It was an overcast evening in Crissy Field. Independence Day to be exact. You could feel the breeze being lifted from the bay a couple hundred yards away. We all stood around in ranks, ready to start the event. It was 8:55 PM. I had triple checked all my gear prior to leaving the house and twice more once I got to the Sports Chalet parking lot, once at the car and once within my rank. From the start, I didn’t want to be the only unprepared person on our team. I didn’t know who to expect at the start, whether or not we were going to all be new to the GORUCK game or if there were going to be these mega involved, GRT beasts. Luckily there were plenty of veteran GRTs around keeping the mood light and helping the other half that were all new get squared away.
When I arrived, some were stretching, getting mentally prepared. Others were shooting the breeze with old friends they had met through the community, passing around hugs and drinking Budweiser. Others, like myself, did a combination of stretching and quietly introduced ourselves to those that looked approachable, trying to pick up little crumbs of wisdom from those who werent about to ride the Bull in their first Rodeo.
“I’ve heard the Cadre is (insert sadistic, comical, by the book, lenient, any other possible adjective)”
“My last Welcome Party was insane, we did like (insert a inordinate amount of reps for some hellish exercise)”
“This is your first one? It’s going to be a blast, just get through XYZ and don’t quit. You’ll make it”
As much as I tried to pick apart and dissect what others were spewing out about their excitement, fears, tips – none of that helped with the bit of edge I still carried. I was excited and nervous for what was to come. I didn’t realize it until a few days after that no matter how prepared you think you are, there is always something you will not be completely prepared for – a nice analogy for all things that will occur and do occur in life. I had heard stories of how these events were no joking matter and at the same time were the best time you would ever have in a given night. It was hard to grasp that going into it. How could something so serious be so fun?
Eventually I got to a point where I acknowledged I probably did not prepare enough, that I probably was not ready. And then I said “Screw that, I’m here to do, not think about what I can and can’t do” The unknown has a funny way of making us over analyze our situation. My mind was right.
It’s 8:59, still no Cadre. Everyone has been “fun-tense” for the past five minutes. No one wants to show their cards but everyone is feeling some degree of this – excitement, tension, seriousness. Senior GRTs help everyone get in formation, check gear, provide extras of items on the packing list that others failed to pack. Team weight up front. Flag up front. We are ready to go.
“Good Evening! How’s everyone doing tonight?!” Our Cadre had arrived, right on the dot. 9:00 PM. Time to step off. Cadre Jason J is a former Army Ranger in the 75th Ranger Regiment. Just to note for those that don’t know, the 75th Ranger Regiment is a part of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command). They carry out missions in the realm of Special Operations, working with other SOF units across the various branches. Eventually these soldiers will have to go through the infamous Ranger school to earn their Ranger tabs. The Regiment carries out their own selection, separate from Ranger school, to assess and select those hoping to earn their Scroll and be part of one of the most elite light infantry units in the world of Special Operations. Prior to enlisting, Cadre Jason was in either pre-med or med school (I honestly can’t recall) and decided to trade in the white coat to put his medical background to use serving the nation. Ultimately, given his background, he was slotted and trained as a combat medic in the 75th Ranger Regiment.
When he first walked up a sigh of relief came over me. You have this idea of the Hulk showing up and crushing your soul at these events. He was everything I was not expecting. Shorter, fit, not a total beefcake – my perceptions of these SOF guys were totally misguided. Right from the start he gave us his background, rules and expectations for the event. We did some light PT right there in the parking lot and then moved on to the Grass at Crissy Field. Old Glory led the way, as it does for every movement in every event.
I started to get the inkling that I again was totally misguided. He might have not looked like the hulk but he definitely made it clear there was a distinct difference between us and him. He had gone through a rigorous selection and even more complex training, served in some of the harshest most unforgiving environments while most of us had no clue how to even comprehend an ounce of what it took just to get your foot through the door in the SOF community.
We formed up on the Grass and began doing Roll Call. Gear was pulled out of every bag. your $20 cab fare was to be in your left hand, your ID goes in your right. Weighted bricks with your name sharpied on it in front of you, water bladder out. Simple instructions, right? Wrong. After a few minutes in the front leaning rest while we got a nice talk on preparation and listening to instructions, we were relieved to try this again. This went on for a good 30 minutes before we all finally got it right.
The breeze had steadily turned into short gusts of wind, fog was already rolling into the Bay. At around this time, fireworks were starting to trail into the sky. There were ones being launched from the East Bay just clearing the top of Alcatraz to our North East. You could see directly to our East the ones being launched from AT&T Park. Then the ones directly in front of us started to go off, right across the Golden Gate Bridge in Sausalito. We stopped in the middle of roll call, will in our ranks, to bring the American Flag to the front of the class. We put our right hands over our hearts and sang the Star Spangled Banner. It’s still vivid in my mind singing the words “…bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night, that our Flag was still there” while watching these glitter, red, white and blue bursts in the air. By far one of my more memorable moments at a GORUCK event.
We finished singing and resumed with Roll Call. Once gear, weight and persons were accounted for, we packed up and headed in two single file lines to the beach…
I don’t know if Cadre Jason was on a combat dive team, but he loved the water. And you always thought the Army just operated on land…Remember how I said it was windy and the temperature was slowly dropping? Well, that didn’t phase the cadre as he immediately put us in sub 55º water. One thing you need to realize is that sympathy sits between shit and syphilis in most the Cadre’s dictionaries. Yes they are human. Yes they want to put on a safe event. Yes they want to make sure you have a kickass experience. What he was about to put us through paled in comparison to what he had to endure. And with that in mind, it helped make things a bit better while the suck ensued.
We stayed on the beach for about 2 hrs as he conducted a monstrous welcome party that broke the most physically prepared of us. The Welcome Party is really when the event kicks off. It’s used to gauge the participants strengths and weaknesses and also as a way to level the playing field. No matter what fitness level you are at, it is the great equalizer. You will be tired. You will push through pain. You will bear crawl farther than you would ever normally make yourself do. You will do all the PT and all the reps. As a team. All while carrying a load of +40lbs.
I won’t go into too much detail about our specific Welcome Party, but I will say this. There was a moment near the end of the “Party” that I seriously was ready to throw in the towel. “Can you endure this much longer?” “Are you capable”. There were too many times where my teammates were helping me to my feet, helping re-orient me in the chaos of going up and down the beach. Trying to breathe while we were linked up, lying on the sand, heads towards the surf wasn’t a small task as we were getting smoked and all gasping for air. And then I remembered to the beginning of the event “Just do, don’t think about what you can or can’t do.” Ten minutes later, we were on our feet and moving in formation up the beach to a small piece of grass next to the road. I didn’t know it at the time but the Welcome Party was complete. Air never felt so good to my lungs, and water never tasted so good.
I sat there gathering my thoughts. “What in the hell did I sign up for? Tonight is going to be crazy!” Luckily the neurons in my brain were coming back online and began to fire and those crumbs of wisdom from the veteran GRTs I had picked up before the event started were starting to come into the fold. For the rest of the night, I knew we would be tested in leadership, execution and strength. At that moment, the worst part was over in my mind. If I could endure what we all just went through, I can muster up the gusto to finish. Quitting never crossed my mind again after leaving that beach.
We had one individual, who like me earlier, was now struggling and fighting those demons and was ready to quit. He approached the Cadre to proclaim his inability to continue. The Cadre respected this as all Cadre will. Just like in their various selection classes, you could quit the class at any time. You weren’t looked down on, you weren’t babied. Your decision was respected cause it was your own to make, no one was forcing you to be there and you were respected even more so for coming out to do what most people would never do.
Though we were, by design, forced to work as a team during the Welcome Party, I realized when I wanted to quit, I was thinking of myself and not the team. I was thinking of my pain, my anguish. I didn’t even think about anyone else. How selfish of me. We were all battling something during those two hours. If it wasn’t for others picking me up, encouraging me, and helping me I wouldn’t have been standing where I was. And that was my first piece of wisdom I took back from my very first event. It’s not about you. It’s about the person to your left and right, it’s about a common struggle and a common solution. There was no way any of us were going to let him quit.
He decided to stick it out with us for a bit longer. Our first and probably most important victory of the entire night.
“I need two Team Leaders,” said the Cadre.
At each event, the cadre try to put each person in a leadership role. This helps test everyone in something that most find uncomfortable, leading peers. Me and another first timer and great GRT, CJ, raised our hands. We figured at some point we would be picked to lead the class through an evolution and would rather have had it on our terms than being called out of the blue. After being relayed the instructions and then having to repeat them to the Cadre, only to get them wrong, both of us found ourselves starring at the top of our hands in a much too familiar push up position call the Front Leaning Rest.
“Mountain Climbers, go”
“What we’re my instructions”
While the entire class was taking a knee we had already fucked up. Tired, beat down and trying to use every ounce of energy we had to breathe, pick up our knees in rhythm and talk turned out to be a stupidly difficult task. We finally were allowed to recover after we got the instructions right. We relayed them to the class. We were to help a team of patriots being ambushed by Gen Cornwallace and make it to Twin Peaks (halfway across the city) with mortars (a monster log) and shells (water cans & team weight) in an allotted time. This is where the Cadre begin to play fun games.
“How much time do you think you need to complete the mission?”
Shit. You knew if you were over ambitious you would screw over the team with some form of PT punishment for missing the time hack or you would be glorious at gauging everyone’s ability and afford everyone enough time to get from point A to point B. CJ and I consulted each other. CJ lived in the South Bay at the time and I was living in the city. I had rucked out from the Inner Sunset to Crissy Field before and I could do it in about an hour and a half. San Francisco is much smaller than what you think.
“Two Hours, Cadre”
“You have Two Hours. I’ll give you two minutes to get everyone ready”
Our fate was sealed. Neither of us had led in a situation like this. We had to direct and motivate the team to move a stupid heavy log, rucks on, with the jerry cans and team weight through San Francisco to Twin Peaks in two hours. From where we were there were a number of streets to cross which became an even more daunting task as we needed to follow strict protocol the Cadre gave us. It took us about 45 mins just to get through the Palace of Fine Arts. We were screwed…
When we started to gain our stride, we now had to cover ground in record time. I made a huge mistake and put the mission before my team and the safety of everyone. I did not follow protocol and broke up the team while crossing the street. 1/3 of us were on a corner while the other 2/3 looked directly at us.
“Drop the Log” said Cadre. “Front Leaning Rest. You know what Donkey Kicks are?”
I hadn’t a clue but I could guess. After he gave us a short talk on attention to detail and safety, he proceeded to provide the proper motivation to never cross the street like that again. Because of my mistake, everyone paid. 100 Donkey Kicks, rucks on. That was brutal and the message was well received. Only one other point in the night did we find ourselves in a pickle crossing the street that resulted in carrying a casualty.
We made our way through the Presidio. At that point our two hours were up. Lucky for us, the Cadre did not dish out the punishment immediately. In two hours, CJ and I had only led our team .5mi. We had failed miserably in two ways 1) we did not make a proper assessment of the weight, distance and team 2) we did not own our decisions as soon as we volunteered to lead our team. We let too much of the team give input into what route we should take, how we should split the log carrying duties, how we should keep our formation. People were complaining and some links in the team structure were already breaking down because we failed to own our Leadership duties. We were fired and two new leaders were selected to lead the mission to set up the mortar strike against Cornwallace and the Red Coats.
What I learned – never chew off more than you can swallow. I didn’t understand the game and from the get go. I wanted to take the reigns and help the team. I had never observed, researched, inquired what to do and how to do it until I put myself in that position. That is a bad predicament to be in. We left our success to luck and put everyone who was burdened by the extra weight in a position without thoughtful leadership. There was confusion, questions, doubt, and inaction in that first task. CJ and I were both relieved to be out of the spotlight and were amped to do our part to help the rest of the team as teammates but both know we could’ve done a much better job.
And this is the whole point of doing any of these GORUCK events. You are put in uncomfortable situations, whether it’s grueling PT, traveling long distances under load, carrying heavy “coupons”, or leadership positions – you are forced to rise to the occasion or fail. It’s that simple. Pain is a great motivator.
We cycle through a few more leaders and gradually made it to Haight Ashbury, ready to make the climb to Twin Peaks. By this time, we had made a deal to ditch the logs if we did 50 Man Makers using our rucks for the overhead press in an allotted time. Many of us, tired and sore didn’t think it was a good idea to take this gamble. If we did not finish in the time given, we would’ve had to carry the log all the way to the top of Twin Peaks. Our TLs decided to take the deal, it was worth a shot. We completed all the reps in the allotted time frame and placed our logs in a school yard off the main street. Fortune favors the bold, right?
Eventually we arrived at the top of the peak by early morning. At this time, the Cadre stopped us and gave us time to collect ourselves. He proceeded to talk to us about what July 4th meant to him and the weight behind the choices made by Patriots who laid it all on the line for a chance at Liberty. Before the event started, we were tasked to memorize the Declaration of Independence and learn the story of one patriot who fought during the Revolution. At the top he thought it was as good a place as any to recite the Declaration of Independence.
On Facebook, we divided and conquered each stanza of the Declaration. In order, we all got up and said our lines. It was extremely moving. Each of us spoke as if the words actually carried weight. Too often now, the words of our forefathers are lost to history. We reference various articles every so often and resort to brushing up when we feel Liberty is at risk, but I would argue the majority of American’s have never pondered the true weight of the words penned and the affirmation they carried to the rest of the world, not just England. If you did not feel proud at any other point that night, while being guided by Old Glory as it lead the pack of sore zombie weirdos through the city, you sure as hell were proud to be an American at the top of that peak.
We finished reciting the Declaration and set off for Mt Davidson. We were given a “mission” at the bottom of the hill to make it to the top of the hill in 14 minutes to capture Cornwallace before he could retreat. By this point we were pretty beat up and tired, but all in all, in good spirits. It was now light outside and the rest of the city was starting to wake up. As we formed up at the bottom of the mountain, we knew in order to make it to the top in the allotted time, we would have to make a full effort to run as fast as we could with the rucks to the top.
As we started we were setting a modest walking pace up the mountain hoping to power walk our way to the top. As we neared a 1/3 of the way up, time was already down 7 minutes with only 7 to go. We hustled and started to run. Where we could, we relieved those who were struggling to carry their rucks and keep the pace and strapped two rucks per person (one on the front and your personal on your back).
By the time we cleared the top of the mountain, Cadre Jason J gathered us around in a circle and told us Cornwallace had escaped and we would be heading to our next rally point at Ocean Beach 3 mi away for some additional good livin’, and but of course to thwart the next “attack” by the Red Coats. He was kind enough to give us a break to empty our bladders at that point up top, all the while, if you weren’t peeing, you were set up in a position of security. Up top, there is a large cross with a concrete deck surrounding it. We all took a knee or followed our buddy into the surrounding vegetation to relieve ourselves.
I still remember taking a knee and remember feeling how raw my skin felt. It was like a million needles attacking my knee cap. I looked around and saw everyone else, some were brave enough to do this event in shorts, and realized we were all gleaning the same face. My knees didn’t feel so bad after that. Life was painful and life was good. We had made it this far, and not one of us was in a position to quit on one another.
Cadre Jason J gave us the next time hack and started sending us down the mountain towards the street to start making our way towards Ocean Beach. About a quarter of the way down, he yelled for us to sprint back up to the top and form up. We all took a seat in front of the cross and were congratulated for finishing the GORUCK Challenge. We were finally patched. Cadre Jason J reiterated to us how important it was to celebrate this day for what it is and to not let its meaning be lost on us. He also thanked us for spending a cold night with him as he led us through the San Francisco to celebrate our Independence Day.
We shook hands, high fived, hugged, and hobbled down the hill into various cars. We did not end back at the start point so some Shadows were extremely kind to let our smelly and dirty selves pack into their vehicles so they could shuttle us back to the start. When we got back to the start, it finally hit me the event was over. In total we had gone for +13 hours straight, traveling approximately 12 miles across the city carrying our rucks, logs and each other.
The first sip of beer was glorious and all the chaffing, aches and throbs went away. It’s hard to not feel on top of the world after embracing a suck fest like that. The funny thing is, compared to other events, the Challenge is a mild intro to what the body can accomplish when provided the right amount of motivation and mental fortitude.
I made some lasting friendships there, people who have my utmost respect and am thankful and honored to call fellow peers. Gradually throughout the event you realize you need others as much as they need you and collectively you are more capable when you have each other to lean on and lift up. I owe my team mates a world of gratitude in the beginning of the event for setting me straight, helping me when I needed, and lifting me up. If they weren’t there and there were a whole lot of FNG me’s, I don’t know how far I would’ve made it.
In closing, completing this event was a defining moment in my adult life. For the first time, I started to think outside the confines of what boundaries I had placed on myself. That event gave me the courage to think more openly and freely for myself and challenge who I was and who I wanted to be. More importantly, it helped me realize that it’s not about you. It’s about the others around you – your tribe, your friends, your family. That sense of community is a drug and it’s no wonder why people continue to come back to participate in these events. People I had only known for 12 hours had my utmost respect and still do to this day, because we embraced it together and it was our experience.
If you want to find out what GORUCK is all about, check it out here. I promise, you’ll come out of the event learning more about yourself than you ever thought you could. And like me, you’ll be signing up and back for more good livin’ in no time.
All Photo Credits go to one of our event “shadows,” Alan Chang