By Pete Williams
At 1 o’clock Saturday morning in downtown Tampa, a group of 80 to 100 people will begin a grueling, all-night physical challenge consisting of Burpees, push-ups, hauling logs, and non-stop running while wearing heavy-duty, military-grade backpacks containing four or six bricks apiece.
They will spend the next 8 to 10 hours covering 15 to 20 miles and the trip could take them virtually anywhere from Ybor City to MacDill Air Force Base. Watches and cell phones are not allowed. Headlamps and layers of clothing are required, though the latter is less of an issue in the Florida heat.
These people have nothing to do with the military, though the cadre accompanying them have Special Operations backgrounds, most as Green Berets. The participants have paid between $120 and $160 apiece to get a taste of Special Ops training, pushing their mental and physical limits, and serving as walking billboards for the backpacks they wear.
It’s all part of the Goruck Challenge, which began as a way for Jason McCarthy to market his $295 Goruck ruck sacks, high-end, indestructible backpacks modeled after the rucks he used as a Green Beret fighting in the Middle East.
McCarthy, who graduated from The Bolles School in Jacksonville and recently earned an MBA at Georgetown, figured his U.S.-manufactured rucks would be difficult to market at that price point. He and some fellow Green Berets competed in one of the first Tough Mudder races in the weighted Gorucks. The gang had fun, but McCarthy figured he could create his own challenge that more closely mimicked Special Forces training.
Obstacle races give competitors the option of working together but there’s no choice in Goruck, where one cadre works with teams of up to 30 people. Each has a weighted backpack and teams must collectively haul additional weight. A typical challenge is carrying a 1,000-pound tree trunk for up to a half mile. Another staple is running Indian style, where the last person in line must sprint ahead and become the leader. If a team member can’t go on at any point, s/he must be carried.
“The rule that matters the most is that they work together,” McCarthy told us this week on The Fitness Buff Show. “For the individual it’s a rollercoaster. You give 1,000 percent for an hour, but maybe for the next hour you don’t have that stamina and that’s when your buddy has to pick you up and vice versa. It’s every bit a team event and showing their failures as an individual so they can see the power of working together. The challenge is a metaphor for life.”
The cadre are not drill sergeants but rather assign missions, appoint group leaders, and dole out penalties. McCarthy himself is among the eight cadre in the mix, though he won’t be in Tampa this weekend. With 62 events scheduled the rest of the year, some with multiple “classes” over the course of a weekend, McCarthy can’t make all of them, which include Florida stops in Orlando (May 19-20), Fort Lauderdale (Nov. 17-18), and Jacksonville (Nov. 24-25).
The events typically stick around urban areas, but given their overnight scheduling don’t tend to disrupt traffic and only attract a few curious onlookers. The event has a 98 percent completion rate, but McCarthy says the non-finishers include a man who had completed six Ironman triathlons. A number of people return for multiple Gorucks, to the point where McCarthy has created Goruck Selection, a 48-hour-plus version of the Challenge designed to mimic the Special Forces Qualification Course.
“There’s a feeling at the end of the challenge that you’ve accomplished something,” McCarthy says. “Camaraderie is so high in the military because you spend time being miserable with people and there’s no substitue for that. People want to see how they respond under mental and physical stress.”