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!
Today’s game was to test out rain gear on a 3-mile ruck romp with Lean Solid Girl and our team weight, the Canadian Brick Bag (CBB), a sturdy canvas antique loaded with 35# of bricks.
The rule was that the bag had to be carried in one hand at all times, by either one of us, and could not touch the ground unless one of us was doing weighted pushups.
I was testing the reputed king of rain ponchos, issued (like so much of my favorite gear) by Germany’s exquisitely equipped Bundeswehr. The “BW-poncho” doesn’t have the hobbit-like appeal of my Soviet plash-palatka, because it closes at the sides rather than the front, but that produces a wonderful advantage: it gives you makeshift sleeves, instead of just an arm hole like its Soviet cousin, and keeps you sealed up and wonderfully dry.
Except for your legs. I wanted to make this a pure test of the BW-poncho, so I wore no other rain gear, just a cotton shirt and khaki pants. The rain rolled down the poncho but then directly onto my shins. That’s no knock on the poncho—not a drop of water wandered inside—it just means that you need rain pants.
As it happened, Lean Solid Girl was testing the REI Talusphere Women’s Rain Pants, which she rated as excellent. The pants got a good soak but kept LSG dry. She appreciates particularly that REI sizes these like the Austrian Bundesheer, with separate length options within each size, and the pants stretch a little so that they fit closely and do not swish much, making them “not only functional but flattering.”
Our other takeaway was that the Canadian Brick Bag is a delight. Thirty-five pounds is a serious encumbrance when you have to carry it suitcase-style, but it’s light enough that by trading it back and forth between hands and between teammates, you can carry it indefinitely. All it needs is a pair of gloves and/or some padding on the handle to keep it from grinding up your fingers.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.”
I have lots of surplus packs, but there are two that I love and cherish. For big jobs, I have a version of the legendary Swedish LK-35. For everything else, I carry the nimble, gorgeous Swedish M39, the “Moose Sack.”
Like in Switzerland, Sweden’s neutrality is very much an armed neutrality. Even though Sweden did not fight WWII, they kept over half a million men under arms. And since the Swedes knew a thing or two about the outdoors, Erik and Oskar were issued a rucksack that is a work of genius. You can recognize it anywhere by the strange, perforated, leather-covered crescent shape at the top, which is a godsend for comfort.
As its backbone it has a peculiar X-shaped frame. It holds the pack close to your back without quite touching, and the top of the pack moulds itself over your shoulders, so it is pleasant to carry and makes you feel quick and light. In addition, the pack “grabs” the body firmly and stays put, with minimal slipping, flopping, or bouncing. On a heavy march, that saves energy because you don’t have to hold the pack still. And it feels more ergonomic and somehow more agile than something with a rectangular frame. You can also adjust the ride height and even the spacing of the straps on your shoulders!