Lying on my stomach in the hot grass of Piedmont Park with a weighted rucksack on my back, I stared into the sweaty crotch of a Crossfitter. His ankles were on my shoulders, and my ankles were on the shoulders of the person behind me as we prepared to do a push-up as a chain.
“Up!” our leader barked.
My legs lifted with the person behind me, but my shoulders stayed smushed on the ground. No way I could lift this guy’s thick, muscular legs along with my own bodyweight and the 25 pounds of bricks, water, and gear in my backpack.
Though our leader—known as “Cadre,” and never “sir”—didn’t yell at me, I was frustrated with myself. I thought I needed to excel at every element of the GORUCK Challenge Light, an endurance event guided by active and former Special Forces members. Events are held year-round, across the country.
But in that moment, and throughout the four-plus-hour event under the blazing sun, I was continually reminded that GORUCK isn’t your run-of-the-mill race or fitness class. There is no finish line, no first place. If I wanted to go faster or push harder, I risked leaving my comrades behind. It didn’t matter if I was among the strongest, or among the weakest. Nobody was keeping score. It was, in every sense of the word, a team test—and an event that challenged my sense of what it means to win.
GORUCK began as a backpack manufacturer in 2008 but didn’t make many sales, so founder and former Green Beret Jason McCarthy diversified, creating the challenges as a way to employ veterans and acquaint civilians with military-style training while tapping into the public’s growing desire for the next big, punishing, dirty challenge. (Spartan Race hits this same target, as does Tough Mudder—both are booming. There’s even a documentary called Rise of the Sufferfests.) Why would people pay upwards of $100 to approximate something that members of the military are forced to do? Some say it’s a way to identify with the people who fight our wars. Others think it’s a form of rebellion, a response to an increasingly coddled, social media-obsessed, and therefore inauthentic life. Me, I just like to feel strong, and to see what my body can do.
There are three levels of GORUCK Challenges, with the easiest taking up to five hours—and boasting a 100 percent completion rate—and the hardest involving a 40-mile hump over 24 straight hours. Only one out of two participants complete that level, which might involve crawling through cold mud, hoisting telephone poles, and bear-crawling with someone clutching your abdomen like a koala. For every challenge, you carry a rucksack stuffed with weights.
I signed up for the “easiest” challenge, the Light, and was joined by 39 other paying masochists: a pre-K teacher, a retired police detective, a Crossfit box owner, and several members of the military, including a guy in short-shorts who was like a gnat in my ear.
When I was instructed by Cadre Chris Sanchez—affectionately known as “Soulcrusher”—to lead the group in lunges, short-shorts tried to tell me how to do them (dude, I’m a fitness instructor. I got this). At the end of the day, when I was carrying a giant American flag and leading the pack into Piedmont Park, he jogged to the front to nag me about picking up the pace (dude, I can go faster than this, but some people are really struggling—two are carrying our 25-pound team weight and several other people are carrying other people across their shoulders).
Short-shorts turned out to be an asset to me, though. I also wanted to speed up. I wanted to army-crawl faster across the beach volleyball court, just to get it over with. I wanted to hustle through the bear-crawls. But I had to resist those urges, because staying together, and working as a team, was our primary goal. Hearing short-shorts verbalize my thoughts reminded me to push them aside.
And anytime it started to feel silly that we had to dispatch “road guards” to help us cross Peachtree Street, even when we had the light, Cadre Chris—a Force Recon Marine from Pennsylvania who served in Iraq, Africa, Kosovo, and the Philippines—would stop the group and tell us the story of a friend he’d lost in combat. And then I’d remember that my ego, impatience, and cynicism had no place here.
After about four hours and 11 miles of marching and calisthenics, we were done. No balloon-festooned finish line, no T-shirt, no medal. Just a little patch that said “GORUCK Light.” If for a moment that felt like too little for so much effort, my disappointment was immediately squashed when a team-member—a first-timer who had joined her husband for his umpteenth ruck—reminded me of what was most important.
“I just want to thank everyone for helping me through this—for carrying my ruck when I needed you to, and for pushing me through,” she said, through tears. “It really means a lot.”