The Piñata & The Wrecking Ball: Why can small people hit so hard?

You can’t tell freakishly strong people by looking at them. Some athletes “look like Tarzan but play like Jane,” but I’m fascinated by the opposite, people who are deceptively strong. People who look like a piñata but hit like a wrecking ball.      

(That’s not just paddycake. That girl jabs like a tire iron.)

An octagenarian taijiquan teacher once had me bang forearms with him, and his felt like jelly rolls with rebar in the middle. This summer a female instructor of maybe 120 lbs. demonstrated a slap block on my left arm that felt like it came out my right kidney. Last week I took stinging jabs from a 12-year old jeet kune do prodigy, and she whipped out these lazy leads that could smack my eye like a rolled-up beach towel.

“Stealthy Strength”

As cool people who read this blog know, strength is a surprisingly “stealthy” quality. It’s almost as hard to pick out strong people by looking at them as it is to guess who’s a good piano or chess player. Much of “real-world strength” comes down to the very unsexy, un-visual traits of grip and rotation/counter-rotation, and hence as a great man once wrote, “strong hands + strong abs = strong person.” (And as we began to explore last week, the formula really should read “strong feet + strong hands + strong abs.”) There are some other factors too, like connective tissue and neurological efficiency, but you can’t see those with the naked eye either, short of dissecting someone.

Bob Peoples deadlifted almost quadruple bodyweight, in an age before steroids, at age forty, but you’d look right past him on a beach. A farmer his whole life, Peoples obviously had unearthly tendon and ligament strength that few Americans today are likely to approach. That’s a HUGE ingredient in “stealthy” strength that’s not visible in a weight room mirror.
Frank’s hands are like the massive root ball of a mutant redwood in the Dagobah system.

Granted, there exist some useful heuristics, but they’re not eye-catching or (to a modern eye) intuitive. Dan John has remarked that, if looking for strong football players, you should view them from the back, where you can scope out their glutes and hams and lats, because those muscle groups count for more than chests and shoulders. And if I had to wager on a strongman contest, I’d put my money on someone with big, tendonous hands and forearms. My great uncle Frank, who repaired elevators for 40 years, has hands that grew thick in every dimension and freaky tendons like gnarled tree roots on Yoda’s home planet. Last time I visited, he spent the day putting in split-rail fence posts by hand at age 85. 

As we’ve discussed here before, you can tell more about physical attributes by seeing people in motion.  Loose-limbed people with corrugated abs or whippy waists? Those are your natural lumberjack types. Definitely pick them for your volleyball team. At one softball game in grad school, this skinny guy from the school of education tried out a bat by making a couple loose, sleepy arcs from the shoulders, and instantly you knew this guy could knock satellites out of orbit. Twenty more like him with ponies and croquet mallets could have Genghis Khan’ed the whole Metro Boston area. 

A few months ago I began again with my boyhood obsession, martial arts. I started making pilgrimages to the Greenville Academy of Martial Arts, home to three interlocking programs in boxing, JKD, and my boyhood favorite, wing chun.

Jason Korol, head instructor at the Greenville Academy of Martial Arts. In coming months I’ll be reflecting a lot on this blog about their teachings, but I’m totally unqualified to do so. Whatever damned fool things I say are not their fault and probably do not adequately describe their ideas. What does do justice to them are their excellent books and YouTube channel. You should probably just stop reading this blog now, go there, and forget about Lean Solid Dogs forever.)

After 20 years as a (mediocre) strength athlete, I can’t help relating everything they teach to strength sports and thinking of fight training as a sort of “applied strength” sport.

I know, I know, jeet kune do isn’t a “sport” in the sense of “rule-governed recreational contest,” but it still is in the older sense, in which hunting, fishing, and mountaineering are “sports.”

No, fighters don’t lift barbells or kettlebells for a score, but they score by exerting force on something heavy. Oly lifters loft barbells, shot putters throw iron balls, pugilists throw shots, and wrestlers throw bodies. QED: fight training is an applied strength sport. 

And a body accustomed to strength sports finds tons of familiarity in the new skills of fight training: the feet and knees feel like club swinging; the elbows feel like a certain kind of bench pressing; the “short power” (短劲) feels like board presses and lockouts; technique training benefits from “greasing the groove;” things about the wooden dummy feel like girevoy sport.

Club swinging is to kettlebells what heroin is to cough syrup. Master coach Tom Furman, my personal voice of reason and adult supervision, put me back onto this and directed me to the work of this guy, Mark Wildman. Like everything Tom tells me to do, it’s awesome. And the carryover to wing chun was unexpected but enormous.

So it feels like an ever-new mystery when I get overpowered in fight training by short, thin, or otherwise gracile people who, it seems to me, can’t possibly have as much power. Not just outmaneuvered and outskilled, but manhandled or just plain pounded. I’m talking bony teenagers, featherweight women, even a girl who’s too young for PG-13 and weighs less than my checked luggage. What gives?

The wooden dummy, wing chun’s “second sifu,” tells you when your structure is weak. This is what strong looks like: bones all lined up in triangles that point at the bad guy’s center of gravity. With structure this good, even if this student were made of balsa wood, with some footwork he could wedge this bad guy up off his center of balance. And then comes the hand in the throat.

The answers still come down to elementary school physics, just as with barbell squats and bicycles, but the applications are zanier, more complicated, and more interesting than plain old flat-footed strength sports and cyclic endurance sports. That makes “martial strength” like chess to powerlifting’s checkers.

How Come Girl Scouts, Flyweights, Elves, and Stick Figures Can Hit Hard? 

Here’s what this humbled, has-been strength athlete has figured out so far. 

1. Fast and Loose

“Hitting hard is about mass times acceleration,” said the coach one night. “You can’t get bigger during a fight, so you have to get faster.” And it turns out that speed is teachable, too. A lot of it seems to involve being loose—tense is never faster that loose. So if the light, willowy person can relax better than the stiff, heavy person, she becomes a better puncher. 

This is an area where I have TONS of room to improve. Just as “the man with a hammer treats everything like a nail,” I approach every problem with tension. Now that I’m waking up to what “usefully loose” really feels like, I’m discovering excess tension all over my body: in my quads, my hip flexors, my waist, shoulders, arms, and even my traps. I would hear coaches telling me, “Relax, be loose!” but it took weeks before I experienced what it was like to punch with a relaxed waist. (For what it’s worth, my “aha!” moment was a low-speed mitt warmup, hitting crosswise for a completely unrushed 1-2-3-4-5. It felt like hitting a slow, fat softball when you’re not rushing to meet the ball and, with no effort or tension, you bang it right on the sweet spot when it’s exactly out in front of you.)

2. Levers

Height and long limbs look like they help a lot. I wouldn’t know, since I’m a short fireplug, but long limbs must make great levers. They sure do when tall people are flinging them at me. Those punches come in fast and hard, sometimes quicker than I can even see them.

Don’t cry for the short people. They have their own leverage tricks, like at clinching distance, where Lady Physics smiles on the lower center of gravity. (Photo courtesy of parhessiastes.)

But long arms and legs are only one type of leverage. There are others too that are part of any person’s punching mechanics. At the Greenville Academy, there’s lots of talk about Jack Dempsey, and I bet that nobody would think it was too weird if I showed up with quotations from the Manassa Mauler’s book Championship Fighting tattooed on my arms. In fact, if Greenville weren’t so Protestant, you’d probably see icons of Jack lit by votive candles. (As it is, I’m pretty sure one family at the school named a child after him.) So anybody who’s paying attention in Sifu Jason Korol’s classes should know by heart Dempsey’s four sources of power for straight punches—the “falling step,” “springing step,” “shoulder whirl,” and “upward surge”—plus a couple others that aren’t legal in boxing, like holding and hitting. Mostly these are simple applications of leverage. For example, once your fist is in motion, you can put more speed on it by springing off your back foot (a class 2 lever) like a fencer, and/or rotating your shoulder girdle (a lever arm) around your vertical axis. Skilled people can sequence those so that they add up like two waves that are “in phase” and then the fist/palm/foot cracks the mitt like a bullwhip, reliably.

3. Structural Strength

Maybe leverage suffices to explain the 12-year-old JKD girl who zings long-range smart bombs from somewhere around the height of my armpits. But wing chun spends a lot of time on what amounts to clinching, stand-up grappling, or dirty boxing. To my mind, that calls to mind wrestlers struggling for neck and arm control, grip-fighting judo players, Thai clinches, and grapplers pummeling for underhooks and overhooks. That should be Muscletown USA, right?

That’s where I expected some consolation for my ego. “Well, you martial artists. I may not be able to punch a Tickle-Me Elmo doll off a toy store shelf, but if I can just get in a shoving match with you…”

But that doesn’t work either! A gaunt teenager grabs my elbow and pushes me around like a shopping cart! On paper, I feel, I should be much too strong to let him steer me around. Or at least too heavy and short! So how can he do that? 

The guy’s got incredibly good structure. Young, ectomorphic, and still filling in, nevertheless he keeps every bone lined up against me so that, if I push, I’m pushing against a big tripod. If I press further, to bull my way through, the tripod falls aside a couple of inches and then I’m (a) stumbling past with a fist in my face, (b) slingshotted by my elbows, (c) clutched by my throat, or (d) all of the above.

Consider those cool science fairs where kids build weight-bearing bridges out of toothpicks. At a recent one, the winning toothpick bridge supported over eleven hundred times its own weight. Relative to that, my young partner has it easy: he could be nothing but bones in a track suit and I still couldn’t bull in on his structure. With that and footwork, he can walk me all over the dance floor like Fred and Ginger. You have to experience it to really believe it.

All the good wing chun and JKD people there are like that. They may only weigh a buck twenty, but if you try to muscle them, you’re pushing at smoke; as soon as give them your center, rotate away from them, lift an elbow, cross your hands or feet, or commit one of many other positional sins, they’re on you with their entire weight. The whole 120 pounds falls on you all together, in one dense package, like Tarzan swinging on a rope and drop-kicking you.

The cool thing about structure is that it gives more strength without even needing more tension. It’s not magic, of course—physics is still physics. But if you’ve ever been a so-so powerlifter and then gotten good coaching, you know how your bench press goes up in literally minutes when the coach fixes your untutored hand, elbow, and back position. No, you can’t stop a charging elephant or knock out a gorilla just with good structure. But it turns out you can handle most humans that way, which continues to blow my mind whenever people do it to me. 

* * * *

Structure is a (wonderfully) complicated subject. Not mysterious—no chakras, no kundalini energy—but still complicated in the sense that there are so many moving parts (feet, ankles, knees, hips, etc.), degrees of freedom, axes of movement, fulcrums and centers of rotation, and so on. As Sifu Aaron Bouchillon says of wing chun, “Some assembly is required.” 

But there are other, simpler, “plug and play” techniques for hitting power that give quick gratification. Some sound recondite but aren’t (“borrowed energy,” “short power”), others sound as plain and unexotic as they really are, like holding-and-hitting.

We’ll return to those another day. In the meantime, as they like to say in Greenville, in the words of Jim Driscoll, another nearly canonic figure:

Hit first. Hit straight. Hit hard. Hit often.

Feet Are the New Core

Good news: The “core” isn’t the all-important missing link anymore. The cool kids have moved on. Now feet are the new core. Thank heaven, because I got bored of direct midsection work long before the fools in marketing renamed it the “core.”

When did they coin that phrase anyway? I missed the Nineties, living in pre-internet China. But when I came home, I found retail fitness consumers doing “Pilates” (no relation to the crucifixion, it turned out) and I was solemnly informed there was thing called the “core.” The big message was that, even if you have strong prime movers (legs, hips, shoulders), you can’t employ their power if you have a weak, uncoordinated middle. 

In the early 2000s, what Tapout shirts were to MMA, Prowler pushes were to power sports. The Prowler was like a pre-Crossfit beta test for the “masochistic fitness cult identity ritual,” using test subjects who were fat, thick-necked bearded men who looked awful in lycra.

We were taught to think of power flowing up from the ground, through the legs and out the arms; but it would “leak” or dissipate if the midsection lacked the strength to “connect” the lower and upper body. This was and still is true. Imagine you mount a medieval battering ram on a parade float made of Jello: it can’t smash down the castle gates. And if you build strength with, say, a barbell, you work mostly in a vertical plane (against gravity) and might be quite out of your element trying to use it in a horizontal world, unless you have the abs and waist to help your leg drive “turn the corner” and flow through your arms. So in powerlifting and other insalubrious corners of the world, people started dragging sleds and pushing Prowlers.

But there was a glaring gap in the “power coming up from the ground” metaphor that no one bothered to notice. That’s the feet. Imagine a powerful batter or boxer whose feet were replaced with papier-mâché, or his ankles were turned into chewing gum. That would be the end of him. When he hit a ball hard or punched, he’d crumple at the ankles. Or imagine throwing a medicine ball or hitting a heavy bag while you’re on roller skates. You’d feel like the proverbial “cannon shot from a canoe.”

Yes, abs are important for expressing strength horizontally, but they’re actually far downstream of the feet. If strength were a flow chart, then the very first boxes would be, “#1. Are the feet generating power?” “#2. Are they sending it at the right angle?” and “#3. Are the feet holding firm, or are they collapsing or sliding off the launch pad?” The midsection only comes in much later, somewhere between “#12. Am I even going in the right direction?” and “#43. How’s my hair?”

Landing is even more important than launching (terrorism aside), with even bigger forces. Your feet do them every second or so. Given the million changing angles and variables and the insane tempo, and the millions of iterations, I can’t believe that feet have an even better safety and reliability record than jetliners, which another example of mind-blowing forces tamed so reliably that we are only shocked by the rare failures.

In aviation, when an aircraft makes one of these “inappropriate exits from the runway,” the hilariously understated technical term is “runway excursion.” The Latin is unimpeachable (ex+cursus, “running off the course”), but to me it sounds like “a visit to an air strip by Mrs. Beele’s 3rd graders” instead of “an Airbus screaming off the tarmac, plowing a furrow into someones’ neighborhood, and crushing into Dunkin Donuts.”

I got this particular memo late in my mediocre athletic career. I had just left powerlifting (which was forgiving of unathletic feet) and started doing weighted uphill carries and rucking. Needless to say, you don’t get far in those without active feet, and I was amazed to find my feet growing, in my forties! That shouldn’t have been a shock—after all, feet are made of muscle. I’d always thought of shoe size as a fixed quiddity, like eye color, but over a year or two I went up almost a full shoe size. 

Dr. Joel Seedman, prophet of foot and ankle conditioning for power athletes. Five years ago, his cutting edge work was read by a very small circle of cool kids, the very earliest of the early adopters. Then word leaked out and Seedman became the Next Big Thing. And in the past year the “early majority” have become interested and now small wars are fought over his ideas on Instagram.
OK, maybe there’s Chinese acrobat somewhere who can do Muhammad Ali footwork on her hands, but I can hear tendons popping and wrists snapping all the way from Beijing.
Your feet are your personal NFL offensive linemen. Anonymous and under-appreciated, even the lowliest have world-class strength and agility. They deserve more glory, because unless they do their job perfectly at every second, the whole play collapses instantly.

Even at that, my feet are still proving to be the biggest “growth area” in my re-emerging interest in combat sports. Since the summer, I’ve revisited my boyhood love of martial arts and so for the first time in maybe 30 years, I’m really moving my feet in all three dimensions. That is a subject for another day (actually, many many days!), but suffice it to say that it’s introduced me for the first time to the wonders of the heroic, athletic foot. “Footwork wins fights,” as the saying goes, and boy do the feet have to work! In one minute of sparring or drilling, your entire weight is changing direction abruptly 50~100 times, propelled by the feet. I take it for granted until I imagine attempting that same work load with my hands. Can you imagine shuffling, pivoting, and skipping like a kickboxer on your hands?! Impossible. 

Yet any average, undistinguished feet can be trained to do that for hours, every day. All the the humble foot asks is some food and rest, maybe a hot soak now and then, and some gentle massage on a lacrosse ball while you watch TV. On that meagre upkeep, your two personal super-athletes grow colossally thick and muscular (just compare your hand to your foot for a moment!) like a pair of NFL offensive lineman with even less recognition.

Coming up over the approaching weeks and months, more on martial arts from the perspective of strength sports.

Becoming Durable With Tom “The Truth” Furman

“Most people are highly skilled at self-deception.”
–Tom “The Truth” Furman of Physical Strategies, at 60+

Successful people have a trusted someone who tells them truths that they’d rather avoid. When a conquering Roman general paraded in triumph, decked out as the god Jupiter, a veteran next to him would murmur in his ear, under the crowd’s cheers, “Remember you are mortal.” Modern generals and leaders employ a “red team” or some kind of “loyal opposition” to pick holes in their plans. 

This is because, as Orwell wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” So sometimes I think master trainer Tom Furman’s greatest talent is just that he confronts me with truths that are good for me.

Yes, it runs deeper than that: he reads all the journals, attends the workshops, follows the new trends, and then filters them through his bullsh** detector that’s five decades thick. Sober people like Tom are the reason that I survived the early 2000s without severing my spinal cord or blowing tendons by following stupid trends like high-rep timed barbell snatches or back squats on a wobble board.

But above all, Tom keeps the truth the truth. I owe him a report every Monday on the week’s eating, exercise, weight, and waist. And when I delude myself about the tale of the tape, “Tom the Truth” tells me what I’m choosing not to know. 

If the most effective way to lie is to change definitions, Tom guards them from me. If the sneakiest way to subvert success is to move goalposts on the sly, Tom fixes them in concrete. The blue collar fighter from Pittsburgh tore up the “Everyone’s a Winner!” memo and crumbled it up between his thumb and pinky to train grip strength.

In a year of family trials, there was one huge joy too! Lean Solid Girl got promoted to Lean Solid Wife.

Hence I could have had no better coach during this past year of family troubles than Tom, to help me self-arrest before I slid down a mountain of travails and into a Himalayan crevasse of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Tom gently but firmly kept me pointed upward and didn’t entertain my self-accommodating illusions that maybe faeries were causing me mysteriously to hold water temporarily-for-months-at-a-time.

Now that I’ve climbed back out of the Valley of the Shadow, I’m still on track. Under Tom’s wholesome influence, I’ve regained lost ground and also shaken nagging mobility limitations and periodic joint issues too.

This Summer’s Game

This summer I’ve been ordered by the doctor to lay off serious training for a couple months following a small (but perfectly benign) surgery. I’m prohibited from anything to raise intra-abdominal pressure, which is tantamount to a prohibition against doing anything. 

That means no running, kettlebells, backpacks, pullups, presses, or punching bags. Barbells are banned; dumbbells are disallowed, except those tiny ones coated in neoprene. 

Athletically, this sounded worse than a jail sentence, since even in lockup I could maybe pump out hours of bodyweight convict workouts. Instead, it’s more like three months in a nursing home, shuffling slowly and doing water aerobics.

But you can make a game of most anything. After all, what are strictures except rules of a game that you haven’t invented yet? So this summer’s game has been, “Doing something, anything, to move around that won’t get me in trouble with the doctor. My score is total minutes per day. Bonus points if it improves something that I’ve neglected.”

To my surprise, this has been fun and productive! Aside from walking modest but growing distances, I’ve found ways to say occupied with light Indian clubs, dumbbells, and bands; rubber tubing to do I, T, Y, and W pulls to prehab the shoulders; modified pushup and crawling variations; the few stretches that don’t violate the surgeon’s rules; and easy static holds in one- and two-legged squat positions, up high with no abdominal bracing.

Particularly fun have been wall pushup variations to strengthen finger and forearm extensors. Whenever I get sore elbows, I’ve learned, it means I need to work those extensors, which are always too weak to match the flexors. 

Calorie Balance and Deficit

“If you want to tell people the truth,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

To my great surprise, I’m staying in a small calorie deficit without trouble. I feared that I’d be consigned to the couch all summer, with no ruck on my back and a spoon in each hand. 

Tom had a simple preventive medicine for this: Eat less. Tom subscribes to the school of “Calories in, calories out. You can’t deny physics and chemistry, and you can’t outrun a donut.” It’s a simple truth, an unpopular one, and it survives perennial attempts at hand-waving circumvention. You have entered “The Tom Furman Zone.”

Fortunately, if you accept that an unwelcome truth is, well, true, life gets much simpler! When I had to get much less active and scale down my calorie intake, I learned that Tom really has been speaking the truth when he tells me, “You need less food than you think.” There’s plenty of utility in hacks like volumetrics, where you fill up on foods high in fiber and water content, but I always take a good idea too far. In my case, that looks like me compulsively eating horse-sized bulk meals out of with a family-sized salad bowl, trying to satisfy myself on sheer poundage. 

But when I have a normal, low level of activity, I’m okay eating normal (and measured) servings of food. (And for tracking food, Noom is a gift from the heavens. It makes logging and budgeting calories supremely easy.)

I’m even leaning vegetarian again, which is a balm to my conscience, and my body isn’t objecting. Maybe this is an upside of getting being lean and light, not carrying extra weight (fat or muscle), and going light on the exercise. 

Next stop on the Tom Train is to trim off a final six or seven pounds, two more inches of waist, and get to a good fighting weight in the 150s. (Call it 70kg and change.)

At that point, I’ll want to reward myself with something I hope to write about soon, the “Skinny Cat Challenge!”

Before Buff: Why Were Dad Bods Admired In the Early 1900s?

Ever look at old-time photos showing paragons of manliness? Ever notice how many turn-of-the-century sex symbols are proudly repping dad bods?

It gets stranger: other models from the period look every bit as sculpted and Grecian as Brad Pitt in Troy, but no one seems to care. There’s no indication that anyone in 1900–the photographers, the models, or the audiences–preferred the buff guys to the dad bods.

What changed?

The Modern Aesthetic Is Weird

For modern Americans, living in the age of images, we’re fixated visually on proportions and textures. Without being aware of it, we’re checking out the relative girth or narrowness of waists, thighs, upper arms, and maybe necks.

As bodybuilding superfans know, the athlete who “looks biggest” might not actually be the heaviest or thickest guy on stage, but he at least looks that way because of his proportions. For example, he might measure smaller in the chest and shoulders than his competitor but appear broader owing to a narrower waist. His biceps will look bigger if he’s thinner at the elbow joint, and delts look more massive if they’re more defined. Cut, striated muscles capture the modern eye better than smooth ones because of their striking visual texture. Bodybuilding competitors look far bigger after dieting for a contest, when they’re at their leanest and smallest, than in the off-season with 20 or 30 extra pounds of subcutaneous fat and water.

Competitive bodybuilders can look big as Godzilla on stage but small in street clothes that obscure their proportions or definition. Bodybuilding immortal Clarence Bass weighs only 159 lbs. here (72kg). In a polo shirt you’d mistake him for just a serious golfer or a UPS man.

So why our fixation on these proportions and textures? It wasn’t always like this. Sure, it’s not all culturally dependent: I’m told that humans are wired to find proxies for fighting prowess and fertility in a man’s height and a woman’s hip-waist ratio. But those aren’t the proportions I’m talking about: I mean the modern American man’s wish for big muscles around the shoulder girdle, a narrow waist, and a finely etched abdomen. And yes, modern tastes do shift over time, like clothing fashions: today’s “yoked” look is different from the Arnold look, which differed from the Sixties look, which was WAY different from the Fifties look (owing to “vitamin S”), and the post-war Fifties look differed from the Depression-ear Thirties look.

However, before about 1920, we cross an uncanny valley into an America whose physique photos mark it as almost a different country, with physique ideals that are all over the place.

Some of these guys could succeed in 2022 as fitness models or amateur bodybuilders. But others look like they developed their physiques playing Starcraft II in an eSports league. Yet in 1900, there’s no sign that they’re considered less dreamy.

For example, France’s leading physical culturist made this full-page ad, and the longer I stare, that more disturbingly feminine it seems. To me he looks like a candidate for estrogen blockers and no more soy. But in 1908, people in three countries were paying him for lessons.

In the budding physique industry of 1908, these were beefcake shots. Today they’d almost be blackmail material.

So why didn’t the public of 1900 care whether a guys was cut to ribbons or looked like Captain Cookie Dough? What rewired our brains and created our modern aesthetic?

It’s the Photography, Stupid

If you were born before photography, you seldom saw bodies as still images. Excepting some mostly inaccessible statues and paintings, there were no frozen images of people’s bodies that you could study closely, at length and without staring impolitely. The only way to view people’s appearance was in real time, in real space and real life, with no mediation and no way to capture their image. You saw them in motion, in three dimensions, from all angles and distances, and mostly unposed, without special lighting, and wearing clothes.

Thank goodness the industry discarded the fig leaf trope quickly. Give this man a tiger skin loincloth. Or just release the kraken. But you can’t go “classical Athens” on top and “Book of Genesis” on bottom.

Only after photographs were invented did ordinary people slowly learn to appraise physiques in still images, where the subject bared his body and exhibited it in athletic trunks, a leopard skin, or (heaven help us) a fig leaf.

That was completely foreign to most humans until photos were invented.

Only after mass-market photography saturated America, I think, did we very slowly start to prefer muscular separation.

Of course, we kept tweaking physique ideals after that, but only concerning what kind of muscular separation we most admired–which muscles, what proportions, what visual texture.

Outright “definition.” Muscle Beach pro George Eiferman is lit to maximize his visual texture. We can see individual muscle heads, some striation in his midsection and thighs, deep shadows between muscle groups, and even some vascular “ripping” in his arms. Though Eiferman still looks smooth by standards of the coming steroid era, this image (1950) shows exactly where the industry is headed.

What Came Before Buff?

Now we can answer the question “What the heck was the standard of male physical excellence around 1900 that accounts for the array of physiques?” I think the answer is, they weren’t admiring physiques with a certain look, they were admiring what they looked like they could do.

I’m sure he has great abs, but that’s not really the point here.
(www.rarehistoricalphotos.com)

Before photos, what people saw of a man’s virility would mostly be his activity—you saw him working, hunting, fighting, or playing sports—or something impressive that he made by his activity: lumber that he cut, earth or ore that he dug, a structure he built, an animal he hunted, a person he defeated, a product he made.

Even a carnival strongman’s job was to amaze customers with his actions, not his physique. He performed feats–toying with an anvil, holding aloft a dancing ballerina in each hand–instead of poses.

What made this a “physique photo” circa 1900? What did Québecois strongman Louis Cyr and the photographer want to display for our admiration? In this case, it was “just” Cyr’s terrific girth. His arms, legs, chest, shoulders don’t look particularly shapely or hypertrophied (except maybe those big endomorphic calves), but they are all just huge. There’s nothing small on this guy: he’s uniformly enormous. If you lived a life of manual toil, when you looked at Cyr, you pictured the extraordinary ways such a human Clydesdale could help or harm you.

Try looking at 19th century strongman Louis Cyr with 19th century eyes. With your modern Instagram consciousness, you wouldn’t tag him as “sex symbol.” But imagine you live without power tools or Home Depot. You need to build a barn or unload a freight car: anything painful, heavy, and fatiguing. Now imagine you can use a lifeline and call anyone in the world to help you. Presto! Against a backdrop of daily toil, this guy starts to look beautiful. Seriously, if you labored all your days at mining, moving steel beams, butchering cattle, or hauling lumber, you would dream about befriending such men.

As your enemy, Cyr would look terrible and awesome. Look at him again, and imagine that you and your union brothers are striking. A truck rolls up and unloads goons hired by the bosses. Rough stuff is coming. Bones will get broken, maybe yours. Nearby you spot an ox-man like Louis Cyr. Is he with you or with the goons? In this situation, no one can be emotionally neutral about someone Cyr’s size. Either your monkey brain is flooded with love and gratitude for his gigantic presence, or your veins feel electrified with fear.

Just as “there are no atheists in foxholes,” I’d guess were no aesthetes in turn-of-the-century mining towns, or farm settlements, or saw mills or iron works.

Or rather, they were all aesthetes and appraised human forms by various standards (that’s just a fact of our primate nature), but they derived those standards less from seeing than doing.    

Strength performer Eugen Sandow and his manager pretty much invented the modern physique industry on the day in 1893 that they noticed that audiences at their strongman shows seemed curious about his peculiar, corrugated flesh. While Sandow was juggling sledgehammers or whatever, some spectators paid more attention to the workings of his sharply defined, anatomy-chart musculature. They decided to try adding another segment to the show: Sandow would take a few minutes off from bending horseshoes and flex his bare muscles for the audience to look at. People liked it! The canny entrepreneur helped invent the new art of physique photography, and much they way Edison and Bell grand-sired your local power company and phone provider, Sandow hacked a path through the early photographic era for the future muscle industry of physique photos, magazines, studios, and mail-order courses.

In a future piece, I will speculate, meditate, and bloviate about when America gathered its ideas about manly physical development mostly from boxing and wrestling instead of weightlifting, and the difference it made when your experience of physiques was as much tactile and kinesthetic as visual, when physiques weren’t just objects of vision but also grabbed or punched each other.

Sherpas of the Desert: How South Africa Mastered Rucking In Dry Heat

Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we think a lot about backpacking in hot, arid landscapes, and we’re always seeking wisdom for dry heat from neglected corners of world.

Why? Because of a cosmic joke. Even though my ancestors and I lived in foggy, damp, northerly climes ever since hominids left Africa, fate has resettled me in the bone dry, scorching hot western US interior. My genes think we’re wearing bear skins in a German forest, but my ass is cooking in sun-baked chaparral. 

Lean Solid Girl says I’m really a springer spaniel. If stuck indoors, I chew on the woodwork. Better to have me wrecking things outdoors.

But what am I going to do, waste my life playing video games in the A/C? Hell no, I must romp around outdoors—rucking is not optional for me.

So I learn from people with experience in hot savannas and arid hills. Especially relative late-comers who adapted successfully. Americans and Brits have learned a lot about deserts in the last 80 years. But we also have some other teachers out there too, who have worked within their own distinct traditions.

Certainly Israel qualifies. Half of their country is desert. ‘Nuff said. Besides, despite close ties with the US, the Israeli army is absolutely unique in many ways and the very opposite of an epigone of any foreign military advisors

Then comes France. Though the Land of the Gauls is not a desert environment, since Napoleon’s time French troops have romped very actively around North Africa, and even today they are intimately involved in Djibouti and Chad. With a distinct military tradition of her own, France diverged from Anglo-American practice almost as sharply as it is possible for a Western European country to do. (OK, Switzerland and Sweden diverged even more, but they are not exactly princes of the desert.) And France invented the awesome, light canvas boots that Israel later adopted!


China excels in that old Second World genius for “low cost, high concept” design. On their long border with Mongolia, for example, troops traded their vehicles for camels. In a featureless landscape plagued by sandstorms, drivers have trouble seeing roads, but the camels have an unerring internal compass.

And the Chinese can probably offer lessons about desert operations. Their military interest in “the Great Northwest” (e.g. Xinjiang) and Inner Mongolia goes back several continuous centuries, and the PLA has been upgrading its desert forces. And it exemplifies a lot of the qualities that make for ingenuity, like outsider independence. 

And then there’s … South Africa?

I never associated South Africa with “desert warfare”—a phrase that conjures images of T.E. Lawrence with Bedouins and scimitars in the shifting Arabian sands. But South Africa includes three deserts and plenty of other arid terrain that many groups have trekked and fought over. Moreover, in the 20thcentury alone, South Africans found themselves fighting the Boer War, both World Wars, the Rhodesian Bush War, the Mozambican Civil War, the Natal Civil War, and the South African Border War (plus some others) and operated on desert/arid terrain in the Cape, Natal, Botswana, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and Namibia, and also in Egypt and Libya against the Axis. 

The South African Defense Force (SADF) in Namibia, in the last of the great East-West proxy wars. This is also what it looks like a stone’s throw over my back fence.

Those are some dry places, my friends. South Africa itself gets only half the global average of rainfall, and the main theater for the Border War, Namibia, is the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa.

Not the Anglosphere. Only one South African in 10 speaks English as their first language. For most, it’s Zulu, Xhosa, or Afrikaans, or another of their eleven (!!) official languages. The culture of the SADF was overwhelmingly Afrikaans, not English.

Even better for us, South Africa remained unique. It never assimilated much into the Anglosphere (at least not for a British dominion) and because it was ostracized for much of the Cold War, it was left to innovate in relative seclusion.

And it did so among a shocking variety of influences: the SADF itself had a British heritage institutionally, but culturally it was overwhelmingly Afrikaans. Though mostly white, it also accepted non-white volunteers. The SADF interacted with its counterparts in Rhodesia and Israel, and it had some support from the US. And it operated in a theater crowded with more players than a Bollywood dance number: not just the immediate neighbors–Angolans, Namibians, Zambians, and Mozambicans–but also their foreign sponsors: the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany, China, and North Korea. At one point the SADF even fought head to head against a division-strength Cuban enemy.

That meant that Seventies and Eighties southern Africa became a kind of melting pot and R&D lab for many of the features of 21st-century “small wars” and insurgencies: the rise of roadside bombs; the drawing in of foreign volunteers; the high importance of informants and police work; three-sided wars with multiple insurgencies who also fought each other. South Africa and neighboring Rhodesia became the early experts in counterinsurgency, developing the “fireforce” concept and new vehicles for traveling vast distances with little in the way of secure roads. Mine-resistant troop carriers that can thwart IEDs? South Africa invented those. All those new tanks-on-wheels? South Africa has done that for decades.

Today’s US mine-resistant vehicles are descended from the South African Buffel (“Buffalo”). Happily, my town is largely free of mines so I drive a Honda.

And we care about this … why?

Like the American military after the Cold War, the SADF of 1980 was orienting itself more to the desert. Where before they thought of themselves as a conventional mechanized army defending against Soviet-style armored formations, now their enemies were increasingly conducting a Maoist insurgency along their long borders, and that meant foot-mobile desert warfare.

Sorry for the history lesson. I’m a professor by trade…

None of this would matter to us at Lean Solid Dogs, where we just ruck and rarely hit IEDs or parachute into gunfights, except for one pivotal trick of fate. South Africa was unique in a very consequential way: They could not rely on air power so they had to start walking a lot.

See, other countries in a predicament like South Africa’s, outnumbered and isolated among hostile neighbors, all do the same thing: they rely on their aircraft. The French did it in Indochina. Israel did it in the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War, and the Americans in Vietnam, and the Soviet and Western forces again in Afghanistan. Since I don’t have a helicopter, that doesn’t do anything for me.

But unlike those others, South Africa could barely supply its aging air force with spare parts because of the UN embargo, so they flew very sparingly. Lacking the plentiful air support of other Western-style armies, they were forced to compensate with very, very long foot patrols, in dry country under a bright sun.

Paratroopers might walk a parched, sandy Namibian or Angolan landscape for a week or more, carrying all their necessities on their backs. AJ Venter describes 7- to 11-day patrols in Ovamboland (northern Namibia), walking 12+ hours per day in sand and packing about 40kg (88 lbs.). Granger Korff writes of similar patrols in Angola lasting for several weeks with resupply only every five days.

The SADF adapted impressively to this unexpected new reality and changed out a lot of its “soldier systems,” the kit for the individual guys.

For our purposes, what they did was to figure out the best systems for their guys to carry stuff on their bodies. With a special view to arid climates. What Sherpas are to high altitude, the SADF made themselves to dry heat.

They proudly filched ideas from both sides of the Iron Curtain, and they invented another so outlandish that it became a science fiction icon.

This is the story of South Africa’s “Pattern 83,” and this is the subject of our new series. Watch this space.

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.

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

Assume the Position: Star Course AAR, Part II

Click here for Part I, “Soiled But Unsullied.”

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

From noontime on, Lean Solid Girl was the one holding me together. And by dinner, she was literally holding me upright.

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.

Soiled But Unsullied: Star Course AAR, part I

“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.

Continue to Part II

“Those the gods would destroy, they encumber with a TRX instructor”

It’s always some heavily muscled personal trainer. My toughest moments at Goruck challenges are when I must fireman’s carry a teammate, and it’s never the vegetarian triathlete who works for a socially conscious startup. I always get the dense, hypertrophied Paleo stevedore-type who runs a gym.

It’s amazingly easy to fireman’s carry someone, but it’s surpringly hard to keep it up for long. So today’s game was called “Desmond Down,” in honor of the barrel-chested personal trainer whom I had the horror honor of helping to carry for the last mile on Saturday, when he was suddenly designated a “casualty” by cadre fiat. I trudged up the Rock of Faeries shoulder-carrying the 150# sandbag.

You’d expect the climbing to be the worst part, and you’d be right, but I was surprised by just how hard–I’ll bet the last 150 vertical feet took close to an hour. And it wasn’t much easier to lift the bag onto the shoulder in the first place. In both cases, the golden rule seems to be keep your hips directly under the bag. “Duh,” right? But you can let the hips drift without noticing, and even a couple of inches increases the stress and heart rate.

I’ll do this one again, but not on rocky slopes. I have plenty of good training ideas that don’t risk falling on igneous rock, and if I had attempted this in the shallowly-treaded Goruck boots, I’d be blogging from Valhalla right now.