Loud rain drops splashed against my windshield with no sign of letting up and the wind howled against my door defiantly. I sighed out loud thinking of my warm bed nearly two and a half hours away and the two little girls, my daughters, who were undoubtedly sleeping there peacefully. For the first and last time, I longed to be with them there. “Don’t think about that right now!” I scolded myself. That kind of thinking would be debilitating and I couldn’t afford to start off with negativity. My girls were with me, in spirit, their picture protected by a zip lock bag taped to the four required bricks weighing 24 pounds that I would carry with me for the next several hours. I carried them for 18 months, what’s 12 – 14 hours?
I bounced my knees up and down a few times nervously and for what seemed like the hundredth time in the last hour I glanced at the clock. 12:48 AM. Twelve minutes until all my questions were answered. I was parked at 13th and Grand, by a park in downtown Des Moines, IA waiting for my GORUCK Challenge (GRC) to begin. I wasn’t alone in the car, my friend Mark Webb sat quietly in the passenger seat.
Breaking the silence I muttered hopefully, “Just tell me it’s not going to suck.” Mark looked down and smirked, “You know I can’t do that.” We both smiled. Webb, a five time veteran of the GORUCK Challenge had flown in from New Hampshire to take part in my first challenge. I’d been peppering him with questions since he arrived at my house five hours earlier. He patiently answered, sometimes coyly, to what lay ahead of us in our overnight challenge through the streets and surrounding area of Des Moines, IA.
“Well,” I groaned looking again at the rain falling down around us, “We’re going to get wet, we may as well get it started.” Eagerly he hopped out of the car and adjusted his Ulitikilt in the downpour. Shrugging on my ruck, I assessed the situation. The air temperature was a chilly 44 degrees and the rain was now blowing in sideways. We were soaked in seconds and shivering. “It’s colder than I thought it would be.” Mark said pointing to his bare legs. “Maybe I should have done another layer?” But it was too late.
A car rolled up and Brian Richardson, our Cadre stepped out. He gave the forty or so of us standing around directions to meet down the street in a parking garage to sign our death waivers. I’d met Brian back in December when I’d signed up for the event. We’d worked together but hadn’t seen each other since. Before ducking back in the car he announced happily, “In case you’re wondering, I arranged for this weather.” Then he was back in the car and speeding down the street towards our meet up point. Patting my car one last time we headed off towards the parking garage knowing I wouldn’t see the warmth of my car for a long time. How long I wasn’t sure yet.
At the parking garage, we were checked in and grouped into two classes. I was with Mark and my friend Johnny and 17 people who were then unknown to me but would be with me for the duration. “Nice to see you again, Brian.” I announced when he called out my name. He just nodded with a smirk and kept going. Our bricks were assessed, waivers were signed and we were briefed on safety for the duration of the challenge. My class was 155, the 155th class to take part in a GORUCK Challenge. We were 20 people brought together and told we’d be be spending the next several hours learning how to become a team. “20 in, 20 out.” Brian told us. We’d start 20 strong, and we were committing to finish that way too.
With no fanfare and with the rain still falling, Brian led us off down the street and into the darkness. “Here we go.” I said looking at Mark, who could only smile in response as we shuffled forward. The event isn’t just a matter of surviving the challenges and punishment, it’s about following rules and learning how to work together to accomplish missions and meet team-based objectives while abiding by the rules of the challenge. Rules are simple, but we’re told become more challenging over time as fatigue, hunger, and sleep deprivation come into play. Work as a team, no walking, rucks can’t touch the ground, team weight has to be carried (for us, about 30 lbs. of pennies to be donated to the Green Beret Foundation at the end) and no one can be alone at any time. There are a few more, but ultimately we needed to listen, follow directions, and meet outlined objectives within time hacks while avoiding punishments and while working as a unit. Sounds simple enough.
We were also given an empty ruck that we filled with cinder blocks and bricks as we moved, that we’d share around that proved to be quite heavy to carry while bear crawling nearly 1/2 a mile I’d learn later when I would take a turn with the weight. Almost immediately we were marched into the cold water of a nearby lake, the water taking our breath away as we, per Brian’s directions, moved to a waist deep depth and faced forward in two rows of ten. In spite of myself I smiled, it was really happening now. All in.
We proceeded to enact a Limited forward advancement (LFA) with pairs moving out of the water and back again while the group did burpees and flutter kicks, Brian shouting, “More splashes” as encouragement. As we low crawled out of the water and up the pebbly hill littered with broken glass Brian snapped a picture of my face, inches away and said simply, “This is just the beginning, Carrie.” Though I couldn’t see him, I could hear him smile as he said it. I managed a smile in return. While I was uncomfortable and cold, I was adapting and I was actually enjoying myself.
We weren’t done with the water, however, Brian discovered a food wrapper had been dropped by one of our class (Mark Webb owned up to it), an inexcusable offense to leave any indication we’d been on the premises and we’d face our first punishment as a team. Brian told us to get back in the water and repeat our LFA exercise. Shivering, we re-entered the water and repeated the movements as Brian looked on from the shore shining a flashlight in our direction the whole time. We were punished almost immediately again when we exited the water when a ruck hit the ground. We lost permission to use our straps, a punishment we’d be given again later, ultimately as a team we’d spend a huge chunk of the challenge strapless, making the heavy rucks a tougher burden to bear.
This punishment began a long PT segment of the challenge with us bear crawling, perfecting inchworm push-ups and moving together as a unit slowly around the lake we’d just exited. Brian would wander nearby and up the path, leaving us to our toil occasionally snapping pictures with his Nikon camera. However difficult it was, we welcomed the movement that kept us from cooling down and feeling the full cold on our wet bodies. We’d commiserate occasionally during the bear crawls wondering how far he’d have us go in this position. We were never correct.
I tried to keep spirits high by telling dirty jokes, particularly when we were moving together holding each other’s hands between our legs commenting that it ended up being “A pretty good Friday night after all, moving between two guys my hands and theirs in between my legs.” And or course with Mark Webb wearing a kilt, there was a plethora of material to remark on that alone. I can only imagine how it would have appeared to an onlooker and when one of our 20 wanted to drop, we quickly re-filed her back into the group and got her moving again so that she didn’t have time to consider her decision. It was the first dark moment we passed as a team.
We spent the next several hours navigating missions, missing time hacks and getting punished, often without use of our straps. I ended up taking up a second ruck before dawn which we clipped together with a carabiner that I carried for several hours even completing what we guessed to be nearly 800m of traveling lunges with both rucks hanging over my shoulders. We took up logs at this time, taking turns bearing the awkward weight on our shoulders, finding height combinations that were favorable and always shifting the team weight among our stronger team members.
As a cadre, Brian was fair and direct. Emotionless when enacting punishments, he was consistent and without being “encouraging” he was also not “discouraging”. As a cadre he was realistic in our goals and honest in his communication. He would tell stories of his deployments distracting us from the struggles we were enduring driving home the reality of what was happening and had happened in active war zones and hostile areas. It made our own current pains pale in comparison to what he’d obviously seen and experienced.
Many of my team were military, some had just returned from a three and a half month deployment to Afghanistan just two weeks earlier. Over the hours we bonded, we frantically stepped out towards target zones with the constant time constraints weighing on our minds as we struggled to stay in formation. Never fully cognizant of time, we pushed hard at every mission knowing that a lot more lay ahead. The locals were invaluable during missions that required navigating the streets and finding landmarks over time we painfully came together as a team, most notably when protecting our “principle” which was two logs we had to secure a constantly moving perimeter around.
It was during this time that two of our team members became inhibited – one by a knee injury and the other by a kidney issue - that we found our team connection. In pain and struggling, we took up their weight and ensured that their finish alongside our team was the key. For one of the first times in my endurance challenge lifetime I was in a new position, team before self. They deserved to finish and we would not sacrifice that team element to be faster or to lighten the collective load. It was decided.
As the hours passed and the missions compiled, we found our stride and our comfort level with one another. Occasional tense moments, snappy words and frustrations became less frequent and the acceptance of the “suck” was clear. The load is never overwhelming when it’s shared. Recounting the PT, the miles (22.6) and the punishments, it seems unbearable for even the strongest of people singularly… but as a unit, it was a different thing. Inherently unselfish and with regard for only the person at your right and left and not the throbbing in your knee or the fatigue in your shoulders, we were becoming a team. Meeting eyes, taking rucks, shifting positions, we moved more fluidly and the importance of out of many, one, became more than an objective, it became the key to our survival.
When it became about the collective, the “we” it became something beautiful to watch in motion because we weren’t in it for ourselves, there wasn’t time for that. And it all culminated in the finale, at the steps of the Capital where we would ascend the steps as a team, finishing by literally carrying one another to the top.
“This is going to suck.” Were Brian’s final words before we began. I carried Marie the distance with my ruck across my chest and her on my back. Marie was the same woman who wanted to quit countless hours earlier in the dark on the side of the lake a few short hours into the challenge. Now, still fatigued and missing her family, she was somehow stronger now than she was in that moment. She’d battled through the doubts and come out the other side. Mark Webb, the same friend who’d traveled half way across the country to join me in the challenge and who would do another one the same night took up our injured teammate, who had to outweigh him by at least 50lbs for the stair ascent. Webb nearly passed out in getting to the top with him across his shoulders but got it done regardless.
When we reached the top, as a unit, it was all smiles and we barely heard Brian say, “Take your rucks off,” the sweetest words I almost missed hearing. Shedding the nearly 30 lbs. off my back and dropping it at my feet I was able to roll my shoulders back and recognize immediately how the ruck had really become a part of me over the 13 hours we spent outside together. I felt so light.
We sat down on the stairs and Brian congratulated our accomplishment and talked to us about the GORUCK Tough group we’d just earned the right to join designated by a simple patch bearing the words, “GORUCK Tough.” Handing me my coveted patch, a patch never sold or given to anyone who didn’t earn it, I knew the significance of having one of my own. Brian smiled at me, “Congratulations Carrie. Now you can talk all the shit you want.” Rubbing my muddy thumb over the gray stitching of the arrowhead, I secured it to my Radio Ruck and opened it seeing immediately the picture of my girls smiling back at me. I thought of them often during the challenge. They gave me strength.
Our class spent a few minutes talking and then we dispersed in all directions heading back to where we came from knowing we’d never really be the same as when we started in the rain the night before. Arriving back at my car on 13th and Grand I couldn’t believe how much had happened. Peeling off my wet socks I finally realized for the first time how hungry I was. I laughed out loud.
Mark and I had some food and a beer before he set off to nap before starting again and I set off towards home. I drove in silence digesting the experience and feeling grateful to have been part of such an incredible group.
There was Jeff Bacon, who I frequently found myself beside, making jokes and Mel and Kyle Stepp, a married couple who were never far from one another. Chris Brown who helped navigate the streets and skywalks of Des Moines. Dan Montgomery who smiled constantly and who never stepped away when someone needed help. Adam Hon who was constantly encouraging the team, I never heard a negative word leave his mouth. Michael Keesy, Thomas Dow (who buddy carried a body and two rucks carabined together up the capital stairs), and Steve Woods who spent so much time under the team log without complaint. Johnny Waite, my dear friend from Canada who quite literally never stopped smiling, and who kept me laughing in the darkest moments. Mark Webb who led us and taught us as we moved through and was always the first volunteer for the hardest challenges. These are some of the greatest people I know.
I’m proud to be GRT and I’m proud that I earned that designation with team 155. 20 in 20 out.