The Challenge 04.04.2013
The story I want to tell you about the GORUCK Challenge is likely not the story you are expecting to hear. I’ve written the rough outlines of those stories before. And others have detailed them as well. So, all of the pieces you may have heard about or imagined were certainly there.
I could tell you about the couple of hours we spent doing push-ups. Then squats and flutter kicks with our brick filled packs held high over our heads. Then lunges, and bear crawls, and buddy drags, and low crawls. All of this in wet snow and on ice on a cold night with rain just about to start, so the cold set into our bones in seconds and never seemed to leave.
I could tell you about the buddy carries we did for 2.5 miles through the heart of downtown just as it started to thunderstorm and how I was picked as one of the "wounded" that needed to be carried. But this was actually not a bonus because it meant not much movement so the rain and the cold set in even deeper. I’ve never shivered so badly and deeply for so long and hard in my life.
I could tell you about the bear crawls across the .7 mile bridge in the rain which at least got me moving and warming up but to such a point I was too tired to do them properly and kept dropping to a knee crawl. My knees, thus, quickly bruising and becoming a bloody painful mess.
I could tell you about then running to our first break point, which at this time was about 6 hours in. We had enough time to find a tree and take a piss or fill my now nearly depleted hydration bladder, but not both. I found a tree.
I could then mention the "nukes" that the Cadre found for us to move 4.7 miles. Concrete parking barriers — four of them — were the nukes. We split up into 4 teams with a couple of people left out to rotate in as those carrying needed a break. Yes, it rained the whole time. My shoulders became bruised and battered with the sharp edges of the rock studded concrete digging into them.
The rain finally let up around the time we dropped off the "nukes" in their safe zone. We were given another 10 minute break here. Just enough time for another bathroom break and to shove some nutrition in. We then ran fartleks across a bridge to the other side of the river where we "saved American lives" by picking up an IED in the form of a large fallen tree. Which we carried for a mile or so before "saving more American lives" by picking up another of slightly larger and heavier size. We carried them both for about 5 miles.
I could tell you that we then finished things off with a five mile march through the city streets. Most of us exhausted, drained, and still wet and cold despite the fact that it had stopped raining hours before and the sun was beginning to break free of the clouds. The Cadre finally let us go after 13 hours and 15 miles of this hell.
But the story I wish to tell, the one that will stick with me, is that of my friend Ayn. You see, Ayn is one of the toughest people I have ever met. She participated in the last GORUCK Challenge, the one I was supposed to be in last year before having to bow out due to injury. I shadowed anyway and got to witness the spectacle that is Ayn. She is pure attitude. And what she lacks in size she more than delivers in spit and vigor and strength and gusto. All the time flashing her knowing grin. The one that not-so-silently laughs at you for ever underestimating her. The one that lets you know that the harder you make it, the more she will enjoy the test of her resolve.
So, it was no surprise when Ayn showed up again for this one. It was also no surprise that every time I even thought of quitting all I had to do was look at her and know it was all mental and that I needed to smile and embrace the suck. There were more than a few times I said, "I can’t" aloud in the middle of some new struggle. There were more than a few times she was next to me or in front of me or behind me saying, "Yes you can!". For the first few hours anyway.
The surprise came somewhere on the other side of bear crawl bridge when I started to notice a turn in Ayn. I could tell that the wet and cold were beginning to get the best of her. Hypothermia was just over the edge and she could feel it coming on. A few others noticed it too. They tried to huddle-hug her to keep her warm. They rubbed her arms and back vigorously to try to create some heat. Nothing seemed to work.
I’m not quite sure when but, at one point while carrying those "nukes", I overheard her say to the Cadre she was close to quitting. That the cold was getting the best of her and that she was going to give in. That she had never quit anything in her life but this might be the day. It was then that I stepped into the conversation and took off my jacket and gave it to her and made her put it on. She was a source of strength to me. An example to follow. I realized that if she quit then I would have one less person to lead me. One less person to say, "Yes you can!" Perhaps the most important one here (to me) would be gone.
After it was all said and done, and she gave me back my jacket, she said that if not for having it she surely would have quit. What she likely does not realize, and what I hope to make clear, is that keeping her from quitting is what got me through. If I had not given her the jacket I might have quit too.
I’ve heard more than a few Cadre in the course of my research about the Challenge tell the teams, "Look at the person to the left of you. Look to the person on the right. This is not about you. It’s about them!"
These words kept running through my head every time I wanted to give up. If I quit, I was not really letting myself down. I was letting down my teammates who I had pledged to be there for. Conversely, if I had quit, in a way I would be telling them they let me down. This idea rang no more true to me than when I gave Ayn my jacket. It was not about me, it was about her.
If you are considering taking the Challenge yourself, this is the biggest lesson I learned and can impart. Please realize that the point of the Challenge is to show you a side of yourself you never thought possible. A side that not only has the mental and physical strength to do it, but also the compassion and sacrifice to give yourself up for others so that they may do the same for you. Because the very essence of teamwork is to help everyone else get the job done knowing and trusting that they are doing the same for everyone else and you. Only then will you see that no one gets through this Challenge (or this life) alone. And this is why we do it.