Assembling the Dream Team: Seattle GORUCK Star Course AAR, Pt. 1

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.

Mile 43. Imagine what I smell like. Now think, “Who would fly to another city, snatch a few hours’ sleep, and then muster at dawn to deliver breakfast burritos and put their arm around a sweaty, malodorous neck?” Case closed.

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.

Lady Irish, the crew car wheelman, saves us a full mile by getting us through the boat locks. In all, we saved at least 7 miles that day by having a crew who worked the computer and improved our route.

Read Part 2 here.

Gear Check

Final installment in my after-action report from the GORUCK D-Day Heavy Challenge.

The faithful, indomitable, light, nimble “Moose Head” rucksack. I love this thing. Made in the 1930s, it was intended by the Swedes as a cheap mass-production item for hurriedly equipping a big army that Germany would choose not to tangle with. Eighty years later, with just a little sewing, it’s my favorite pack.

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.

5. Tights: Goofy yoga shorts are still great, but in water and wind, I was even happier with running tights. Even better, mine had built-in knee pads.

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.

Dumb Ideas

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.

GORUCK Heavy Challenge: The Prelude

What my training was supposed to look like…

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. 

… And this. But unfortunately kettlebells were pretty much a no-go while I rehabbed my shoulder and thumbs.

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.

This is the face of LSD (long, slow distance).

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.

Last year I feared cold water like the icy shroud of encroaching death–and that’s not rhetorical embroidery. Since then I’ve regarded cold more in Wim Hof’s way. He says, “To me, God is cold. I do not only endure the cold. I love the cold.”

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. 

More to follow in the actual AAR, coming shortly.

GORUCK Heavy Challenge Loadout

The D-Day Heavy Challenge is in the record books. Before I publish my AAR, this is what I packed.

Feet:    

  • 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.

Pack:

  • My beloved 70+ year-old Swedish LK-35, the “moose head” pack. This gorgeous old thing deserves a future post all its own.

Legs: 

  • 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.

Shirts: 

  • British surplus Underarmor-type base layer. 
  • Surplus German cotton quarter-zip. I LOVE these things!!!
  • 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.

Food: 

  • 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.

Miscellaneous:

  • 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.

GORUCK Heavy SitRep

I am 20 days out from the “GORUCK Heavy” event. Normally I reserve this blog for content that I think will have general interest, not “training log” entries. But this month will be a little different, as I leave a sort of memo for my future self, and this post is a snapshot of my training right now.

What is a “GORUCK Heavy Challenge?”

For 24 hours, you and a team carry backpacks full of bricks and various sandbags or logs, with assorted calisthenics mixed in and periodic plunges into cold water. If I’m not mistaken, the evening begins with a PT test (a timed run, pushups, situps, and maybe pullups), followed by a timed 12-mile march. After that, a vomitous PT beat-down sardonically called the “welcome party.” And then you march around together carrying stuff for the remainder of the 24 hours. Typically the team covers 40 miles and the completion rate is 50%.

Last year I did a shorter version of this, called the “GORUCK Tough,” that lasted only 12 hours. All of our people completed the event.

Diet

Last year I trained in full ketosis and only started eating M&Ms and the extremely awesome caffeinated German military chocolate during the event. This year I’m follow low-carb endurance champ Zach Bitter’s approach instead, allowing myself 15-30% carbs to support a high training volume in this last month. When I start my taper, on about D-7, I’ll go back into ketosis and stay there except for a wee little carb load on D-2 and D-1.

Resistance training

Last year I competed at 162 lbs. and 9% bodyfat. For me that’s tiny. This year, I was persuaded that muscle mass pays in ruck marching so I decided to carry an extra 10 lbs. of muscle. As of today, I’m 175 lbs. at 11% bodyfat and I’ll probably stay right here. 

I got both arms injured in a car accident, and they’re only now returning to something like normal, so I feel that I’m behind on resistance training. I’m relying on GTG and ladders for pushups and pullups, and a few days a week I do one high-rep set of 16kg kettlebell snatches if joint health permits. (If you’re not familiar with GTG and ladders, stay tuned. I’ll cover them soon for the “lazy strength” series.)

Aerobic training

Amazingly, right now this is my strong suit. For months I’ve been racking up lots of volume, roughly using Stu Mittleman’s approach. (I’ll cover this soon too.) Most of it has been actual ruck marching, including lots of 12-mile rucks and one 24-miler, but there’s been some variety too: a little biking and running and sometimes wearing ankle weights. (Since the upcoming event will start with a 2-mile run, during the next couple weeks I’ll have to practice a few of those, just so that my ankles and calves remember what to do.)

Recovery

My recovery stinks. Rectifying that has to be Priority #1. April is my busiest month and my sleep schedule was torn to shreds. For the remainder of this month, lights-out is 10pm.

Retro in the Snow

When Lars Grebnev at Survival Russia talks, I listen.

First he got me into jackboots, which I like more all the time because they’re weather- and terrain-proof. On slippery rocks, in muck, over a gravelly boulder-scape, in a calf-high stream, the jackboots keep you stable and dry. This time I tried them with snowshoes. My cheapo, old-fashioned 1980s Swedish army snowshoes were not exactly high-performance dynamos, but the $20 East German jackboots kept me warm, dry, and comfortable all day.

Tip for you jackbooted thugs out there: boot grease really works. It’s cheap and takes two minutes to apply, and it makes these things truly waterproof.

Lars was also right about old Scandinavian wool. For cold weather, he’s remarked, you’d do very well to find Scandinavian surplus from the 1960s or before. It dates from a time when armies lived outdoors for long periods of time and they made clothes that were supremely warm and durable, in a way that isn’t true of modern stuff.

Through the awesome Surplus City, I found some old wool trousers that came along with me on the snowshoeing trip, and I think the world of them. Apparently these Nordic folks really know a thing or too about cold. I felt like I had a warm lamb wrapped around each leg.

They’re also very comfortable to wear with a pack because they’re high-waisted. My rucking guru Sgt. Šileika told me to expect this: the extra length of old-fashioned, high-waisted trousers protects you from chafing, and since they use suspenders rather than a belt, you don’t get flesh pinched between the top of your pants and the hip belt of your pack. Much more comfortable!