General Disservice: The Comedy of Britain’s Lost Generation of Personal Gear

Part II of our series, “Sherpas of the Desert: How South Africa Mastered Rucking in Dry Heat.”

Imagine your daughter is a figure skater with Olympic potential. She needs new skates. Should you spend money now on a good pair that she will outgrow? Or should you gamble for now on budget skates while you save money?

Now imagine you’re also worried that, with the right skates, your daughter might overthrow the British government and declare martial law.

This was the predicament that Britain faced with its load-carrying gear and mishandled farcically. And here we will begin our story of South Africa’s contrasting success in developing its really ingenious gear. Because South Africa made it look so easy, we can only appreciate their achievement by comparing it to the contemporaneous British effort, which advanced as quickly and decisively as an elderly person working at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles while also having a stroke.

This guy is wearing a shovel from his head to his bum, so he’s only smiling because he was ordered to. The Brits still had some people wearing this stuff right into the Seventies.

Britain in the Seventies was less a land of hope and glory than one of stagflation and dinginess, and its standard of living had fallen to the second-lowest in Europe.

The British government was slashing its military in size and kind. They scaled down their commitments and forces, closed bases, withdrew garrisons, and shrank the order of battle. The Navy was even made to auction off its two remaining aircraft carriers.

And to the forces that survived the cuts, the government also gave less of everything: less materiel, less training time, and less new equipment.

And quite apart from the bad budgetary climate, the Army was suspected and feared by the Labour government of Harold Wilson, who sincerely thought it might be plotting to depose him in a military coup. He was not in a mood to strengthen their hand any further.

Another R&D fiasco from austerity Britain, “a scandal of plastic and metal” and “perhaps the worst modern military rifle.”

In this atmosphere of desperation, like a drought in which gaunt, delirious animals gather round the shrinking water hole, you did not have to look far for quixotic absurdities of governance and management. The Army badly needed to replace its huge main battle rifle with a smaller, modern gun, but it was condemned to wait for a slow-growing monstrosity designed by engineers who (and this is true) had never even fired a rifle before, much less engineered one from scratch. After a decade, what they finally got was the L85A1, widely deemed “perhaps worst modern military rifle” and “a scandal of plastic and metal.”

In the Fifties, the British Army stole this kid’s knapsack and made their poor soldiers wear it for the next 30 years.

But for us, dear reader, what’s relevant is that the Brits needed better load-carrying gear, but they weren’t getting it. During this period, they probably cared less about rucksacks than almost anything else on their very long list of problems. Certainly nobody in the Ministry of Defence was having urgent meetings about backpacks.

So some British soldiers were still stuck with gear from the 1930s. Even Britain’s “newest” gear, adopted in 1958, still hadn’t changed much from World War II. Made of heavy, uncomfortable canvas, it gave soldiers two inconveniently-shaped “kidney pouches” and a 3’ shovel running between them down their backs, and perched atop this awkward Tin Man suit was a small haversack that looks like the ones in mawkish Norman Rockwell paintings of Boy Scouts.

If ever there was a thankless task, this was it. It fell to the “Stores and Clothing Research & Development Establishment” (SCRDE) to consult all the many, many, many stakeholders around Britain’s disintegrating planet-wide empire and get them all to agree on one set of equipment.

Many Masters, Many Disasters: The Problem With Committees

Compromising between just two things is pretty do-able. The Kalashnikov successfully combined the roles of the sub gun and rifle. In PLA nomenclature, it was actually classified as a submachine gun (冲锋枪).

Committees suck. It’s possible for two people to compromise and balance two competing interests. Three is a lot harder. And at four or more, you start getting “solutions” that are nothing of the sort. Everyone sacrifices and dislikes the end product. 

And when bosses try to devise something “universal” for all use-cases, it is easy to fail at all of them. The famous US example is the M14 rifle, which tried to do the work of a submachine gun, a rifle, and a light machine gun (!) and ended up sucking at all of them. 

(The Communist Bloc did much better with the Kalashnikov, where the undisputed masters of “satis-ficing” and economizing combined the roles of rifle and submachine gun only. And very successfully.)


The US Army’s infamous “universal camouflage pattern” (UCP). Meant to camouflage people in any environment, it actually made them glow in all environments.

And as anyone knows who has served on a large enough committee, institutions can be very dumb, even ones comprising only exceptional people, when they are thrust into absurd circumstances. And certainly, if you were made responsible for the suffering British military’s rucksacks and load-carrying gear in this period, you were definitely dropped into the soup.

The poor British designers were pulled in a half-dozen directions by different constituencies. The lightly equipped foot patrols in Northern Ireland needed something different than the heavy, mechanized infantry defending Germany. Then there were the jungle fighters in the Far Eastern Land Forces, who wanted smaller packs that could fit through brush and foliage lining a narrow trail in the bush. And the Arctic fighters wanted much bigger packs for all their bulky cold weather gear. But the parachutists wanted packs short enough to jump with, which militated against the long, tall design favored by the Arctic guys. 

US Army researchers offered some decent, scientifically tested options. But instead, the Army adopted an untested fourth suited only to operating in strip mall furniture showrooms offering easy credit.

And that was just the infantry! There were all the other branches like armor, artillery, and signals. They would have to use this “general service” stuff too, and they didn’t want all the attention going to the infantry, since they had needs of their own. For instance, the one thing that pretty much all the infantry guys agreed on was that they loved framed packs. Finally, some consensus! But then the tankers weighed in: they hated frames. They wanted a pack they could cram into a Challenger tank’s few empty nooks.   

Starting in the Middle

Worse still, the designers at SCRDE weren’t told quite what they were designing for. They needed to allow for future developments in body armor, but no one could predict what those would be. Same for “NBC” equipment, protection against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. How were they supposed to design equipment to hold other equipment that was still TBD and also not get in the way of the hypothetical future body armor that also didn’t exist yet?

Worse still, they knew the Army was changing rifles in a few years, meaning different ammunition, magazines, tactics, and heaven-knows-what else. So the designers knew that whatever load-carrying gear they made now would soon be obsolescent.

Variously called the Pattern 58 Mk II or the experimental 1975 pattern, this was the same 50s design with better fabric. In the end, the troops didn’t even get this consolation prize, because #budget.

So after years of temporizing, the developers decided to forget about anything ambitious. Instead they proposed a temporary measure. In the terms of the figure skating analogy, they proposed a cheap pair of temporary skates.

For web gear–the belts and suspenders that hold the most important items–they whipped up a batch of their same old 1950s gear, but in place of the old heavy duck canvas they substituted modern materials like nylon. In this way, the designers hoped they could help the squaddies through the next few years. The guys in the field would still be saddled with the weird kidney pouches and shrimpy knapsack, but at least it wouldn’t be made of smelly, waterlogged cotton. And sure enough, even though it was  a consolation prize, in trials the squaddies in the field appreciated that at least it was lighter, more waterproof, and cooler than their sweaty canvas.

But the Ministry’s money people still said no. Try to guess the reason … It was just a temporary measure and didn’t improve much on the old design! So now, after ten years of research and development, there was still no tangible progress, nor even any decisive choices. Back to another ten years of smelly, wet canvas for Tommy and the squaddies.

The Rucksack War

Hilarity ensued over the issue of rucksacks in particular. The plucky designers bravely threw themselves at their task, which was essentially “design a rucksack to unknown specifications so that it costs virtually nothing and pleases everyone.”

Despite the farcical constraints, the designers gamely accomplished as much as human ingenuity could. They trialed a compromise “general service” or “GS” rucksack for the entire British Army, and they answer they got was, “Hey, good enough! It’s better than our skimpy 1950s Boy Scout haversack.” The designers must have been rightfully proud of themselves, because it was one of those rare moments in a big organization when you offer a one-size-fits-most solution that draws at least a resigned shrug from everyone.

Almost everyone, that is. Only the Royal Marines complained. A lot.

The GS rucksack was the one good thing to come out of this fandango. However, even though it was already an economy/compromise design, the Ministry still balked at the cost. At first they only issued it to the Royal Marines, the one group who really didn’t like it, and sat on the design for the next 10 years. They only issued it for “general service” in the mid-80s, after a change of government and the embarrassing questions they received after the Falklands War.

The Royal Marines were high-speed Arctic warfare studs, specialist troops with specialist needs. They did not like the one-size-fits-most “general service” ruck because it was too small. They had a mountain of bulky Arctic gear and they needed a huge, specialized rucksack to carry it. Arguably they were among the only soldiers who really relied every day on their rucksacks. However, they had to “lump it” and make do with what they were given, because Big Army needed to settle on just one general service rucksack.

But in the end, the Ministry decided not to issue the “general service” pack to everyone because it was too expensive, just the specialists. So now the high-speed Royal Marines got the very pack that they never liked and the “general service” got nothing!

In other words, the Royal Marines compromised in vain. It was like when you order a pizza and reluctantly settle for crappy vegetarian toppings so your friends can have some, but then they bail on you and now you’re still stuck with a pineapple and onion pizza.

If this were a movie, a corpulent supply officer with a plummy accent would now say acidly, “Really! As if the honor of British arms will ever depend on Arctic rucksacks!” Then in the very next scene, a Whitehall mandarin picks up an ornate phone and says, “I say, we’re about to fight an Arctic war out of our carry-on luggage. How are we sorted for rucksacks?”

For the Royal Marines, “The Great Yomp” as it came to be known was perhaps the proudest moment in their modern history, and the ultimate “I told you so.” Suffice it to say, after that they got their huge specialist rucksacks, and the rest of the Army finally got their General Service rucks.

For apparently the Ruck Gods were miffed at being slighted. In 1982 Britain found itself pitched almost overnight into … an Arctic war! And by incredible mischance, they lost most of their helicopters and had to hike in their materiel by rucksack.

The supply people were caught with their pants down. “Serious clothing deficiencies for soldiers were corrected only after the intervention of an officer’s father in the House of Lords,” writes Kenneth Privratsky. “Eventually, the [Ministry of Defence] scoured civilian shops to obtain bergens [rucksacks] for the soldiers, but supply still fell short…”

Media showed troops boarding ships with blue packs that were obviously not military, and the Ministry began to be asked embarrassing questions, like “What have you people been doing for twelve years?” and “Don’t we have more sophisticated war plans than just ‘send an intern to Target with a credit card?'”

The Ministry assured Parliament and the public that they had things well in hand, but that is a matter of interpretation. Even after that scandal, they still took another seven years more to begin issuing replacement for the old 1958 pattern webbing, with the troops receiving it in the 1990s, just in time for Operation Desert Storm.

What they eventually received–a system called “PLCE” (Personal Load-Carrying Equipment)–was and is superb stuff. But some of the troops who received it where teenagers conceived after their equipment was! And a whole “lost generation” of British troops before them were left to schlep around heavy wet canvas with shovels attached to their backs.

* * * *

South Africa started their own saga with almost the same equipment as Britain, but it ended up with stuff far better, partly through good luck, partly desperation, and partly by being the outsider who must make its own way and ends up with something unique and brilliant. We will continue our series there, with the reasons that where Britain flopped, South Africa shone.

The Wisdom of Our Fathers (pt. 2): French Surplus Shorts

These guys aren’t wearing short shorts because the weather is hot. They’re the only way to guarantee complete freedom of movement for your thighs.

Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we have previously lamented the problem of finding pants that do not bind active, thick, “plus-sized thighs.” When buying pants off the rack, unless you are shopping for BDUs, then often you must choose between too much room in the waist and not enough room in the thighs.

But it was not always thus. Another, better way was once known to our hardier, more vigorous, manlier forefathers: short shorts. Thirty to forty years ago, when men had over twice the grip strength and sperm count of men today, men had bigger thighs and had the good sense not to cover them with baggy, oversized shorts. It was understood that the proper length of shorts was roughly like so:

If you wear shorts that stop above the swell of your thighs, they can’t bind your thighs, even if they get wet, and no matter how big your thighs are.

Eighties-era F1 shorts. Note the GAO shirt and Palladium boots as well. Illustration by Kevin Lyles, in M. Windrow & W. Braby, French Foreign Legion Paratroops (1985), reproduced by kind permission of Osprey Publishing (London).

This truth was once known to every man in America and informed the design of basketball shorts, wrestling and weightlifting singlets, and military shorts like UDTs and ranger panties.

However, practical is not always presentable. The shorts that work great in a hot yoga class can get you the wrong sort of attention on the street (especially if you’re near sketchy public men’s rooms in municipal parks–don’t ask me to explain). You will need something just a little longer if you don’t want to be mistaken for a pride marcher or a catamite.

If you are a thickly thighed outdoorsman who gravitates to cheap surplus gear, you already have ample reason to be thankful to France. With its “almost Juche-like self-reliance” in design and “riens a foudre” (“zero f***s given”) attitude of indifference, France was unafraid to try ideas that looked weird. That’s how we got the GAO shirt, the most underrated hot weather garment in existence, and the stupendously light but tough “bush shoes.”

But wait, because only now do we come to the greatest of France’s gifts. Voilà! The “F1” tropical/desert shorts! These are truly the perfect “dual-purpose” shorts for athletic use and social wear. They are equally at home rucking around in the desert propping up a neo-colonial strongman regime and making droll conversation at the yacht club.

What is so great about F1 shorts? First, they keep you cool. With a 4″ inseam, they are the perfect length: just long enough to keep your thighs from rubbing each other raw when you run, but short enough to vent body heat without looking like a banana hammock.

You can get away with a lot on a European beach, but in the more puritanical US, you can only go so short without creating a spectacle. The F1 shorts snuggle up to that line without crossing it.

Second, they are tough. I have surplus pairs made over 30 years ago, and they still look ageless. And though hard to find in the US, if you’re persistent you can find them for $20. And being a plain OD serge herringbone, they do not look military. You can wear them in polite company and not look like a Three Percenter.

With my shield or on it

Ten years ago, a young entrepreneur with a struggling backpack company wanted publicity photos of real people using his backpacks in rough-and-tumble ways. So he held the first-ever GORUCK Challenge, in which 20 or so hooah weirdos paid good money to sign up for an event of unknown distance carrying backpacks of bricks punctuated by PT beatdowns at the hands of an ex-Green Beret.

The famous “sugar cookie.” Soak yourself and then coat your body in sand so that no skin is visible. Remember to get your face!

People loved the Challenge so much that they wanted more, and entrepreneur and SF vet Jason McCarthy realized that he wasn’t so much in the business of making tough rucksacks as tough ruck beatdown events.

Tomorrow we celebrate the 10th anniversary of Class 001. I don’t know how ready I am. I’ve rucked little in the last two months while healing an injury, and though I’ve been blazing away on the kettlebells in the meantime, I didn’t really know where my aerobic base is right now.

Here’s what I do know:

  • I’m waaaaaay more experienced now than at my first awesome GORUCK event two years ago. I’ve troubleshot my gear, made friends with the horror of hypothermia, and learned that the emotional/physical lows are soon followed by great highs.
  • I’ve packed enough peanut butter M&Ms, cashews, and caffeine for a one-man ruck rampage through six counties.
  • I have great mentors and advisors: Sgt. Šileika, Scott, Griff, I’m looking at you.
  • And there’s no substitute on earth for this kind of camaraderie.

And finally, I know that I won’t quit. I’ll be back tomorrow, with my shield or on it!

The GAO Shirt

A repost as part of our current series, “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus.” See our previous installments on French design idiosyncrasies, French day packs, and bush shoes. Amusez-vous bien!

The débardeur GAO or chemise GAO. Quintessentially French, this man’s expression says it all: “With shirts like these, we are the masters of every hot climate we deign to visit. En fait, we would be the envy of the world if only we had ditched these hats, which apparently were designed as a team-building exercise between a Soviet puppet government and Japanese war criminals.”

The French really understand parched, roasting climates. From 200 years of walking around North Africa, they figured out what to wear for brain-boiling heat.

Call me an insufferable American chauvinist, but I rejoice that my ancestors left Strasbourg for a new land where they would be free to have short shorts with proper back pockets.

If you’re a regular reader of Lean, Solid Dogs, you already know that I love short shorts. And my favorites are surplus French Army shorts. Cheap, durable, and comfortable, they would be 100% perfect if not for the tragic European aversion to back pockets.

But my French cousins absolutely aced one other piece of hot weather gear: the GAO shirt. Think of it as an optimized tank top. Its most distinctive feature is that it doesn’t have sides, just straps that hold the front and back together while ventilating your body. For even more ventilation, there’s a deep V-neck that leaves about half your chest exposed to the air. Only the shoulders get extra coverage to protect them from the sun and the chafing of pack straps or other loads. And the designers even compensated for the lack of back pockets on their shorts but putting a sort of dump pouch across the small of the back, like some cycling jerseys have.

The GAO shirt’s origins are somewhat mysterious and people are unsure where the name comes from. It might be named after the Gao region of Niger, or it could be an acronym for “Operational Support Group” (Groupe d’Appui Opérationnel). What we do know is that it appeared in 1983 in Chad, when the French Army helped repel a Libyan invasion.

Beau travail (1999)

To my surprise, I’ve never seen a GAO shirt on anyone else in the United States. Peerless for hot, dry weather, they deserve to be better known. I first saw them years ago in Claire Denis’ film Beau travail and instantly saw how comfortable they would be.

French surplus GAO shirts are cheap but very difficult to buy from within the US for some reason, even in the age of Ebay and FedEx. However, they are easy to make. If you get hold a French specimen to copy, a sewing machine, and some 33% polyester ripstop fabric, you’re in business. If readers are dying for a pattern, drop us a line and I’ll do my best to provide you with one.

Romp in the Rain

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.

Anabasis: A High-Altitude Backpacking AAR (Pt. 1)

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.”

The nicest book I own: a schoolboy’s edition of the Anabasis from 1895, when “going to school” meant “learning Latin and Greek” and the curriculum was heavy on texts that appealed to nine-year-old boys, with a lot of daring-do and spears and chariots.

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?”

To be continued …    

Goldilocks Boots

I don’t even buy them anymore, I swear. They’re breeding and multiplying.

After experimenting a lot, I have arrived at some hard-won conclusions about boots for rucking. 

Great for flat roads and short to medium distances, but nothing hairier than that.

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. 

Rocky’s RLW or “commercial lightweight boot.” Basically a MACV-1 with serious treads. But not the crucial shank.
The Glock of boots: ugly, indestructible, affordable, reliable Germanic bricks.

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.

Town and Country: Seattle Star Course AAR, Pt. 2

Find Part 1 here.

This view leaves out our first point, on W. Highland in Queen Anne, due to limitations in the software.

Real distance athletes don’t precede a race with dry-heaving and M&Ms. But I am not a real distance athlete. I am a special snowflake.

* * * *

Not dead yet! Waxy and stooped, yes, but I’m clutching the M&Ms for dear life.

I flew to Seattle a day early and retired to bed after a dinner of kaplau gai kai dao. That was a fateful choice, because I spent most of the night awake and hurling. Frantic to rehydrate and keep some food down, I bought a bizarre assortment of groceries which, alone among Safeway’s inventory, I could look at without puking. I fed well enough on chocolate milk, coconut water, kombucha, yogurt, and peanut butter M&Ms that, by game time, I no longer looked embalmed.

Rocky S2V Predators + FoxRiver sock liners + Finnish M05 socks + Body Glide = happy feet

With hit list in hand, we adopted a “town and country” strategy, hitting the downtown waypoints first and saving outlying parks for the daytime. That way, we had access to all-night stores while our crew was sleeping. When they started supplying us after dawn, we’d be in residential neighborhoods with no traffic or parking troubles, and we would have ample daylight by which to navigate park trails. And psychologically, it was a bonus not to stare at the ugly industrial blight around Boeing Field in bright sun, and not to be caught downtown without a bathroom in broad daylight.

In the end, it came out to 49 miles and 2900+ feet of climbing.

As we marched through Georgetown, Lean Solid Girl discovered something critical. Prior to the event, I had noticed that Google Maps can flatten your route appreciably if you use Cycling mode instead of Walking mode. With no one supervising me, I would have done that. But I hadn’t reckoned all the shortcuts—pedestrian staircases and stepped foot trails through ravines separating neighborhoods—that were impassable to bikes but usually made for pretty humane climbing, often with handrails to help you “row” your way up.  

Luckily, back at the hotel, Lean Solid Girl couldn’t quite get herself to sleep. She was on her laptop crunching different options and called in the results: we would indeed save ourselves a couple of unnecessary climbs on Cycling mode, but it would cost us seven extra miles of walking. The Jolly Irishman and I gave our reply in unison: “No f—ing way.” 

The reality of our partnership was that Irish was leading, running both nav and Instagram almost by himself, and I was just following. I hadn’t wanted to burden him with both jobs, but we both knew that he was the stronger teammate that night. I remained somewhat pukey and wobbly until 4am, and I suffered a second weakness I’d never experienced before at a GORUCK event: gnawing hunger. For the first time I was nowhere even close to ketosis and felt hollowed. So while Irish drove the bus, I concentrated on keeping up and not being That Guy, and I couldn’t contribute much more to the team effort than lusty singing in Russian and obscene but admiring remarks about our rival teams.

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The French duo’s last stand. Nous vous saluons, mes vieux.

Two of these teams distinguished themselves above our other (playfully) hated adversaries and won my admiration. First were the pair we called simply “The French Guys,” and they were the shadows we couldn’t lose. Twice I thought we passed them for good, only to see them pop out a few miles later in front of us. We seemed to be following the same overall game plan, “town and country,” but walking slightly different roads. Just as we left our foot care stop at the University of Washington, they caught up to us again, but this time without their same calm élan. “Something’s wrong,” said Irish. “The tall one is in trouble.” I glanced over and saw both of The French Guys beholding the one fellow’s unshod foot with the look of an ambulance crew standing around regarding someone they’ve arrived to find irretrievably dead. We called over, asking how they were, and the taller man replied only, “It’s pretty bad,” but with tight lips and a tiny shake of the head that said “C’est fini.” Irish went over with tape and supplies and came back reporting foot trauma of biblical proportions, a blister running nearly the length of the foot. This was almost too much for me to bear. They’d already trooped 30+ miles, and I knew from bitter experience how wretched it felt to endure all that and still fail. 

And I’d also been through the lonely trek awaiting his surviving companion, a dark-haired dude whom I imagined hailing from some seaside Mediterranean town. He might have tagged along with us, but he stuck by his friend while they sorted out a ride for him. We saw him once more at Magnusson Park, tailing us by half a mile, but then lost him completely. Later, at the finish line, we found no one with any news of him, but as we finally put down our pizza and beer and began packing up our car, we encountered him trudging up the home stretch, beaten down by his solo trip but well within the time limit.

The other team I held in awe were the ones Irish and I called simply “The Runners.” We saw them only once, at 3am on the 2-mile pedestrian causeway to Mercer Island. They had already hit the waypoint and were returning to the mainland when they passed us. At first they were visible to us only as a trio of headlamps, then as six legs half-illuminated by the causeway’s murky, otherworldly light. “Da f***?” I exclaimed to Irish. “Are they running?” They certainly were. When they passed us, we got only a fleeting glimpse but a memorable one: three men thundered past, pounding the cement hard with music playing, big guys by endurance sport standards. I winced to imagine what was happening inside their poor knees—running with weight is very hard on joints and not recommended except in emergencies—but be that as it may, these guys were awesome to behold.

As it happened, we would be on their tails for the rest of the night. At each waypoint our crew would mention three guys right ahead of us, but Irish and I saw no one. Apparently we were gaining on them, closing the gap from 30 minutes to ten, but never spotted them. It was only at the end point, as we limped across our final intersection into Magnolia Park, that another team  popped out of the side street twenty yards ahead of us. Three big guys—even then I didn’t put it together—and they looked fresh as daisies. I even said to Irish confidently, “These dudes must be doing the 26 mile course. There’s no way they did 50 miles and still look that good.”  But sure enough, they did. They reported to Cadre DS’s table still twenty yards ahead of us, and we claimed third and fourth place respectively. It was only much later that they I pieced it together: these were the The Runners. We’d been shadowing them all night, not as closely as the French team kept on top of us, but one of them had gotten hurt sometime during the morning and so we got on their heels and stayed there. That was an honor: when we’d glimpsed The Runners in the middle of the night, they had seemed more like heroes out of Valhalla than real people. And yet without ever knowing it, we hung with them. 

Less scary in Hawaiian shirts.

The finish line was still sleepy, almost anti-climactic when we got there. It was still much too early. We arrived together with The Runners, both at 16 hours and 48 minutes, to find only four guys lying in the grass drinking beer. The second-place guys had come in 20 minutes before us, our crew told us. Then they pointed us to a pair of normal-looking young dads in Hawaiian shirts. These were the first-place finishers, who had crushed the course in under 15 hours. I’d expected the Night King and a pair of direwolves. Instead, hanging out with their wives, with kids crawling on top of them, they looked like suburban dads who’d just mowed the lawn and come to the park to grill hot dogs with their families. However, when I looked at their Instagram page, I saw Dad #1 in an army uniform with a chest full of decorations, including jump wings and what looked like a Combat Infantry Badge, and in the park someone said something about Rangers. #everyday badasses

*          *          *          *

Redemption was sweet. A week after my second Star Course—my second in three weeks—I am almost back to normal. My ankles took a pounding from walking on concrete, which must be the worst surface possible except for lava, but when I met the semester’s new crop of students on Monday morning, I held onto my lectern and stood stable and upright enough that no one thought I’d had whiskey for breakfast.

And speaking of whiskey, Irish and I are putting out feelers for a new event for the Dream Team. Something where Lean Solid Girl and Lady Irish can do all the thinking and navigating for us leverage their logistical genius to the max. Something without concrete.

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.