Goldilocks Boots

I don’t even buy them anymore, I swear. They’re breeding and multiplying.

After experimenting a lot, I have arrived at some hard-won conclusions about boots for rucking. 

Great for flat roads and short to medium distances, but nothing hairier than that.

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. 

Rocky’s RLW or “commercial lightweight boot.” Basically a MACV-1 with serious treads. But not the crucial shank.
The Glock of boots: ugly, indestructible, affordable, reliable Germanic bricks.

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.

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.”

Gear Check

Final installment in my after-action report from the GORUCK D-Day Heavy Challenge.

The faithful, indomitable, light, nimble “Moose Head” rucksack. I love this thing. Made in the 1930s, it was intended by the Swedes as a cheap mass-production item for hurriedly equipping a big army that Germany would choose not to tangle with. Eighty years later, with just a little sewing, it’s my favorite pack.

What Worked Out Great

1. Webbing: I had about 6′ of webbing and it saved me twice. First we had to carry an insidiously-shaped rock a few miles uphill. I bound it up like a birthday gift and then some genius added D-rings and carabiners so that folks could hang it from their pack straps. The final effect was like a newborn boulder in a Babybjörn. It still sucked, but it substantially reduced the Suck Value. Second, I broke a pack strap at dawn, but it took all of 30 seconds to improvise a fix with the webbing. Without it, I would probably have washed out of the event over that petty equipment failure. So write this down, someone: webbing is the duct tape of rucking.

Weight: 40g. Not quitting the whole event over a busted pack strap or wasting everyone’s biceps cradling a f#&%ing rock: priceless.

2. Spare shoelace: Whipped this out to secure the flag to the pole better. Again, it nullified what could have been a huge pain in the butt for essentially zero added weight.

3. Rocky S2V boots: Thank you, Sgt. Šileika! The Rockies were champs. My search for the perfect all-round boot is over!

I’m blown away by the contrast to the Moab Ventilators that I wore last year. The point of the Ventilators is that, with their mesh sides, they let water and sweat flow out and let air rush in. It’s a great idea for running trails, but not for sloshing around in surf and sand because your shoes and socks fill with sediment. I got grit between my shoes and socks, between my socks and sock liners, and between the liners and my skin.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the other teammate who wore Rockies completed a “Heavy-Tough-Light” (i.e. he is a freak who did three events back-to-back over 48 hours, totaling well over 70 miles). And the teammate who wore Ventilators got a silver dollar-sized blood blister so heinous and unearthly that I expected an alien to spawn from his heel. (Amazingly, he just cheerfully popped it, dressed it, and walked on it for the next 12 hours without grimacing. People are freaks, and this guy must have the pain tolerance of a barn animal.)

4. Synthetic fabrics: Impressed by Lean Solid Girl’s successes, I left behind most of my old-school cotton, wool, and hair shirts and wore so much stretchy space-age fabric that I felt like Spider Man. And it worked great: I stayed warm, dry, windproof, and free of chafing.

It was only at midday that I wore a cotton shirt (one of the dozen awesome $4 Bundeswehr quarter-zips that I stash everywhere–#notaffiliatedIjustlovethem). But as soon as we got wet, I changed back to polypro gratefully.

5. Tights: Goofy yoga shorts are still great, but in water and wind, I was even happier with running tights. Even better, mine had built-in knee pads.

6. Categorized bags: Since my old-fashioned ruck only has one big compartment, I sorted gear into four marked bags: Food, Shirt, Jacket, and Head & Foot Stuff (hat, headlamp, sunglasses, socks, and foot care supplies). It worked great. Next time, I’ll color code the bags too.

7. More sock changes than a Madonna concert: I brought two extra pairs of socks and sock liners, and I rotated through all of them. Again, cheap insurance. I’ve had great success with the combination of Finnish M05 “liner socks” (which are socks unto themselves here in temperate climes) and FoxRiver liners, so I won’t mess with success.

8. Tailwind and GU: Here too, I owe Lean Solid Girl, who’s a past (and future?) runner, for initiating me into the secrets of distance athletes.

9. My hydration bladder: Our team had at least two burst hydration bladders, which did not enhance their owners’ lives. Usually I’m the first person to cheap out and get suckered by a false economy, but I’ve never encountered this problem even after hundreds of miles, so I’ll keep using Hommitt.

Dumb Ideas

1. Powerlifting knee sleeve: It’s stupid to change your game plan at the last minute, and that includes switching to gear you haven’t tested. I grabbed a squatting knee sleeve on the way out the door because I worried about padding my sore knee. It guarded my knee from abrasion, alright, but over 40 miles it knotted up some soft tissue behind my knee from the pressure.

2. Leaving my electrolytes to chance: I prepared for pushups poorly enough. I didn’t need cramped arms on top of that, but I chose to trust that I’d get all my electrolytes from the Tailwind. Dumb. Electrolytes are cheap insurance, just like webbing or an extra shoelace. Without Mike the Forester’s generosity, I’d have been in trouble. Next time I’m bringing extra electrolytes.

3. Poorly secured pill bottle: To help with pain, I cleverly brought some CBD, ibuprofen, and caffeine pills, but I foolishly hung the bottle from a carabiner with my gloves, and within an hour it was lost.