Heartbreak Hill: Gripping Climax of the Star Course AAR!

Find parts 1 and 2 here and here.

I only thought about quitting once, when I fell down a storm sewer. 

I’d climbed a truly evil hill of densely packed million-dollar crackerbox houses, past homeowners leaving to go to the beach. One of them actually wore a t-shirt saying something like “Rucking is fun!” I didn’t stop to dispute the matter because I was huffing and puffing through my mouth, which is not a good sign, and trying to climb better by pushing my knees down with my hands. Way behind the clock, I couldn’t slow down because I was horrified to think that, after this ordeal that I’d prepared for for months, I might finish my 50 miles only to be disqualified for missing the 20-hour cutoff time. 

When I rounded another turn, barely in control of my despair, things got worse: my road dead-ended. I should have been able to continue my wretched climb to yet another steep, God-forsaken road, but instead hit a nearly vertical wall of scrub, blocked 100 feet above by a solid wall of weathered, seven-figure rowhouses. Frantic not to have to descend the hill and try again, I hoped that in the cul-de-sac I’d find one of the staircases that sometimes let you dart from one San Francisco sidewalk straight up a hill to the next one. And indeed, there was a man-sized opening in the trees and a ramp! “A staircase!” I hoped, in a fevered delusion that must have been the navigational equivalent of a mirage where someone is sure he sees a Dr. Pepper machine in the desert.

In fact, it was an open storm sewer, steep and slippery with wet leaves, and instantly I fell on my ass and jetted to the bottom as if on a water slide. They don’t exactly design these things for convenient egress, and if I didn’t look like a filthy urchin before, in my sandy canvas ruck and piss-soaked tights, I now looked like some paleozoic amphibian in an alluvial marsh. Holding onto saplings for lack of footing, I got back out onto the cul-de-sac, hoping no one was calling the police, and felt very sorry for myself. 

In these moments, however, we can feel buoyed by the strangest occurrences. I received a text that the cadres wanted me to check in with them, now that I’d pushed on alone so that they’d know I hadn’t, well, disappeared down a storm sewer.

I texted back, “Last survivor of Team OCRFitClub rucking the motherf*** out of this. Faithful GF is crewing and making sure I don’t get cannibalized by Nancy Pelosi.” Instantly they shot back, “Right on!” and with that tiny spark of encouragement, they reignited my morale like an oil refinery on fire. I was burning up the road again, supercharged by Lean Solid Girl’s supply drops of coffee and bananas, which hit me like angel dust and jet fuel. Something possessed me to belt out the band Lyube’s hard rock version of the Russian national anthem. (It’s a David Rigert thing. Don’t try to make sense of it.) I was flying high and going to make it. I knew that not as a mathematical conclusion—I actually had little idea how many miles still lay ahead—but as a moral certainty. I could not be stopped.

I’ve put this experience in my “cookie jar,” the name Goggins that gives to the container of memories of past ordeals and triumphs that we reach into when demoralized. “Every time I get … the ‘woe is me’ mentality,” he writes, “… I go into my cookie jar and pull out a memory to remind myself that I am a fucking badass. I put it back in the cookie jar and remember who the fuck I really am.” I had climbed Mt. Davidson in despair and self-pity, behind the clock and hopeless, but I got back in the game with not just the hope of victory but the certainty that I would make it happen.

Newly confident, I started to take in the bigger picture. Much bigger. I am one of those people who waxes sentimental and philosophical on airplanes. At 30,000 feet, I am keenly aware that I am vulnerable and kill-able, riding on thin sheets of aluminum that could fail. We are ephemeral creatures, living out a gnat-like life span on a small ball of rock flying through the vacuum of space. Our bodies are soft, hairless, vulnerable, and dependent. Outside a narrow band of temperature and atmosphere with nutrition and hydration every few hours, they die. And I, personally, will die. “Am I preparing for that?” I wondered on Moraga Ave. “Am I doing the right things now so that I can go with an easy heart, sincerely thinking ‘I am glad because I lived well?’” On these long marches, it seems to be a pattern that I take stock of my life, try to get ready for its end, and sometimes have fleeting encounters with the divine in which, as one friend says, “the veil is thin.” 

Two Is One, One Is None

By this time, Lean Solid Girl was running the show from inside her Toyota Prius as de facto team leader. At any moment I only knew my next turn, nothing more. I’d relinquished any sense of an overview because I was moving much too fast now (and feeling too loopy) to keep poring over maps. We were coordinating perfectly: Lean Solid Girl would tell me the next waypoint and what to photograph and then I would plot a route and beat feet. Sometimes we leap-frogged each other in traffic, and when I reached the next destination, I would spot the blue Prius somewhere tucked into one of the parking spots that were becoming scarcer as we reached the center of San Francisco. Then I might dart over for a hurried conference and a hit of what I now thought of as “Ruck Meth”—coffee and a banana—and then streak off again like a (stocky, slightly limping) cheetah.

For the first time in over 12 hours I saw another Goruck team and felt terribly pleased with myself as I bulled past them, imagining them thunderstruck by the sonic boom that I must surely be leaving in my wake on my way to victory.

However, if I was a jet plane, at that moment the wings peeled off. As I scorched pridefully past the other team and checked my route, I noticed my screen dimming. I had only 4% battery left!

That morning when I’d said goodbye to the rest of the team, I had no external phone battery of my own and, a newb to smart phones, no grasp of how much power I was burning up using two navigational apps, Instagram, phone, and text non-stop. I should have begged their batteries off them, even if it meant swimming across San Francisco Bay to return them the next day. Because at the very moment that I waved off from them without extra batteries, in reality my race was finished. 

Now, five hours later, I only had time to type “Battery running on fumes” to Lean Solid Girl before the faithful, obsolescent Samsung breathed its last.

You can judge my state of mind by the fact that I did not see this as a huge problem, just one more obstinate barrier that would fall before my determination. Lean Solid Girl was running the whole show anyway—the All-Seeing Eye, I thought of her—and she still had her phone. I would rely on her directions blindly, meet her at the next point and borrow her phone’s camera, and stay in the fight. 

Evaluating that objectively now, that was daylight madness. It took only five minutes more for the whole enterprise to crash. Within moments, I had misinterpreted Lean Solid Girl’s directions and rushed hopelessly off course, not even knowing what my next waypoint was (!!), as that information too was entombed inaccessibly in the dead phone. 

We were now two people separated in a crowded city with no agreed rally point, and even if a miracle occurred and we found each other, I would never get back on course in time. From the beginning, to have any chance at all I had to average 4 mph, which is a good clip even when you’re fresh, and I would still have had to finish at a dead run to get there in time. No, my race was over now, even if I had Bill Gates’ own phone and a shopping cart full of batteries.

Even in a city where this raises few eyebrows, I looked like someone to stay away from.

I beseeched friendly-looking passers-by to send an “I’m OK” message to Lean Solid Girl for me, but the good people of Presidio Terrace gave wide berth to the vagabond in the strange ensemble of canvas, camouflage, and running tights smelling of rancid urine. 

I can scarcely bear to recount the heartbroken march back to the start point, where I could borrow a phone. I knew roughly where to go—north toward the water—but I could only move my feet so fast, as if I were walking in an ankle-deep mud made of disappointment, self-disgust at my bad planning and the betrayal of months of preparation because I cheaped out on batteries, despair at the futility of coming this far for nothing, the black depression that is natural after multiply compounded exhaustion, and gawping disbelief that I had taken a challenge that is physically not a huge deal and still fucked it up. Even now, words fail me. 

I failed

There is no happy ending to this story, not yet. I am not interested in self-soothing platitudes about how giving it your best is the true success. It is too late in my life to lie to myself. I failed, period. I have analyzed the failure as honestly as I could stomach. (One lesson: I am frugal, and I chose to cheap out on batteries. If I decide to cheap out on something, I must be able to say to myself, “I am being offered insurance here, and I’m choosing not to buy it.” In this case, I would have bought the ‘insurance.’)

But in lieu of a happy ending, I am proud to report that I am doing it all over again in two weeks, in Seattle, with The Smiling Irishman. Lean Solid Girl is insane, because against my advice but to my very great joy, she is going too, to crew up with Lady Irish in a rental car full of socks, batteries, bananas, and brain power. 

And if this doesn’t work, there’s always Dallas. And Nashville. And Philadelphia. And Los Angeles. And Oklahoma City. And Atlanta. And Huntsville. And Chicago. And Cleveland. And Boston. And Charlotte. And Des Moines. And Saint Louis.

“True will power: I’m going to fucking fail, I’m going to fucking fail, I’m going to fucking fail, and I will succeed.”

Goggins

“A Mere Tourist on Planet Ultra”: D-Day Goruck Heavy AAR, Pt. 1

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Goruck Heavy (May 31 – June 1) commemorating D-Day. San Francisco. Thirteen entered (eight men, five women), ten finished. These are the lessons I learned, first about individual performance (part 1), then about us as a team (part 2), then about my gear choices (part 3).

Absolute Strength and Strength-Endurance

Absolute strength is essentially one-rep max strength, as opposed to relative strength (i.e. relative to your bodyweight) or strength-endurance, the capacity to do a lot of reps.

I confirmed my impression from last year that GORUCK events reward absolute strength. Strictly speaking, it might not seem like a “reward,” because you carry more and heavier weights for your team, but you receive the elemental joy of being able to do that for them. For the heaviest coupons, some teammates will lack the strength even to budge them, and others will be able to pitch in bravely but at an unsustainable cost. Ultimately, those top-end coupons must devolve onto a bull-necked, big-thighed few who have large enough reserves of absolute strength that they can spend pretty heedlessly without wrecking themselves.  

That is a good time to be strong. If you are strong, you can give your teammates a gift that really means something: you can take on pain for them. No one can walk for them, no one can do their pushups for them, but big weights are different. If you are strong, you can take the sandbag from the small person and the exhausted person and spare them the punishment because it will cost you far less than it will cost them.

Absolute strength at Goruck is like carrying a gun: “Seldom do you need it, but when you do, you need it very badly.”

Granted, GORUCK events are not strength events, so there are few times when anyone needs to lift something at 90+% of 1RM. But I’d still classify them as trials of strength-endurance. That is, they test your ability to display sub-maximal strength over and over with limited rest. In my approach to strength-endurance, as in many other things, I follow Pavel Tsatsouline’s strategy: if you bump up your absolute strength through high volume, you’ll improve your strength-endurance too. As you raise your one-rep max in weighted pullups, for example, you need less and less effort for each bodyweight pullup and can crank out more reps when you need to.

Speaking of pullups, here alone among bodyweight exercises did I not tire out. For the PT test we cranked out 12 sets of 6 pullups, and to my surprise I found these easy. Three cheers for the “lazy strength” approach of high volume with low intensity!! Unfortunately, we did a lot more pushups (including burpees) than pullups, and I sucked. I’d like to whine about how, with my injury, I was reduced to three weeks of pushup training, but there’s a larger issue: I have always neglected pushups. Had I valued them like pullups and kettlebells, I would have put in a few hundred thousand reps over the years and developed a pushup foundation of granite. With kettlebells I’ve accumulated a million reps, so even if you imprisoned me without a single kettlebell—oh cruel fate!—as soon as I was liberated, in two weeks I’d have my groove back and once more make the 32kg bell my plaything. To a lesser extent, that’s true of pullups too. But I don’t have that kind of foundation with pushups, so I paid for it. If the cadres had wanted to smoke us in PT, and if they had “performance dropped” people who couldn’t keep up, I would have been in serious trouble. So guess what’s never going to happen again!

Aerobic base

Speaking of pushups, Cadre Edge taught us some funky breathwork out of the Wim Hof method that involved deep rhythmic breathing followed by all-out pushups on a breath hold. I had never tried this, or heard of it, but it works and I’m incorporating it into my morning Wim Hof routine of breathing and cold water.

And speaking of breathing, I had no trouble doing it! For the first time in my life, this former chubby kid wasn’t near the back of the pack in aerobic endurance. This was a wonderful thing, because for all the strength-endurance challenges, this activity is called “rucking” for a reason, and you need a big aerobic gas tank to do anythingfor 24 hours, so I felt wonderful being able to burn along at close to 14 minutes/mile and experience that as active rest. 

I’m still no endurance athlete, but I’ve graduated from being an awkward “exchange student” from strength sports to what Goggins calls at least “a tourist on planet ultra.”

So three more cheers for low intensity and high volume! As with “lazy strength,” not only do I thrive on LSD (long, slow distance), I really enjoy it. I probably put in 300 miles in the last three months, and I loved (almost) every moment of it. It’s a time for solitude and meditative quiet, with the moderately elevated heart rate and rhythmic breathing that naturally inclines us to flow and trance states.

Spirit and psyche

I was more composed this year than last. There was no repeat of last year’s surf torture experience of existential horror at the wind’s shrieking, freezing hands pulling me into a tomb of pitiless entropy. Of course I knew that I was safe and not going to die, but I was a quivering wreck and I felt a lonely understanding that nature was prepared to annihilate me with as little notice as it would give a bug who drowns in a swimming pool. This year, there was none of that.

Nor was I tormented by a horrible inner soundtrack. I’m tragically susceptible to songs getting stuck in my head, and last time it was a Rod Stewart song and a Russian rap whose title roughly means, “Fuck you, biyotch.” It was terrible, a true torment. I’m not joking. Stop snickering. So this year I took drastic measures and stayed away from all music for a couple of days and ran a mantra in my head. Once we reached go-time, the mantra ran on an infinite loop all night and all day. Much better!

Not quite who I expected to show up at a GORUCK challenge.

Strangely, I also had a couple of … “experiences.” It would be a stretch to call them visions, but during Cadre Edge’s first breath session I lost all sense of time and finitude for awhile and woke up (for lack of a better word) to an image of Shiva Nataraja dancing behind a very, very thin curtain. During the second session, which felt head-splitting (in a constructive way), I saw what I interpreted as Krishna in his cosmic form standing in front of the sun disk.

Fuel and hydration

I had the right idea but screwed up the execution by not drinking enough. As far as I can remember, the whole time I only drank 10L, even though I had access to more. That is about 25% less than I thought I would drink, and since my electrolytes were in my water, I wasn’t getting enough. Two or three times I cramped up suddenly and had to mooch some powder off of Mike the generous forester, who is no stranger to outdoor work and had electrolytes up the wazoo.

Nor was that the first time I have wound up short of electrolytes, so that is another item for my Never Again List.

Fueling went alright. Normally low-carb or downright keto, I planned to eat 25g of simple sugars per hour during the event. The idea is that because as a keto athlete you are fat-adapted, you can get away with eating half the carbs of a sugar-burner during a race and avoid GI trouble. And that worked perfectly. I got most of my calories from Tailwind powder dissolved in my water, supplemented with some caffeine additive and about ten tubes of GU. (Hint: Try the French toast flavor! I owe Lean Solid Girl big time for turning me on to those.)

In all, I ate about 3500 calories during the race, a little more than planned but with no ill effect at all. And according to my awesome Tanita scale, I used up a little under half of my body’s supply of fat and dropped from 12% to 7.5% body fat. That is instructive, because when camping I seldom take much food, instead subsisting mostly on bodyfat because it’s just so convenient to eliminate a lot of weight and bulk from my pack. That is one of the rewards of eating keto that compensate for the inconvenience. However, I can see that I’m not leaving myself much margin for safety in remote country. Since I like to camp far from human contact, where a broken leg could mean real trouble, I shouldn’t be quite so cavalier about relying on what turns out to be just a two-day supply of fat.

Heat and Cold

“Weather more than any other variable can break a motherfucker down fast.” –

Goggins

This time I handled the weather much better, thanks again to Lean Solid Girl, who introduced me to the indispensability of a polypro base layer. On a couple of our misadventures, I ended the day soaked, cold, and even jackhammering while she stayed dry and happy. The difference? Polypro and Goretex. So I’ve made a standing rule that I must always have both in my pack.

That was good, because the oceanside wind was outrageous. If I had dressed as usual in short shorts and a cotton shirt, I would have been in trouble. I even got to see what would have been my fate. One of our teammates was very lightly dressed, and though he started the night as a top-level performer, come daylight I watched him drained of strength and awareness hourly as his body relegated him to “survival mode” and burned more and more of his precious energy just trying to keep his temperate stable. In the final half hour, I legitimately wondered if I was seeing a man swirling the drain into serious medical trouble. He had unbreakable mental fortitude and didn’t quit even when I thought he might pass out, but I was pleased not to be confronted with that choice.

Part 2. Part 3.