Without meaning to, this weekend I got to spend 48 hours in the field. A buddy and I planned a weighted ruck and gear test in the mountains, and we came home gloriously delirious and trashed, and just as I planned to slip into a hot bath, I got an opportunity to join a major search operation elsewhere in the mountains. So instead of a lavender-scented bath, I got a hasty resupply and a 3:00am departure. It was awesome!
Did it really count as being “in the field” for 48 hours, given that I made it home between the hike and the search? Not precisely, but my inner lawyer argues thus: “Yes, your honor, I did get one hot meal. But it was week-old ravioli re-heated in a microwave and eating standing up at 2am. And granted, I did sleep in a bed with sheets. But it was only for 2.5 hours and I was wearing dirty BDUs. And if the court will allow me to approach the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, they will find in my favor just based on how I smell.”
It was paradise, or some near-synonym that means “something gloriously horrible that you would like to do again soon.” And I learned tons, which I will dump out into print here:
1) Options for dressing for high heat
How should you dress for prolonged exercise in high heat? One school of thought says you should wear shorts and a tank top, like a marathoner, and be cooled by sweat and breezes. The other school says to protect yourself from radiant heat by covering up, like a farmer. Both philosophies make intelligent points and science has tried to adjudicate between the two philosophies. But the results are inconclusive.
So my hiking buddy and I ran an unscientific test of our own. We were the perfect pair of subjects: I like to hike in short shorts (though normally I wear long sleeves on top) and he is farmer and works every day covered up in hot sun. So I wore French surplus, which is the ideal type of the “sweat and breeze” approach, and he wore inexpensive technical pants and shirt, ably representing the “block the rays” approach.
On this particular hike, I was the lucky one. We walked in shade for much of the way, sparing me from a lot of radiant heat. And we were carrying moderately heavy weight (45 lbs./20kg for each) with significant climb, generating lots of body heat. We both agreed that I got the better bargain that day. Even with all of our huffing puffing, my body heat dissipated right away, his did not. And despite my exposed skin, I had the luxury of intermittent, partial shade; I did not have to provide all my own shade with my clothing.
Though I lucked out that day, I could also have lost under some circumstances. It is hard to be certain of the conditions you will find in an unfamiliar environment, and as Goggins says of environmental stress, “…more than any other variable [it] can break a motherfucker down fast.” From what I’ve experienced, people can compensate for heat and cold for a long time, but once we cross some threshold, we collapse suddenly and badly. Once that happens, we are so compromised that it’s extremely difficult to save the situation by our own actions.
So on training hikes like this, I might as well carry more gear. After all, once I’ve decided to haul 45# for the hell of it, there’s no reason I shouldn’t trade some of the steel plates or bricks for clothes, shelter-building supplies, batteries, tools, and three days of food instead. So my next experiment in romping will be to devise an easy on/easy off weight so that I can do my weighted rucks with my regular, homely, lovable, eminently useful SAR pack.
2) Map is not territory: On the search, I got lucky and was placed with one of our teams “tribal elders,” so to speak, who has half a lifetime of lessons to teach about searching. She pointed out how wrong the topographic lines on our maps were. The maps were composed from aerial photographs of the tree tops, she explained, and the cartographers’ (highly) educated guesses about the ground below. But they might have had no way to know about some deep, narrow fold in the earth that we were struggling across where the map showed no obstacle.
3) The compass is king: All of our search teachers emphasized map and compass skills, and early on they told us that the compass isn’t just an analog backup in case your GPS breaks. But only now have I come to understand why. First, my GPS is great at telling my location and my track, but it sucks at telling my direction. But more importantly, if I’m staring at my GPS unit, I’m not searching, I’m just walking. With a compass, I can set a heading, find a landmark to walk toward, and then keep my eyes up and moving. (Uncle Ron, one of our nav gurus, even teaches a clever, quick trick for laying your compass on top of your GPS screen and getting map bearings to a distant objective. Then you can put your GPS away, glance down at your compass only occasionally, and still arrive at your destination.)
Xenophon of Athens was a philosopher but no soft-handed coffeehouse bloviator. A student of Socrates, in 401 BC Xenophon enlisted in a mercenary army setting out to topple the sovereign of the Persian Empire. After their commander was killed, the fighting philosopher held the routed army together and led them into the Caucusus Mountains on a bitter campaign to fight their way back to their homes in Greece. Xenophon survived to record the story read by schoolboys ever since, the Anabasis. Roughly, it means “The Ascent” or “The March Up.”
I have a man-crush on Xenophon. When I was a student on winter break, I loved to cozy up by the fire and struggle through the Anabasis. I guess Xenophon is my fantasy alter-ego: the philosopher-survivalist. True, I am more Walter Mitty than Xenophon—I will not be remembered as either a great philosopher or a great adventurer and my tombstone will not say anything as cool as “Scholar and Mercenary”—but a man can have heroes to emulate, can’t he? I have at least earned a parchment declaring me Philosophiae Doctor and a lot of callouses and GORUCK patches, and with luck my tombstone won’t say “Ill-read and credulous, he was addicted to video games and porn.”
On that reduced scale, this weekend was my Anabasis. I did not swing a sword or run from angry Kurds, but I went up into some mountains, and holy crap was I tested.
For most of us, this trip was essentially a way to audition for the team’s Mountain Search & Rescue (MSR) unit. For me, it offered a hope of maybe finding a niche. In Search & Rescue (SAR) as a whole, I am still a back-of-the-pack performer and something of a late bloomer, lacking aptitude with technology and comms, vehicles and motor sports, or climbing or diving.
“But at least I can carry things!” I have consoled myself. “In austere environments, when there’s no truck or Sno Cat or helicopter to haul in the gear, I can prove my worth as the guy who can carry the medical bag, the extra ropes, the Pelican light—as much as they can pile on top of me, all night and all day!”
The plan for the weekend was simple. Charlie Rock, a granite-jawed old-timer whose demeanor marks him as surely as a facial tattoo reading “retired NCO,” would lead our merry band up to 9000 feet in two groups, day hikers and overnight campers. We would run rescue scenarios and gain some experience operating with improvised equipment at a height that you can begin to legitimately call “high altitude.”
The day hikers only planned to be out for a few hours and needed only light packs. They pranced up the mountain like fauns and snow nymphs. But I was there to camp overnight at altitude with Sgt. Rock, so I carried a tiny household on my back: snow shovel, tarp, tent, bivvy sack, sleeping bag, inflatable pads, field stove, mess kit, food, water, knife, and enough layers (I hoped) to keep me warm at night when the winds rose. My beloved Swedish rucksack, the tough old LK-70, could barely fit all my gear, so I MOLLE’ed on four extra canteen pouches. Last of all, on the shoulder straps I slotted two surplus grenade pouches (which are exactly the size of a GPS unit or a C-A-T tourniquet and a sunglasses case). I was ready to ruck!
At the staging point, it appeared that maybe I was packing more than the other campers, and this worried me a little. I inventoried my stuff against Charlie Rock’s packing list and, no, I’d brought almost nothing extra. In fact, I should have had less bulk than the others, because they all carried big sleeping pads lashed to the outside of their packs. I was the only one who had gone with inflatables.
I dismissed the apparently bigger size of my pack as probably just a visual trick of geometry. The others all had stretchy nylon packs that swell up into rounded lozenge shapes, I reasoned, but my LK-70 is a boxy, old-fashioned pack, a big canvas oblong on a rectangular metal frame, with a huge padded hip belt I’ve added for ultra distances. And then I’d added all the extra canteen pouches and covered the whole thing in a huge, oversized nylon ruck cover, light as a feather but almost big enough for a fitted sheet on a twin bed. That must be the difference, I supposed. My pack was angular and irregularly shaped. It just looked bigger. Right?
As soon as we stepped off, equipment started breaking and falling off me like jetsam from the space shuttle Challenger. I snapped the binding right off one snow shoe within the first 100 feet. See, my feet turn way out like a duck’s, straining any binding’s ability to hold onto my heels, and it seems that the more “teeth” a snowshoe has on bottom, the harder my duck feet torque them. Luckily, a good-natured fellow in the day hiking group lent me his, and I at least managed not to savage those.
However, I shortly broke my telescoping poles in two, and I missed them badly on steep, icy sections. We were ascending slopes with an average 10% grade, which slows you by a third to a half. Worse still was the ground surface, which army researchers studying march speed found to be the biggest factor. Sand slows you down appreciably, but snow is the worst. In 10 inches (25cm) of soft snow, they found that march time almost doubles. In our case, soft snow would have been a luxury. Since it’s been a dry winter, we were walking up icy, frozen slopes instead of soft powder. Only a couple guys had the foresight to bring mini-spikes, and under these conditions, snow shoes were almost worse than nothing.
As our footing got steeper and clumsier, I was amazed to find that I was gassing out. I’ve done romps up the Rock of Faeries in circumstances like these: no ninnyish trekking poles, just two feet on a narrow, washed out track on a hillside, with a backpack and a bonus item like a log or a 5-gallon water can. My trick is simply to go slowly, if necessary just one step at a time, and only breathe through my nose. If I have to breathe through my mouth, that’s the sign to throttle back, because mouth-breathing means you’re using emergency power. But I’d started mouth-breathing the moment the ground began rising, and the entire group was waiting for me.
This was not supposed to happen! In my self-conception, I am a mountain goat. I have little grace, athletic talent, or specialized SAR skill. “But at least,” I always consoled myself, “I can be Old Reliable, the never-quit guy who can schlep heavy gear cheerfully all day.” So it was a bitter pill that I now sucked, in public, at even the one small thing that I clung to as “my thing.”
Altitude was an issue, of course. I’d never experienced it and wasn’t expecting it to make a difference in a tame little national park so close to home. I figured altitude was only a factor if you were climbing Mt. McKinley or trekking in the Himalayas. So now I learned I’d been wrong.
But everyone else was breathing the same air as me. And now I was even lagging behind people in their sixties. WTAF?! Ok, they had poles and I didn’t, and possibly they got better use from their snow shoes. But those mishaps should only be enough to dial up the challenge level from “no biggie” to “interesting,” not enough to make me a wheezing wreck. And though I knew I was off my peak and hadn’t spent many miles under a rucksack lately, I was pretty sure I had more leeway than this between merely “off-peak” and “the fat kid from Goonies.” It’s not like I’d been huffing paint fumes and eating Oreo Burgers. So why me?!
I was beginning to form a guess. Nearby one of our group’s certifiable mountain badasses, The Spider, was flitting lightly around on cross-country skis like he was filled with f***ing helium. I turned and asked, “Dude, how much water do you have?”
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.
I only thought about quitting once, when I fell down a storm sewer.
I’d climbed a truly evil hill of densely packed million-dollar crackerbox houses, past homeowners leaving to go to the beach. One of them actually wore a t-shirt saying something like “Rucking is fun!” I didn’t stop to dispute the matter because I was huffing and puffing through my mouth, which is not a good sign, and trying to climb better by pushing my knees down with my hands. Way behind the clock, I couldn’t slow down because I was horrified to think that, after this ordeal that I’d prepared for for months, I might finish my 50 miles only to be disqualified for missing the 20-hour cutoff time.
When I rounded another turn, barely in control of my despair, things got worse: my road dead-ended. I should have been able to continue my wretched climb to yet another steep, God-forsaken road, but instead hit a nearly vertical wall of scrub, blocked 100 feet above by a solid wall of weathered, seven-figure rowhouses. Frantic not to have to descend the hill and try again, I hoped that in the cul-de-sac I’d find one of the staircases that sometimes let you dart from one San Francisco sidewalk straight up a hill to the next one. And indeed, there was a man-sized opening in the trees and a ramp! “A staircase!” I hoped, in a fevered delusion that must have been the navigational equivalent of a mirage where someone is sure he sees a Dr. Pepper machine in the desert.
In fact, it was an open storm sewer, steep and slippery with wet leaves, and instantly I fell on my ass and jetted to the bottom as if on a water slide. They don’t exactly design these things for convenient egress, and if I didn’t look like a filthy urchin before, in my sandy canvas ruck and piss-soaked tights, I now looked like some paleozoic amphibian in an alluvial marsh. Holding onto saplings for lack of footing, I got back out onto the cul-de-sac, hoping no one was calling the police, and felt very sorry for myself.
In these moments, however, we can feel buoyed by the strangest occurrences. I received a text that the cadres wanted me to check in with them, now that I’d pushed on alone so that they’d know I hadn’t, well, disappeared down a storm sewer.
I texted back, “Last survivor of Team OCRFitClub rucking the motherf*** out of this. Faithful GF is crewing and making sure I don’t get cannibalized by Nancy Pelosi.” Instantly they shot back, “Right on!” and with that tiny spark of encouragement, they reignited my morale like an oil refinery on fire. I was burning up the road again, supercharged by Lean Solid Girl’s supply drops of coffee and bananas, which hit me like angel dust and jet fuel. Something possessed me to belt out the band Lyube’s hard rock version of the Russian national anthem. (It’s a David Rigert thing. Don’t try to make sense of it.) I was flying high and going to make it. I knew that not as a mathematical conclusion—I actually had little idea how many miles still lay ahead—but as a moral certainty. I could not be stopped.
I’ve put this experience in my “cookie jar,” the name Goggins that gives to the container of memories of past ordeals and triumphs that we reach into when demoralized. “Every time I get … the ‘woe is me’ mentality,” he writes, “… I go into my cookie jar and pull out a memory to remind myself that I am a fucking badass. I put it back in the cookie jar and remember who the fuck I really am.” I had climbed Mt. Davidson in despair and self-pity, behind the clock and hopeless, but I got back in the game with not just the hope of victory but the certainty that I would make it happen.
Newly confident, I started to take in the bigger picture. Much bigger. I am one of those people who waxes sentimental and philosophical on airplanes. At 30,000 feet, I am keenly aware that I am vulnerable and kill-able, riding on thin sheets of aluminum that could fail. We are ephemeral creatures, living out a gnat-like life span on a small ball of rock flying through the vacuum of space. Our bodies are soft, hairless, vulnerable, and dependent. Outside a narrow band of temperature and atmosphere with nutrition and hydration every few hours, they die. And I, personally, will die. “Am I preparing for that?” I wondered on Moraga Ave. “Am I doing the right things now so that I can go with an easy heart, sincerely thinking ‘I am glad because I lived well?’” On these long marches, it seems to be a pattern that I take stock of my life, try to get ready for its end, and sometimes have fleeting encounters with the divine in which, as one friend says, “the veil is thin.”
Two Is One, One Is None
By this time, Lean Solid Girl was running the show from inside her Toyota Prius as de facto team leader. At any moment I only knew my next turn, nothing more. I’d relinquished any sense of an overview because I was moving much too fast now (and feeling too loopy) to keep poring over maps. We were coordinating perfectly: Lean Solid Girl would tell me the next waypoint and what to photograph and then I would plot a route and beat feet. Sometimes we leap-frogged each other in traffic, and when I reached the next destination, I would spot the blue Prius somewhere tucked into one of the parking spots that were becoming scarcer as we reached the center of San Francisco. Then I might dart over for a hurried conference and a hit of what I now thought of as “Ruck Meth”—coffee and a banana—and then streak off again like a (stocky, slightly limping) cheetah.
For the first time in over 12 hours I saw another Goruck team and felt terribly pleased with myself as I bulled past them, imagining them thunderstruck by the sonic boom that I must surely be leaving in my wake on my way to victory.
However, if I was a jet plane, at that moment the wings peeled off. As I scorched pridefully past the other team and checked my route, I noticed my screen dimming. I had only 4% battery left!
That morning when I’d said goodbye to the rest of the team, I had no external phone battery of my own and, a newb to smart phones, no grasp of how much power I was burning up using two navigational apps, Instagram, phone, and text non-stop. I should have begged their batteries off them, even if it meant swimming across San Francisco Bay to return them the next day. Because at the very moment that I waved off from them without extra batteries, in reality my race was finished.
Now, five hours later, I only had time to type “Battery running on fumes” to Lean Solid Girl before the faithful, obsolescent Samsung breathed its last.
You can judge my state of mind by the fact that I did not see this as a huge problem, just one more obstinate barrier that would fall before my determination. Lean Solid Girl was running the whole show anyway—the All-Seeing Eye, I thought of her—and she still had her phone. I would rely on her directions blindly, meet her at the next point and borrow her phone’s camera, and stay in the fight.
Evaluating that objectively now, that was daylight madness. It took only five minutes more for the whole enterprise to crash. Within moments, I had misinterpreted Lean Solid Girl’s directions and rushed hopelessly off course, not even knowing what my next waypoint was (!!), as that information too was entombed inaccessibly in the dead phone.
We were now two people separated in a crowded city with no agreed rally point, and even if a miracle occurred and we found each other, I would never get back on course in time. From the beginning, to have any chance at all I had to average 4 mph, which is a good clip even when you’re fresh, and I would still have had to finish at a dead run to get there in time. No, my race was over now, even if I had Bill Gates’ own phone and a shopping cart full of batteries.
I beseeched friendly-looking passers-by to send an “I’m OK” message to Lean Solid Girl for me, but the good people of Presidio Terrace gave wide berth to the vagabond in the strange ensemble of canvas, camouflage, and running tights smelling of rancid urine.
I can scarcely bear to recount the heartbroken march back to the start point, where I could borrow a phone. I knew roughly where to go—north toward the water—but I could only move my feet so fast, as if I were walking in an ankle-deep mud made of disappointment, self-disgust at my bad planning and the betrayal of months of preparation because I cheaped out on batteries, despair at the futility of coming this far for nothing, the black depression that is natural after multiply compounded exhaustion, and gawping disbelief that I had taken a challenge that is physically not a huge deal and still fucked it up. Even now, words fail me.
There is no happy ending to this story, not yet. I am not interested in self-soothing platitudes about how giving it your best is the true success. It is too late in my life to lie to myself. I failed, period. I have analyzed the failure as honestly as I could stomach. (One lesson: I am frugal, and I chose to cheap out on batteries. If I decide to cheap out on something, I must be able to say to myself, “I am being offered insurance here, and I’m choosing not to buy it.” In this case, I would have bought the ‘insurance.’)
But in lieu of a happy ending, I am proud to report that I am doing it all over again in two weeks, in Seattle, with The Smiling Irishman. Lean Solid Girl is insane, because against my advice but to my very great joy, she is going too, to crew up with Lady Irish in a rental car full of socks, batteries, bananas, and brain power.
And if this doesn’t work, there’s always Dallas. And Nashville. And Philadelphia. And Los Angeles. And Oklahoma City. And Atlanta. And Huntsville. And Chicago. And Cleveland. And Boston. And Charlotte. And Des Moines. And Saint Louis.
“True will power: I’m going to fucking fail, I’m going to fucking fail, I’m going to fucking fail, and I will succeed.”
GORUCK sometimes calls the Star Course their hardest event. I doubt that very much, but this was the toughest I’ve done. I expected that after my surprisingly grueling training hike, but I was still surprised by the added burden of route-finding and the premium put on strategy and organization.
Early in the night, we emerged from a dark trail above the ocean and stumbled upon a throng of people clustered busily around a brightly lit SUV in what appeared to be a news shoot or a crime scene investigation. I was wrong: it was a rival team on the Star Course with a logistical crew that looked like it belonged on the Tour de France. All five doors were open, with light streaming out, and pallets of bottled water and food were broken open and passed out in an atmosphere of calm but rapid efficiency. Next to the vehicle, a woman held up an iPad showing a countdown timer with bright red numbers four inches high. When I walked past, still gaping, they had 0:58 seconds left on their clock. When I reached the next block and looked back, the entire scene had evaporated like a mirage.
With or without a backup crew, a team must assign positions to its members and carry out three key functions:
Walking: Each person must walk for him- or herself, but also somebody has to be certain the group is moving fast enough to adhere to their game plan.
Navigating: As one cadre has said, “You live and die by your route.” At least one person must eye this at all times. In addition to route-finding, sometimes the team might be trying to walk an unmarked footpath in complete darkness and need additionally a sort of “point man” just to figure how to keep to the path from one footstep to the next.
Communicating: This involves both running Instagram and talking with your backup crew, if you have one. On the Star Course, from each waypoint the team must post an Instagram selfie against a specified background (e.g. “Make sure your photo includes the inscription over the gate”) with a specified hashtag. When you are tired, it takes concentration to get these details right and run Instagram with your face in your smudged, grimy screen while speed-walking. Additionally, if you are lucky enough to have friends in a car bringing you supplies, it can be harder than you think to coordinate time and location with them, especially on a nice Saturday morning in city streets, parks, and local attractions, when the city is teeming with traffic, tourists, pedestrians going to brunch, and rollerbladers and cyclists enjoying the sunshine. (This is also why your backup crew really needs two people in the car, one to coordinate with you so that the other can concentrate exclusively on driving safely.)
At a minimum, you want to divide these responsibilities between two people at a time, and more would be even better. When things are busy, you might need separate people handling the phone and Instagram, and in bad navigation conditions it can help to have one person handling the route-finding software, a second person checking their work on Google Maps, and a third person on point who strains their eyes to find the pathway in darkness and rain.
That may sound exaggerated, but on Saturday I was trying to conduct all the functions alone, when I was the last surviving member of my team, and I scarcely had enough fingers to operate Road Warrior, Google Maps, phone, text, Insta, and the “hit list” of way point instructions. In fact, I could barely walk right, between fatigue and having my head bent down the whole time, peering at a grungy screen through sweaty lenses.
The only reason that I continued to function at all was that Lean Solid Girl staged the most heroic performance I’ve yet seen or heard of. Like a thousand-armed bodhisattva who appears in many places simultaneously, she kept driving ahead to scout out waypoints, talk me through the required photos and tags, and sometimes just took over Instagram entirely so I would only have to navigate. One moment she was pulling alongside and passing coffee through her car window, the next she was texting me with a route correction, then she materialized again at my waypoint with her camera ready to snap, and then she would vanish into traffic again. I can barely remember Saturday morning because of brain fog, but by that point it was Lean Solid Girl who had assumed the position of leader of my stumbling team-of-one. She had taken on as much of the navigation and communication functions as it was possible for a supernumerary to do, and I was basically just executing Function #1, walking.
In our conclusion, a dramatic fall, two heartbreaks, a victory, “the cookie jar,” and what it feels like to be homeless.
“Amazing!” I thought. “If you piss yourself in black running tights, it just looks like sweat!” At least to the casual observer. I was hobbling at top speed through a raunchy part of the Mission district that could have been in a documentary called Dirty Harry’s San Francisco, and fully a quarter of the men there also reeked of urine, so why not me?
This was the infamous Star Course, a 50-mile (80km) ruck race. In teams of two to five, athletes find their way on foot to a long list of waypoints in any order they choose and report back to the start point within 20 hours.
At 10am and still only halfway through the course, I was now alone and behind schedule. I had begun the previous night before in a team of four. We had walked through the night down the cliffs and beaches of San Francisco to an old missile base-turned-park 25 miles away, but near first light the team was in trouble. The others had run a half-marathon a couple weeks before and then put their house on the market that very day. They decided to brave the race anyway, but they were starting out on half a tank at best and withdrew once they knew they couldn’t make the 20-hour cutoff time.
I was marching on alone, still energetic but far behind schedule, but that was not my real problem. No, far worse was that I faced a return trip of 25 miles in broad daylight and needed to drink water by the liter with virtually no bathrooms. Well, more accurately, no bathrooms that would be open to me and—now that every single second mattered—without deviating off course every hour, maybe buying something, and waiting in a line.
I was seized by the full horror of the problem soon after I gulped down a cup of coffee brought by the angelic Lean Solid Girl. I bottoms-upped a venti breakfast blend without breaking step and felt like a million bucks for about ten minutes, when I understood that I had swallowed a time bomb. In fact, more like a grenade with no pin. In the distance I spotted a baseball diamond and ran for it, but I was much, much too late. There was only time to make sure that the man walking the Boston terrier did not witness my humiliation.
And then it was over. Taking stock of my situation, I found it not all that bad. Yes, I had pissed in my own clothes in public view, but on the plus side, I no longer had to go to the bathroom. Also, I would be walking along I-280, under bridges and into San Francisco, where people defecate on sidewalks so routinely that there is a specialized navigational app to help the discriminating pedestrian avoid human excreta. No one would look twice at a homeless-looking man in a motley ensemble of dirty military surplus and tights soaked with what might or might not be sweat. For sheer human deviance, I might as well have been in the Times Square of the pre-Giuliani years, except that in kindly San Francisco people would be too polite to stare or comment if they suspected my true condition.
And suspect they did. I am certain of it. The elderly Chinese woman walking near the underpass had clearly seen a few things in her time and knew something was up with my tights. The charming French couple at the Moraga Steps seemed to smile a little tensely as I approached. But so what? I would never see any of them again, and now that whole problem was solved. It really is true that once the bounds of decency are first broken and a taboo is ignored, further inhibition collapses swiftly and totally. I would refine my technique a bit, making sure that both legs appeared equally “sweaty” and keeping as much as possible out of my boots, but I was back in the race. I still had to navigate 20 more miles in 5 hours and hit ten more waypoints, but I had moved the dial back down from Completely Hopeless to just Almost Definitely F***ed.
To prep for the (in)famous Star Course, I tried a 42-mile ruck march.
I’d read one man’s AAR suggesting that in training you aim for 40 miles (64km) in something close to 10 hours, and on paper that sounded almost reasonable. It’s only 15 minutes per mile, right? Heck, I’ve motored along at that speed in perfect contentment for plenty of 12-mile marches with a 30# pack. So with just 20# dry (not even 10kg), wouldn’t I cover at least the first half of my journey at that pace? And if I allowed myself a full 12 hours, plus an extra hour for lunch, that would be almost leisurely! Right?
That was HUBRIS, and I got punished! Instead of treading a merry 13 hours, I slogged out a tough 15½ hours, and rather than a carefree and gay picnic walk, at times it felt like a death march.
This was a major lesson in all the factors that can slow a march down. Let me count the ways!
What I Did Badly
First was my own poor condition. I’d been training hard, demanding a lot of my foot muscles (which work overtime in yoga and kettlebell lifting too), and the day before my ruck romp, I’d had a small migraine that I tried to cure by testing my rep max in the kettlebell snatch. (That worked pretty well, by the way.) Coupled with a 4am wakeup, it’s little surprise that I felt like hell when I started my walk, and it slowed me down. By mid-morning I was already an hour behind schedule. And that was before other adverse conditions started piling up.
What other adverse conditions? Next was the heat, which is my personal kryptonite. I’m stocky and descended entirely from Northern European bog dwellers. Even in modest heat, a full sun clobbers me like an axe.
I made some poor nutrition choices too. Normally in these long events, I thrive on a scant 25g of carbs per hour and, being keto-adapted, I draw the rest of my calories from body fat. It’s a trick I got from ultra champ Zach Bitter and it makes me immune to the usual nausea and GI trouble of endurance events. But on this morning I treated myself to a big, sugary frozen mocha, and it was way too much carbs and gook. I’ll spare you, gentle reader, an account of the results and just summarize them as “sub-optimal.” Lesson: Just 25g of carbs per hour.
By my choice of routes, I also gave myself a (poorly timed) lesson in how much you can be slowed by terrain. The Army has researched rucking speed and found that, even more than pack weight, you’re slowed by factors as mundane as the ground’s surface. And elevation gain is another biggie. When climbing a 10% grade, you cut your speed in half. (EDIT: Researcher Adam Scott finds that it’s only a one-third reduction.)So on one steep 4-mile stretch, I climbed for almost two hours.
Nor did I factor in stream crossings. Foot care guru John Vonhof insists that you remove shoes and socks at streams, carry them across, and dry your feet before putting them on again. I did this each time, dutifully but grudgingly, but I ate up nearly an hour and disliked feeling my way painfully across the stream bottom in sore, bare feet. Lesson: Bring water shoes and a microfiber hand towel. On trips where I’ll recross the stream at the same point, I can even stash them near the crossing to wait for my return trip.
Finally, maybe it wasn’t the best idea to wear brand-new boots. Though they didn’t need much breaking in, they still required time-consuming experimentation on the trail, trying different combinations of socks, liner socks, and lacing.
However, there was one thing about these boots that was a godsend: they’re actually big enough! My toes have never been so free. I owe this too to John Vonhof, whose simple trick is to remove the insoles from your shoes, set them on the ground, and stand on them. If your feet lap over the insoles at any point, or even touch the edge, the shoes are too small. That’s how I went from a size 9.5 to a 10.5 Wide!
What Went Great
Aerobic base: Aerobically this trip posed little challenge. As in all my training, I throttled back enough to stay within my “MAF” heart rate (“max aerobic function”). And even on such a long ruck, I found, as long as I stay within my MAF heart rate, I can put my legs on cruise control and motor along indefinitely. My feet might get sore, but my heart and lungs can hack it just fine.
Electrolytes: At long last, I didn’t cramp! I can’t take credit for this. The unsurpassable Lean Solid Girl met me at my turnaround point with a princely feast of burritos, trail mix, cold drinks, and (best of all) electrolytes.
Blisters: I only got one blister, on my heel. Zero blisters would be better, but I’ll take this as a victory considering this was a distance PR in boots that were new out of the box.
The Great Takeaway
I didn’t quit. That’s the great takeaway. At 5:30am, only 5 minutes into the day, I still had a lingering headache from the day before, felt like hell, and had no spring in my step, and I thought, “I picked an awful day to do this. It will be amazing if I actually finish 40 miles today.” And I was right on both counts: it was terrible timing–WTH kind of plan is “be sick all day, then max out on snatches, and then do 40 miles the next day?!”–and it’s amazing to me that I finished it. I should have rescheduled–stupid stuff is stupid, and it would have required effort to choose a worse day for this. But once I (foolishly) committed to it and decided to stick with the (dumb) plan, it was almost a certainty that I’d finish–eventually–as long as I didn’t quit.
And that, friends, is the big lesson. (Cue the “rousing emotional crescendo music!”) It seems that in an event like this–a low-intensity slog played out over a very long time–there’s almost no way to suck so much that you can’t finish. There’s no opponent to KO you, pin you, or steal the ball, and you need zero coordination or athletic talent–it’s just walking. Physically the demands aren’t even very intense or the perils great: you won’t get a concussion or cascade off the side of Mount Everest. You can suck as much as you want for as long as you want, but unless you decide to quit (or you get abducted off the road by a UFO), you are pretty much assured of succeeding eventually. As Goggins says, “No talent required.”