By Pete Williams
TAMPA – They assembled in the waning hours of Good Friday along a windy stretch of Tampa Bay at the end of Bayshore Boulevard called Ballast Point Park.
Thirty-two athletes clad in black, mostly in their thirties but ranging in age from early twenties to late forties – 20 men and 12 women – gathered in the parking lot packing the rucks they would hump for the next 8 to 10 hours, possibly more, as they got a taste of Special Operations training. The Goruck Challenge, created by 30-year-old Jason McCarthy as a way to promote his $295 rucksacks modeled after the ones he used in the Middle East as a Green Beret, quietly has overtaken Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and probably even Ironman to become the most challenging event in endurance sports.
That’s because participants must fill their packs with water bladders, supplies, and bricks: six if you weigh more than 150 pounds, four if you weigh less. The rucks rarely come off during the event. “I trained my ass off to get down to 148,” says one male competitor, who has brought along a scale in case he needs to produce evidence.
His colleagues use the scale to weigh their packs. One six-brick pack comes in at 44.5 pounds, the next at 30. Apparently there’s a big difference between regular bricks and “patio” bricks.
This group is the 143rd “class” to take the Goruck Challenge since it debuted in September of 2010 and the event now moves all over the world. McCarthy and his fellow eight cadre have military backgrounds, most as Green Berets, but the Goruck experience is as much Fight Club as military.
Even after 18 months, the event still flies under the radar. Tampa is a hotbed of endurance sports – triathlon, obstacle racing, trail and road running – but Class 143 consists mostly of members of a CrossFit gym who drove over from Lakeland. Goruck has a Web site – actually two, one for the challenge, one for the ruck – but there is no advertising. Even the cadre retain the shroud of mystery from their Special Forces days.
At 11:55 p.m. I get a text. “I’m in the silver Jeep Liberty. You here?”
The cadre is among the athletes but yet invisible, setting the tone for the evening. He’s letting me hang with the group for the night as a journalist. As I approach the driver’s side window, it becomes clear his name – Lou – probably is an alias, perhaps left over from his Special Forces days. He’s a dead ringer for Lou Diamond Phillips, a 6-foot-4, Rock of Gibraltar version, and his age and ethnicity are impossible to peg.
Classes begin at 10 p.m. or, like this one, 1 a.m. Nobody knows how long it will last or what exactly it will entail, though the GRC almost always involves carrying tree trunks and telephone poles. Long distances. You will get wet. Often.
It sucks. “They will learn to embrace the suck,” Lou tells me, getting out of the Liberty. “You have to focus on the task at hand, not the next 10 or 14 hours or you will fail.”
For this joyride entrants pay between $120 and $160 depending on how far in advance they register. The official Goruck packs – the GR1 is recommended – costs $295, though participants can bring whatever pack they want at their own peril. About half go for the GR1.
At 1:11 a.m. Lou appoints a team leader. This guy will relay Lou’s missions and keep his finger on the pulse of the group. Mike has the group fall out into the “PT Pit” in four lines of eight, then eight lines of four. Lou walks around, inspecting open packs.
“Do not call me sir,” Lou says. “I’m Lou. I work for a living. I have 18 years in Special Operations, two years with Wounded Warrior and a Ph.D in chaos. I’ve traveled the world thanks to the U.S. Army. Is that understood?”
Crab walking to the water
“If you have to go to the bathroom, go now. Only go somewhere with a battle buddy. Your safety is my primary concern. You may not think so, but I’ll be evaluating you constantly. We’re not out here to crush you. There’s no training value to that. You will get out of your comfort zone but your safety is my utmost concern.”
Lou paces slowly. “Bags will never touch the ground. Bags touch the ground, bad shit happens. Don’t try to be an individual. Be an individual, bad shit happens. Milton Bradley calls me for fucking games.” More pacing. “Most importantly, have fun. Smile. It’s not that bad. I only have you for 12 to 14 hours. Cadre did it for three weeks just to get into Special Ops. So smile, embrace the suck, and you’ll have fun.”
At 1:29 a.m., Lou tells the group to put their packs on. Flags, including the one the group must carry for the duration, snap in the wind whipping off Tampa Bay. The group is facing the water, just 20 yards away, but there’s a dock 100 yards to their right through the parking lot. Lou orders them to the dock and into the water.
One minute later, they’re back in formation. Twenty push-ups and back into the water. The next hour is spent shuttling back and forth to the dock. Flutter kicks, more push-ups, mountain climbers. Crab walking to the water, bear crawling back. The packs never come off. Lou never raises his voice, but his nicotine baritone expresses disgust with every effort.
At one point, Lou asks, “Who’s familiar with monkey fuckers?”
Remarkably, two hands go up. The guys come to the front of the class and demonstrate a deep squat, grab-your-ankles move that looks like, well, it doesn’t meet with Lou’s approval anyway. “You guys suck. Thirty count monkey fuckers.”
Back to the water and then more mountain climbers. “Everyone, drink water,” Lou says. “Team leader, it’s up to you to monitor water. When you get low, let me know. Now back in the water. All I want to see are heads.”
More trips into the surf, crab walking and bear crawling. An additional 25-pound pack is shuffled among the group, the mandatory additional team weight that must be carried. GRC 143 has filled its team pack with cans of beer. Lou approves. Lou loves beer. It’s one of the few things Lou will outwardly approve of all night. Lou dislikes moving slowly, indecision, drunks, and a certain breed of man.
“I’m on a quest this year to save the American male from the European invasion,” Lou announces shortly before 2 a.m. “Be on the lookout tonight for men in Spandex and tight jeans. Our No.1 rule is to always look cool. Men in Spandex?” Lou pauses, shaking his head. “Nobody wants to see your junk.”
More crab walking back to the surf. The rucks are shuffled to the chest for crab walks. “We’re building six-pack abs, getting you ready for beach season,” Lou says. “Some of you are thinking of paying for the fucking Brazilian Butt Lift. Now you won’t have to.”
At 2:10, Lou assigns the group a mission. There’s a nuclear submarine under the dock that must be retrieved. Actually it’s a hunk of tree with jagged branches. The group pulls it out quickly and returns to the PT Pit for a 20-count set of military presses with the rucks. More push-ups and water.
“Anyone cold?” Lou asks.
Lou has the group pair up with partners of comparable size. It’s time for the fireman’s carry, a tough move in normal circumstances, let alone cold, wet, tired, and wearing a pack.
The women execute it well and head to the surf. Two pairs of men go down hard. Packs smack and heads hit asphalt. The buddy carry exercise ends as Lou orders everyone into the surf. This time they stay a while, huddled together for warmth. “If you have to pee, go now,” someone says.
It’s 2:28 a.m. Lou summons six of the largest guys. Beyond the dock is a six-foot length of railroad tie. It’s a downed pilot that must be transported to Tampa’s SoHo District about eight miles away. While the six get a handle on the pilot, Lou lights a cigarette and orders the rest of the group out of the water.
“Mass together and take advantage of the body heat,” Lou says. “There’s nothing sexual going on; you all stink. Someone’s getting a rise out of this, you’ve got issues.”
At 2:35 comes the first casualty. A guy has tweaked a chronic right knee injury. A buddy offers to drive him home. The group is down to 30.
Ten minutes later, the group finally leaves Ballast Point Park, running down Bayshore. They have 30 minutes to get the downed pilot to SoHo. The six guys up front have the railroad tie in a litter of sorts, but they can’t hold it for long. Another group of six moves up to take the pilot.
“We’re jogging, not walking,” Lou says. “You want to walk, do Warrior Dash.”
Lou miscalculates the time necessary to get to SoHo. No matter. Not his problem. The next two hours are spent crawling up Bayshore, often literally. Lou moves the group onto the grassy median strip and onto their bellies. The front six push the pilot. Each group lasts about 20 yards before moving to the back. Shadows fall over Bayshore from streetlights and the accent lights of mansions.
They pass a sign: easterisnear.com. Twenty-one hours, actually.
Lou takes note of the group commando-crawling up the Bayshore grass in two columns. They’ve grown close, literally, with 18 men and 12 women remaining. “Some of you don’t have a good view,” Lou says. “Oh well. Some of you have a good view. You’re welcome.”
At 3:48, Lou asks if anybody knows the depth of the water off Bayshore. A brick comes out of a pack and is lowered. Unfortunately for the group, it’s only two feet deep. Lou orders everyone over Bayshore’s Corinthian column wall and into the water. This doesn’t happen quickly enough and soon the group is getting an even better/worse view of one another, aligned ankle-to-shoulder on the sidewalk for inchworm push-ups.
“You didn’t take a course of action,” Lou says. “Let’s see if we can light a fire under your ass and make shit happen. This is what happens when we don’t act as a team and get scared over two feet of water.”
At 4:10, the group is in the water, walking single file along the wall up Bayshore – quietly. They’re behind enemy lines now.
Lou walks along the sidewalk and lights another cigarette. “They’re smiling, which is good,” he says. “They’re learning to embrace the suck and how you have to have a sense of humor. The mind controls the body, not vice versa. I love the sense of accomplishment people get out of this and that’s one of the major things they take out of it.”
The group is doing well, Lou says, but breakdowns in communication typically take place around 5 a.m. when sleep deprivation really kicks in and athletes completely lose track of time. (Watches and cell phones are not allowed.)
At 4:30 the group approaches a staircase out of the water. Not an option. They must lift everyone over the wall, which they accomplish quickly. As a reward, and to warm-up, they do 15 push-ups.
Two women and a guy run by. “What are you guys doing out here?” the guy asks.
“It’s the Goruck Challenge,” Lou says, in a tone that suggests the crazy ones are the ones up at 4:30 on Saturday to go for a jog. He shakes his head as they fade into the darkness. “Good luck training for the 5K.”
At 4:46, they finally arrive at Howard Ave. Mike is relieved of his team leader duties after nearly four hours and gets a round of applause as Angie, a petite blonde takes over. Another change comes as they must carry their rucks – no use of shoulder straps.
By 5:15, they’re in the Bern’s Steakhouse parking garage. “This is a weird place for a parking garage,” Lou says, struggling to grasp that the white warehouse-looking building across the street actually is one of America’s finest restaurants. Lou orders the group up the five flights of stairs. Each time down, they’re challenged to guess Lou’s age. Three times back up.
Finally, at 5:58 a.m, a pitstop at a SoHo convenience store. Water bottles are refilled, additional snacks purchased, restrooms used. “What are you guys, a flash mob?” somebody asks.
“It’s the Goruck Challenge,” Lou says.
The Inchworm Push-Up
Heading down Platt Street at 6:35 a.m., Lou points out a downed telephone pole. It’s unclear how Goruck positions such items conveniently along the course. McCarthy and Lou are vague on how they prepare. Just another part of the Goruck mystery.
Smiling even though Bern's is closed
The group struggles to get a convenient handle on the log. The women are the issue. They’re plenty strong, but the height differential is throwing off the balance. It’s decided the girls will carry the guys’ packs as the guys deal with the log. They head down Plant Street toward downtown, log on one shoulder, periodically shifting shoulders in a three-count move that requires some choreography.
At 6:45, Lou drops to the ground and does 20 push-ups. No particular reason. In the last 90 minutes, he has consumed Budweiser, coffee, a Monster energy drink, and a number of cigarettes.
At 7:29, the sun is up and we’re in downtown Tampa. Lou lets the group ditch the log and it’s time for a group photo along Ashley Street. It’s also time to lose the writer/photographer. I had set up a 10 a.m. group training session at Dirty Foot Adventures in Fort Meade, site of both the Dirty Foot Adventure Run on June 9 and Tough Mudder in December.
Tough Mudder. That event suddenly didn’t look so tough. McCarthy and some of his Green Beret buddies went to one of the first Tough Mudders and field tested the Gorucks, weighted down with bricks, after drinking beer all night.
After I left, the group did countless lunges along the Tampa Riverwalk, advanced to the Florida Aquarium for another group photo and headed back to Bayshore, going back into the water. There were Indian drills where the person in back had to run to the front, and Lou’s dislike of the European male influence became a factor.
Men in Spandex or biker shorts were deemed threats and the group had to drop to a knee whenever one was spotted. If Lou saw the threat first, that meant casualties. The 12 guys had to fireman’s carry the women and the remaining eight guys had to carry all the packs – for nearly two miles.
The group eventually made it to MacDill Air Force Base and the memorial for special forces units before Lou declared it a day at 12:15 p.m.
Just five hours left to go!
Eleven hours and 15 minutes, covering more than 23 miles.
For their efforts, team members received 2×3 inch Goruck patches and some crazy memories of a guy who would disappear in his silver Jeep Liberty and reappear at Ballast Point Park later that evening for a 10 p.m. class.
Class 143 wouldn’t soon forget their night with Lou.
Or whoever the hell he is.
(Listen to Fitness Buff Show interview with Goruck Challenge founder Jason McCarthy)