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.
“At GORUCK events, people’s foot care is surprisingly poor,” said the former ultra runner somewhere around Mile 20. I smarted at the comment, but I couldn’t deny it: the inside of my own boot was slowly grating my little toe like parmesan.
You meet a wide rainbow of fellow weirdos at GORUCK challenges with different athletic backgrounds, ranging from Crossfitters (the most numerous) all the way to equestrian gymnast(!). This was the first time I’d encountered a serious distance runner, though, and it became clear that that community was privy to an advanced science of foot health as foreign to the rest of us as architecture was to Visigoths and Huns.
At the moment, neither he nor I had breath for a long tutorial on the subject, but I resolved to study more after our team lost our second member of the night to foot injury and my own foot was being ground up into burger meat.
Here’s part of what I learned, most of it from Jon Vonhof’s Fixing Your Feet and friends like Scott H., Nick F., and Sgt. Šileika:
Your shoes are probably too small. As I’ve related before, I was wearing a 9½ when I should have worn a 10½ Wide. Ideally, get your feet measured by someone at a specialized store, like REI or a running store. And when you take the insoles out of your shoes and stand on them, if any part of your foot overhangs (or even reaches) the edges of the insole, you need bigger shoes.
Your feet get bigger with age, not least of all as they become more muscular with training! That seems strange–I always thought of my shoe size as an immutable given, like my height–but on reflection it’s perfectly intuitive. Feet are made mostly of muscle, and they respond to training like other muscles. If you start doing pull-ups for hours at a time, your back and arms will outgrow your shirts. Likewise, if you backpack for hours at a time, your foot muscles might well outgrow your old shoes.
Keep your feet dry. I hate this rule because I like charging through streams and doing water PT and I hate halting afterward to change socks, but it’s helped me stop getting Burgerfeet™.
Speaking of dry and happy feet, cotton socks are the devil. Wear wool or one of the new space-age moisture-wicking products. And it seems that most runners wear more than one sock layer.
Socks are like holsters: You have to try a bunch to find the right setup. You’ll end up with a drawer full of rejects–live with it.
And a sock setup that works with one pair of shoes does not necessarily work with another. (See “socks-are-like-holsters” above.)
Moisturize your feet every day. Most of the pros also lubricate their feet before they put on their socks.
Athletic tape from the corner drug store has been superseded by things like Leukotape and ENGO pads.
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.”
Final installment in my after-action report from the GORUCK D-Day Heavy Challenge.
What Worked Out Great
1. Webbing: I had about 6′ of webbing and it saved me twice. First we had to carry an insidiously-shaped rock a few miles uphill. I bound it up like a birthday gift and then some genius added D-rings and carabiners so that folks could hang it from their pack straps. The final effect was like a newborn boulder in a Babybjörn. It still sucked, but it substantially reduced the Suck Value. Second, I broke a pack strap at dawn, but it took all of 30 seconds to improvise a fix with the webbing. Without it, I would probably have washed out of the event over that petty equipment failure. So write this down, someone: webbing is the duct tape of rucking.
Weight: 40g. Not quitting the whole event over a busted pack strap or wasting everyone’s biceps cradling a f#&%ing rock: priceless.
2. Spare shoelace: Whipped this out to secure the flag to the pole better. Again, it nullified what could have been a huge pain in the butt for essentially zero added weight.
3. Rocky S2V boots: Thank you, Sgt. Šileika! The Rockies were champs. My search for the perfect all-round boot is over!
I’m blown away by the contrast to the Moab Ventilators that I wore last year. The point of the Ventilators is that, with their mesh sides, they let water and sweat flow out and let air rush in. It’s a great idea for running trails, but not for sloshing around in surf and sand because your shoes and socks fill with sediment. I got grit between my shoes and socks, between my socks and sock liners, and between the liners and my skin.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the other teammate who wore Rockies completed a “Heavy-Tough-Light” (i.e. he is a freak who did three events back-to-back over 48 hours, totaling well over 70 miles). And the teammate who wore Ventilators got a silver dollar-sized blood blister so heinous and unearthly that I expected an alien to spawn from his heel. (Amazingly, he just cheerfully popped it, dressed it, and walked on it for the next 12 hours without grimacing. People are freaks, and this guy must have the pain tolerance of a barn animal.)
4. Synthetic fabrics: Impressed by Lean Solid Girl’s successes, I left behind most of my old-school cotton, wool, and hair shirts and wore so much stretchy space-age fabric that I felt like Spider Man. And it worked great: I stayed warm, dry, windproof, and free of chafing.
It was only at midday that I wore a cotton shirt (one of the dozen awesome $4 Bundeswehr quarter-zips that I stash everywhere–#notaffiliatedIjustlovethem). But as soon as we got wet, I changed back to polypro gratefully.
6. Categorized bags: Since my old-fashioned ruck only has one big compartment, I sorted gear into four marked bags: Food, Shirt, Jacket, and Head & Foot Stuff (hat, headlamp, sunglasses, socks, and foot care supplies). It worked great. Next time, I’ll color code the bags too.
7. More sock changes than a Madonna concert: I brought two extra pairs of socks and sock liners, and I rotated through all of them. Again, cheap insurance. I’ve had great success with the combination of Finnish M05 “liner socks” (which are socks unto themselves here in temperate climes) and FoxRiver liners, so I won’t mess with success.
8. Tailwind and GU: Here too, I owe Lean Solid Girl, who’s a past (and future?) runner, for initiating me into the secrets of distance athletes.
9. My hydration bladder: Our team had at least two burst hydration bladders, which did not enhance their owners’ lives. Usually I’m the first person to cheap out and get suckered by a false economy, but I’ve never encountered this problem even after hundreds of miles, so I’ll keep using Hommitt.
1. Powerlifting knee sleeve: It’s stupid to change your game plan at the last minute, and that includes switching to gear you haven’t tested. I grabbed a squatting knee sleeve on the way out the door because I worried about padding my sore knee. It guarded my knee from abrasion, alright, but over 40 miles it knotted up some soft tissue behind my knee from the pressure.
2. Leaving my electrolytes to chance: I prepared for pushups poorly enough. I didn’t need cramped arms on top of that, but I chose to trust that I’d get all my electrolytes from the Tailwind. Dumb. Electrolytes are cheap insurance, just like webbing or an extra shoelace. Without Mike the Forester’s generosity, I’d have been in trouble. Next time I’m bringing extra electrolytes.
3. Poorly secured pill bottle: To help with pain, I cleverly brought some CBD, ibuprofen, and caffeine pills, but I foolishly hung the bottle from a carabiner with my gloves, and within an hour it was lost.
Today’s the day, friends. 24 hours, 40+ miles, with logs, sandbags, PT beatdowns, and surf torture along the way.
Wherever you are today, get after it! Hammer along with me and (I’m completely serious about this), please remember my team and me in your thoughts and prayers. I may be Buddhist, but I’m not choosy about where I get my numinous intercession.
We’ve all had friends who exerted unhealthy influence over us. They were charismatic and had qualities we wanted to emulate, but in the exuberance of growth we also idealized them for a time and didn’t want to accept that they too were just fragile, finite people with foibles, not all-purpose role models. And so we had to set grown-up boundaries rather than follow our friend into something self-destructive. Yes, your buddy was totally right all along about your ex-girlfriend, and yes, you should work less and invest more in enjoying life. You can learn a lot from him. But no, he’s dead wrong when he harangues you, “Dude, you have got to date a stripper at least once in your life!” You really do have a lot to learn from your friend, but he is not an oracle. Boundaries.
I’ve reached that point with GORUCK’s MACV-1 boots. I wanted them to be my Boots to End All Boots. And they really did expand my mind beyond just my reliable, elephantine, 5-pound pair of Bundeswehr clompers. The MACV-1s are nimble, minimal, quick-drying, good-looking, and they feel light as a pair of socks.
So I didn’t want to acknowledge that whenever I wear them to go down hills, I slip and fall. The first time seemed like an anomaly: I was going down a steep, washed out, crooked defile and it was just bad fortune, I supposed, that the first time I wore the new boots there, my foot slid from under me and I dropped into the gully on top of an anthill. But it kept happening. Every single time I hiked downhill, even on a pretty tame surface that didn’t warrant a second thought with other boots, I’d step on some gravel or mud and go down hard.
I tried ameliorating the problem with smaller steps, different balance, or fuller foot contact. But then SWOOSH! I’d slip again.
No more. I’ve been in a classic cognitive dissonance trap—high hopes, with a lot already invested, and I’ve denied mounting evidence that if I stubbornly continue wearing the MACV-1s in the hills, I could pop my knee like a chicken joint.
They’re still great for pavement and flat, hard dirt paths, but I’ll never again put 100# on my back and roll the dice with these going down a hill. Unfortunately, they are a no-go for the GORUCK Heavy.