Teamwork, leadership, camaraderie, smiles, and a gut-check worthy of Special Operations training. But the beauty of the Challenge is that it’s not about you, it’s about the people by your side, the individuals that become your team. Ruckers have called it an introduction to themselves and a West Point graduate told me it was the best leadership training he ever had. The funny thing is that the Challenge was an accident. Back in 2010, I saw it as an event to product-prove our gear. But as strangers became teams and friends left asking for more, sooner, so they could bring their other friends next time, the Challenge grew. And because of the Challenge, bonds formed and a family grew in a way that I have never seen outside of the military.
Every Challenge begins awkwardly. A bunch of individuals standing around, wondering what’s first. And what’s after that. There are no frills and no start line.
But eventually your Cadre shows up and life changes. Beaux is one of the great characters in this world, and a Force Recon Marine. In your class, he’ll tell you how he earned his degree in pain, suffering, and discontent in the Al Anbar province in Iraq. And then he’ll laugh and smile and talk about hunting zombies and making you a better person in the process. And you’ll laugh awkwardly and know he’s telling the truth. I’m asked how we pick our Cadre, and the bottom line is that it’s smiles and pedigree. The smiles mean you’re a character, that you can entertain 30 strangers who respect you while you build them into a team. The pedigree is a background in Special Operations, a mindset of mission success via unconventional solutions.
Logistics before go time, hurry-up-and-wait style.
There’s always a beginning and it’s called the the welcome party — also a staple in nearly every military school I ever attended. The point is to break down the individuals. Everything we do has a purpose, everything we do builds a team. And being a team is a mindset, and the mind responds to a good welcome party.
Bricks. Yeah, you’ll have them. If you forget to wrap them, which ‘Raw Dog’ did, you’ll probably hate your life for a while, but you’ll fight through it. The important part of this story is that Raw Dog is a ROTC student, hopefully destined to do great things as an officer in the US military. And I’ll guarantee you that for the rest of his military career, he’ll show up ready. Which he did not on this day. But he did finish, and he did thank us afterwards for the lessons. It’s still funny to me how that works.
Randomly lucky people to take in the welcome party. The first question they always ask is: what is going on here? As if having a team lined up in inchworms at the Lincoln Monument isn’t normal.
Eventually the movements, and the missions start. Above is a throwback to Class 001 in San Francisco. Before Beaux was Cadre. Notice the gear being dragged through the sand. All our gear still makes its way through the Challenge prior to being launched. But more importantly, notice the smiles. Smiles get you everywhere in life, and the Challenge is no different. Good Livin’ is what you call it when life is actually tough but you love it, your attitude is great, and you smile. And since life can be a tough place from time to time, smiles always matter and attitude is everything.
Java, the love of my life. He’s done 15 Challenges with me, my sentimental favorites. Even though my notion as Cadre is that you’ll hate me till you love me, and you’ll love me at the end — people have told me that he makes it impossible to ever hate me. And the truth is that I love that about him.
Ah yes, back to Beaux. Spectators are a good thing, especially when they’re fun and it’s someone’s 21st birthday party. Beaux — are you blushing?
It’s hard to completely separate the gear from the Challenge. All gear has weak points, but it’s our job to field test everything and make sure that what we’re doing is working. And that it continues to work. So suspending a log with your packs – when I’m cadre I won’t let you do it for very long because it’s easier than carrying the log, but it does help us prove the gear.
If you had one of my classes in the summer of 2011, you know all about the party ruck, above. That thing really is a sight of beauty. It went through 25 Challenges and it wasn’t light.
As the Challenge progresses, smiles still abound, but the goal is always to stay together. More together, more all the time. Any separation (‘breaks in contact’ in military jargon) indicate that the team is not functioning properly. The system for weight transfer matters, for rotating the heavier items like the party ruck. That’s the leader’s job, and the leader is appointed by the Cadre. It’s a learning process, and the classes have to be reminded that all the rules matter all the time. The most important one being: work together. Some people have less weight, some have more, some are doing better, some worse. But life’s not fair and neither is the Challenge. The people doing better should take more weight more of the time, and they should ask for no special reward in return.
When it doesn’t happen, when a team starts to separate, the Cadre takes it back to the basics of team building, a taste of a welcome party long past. Something like the inchworm. There are all sorts of interesting twists on it, the centipede, bounding, and a limit of advance. But the point is that as the Challenge progresses, individuals grow increasingly tired. It gets harder to think of the team, easier to think of yourself. You have to fight through that, especially because the missions of the Challenge continue, and missions happen together. It’s no different in the military. The toughest times and the most adversity bring out the best in people, and I’ll believe that to my dying breath. Hence so many stories of heroes making the ultimate sacrifice for a buddy — because ultimately it’s about your buddies. And the Challenge is, too.
Coupons. Redeemable for extra good livin’ immediately. In war, it’s the notion of battlefield recovery. Basically, that means that if you’re fighting and you need something, you take it. Like water or rifles or ammunition. In the Challenge it can be anything. A Playstation guitar or a computer monitor. Sometimes, the point in life is just to smile. And if Rod Butler, age 61, carrying a Playstation guitar for 10 hours in Boston doesn’t make you smile, I’ll buy you a beer and tell you about it till you do.
Linked arms = together = good. It took this class about 10 hours to understand that. The other good thing is that the Challenge brings people of all walks of life together. Military and civilian, runners and lifters, men and women. No matter your size, smiles and a sense of cool will always get other people to follow you.
A lot of people watch the Challenge. Most wonder what’s going on. Some explanations happily require more time than others, though.
The Challenge is mission based. This happened after about a year, an idea brought to it by Dan, a Green Beret who was fresh off a deployment leading Afghanistan’s most elite soldiers on mission after mission, night after night. When he came back, he modeled his Challenge after that. Cadre picks leaders and assistant leaders, explains the mission, sets a time hack, identifies threats, and then the team steps off with the leader in charge.
The classroom of the Challenge is based on our military training and experiences. Above, Beaux is explaining what it means to bound, to work together with your team to overtake the enemy’s fighting position in a way that minimizes risk to your own team.
And then the teams execute. I can still hear Beaux in the picture below, at the top of the picture, making very loud machine gun sounds and pointing with his hand his direction of fire. Eventually, all the teams overtook his position. In his scenario, his fighters were now better prepared for the Zombie Apocalypse.
And the ‘downed pilot’, which pretty much means that your team is moving great distances to save a pilot who has been shot down.
The funny thing about the log, I mean the downed pilot, is that it’s an evolution of acceptance. The first hour, the team struggles and believes it’s too heavy. They moan and groan, looking for sympathy they’ll never find. The second hour, they try to work out systems to rotate people in and out but by and large they fail. Too much effort is spent to make it easy and not enough effort is spent to just suck it up. And the third hour is one of acceptance. Interestingly enough, the third hour is always their best and fastest hour with the log. No matter how heavy it is, no mater how difficult the first two hours were. The bottom line is that people, when they work together, are capable of infinitely more than they thought possible. And that’s a powerful thing to know, and even more powerful to experience.
There aren’t exactly water stations, but water is a priority so there are stops.
I usually cry when we stop at 1 World Trade Center. And it’s always on the route in New York City. The Challenge takes you to all the best places in every city. And I promise you it’s a new way to see it, and if the moment is right, you might cry, too.
But on it goes to greet the morning joggers. Joggers on the left have been up for an hour. Ruckers on the right have been at it all night. Good Livin’ and more smiles.
Fatigue produces instincts to act like individuals. So we go back to the beginning, a reminder that the team is always the priority.
And as it progresses, the goal is for the class to run missions successfully on its own. For the team to solve its own problems. The sooner this happens, and continues to happen, the better it is for everyone.
As if yesterday I can remember Drill Sergeant Hester telling my basic training class that if you’re ever wounded on the battlefield, you won’t care who carries you off. You won’t care if they’re black, white, purple, neon-striped, polka-dotted, whatever. I learned a lot from that man, and he prepped me well for Special Forces training, and for life. And some of those lessons come via the buddy carry.
All classes carry a flag with pride. Members of the military wear one on their uniforms, and this is a small way to honor their service, to honor the roots of the Challenge.
The progression of the Challenge is a thing of beauty for me, to watch the way that the team comes together.
But is it the real finish or is there another mission? In this case, the Challenge was complete. And Beaux talked to his class in Cincy about what they had done, and about why he’s proud to be an American. Because being an American is a state of mind. A state of mind that the Challenge proves exists and will always exist. A love of one another, a love of country. A state of mind where people are meant to work together, to do good, and to succeed together. And to overcome, always to overcome. And Beaux’s take is that people are born American all over the world, every day, it’s just a question of whether they get to come home. That’s the part where I turned away teary-eyed and wanted to live in that moment forever.
The small symbol of your Challenge is the GORUCK Tough patch, which goes well with the accomplishment in your heart. If you’ve already earned it, you know what you did to get it. And it means something when you get it. You join the GORUCK Tough family, and your Cadre shakes your hand in congratulations.
Some are humbled (Mouth Mead above), most are exhausted, but all are in awe of the people they did it with. In a huge way, the Challenge has reaffirmed my love in humanity. People are good, and capable of so much, and the Challenge lets them show it to themselves, and to each other. And in that process they fall in love with a family that is the GORUCK Tough family. It’s an extraordinary group of people who come from far and wide, from all different backgrounds, and who come together in 8-10 (more like 11-13) hours, all at once. In one city, with one cadre, to become one team.
And then the after party begins. The jokes fly about who did what — and how horrible, they mean beautiful, it was. Above is after my class in Jacksonville, everyone just hanging out to soak up the moment, to take it in. After the Challenge, everyone goes their separate ways but the time shared is never forgotten. I always find myself wishing that this moment, this shared elation of accomplishment, could last forever. The Challenge is the Challenge, the standard is the standard. But my goal is for all who come to experience this moment. It’s a noble feeling, and back in the early days, these were the moments when I started to appreciate that the Challenge was a special event, with special people. Or rather, with normal people doing extraordinary things for each other.
Then the dreaming of more begins.
And before you know it, smiles and a middle finger are in full effect. As we say, the Challenge isn’t nothing. But thank God it’s time to do it all over again, and we’re grateful for the people who keep showing up. Take the Challenge, join the family.