Final installment in my after-action report from the GORUCK D-Day Heavy Challenge.
What Worked Out Great
1. Webbing: I had about 6′ of webbing and it saved me twice. First we had to carry an insidiously-shaped rock a few miles uphill. I bound it up like a birthday gift and then some genius added D-rings and carabiners so that folks could hang it from their pack straps. The final effect was like a newborn boulder in a Babybjörn. It still sucked, but it substantially reduced the Suck Value. Second, I broke a pack strap at dawn, but it took all of 30 seconds to improvise a fix with the webbing. Without it, I would probably have washed out of the event over that petty equipment failure. So write this down, someone: webbing is the duct tape of rucking.
Weight: 40g. Not quitting the whole event over a busted pack strap or wasting everyone’s biceps cradling a f#&%ing rock: priceless.
2. Spare shoelace: Whipped this out to secure the flag to the pole better. Again, it nullified what could have been a huge pain in the butt for essentially zero added weight.
3. Rocky S2V boots: Thank you, Sgt. Šileika! The Rockies were champs. My search for the perfect all-round boot is over!
I’m blown away by the contrast to the Moab Ventilators that I wore last year. The point of the Ventilators is that, with their mesh sides, they let water and sweat flow out and let air rush in. It’s a great idea for running trails, but not for sloshing around in surf and sand because your shoes and socks fill with sediment. I got grit between my shoes and socks, between my socks and sock liners, and between the liners and my skin.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the other teammate who wore Rockies completed a “Heavy-Tough-Light” (i.e. he is a freak who did three events back-to-back over 48 hours, totaling well over 70 miles). And the teammate who wore Ventilators got a silver dollar-sized blood blister so heinous and unearthly that I expected an alien to spawn from his heel. (Amazingly, he just cheerfully popped it, dressed it, and walked on it for the next 12 hours without grimacing. People are freaks, and this guy must have the pain tolerance of a barn animal.)
4. Synthetic fabrics: Impressed by Lean Solid Girl’s successes, I left behind most of my old-school cotton, wool, and hair shirts and wore so much stretchy space-age fabric that I felt like Spider Man. And it worked great: I stayed warm, dry, windproof, and free of chafing.
It was only at midday that I wore a cotton shirt (one of the dozen awesome $4 Bundeswehr quarter-zips that I stash everywhere–#notaffiliatedIjustlovethem). But as soon as we got wet, I changed back to polypro gratefully.
6. Categorized bags: Since my old-fashioned ruck only has one big compartment, I sorted gear into four marked bags: Food, Shirt, Jacket, and Head & Foot Stuff (hat, headlamp, sunglasses, socks, and foot care supplies). It worked great. Next time, I’ll color code the bags too.
7. More sock changes than a Madonna concert: I brought two extra pairs of socks and sock liners, and I rotated through all of them. Again, cheap insurance. I’ve had great success with the combination of Finnish M05 “liner socks” (which are socks unto themselves here in temperate climes) and FoxRiver liners, so I won’t mess with success.
8. Tailwind and GU: Here too, I owe Lean Solid Girl, who’s a past (and future?) runner, for initiating me into the secrets of distance athletes.
9. My hydration bladder: Our team had at least two burst hydration bladders, which did not enhance their owners’ lives. Usually I’m the first person to cheap out and get suckered by a false economy, but I’ve never encountered this problem even after hundreds of miles, so I’ll keep using Hommitt.
1. Powerlifting knee sleeve: It’s stupid to change your game plan at the last minute, and that includes switching to gear you haven’t tested. I grabbed a squatting knee sleeve on the way out the door because I worried about padding my sore knee. It guarded my knee from abrasion, alright, but over 40 miles it knotted up some soft tissue behind my knee from the pressure.
2. Leaving my electrolytes to chance: I prepared for pushups poorly enough. I didn’t need cramped arms on top of that, but I chose to trust that I’d get all my electrolytes from the Tailwind. Dumb. Electrolytes are cheap insurance, just like webbing or an extra shoelace. Without Mike the Forester’s generosity, I’d have been in trouble. Next time I’m bringing extra electrolytes.
3. Poorly secured pill bottle: To help with pain, I cleverly brought some CBD, ibuprofen, and caffeine pills, but I foolishly hung the bottle from a carabiner with my gloves, and within an hour it was lost.
During the whole event we only had 4 team leaders (TLs). I had the shortest, most intense (though not the hardest) tenure, during beach fun. As we approached the beach from the Conservatory of Flowers, the amiable Cadre Clark announced that, once at the beach, he would switch into beast mode. So when he appointed me TL for that evolution, he straightforwardly told me that he would try to overwhelm me with fast-changing commands, break down my capacity to make good decisions, and make the team (temporarily) hate me.
For me that was a perfect challenge because, as a child of the 1970s and 80s, I was raised amid short-sighted “everyone’s a winner” attitudes about competition, risk, and praise that were the child-rearing equivalent of the macrobiotic diet: they sounded cool and progressive, but they were untested and misguided and they produced children with deficiencies. In my case, I play life safe when others are watching. I avoid situations where I might fail big in public and look incompetent. In my maturity I’d like to change that—I enjoy life so much when I remember not to GAF about how I look to others—so I was the perfect target beneficiary for a crucible where I had to command a group and then probably melt down in front of them.
I won’t give away the details of the fun and beach games that followed. I wish I could study video and gauge how I did. I do know this: I used a lot of energy just shouting my commands and calling cadences over the noise of the ocean. I had an assistant team leader (ATL) who was first-rate, and if I could do it over again, I would detail her as much as possible to yell for me, like a bullhorn. It would have kept me sharper longer.
However, as things played out, she won us our biggest victory of my term as TL. At one point we were given just five minutes to hide all ten rucks from the cadre by digging one big pit in the sand and burying them. When we failed, leaving just one fluorescent safety strap poking out, the cadre ordered me to have the team dig up the rucks, move them, and bury them elsewhere, this time in just four minutes. The ATL and one other cunning SOB suggested something that I will not reveal—if you really want to know, sign up and experience it for yourself!—and it saved a ton of precious time. All I did was order a pair of additional misdirects that took advantage of how harried and panicked we looked. Amazingly, we sold it! We really and truly spoofed the cadre and he commended us for it. And in that situation, I got the core strategy from the ATL, who might not have had the bandwidth and breath to suggest it if I had used her instead as a human amplifier.
It’s always some heavily muscled personal trainer. My toughest moments at Goruck challenges are when I must fireman’s carry a teammate, and it’s never the vegetarian triathlete who works for a socially conscious startup. I always get the dense, hypertrophied Paleo stevedore-type who runs a gym.
It’s amazingly easy to fireman’s carry someone, but it’s surpringly hard to keep it up for long. So today’s game was called “Desmond Down,” in honor of the barrel-chested personal trainer whom I had the horror honor of helping to carry for the last mile on Saturday, when he was suddenly designated a “casualty” by cadre fiat. I trudged up the Rock of Faeries shoulder-carrying the 150# sandbag.
You’d expect the climbing to be the worst part, and you’d be right, but I was surprised by just how hard–I’ll bet the last 150 vertical feet took close to an hour. And it wasn’t much easier to lift the bag onto the shoulder in the first place. In both cases, the golden rule seems to be keepyourhipsdirectly under thebag. “Duh,” right? But you can let the hips drift without noticing, and even a couple of inches increases the stress and heart rate.
I’ll do this one again, but not on rocky slopes. I have plenty of good training ideas that don’t risk falling on igneous rock, and if I had attempted this in the shallowly-treaded Goruck boots, I’d be blogging from Valhalla right now.
Goruck Heavy (May 31 – June 1) commemorating D-Day. San Francisco. Thirteen entered (eight men, five women), ten finished. These are the lessons I learned, first about individual performance (part 1), then about us as a team (part 2), then about my gear choices (part 3).
Absolute Strength and Strength-Endurance
I confirmed my impression from last year that GORUCK events reward absolute strength. Strictly speaking, it might not seem like a “reward,” because you carry more and heavier weights for your team, but you receive the elemental joy of being able to do that for them. For the heaviest coupons, some teammates will lack the strength even to budge them, and others will be able to pitch in bravely but at an unsustainable cost. Ultimately, those top-end coupons must devolve onto a bull-necked, big-thighed few who have large enough reserves of absolute strength that they can spend pretty heedlessly without wrecking themselves.
That is a good time to be strong. If you are strong, you can give your teammates a gift that really means something: you can take on pain for them. No one can walk for them, no one can do their pushups for them, but big weights are different. If you are strong, you can take the sandbag from the small person and the exhausted person and spare them the punishment because it will cost you far less than it will cost them.
Granted, GORUCK events are not strength events, so there are few times when anyone needs to lift something at 90+% of 1RM. But I’d still classify them as trials of strength-endurance. That is, they test your ability to display sub-maximal strength over and over with limited rest. In my approach to strength-endurance, as in many other things, I follow Pavel Tsatsouline’s strategy: if you bump up your absolute strength through high volume, you’ll improve your strength-endurance too. As you raise your one-rep max in weighted pullups, for example, you need less and less effort for each bodyweight pullup and can crank out more reps when you need to.
Speaking of pullups, here alone among bodyweight exercises did I not tire out. For the PT test we cranked out 12 sets of 6 pullups, and to my surprise I found these easy. Three cheers for the “lazy strength” approach of high volume with low intensity!! Unfortunately, we did a lot more pushups (including burpees) than pullups, and I sucked. I’d like to whine about how, with my injury, I was reduced to three weeks of pushup training, but there’s a larger issue: I have always neglected pushups. Had I valued them like pullups and kettlebells, I would have put in a few hundred thousand reps over the years and developed a pushup foundation of granite. With kettlebells I’ve accumulated a million reps, so even if you imprisoned me without a single kettlebell—oh cruel fate!—as soon as I was liberated, in two weeks I’d have my groove back and once more make the 32kg bell my plaything. To a lesser extent, that’s true of pullups too. But I don’t have that kind of foundation with pushups, so I paid for it. If the cadres had wanted to smoke us in PT, and if they had “performance dropped” people who couldn’t keep up, I would have been in serious trouble. So guess what’s never going to happen again!
Speaking of pushups, Cadre Edge taught us some funky breathwork out of the Wim Hof method that involved deep rhythmic breathing followed by all-out pushups on a breath hold. I had never tried this, or heard of it, but it works and I’m incorporating it into my morning Wim Hof routine of breathing and cold water.
And speaking of breathing, I had no trouble doing it! For the first time in my life, this former chubby kid wasn’t near the back of the pack in aerobic endurance. This was a wonderful thing, because for all the strength-endurance challenges, this activity is called “rucking” for a reason, and you need a big aerobic gas tank to do anythingfor 24 hours, so I felt wonderful being able to burn along at close to 14 minutes/mile and experience that as active rest.
So three more cheers for low intensity and high volume! As with “lazy strength,” not only do I thrive on LSD (long, slow distance), I really enjoy it. I probably put in 300 miles in the last three months, and I loved (almost) every moment of it. It’s a time for solitude and meditative quiet, with the moderately elevated heart rate and rhythmic breathing that naturally inclines us to flow and trance states.
Spirit and psyche
I was more composed this year than last. There was no repeat of last year’s surf torture experience of existential horror at the wind’s shrieking, freezing hands pulling me into a tomb of pitiless entropy. Of course I knew that I was safe and not going to die, but I was a quivering wreck and I felt a lonely understanding that nature was prepared to annihilate me with as little notice as it would give a bug who drowns in a swimming pool. This year, there was none of that.
Nor was I tormented by a horrible inner soundtrack. I’m tragically susceptible to songs getting stuck in my head, and last time it was a Rod Stewart song and a Russian rap whose title roughly means, “Fuck you, biyotch.” It was terrible, a true torment. I’m not joking. Stop snickering. So this year I took drastic measures and stayed away from all music for a couple of days and ran a mantra in my head. Once we reached go-time, the mantra ran on an infinite loop all night and all day. Much better!
Strangely, I also had a couple of … “experiences.” It would be a stretch to call them visions, but during Cadre Edge’s first breath session I lost all sense of time and finitude for awhile and woke up (for lack of a better word) to an image of Shiva Nataraja dancing behind a very, very thin curtain. During the second session, which felt head-splitting (in a constructive way), I saw what I interpreted as Krishna in his cosmic form standing in front of the sun disk.
Fuel and hydration
I had the right idea but screwed up the execution by not drinking enough. As far as I can remember, the whole time I only drank 10L, even though I had access to more. That is about 25% less than I thought I would drink, and since my electrolytes were in my water, I wasn’t getting enough. Two or three times I cramped up suddenly and had to mooch some powder off of Mike the generous forester, who is no stranger to outdoor work and had electrolytes up the wazoo.
Nor was that the first time I have wound up short of electrolytes, so that is another item for my Never Again List.
Fueling went alright. Normally low-carb or downright keto, I planned to eat 25g of simple sugars per hour during the event. The idea is that because as a keto athlete you are fat-adapted, you can get away with eating half the carbs of a sugar-burner during a race and avoid GI trouble. And that worked perfectly. I got most of my calories from Tailwind powder dissolved in my water, supplemented with some caffeine additive and about ten tubes of GU. (Hint: Try the French toast flavor! I owe Lean Solid Girl big time for turning me on to those.)
In all, I ate about 3500 calories during the race, a little more than planned but with no ill effect at all. And according to my awesome Tanita scale, I used up a little under half of my body’s supply of fat and dropped from 12% to 7.5% body fat. That is instructive, because when camping I seldom take much food, instead subsisting mostly on bodyfat because it’s just so convenient to eliminate a lot of weight and bulk from my pack. That is one of the rewards of eating keto that compensate for the inconvenience. However, I can see that I’m not leaving myself much margin for safety in remote country. Since I like to camp far from human contact, where a broken leg could mean real trouble, I shouldn’t be quite so cavalier about relying on what turns out to be just a two-day supply of fat.
Heat and Cold
“Weather more than any other variable can break a motherfucker down fast.” –
This time I handled the weather much better, thanks again to Lean Solid Girl, who introduced me to the indispensability of a polypro base layer. On a couple of our misadventures, I ended the day soaked, cold, and even jackhammering while she stayed dry and happy. The difference? Polypro and Goretex. So I’ve made a standing rule that I must always have both in my pack.
That was good, because the oceanside wind was outrageous. If I had dressed as usual in short shorts and a cotton shirt, I would have been in trouble. I even got to see what would have been my fate. One of our teammates was very lightly dressed, and though he started the night as a top-level performer, come daylight I watched him drained of strength and awareness hourly as his body relegated him to “survival mode” and burned more and more of his precious energy just trying to keep his temperate stable. In the final half hour, I legitimately wondered if I was seeing a man swirling the drain into serious medical trouble. He had unbreakable mental fortitude and didn’t quit even when I thought he might pass out, but I was pleased not to be confronted with that choice.
This year I was forced to train much differently for the Heavy than planned.
I suffered an injury to one shoulder and both hands that ruled out some of the very training that I intended to rely on, namely pushups, heavy kettlebells (32 to 40kg), and carrying a 150# log or sandbag up hills.
However, the beauty of GORUCK events is that they are so complex and uncertain that they press you to go outside your specialties and train up your weaknesses. Strength athletes probably have years of catching up to do on the aerobic side. Bodyweight exercise studs who are great at burpees and pullups can work on the lateral plane by, say, farmer carrying 70 lbs. Gym dwellers can go outside and build up hiking mileage and dial in the 1,001 details of pacing, footwear, foot care, sun and wind exposure, chafe prevention, and fueling that only come into focus after 12 or 15 miles of walking.
So I worked around my injuries by getting under a rucksack for hours at a time. Knowing there would be a 12-mile (20km) timed ruck during the Heavy event, I did one almost every week. A big believer in the Maffetone method and long, slow distance (LSD), I rucked to work and the grocery store and anywhere else to build up a big base of easy volume. Once I could cruise 12 miles in 3 hours with no appreciable effort, I tried 24 miles (40km) and found that easy. While all that was going on, I sorted out numberless tiny but critical gear issues, like exactly which brand of socks to wear with which boots and when to change them, and how to set my pack straps for the most comfort.
I also made a point of acclimating to cold water and wind, since last time that was my big weakness. I began using the Wim Hof method, dousing myself with cold water outside every morning and swimming in cold water on hikes, to accustom myself to the cold and find out how water affected my gear. This was a huge success. I’ve always found cold weather refreshing and invigorating, and by these jumps in the creek I learned to stave off hypothermic “jackhammering” and prolong my enjoyment of the cold by continuing to breath smoothly. I also learned how to rewarm myself faster and how to avoid panic and keep moving when I did get irretrievably soaked far from shelter. And I also dialed in my fueling.
Luckily, I could still do just enough barbell work to keep my weight up. After 30 years of lifting weights, my superpower is that I can add muscle practically just by looking at a barbell. And though I’m pretty sick of barbells at this point in my life, and I’m very sick of the physiological stress of carrying extra muscle, Army researchers say you can ruck better when you have a lot of lean body mass. So I dutifully pumped myself up to 180 lbs. (82kg), where I competed in my bygone powerlifting days. This was a blow to my vanity, because at 180 I’m smooth, waterlogged, and thick-waisted—I look better on a beach at 160. However, I’m finally mature and smart enough not to screw around with my game plan on a whim, so I stayed the course.
In the last 5-6 weeks, I added even more rucking volume and hurriedly greased the groove in pullups and pushups as soon as my shoulder and hand pain finally abated. I deliberately overspent my recovery resources so that by the time I tapered ten days before the event, I’d definitely crossed into controlled overtraining. Throughout the entire taper I felt sluggish, thick, slow, and tired and only started to feel some energy on game day.
The D-Day Heavy Challenge is in the record books. Before I publish my AAR, this is what I packed.
Rocky S2V boots. I got these on Sgt. Šileika’s advice, and they were champs.
Originally I was planning on wearing my GORUCK MACV-1s, figuring “what could be better for an event than a boot made specifically for that event?” But they kept sliding me down hills, sporting less tread than some basketball shoes, and I had to retire them for safety reasons.
Finnish M05 liner socks. I’ve tried lots of socks, including expensive ones, and these are the winners. They’re also dirt cheap as wool socks go. I brought two extra pair and was very happy that I did so.
Fox River liner socks. Brought two extra pair of these too.
My beloved 70+ year-old Swedish LK-35, the “moose head” pack. This gorgeous old thing deserves a future post all its own.
Jellybro compression tights with built-in knee pads. Recently I’d skinned up both knees, so these were valuable. And I really appreciated the added warmth because the weather turned out much more severe than I’d expected. These were great.
Slingshot knee sleeve. This helped with stability for a knee I was worried about, but it had its drawbacks. More in the AAR.
Surplus British “combat shirt.” This is lightly padded, and I hoped it would protect my separated shoulder when carrying logs. However, I turned out not to need it and it pretty much stayed in my pack.
Surplus French nomex jacket that I used for a windbreaker.
Tailwind. The strategy was to get most of my calories from this. That was working OK, but I needed a denser mixture than the one I used (2 scoops per liter), and I needed more electrolytes too. More on this in the AAR.
GU. Lean Solid Girl turned me on to this stuff, drawing from her past as a marathoner, in one of several pivotal pieces of advice.
Hat and Gloves:
Rothco boonie hat. I’ve tried every boonie hat under the sun, and for me Rothco is the clear winner.
I meant to bring a fleece toque too, but I left it behind.
Mechanix gloves, of course. I tried replacing them with two kinds of German surplus gloves, but the Mechanix shine because they pull on and off quickly when my hands are wet.
6 spare feet of webbing. This routinely proves so valuable for carrying/lashing/repairing stuff that I’d call it one of my most valuable items.
DD waterproof bags, which are decent but don’t open and close as fast as I’d like. If you have a brand you like, please let me know.
Hommit hydration bladder. In hundreds of miles I’ve never had one break or even leak. I’m very happy with these and I’m sticking with them.
Petzl e+LITE head lamp. I don’t like headlamps on GORUCK events, so this little minimalist number is perfect, and despite its delicate looking appearance, it’s proved tougher than my Double Diamond headlamps.
The GORUCK Heavy Challenge is 10 days away. For the last month I’ve trained at extra-high volume, never very intensely but with all the miles and reps I can get in. It’s been a stretch, and I’m now definitely in a state of “overreaching,” where I’ve purposely trained a little more than I could recover from.
How do I know? I’ve got all the signs of overreaching or overtraining: poor sleep, outsized appetite, carb cravings, fatigue, irritability, inflammation and fatness, and a tiny muscle twitch in the corner of one eye.
Now I’ll abruptly stop all training right up until game day. In theory, I’ll now super-compensate for the excessive training and be stronger than ever on D-Day. I hope I’ve timed it right. I have a touch of what I now recognize as knee tendonitis, and though that isn’t so very surprising, I need to be diligent about giving it lots of TLC so that it will clear up quickly.