50 Mile Star Course: Pavement, Pain, and Perseverance
With 7 miles to go in our 50 hour endurance suck fest, I collapsed under a tree from exhaustion. Dripping with sweat, carrying my 35 pound ruck, plus a teammate’s 20# plate to give him a break, I sat under a tree waiting for my team to catch up. I had foolishly taken off for our last waypoint, thinking I’d meet them there and we would share in a moment of triumph after finishing a feat that few of us thought was even possible a few months prior. In a flurry of Navy SEAL running cadences pumping on Spotify and heat induced hysteria, I plodded off into the distance, and ended up nearly paying for it with a visit to the hospital for heat injuries. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here!
A few months before, a challenge was issued to a few friends via Facebook Messenger: “want to join my team for the GORUCK 50 Mile Star Course? Should be fun!” “Fun” has a bit of a different definition in this case. We’ll use Type 2 fun, which is fun after the fact, and very much not enjoyable most of the time during an event. So, with the challenge laid down, 5 of us began training for the longest endurance event of our lives. Just normal Midwestern dudes, we trained wherever we could, on sidewalks in our neighborhoods, around parks, taking our kids to school, and one guy even wore a weight vest while performing his duties in his lawn care business. All of us have wives, kids, and day jobs, but we were committed to this shared goal: complete 50 miles of rucking (carrying a 20# weight plus our food and water) in less than 20 hours. This event was modeled after the challenge from both Theodore Roosevelt, and later John F. Kennedy. Roosevelt thought that Marine Officers were getting a bit too soft, and so through Executive Order 989, set a physical fitness standard of a 50 mile march in less than 20 hours. This was followed up decades later by JFK, who wrote an article entitled ‘The Soft American’ for ‘Sports Illustrated’ in December 1961.
But the harsh fact of the matter is that there is also an increasingly large number of young Americans who are neglecting their bodies—whose physical fitness is not what it should be—who are getting soft. And such softness on the part of individual citizens can help to strip and destroy the vitality of a nation….
But no matter how vigorous the leadership of government, we can fully restore the physical soundness of our nation only if every American is willing to assume responsibility for his own fitness and the fitness of his children. We do not live in a regimented society where men are forced to live their lives in the interest of the state. We are, all of us, as free to direct the activities of our bodies as we are to pursue the objects of our thought. But if we are to retain this freedom, for ourselves and for generations to come, then we must also be willing to work for the physical toughness on which the courage and intelligence and skill of man so largely depend.
All of us must consider our own responsibilities for the physical vigor of our children and of the young men and women of our community. We do not want our children to become a generation of spectators. Rather, we want each of them to be a participant in the vigorous life.
Lest we be called soft, our team embarked on our journey with a hearty meal with our families (pro tip, BBQ is probably not the best pre-event food, though it is delicious) and enthusiasm for the road ahead. We received our waypoint list for the event from our GORUCK Cadre of retired Special Forces members (all of which were the coolest dudes we’ve ever met), and began plotting our route for the night. Our first decision before us was whether to go downtown, where we could get some quick wins and hit a lot of points quickly, or go towards the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where the points were more spread out. We decided that knocking out a bunch of points quickly was the best way to go (it was not) and we stormed off towards the city. As we ticked each point off the list, we though we had this event in the bag and would be done before lunch the next day. I mean, how hard could it be? We had 10 points done by midnight! Unfortunately, we were also not going fast enough, and were stopping every hour to stretch and refuel. This pace would come back to bite us later. We arrived at the impressive Soldiers and Sailors Monument a little before midnight, and got our picture taken by a very friendly police officer (who then followed us on Instagram the rest of the night). When we pulled up our next point on the route, we all stared at each other. It was 18 miles away. Things had just gotten real. We would be on the same road for the entire night.
A few hours later, we were all exhausted and pulled into our next waypoint right as the sun was rising at 5:30 AM. One of our team members wanted to quit right there. We had done a hair over 23 miles, which meant we still had over halfway to go and the sun was starting to beat down in the mid-July sky. It was about to get very, very hot. The kind of heat that could cook an egg on a sidewalk and makes you fantasize about snow drifts or jumping into the nearest gas station walk in freezer. We finally collected ourselves and stepped off into the gathering dawn, aware of just how far we had to go, but also that none of us would let the others quit. Over the next 27 miles we carried each other’s rucks, sang songs, listened to podcasts, and talked about life. Anything to distract ourselves from the reality of the growing pain in our bodies and fatigue in our minds.
At mile 43, we pulled into the Indy Velodrome, exhausted, bedraggled, and a few other words that aren’t fit to print. We met up with some friends who were doing the 26 mile version of the Star Course, who gave us mixed looks of “what happened to you guys?” And “sucks to be you.” My buddy Andy took our picture after telling us that we looked like the remains of the BBQ we had eaten the night earlier after a trip through the large intestine. I told him his assessment was accurate. This is the part of the story where we met a few paragraphs earlier. Fueled by nothing more than hatred for the heat and a desire to be done with this four letter word fest, I charged off into the distance, determined to finish the next few miles on my own. Lesson number one while in a team event… it’s called a team event for a reason! Even if your team isn’t carrying your ruck (which we did sometimes), you need them by your side to keep yourself from being a dingbat and hurting yourself. Thankfully my team found me only a little dehydrated and overheated, but not injured.
We made our way along the hellish landscape of baking pavement to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and took our last Instagram photo. A short message from GORUCK HQ met our inbox a couple minutes later and told us we had only one thing left to do: make it back to the start point in under the 20 hour time limit. We had 3 miles to go, and about 90 minutes to make it. Do you remember back to your teenage years when you rolled your eyes at your parents so hard you almost shot them out of your skull? We rekindled our 15 year old selves and almost severed an ocular nerve. 3 miles? We could barely walk 3 feet! Determined to finish, we trudged on, begrudgingly. One of our teammates amazing wives met us a couple times along the way with gallon jugs of water and huge bottles of Powerade (not a sponsor of this post) to cool us off and hydrate us. I’ll leave it to your imagination which liquid was used to pour over our heads, and which we chugged. Cursing the ground we walked on, the feet we used for walking, and anything else in earshot, we slowly shuffled the miles away.
When we reached the edge of the park where we started, we were met by one of the GORUCK Cadre: Cody. Cadre Cody is a slim, slightly nerdy looking retired Navy SEAL with an elegantly groomed beard streaked with gray and white. The kind of dude who could get you to do just about anything by looking at you. He barked out “you guys better find another f***king gear, or you aren’t going to make it in time!” Now, we had been using a slightly cheesy sounding call and response routine all night when we needed a little extra motivation. Don’t judge. This stuff works. It went a bit like this….
ARE YOU FEELING GOOD?
WE’RE FEELING GOOD!
ARE YOU LOOKING GOOD?
WE’RE LOOKING GOOD!
AUGHTTA BE IN HOLLYWOOD!
HOOYAH! AH HA! AAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRHHHH!!
Like I said, it was a bit cheesy and I felt a bit like Bill Murry in “Stripes” busting that out at the top of my lungs in a residential neighborhood, but I didn’t care. My guys needed all of my weird to get to the finish in time. We moved faster than any of us believed possible (but still probably could have been lapped by a passing snail if it was determined enough), and shuffled into the park shelter that served as our start/end point. The sight that greeted us is etched in my memory forever. Large stacks of piping hot Dominos pizza, a cooler full of Budweiser, and my lovely family waiting for me. The look of disbelief and admiration on my kids’ face was priceless. My wife Tracy (bless her amazing heart) congratulated me and gave me a big hug (against her better judgement… I smelled even worse than I looked). I collapsed in a heap on a picnic bench and breathed a sigh of relief. We had made it. In 19 hours and 37 minutes. We saluted each other with the best tasting beers any of us had ever quaffed, and admired each other’s courage. What other time in a civilian mane’s life can he have a man look him in the eye, and really mean it when they tell you that they would charge hell with a water pistol if you asked them to? My teammates would do that for each other. We were all grateful for the times we pushed each other farther than we thought possible. We didn’t let each other quit, and did whatever it took to make sure all 5 of us made it to the finish for that congratulatory beer. I tried to ease my aching feet by getting my boots off and stretching them, but I found that I literally couldn’t bend them. I tried again to flex my toes, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move them. What had I just done to myself? I felt like someone was pulling my feet off with a winch, but my heart was full of joy and well earned confidence. I had officially done the hardest physical thing I had ever attempted, and one that was objectively difficult by any standard. Almost two marathons with a weighted pack.
And so began the cycle I feel after every GORUCK event. I call it the GORUCK Cycle of Grief:
Shock and denial: what the heck did I just do to my body?? Everything hurts! I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck full of angry sledgehammers wielded by petulant teenagers!
Anger: I’m never doing this again. What idiot decided this was a good idea?
Depression and detachment (this is usually where I go for donuts too): Sleep all day. And maybe the day after.
Dialogue and bargaining: tell everyone I know, everyone they know, and the checkout lady at the grocery store about the event I just did. Did I tell you that I went 51.2 miles in 20 hours? With a weighted ruck? I did? Twice? Oh.
Acceptance: Ok, when is the next event?