The French really understand parched, roasting climates. From 200 years of walking around North Africa, they figured out what to wear for brain-boiling heat.
If you’re a regular reader of Lean, Solid Dogs, you already know that I love short shorts. And my favorites are surplus French Army shorts. Cheap, durable, and comfortable, they would be 100% perfect if not for the tragic European aversion to back pockets.
But my French cousins absolutely aced one other piece of hot weather gear: the GAO shirt. Think of it as an optimized tank top. Its most distinctive feature is that it doesn’t have sides, just straps that hold the front and back together while ventilating your body. For even more ventilation, there’s a deep V-neck that leaves about half your chest exposed to the air. Only the shoulders get extra coverage to protect them from the sun and the chafing of pack straps or other loads. And the designers even compensated for the lack of back pockets on their shorts but putting a sort of dump pouch across the small of the back, like some cycling jerseys have.
The GAO shirt’s origins are somewhat mysterious and people are unsure where the name comes from. It might be named after the Gao region of Niger, or it could be an acronym for “Operational Support Group” (Groupe d’Appui Opérationnel). What we do know is that it appeared in 1983 in Chad, when the French Army helped repel a Libyan invasion.
To my surprise, I’ve never seen a GAO shirt on anyone else in the United States. Peerless for hot, dry weather, they deserve to be better known. I first saw them years ago in Claire Denis’ film Beau travail and instantly saw how comfortable they would be.
French surplus GAO shirts are cheap but very difficult to buy from within the US for some reason, even in the age of Ebay and FedEx. However, they are easy to make. If you get hold a French specimen to copy, a sewing machine, and some 33% polyester ripstop fabric, you’re in business. If readers are dying for a pattern, drop us a line and I’ll do my best to provide you to provide you with one.
I’ve long preached that you should do workouts that you enjoy. It’s actually pretty easy to make progress, and if you’re consistent about doing those easy things, you’ll soon be achieving milestones that put you far, far, far ahead of the general population.
And how do you know if you’re continuing to make progress with your easy, enjoyable training? You just keep track of some key benchmarks over time, including some standard workouts. If you keep improving in those numbers, you’re doing something right!
For example, easy running guru Maffetone has his athletes run a standard test workout periodically. They run three miles at a pre-determined, low heart rate: if their time improves, they know their aerobic base is improving.
One of my benchmarking workouts is the hike to my favorite camping spot in the Marijuana Highlands. It’s 15 miles of bad, steep terrain. On my first romp out there in 21 months ago, I took a pack weighing 45# (wet) and needed 7 hours to arrive in camp. When I got there I was delirious and sore all over, my feet looked like raw chicken breasts, and it took a long, painful time just to strip off my clothes and boots. On future trips I cut the hike down to 5.5 hours and didn’t wreck myself getting to camp, but it was still a substantial hike.
So I was blown away by my last trip. Despite taking it very easy, I arrived in camp an hour faster than ever before and fresh as a bowl of strawberries. This being my first big romp of the year, I assumed I would be tired and slow, but on the contrary it was barely lunch time and I was sitting in camp with hours of daylight left, tons of pep, and nothing to do.
So I packed up and did the whole thing in reverse! I spent 95 minutes eating nuts, swimming in the stream, and having coffee, and then I rucked up and marched all the way back. It was a joy! I didn’t push myself on the return march (and in fact had to slow down several times to keep my heart rate under control), but without trying I ended up equaling my best-ever time of 5.5 hours.
This was a huge surprise. I figured it would be possible to hike straight back, to save someone’s life or as a stupid stunt, but I supposed you’d have to do it on pure gumption and willpower.
But now I know better because I just did it, out of boredom and with a smile on my face!
After experimenting a lot, I have arrived at some hard-won conclusions about boots for rucking.
As reported earlier, I rejected GORUCK’s own house brand of boots, the MACV-1. Though attractive and wonderfully light, they have so little tread that I kept slipping and falling on down slopes. Unacceptable. They also lack a “shank,” a stiffener in the sole that helps you toe off the ground when your arches are tired.
I also gave an audition to Rocky’s inexpensive RLW or “Rocky light weight” boots, which look like the big brothers of the MACV-1. They are reasonably light, deeply treaded, and tall enough that I can “double lace” them, i.e. lace the instep separately from the ankle. However, being an economy model, they have a seam in the heel that many purchasers complain give them blisters (I did have a bit of that too, but you can counter that with an Engo pad) and their tongues are constructed in a strange way that required a long break-in before they stopped rubbing my instep raw. I could have gotten past both these bugs, but crucially, these boots lack a shank. I wore them for a 42-mile training ruck, and after twenty miles I longed for that stiffened sole. By that point I had used up my foot muscles for the day and, lacking a stiff boot sole, I could not toe off the ground anymore and instead was reduced to short, choppy steps. Never again. Not for a long distances.
And of course I have plenty of heavy boots that could probably kick through concrete, like my plug-ugly surplus combat boots issued by Germany’s Bundeswehr. If a crocodile masticated and swallowed them, the German giants would just emerge from the other side perfectly serviceable. These are just the thing for search-and-rescue bushwhacking. And shanks, oh, the shanks! You could probably drive a nail with them. But at over a kilo each—only Iron Man has heavier boots—these are not boots you can wear for 50 miles.
No, the “Goldilocks” boot is Rocky’s S2V Predator, which is a medium weight (about 800g each) and has the all-important shank. They also scarcely need breaking in. I double lace them, use “ladder lacing” on my left instep (which apparently is bigger than my right), and it’s quick and easy for me to adjust the fit to my level of foot swelling and the terrain.
These work great with my preferred sock set-up, a FoxRiver liner sock inside a Finnish M05 liner sock. Together with my new, larger and wider boot size, these kept my toes happy, uncrowded, and essentially unblistered for the whole fifty miles of the Star Course. No burgerfeet!
Note that I still love jackboots! I still think of them as my best all-round boots, the ones I’d grab if you said, “Get your boots on, we’re going on a mystery adventure! I won’t tell you any details at all: beaches or woods or mountains or city, wet or dry, rain or snow or sun—it’s all a surprise! Maybe we’ll be gone for a day, maybe for a month.” That would be easy: I would wear my $20 rubberized East German jackboots and bring one extra pair of sliced up bed sheets footwraps.
But jackboots make sense as my ideal general-purpose boot, whereas here we’re talking specifically about walking 50 miles through a city at top speed, which is very specialized indeed.
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.
* * * *
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I met The Jolly Irishman minutes into my first GORUCK event, at kissing distance. We were all told to pair up: one person would bear walk across the beach and tow the other, who lay supine and clutched him around the neck. I ended up as a “top” with Irish as my “bottom.” Not having been in this situation with a muscular man since high school wrestling, I dispelled the awkwardness I felt by promising to buy him dinner and flowers next time. But Irish is a permanently grinning barman and adventurer who could instantly form a bond of friendship with a pit viper or a kraken. No ice breaker was necessary.
Irish proved indestructible and unflappably fun through that long night of smoke sessions and sandbags. After surf torture I was a quivering shambles, but Irish was still chuckling, calmly helping people, and having the time of his life. And the message he broadcast implicitly was, “This sucks, but you’re up to it physically, so let go and laugh at the absurdity! Across the street some lonely financial planner is watching TV in his $2 million living room, and you’ve chosen to fireman carry a Filipino school teacher with sand in your nostrils! Trust me, this is awesome!”
At every GORUCK event, I’m reminded of a fragment from Heraclitus: “Out of every hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, and nine are the real fighters … But the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.” Apparently Heraclitus did a Heavy or two, because late in the game there’s always one person who undertakes the heaviest lifting and also shows irrepressible good cheer.
Thus it was that when I first contemplated doing the Star Course, my top choice for a battle buddy was The Jolly Irishman. After blowing it in San Francisco three weeks before, I wanted redemption and I would not risk the slightest chance of another failure. There are only two people I could confidently call a 100% certainty for success, and of those two the Irishman was Numero Uno. He’s incapable of quitting and I knew he’d keep walking for just as long as his legs were attached.
The question was what we would do for logistical support. Unlike other GORUCK Challenges, on a Star Course you can stop to buy food and water whenever you please. But this takes time—it’s more efficient if someone brings it to you. And more fun! It’s also more efficient if you don’t have to carry all of your just-in-case items on your back, things like rain gear, spare batteries, spare socks, baby wipes, and other essentials. And there’s no better feeling than taking out your whole hydration bladder and letting the crew car schlep it to the next waypoint! Three liters of water weighs 6.6 pounds!
Following my failed Star Course, I anatomized my wrong decisions with Lean Solid Girl, who has Napoleon’s level of logistical mentality. We worked out theories about how best to “crew” (i.e. run a support crew) efficiently and safely, and we theorized that ideally the crew needs two people.
Irish and I began asking around for one or two jockish college students we could hire to make supply drops. I even briefly contemplated what might happen if we attempted a Grub Hub order for samosas and mango lassis with instructions like “Just leave it in the parking lot at Mercerdale Park. Try to hang it from a tree branch so the racoons don’t get it.” Instead, we got the Dream Team: Lean Solid Girl volunteered to fly to Seattle on the weekend before we started our teaching semester to (wo)man the crew car, and Lady Irish did the same! This illustrates why it makes terrific sense for athletes to couple up with other athletes. Lean Solid Girl did a 50-miler long before I did, and marathons too, and she gets into projects that any “normie” would dismiss as a quixotic death march, and she is actually interested in crewing such a thing, which goes so far above and beyond the call of duty that it deserves some kind of GORUCK Medal of Honor.
To prepare for the Seattle Star Course, I’ve been playing with topo maps, Google Maps, and Road Warrior, feeding them different scenarios, and here’s what I’ve concluded: 1) Plan with Road Warrior, but don’t walk with it. As far as I can tell, Road Warrior is really designed for delivery drivers. It’s great for driving on errands in the most efficient order. But when you choose this path or that path to walk to your next point, you’re stretching Road Warrior outside of what it’s designed for. Despite its “walking” mode, it thinks you’re a very slow car and cares nothing about elevation. I fed it scenarios in Seattle and it always dictates the straightest possible line, even up steep slopes, and even when a flatter alternative exists. (Example: In one scenario, instead of a 2.4-mile route with only 100 ft of climb, it chose the more direct 2.3-mile path that climbs almost 400 feet!) 2) Walk with Google Maps on CYCLING mode: Cyclists terrify me on the winding rural highways near my home, where once a year I whizz around a turn at 55mph and suddenly have a near-death encounter with a slow-moving peloton. But DAMN they get things done in Silicon Valley! Because even though Google Maps shows decent awareness of elevation when you ask for directions in walking mode, it rocks at avoiding climbs in cycling mode. Here’s an example: It suggests three routes: 2.2 miles and a 285-ft climb; 2.3 miles and a 108-ft climb; or 2.7 miles and a 49-ft climb. And no traffic either.
In a side bar they provide a graph comparing the climbs:
You still need Road Warrior (or a comparable app) because Google Maps can’t handle your “hit list” of a dozen-plus waypoints. But I’d say that after you order the points in the optimal sequence, you can pretty much leave Road Warrior alone and just glance at it occasionally to reacquaint yourself with the bigger picture. But speaking of the bigger picture…
3) Paper maps. I’m going to use my paper map(s) more. When I’m tired or busy, I want to look at something bigger than my index card-sized phone screen, and whose scale doesn’t zoom in and out to the point of disorientation. And if I have time during halts, I’ll pencil in our macro-level route plan so we’ll have a tangible depiction of our progress through the course.
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.
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.
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.”
GORUCK sometimes calls the Star Course their hardest event. I doubt that very much, but this was the toughest I’ve done. I expected that after my surprisingly grueling training hike, but I was still surprised by the added burden of route-finding and the premium put on strategy and organization.
Early in the night, we emerged from a dark trail above the ocean and stumbled upon a throng of people clustered busily around a brightly lit SUV in what appeared to be a news shoot or a crime scene investigation. I was wrong: it was a rival team on the Star Course with a logistical crew that looked like it belonged on the Tour de France. All five doors were open, with light streaming out, and pallets of bottled water and food were broken open and passed out in an atmosphere of calm but rapid efficiency. Next to the vehicle, a woman held up an iPad showing a countdown timer with bright red numbers four inches high. When I walked past, still gaping, they had 0:58 seconds left on their clock. When I reached the next block and looked back, the entire scene had evaporated like a mirage.
With or without a backup crew, a team must assign positions to its members and carry out three key functions:
Walking: Each person must walk for him- or herself, but also somebody has to be certain the group is moving fast enough to adhere to their game plan.
Navigating: As one cadre has said, “You live and die by your route.” At least one person must eye this at all times. In addition to route-finding, sometimes the team might be trying to walk an unmarked footpath in complete darkness and need additionally a sort of “point man” just to figure how to keep to the path from one footstep to the next.
Communicating: This involves both running Instagram and talking with your backup crew, if you have one. On the Star Course, from each waypoint the team must post an Instagram selfie against a specified background (e.g. “Make sure your photo includes the inscription over the gate”) with a specified hashtag. When you are tired, it takes concentration to get these details right and run Instagram with your face in your smudged, grimy screen while speed-walking. Additionally, if you are lucky enough to have friends in a car bringing you supplies, it can be harder than you think to coordinate time and location with them, especially on a nice Saturday morning in city streets, parks, and local attractions, when the city is teeming with traffic, tourists, pedestrians going to brunch, and rollerbladers and cyclists enjoying the sunshine. (This is also why your backup crew really needs two people in the car, one to coordinate with you so that the other can concentrate exclusively on driving safely.)
At a minimum, you want to divide these responsibilities between two people at a time, and more would be even better. When things are busy, you might need separate people handling the phone and Instagram, and in bad navigation conditions it can help to have one person handling the route-finding software, a second person checking their work on Google Maps, and a third person on point who strains their eyes to find the pathway in darkness and rain.
That may sound exaggerated, but on Saturday I was trying to conduct all the functions alone, when I was the last surviving member of my team, and I scarcely had enough fingers to operate Road Warrior, Google Maps, phone, text, Insta, and the “hit list” of way point instructions. In fact, I could barely walk right, between fatigue and having my head bent down the whole time, peering at a grungy screen through sweaty lenses.
The only reason that I continued to function at all was that Lean Solid Girl staged the most heroic performance I’ve yet seen or heard of. Like a thousand-armed bodhisattva who appears in many places simultaneously, she kept driving ahead to scout out waypoints, talk me through the required photos and tags, and sometimes just took over Instagram entirely so I would only have to navigate. One moment she was pulling alongside and passing coffee through her car window, the next she was texting me with a route correction, then she materialized again at my waypoint with her camera ready to snap, and then she would vanish into traffic again. I can barely remember Saturday morning because of brain fog, but by that point it was Lean Solid Girl who had assumed the position of leader of my stumbling team-of-one. She had taken on as much of the navigation and communication functions as it was possible for a supernumerary to do, and I was basically just executing Function #1, walking.
In our conclusion, a dramatic fall, two heartbreaks, a victory, “the cookie jar,” and what it feels like to be homeless.
“Amazing!” I thought. “If you piss yourself in black running tights, it just looks like sweat!” At least to the casual observer. I was hobbling at top speed through a raunchy part of the Mission district that could have been in a documentary called Dirty Harry’s San Francisco, and fully a quarter of the men there also reeked of urine, so why not me?
This was the infamous Star Course, a 50-mile (80km) ruck race. In teams of two to five, athletes find their way on foot to a long list of waypoints in any order they choose and report back to the start point within 20 hours.
At 10am and still only halfway through the course, I was now alone and behind schedule. I had begun the previous night before in a team of four. We had walked through the night down the cliffs and beaches of San Francisco to an old missile base-turned-park 25 miles away, but near first light the team was in trouble. The others had run a half-marathon a couple weeks before and then put their house on the market that very day. They decided to brave the race anyway, but they were starting out on half a tank at best and withdrew once they knew they couldn’t make the 20-hour cutoff time.
I was marching on alone, still energetic but far behind schedule, but that was not my real problem. No, far worse was that I faced a return trip of 25 miles in broad daylight and needed to drink water by the liter with virtually no bathrooms. Well, more accurately, no bathrooms that would be open to me and—now that every single second mattered—without deviating off course every hour, maybe buying something, and waiting in a line.
I was seized by the full horror of the problem soon after I gulped down a cup of coffee brought by the angelic Lean Solid Girl. I bottoms-upped a venti breakfast blend without breaking step and felt like a million bucks for about ten minutes, when I understood that I had swallowed a time bomb. In fact, more like a grenade with no pin. In the distance I spotted a baseball diamond and ran for it, but I was much, much too late. There was only time to make sure that the man walking the Boston terrier did not witness my humiliation.
And then it was over. Taking stock of my situation, I found it not all that bad. Yes, I had pissed in my own clothes in public view, but on the plus side, I no longer had to go to the bathroom. Also, I would be walking along I-280, under bridges and into San Francisco, where people defecate on sidewalks so routinely that there is a specialized navigational app to help the discriminating pedestrian avoid human excreta. No one would look twice at a homeless-looking man in a motley ensemble of dirty military surplus and tights soaked with what might or might not be sweat. For sheer human deviance, I might as well have been in the Times Square of the pre-Giuliani years, except that in kindly San Francisco people would be too polite to stare or comment if they suspected my true condition.
And suspect they did. I am certain of it. The elderly Chinese woman walking near the underpass had clearly seen a few things in her time and knew something was up with my tights. The charming French couple at the Moraga Steps seemed to smile a little tensely as I approached. But so what? I would never see any of them again, and now that whole problem was solved. It really is true that once the bounds of decency are first broken and a taboo is ignored, further inhibition collapses swiftly and totally. I would refine my technique a bit, making sure that both legs appeared equally “sweaty” and keeping as much as possible out of my boots, but I was back in the race. I still had to navigate 20 more miles in 5 hours and hit ten more waypoints, but I had moved the dial back down from Completely Hopeless to just Almost Definitely F***ed.
“At GORUCK events, people’s foot care is surprisingly poor,” said the former ultra runner somewhere around Mile 20. I smarted at the comment, but I couldn’t deny it: the inside of my own boot was slowly grating my little toe like parmesan.
You meet a wide rainbow of fellow weirdos at GORUCK challenges with different athletic backgrounds, ranging from Crossfitters (the most numerous) all the way to equestrian gymnast(!). This was the first time I’d encountered a serious distance runner, though, and it became clear that that community was privy to an advanced science of foot health as foreign to the rest of us as architecture was to Visigoths and Huns.
At the moment, neither he nor I had breath for a long tutorial on the subject, but I resolved to study more after our team lost our second member of the night to foot injury and my own foot was being ground up into burger meat.
Here’s part of what I learned, most of it from Jon Vonhof’s Fixing Your Feet and friends like Scott H., Nick F., and Sgt. Šileika:
Your shoes are probably too small. As I’ve related before, I was wearing a 9½ when I should have worn a 10½ Wide. Ideally, get your feet measured by someone at a specialized store, like REI or a running store. And when you take the insoles out of your shoes and stand on them, if any part of your foot overhangs (or even reaches) the edges of the insole, you need bigger shoes.
Your feet get bigger with age, not least of all as they become more muscular with training! That seems strange–I always thought of my shoe size as an immutable given, like my height–but on reflection it’s perfectly intuitive. Feet are made mostly of muscle, and they respond to training like other muscles. If you start doing pull-ups for hours at a time, your back and arms will outgrow your shirts. Likewise, if you backpack for hours at a time, your foot muscles might well outgrow your old shoes.
Keep your feet dry. I hate this rule because I like charging through streams and doing water PT and I hate halting afterward to change socks, but it’s helped me stop getting Burgerfeet™.
Speaking of dry and happy feet, cotton socks are the devil. Wear wool or one of the new space-age moisture-wicking products. And it seems that most runners wear more than one sock layer.
Socks are like holsters: You have to try a bunch to find the right setup. You’ll end up with a drawer full of rejects–live with it.
And a sock setup that works with one pair of shoes does not necessarily work with another. (See “socks-are-like-holsters” above.)
Moisturize your feet every day. Most of the pros also lubricate their feet before they put on their socks.
Athletic tape from the corner drug store has been superseded by things like Leukotape and ENGO pads.