Forty-Mile Ruck: Lessons Learned

To prep for the (in)famous Star Course, I tried a 42-mile ruck march.

I’d read one man’s AAR suggesting that in training you aim for 40 miles (64km) in something close to 10 hours, and on paper that sounded almost reasonable. It’s only 15 minutes per mile, right? Heck, I’ve motored along at that speed in perfect contentment for plenty of 12-mile marches with a 30# pack. So with just 20# dry (not even 10kg), wouldn’t I cover at least the first half of my journey at that pace? And if I allowed myself a full 12 hours, plus an extra hour for lunch, that would be almost leisurely! Right?

That was HUBRIS, and I got punished! Instead of treading a merry 13 hours, I slogged out a tough 15½ hours, and rather than a carefree and gay picnic walk, at times it felt like a death march.

This was a major lesson in all the factors that can slow a march down. Let me count the ways!

What I Did Badly

Feeling so sluggish, I sensed I was in for a long day. But I had no idea just how long.

First was my own poor condition. I’d been training hard, demanding a lot of my foot muscles (which work overtime in yoga and kettlebell lifting too), and the day before my ruck romp, I’d had a small migraine that I tried to cure by testing my rep max in the kettlebell snatch. (That worked pretty well, by the way.) Coupled with a 4am wakeup, it’s little surprise that I felt like hell when I started my walk, and it slowed me down. By mid-morning I was already an hour behind schedule. And that was before other adverse conditions started piling up.

I am blessed to live out in the country. Only problem is, my body thinks it belongs in a different country.

What other adverse conditions? Next was the heat, which is my personal kryptonite. I’m stocky and descended entirely from Northern European bog dwellers. Even in modest heat, a full sun clobbers me like an axe.

I made some poor nutrition choices too. Normally in these long events, I thrive on a scant 25g of carbs per hour and, being keto-adapted, I draw the rest of my calories from body fat. It’s a trick I got from ultra champ Zach Bitter and it makes me immune to the usual nausea and GI trouble of endurance events. But on this morning I treated myself to a big, sugary frozen mocha, and it was way too much carbs and gook. I’ll spare you, gentle reader, an account of the results and just summarize them as “sub-optimal.” Lesson: Just 25g of carbs per hour.

If you want to geek out on this stuff, read the work of Mike Prevost.

By my choice of routes, I also gave myself a (poorly timed) lesson in how much you can be slowed by terrain. The Army has researched rucking speed and found that, even more than pack weight, you’re slowed by factors as mundane as the ground’s surface. And elevation gain is another biggie. When climbing a 10% grade, you cut your speed in half. (EDIT: Researcher Adam Scott finds that it’s only a one-third reduction.)So on one steep 4-mile stretch, I climbed for almost two hours.

Nor did I factor in stream crossings. Foot care guru John Vonhof insists that you remove shoes and socks at streams, carry them across, and dry your feet before putting them on again. I did this each time, dutifully but grudgingly, but I ate up nearly an hour and disliked feeling my way painfully across the stream bottom in sore, bare feet. Lesson: Bring water shoes and a microfiber hand towel. On trips where I’ll recross the stream at the same point, I can even stash them near the crossing to wait for my return trip.

Finally, maybe it wasn’t the best idea to wear brand-new boots. Though they didn’t need much breaking in, they still required time-consuming experimentation on the trail, trying different combinations of socks, liner socks, and lacing.

Ridiculous math like this is an example of why the metric Mondopoint system is so great. You measure your feet in millimeters. That’s your size. Simple.

However, there was one thing about these boots that was a godsend: they’re actually big enough! My toes have never been so free. I owe this too to John Vonhof, whose simple trick is to remove the insoles from your shoes, set them on the ground, and stand on them. If your feet lap over the insoles at any point, or even touch the edge, the shoes are too small. That’s how I went from a size 9.5 to a 10.5 Wide!

What Went Great

Aerobic base: Aerobically this trip posed little challenge. As in all my training, I throttled back enough to stay within my “MAF” heart rate (“max aerobic function”). And even on such a long ruck, I found, as long as I stay within my MAF heart rate, I can put my legs on cruise control and motor along indefinitely. My feet might get sore, but my heart and lungs can hack it just fine.

Our Lady of Electrolytes and Mr. Delirium

Electrolytes: At long last, I didn’t cramp! I can’t take credit for this. The unsurpassable Lean Solid Girl met me at my turnaround point with a princely feast of burritos, trail mix, cold drinks, and (best of all) electrolytes.

Blisters: I only got one blister, on my heel. Zero blisters would be better, but I’ll take this as a victory considering this was a distance PR in boots that were new out of the box.

The Great Takeaway

The home stretch. From this bridge, it’s 3 miles to my door. The last time I passed it feeling this tired was only a few months ago. That night I was doing my first 12-miler, but now that’s just a warmup. Reflecting on that was a real morale boost. #cookiejar

I didn’t quit. That’s the great takeaway. At 5:30am, only 5 minutes into the day, I still had a lingering headache from the day before, felt like hell, and had no spring in my step, and I thought, “I picked an awful day to do this. It will be amazing if I actually finish 40 miles today.” And I was right on both counts: it was terrible timing–WTH kind of plan is “be sick all day, then max out on snatches, and then do 40 miles the next day?!”–and it’s amazing to me that I finished it. I should have rescheduled–stupid stuff is stupid, and it would have required effort to choose a worse day for this. But once I (foolishly) committed to it and decided to stick with the (dumb) plan, it was almost a certainty that I’d finish–eventually–as long as I didn’t quit.

Rucking up at Mile 23. Don’t believe the smile, it’s a lie. I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself here. Out of the frame, milady’s Prius is whispering, “Give up! I’ll take you home right now. How about some air conditioning?”

And that, friends, is the big lesson. (Cue the “rousing emotional crescendo music!”) It seems that in an event like this–a low-intensity slog played out over a very long time–there’s almost no way to suck so much that you can’t finish. There’s no opponent to KO you, pin you, or steal the ball, and you need zero coordination or athletic talent–it’s just walking. Physically the demands aren’t even very intense or the perils great: you won’t get a concussion or cascade off the side of Mount Everest. You can suck as much as you want for as long as you want, but unless you decide to quit (or you get abducted off the road by a UFO), you are pretty much assured of succeeding eventually. As Goggins says, “No talent required.”

Leaning Out

Here at Lean Solid Dog HQ, we heard from an infantry reservist and Afghan veteran with a job, a grad program, and a young child to raise by himself, and he asked me to post my thoughts about getting lean again. I have definite thoughts on the subject, but my only qualifications for holding them are that (a) I’m naturally chubby but I’ve learned how to control that reasonably well, and (b) I’ve read and experimented with diet more than most people. With that caveat, here’s my $.02.

Lesson #1: Leanness mostly depends on how you eat

With modern food, it is possible to eat calories much faster than we can burn them. Yesterday, for example, I hiked 25 miles and used about 5500 or 6000 calories for the day. That’s enormous. But I joined friends for a good, long dinner, including a lot of bread and a pint of ice cream, and I was right back in calorie balance.

The other reason that leanness depends overwhelmingly on your diet is that when you exercise a ton, you goose your appetite upward too. Unless you’re paying attention to your eating, you’ll just inhale more calories to compensate, like I did yesterday. So unless you’re already a naturally lean freak of nature, no amount of exercise is going to let you mindlessly eat strudel and elephant ears ad libitum and get leaner. As the saying goes, “You can’t outrun a donut.”

There are tons of approaches to eating for leanness and health that are effective, enjoyable, and easy to embrace for the long term. And we now know a lot about which ones have the best track records.

Though it can help periodically to measure servings, calculate macronutrient ratios, and log your food intake, most people who stay lean for a lifetime settle into individual routines whereby they simply follow a few well-chosen principles. If you choose the right principles, you don’t have to do mental arithmetic all day long.

Lesson #2: Volumetrics

If you read only one thing about leaning out, read this.

If you only read one thing about eating for leanness, make it one of dietician Barbara J. Rolls’ books about the approach she calls volumetrics. In her research, Rolls found that people tend to eat the same poundage of food every day, no matter whether it is high in calories or low. So if you want to shave calories off your menu without your body noticing, you can sneak in more stuff that weighs a lot in relation to its calorie content. Think of the old trick of loading up on salad before the main course. But that’s just the kindergarten level. Rolls and her team have worked on this for years and come up with very clever hacks. I can testify from personal experience that you can fool your body very convincingly; you will be full of very satisfying food and your body will not know that it’s being played.

Clarence Bass, father of the “ripped” look and a kindly, good man. There are lots of human beings who are lean, healthy, vigorous, happy, and aging terrifically because Clarence teaches them how, for free.

If you want to geek out a little by surveying the leading approaches and the medical research about them, your go-to resource is Clarence and Carol Bass’s site. A former Mr. America, Clarence helped invent the “ripped” look in competitive bodybuilding, and for decades he has acted as both a one-man longitudinal experiment in lean living and a clearing house for scientific research on diet and exercise. In their own kitchen, Clarence and Carol eat much more carbohydrate than I can tolerate, but they also write approvingly about lower-carb approaches that work well for people like me over the long haul.

Whether you lean more toward fibrous carbs or protein or fat, Clarence guides you toward developing your own small repertoire of “go-to” meals that adhere to the volumetric principle of favoring heavy foods that taste good to you with a lot of liquid and/or fibrous bulk. Once you figure out three to five of these standard meals that fill you up with tummy happiness, you can pretty much go on auto-pilot.

Consider Clarence’s favorite breakfast: six kinds of whole grains, frozen fruit, milk, nuts, and even some shredded vegetables (!), mixed up in a huge, steaming bowl. I don’t do well on so much fruit and grain, but Clarence’s breakfast inspired my favorite go-to dinner, my Huge Dinner Salad: a pound or more of greens, a lot of shredded carrots, some kind of meat, a little tofu, a lot of cheese, a lot of nuts, avocado if I have some, and generous oil and vinegar, eaten directly out of a huge 10L serving bowl. If I’m going crazy, I put a little fruit on it. If I’m leaning out, I’ll measure how much cheese and oil I put in. Either way, it tastes awesome to me, takes forever to eat, weighs several pounds, and can be made very “lean” if I want with negligible difference in palatability and satiety.

Some other observations that seem to hold true for pretty much everyone:

  • Lack of sleep spikes your appetite. 
  • Go to bed ridiculously early, in a room that is pitch black, and get 8 hours. You’ll get leaner.
  • Eating sugar spikes your appetite. Don’t eat sugar.
  • Anything you make in your kitchen is better than anything from a restaurant.
  • Bodybuilding and powerlifting spike your appetite. In fact, that goes for hypertrophy training in general. If you are adding much muscle, then unless you are using steroids, you are adding fat too. Nothing wrong with that, just be advised.
  • Bodyweight exercises work for me when I’m leaning out. I think I just eat less. When I’m powerlifting I can’t stop eating and put on weight as fast as a teenager, but my appetite isn’t changed much by a regimen of pushups, pullups, and bodyweight squats and lunges.
  • Ketogenic diets aren’t for everybody, but they sure work great for a lot of people. My sister transmogrified herself on keto in the most stunning fashion, shedding over 100# permanently. The food she makes is second to none, and in my judgment that’s the cornerstone of her success: she figured out how to love eating within her chosen regimen.
  • Speaking for myself, I get lean almost to the point of “shrink-wrapped” if I’m close to ketosis and I also restrict all my eating to a 10- to 12-hour window. It’s not a ton of fun, but it’s not very hard either, and it puts this naturally pudgy body of mine at about 9% body fat just like flipping a switch.
  • Some bodybuilders purposely go into a huge caloric deficit (e.g. 1500 kcal) for a short period. I can’t gainsay them–bodybuilders are the masters of body composition and they can accomplish freakish feats, but I’m not willing to make the sacrifices that they do. I’m lazy, so when I even bother to count calories or macronutrients at all, I take after Clarence Bass and just aim for small deficits. Clarence’s rule of thumb for leaning out is, decrease your food intake by just 250 calories a day, increase your energy consumption by 250 calories, and you’re on track to lose a pound a week. Trust me, that’s a lot and you’ll see the difference in your shaving mirror.
  • Finally, do as Clarence does: get a Tanita scale so you can track not just your weight but your body fat level. The navy “tape measure” method is decent, but it’s not precise enough. The Tanita scale measures pretty consistently in tenths of a percent. With that kind of precision, it’s easy to fine tune your routine. It’s $40, but it’s the most beneficial $40 you can spend. (Even more than a heart rate monitor.)
Together with heart rate monitors, Tanita scales are among the very few electronic gadgets that I think are worth having for purposes of lean, solid doggery.

‘Nuff said. I emphasize again that I don’t have a lot of credibility on this subject. This post just represents advice from actual, credible been-there-done-that people that has stood up well in my (admittedly narrow) experience.