GoRuck Challenge Review

People ask me, “Was the GoRuck Challenge fun?” I’m not exactly sure what to say. Fun is laughing with your friends, shooting guns, or riding jet skis really fast. Let’s just say I’m glad I did it.

The Go Ruck Challenge is a unique, challenging team event that emulates the training of Special Operations Forces (SOF).

The GORUCK Challenge is a team event, never a race. Think of it as a slice of reality found in the most elite schools in Special Operations. Leadership is taught, leadership is demanded. SOURCE

Attendees show up with a pack (AKA “ruck”) with six bricks (4 for women), water, and food/supplies and are put through a challenging night of physical stressors through a major city. It’s more than just a road march; each team is given an objective of reaching a well known check point in the city, yet there’s typically a catch. A mission may demand carrying a tree, other people, or something special like Indian running or racing another team. Each team also has a couple of “team weights” that must be accounted for. There are rules that must be followed with the implements and with the missions, and if the group doesn’t adhere to the standard, then they’ll receive a lesson to help them remember why (i.e. getting smoked). The end result is about a 12 hour event that starts at night, finishes in the morning, and travels a distance of 15 to 20 miles. Good livin’.

Post GoRuck with guys from CF Annandale. L to R: Jack, Ray, Justin, Tony, David, and Andy

“What the HELL would I want to do that for?”
It’s funny hearing this question from a prior military guy; they typically had to do this kind of thing before, so I don’t blame their amusement. Let’s focus on civilian participation. An event like this does several things. Most of all it allows a civilian to pay homage to the military and SOF units; by completing a challenge they gain an understanding of the sacrifice these guys undergo during selection, a day of training, or a day of deployment. I’ve heard GoRuck Challenges (GRC) compared to the first day of SFAS and Ranger School (a comparison made by military guys who have completed the schools). The GRC is obviously void of complex tactical knowledge and execution, yet the necessity of teamwork under durress is what makes it similar. There have been West Point cadets that have said it’s the best team building exercise they’ve ever been through. Whether civilian or military, there’s no better exercise to test the mettle of a team than taking the mind and body to exhaustion and asking for excellence.

This is why I think someone should do a GRC. For some, it will be the hardest they’ve ever pushed themselves. It may be that moment that they push beyond what they thought they could, and they’ll do it because they don’t want to let their team down — a team that they just met several hours prior. For others it challenges them to implement their leadership into an unfamiliar situation or scenario. For everyone, they’ll re-learn the fundamentals of team work they’ve been taught throughout their lives as the group of individuals complete a metamorphosis into a team. The team is only as strong as its weakest link and a single person, a leader, can influence the entire team. Group dynamics are incredibly interesting, and they are highlighted in the most austere conditions. A GRC allows you to be pushed near your limit in a controlled environment; one that is constantly evaluated by a cadre who will adjust the demands based on the success and performance of the group.

How was your challenge?
I opted to attend the challenge in Washington DC, where GoRuck started. I think that this is a unique GRC location because all of the major historical monuments are visited during the night. The average person will never do a GRC, much less put a ruck on, hold a weapon, and risk his life for his country. The “American soldier” has allowed this freedom for hundreds of years; we have the luxury to choose to do this type of training for FUN. I believe that the GRC allows the lay person to pay homage to past and present freedom fighters, and doing it in our historically relevant capital makes it even more meaningful. Picture this:

You are slowly walking along the obsidian Vietnam Memorial wall. The orange lights on the ground glow, lighting up the names. Thousands and thousands of names. You have endured at least four hours of grueling physical challenges. Most recently you and your team carried a 1,200 pound tree through Georgetown to the memorial. This task is only a fraction of the emotional and physical stress that many soldiers endure in war. You scan the wall as you walk, but it’s impossible to read every name. There are so many, those that are lost.

Your cadre speaks softly,
“Pick one name along this wall, one of the thousands…
Remember that name…
And don’t ever forget it…

Charles H. Cook. That’s the name that is burned in my mind. I cannot describe to you what kind of emotion this evokes from me. It’s a moment that will always stay with me. It’s a name that I’ll never forget.

I’m not going to explain the sequence of Class 186’s events, but even if I did it wouldn’t matter because each class and each challenge are different. The experience can be different depending on the cadre, team members, city, and implements. I can tell you that we spent some time getting wet; we carried a 30 foot tree log (that easily weighed 1,000 pounds) down a busy street while people were partying and drinking; we carried our jerry can and fire hose everywhere (along with our rucks; none of it was allowed to touch the ground); we carried each other; we ran, we lunged, and crawled; we went through a river and a swamp; we ran a 5k at one point; and a plenty of other things.

Throughout the challenge, the “Team Leader” position is rotated. The TL carries the flag and organizes the movement to try and meet the objective. We didn’t really have any rules on how to do this, but if things became inefficient, things became…complicated. The two ranks aren’t staying together? Better start doing walking lunges. The ranks can’t keep up with the people doing buddy carries? Then you have to carry your rucks without straps.

Our class had 6 team leaders; I was one of them. I had the benefit of observing several before it was my turn, but the only time we made a time hack was when I was the TL. It was an interesting lesson in leadership and team work. There were times when I was carrying one of the girls while both of us wore our rucks (probably about 250 pounds overall weight on me), and our column had to keep stopping. This was frustrating because I was ready to embrace the suck and move the fuck out, but a team is only a strong as its weakest link. There were a few times when I had to treat some cramps in other people; get them hydrated, feed electrolytes, and massage their cramps. There were other times, particularly during my TL stint, where I continuously cramped. The team offered to stop, but that would have delayed us even more to make our time, so they would give me water on the run, and I’d deal with the whole leg cramps as I moved up and down the column, keeping everyone rank and file. Again, being a leader and a follower was an interesting experience, and it’s the reason I encourage you to try this event.

The "Tough" patch is awarded at the finish. The other is new and rarely awarded to top performers.

On Quitting and Sucking
People always say it’s mental, and it is. Many in the comments last Friday encouraged me not to quit; I never had it in my mind that I would. I more so didn’t want anyone in my class to quit, and nobody did (including 7 girls). I was impressed with the sturdiness and mental toughness of the girls. I never heard any of them complain, but maybe that was a function of our developing team. I was in quite a lot of pain in the last three hours (mostly because of hydration issues), but obviously didn’t tell anyone that. I routinely checked on everyone, and the girls never had any issues; they pushed on all the same.

I’ve heard that a recently separated Marine quit in another class around 6:30 AM. However, in my class, a guy named Ray literally had no preparation whatsoever, didn’t know what he was doing until the morning of, was completely unprepared, and wore Adidas shell-top shoes (yes, these) that weren’t even laced tightly, and HIS goober ass finished. Ray definitely thought about quitting, but he stuck through until completion. The point is that a decently fit guy or girl can complete this with little to no preparation, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t prepare for it.

How to Prepare
I don’t post about it on the site, but I work with a lot of military guys, including SOF personnel in several countries. I obviously have a lot of respect for them, but I routinely experiment on myself to understand and feel the rigors of their training (I did the same when we wrote “FIT“). I’ve been rucking once or twice a week for at least six months to condition my feet. I’ve been doing this in conjunction with a strength and conditioning program. By doing this I’ve learned how to structure strength training to still make gains or maintain strength, how to plug in conditioning sessions, and what kind of mobility work that needs to be utilized in a ruck/lift/run program. This won’t be a comprehensive guide on the program, but here are the highlights:

Program the S&C portion around the rucking; it can and will jack up the structures for efficient strength/conditioning training
– Commit to daily mobility work; rucking bashes the shoulders, neck, thoracic and lumbar spine, hips, knees, and feet. Learn your problem areas and keep them up to speed; if you slack, they will fail.
Progress rucking slowly; your body is not ready for 50+ pound rucks for several hours. Start light and short, and linearly progress it slowly.
Cap the weight at 50 pounds and don’t run; there’s no need to run in training because it puts too much stress on the body. Just trust me. Some infantry guys may need to run a LITTLE bit in training to prepare for a 12 mile road march, but it can fuck things up.
Progress the overall program slowly; the body won’t be hitting everything full speed with the addition of rucking. Don’t try and squat close to your repetition PR; allow your structures and system to adapt to the new straining stress.
Aim to toughen the feet. I wore issue desert boots until recently for the sole purpose of toughening my feet. I had a blister in March 2011 on my first ever ruck (a friend was, uh, breaking me in), and the second time I had a blister was a month or so ago when I did 8 miles in 2 hours (some of it on sand). The boots are shitty with no custom work to make them more comfortable (blister was on the back of the heel). I recently got a pair of Rocky C4 deserts and wore them during the challenge (they are similar to Nike Free deserts, but the Nikes rubbed on my pinky toes too much for my liking). I did not have any blisters, and the 12 hours of the GRC was four times as long as I’ve ever gone with a ruck on. Also, my feet were constantly wet (streams, water fountains, rivers, etc.), which is the worst thing for blister development, but I didn’t have any problems.
Learn about blisters and how to prevent them. This book is the best available if you’re a noob. It would be relevant if you’re into hiking or mountain climbing (I am). Learn how shoes and socks should fit. I wore dress socks under moisture-wicking socks to reduce friction on my feet; it was the first time I did it, and I had zero problems (other than really pruny feet from being wet for 12 hours).
Learn proper hydration and electrolyte consumption. My longest ruck or hike has been three hours. When the sun started coming up, I started to have some small cramps in my quad (we had to do walking lunges). I was soon the TL, and my various parts of my legs from the hip down tried to seize on me during our movement (have you ever had your adductor muscles cramp?). I later had a full blown calf cramp in the swamp. This all could have been prevented with better hydration; by the time I needed the water, it was too late. I had a water bladder, but I emptied it several times and couldn’t keep enough water in me. I opted several times during my TL stint to give my water to other people so that we could make time. The problem is that I have a lot of muscle mass, and it burns through water like an engine does gasoline. In the future I would have two bladders and drink on them constantly. My last several hours would have been much easier had I done so (I was pretty hobbled).

There’s not much you can do to actually prepare for a GRC other than get time under a ruck. As usual, high frequency CrossFit workouts every week will NOT help. Instead, establish or maintain a strength base, use some high intensity conditioning once or twice a week, but make sure and ruck once or twice a week. Things that I would add to my preparation would be yoke walks, buddy carries (these would need to be in there for several months to actually have a training effect), weighted push-ups, and farmer’s carries. I didn’t have a problem carrying stuff (and have sprinkled farmer’s in my training), but they would have helped everyone else. I can bench 350 and do 50 push-ups without stopping at all (around 75 if I rested in the plank), and I definitely fatigued on the push-ups portion. I mean, when you’re getting smoked with your ruck on your back, you’re supposed to be fatigued, but our cadre wasn’t impressed. There were about 5 minutes where I carried over 450 pounds on my back when we carried the tree, so having some endurance based yoke walks may have helped that. Other than the farmer’s, I’d say that these things are not necessary. Simply add some calisthenics to your training about twice a week (throw it in after the lifting).

Lasting Impressions
Our cadre, Chris, was a Recon Marine. He expressed the GoRuck sentiment that he was proud that there were civilians who were willing to participate in event like the GoRuck Challenge. I can’t speak for Chris or the other cadre, but they seemed genuinely respectful that we would opt to do this. I think for them, it honors their friends who didn’t make it home, but it also honors the guys that are still over there in discrete parts of the world helping people and going after bad guys. The cadre enjoy the fact that we want to do this to learn and appreciate what they dedicated a portion of their life to. They even respect us for doing it, and that’s saying a lot coming from a guy who had “been there, done that” for 10 years. Lastly, a portion of each sign up fee goes into The Green Beret foundation, so it immediately helps wounded SF personnel.

Am I gonna do another GRC? I’m not planning on it, but if I have to do it to get others to, then I will. If a group of 70’s Big readers wanted to do it, then I’d make it there. Our society is fortunate enough where we don’t ever HAVE to do anything difficult, and we certainly aren’t mandated to fight America’s wars. A GoRuck Challenge will give you a proper appreciation for the type of guy that does this for real. It will allow you to overcome what might be the most challenging thing you’ve ever done. It will truly teach you teamwork, togetherness, and leadership. There was a moment when I was walking through a couple miles of knee deep swamp (how they found one in fucking DC, I do not know), cramping every time I was stuck in the mud. A guy named Chris was there with a helping hand every time. 12 hours earlier he didn’t know who I was, but here he was, getting me through the swamp. I often weep at the state of our society, but the GoRuck Challenge and the people who participate in it give me hope.

Edit: Here’s a video of the first meal after the GRC:

27 thoughts on “GoRuck Challenge Review

  1. Would you consider eating processed food and not doing an sort of conditioning proper training for this event? If so, I am in.

    You could do it without any conditioning or rucking, but it’ll hurt a lot more. Don’t worry, I ate candy before and during.


  2. Nice write up. Hydration is one of the things that got me when I first did longer endurance stuff, really have to push myself to drink enough, not just waiting till I felt like I needed it.

    Similar kind of vein; competing in a 100 mile Ultra Marathon starting Friday….angus peppered for 21,000ft of vertical gain and two nights without sleep (hopefully).

    Yikes. Yeah, I ran out of water and let other people refill during the time we had to do so. It definitely caught up with me. A Marine friend who also did the challenge only drank half of his water bladder; he’s a thinner guy, but he’s also adapted to long movements in the Mohave Desert.


  3. Also, anyone with a Fresh Market in the area needs to get there today, and every Tuesday, while they are running their Surf & Turf Tuesdays deal. Grass fed rib eye and NY strip for $7.99/lb, or if you feel like doing the work you can buy a whole loin for $5.99/lb.

  4. Good stuff. For blister prevention and care, moleskin is huge. Do some hikes, figure out where you tend to get “hot spots,” and proactively apply the moleskin *before* the hot spot turns into a blister. That will pay off huge, especially once your mileage gets in the 30-40+ range. If you do get a blister, products like Second Skin or NuSkin are awesome. REI has all of this shit (http://www.rei.com/category/4501305).

    Justin – can you elaborate about non-trail conditioning for rucks? I love backpacking (aka relaxed civilian rucking) but the conventional wisdom in the backpacking community is just hike more, or at most, use a stairstepper machine. You mentioned one or two high-intensity sessions a week – what kind of stuff?

    Moleskin never stays on my feet, so I’d recommend a skin adherent (the most common, at least in the military world, is tincture of benzoin — they inject it into blisters and it stings like hell). I probably would have used duct tape if I had an issue the other night.

    The other high intensity conditioning sessions are merely there for “GoRuck preparation” or “GPP”. They don’t actually help with rucking. The foundation of strength definitely helps with a faster adaptation to rucking as well as speed and durability in rucking, but the conditioning stuff won’t exactly help. In my experience, being strong meant that I didn’t have “conditioning limitations” at sea level (it was sort of an issue at altitude on a hike in Utah, but I had 40 pounds of rocks in my bag).

    For backpacking or rucking, I’d suggest the same easy progression with time under load preferably in the same foot wear you’ll do the event in. In my case I purposely used worse foot wear than what I knew I’d later use.


  5. Good write up and good work on the GRC. Looks like there is one near me in December and you might have convinced me to give it a shot. Seriously.

  6. never did anything like that, sounds interesting though…i was in a firefighter student/internship program about 10 years ago and the guy in charge of physical training every morning was a former recon sniper for the marines. i will always look back with fondness remembering running with logs, indian runs, doing calisthenics in puddles of rain, and running up a double black diamond ski run with our log on our final morning.

  7. Any thoughts of doing Goruck Selection in Jax Beach in January?

    I assume you’re talking to me, and the answer is “probably not”.


  8. @Paul, I found a deal on schwaggle.active.com that discounted 2 tickets from $280 to $160 about a month before the event, I am sure they do that for most if not all of them. Also I saw numerous people trying to sell their tickets on the GoRuck facebook page right before the event at discount. I would not pay full price for the ticket.

  9. Good job Justin! Me thinks it was worthy just for the post-event meal..

    @PaulSousa: add the money for the expensive rucks they’re selling.

    You don’t have to use their equipment, but their products are extremely high quality.


  10. Its been a while since I did the GRC (Last may, class 028). But I would be willing to do one again in the fall or spring (after getting some competitions done). Somewhere in the northeast would be cool with me. I didn’t know they stopped lending out rucks, that kinda sucks.

    Foot care, hydration, and chafing were my biggest issues.

    Maybe a trifecta weekend – powerlifting meet, GRC, pizza eating competition? Anyone down for it?

    I wouldn’t recommend heavy lifting in proximity of a GoRuck. I’ll do another post on training for it, or something similar, and explain more.


    • As a cyclist coming off of two years of nothing but racing, I’d love to see this. I am putting together a Custom GRC in May ’13 for a group of friends. We are all really stoked and looking forward to the experience.

  11. Those can’t be crossfitters, they look like men… I kid.

    Don’t take Justin’s advice on slowly introducing rucking lightly. If you just jump in, it will break you.. I don’t care how strong you are, shit needs to adapt.

    We use to do lots of running in full kit (up to 90lbs) during training but the injuries started stacking up and we’ve moved away from it. Sucks to leave when your head is still in the game but your body says no.

  12. Well, if it helped you push through the pain, I’m glad I gave it to you. Good job on the GRC – I know how much that sort of shit sucks donkey balls.

  13. I looked again, I guess I was looking at a GoRuck Trek, not a Challenge. $120 seems much better for something this well put together. What is the Trek though? For $300 it should be pretty awesome.

  14. @Justin

    Good job. I didn’t think you would quit but I wanted to tell you not to quit anyway.

    You should check out the Bataan Memorial Death March sometime if you are into rucking. It was the last weekend of spring break one year, so I went down to NM to do it.

    Also I like OTB lite boots even though they are a little more pricey than the Rocky ones.

  15. Justin, I know you don’t have to buy their equipment. I thought you bought one of theirs. I’ve been in the army (as a conscript)and their rucks are indeed of high quality. Still expensive though.

    The foundation of strength definitely helps with a faster adaptation to rucking as well as speed and durability in rucking, but the conditioning stuff won’t exactly help. In my experience, being strong meant that I didn’t have “conditioning limitations”.

    ^About that: One of the hardest things I’ve done in the army was a platoon mile run with full battle equipment. I finished just under 10mins. I never had run until then for 6 years, only 2 years of strength training. What you wrote was exactly my thoughts then.

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  17. Hey Justin, this is your swamp buddy from the Goruck, Chris. It was great to meet you at the Goruck challenge. I have been enjoying your 70s Big site.I”m glad you told me about it. Great job in writing about the Challenge.

    ‘Twas my pleasure. Thanks for stopping by.


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