K.S. ANTHONY: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Rucker: Confessions of a GRT.

28 July 2018

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Rucker: Confessions of a GRT.

The first three miles always suck. It's not that they're painful; it's that they're uncomfortable. There's no amount of strap or waist belt adjusting that helps. It's just a question of getting used to your ruck digging into your shoulders and moving the weight – your new weight – and the rest of you forward, upward, outward... away from conventional comfort and towards the quiet embrace of discomfort.

Nobody tells you how boring rucking for distance is, especially if you're doing down and backs. The brain likes novelty and there's nothing terribly novel about watching a crescent of light from your headlamp illuminate a dirt trail for 30 miles in the middle of a cold, wet night in the middle of nowhere. During the D.C. Star Course, I watched as my lamp turned the raindrops into sparks and tried to dodge the thicker mud puddles along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal as the storm-swollen Potomac roared by, shrouded from vision by brush and night. After the first few miles, there was nothing to see but mud and the rain-streaked faces of my teammates. At one point, perhaps two or three miles from the turnaround point, the trail seemed to narrow along a path was mostly rock with clear, fresh water trickling down onto the trail. It seemed brighter than the rest of trail, lit by a moon that I couldn't see. It was the only place I remember that didn't have any sludge and I let the crystalline water that ran off the rocks run over my shoes, giving me a brief respite from the mud. It was a uniquely sublime moment, at once surreal and beautiful. It left me with a sense of awe that I have carried with me since the event. There is beauty, even in the dark corners of suffering.

In the absence of novelty, the wandering brain can be tamed through repetition. Repetition offers some relief from the mind-dulling boredom of slogging forward for miles and miles with a ruck on your back and gravel beneath your feet. Sometimes I will count to ten over and over and over again, for hours, finding a certain indifference to pain and weather and everything else as I simply push on. Sometimes I'll remember a fragment of a poem or song and recite or replay it in my head. These distractions can be unexpectedly strange. In D.C., Beyoncé's "Halo" was stuck in my head for over 12 hours: nothing I would've admitted to my teammates at the time, but a solitary, private source of comfort.

You notice things about yourself and others in the midst of the indifference. Some are tangible, like the way that some people seem to make as much noise as possible when moving, breaking every branch, crushing every shrub, kicking every bottle. Others walk heel-step, seeking the dark spots and Earth underfoot, moving almost silently down the sidewalk or a trail. Others are less tangible: they are less about doing than not-doing. You notice very quickly who does not volunteer to shoulder a sandbag or weight during a rotation during a GORUCK event and how those who follow that course of action – or inaction – literally seem to become gray men, existing only on the fringes of the group off in the shadows, permitted to stay only by the grace of the group: the community in miniature that is forged by duress, the society that understands and even permits failure, but that cannot abide not-trying. They either disappear or prove themselves. You notice every new ache and pain and embrace it as a novelty: I like to see if I can forget about the pain in my back or feet or shoulders by shifting my focus to some nascent pain beginning to beg my attention. I like that remedies appear in things as simple as breathing "into" a knot or shifting my ruck. I marvel at the way my muscles can fail even the simplest command of "rucks overhead" or "push-ups" and the way that the grass smells when I end up face-down in it.

I've arrived at events wondering if I'll be able to hold my own, do my part. I've never tied my shoes without a nagging anxiety that I will be the worst, most out of shape, most wildly unprepared person there. I've worried about people not liking me, childish though that sounds: I am worried that I'll be rejected, once again the last kid picked for a team. I've signed up out of fear – fear that I will never know what I am capable of, fear of failure, fear of fear, fear of rejection – far more often than daring. There is something in me, however, that thrives on that fear and uncertainty, that consumes it; that doesn't just endure it, but loves it.

That psychological quirk should not be confused with bravado or any innate confidence. I have felt useless and bumbling during events, surrounded by men and women far physically stronger than me, desperately convinced that I am the weakest link and that my pitiable performance is being met with inner sighs and silent disgust by both Cadre and teammates, all of whom, of course, are not thinking about me at all.  It is during those fleeting moments of self-pity – and it is always a form of self-pity, especially masquerading as concern for the group – that I am forced to smile and confront my limitations. The underlying purpose of these events is to illustrate – nay, force – the necessity of teamwork, of selflessness. You cannot be selfless if you're feeling sorry for yourself. You're not expected to be Superman, nor are you expected to become him. GORUCK teaches resilience through humility. If these events were easy – if no one ever felt as though they were being crushed, that they needed help, that their personal weaknesses were being exposed, leaving them raw and vulnerable and soft – then no one would leave an event any tougher than if they had shown up at a Starbucks, ordered a lattĂ©, and left.

When you're forced to look into the mirror of your weaknesses, whether at mile three or mile thirty, it is not the time to look for an exit. It is also not the time to self-assess. It is, however, the time to look to those around you and ask "what else can I do?" I can't yet PT like some guys do. I can, however, grind out miles and miles and miles. I can't yet move an 80 pound sandbag without slowing the speed of the group. I can, however, shoulder a 60 pound sandbag. It's not about what you can't do, but rather about what you can. Ultimately, however, it's not about you at all. Your strength, your muscles, your endurance, your brain – whatever you bring to an event – is there to serve your team. Indulgent self-pity over weakness, whether real or perceived, only serves itself. But it doesn't have to stop there. The philosopher Alain de Botton writes,

"The path out of self-pity involves an arc of development. We come to recognise that other people are not always being especially hard on us when they find us wanting. And we come to realise that our sufferings take place within a broad context of unhappiness. Far from meaning that our suffering doesn’t matter, it’s rather the case that all suffering matters and can unite the afflicted into a giant collective... Suffering doesn’t have to isolate, it can also bring us together."

Every challenge undergone with a team is a rite of initiation: or at least has the potential to be one. I assert that there are few experiences in civilian life that genuinely and meaningfully prescribe initiation. Most of the contemporary rituals we undergo, however grandiose, often prove sterile: empty of any meaning that outlast the moment. They do not change us. They do not engender growth. They do not show us what else is possible.

My argument is evidenced by the number of civilians – and I include non-veterans and non-first responders in this – that sign up for GORUCK events and willingly undergo abbreviated experiences of the physical training that warfighters volunteer for. The stakes are far lower, yes. But the spirit – the desire – is one that yearns for camaraderie, community, friendship, and kinship based on something deeper than the ones we locate in school or at work. As a young man in my 20s, then pursuing a career in law enforcement and working in contract security, I learned that there's a real sense of tribe that forms very quickly among those who endure the same kinds of suffering and stress together.

The "why" of it isn't interesting to me. I've read criticisms from people who consider it a sign of consumerist decadence that people sign up for these miniature sufferfests.

As one of the ostensibly guilty, I can't be objective, but I think that – like most criticisms of our community – is a shortsighted conclusion. In some participants, I know there is a sort of regret in not having enlisted or volunteered: a persistent questioning in which they wonder whether or not they would have had what it takes to become a warfighter, a warrior. Dr. Johnson summarized it neatly when he wrote that "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea." There's a ring of truth to that. While I do not regret that paths I've taken in my life, I have sometimes wondered if I would have been an able soldier, sailor, marine, or airman; what my life would have looked like had I discerned a different calling. And make no mistake: to volunteer for the military is to answer a calling: to be a warfighter is to have a profession and not merely a job. Look at The Soldier's Creed:

I am an American Soldier.
I am a warrior and a member of a team.
I serve the people of the United States, and live the Army Values.

I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.

I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills.
I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself.
I am an expert and I am a professional.
I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy, the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.

I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.
I am an American Soldier.

There is nary a trace of ambivalence in its declaration. It is absolute. It is unequivocal. As such, it is a far cry – nearly foreign to many – from the excuses and platitudes we too often encounter from friends and co-workers... and in ourselves. The verbiage does not half-heartedly insist, "I will try." It states "I am" and "I will." It places accountability for upholding that standard at the foot of each individual, each member of a team. Those "I wills" form the heart of the creed: the warrior ethos. At its core, the creed represents an indictment of the will to self-preservation: a willingness – not merely an acceptance – to die; in other words, courage. As Steven Pressfield succinctly puts it,

"The Warrior Ethos evolved to counter the instinct of self-preservation. 

Against this natural impulse to flee from danger (specifically from an armed and organized human enemy), the Warrior Ethos enlists three other equally innate and powerful human impulses:

And love."

This ethos isn't merely stated. It is lived. "The soldier's prayer," Pressfield notes, "...remains not 'Lord, spare me,' but 'Lord, let me not prove unworthy of my brothers.'" That prayer, regardless of verbiage or acknowledgement, is a prayer that asks that one be tested: a prayer for courage. Not for oneself, but for one's teammates.

There is a psychological component – atavistic and primal, dating to our pasts as hunters and fighters and voyagers and protectors – to our civilized selves that craves testing, initiation, and integration into a community. We crave the acceptance and acknowledgement of those we judge our peers, but especially of those we judge our superiors: not only those who've earned our admiration through accomplishments that have exceeded ours, but especially those that bring out the very best in us: the Cadre. As Pressfield writes, "ordeals of initiation are undergone not as individuals, but as teams, as units."

The veterans who created continue to build GORUCK intimately understand that. They understand that there is an inherent value in the warrior ethos that has the power to make people better people. That is the portion of the bridge that they build across the epistemological and experiential gap that divides the civilian and military spheres in America.

I can't tell you what it was that I was looking for when I signed up for my first event in September of 2016: I wasn't an OCR guy. I wasn't a Crossfit guy. I just showed up, poisonously hungover, to a park in Brooklyn with my Rucker and weight. The sum of my rucking experience was relegated to destroying a 5.11 with plates in Runyon Canyon when I lived in Hollywood during one of the loneliest times of my life. I have no idea what I was looking for. I had no idea what to expect.

What I can tell you is what I found.

I found what I thought were my limits and exceeded them.

I found a sense of community – of tribe – that demands not that I succeed at everything I try, but that I give all I've got and that I get up every time I fail.

I found a sense of accomplishment sated and then ignited again as I ask myself after every event, "what else is possible?"

I found leaders who, through their courage, their examples, and the values embedded in the stories they've shared, kindled a love of country that I did not know could burn with such intensity in me.

I found myself shuffling down a storm-blasted mud trail in the rain, sleep-deprived and exhausted, with people I barely knew, pausing to watch a doe and her fawns look at us with soft, dark eyes before disappearing into the grass.

I found friends: people who make those first three miles – and every mile thereafter – worth embracing, whether they are by my side or in my thoughts.

Lord, let me not prove unworthy of them. 

Please consider donating to my fundraising for the Travis Manion Foundation as I prepare to ruck the Marine Corps Marathon 10k this October. Thanks. 


Edit: In fall 2018, I successfully completed the GORUCK 50+ Mile Philadelphia Star Course (56 miles), the MCM 10k Ruck, and the GORUCK 50+ Mile NYC Star Course (also 56 miles IIRC) in three consecutive weeks (might have been four, would have to check). 

It took months for my feet to heal. It was worth it. 

I'm still not over our team's VW from – a nice way to say quitting – the D.C. Star Course 001.