Selection 003: After Action Review (AAR)
Cadre: Adam, Chris don’t call him Donnie he hates that
Post Author: Paige Bowie, the only finisher
I’m not sure what compelled me to sign up for Selection (Chris, you are never going to get a good answer). I noticed when it kicked off and remember thinking I wasn’t really interested. Then DC finished with only three people, and I thought, what are they doing that only three finished? My buddy and coworker Justin, (who will get healthy and then go kill this thing), signed up, and I started thinking about it more and more. Then, for the first time in a long time, I loaded up my ruck and went for a little hike, and I was hooked. From then on it was game on.
I found the ruck-based selection training someone mentioned on GRT and used that as my template. I had to modify some of the weight levels when I began, because I hadn’t done heavy lifting in a long time, and needed to work up to those levels. Some I never got to. I just did my best.
I should back up and say that I had a pretty good fitness and mental base going into this thing. I’m a firefighter, so I’m used to carrying around heavy things, used to performing under stress, used to just finding a way to get a job done. And at this point in my life, I consider myself mostly a runner, usually heading out on the hilly trails by my house. Prior to that I basically grew up playing organized sports (basketball and softball). I think that helped for a few reasons. First, I got lucky with my trainers in high school and college. They had us doing Olympic lifting way back in the day. So I knew how to clean and dead lift. And second, I knew the kind of discipline and pain it takes to really train for something. I had some great coaches, (Dad, you’re at the top) who really pushed me to the limit. As he said when I finished, you’ve been training for this your whole life. There’s some truth to that.
Back to the training. I followed the plan, but I also added some beach PT sessions. I only did it a couple times, just to get comfortable with it. One night it even rained, which was perfect. Some of my advice for this thing is to actually do the stuff you know you’re going to get. It sounds easy but it can be hard to just go do it. Go do it, and in all the proper gear. A lot of things are different in the sand: how your gloves work, how push-ups feel, bear crawls, etc. A friend came out to the beach and put us through the ringer for what seemed like 5 hours. What seemed like five was in fact only two. That was a reality check. But the experience helped when it came time to do it in Selection. Beach PT still really, really sucks, but I knew I was going to attack the water.
I also tended to add weight (5-15 extra lbs) to my ruck for the hikes. I wanted to be sure I could handle more weight if I needed to, and also hopefully make 45 lbs come to feel relatively light. I think that was a good move. Remember, wet stuff gets heavy. I’ll repeat some common advice: do not ruck too much, and do not come to Selection injured. People keep saying it because it’s true.
Oh, and Yoga. I tried to do it when I had time, once or twice a week. It was really mellow vinyasa yoga, and I did it for the stretching and mental aspect (more on that later). It came to be something I really looked forward to. So that was my physical training. Even with some additions I wondered if I was doing enough. But I just decided to trust it and stick with it.
I mentioned gear earlier. I did all my rucks in what I thought I would wear on game day. That gave me a chance to try out different base layers, gloves, etc. For my training runs, I mostly ran in shoes, but I did a few in boots too just to know I could run long in my boots. My other advice is to get as much information as you can about all this, but ultimately do what works for you. I read everyone’s AAR, looked at other similar events, sealfit-type websites, read blogs (thank you-you know who you are-for the blogs on gear, experiences, etc!) and took what I could and applied it to me. For example, I knew I wanted to get really lean and fit for this, but balance that with the ability to handle the cold and lack of food. It was a tough balance. Some people say come in overweight, but for me the lighter I am the easier PT and running is. So it’s a trade-off.
Foot care. It’s huge and can’t be overemphasized. If you lose your feet early you’re done. Figure out your shoes and socks. I used Rock Tape on my feet as a kind of second skin for the first 36 hours or so. It started to come off fairly early, but I just left it on as best I could and changed my socks. Any exposed skin was covered with powder and Vaseline. I packed blister kits, super glue, moleskin, etc. but never used them. I was ready though.
Mental game. So many people say it’s all in your head. Well it is, at a certain point. And it is, IF you are at the level you need to be physically. So train your ass off, and then train your mind too. Starting about a week or two out I did a little meditation every morning. I probably should have started sooner but I didn’t think of it until then. But I was dedicated. Like Kling, I thought about Selection every day. I cleaned up my diet. I really wanted this thing, and it wasn’t hard to put in the work. Anyway, I knew I wanted to delay the point where you physically break down for as long as possible (that’s the physical side). But to also help delay this inevitability, and to prepare for when your body starts to go, (because it will), that’s when you need your head. Yoga was part of it. It helped me focus on different parts of my body and relax while I was in uncomfortable positions. I used some of that training while on my runs and rucks too. Things like thinking about efficient posture and form can really make a difference when it comes to energy in the long run. And it gave me something to think about other than the pain.
I also visualized finishing. I saw myself completing movements, succeeding. I came up with mantras and things to tell myself when it started to get hard. I told myself to enjoy the battle. At one point I told Chris I was going to focus on my breathing. I don’t know if he believed me, but I knew it would help me handle the stress and cold water. And the bullhorn, I really hated that thing. But I would not let it get to me. I never reacted to anything the cadre yelled at me. And it got louder and more frequent as the hours wore on. I just kept saying to myself, “You got this.” On the long movements I found myself singing in my head. I love music and that got me in a nice rhythm. I tried my best to stay in the moment and do my best on each exercise. It was all I could control. It’s true: Quitting is not an option, and you have to decide this before you even show up.
One last thing that worked for me: take as many variables out of the equation as you can. Of course you want to be ready for anything, but be smart and minimize the uncertainty. Tweak your gear until you have it dialed. If you live where your event is, think about what they might do. You know you’ll be in the water. Look around you and think, what is the hardest, craziest thing they could have me do? Then go do it because the cadre are evil and creative! I even looked up the moonrise times, and the weather. All the little details make a difference.
So, the first night… They piled the six of us who showed up in the back of a pick up, covered us with a tarp, and off we went. Finally we came to a stop up in the Marin headlands. I looked around and recognized the trailheads because I had done a training ruck in that area a few weeks prior. That gave me a little confidence. And it’s a gorgeous area, so at least I would see some awesome dusks and dawns. The first movement was a long ruck, and they staggered the start to make it an individual event. Our instructions were to go as fast as we could, no time or distance given. Most things were a timed event. I was 4th, and right before I went Chris asked if I was aware no woman had completed Selection. Yes. I think I might have smiled. Thanks. I took off and was moving fast. I pretty much hiked fast uphill and ran/shuffled on the flats and downhill. I was doing well until at one point we all got lost. There was some confusion among with volunteers/cadre, and thankfully we all ended up in one spot. But not before I had rucked up and down this one trail three times, starting to worry that I’d just screwed it all up. Not even four hours in and I’m gonna get dropped! That rattled me a little but I recovered. We resumed our hike and ended up down at Muir Beach.
Muir Beach PT seemed like it was all night long, and maybe it nearly was, I don’t know. I can relate to a lot of what Kling said in his AAR, so you’ll probably hear echoes of him here. I had the same initial thoughts, “What the hell am I doing? This is crazy.” But I just shut those up and stayed positive. It was here where we lost the first three people. It happened so fast I didn’t even realize someone was gone. I think the combination of the water and exercises just wore folks down, but I’m not sure. Just when you thought you really didn’t want to go back in the water, that’s where we went. So I never drew any lines in the sand. I just went and did it and moved on.
It pays to be a winner. Winning is good, woo hoo you get to rest, but I figured you also get to sit and get cold. I didn’t care too much about the rest at that point, I figured I’d stay warm and just keep going as fast as I could. My best usually wasn’t last, but if it was I just kept moving.
Finally we stopped and went over to the truck. It was still dark out. We set our rucks down and were told to go stand in the road. Time for a run, no time or distance given, just run as fast as you can, a timed event. Running’s one of my stronger areas. It’s nice to have one or two things you’re good at, gives you a little mental break. Off we went one at a time up the road from Muir Beach. Up and up and up. While we were running the sun rose and it was beautiful. I appreciated it, enjoyed the moment. I was last to start and first to finish, so I got a little break at the top. I sat down and tried to warm up. Dan made it up, and I was honestly surprised Justin hung in there and finished the run. Justin’s my brother and a savage and I could tell he was hurting. At that point we grabbed our rucks and were told to stage at the trailhead to head back down. Justin tried to gear up but it was going to be impossible. I was bummed to see him go. I have no doubt he’ll heal up and come back to conquer this thing.
Dan and I took off down the trail, with the cadre trailing. We ended up back down at the Muir Beach parking lot, maybe it was close to 11 am or so Friday morning, I’m not sure. We took a little break, and then Chris came over with the clipboard. I knew what that meant. Really? Army PFT now? Yep. Then another little break and it was time for another movement. This time we each had a nice-sized fence post to carry with our rucks. The fence posts were supposed to be some sort of weapon that had an acronym for a name, I can’t remember. But we needed to deliver them somewhere very far away. So Dan and I took off with Adam trailing. It was hot (my advice: wear a hat when it’s sunny), we were getting hungry, and Adam was sun bathing. I think Dan was suffering more without food than I was. For some reason I was still doing ok. I was hungry too, but it didn’t get to me as much. We hiked for a very long time until finally we reached the truck and our first food break. Half an hour to eat an MRE and rest! It was probably 3 or 4 pm. Then it was back at it. Our ‘weapons’ needed to reach their destination, which happened to be up some more hills! This part was surreal. After eating, I really struggled on the hike. And Dan seemed to be doing better. I was having serious doubts because I felt like my progress had really slowed. But we finally reached the Pantoll campground where we dumped our fence posts and were told to rest behind the bathrooms. I say it was surreal because I went to the bathroom, came out, and Dan was gone. Chris was standing right there and asked me what was missing. “02,” I said. Dan. “You know what that means.” What?! He looked like he had rallied, and I was surprised. Whoa, this was it. I’m the only one left. Here’s my Kling moment.
At that point I got to go sit by the campfire for a little chat/terrifying conversation with Chris. I don’t think Chris found the conversation very satisfying. I was just trying to survive. And I honestly didn’t want to give him any ammo for that bullhorn later on. We had a mini-AAR about my performance, he asked me why I was doing this, and told me the next 24 hours would be hell. He told me he would do his very best to see to it that it would be a black class (uh, Chris keeps his word). Okay, awesome. “Are you going to make it?” he asked. “Yes.” Of course I said yes. I was still fighting off doubt, but this was it, this was why I showed up. Bring it on. So I changed my socks and off we went on a ruck run down the Dipsea trail to Stinson Beach.
Stinson beach, a wonderful beach, but very cold at night when you have to get in the water. Chris sent me to Adam, who is very, very good at PT. He tortured me out there. After awhile he sent me back to Chris, and we went on a ruck run up the beach and back. I think then I went back to Adam for a bit. I was getting pretty cold and exhausted and could tell I was losing it a little. I don’t think it had been that long considering how long we were on the beach the first night. At some point Chris told me to pay attention. I might have been nodding off. He asked me what day it was. I said Friday. “That’s right 04, it’s not Saturday yet.” Awesome. We rucked back to the truck and they took me back up to Pantoll campground to get warm. The only trouble was I could not get warm. Finally, after what seemed like forever, I remembered to change my socks. Only then did I nod off for my first and only nap. I have no idea how long I was out. It felt like 30 minutes. I woke up to, “04, get up, let’s go.”
Okay, off again. Rucking down the road to the Bootjack parking lot. At this point I was thinking that maybe it was close to dawn? Wrong. That sun took a really, really long time to come up. I did more PT in that parking lot, lots more. Then Chris found a little rock that he liked. I needed to go bear crawl all the way up that steep hill to the meadow at the top and put the rock up there. Okay. It was never fast enough. Hurry up weirdo. Then back up to the campground. Then ruck down the road and back. Then run down the road and back. The hours passed slowly.
At some point during Saturday morning’s PT session, my left achilles really started throb. I started compensating and the pain moved to my outer plantar. Shit. Time to change shoes. I have never worn tevas so I didn’t pack any. I took off all the tape, switched to compression socks, and put on my Nikes. I think this saved me. My left foot was still hurting, but it didn’t get any worse. I did get some blisters, but at that point I just sucked it up.
I finished changing and looked up to see Adam with the clipboard. Army PFT again? I started putting on my gloves. I remember thinking this will be an interesting score. Let’s knock it out. After that it’s back down to, guess where, the Bootjack parking lot. Rifle PT this time. Don’t let it touch the ground. More time chasing my rock. Then it’s over to Adam by the picnic tables. We had lots of fun over there. Heavy rock babies had to be moved, once again way up the hill. “Strength and intensity 04”. (I heard you Adam, I heard you most of the time. Occasionally the cadre threw some good stuff in there amongst the beat downs.) Time to low crawl in that stream. Huh? Okay. Then off to fetch that little rock, again. Then back up to the campground. Everything was always back UP to the campground. Gotta love Pantoll at the apex of that road.
Finally I was told to get in the bed of the truck and we headed down to Stinson Beach. There was an abandoned banana sitting there next to me in the back. I looked around, took a bite, and set it down. I still haven’t figured out why I didn’t eat the whole thing. Fatigue messes with your head. You can guess what happened at Stinson. I moved a log, another large rock baby, and chased birds, among other things. It was fantastic. All the while I was beginning to think, there has to be a long walk coming up at some point, right? Just make it to the long walk. Anyone can do that. You saw Kling, just keep moving. Yeah….just what they want you to think.
When we got back to the Stinson parking lot I legitimately ate for the second time. This time it was just the main meal from an MRE, not the whole thing. Damn, no coffee. My meal box said it had 350 calories. At some point during the 48 hours it clicked as to why they took our food away. That was part of the point. What did I think Special Forces trained for? To be sleep deprived, pushed to their max, but with the expectation that they’ll always have food? No. It’s to see how far you can go, what you’re capable of, under the direst conditions. So that’s wet and cold if necessary, as little food, as little sleep, as much work as possible. I got it. And I’m glad they didn’t cheat me. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to eat my trail mix from yesterday if I happened to find it in the bed of that truck (my trail mix!), but I was okay with it. Plus, it was one less thing for me to worry about. Just drink water and keep my gear straight.
So into the truck I went again, blindfolded, wet, and sandy. They laid me down in the bed and advised me to sleep. I tried, but once again I was freezing and Chris drives like me, which meant I was a pinball in the back of that thing for the next 20 or 30 minutes. Even so I think I may have nodded off for a few moments. I knew the long walk was coming.
The long walk was probably one of the hardest parts of the whole 48+ hours. It started off okay, but my feet were shot and the weight of the ruck began to take a toll. I just kept moving (this seems to be a theme). I told myself, hey, at least the weather’s good, and you’re on flat ground. Finally no hills, and the scenery is beautiful. I got to spend the whole time in the Marin headlands. I was focusing on the good stuff.
However, there was a flipside I had trouble escaping. I was on a trafficked highway that didn’t really allow me to settle into a good rhythm. I also kept glancing over at the horizon, willing the sun to move faster. It seemed stuck on 2 or 3 pm for hours. It was WAY too far away from the horizon. I also had a decent idea of where I was, where I might be going, and that was both good and bad. I underestimated how far away I was from Stinson beach. As I got closer and closer I kept hoping to see the shoreline around the next bend. No luck. After what seemed like forever I finally saw a sign that told me the beach was five miles away. That was demoralizing. I also turned around to notice that Chris was now my shadow. Most of the way it had been Adam. I didn’t even notice the switch. Chris began to turn up the heat. “It’s flat ground 04, you need to be running.” Eff. Okay, I began to shuffle and inch my way toward Stinson. I didn’t want to provoke him so I did my best to just not stop. It was very hard. All I wanted to do was stop. I ended up counting my steps to 10, then starting over and doing it again. And again and again and again. I willed myself to get in some sort of zone. But mostly I fought it the whole time. As we approached the beach I had prepped myself to not expect to stop. And sure enough, I shuffled right on past the beach. I again had mixed feelings. Maybe I won’t end up on the beach, but then again, how much farther am I going?
We took a left and up the Dipsea trail we went. Ugh. Bootjack and Pantoll are up there somewhere. Here it started to climb so I got to hike again. I’m not sure what was better on my feet, running or hiking. It didn’t matter anymore. To be away from the cars and the road did feel good, even if now I had to climb. Chris did not let up. He turned it up even more. Any flat ground I had to move faster. “Hurry up. Faster 04.” The sun dropped. He knew I knew what time it was. It was crucible time. I was completely maxed out for the rest of the way. Moving up and up and now I had to go fast even up the steep hills. I dug deeper. My breathing was so loud it was annoying even me. There was absolutely no give from Chris. All of sudden we popped out onto the Bootjack parking lot.
Hello Adam. “Ruck down, go put your little rock back up on the hill.” Okay. They’re relentless now. “We’re going to stay here until you quit.” No! I’m not going anywhere! More PT. “Do you want some water 04?” I answered every question wrong (is there ever a right answer?). I didn’t see this one coming, but somewhere deep inside I was laughing. I should’ve known they wouldn’t let me stay dry. Doing flutter kicks, counting, water everywhere, I willed myself to stay calm. You can breathe, don’t flinch. “Stand back up 04, turn off your headlamp.” My waterlogged headlamp wouldn’t shut off, it just blinked through all 4 settings. Red, RED, white, WHITE, like I wasn’t disoriented enough. Didn’t matter, had to go get that rock again. Just don’t fall I told myself. At least you can see, good headlamp! They kept yelling. The bullhorn was ruthless. I shut it out. “Start heading up the road. Sprint! Bear crawl. Sprint! Bear crawl.” It continued entire way back to Pantoll and up to the campground.
Finally, Chris says my name. “Paige, stand up.” And I knew I had made it. I was in a daze. Someone had contacted my family and friends and they all materialized out of the darkness. My dog, the best hiking buddy ever, ran up to me. The volunteers came out. The cadre smiled, I smiled. Finally. I can’t describe the feeling. It was just incredible.
I know I’ve said this a lot, but thank you to the Cadre, the GRT volunteers, my fellow competitors, and my friends and family. I know this Selection was run differently. They’ll probably all be different. But I was really touched by the amount of people who came out for 48+ hours to make it happen. It was humbling.