut the hike down to 5.5 hours and didn’t wreck myself getting to camp, but it was still a substantial hike.
So I was blown away by my last trip. Despite taking it very easy, I arrived in camp an hour faster than ever before and fresh as a bowl of strawberries. This being my first big romp of the year, I assumed I would be tired and slow, but on the contrary it was barely lunch time and I was sitting in camp with hours of daylight left, tons of pep, and nothing to do.
So I packed up and did the whole thing in reverse! I spent 95 minutes eating nuts, swimming in the stream, and having coffee, and then I rucked up and marched all the way back. It was a joy! I didn’t push myself on the return march (and in fact had to slow down several times to keep my heart rate under control), but without trying I ended up equaling my best-ever time of 5.5 hours.
This was a huge surprise. I figured it would be possible to hike straight back, to save someone’s life or as a stupid stunt, but I supposed you’d have to do it on pure gumption and willpower.
But now I know better because I just did it, out of boredom and with a smile on my face!
When you’re rucking with a group and you lag behind like a boat anchor, worse than the physical burning of sucking wind in white-hot lungs is the embarrassment of being the weak sister. No one says anything, of course, and probably few people are even thinking anything, but it is dispiriting.
When the ego is hurting, the mind searches for reasons, and I was forming a theory. A couple months earlier, I had attended our team PT qualification, an 8-mile hike on rocky terrain with 20# (dry) as fast as possible. As an experiment, I added an extra 15# to see how far it would slow me, and the result was unexpected: I finished in the usual time of about 120 minutes–pride wouldn’t let me fall behind–but it escalated the effort more than I anticipated, from a literal walk in the park to a gasping, sweaty, painful struggle.
Now, as my throat tasted that hated anaerobic burn, like rancid hot butter coating my trachea, I was forming an educated guess.
“How much water do you have?” I asked The Spider, a rangy veteran climber. He pursed his lips. “Probably too much. A couple of liters.” I asked the same question to Bonanza, a SAR prodigy with energy levels that an ordinary man could only get from cocaine. His answer? “About a liter. But keep in mind, I’m kind of a camel. I really should have a liter and a half.”
Mystery solved! I’d made a classic intellectual’s mistake, seizing upon something I once heard in a lecture and clinging to it like gospel. In my case, the decontextualized nostrum was, “Hydrate in cold weather just as you would in hot weather.” And so I packed 8.5L of water. That is my standard intake for a day’s backpacking in triple-digit heat, so being a dutiful student, among my snow gear I packed a plus-sized water bladder and five canteens.
That’s almost 19 pounds of water. Instead of three.
On top of that, I’d gotten blubbery too. My best rucking weight is a maximum of 170# and 10% bodyfat, but on this day I was carrying an extra ten pounds of fat. All told, I was hauling 25 unnecessary pounds.
On the spot I dumped out the two canteens I could reach, and that helped somewhat, jettisoning close to 5 pounds on the spot. But down in the recesses of my bag, I still had six more liters (13+ lbs.) squirreled away, and there was no getting rid of those til we made camp.
By that time, I had vowed in three different languages that I would form a new relationship to pack weight. Sure, it’s fun to do things the hard way when I’m romping around on my own, but not when I have a group to keep up with and some group mission to serve.
Other Useless Weight
Food: I had zero interest in food. I was in ketosis (and drinking extra ketones in my water too), and when I exercise in ketosis I almost forget about hunger and food. There was close to a pound of nuts ready to hand, but I barely touched them. For dinner I also brought a mess tin with riced cauliflower, salmon groats, and pine nuts, and though I forced myself to heat it and eat it, it was pretty vile. For trips of just 24 hours, I think all I want is ketones and nuts, and some chaga and coffee for drinking. And by leaving the mess tin and the cauliflower and salmon, I’ll save a full kilo.
Poncho: I brought a Bundeswehr rain poncho (1000g!), but I only used it as a kneeling pad. Since we weren’t expecting rain, I should have left it. (I still had my usual kneeling pad anyway.) That would have saved another full kilo.
Hip belt: The Swedes who made the LK-70 only gave it a minimal, 1960s canvas hip belt. For looooooong hikes, I substituted an enormous padded one. It’s extremely comfortable for walking all day under heavy load because I can alternate miles supporting the load on my shoulder straps and on the plush belt. But for this relatively short hike of just a few hours, the belt was a waste. I could have saved about another kilo here by replacing it with the original, simple canvas belt.
Suppose I had left those items behind, and carried a reasonable 2L of water instead of my actual truckload of bladders and canteens: I would have saved 20 pounds.
What Worked Great
Ketones! I should keep these in my regular SAR pack too for long night searches when I get “hangry.” Better just to plunge into ketosis, live off body fat, and forget about hunger.
Esbit stove: This little thing was a champ. I carry mine with half of a coffee can that I sawed apart and perforated, so it shields the stove from wind, contains the heat, and improves fuel efficiency. At sea level I need six Coghlin fuel tablets to boil a pot (750mL) of water, and up at our campsite I needed almost double that.
As it happened, I guessed my fuel consumption just right: at 9000 feet I used twelve tablets (half a box) each at dinner and in the morning, and had another box in reserve. At 125g, that’s cheap insurance.
Chaga: I don’t exactly love the taste of chaga, but it’s nourishing and it’s something warm to drink in the evening that won’t spoil my ketosis. This was a winner.
Wool pants: I prefer wool pants to synthetic. Though a low-tech traditionalist by temperament, I’m also following the advice of two influences who have massive “snow cred.” My friend and mentor Sgt. Šileika knows cold–in Canada, Kandahar, and Lithuania–and he insists on wool and won’t touch synthetics. Then there’s Lars Grebnev, a Dane who became a homesteader in Siberia (!!), whose rule of thumb is to default to Scandinavian wool army surplus from during/before the Sixties. Those armies lived in the field for months at a time as a matter of routine, in sub-Arctic conditions, and the clothing they used was optimized for warmth and durability..
On their advice, I combed the best brick and mortar surplus store I’ve ever seen for a surplus pair of THICK wool Swedish army trousers from some time in the ancient past: as best I can tell, these were made in the 1940s or 50s. They were divine for wearing in camp. Other parts of my body got cold at times—my upper half, my feet, my hands—but never for a second were my legs or butt chilly, even when kneeling in snow.
And for that matter, they kept my midsection pretty warm too, since they come up almost to my ribs. Sgt. Šileika has pointed out that these old-time trousers take suspenders, which is wonderful when carrying a pack so it doesn’t pinch skin at your belt line. The only downsides are that they can get too warm if I’m hiking in full sun—I actually had to strip them off for the climb up.
Running tights: Speaking of stripping off my pants, I sure was glad I had running tights underneath! They keep the wool pants from itching too.
Base layer: I wore an Underarmor type of shirt (the British ones are good) and over that I had the Danish mesh shirt that is becoming a huge favorite of mine because it keeps me dry and insulates me too. Singly or together, I like these as base layers. They’re keepers.
Gloves: In my pockets I kept one pair of Bundeswehr gloves and one pair of cheap OD wool glove liners (which are incredibly warm). And in my pack I had a backup pair of the glove liners. This setup was perfect.
Portyanki and socks: Despite wearing thin boots (see below), I got by great with just a pair of flannel foot wraps (portyanki) and underneath them a pair of the awesome Finnish M05 sock liners (the all-purpose, all-weather supersock—I wear them with a suit and wingtips, I wear them on hundred-degree romps, and I wear them in the snow).
Two spare pair of socks was enough. At night I wore all the socks and footwraps over them, and my feet stayed toasty warm.
What Was a Disaster
I should have brought mini-spikes.I own a pair and they would have provided cheap insurance.
My matches weren’t working well at altitude. I finally succeeded by placing one match among a pile of fuel tablets, shielded from the wind, and then lighting it with a little electric cigarette lighter. But Charlie Rock has got the right idea: Zippo typhoon matches.
Inflatable mattress: I needed much, much better insulation. Next time I’ll need a proper four-season sleeping pad.
What to Replace
I used the Belgian surplus fleece plenty as a mid-layer, but it wasn’t warm enough to justify its weight (600g). Not when you can get the surplus Italian merino quarter-zips (275g) for cheap and those warm wool British service shirts (500g) even cheaper. Hell, I have this surplus wool Ike jacket from Finland that looks like it belongs on a gay merchant seaman or Kim Jong Il, but it’s warm AF and only weighs 1000g.
The $20 jackboots from East Germany were fine. I greased the bejeezus out of them and they kept my feet dry and remain my best all-round boot. However, for snow antics, I’ll upgrade to modern, insulated boots.
I love my Miltec bivvy sack, which is a cheap clone of the US Army one, but it’s not Goretex and doesn’t vent moisture from your breath, so it collected some condensation inside. That’s not OK for these conditions. I love it for warmer temperatures, but for winter camping I need a better sleep system.
After experimenting a lot, I have arrived at some hard-won conclusions about boots for rucking.
As reported earlier, I rejected GORUCK’s own house brand of boots, the MACV-1. Though attractive and wonderfully light, they have so little tread that I kept slipping and falling on down slopes. Unacceptable. They also lack a “shank,” a stiffener in the sole that helps you toe off the ground when your arches are tired.
I also gave an audition to Rocky’s inexpensive RLW or “Rocky light weight” boots, which look like the big brothers of the MACV-1. They are reasonably light, deeply treaded, and tall enough that I can “double lace” them, i.e. lace the instep separately from the ankle. However, being an economy model, they have a seam in the heel that many purchasers complain give them blisters (I did have a bit of that too, but you can counter that with an Engo pad) and their tongues are constructed in a strange way that required a long break-in before they stopped rubbing my instep raw. I could have gotten past both these bugs, but crucially, these boots lack a shank. I wore them for a 42-mile training ruck, and after twenty miles I longed for that stiffened sole. By that point I had used up my foot muscles for the day and, lacking a stiff boot sole, I could not toe off the ground anymore and instead was reduced to short, choppy steps. Never again. Not for a long distances.
And of course I have plenty of heavy boots that could probably kick through concrete, like my plug-ugly surplus combat boots issued by Germany’s Bundeswehr. If a crocodile masticated and swallowed them, the German giants would just emerge from the other side perfectly serviceable. These are just the thing for search-and-rescue bushwhacking. And shanks, oh, the shanks! You could probably drive a nail with them. But at over a kilo each—only Iron Man has heavier boots—these are not boots you can wear for 50 miles.
No, the “Goldilocks” boot is Rocky’s S2V Predator, which is a medium weight (about 800g each) and has the all-important shank. They also scarcely need breaking in. I double lace them, use “ladder lacing” on my left instep (which apparently is bigger than my right), and it’s quick and easy for me to adjust the fit to my level of foot swelling and the terrain.
These work great with my preferred sock set-up, a FoxRiver liner sock inside a Finnish M05 liner sock. Together with my new, larger and wider boot size, these kept my toes happy, uncrowded, and essentially unblistered for the whole fifty miles of the Star Course. No burgerfeet!
Note that I still love jackboots! I still think of them as my best all-round boots, the ones I’d grab if you said, “Get your boots on, we’re going on a mystery adventure! I won’t tell you any details at all: beaches or woods or mountains or city, wet or dry, rain or snow or sun—it’s all a surprise! Maybe we’ll be gone for a day, maybe for a month.” That would be easy: I would wear my $20 rubberized East German jackboots and bring one extra pair of sliced up bed sheets footwraps.
But jackboots make sense as my ideal general-purpose boot, whereas here we’re talking specifically about walking 50 miles through a city at top speed, which is very specialized indeed.
Real distance athletes don’t precede a race with dry-heaving and M&Ms. But I am not a real distance athlete. I am a special snowflake.
* * * *
I flew to Seattle a day early and retired to bed after a dinner of kaplau gai kai dao. That was a fateful choice, because I spent most of the night awake and hurling. Frantic to rehydrate and keep some food down, I bought a bizarre assortment of groceries which, alone among Safeway’s inventory, I could look at without puking. I fed well enough on chocolate milk, coconut water, kombucha, yogurt, and peanut butter M&Ms that, by game time, I no longer looked embalmed.
With hit list in hand, we adopted a “town and country” strategy, hitting the downtown waypoints first and saving outlying parks for the daytime. That way, we had access to all-night stores while our crew was sleeping. When they started supplying us after dawn, we’d be in residential neighborhoods with no traffic or parking troubles, and we would have ample daylight by which to navigate park trails. And psychologically, it was a bonus not to stare at the ugly industrial blight around Boeing Field in bright sun, and not to be caught downtown without a bathroom in broad daylight.
As we marched through Georgetown, Lean Solid Girl discovered something critical. Prior to the event, I had noticed that Google Maps can flatten your route appreciably if you use Cycling mode instead of Walking mode. With no one supervising me, I would have done that. But I hadn’t reckoned all the shortcuts—pedestrian staircases and stepped foot trails through ravines separating neighborhoods—that were impassable to bikes but usually made for pretty humane climbing, often with handrails to help you “row” your way up.
Luckily, back at the hotel, Lean Solid Girl couldn’t quite get herself to sleep. She was on her laptop crunching different options and called in the results: we would indeed save ourselves a couple of unnecessary climbs on Cycling mode, but it would cost us seven extra miles of walking. The Jolly Irishman and I gave our reply in unison: “No f—ing way.”
The reality of our partnership was that Irish was leading, running both nav and Instagram almost by himself, and I was just following. I hadn’t wanted to burden him with both jobs, but we both knew that he was the stronger teammate that night. I remained somewhat pukey and wobbly until 4am, and I suffered a second weakness I’d never experienced before at a GORUCK event: gnawing hunger. For the first time I was nowhere even close to ketosis and felt hollowed. So while Irish drove the bus, I concentrated on keeping up and not being That Guy, and I couldn’t contribute much more to the team effort than lusty singing in Russian and obscene but admiring remarks about our rival teams.
Two of these teams distinguished themselves above our other (playfully) hated adversaries and won my admiration. First were the pair we called simply “The French Guys,” and they were the shadows we couldn’t lose. Twice I thought we passed them for good, only to see them pop out a few miles later in front of us. We seemed to be following the same overall game plan, “town and country,” but walking slightly different roads. Just as we left our foot care stop at the University of Washington, they caught up to us again, but this time without their same calm élan. “Something’s wrong,” said Irish. “The tall one is in trouble.” I glanced over and saw both of The French Guys beholding the one fellow’s unshod foot with the look of an ambulance crew standing around regarding someone they’ve arrived to find irretrievably dead. We called over, asking how they were, and the taller man replied only, “It’s pretty bad,” but with tight lips and a tiny shake of the head that said “C’est fini.” Irish went over with tape and supplies and came back reporting foot trauma of biblical proportions, a blister running nearly the length of the foot. This was almost too much for me to bear. They’d already trooped 30+ miles, and I knew from bitter experience how wretched it felt to endure all that and still fail.
And I’d also been through the lonely trek awaiting his surviving companion, a dark-haired dude whom I imagined hailing from some seaside Mediterranean town. He might have tagged along with us, but he stuck by his friend while they sorted out a ride for him. We saw him once more at Magnusson Park, tailing us by half a mile, but then lost him completely. Later, at the finish line, we found no one with any news of him, but as we finally put down our pizza and beer and began packing up our car, we encountered him trudging up the home stretch, beaten down by his solo trip but well within the time limit.
The other team I held in awe were the ones Irish and I called simply “The Runners.” We saw them only once, at 3am on the 2-mile pedestrian causeway to Mercer Island. They had already hit the waypoint and were returning to the mainland when they passed us. At first they were visible to us only as a trio of headlamps, then as six legs half-illuminated by the causeway’s murky, otherworldly light. “Da f***?” I exclaimed to Irish. “Are they running?” They certainly were. When they passed us, we got only a fleeting glimpse but a memorable one: three men thundered past, pounding the cement hard with music playing, big guys by endurance sport standards. I winced to imagine what was happening inside their poor knees—running with weight is very hard on joints and not recommended except in emergencies—but be that as it may, these guys were awesome to behold.
As it happened, we would be on their tails for the rest of the night. At each waypoint our crew would mention three guys right ahead of us, but Irish and I saw no one. Apparently we were gaining on them, closing the gap from 30 minutes to ten, but never spotted them. It was only at the end point, as we limped across our final intersection into Magnolia Park, that another team popped out of the side street twenty yards ahead of us. Three big guys—even then I didn’t put it together—and they looked fresh as daisies. I even said to Irish confidently, “These dudes must be doing the 26 mile course. There’s no way they did 50 miles and still look that good.” But sure enough, they did. They reported to Cadre DS’s table still twenty yards ahead of us, and we claimed third and fourth place respectively. It was only much later that they I pieced it together: these were the The Runners. We’d been shadowing them all night, not as closely as the French team kept on top of us, but one of them had gotten hurt sometime during the morning and so we got on their heels and stayed there. That was an honor: when we’d glimpsed The Runners in the middle of the night, they had seemed more like heroes out of Valhalla than real people. And yet without ever knowing it, we hung with them.
The finish line was still sleepy, almost anti-climactic when we got there. It was still much too early. We arrived together with The Runners, both at 16 hours and 48 minutes, to find only four guys lying in the grass drinking beer. The second-place guys had come in 20 minutes before us, our crew told us. Then they pointed us to a pair of normal-looking young dads in Hawaiian shirts. These were the first-place finishers, who had crushed the course in under 15 hours. I’d expected the Night King and a pair of direwolves. Instead, hanging out with their wives, with kids crawling on top of them, they looked like suburban dads who’d just mowed the lawn and come to the park to grill hot dogs with their families. However, when I looked at their Instagram page, I saw Dad #1 in an army uniform with a chest full of decorations, including jump wings and what looked like a Combat Infantry Badge, and in the park someone said something about Rangers. #everyday badasses
* * * *
Redemption was sweet. A week after my second Star Course—my second in three weeks—I am almost back to normal. My ankles took a pounding from walking on concrete, which must be the worst surface possible except for lava, but when I met the semester’s new crop of students on Monday morning, I held onto my lectern and stood stable and upright enough that no one thought I’d had whiskey for breakfast.
And speaking of whiskey, Irish and I are putting out feelers for a new event for the Dream Team. Something where Lean Solid Girl and Lady Irish can do all the thinking and navigating for us leverage their logistical genius to the max. Something without concrete.
I met The Jolly Irishman minutes into my first GORUCK event, at kissing distance. We were all told to pair up: one person would bear walk across the beach and tow the other, who lay supine and clutched him around the neck. I ended up as a “top” with Irish as my “bottom.” Not having been in this situation with a muscular man since high school wrestling, I dispelled the awkwardness I felt by promising to buy him dinner and flowers next time. But Irish is a permanently grinning barman and adventurer who could instantly form a bond of friendship with a pit viper or a kraken. No ice breaker was necessary.
Irish proved indestructible and unflappably fun through that long night of smoke sessions and sandbags. After surf torture I was a quivering shambles, but Irish was still chuckling, calmly helping people, and having the time of his life. And the message he broadcast implicitly was, “This sucks, but you’re up to it physically, so let go and laugh at the absurdity! Across the street some lonely financial planner is watching TV in his $2 million living room, and you’ve chosen to fireman carry a Filipino school teacher with sand in your nostrils! Trust me, this is awesome!”
At every GORUCK event, I’m reminded of a fragment from Heraclitus: “Out of every hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, and nine are the real fighters … But the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.” Apparently Heraclitus did a Heavy or two, because late in the game there’s always one person who undertakes the heaviest lifting and also shows irrepressible good cheer.
Thus it was that when I first contemplated doing the Star Course, my top choice for a battle buddy was The Jolly Irishman. After blowing it in San Francisco three weeks before, I wanted redemption and I would not risk the slightest chance of another failure. There are only two people I could confidently call a 100% certainty for success, and of those two the Irishman was Numero Uno. He’s incapable of quitting and I knew he’d keep walking for just as long as his legs were attached.
The question was what we would do for logistical support. Unlike other GORUCK Challenges, on a Star Course you can stop to buy food and water whenever you please. But this takes time—it’s more efficient if someone brings it to you. And more fun! It’s also more efficient if you don’t have to carry all of your just-in-case items on your back, things like rain gear, spare batteries, spare socks, baby wipes, and other essentials. And there’s no better feeling than taking out your whole hydration bladder and letting the crew car schlep it to the next waypoint! Three liters of water weighs 6.6 pounds!
Following my failed Star Course, I anatomized my wrong decisions with Lean Solid Girl, who has Napoleon’s level of logistical mentality. We worked out theories about how best to “crew” (i.e. run a support crew) efficiently and safely, and we theorized that ideally the crew needs two people.
Irish and I began asking around for one or two jockish college students we could hire to make supply drops. I even briefly contemplated what might happen if we attempted a Grub Hub order for samosas and mango lassis with instructions like “Just leave it in the parking lot at Mercerdale Park. Try to hang it from a tree branch so the racoons don’t get it.” Instead, we got the Dream Team: Lean Solid Girl volunteered to fly to Seattle on the weekend before we started our teaching semester to (wo)man the crew car, and Lady Irish did the same! This illustrates why it makes terrific sense for athletes to couple up with other athletes. Lean Solid Girl did a 50-miler long before I did, and marathons too, and she gets into projects that any “normie” would dismiss as a quixotic death march, and she is actually interested in crewing such a thing, which goes so far above and beyond the call of duty that it deserves some kind of GORUCK Medal of Honor.
To prepare for the Seattle Star Course, I’ve been playing with topo maps, Google Maps, and Road Warrior, feeding them different scenarios, and here’s what I’ve concluded: 1) Plan with Road Warrior, but don’t walk with it. As far as I can tell, Road Warrior is really designed for delivery drivers. It’s great for driving on errands in the most efficient order. But when you choose this path or that path to walk to your next point, you’re stretching Road Warrior outside of what it’s designed for. Despite its “walking” mode, it thinks you’re a very slow car and cares nothing about elevation. I fed it scenarios in Seattle and it always dictates the straightest possible line, even up steep slopes, and even when a flatter alternative exists. (Example: In one scenario, instead of a 2.4-mile route with only 100 ft of climb, it chose the more direct 2.3-mile path that climbs almost 400 feet!) 2) Walk with Google Maps on CYCLING mode: Cyclists terrify me on the winding rural highways near my home, where once a year I whizz around a turn at 55mph and suddenly have a near-death encounter with a slow-moving peloton. But DAMN they get things done in Silicon Valley! Because even though Google Maps shows decent awareness of elevation when you ask for directions in walking mode, it rocks at avoiding climbs in cycling mode. Here’s an example: It suggests three routes: 2.2 miles and a 285-ft climb; 2.3 miles and a 108-ft climb; or 2.7 miles and a 49-ft climb. And no traffic either.
In a side bar they provide a graph comparing the climbs:
You still need Road Warrior (or a comparable app) because Google Maps can’t handle your “hit list” of a dozen-plus waypoints. But I’d say that after you order the points in the optimal sequence, you can pretty much leave Road Warrior alone and just glance at it occasionally to reacquaint yourself with the bigger picture. But speaking of the bigger picture…
3) Paper maps. I’m going to use my paper map(s) more. When I’m tired or busy, I want to look at something bigger than my index card-sized phone screen, and whose scale doesn’t zoom in and out to the point of disorientation. And if I have time during halts, I’ll pencil in our macro-level route plan so we’ll have a tangible depiction of our progress through the course.