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Thursday
Jun142012

1000 Hurts—One Year in the World of Obstacle Racing

Publisher: The Fanzine
Date: 06.14.12
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for Yitzy

There are few pleasures to be had as an adult that are more liberating than jumping belly first into a muddy trench. It is an anachronism in a digital world, a return to the lost times of a hunter-gatherer, a childhood delicacy usually only remembered in family photographs. These are times to relish the dirt under your nails and stuck in your ears, the same dirt you will be finding in crevasses both narrow and nether a day or two later. This is a world that has unified world-class athletes with desk jockeys and weekend warriors on one playing field: a physically punishing, cold, wet, and muddy one, rife with barbed wire, a seemingly endless supply of obstacles borrowed from both military training courses and the playground, sometimes electrified, sometimes a huge mindfuck. This is the world of obstacle course racing, an exploding scene of mud and grit and determination, rucksacks loaded with bricks, camaraderie, brotherhood, cooperation, electrified wires, and thousands of burpees. Don’t know what a burpee is? There’s a YouTube video  with a beautiful young Russian woman who will show you with a seductive glimmer in her shining blue eyes. But it’s a Siren Song, because once you learn them, you begin to learn how much they suck.

In a way, the burpee is the perfect exercise. Born out of the confinement of a prison cell, burpees have evolved into several variations, but the “standard” one begins in a standing position before dropping into a pushup position, completing the pushup, pulling the legs into the squat position, then leaping into the air, and may or may not require a clap at the top. That’s one. If you stop reading right now and bust out twenty of these as fast as you can, you’ll start to understand why trainers regard the burpee as the ultimate exercise: do them correctly and your body and lungs will experience an equal burn that smolders like the caves of Centralia. It’s a brutal exercise, perfect for masochists and other gluttons of punishment, and a fitting metaphor for the same people outsiders to this world of obstacle racing regard as the crazy ones. Why would somebody want to do that? And you paid money for this? Who are these people who disappear on the weekends and return to the office on Monday and have to explain why they can’t wear shoes?

My introduction to obstacle racing came last spring via my friend Dave, a former Marine. He told me I should join him in Vermont to do a Tough Mudder Challenge, which I had never heard of before, but his description of it as a military-themed obstacle course full of mud and dirt, sloshing through water pits and over monkey bars while running the 10-mile trail quickly wrapped its invisible fingers around my sense of curiosity. There was something primal about charging full bore into the mud, there was something devilish about it—like getting away with a quick bang in public. But there was something else too: the military obstacle course always held a specific allure for me before I realized that if I’d wanted to run those courses I’d also have to risk, at some point, having my legs blown off if I continued down that path, that a very real war would be waiting around the corner. In short, I pussied out when I could, but here was another chance as an older man with not much else going for him, to get to play army, in his mind anyway.

I gave Dave’s proposal some thought, but ultimately let it pass because I’m one of the worst runners I’ve ever known. The obstacle course element seemed straightforward enough: when I was a kid I used to watch this show called “Double Dare” and berate the kids on the show as they approached the final “Physical Challenge”—a maze of monkey bars and bright plastic habitrails they would have 60 seconds or something to complete. If they didn’t make it in time, they were mercilessly and decisively declared a failure in the court of my parent’s living room. If I had that chance, not only would I finish the course in time, I would dominate it. At least that’s what I thought.

Tough Mudder is not a running race; it was made to be an endurance challenge based on teamwork and camaraderie. There was no time clock or even a chip in the bib; the goal was to finish the “race,” inasmuch as it was one. My initial apprehension was the running from one obstacle to the next: I have never enjoyed running and never been good at it. I had not run a mile for any purpose, including pursuit and/or flight, for nearly 16 years. There was nothing about running that felt natural to me. I was born into a slim frame that seemed impervious to any amount of junk food and beer I ingested, and, hell, I once spent over 500 confirmed days over a four-year period logged into a MMPORG called Final Fantasy XI.   While I played sports in high school, running past a wooden statue of Darth Vadar every day during lacrosse season, I always developed problems with my shins, ankles, knees, feet, cost my parents a load of money on orthotics, but it was not until this year that I learned most of the issues arose because I was running like a cartoon caveman*. I actually at one point had to Google “proper running form” because I knew there had to be something basic that separated myself from the hundreds of thousands of people who actually enjoyed running.

*It turns out early Homo sapiens were excellent long-distance runners and that losing our natural touch with this ability is one of the great tragedies of modern man.

In perhaps the most accurate case of deus ex machina in my life up until this point, a 10-second search of Google revealed everything I was doing while running was wrong. Thus began my transformation over many months from a slow-plodding knuckledragger to an upright bipedal half-human.

To no one’s surprise, Dave finished his Tough Mudder in Vermont. But he was the type of personality who would have dragged himself across the finish line if he had broken both legs. When I called him a few weeks after, he admitted his quads were so sore after the race that he had to call out of work for two days. “The worst part,” he told me, “was jumping into the freezing water and then getting out again. It’s not going to kill you, it’s not impossible. You have to get over the fact that it’s going to be cold, your muscles are going to hurt, and you’re going to get electrocuted at the end.” Yes, the Tough Mudder course features a canopy of electrified wires, some charged up to 10,000 volts, that you have to run through to reach the finish. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

In its three years of existence, Tough Mudder (TM) has evolved from a Harvard business school proposal—which professors mocked—based on a English race called the Tough Guy Challenge, to a multimillion dollar business attracting tens of thousands of participants seemingly every weekend in cities across the United States, with events coming this year in Australia and the United Kingdom. This past winter, prior to the World’s Toughest Mudder, the championship of sorts for the top finishers in the past year’s challenges, Tough Mudder announced its 2011 revenue figure of upwards of $25 million, an increase of more than 1000 percent from 2010. Part of each entry fee goes to the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity dedicated to injured service members. To date Tough Mudder has raised over $3 million for the WWP. At the end of 2011, Tough Mudder also announced a partnership with Under Armor that makes the activewear company the official outfitter of its events, a deal believed to be worth up to $3 million. This is in addition to the obvious appeal of such companies as Clif Bar, FRS, Degree, and Dos Equis, with its grizzled “Most Interesting Man in the World” ad campaign seemingly built for an event such as this. In a CNBC article, Matt Mirchin, Under Armour’s head of Global Sports Marketing, said of Tough Mudder, “This is not only a community, it’s a movement.”

It’s true—but not just for Tough Mudder, though the explosion in popularity of TM is irrefutable. Nearly half-a-million participants are expected in 2012, paying the $125-$200 entry fee to run the 10-12 mile course through freezing water, thick, slippery mud, and of course the 30-or so military-style obstacles that TMHQ is constantly tweaking. Spectators themselves pay a $40 entry fee. And while Tough Mudder is the most popular in this skyrocketing trend of obstacle-course races—a genre that’s only existed for a few years—it is far from the only one. There is the Spartan Race, which already holds international competitions and is similar to the Tough Mudder in concept, but is aggressively more competitive and includes the Death Race, a hellish 40+hour challenge that is almost an entirely different beast altogether. There is the Goruck Challenge based in Washington D.C.: a grueling 12-hour, 18-20 mile trek led by former Special Forces members, which emphasizes team objectives and special forces training exercises while carrying 30 pounds of bricks in a rucksack and additional heavy objects at the cadre’s discretion. There is the Warrior Dash, the Warrior Challenge, the Zombie Apocalypse Run in which some participants dress up as the undead, and countless local mud runs that pop up as the weather warms. At their most difficult, these are challenges that are more than marathons, require more than individual strength and stamina: these events at their most difficult levels are true tests of endurance, resiliency,  mental preparation and capability under stress, and all-around fitness. And they are money-making machines catering to a different breed of athlete.

In his 2009 bestseller, Born to Run, about ultramarathoners and the reclusive Tarahumara tribe, Christopher McDougall mentions the history of mankind and the resurgent waves of running’s popularity through American history. “[W]hen things look worst, we run the most. Three times, America has seen distance-running skyrocket, and it’s always in the midst of a national crisis,” he writes. The first wave came during the Great Depression, then leveled off until the 1970s—Vietnam, the Cold War, Richard Nixon’s infamy, race riots, and assassinations of cultural and political leaders. “And the third distance boom? One year after the September 11 attacks, trail-running suddenly became the fastest-growing outdoor sport in the country. Maybe it was a coincidence. Or maybe there’s a trigger in the human psyche, a coded response that activates our first and greatest survival skill when we sense the raptors approaching.”

One would be hard-pressed not to see the multitude of domestic crises affecting our country in the years since September 11. The perpetual war abroad and its immersive effect on our cultural consciousness. The mortgage crisis and housing crash. Wall Street malfeasance and subsequent bailout. Hurricane Katrina. The ever widening gap between the rich and poor. Rampant and unending unemployment. People eating other people. Just in the past couple weeks there’s been more than a few reasons to believe in an upcoming zombie apocalypse in America—but then you read about what Al-Assad is doing in Syria and it all seems so trite. It’s almost like the Bosnian-Serbian war all over again. Even so, there are no shortage of anxieties for Americans, and an appropriate salve for that disquiet seems to be jumping into freezing water. Or something like that.

 

I met Mike Warren on a cold—38 degrees to be exact—but gorgeous November morning in Wissahickon Valley Park outside of Philadelphia, the leaves of the late fall still crisp and golden and a light fog hanging over the surface of the frigid creek. It had been raining in the days prior so there was a promise the water would be extra cold. We were at an annual Thanksgiving trail run organized by The Animal Camp, a group of ultramarathoners whose motto is “If it doesn’t hurt, sign us up for something that will” and whose cars boast stickers that read “If found facedown please drag over finish line.” Mike himself is not an ultra guy, but he was training for something pretty brutal on its own: the first World’s Toughest Mudder—a 24-hour version of Tough Mudder scheduled for mid-December at the course in New Jersey. This was to be their final event of the year, roughly 800 of the year’s top finishers had been invited to compete in a as-many-laps-as-one-can-complete style race. This being Tough Mudder’s inaugural attempt at a competitive race (their motto does include the line “I put teamwork and camaraderie above my course time” after all), there were some logistical issues gathering the top finishers for a race that is not timed.

That morning twenty or so of us had just finished a quick 10k through the trails of the park, navigating slippery rocks and leaves that hid the aforementioned rocks, traversing the bone-chilling water three times before concluding the run by jumping off a 15-foot cliff into a tiny pool in a little outcropping off the main artery. I tweaked my ankle pretty good on the way to the cliff and was laboring a bit, shivering badly after out last ford, and was stuck near the back of the group when we started climbing. I could hear splashes and shouting and cheering before I saw the cliff itself. I didn’t want to do it; the last thing I wanted to do at this point was get back into the damn water, but when I saw some 50-year-old women gleefully making the plunge, I started questioning my manhood. When one TAC member’s chocolate lab made the jump there was no question about what I had to do next.

After, Mike and I were standing around a post-run keg, casually drinking beer at 9:30 in the morning while a more organized 5k race went on next to us. Mike is a big, gregarious young guy—within 10 minutes I’d already learned he was a former alcoholic, his plans for a console-gaming cafe, and his backstory of how he met his girlfriend, to whom he planned to propose in a few weeks. He told me he’d quit drinking for two years and that alcoholism ran through his family, but could handle a couple beers here and there now. He also told me he’d lost 60 pounds since he cut down on drinking and started training for Tough Mudders. And he isn’t shy about taking a cerebral position on the trend of challenges like Tough Mudder, Spartan, and Goruck.

“I think the world, due to the increase in technology, is transitioning back, mentally, to a basic/instinctual need to reconnect with oneself,” he told me. “It’s all about self-discovery. So currently, these events are a way of reconnecting to nature, to rid oneself of the need of technology or prove we don’t need it, to prove to oneself that we’re not lazy slouches like forecasted in the movie Wall-E. Basically, by doing these it’s the most simplistic way to prove that you’re ‘a man’ other than running into the woods and killing a bear with your bare hands. Because of the nature of society, we pay a crap load of money to do it.

“I think we’re moving to an era of more self-awareness. I think technology has exposed us all to things at an earlier and earlier age so and we get through the stages of awareness faster. I think we are beginning to see things for what they are and the fact that we, as a people in America, are getting fatter, we need to do something about it. I think as we become more self-aware, we move to more of the ‘minimalist’ type of lifestyle. And with that, we need to move back to nature and raw physicality to get there.

“I think that it’s just a societal thing why it’s so popular. Commercialism. People in other countries have to go on crazy journeys to find food and water, and we pay $500 or $100 a pop to play in it. People live off a cup of rice a day and we squash watermelons for entertainment on TV. It’s crazy. We buy into craziness.”

But there’s also something heroic in finishing these races—the material goods gained in completing a Tough Mudder is a beer and a headband, for finishing a 12-hour Goruck Challenge you receive a 2″x3″ patch. But these are just the physical rewards; there’s something intangible that means more.

“I would hypothesize that most Mudders or Spartans or [Warrior] Dashers say yes to doing it and never think twice—I think it’s just in something in our nature,” Mike said. ”I always thought I would be the poetry-writing romancer in medieval times because I was always in tune with my heart. But I always wanted to be a knight and knew that I could be. This, for whatever reason, makes me feel like a knight.”

I asked him where he thought this trend was heading, seeing how the explosion of obstacle-course races in the last two years was like a cresting wave nearing its apex. Would we continue to see these kinds of things gathering steam, team events making friends out of complete strangers toasting each other with plastic cups of beer in shivering and shaking hands?

“Where do I honestly think this will go in the future? I think with groups of people getting together, for free, and just doing it for fun, in nature, with natural obstacles, like the run we just did together,” he said after thinking a moment. “A group of people that just enjoy being around peers to broaden their life and like to be physically active. I’d rather do runs with Eric, the group, or travel to other states with other groups and drink beer when we’re done than ever do another Tough Mudder.”

Eric “the crazy-ass Frenchman” Delahaye, as he was introduced to me by a mutual friend, was the facilitator of my meeting most of the athletes—including Mike Warren—I cornered into spilling their guts about the obstacle-course trend, most of them met via a Facebook group set up for the World’s Toughest Mudder called WTF. I had several FB conversations with Eric before I finally met him on in a California Pizza Kitchen in a mall near Valley Forge a few weeks before the Thanksgiving run. He’d planned a nighttime trail run in nearby Valley Forge Park, mostly off-trail up and down the serious hill of Mount Joy. A freak storm system moved in, promising cold winds and snow, which, it being October still, I didn’t really believe would happen. But by the time I got onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike a couple hours after leaving Brooklyn, the sound of snow peppering the windshield was in my ears and, staring ahead, the road was becoming a distracting and uneasy canvas of flying in hyperspace. When I pulled into the mall parking lot there was several inches of wet, heavy, slushy snow on the ground.

On that Thanksgiving morning, Eric expressed disappointment that it wasn’t colder out, which I should have predicted because the first thing he said to me when he trudged in from the sloppy parking lot in Valley Forge was “Ah, this is what I like! The cold weather!”

Eric, a former French Navy SEAL, looks like a grizzled Liam Neeson, if Neeson decided to pack on another 15 or so pounds of muscle. He’s 46 years old and, for the aforementioned reasons, intrigued me in trying to explain the recent rush of military-influenced races. What kept people coming back, and coming back in staggering numbers? At the first Tough Mudder event, the organizers expected about 800 people, and were astonished when nearly 4000 signed up. Now a Tough Mudder draws in up to 20,000 runners over a single weekend event.

“First of all, I think Tough Mudder is the best event out of all the others,” Eric said as soon as we sat down. “It’s the one event that really aims to test you physically, mentally, and emotionally.

“Years after years of healthy living, we finally saw all kinds of different types of training style and mentality to finally understand we need a balance of physical, mental, and emotional stamina to be the ‘perfect athlete.’ This is a more rounded person that can rely on themselves physically, emotionally, and mentally to face most situations that can occur during ones life. What was, prior, only to be touched on and done by Special Forces is now at the grasp of almost everyone.”

Like many participants, Eric has only been running obstacle-course races over the last two years. Eric, who speaks with an accent that doesn’t strike me as quite French but perhaps an amalgam of accents he’s acquired in all the places he’s lived, thinks a shift has been a ways coming, away from the strict regiments of weights and distance running. “It’s the way fitness has been going in the past 10-15 years—there’s more awareness about what healthy means, what being in shape means, what being in good physical condition means—the definition has changed,” he says. Eric grew up in Toulon, an ocean town near Marseille, running around as a kid in the nearby cliffs, beaches, and mountains. At 15, he went to the United States as an exchange student, living with a family friend who happened to be a U.S. Navy SEAL with five tours of Vietnam under his belt. “That point was a big switch in my life,” he tells me over a Sam Adams. “My life was a big party all the time, but in my two years in Washington state, I was living on the Navy base and I learned from that gentleman [the Navy SEAL] so much, so when I came back to France my first choice was to sign up for the Navy and do the SEALs.”

It was in his SEAL training that Eric learned how to push his physical, mental, and emotional borders—all aspects these obstacle-races promise to test with spirit-crushing challenges. “They break you mentally, emotionally. I’ve seen guys bigger than me, much stronger than me because I was 17, walk off with their tails between their legs, tears in their eyes,” he said. “The emotional aspect, the mental aspect is really what makes the difference.

“It starts here,” he said, pointing to his head. “Once you make a decision about something, everything else is going to follow through. Seeing the guys who were failing, they didn’t make the mental decision to do it. They let their emotions take over and that’s why they failed.”

Outside, the snow had stopped and the day settled into a heavy, gray weather. The night’s run weighed heavy as I hadn’t yet trained with an athlete as serious as Eric and wasn’t sure what he had planned. “You’re going to suffer for it, you know that, right?” he said, laughing between sips of beer. “We’re all going to suffer for it. It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be wet, we’re going to be miserable. But this is like ideal conditions for me. Something like this is going to make you more aware of where you’re putting your feet and be more careful. It’s going to require a lot more focus. You’re going to face rocks, roots, holes, slippery portions and stuff like that. And it’s going to be cold.”

Tough Mudder "Everest" / Photo: Michael Louie

The cold. It’s as big as an obstacle as any set of walls to clamber over, as challenging as hauling any 800-pound water-saturated log over the Manhattan Bridge, as soul-crushing as another set of one thousand burpees at hour 32. The cold is a dickhead of extraordinary proportion, and when you’re cold and wet there are few things that will psych you out faster than having to jump into that water one more time. It is a great motivator. At both Tough Mudders I ran, the person in front of me approached the Arctic Enema obstacle—a dumpster filled with ice water, literally continuously filled with ice cubes and freezing water colored neon green or red—the same way: By jumping in, screaming, and immediately jumping back out, not even making it to the wooden plank that bisects the dumpster and forces you to dunk your head under to get out. The water is seriously cold; in late fall New Jersey, the water is all but unbearable, a cold shock like nothing I felt before. The blasts of cold water I gave myself in the shower were nothing compared to this: my balls felt like they were fighting each other to find warmth back up the body cavity and they ached long after. So when the World’s Toughest Mudder rolled around in December it was already so cold it didn’t matter that TMHQ nixed the Arctic Enema, but there were plenty of other water obstacles to keep one occupied.

The WTM was happening in mid-December at Englishtown Raceway in New Jersey, and many members of the WTF Facebook group chipped in to stay at a beach house about 40 minutes away. I cut out of work late on a Friday to meet some of the WTF members, including Eric Delahaye and Mike Warren. I arrived at the house at around 8:30pm to see a pile of running shoes outside, the weird bass notes and cymbal crashes of Peaches’ “Fuck the Pain Away” inside. I walked into the house without knocking to find Eric and Joel Gat, something of a legend in Goruck circles for his ability to consume mass amounts of beer before, after, and during the Challenge, wrestling, literally, for the attention of another racer named Amelia Boone. A lot of drinking had taken place before I arrived and there seemed no sign of slowing down despite the World’s starting in about 12 hours. The dining room table was covered with dishes of pasta, pizzas, and salads… carbo loading. There were about thirty people here, many of them meeting each other for the first time after knowing each other only through Facebook postings. It was almost like the reunion before the union. I quickly found Mike Warren and his new fiancee sitting with Casey Hereth, whom I’d met at the Thanksgiving Polar Bear run. “They’ve been doing this all night,” Mike told me. “They were having a dick-punching contest right before you got here.”

While looking at the course map I saw Eric putting a drunken headlock on Joel Gat. An empty bottle of Everclear stood out prominently among a bunch of other empty liquor bottles on the kitchen counter, and someone told me Eric and Joel were the primaries on that one. Amelia Boone, a sparklingly beautiful blue-eyed attorney—a position she modestly described as “a desk jockey” in our correspondences—was behind them wearing a shirt that read in Helvetica “Burpees Suck.” Many people were drunk, but especially Joel Gat.

Mike was taking it easy tonight, probably better planned out, I thought, than most of these guys. How the hell were guys like Joel and Eric going to wake up on time tomorrow, let alone run for 24 hours? Mike introduced me to Ray Upshaw, who is kind of Tough Mudder’s first celebrity: Ray has the TM motto tattooed on his entire back, attended most Tough Mudder events in the past year, sometimes running the course twice with a 30-pound kettlebell, and once rucked over 20 miles from the airport to the race site when he couldn’t find a ride. While most of the house was in full-on party mode, Ray sat with a quiet brooding intensity at the kitchen table, littered with cake and empty pizza boxes. “These ultrarunners are going to fuckin’ teach me how to win this thing, man,” he said in a distinct Missouri accent I hadn’t heard since college. “Next year there’s going to be 34 events. I’m planning on being the toughest one out there.”

I met Ryan Christie as I was grabbing a slice of pizza to get something in my stomach before I grabbed a beer. He told me he’d just driven 20 hours from Iowa and he wore a mohawk with “WTF” shaved into the sides. I asked him what the “WTF” stands for, as I’d gotten various answers depending on whom I asked. “We’re The Fuckups,” he said unequivocally. “I’m the one who kinda came up with the name because we are the epitome of what the world of sports has become. Look around. We have vegan warriors, ultramarathoners, ‘ruckers, and military people. We’re the World’s Toughest Mudder’s biggest and most blended group.”

At around 10pm the party finally started slowing down. I saw Eric behind the bar and with his eyes half-closed he said, “Michael… I am fucking drunk.” I wished him luck waking up tomorrow, but was confident he’d be there on time, hangover or not. The music was still incredibly loud when I met Daniel McCurdy, a former Green Beret who I recognized from the Facebook group. Daniel began by telling me he was still injured from a marathon march on the Marine’s anniversary a few weeks earlier. “My medical record is about that thick,” he said laughing and holding his hands about 10 inches apart. “I’ve been shot twice, stabbed 16 times, run over twice. I had 46 different breaks or fractures. I walked into my doctor’s office and he says to me, ‘Well, what’d you fuckin’ break this time?’”

Being a former operator, I asked him the military angle of these challenges and whether it held something more for veterans.

“We’re all very, very different, but we have something in common. It just brings people together,” he said. “The guy that set [Tough Mudder] up, he’s a genius. At the same time, you know, it gives us former soldiers and operators a chance to way to get back into it. I’m going to be 40 years old. I’ve been there, I’ve done it. It’s sad some of the things you have to do for our country and whatnot, but we do it. And we just kind of take one for the team. I think [these events are] really cool. The whole concept is really cool,” Daniel said before drifting off into quiet, into his own thoughts about the military, as if remembering things he saw or did overseas and is still troubled.*

*Confirmed to me later when Daniel told me, “There are just things that you do when you’re training, when you’re in combat. There aren’t words to describe. It’s hard to describe all the emotions and stuff you go through. You have different theaters, different theaters of war, different conflicts and stuff that I’ve been in, I don’t talk about it. I don’t watch war movies, I don’t talk violence. It upsets me. You see your teammates, you’re seeing true soldiers get killed. It does something to you inside. I just avoid it completely.”

“It’s for people who want to be a part of something,” he started again. “The American Dream used to be come here, go to school, and open up a business. Now you want to be a part of something. You know, the economy just sucks. It’s really, really bad, but it’ll turn around. But being a part of something is a great thing.”

*   *   *

I showed up to Englishtown Raceway the next morning to see the tent city forming in the grassy area adjacent to the quarter-mile drag strip. This was the pit area where racers pitched their tents and stored their gear, where they’d strip out of their cold wet clothes and warm up between laps. Just about everyone had a grassy plot, except Casey Hereth who drew the unlucky lot of having his spot on a square of concrete. He’d nailed his tent supports into the ground with landscaping nails and a sledgehammer. I asked him how he was going to get those things out when the race was over and he said, “That’s their problem.” When I remarked on the upright nature of his tent—it resembled more of a port-a-pottie than a tent you might want to sleep in—he told me “Yeah, I don’t plan on sleeping.” He’d placed a perfectly cut square of carpet on the floor of the tent, and his gear was impeccably organized. Several WTF members joked that if Casey died on the course they had dibs on all his gear.

By 9:15 the temperature rose to the upper 40s and the sun was shining with nary a cloud in the sky. In only a few short hours that would change, but for now all the triathalon wetsuits and Under Armor gear seemed destined for night-only use and then things would get really interesting. For the moment, one couldn’t predict a better start time, except for Eric who walked in severely hungover from the previous night. “I haven’t gotten drunk in over a year and last night was not the night to do it,” he told me. “I was puking this morning. I was in the bathroom puking for five minutes straight.” Near the 10am start time the sky was still a gorgeous cerulean blue and the WTFers were lining up, including 50-year-old Ken Jacobus and Audrey Bollers, a tiny single mother of two from Texas who’s probably tougher than most jocks you’d meet at a Tough Mudder. I met Audrey through the WTF group and, like a lot of participants, only started running in the last couple years, mimicking the young nature of the sport itself.

Audrey really summed up the camaraderie appeal of challenges like Tough Mudder, the power of teamwork and collective suffering. “Last December I signed up for a 5K on the spur of the moment to raise money for my daughter’s math teacher’s son’s scholarship. I never ran more than one mile at a time. At the time, I was going through a divorce and was only sleeping about 2 hours a night. I really wanted to get into running and better shape. Then I saw on Facebook an ad about Tough Mudder. It sounded like so much fun! It also sounded crazy and hard so I signed up. I wanted to know if there were really nice people out there who would help you get through a course. I loved the idea that it wasn’t a race but a challenge. It was all about teamwork and helping your fellow Mudder complete the course. I knew I needed to make friends or I would never be able to finish.”

Tough Mudder starting line / Photo: Michael Louie

Ray Upshaw customarily showed up last to step right behind the start line. He was wearing an equally customary outfit: baggy jean shorts and shirtless. In a scene ruled by gearheads, Under Armor, tactical gear, Xterra wetsuits, drysuits, and moisture-wicking technology, Ray was a oddity but by no means a pariah. When he turned around to reveal his Tough Mudder tattoo on his back, the surprisingly sufficient media contingent went wild with a flurry of electronic clicks and snaps while I cranked the advance handle of a 50-year-old Hasselblad 500c. After some motivating words and the national anthem, the runners shot off on the first competitive Tough Mudder race. It would be the last time they’d be together as one group and all the bright smiles and laughter that proceeded out of the starting gate would change in only a couple short hours when the weather began to turn.

Nearly half of the 800-or-so runners did not complete a single lap of the 40-obstacle course. Of course, compared to adventure runs like the Barkley Marathons, a 100-mile race held in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, in which only 13 people out of roughly 900 have ever completed in its 26 years of existence, this number is not all that shocking. But this was a little more than a standard Tough Mudder with some variations: time counted against you and the winners would be the man and woman who completed the most laps. Around 1130am the sky turned a cool gray with rows of clouds layering upon each other. A breeze kicked up and the sheen of new black Under Armor Cold Gear was replaced by the twinkle of silver foil heat sheets. Runners wrapped themselves tight in between obstacles or, worse, wound up shivering and shaking while waiting in line at the obstacles. The wind picked up more and the clouds rolled over themselves. By 1pm roughly 15 percent of Tent City had packed up and left. Hypothermia was dropping runners left and right. At one water obstacle 20-year-old Travis Kent shook like he was being electrocuted under a borrowed winter coat while Ken Jacobus wrapped his big arms around him trying to keep him still as an ambulance pulled up to take Travis to the medical tent. I saw Mike Warren close to the end of his first lap and he had on three heat sheets, a face mask and a swim cap. “I was doing fine for the first half,” he told me through the mask. “But after the Monkey”—a set of monkey bars that one must cross up and down the frame of a peaked roof with a water penalty if you fall—”it got really cold.”

It got worse. About eight hours into the race a TMHQ rep told me there were about 120 runners left. Eric finished two laps and then disappeared. I looked for him in his tent and checked with TMHQ as to his whereabouts but he wasn’t there. After his second lap he was unable to get his core temperature back up and had retreated back to the WTF beach house along with other WTFers. Amelia Boone was still on the course somewhere. So was Casey Hereth, as was Joel Gat amazingly––or perhaps, given his Goruck reputation, not surprisingly. At this point anyone still in the race had switched to wetsuits, the Under Armor reps couldn’t have been too stoked about that. By the late afternoon one runner told me, “It’s not the cold, it’s getting wet. And now the sun went down and we have all this cloud cover, and now they’re talking about snow flurries tonight… Forget it. I’m done. What am I going to accomplish over the next eight hours?”

The last few water obstacles were taking an enormous toll on the racers. Medics in golf carts hauled off one after the other shivering uncontrollably or doubled over in pain. The rest I watched as they dragged themselves dead-eyed out of the water and stood at the top of a 15-foot platform about to plunge back into the freezing pond they’d just gotten out of. The look of mental strain and anguish on their faces was unmistakeable. How am I going to do this?

Halfway through the race nobody at TMHQ knew how many racers were actually still in the race. Part of the difficulty was figuring who was holing up in their tent for the night and who went home. The temperature dropped to 34 degrees. At this point the race was a pure endurance challenge, a test of personal strategy and determination. The runners were so spread out over the course no one knew who was where, and except for sporadic Facebook updates, neither did I. I ran into Ray Upshaw in Tent City and he told me he’d been disqualified after he told medics at the aid station he couldn’t feel his hands. I heard rumors Amelia Boone and Joel Gat teamed up and were running in tandem out there somewhere. I stuck around until around 1am checking in on WTFers and the leader board before retiring to my car for the night. I checked the temperature gauge: 28 degrees. Frost formed on my windows as I pulled the backseat down and started layering on pants, shirts, and socks. My car was a frozen coffin, but since I wasn’t running the course, I was in no position to complain. At 2am, right before I went down for a frosty nap, I saw something bouncing around in the distance. Four headlamps dancing in the darkness headed toward the first set of walls roughly one-quarter of the way through the course. They’d just started another lap that would last another 3+ hours. Hardcore.

I woke up at 6:45am. My car’s thermostat read 26 degrees. I groggily stumbled back to the course to check the leaderboard. The men’s leader remained the same for most of the race: Junyong Pak, a 33-year-old runner from Boston. On the women’s side Amelia Boone pushed her way into second through the night and I was impressed to see WTFer Corrine Kohlen’s name still on the board. I watched her finish her third lap late the previous night, walking gingerly out of the medical tent, on frozen feet and aided by her family. I didn’t think she had another one in her, but as I saw, she’d finished another lap while I slept. Add to this that the runners at the top of their groups were basically running the course solo at this hour. Incredible. The sun was up and I was back in my car with heated seats on.

By the end there were seven official “finishers”—a complex and confusing title wrangled out of TMHQ as a runner who finishes the same number of laps as the group leader completes before the 24-hour cutoff. For example, if the men’s leader finished seven laps before 24 hours, the rest of the “finishers” must have begun their own seventh lap before the 24 hours is up. Confusing and unnecessarily so, but that was one of the kinks TMHQ needed to sort out. Pak finished his seven laps, while the women’s leader Juliana Sproules finished five. Amelia Boone was the only other female finisher, crossing the finish line hand in hand with Joel Gat, about whom she later jokingly remarked, “the asshole still somehow managed to finish 3 seconds ahead of me according to official time.”

*   *   *

The next time I saw Amelia’s name was while scanning some Facebook posts after Spartan’s Winter Death Race, held in Pittsfield, Vermont in early March. The Death Race, started by ultramarathoners and a British Royal Marine in 2005, is an entirely different beast combining elements of traditional trail and adventure racing with mental and physical challenges and stretches between 24 to 48 hours in a place Carrie Adams, a PR consultant and blogger for Spartan, describes as “a magical, dark, scary place… When the sun goes down it is the darkest place I’ve ever seen.” There are two of these events during the year: the winter race and the summer race that is happening this weekend (as of Tuesday night, runners still didn’t know when it’s actually starting), and Spartan puts on over 30 non-Death Race events throughout the year. Participants can expect little information prior to the Death Race, making training for it predictably unpredictable. In past races runners have chopped wood for hours, picked up and put down 30-pound rocks for hours, soaked in freezing water for 60 seconds, run around a lake with their hands cupped around a candle, asked to memorize Bible passages or a list of 10 presidents in chronological order, only to be ambushed at a later (unknown) time and asked to recite them. On the Death Race homepage, they make a point to make the race sound as intimidating as they can, stating: “90 percent of you will not complete this endurance race. Please only consider this adventure style race if you lived a full life to date.”

In a reversal of evolution between Tough Mudder and the World’s Toughest, the Spartan Death Race actually spawned the shorter Spartan challenges. Voted the best obstacle race for 2012 by Outside magazine, Spartan creates a much more competitive environment than Tough Mudder. Spartan courses vary in length from 3 miles to the Ultra Beast, introduced this year as the first marathon-length obstacle race. Combining aggressive advertising—they regularly satire TM’s claim of “probably the toughest event on the planet” and employ guerilla tactics like flying Spartan banners over Tough Mudder courses—along with an active ranking system and cash prizes, this year Spartan (now presented by Dial for Men—a counter to those “dude commercials” recently popularized by Dos Equis, a TM sponsor) plans on giving away $500,000 in both hard currency and prizes, and aims to draw in the competitive edge in runners rather than the motivation to just finish. Hobie Call, a former aspiring-Olympic runner and one of Spartan’s top athletes, said in a review of a recent Tough Mudder: “My prevailing thought at the TM obstacles was ‘this is like an obstacle theme park.’ People weren’t in a hurry to get through them and didn’t seem to be pushing their limits. In their minds, obstacles were more there for entertainment than to test their physical abilities. (I’m sure the 30 burpee [penalty] for failing an obstacle in Spartan Race plays a big role in this). At Spartan Races, there tends to be far more people there looking to test their skills/physical abilities, and thus push themselves harder and find the race to be more challenging.”

At the upper echelons of racing, a certain degree of cross-pollination is expected in these athletes’ small but burgeoning world. Once you start to meet some dedicated runners, you start seeing their faces and names at all the big events. Amelia, I learned via the power of Facebook, was waking up to train at 4AM, rucking a 40-pound backpack up and down the stairs of her office building and trying to figure out a way to practice chopping wood in the middle of Chicago. In the days after the WTM, Amelia had to explain to her higher-ups at the law office where she worked the reasons why she could only wear flip-flops—and not dress shoes—to work. But before that I managed to get a little of her backstory and perspective regarding the world of obstacle racing.

“I’ve always been an athlete, but in recent years have only had distance running as my competitive outlet,” she told me in an email. “I love to run, but road races have become boring to me. And to be honest, in a weird way, the thing I hated about marathons and road races, was the focus on [personal records] and the competition and the timing chips and, really, just the focus on the numbers. Everything was a number. It was almost a bit too obsessive for me. Don’t get me wrong, I am as competitive as they come, but I never really liked individual sports. I thrived on the team atmosphere, and I didn’t get that from running.

“I think there is a large segment of the population like myself. I’m not a military person—I’m a desk jockey. I’m sitting at my desk for at least 12 hours a day as an attorney. But my background is as an athlete, and I have that need for an outlet. So those precious few hours that I trail are my escape. But WTM also fits in nicely with my need for intellectual stimulation—it’s all strategy. And the mental game, not the physical game, is really what I think is going separate the men from the boys.”

What hasn’t been mentioned until now, is the parallel growth in Crossfit training and the obstacle races, but Amelia saw an immediate connection, though at the time she was not a Crossfitter herself. “I really think you can track the rise of adventure racing with the rise of Crossfit. I have crossfitted in the past, but I’ve been turned off by a couple boxes [Crossfit gyms] and their attitudes towards people that don’t follow the paleo diet,” she said. “Crossfit may be a fad and Tough Mudders may also be a fad. The brand is already wearing thin—the number of similar obstacles races have exploded within the past year, and at some point, the market will reach saturation.”

To me, it seemed that doing Crossfit—with its emphasis on more work done in less time and universal application regardless of experience—should logically lead into wanting to apply these strengths at events like the Spartan races, Tough Mudders, and Goruck Challenge. At most events I either observed or ran in, there was usually a strong Crossfit contingent—some teams comprised of entire gyms. But at the Crossfit gym I joined late last summer there was little to no interest in these outside challenges, while inside the requisite Kool-Aid flowed like a rushing Mongolian river. There is a cultish appeal to Crossfit—the way they promote the paleo diet, the way they emphasize tequila over beer (which I thought, for sure, Goruck cadre would have a problem with), and the addictive quality of pain and puking. I didn’t last long enough at the gym to find out what exactly that quality was, but as I stood around in class and saw the guys with their barrel chests pumping out piston-like pullups, I knew enough to say that these people have fully bought in.

About a week after the Winter Death Race I met Olof Dallner, a 34-year-old former Alpine climber from Stockholm, Sweden, along with a bunch of other guys for a training run before our Goruck Challenge, which was happening at the end of March. Olof had just won the men’s division of the WDR in roughly 32 hours of sets of one thousand burpees, chopping frozen logs, jumping into water so cold runners had to use their axes to chop through the ice, and sessions of hot yoga during which race organizers would take the racers’ clothes that were piled outside the hut and throw them all into a snowy ditch. Who was the women’s winner, you ask? None other than Amelia Boone. Not only that, but Amelia was the only women’s finisher in this year’s WDR. “She’s a complete badass,” Olof told me. “And every time we had to do the yoga I made sure I was behind her; I didn’t want to get stuck behind a guy in his underwear in a room that was 120 degrees.”

Regarding the Death Race itself Olof echoed a familiar refrain. “It’s just a giant mindfuck,” he said. Runners are constantly challenged mentally, making them second guess every other move from the time they sign up until it’s over, giving them every opportunity to quit with no end in sight. When he was on his fourth set of 1000 burpees Olof saw the look in the eyes of the trailing runners coming in. “The look on their faces… they were just completely devastated,” he said. Little did they know that *only* 150 burpees into it, the race organizers would call it the end of the race. Yitzy Sontag, whom I’d met back at the WTF beach house in December, was one of those runners who didn’t finish. In fact, he quit 42 hours into the race, only to be told afterward he was three hours from finishing.

Yitzy contacted me a week before the June Death Race, desperate to meet one of the organizers’ arcane requirements: get an article published about your experience in DR or face a 12-mile swim penalty. This is to happen before the start of the actual race, which would begin whenever the organizers decided on June 15. Adding to the mystery were the list of required gear that Yitzy forwarded me: “Needle, Thread, Life Jacket, Black Compression Shirt, Pen, Paper, Bag of Human Hair, pink swim cap, 5 gallon bucket, Axe.”

“The conditions were terrible; it was pretty much raining and freezing cold the entire time,” he told me over the phone, recounting his experience building to the point that drove him to heartbreakingly drop out. “It becomes such a mental challenge because you just keep thinking about how much more you have to do. You’re thinking, ‘I’m halfway done this here, but how am I going to finish the next part and how am I going to finish the part after that?’

“I remember unbuckling my pack and pretty much crawling to the top of the mountain. Then I saw two guys heading back down and at that point I knew I was just finished. I couldn’t convince myself that this was what I wanted to do anymore. As long as you want to keep doing it then you want to keep pushing. Your body is a hell of a lot stronger than you think it is. And as long as your mind is good then your body can keep pushing, but once you lose that focus and control you lose everything else.”

In only a couple short days, even with the Death Race organizers being as inscrutable as ever—on Wednesday they’ve only put out vague hints about the start time on Friday—pushing their own participants to fail, much in same vein as the Barkley Marathons organizers, Yitzy has refocused and knowing the mental and physical pain he’s about to endure, one can only wish him luck.

“Last year, I had never been in better shape, I had never been more focused,” he said. “I look back at that now and I think after a entire year of training under my belt and I think where I was last year and now I’m so far past that, where I am physically and where I am mentally. It’s what I want to do and where I want to be. I’m just positively telling myself that I’m not going to fail and then I have to live up to that.”

But there’s something more to these challenges than facing failure and having the resolve to not be beaten again. The power and allure of collective suffering also cannot be underestimated. For many participants in obstacle races, it’s this attribute that keeps them coming back just as much as the challenge itself. When I asked Carrie Adams, the PR consultant and blogger for Spartan, about the appeal for runners to experience military type operations in a controlled environment—in Spartan and other challenges— she answered quickly, “I have a good friend who is a Navy SEAL tell me the same thing: the Death Race is difficult and intense, but it’s not life or death. Here you’re paying someone to see what you’re capable of accomplishing; you get all that benefit without getting shot at. You’re insulated against certain things that military have to face when you do these events.

“People who are in ‘the shit’ have seen or done some really dark, horrible things,” she continued. “The one good thing when they walk away from that is the connection they have with the people they were there with. There’s something very beautiful about collective suffering. It’s a beautiful thing that you forge with others in these races too—you have this immediate bond that you’ll never lose.”

“War, battle, and races like this, they change you as a person, you’re a different person from when you started and only those who were there with you know what that feels like. Honestly, I think that’s the magic in it, why [these races] are so popular. It’s for that reason: I struggled through with these people. There’s almost a depressing point after, Oh my gosh, I miss these people. They’re chasing that high, that feeling they get from that community and that’s where the magic is. You recognize the power it has.”

She was talking specifically about the Spartan Death Race, but what she was saying could be applied to the Goruck Challenge just as easily. Goruck inevitably gets grouped in with the Tough Mudders and Spartans, although even with a cursory look it is a whole different experience altogether, but the part about collective suffering perhaps rings truest here. Goruck takes a different tack than Spartan and Tough Mudder—they do not aggressively advertise, partner with commercial sponsors, or promote their failure rates. Goruck instead goes about its business much more organically—their “advertising” has been by and large via word of mouth and their training page used to feature prominently a pint of beer, something of a running theme throughout Goruck events. Beer even has its own nomenclature in Goruck circles: there’s Bud Light and then there’s regular Budweiser, AKA Bud Heavy, AKA Poolwater. Beer in general is known as A.C.R.T., an acronym Goruck’s founders created to refer to beer’s resource as post-workout emollient, Advanced Cellular Repair Technology. Of all the brands associated with obstacle racing, Goruck has perhaps created the most loyal and devout following.

Goruck was started in 2008 by Jason McCarthy, a former Green Beret, while he was a student at the McDonaugh School of Business. Jason joined the military after he finished college, about a year after September 11, 2001, and his lasting ties with Special Forces is represented by Goruck’s association with and donations to the Green Beret Foundation. All Challenge cadres are former Special Forces, Green Berets, Force Recon Marines, and others. The Challenge itself was born out of McCarthy’s need to field test a line of rucksacks he was building for civilian purposes, but with the capability to hold up to demanding standards of military use. “The military has the best shit and everyone knows it,” Jason told me in a phone interview. “There’s no secret why peacoats and cargo pants are so popular in civilian culture.” Like all of Goruck’s products, they are fully built in the United States and they pride themselves in promoting other companies that do the same.

Concerning the Challenge itself, Jason is quick to draw a distinction between his and other obstacle races. “Everybody always thinks their thing is unique; Tough Mudder has their marketing and Spartan has theirs,” he said. “Ours… I just don’t know anything like ours at all. I’ve done [Tough Mudders and Spartans] and they’re great, but they’re a fixed commodity. You know what you’re signing up for, and how long it’s going to be, and how many obstacles. Ours is just the unknown—the unknown of someone else’s goals in front of you. That’s what makes it different: the cadre and the presence of the cadre makes it different. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. It’s totally subjective and based on the team that’s there and what the cadre wants to do.”

A loose framework of a Goruck Challenge (GRC) goes like this: (1) Bricks—participants carry up to six bricks in their rucks depending on their own personal weight. Men, women, it doesn’t matter. If you’re under 150 pounds you carry four bricks (roughly 5 pounds per brick), over 150 pounds you carry six. “Life isn’t fair,” as their website states. (2) Teams—consists of up to 30 strangers who signed up to figure out how to work together as a team. There will be many screwups and mistakes and for this you will pay in (3) PT—physical training, can be anything from team pushups, squats, indian runs, buddy carries, or the dreaded inchworm pushups—a kind of human centipede structure in which you get into pushup position but with your legs on your teammate’s shoulders behind you, arranged single file, and he or she the same, all the way down the line. Down. Push up. If you really screwed up the cadre will insist you walk forward on your hands three step before doing another pushup. Then backwards three steps on your hands. It is both evil and brutal. Which brings us to (4) Heavy shit. You will carry heavy items over long distances. The Challenge requires at least one team weight of at least 25 pounds. Like a lot of aspects of the Challenge, they aren’t going to tell you what it is or what it should be; figure it out and bring it with you. This can vary from a case of beer, to a piece of World Trade Center steel, to a kettlebell, to 25 pounds of Peanut M&Ms (a not-so-secret favorite among GRC cadre). You will also be carrying something together with your team. A nuclear device, a victim of a zombie attack; more than likely in the form of a enormous log which you and your team will carry until cadre tells you to stop—part of that “unknown” quality Jason mentioned. Goruck promotes its challenge as a 8-10 hour trek through a given city, covering anywhere from 15-20 miles. In practice, however, 12 hours is the norm and rucking more than 20 miles is not uncommon. Again, it depends on the discretion of the cadre.

The goal of GRC is not punishment. It’s to teach a bunch of strangers how to work together, much in the same way Special Forces (SF) stresses teamwork. Move individually and everyone is getting PT. Don’t work together, or worse, complain to cadre, as we would learn, and you will pay. Learn to work as a team and the Challenge opens up. Participants will get a taste of the cadre’s individual SF training such as the basics of beach landing or interrogation training, but the main point of the Challenge is to teach people how to be a team.

“We’re not here to tell people what they can’t do,” Jason said. “We’re here to say if you stick with us and don’t quit, then shit man, our pass rate is like 99 percent. Our event is different because of that, it’s much harder. The GRC is a really positive event, that’s my biggest takeaway. All of the cadre, in my opinion, are war heroes, whether they’re Green Beret or Force Recon Marines or whatever. They’re they type that have been there, done that, and they want to teach what they’ve learned. Because of that we have to be selective about who we pick for the Challenge because there are certain qualities we look for and their desire to teach, their desire to build a team.”

My GRC took place at 10PM on March 31. Over 60 of us gathered on Wall Street with our rucks and team weights, nervously stretching and looking for familiar faces in the masses. Every GRC will start with what Jason calls “the Welcome Party”: usually what anyone who has seen Full Metal Jacket thinks of first—drill sergeant screaming at you for doing it wrong, face firetruck red, PT that only begets more PT. Attempting to get 68 men and women who’ve never met each other to do pushups in time together is no small feat. “The Welcome Party is my least favorite part of the whole challenge, but it’s necessary,” Jason said. “It puts everyone on the same page. I don’t care if you’re Jim Morrison back from the dead, you’re going through the Welcome Party. But what we look forward to in the GRC are the positive elements of the challenge: building a team and showing people what they’re capable of.”

Goruck Welcome Party / Photo: Robert Hole

Our Welcome Party started like this: team pushups out of sync like a kindergarten class recital. People at one end couldn’t hear the count coming from the other end. One group would be on number 14 while another would be sounding off on 16. Those of us in the middle didn’t know what to say in order to protect ourselves from the inevitable repercussions. Cadre walked around shaking their heads in disgust. A guy next to me decided everyone was too disorganized and started shouting off his own count, which only made things worse. “Since you can’t do pushups together you’re going to do squats,” Cadre Chris said. Nothing changed. It was an exercise in cacophony only as we struggled to keep in time. Again, the same result. “Since you can’t do squats together, get on your fucking faces,” Chris said. We all jumped down in the pushup position, chests on the ground. “Now get up,” he said. Simple enough. At any and all intervals we popped to up like a field of groundhogs peeping out of the Earth after a long sleep, and just as bewildered. “All a bunch of fucking individuals,” Chris muttered. “Back on your faces.” Chests back to bricks. Eventually we screwed up enough that Chris yelled, “Nobody is leaving here until I hear the Spongebob Squarepants theme song.” After more than a decade of watching the Nickelodeon show with numerous young cousins, nieces and nephews I had no idea of the words to the song. For better or worse, a few strangled, hesitant voices croaked out “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea” out of tune and out of time. It was like listening to three different songs and two TV shows at the same time. “No, no, no, no, no!” Chris shouted. “One of you is going to sing the song and the rest of you are going to do the chorus!” The cadre were having great fun at our expense, though I didn’t see a smile cross Chris’s face as we screamed “Spongebob Squarepants!”, booming down the empty streets, for the first time doing something in unison. That lasted until a Wall Street resident came outside and laid into us herself with a screaming and profanity-laced tirade.

The previous night’s GRC saw heavy rains and wind. People were miserable. The cadre were miserable. Six participants dropped out shortly after the Welcome Party—a fact that Jason said he is starting to come to grips with as Goruck gradually becomes more popular. In their relatively small community, it’s common for GRC vets to branch out to Spartan races or Tough Mudders; however, the reverse is much less common—people who run the latter challenges aren’t necessarily prepared for what a GRC entails, and more than that, not everyone is looking for what Goruck has to offer. It is not what Hobie Call referred to as “an obstacle theme park,” nor is it what Olof Dallner called “a complete mindfuck.” Despite its associations, including those found in this article, Goruck retains its own distinct identity.

“Last weekend in New York City we lost six people on the first night—it was one of those rare moments,” Jason explained. “I mean six people an hour and a half in, that just didn’t sit right with me. We did some calculating and found our pass rate isn’t 98 percent anymore, it’s more like 94 percent. We’re losing more people but the hope is that they’ll come back and try again. There was a big debate about it on the GRC Facebook page, about whether the GRC will change as more people get into it. The GRT [Goruck Tough—in reference to the patch participants receive upon completing a Challenge] family has built Goruck and we owe them everything and that’s why the challenge has grown. The challenge started out as a way to market challenge rucksacks, as that marketing arm to show our rucks could be used in a tough way in cities, in the middle of parks, in rural and urban environments, you name it.

“The event itself was powerful and positive enough to be its own thing—it was about what you can do, being with [cadre] who are invested, someone who, if you’re committed enough, can show you how to do it. It should be really, really tough, and anyone who is really committed to it should pass. The ones who don’t want to put up with it, those who don’t get it, don’t see what the value is, they’re not going to make it. We’re committed to keeping the standard the standard. The challenge is the challenge. If you’re expecting us to dilute it, we’re not going to. It’s going to stay what it is. It works and people like it, and it shows them something about themselves and about working with a team.”

In one of the more memorable moments in my GRC, my team of 24 had just dragged ourselves onto a rocky Brooklyn beach out of the East River—literally crawled out on our bellies after our cadre Beaux, a 28-year-old former Force Recon Marine, showed us how to perform a recon beach landing. We did not emerge from the 45 degree water together, so anxious to get out. I myself am a big proponent of the East River’s relative recent cleanliness, but even I didn’t want my junk soaking in it for too long. “Turn around, faces in the water,” Beaux said. “Pushups. Go.” The weather, while not as miserable as the previous night’s Challenge, was still cold enough for us to see our breath. With thirty pushups completed we huddled together for warmth while Beaux decided on our next objective. I already spied the 10-foot log on the shoreline, saturated heavy with water. “Listen up,” Beaux said. “This is a victim. Her name is Sophie. We have to take her to get medical attention at the northwest corner of Battery Park City.” Beaux had a reputation for running his challenges around the theme of zombie apocalypse. Homeless people and men in tight pants were zombies and therefore threats. Miss one of those and you were headed for PT.

As we gathered around the soaking log Beaux said, “Wait, we need medical supplies, too” pointing to the 50-pound rocks on shore. Three guys went to retrieve supplies while the rest of us tried to come up with a strategy for carrying the log. Our issue was that we had guys from around five-and-a-half feet tall to guys who were well over six feet. The log was on a constant tilt as we tried to put the smaller guys up front. As we struggled out of the park, switching up spots to figure out the best way to carry our 800-pound Sophie someone lamented to Beaux our difficulty due to the height disparity. “Hmmm…,” Beaux said, rubbing his chin. “Let me see if I can help you with that. I think I see another victim over there…” That was the last time any of us complained, at least to Beaux.

The growth of Goruck, as compared to Tough Mudder and others, has been a slow-building process, relying mostly on the experience of GRC vets to pass the word along. “I was helping a friend train for his first Challenge,” said David Kim, a 5+ GRC veteran I met on that training run in mid-March. “At the time I had no idea what it was, but when he finished and told me about it, I knew it was something I had to do too.” Until recently Goruck as a brand spent zero dollars on advertising, Jason told me—the dedicated following of GRTs wanting to support something they believed in and Goruck’s adherence to U.S. manufacturing, U.S. products, and local pride. Goruck’s products come from a factory in Bozeman, Montana. Go to their blog and you will see in painstaking detail the amount of work and thought that goes into their rucks and accessories. It’s no secret that small cottage industries are grabbing a marketshare in everything from dry goods (what American Apparel started) to food, beer, and liquor. People, much like the times of distress that they turned to running, can also see in times of great financial stress and gross corporate malfeasance, the value of small industry.

“The power of the Challenge is all been because of our GRT family,” Jason said. “They’re an awesome breed of people. It’s always an honor to meet the people that show up. The reason the challenge has grown is because other people have said, ‘You should do this. It’s worth it. You’ll learn something about yourself, you’ll learn something about why military camaraderie is so high, you’ll learn about mission-driven training.’ The Challenge has come a long way because of the people that have done it, where they have taken it. It’s a great family of people that join it and the greatest thing for us is when GRT friends meet up outside of us. We don’t control that.”

The sentiment is echoed by Goruck’s Director of Operations, a young woman named Sophie Pollitt-Cohen, who does “everything that’s a little bit less interesting” at Goruck, she said laughing. Jason required Sophie to do a GRC of her own before starting the job, but Sophie wouldn’t tell him when. “I didn’t want him to try to psych me out,” she said. As for the Challenge itself she told me, “I think one of the greatest things about the challenge is that it’s not just about muscling your way through. That’s not going to cut it, that’s not going to help your entire team. Doing pushups until the sun comes up is not the same as having the mental fortitude to work with your team when you’re tired and exhausted and you’re feeling like you’re the worst one of the team. To overcome your insecurities and still be a helpful, active member of your team, that is entirely mental.

“When a team comes together that’s when they’re incorporating each other’s strengths and working together and not pushing people out. One of the great positives of the challenge is you don’t pick your team. You show up with 29 other strangers but by the end everyone is giving hugs and you feel like a family and that’s powerful to me because you don’t get to pick your family either.”

Toward the end of our conversation I told Jason I had another Tough Mudder coming up, this time at Mount Snow in Vermont, the same course where I’d first heard of obstacle racing. One Goruck vet told me, “You can never do another Tough Mudder without the ruck again.” So I asked Jason if I should pack bricks. “I think you should bring…” he mused, “twenty-four beers and you should drink some and share some. The last Tough Mudder I drank something like 14 beers.” He mentioned that Tough Mudder was cracking down on bringing alcohol to their events, as if they weren’t appreciating GRC vets using their course as a beer-drinking playground. “If you can’t sneak beer into your Tough Mudder you may as well just send me back your [Goruck] Tough patch,” he said.

So where is this all headed? Spartan appears aimed for a professional circuit while Tough Mudder continues to bring in people from the widest spectrum. Goruck keeps chugging along like the tortoise, but has introduced its own variations of the Challenge: a scavenger hunt, 48-hour events in the Colorado mountains and Key West, a new challenge called Trek that is part Special Forces and part CIA training. There seems to be endless potential for the future of these challenges, but how long until the wave crashes and the masses move on to something else?

“What’s the larger trend? The more people build things to sustain and last, not explosive growth based on trends, and there’s hundreds of different mud runs out there now, but legitimate growth, the better likelihood that you’ll be able to sustain it,” Jason told me. “I think about this all the time—I love what I do too much to think about much else, so I’m in it for the long haul. Eventually there’s going to be a generation that hasn’t been saturated enough with war, they’re not going to see the green night vision scenes of war. It’s just not going to happen or last forever. Saturation is king, man. If you’re saturated in the market, that’s a powerful thing. Tough Mudder has their target sponsors and so do we. They have the Wounded Warriors Project, honoring those who were wounded and served in the military. It’s important and powerful and it’s part of the social fabric we live in now. It’s a natural societal trend.

“You try to build something out of that and sustain it, and all of these places are smart enough to figure out how to do that. But there’s something more than just figuring out how to get people who show up to honor the military. There’s a power in showing people what they can do.”

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