Outside Magazine recently ran a feature story on the explosion of obstacle racing in recent years. According to Nick Heil, in the last year, "roughly a million people signed up for events in the four most popular series: Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and Muddy Buddy." These extreme physical challenges certainly allow individuals to showcase their toughness and the events won't be confused with a casual half-marathon on even pavement.
Unmentioned in Heil's piece is a challenge which, while substantially smaller than these mega brands, is showing explosive growth in its own right: the GORUCK Challenge. Organized by the military-style backpack company GORUCK, the Challenge is a team event, never a race, and up to 30 people participate in each class. And while the obstacle races above seek to replicate elements of the military's basic training programs, the GORUCK Challenge strives to replicate elite forces training. Jason McCarthy, GORUCK's founder, and lead cadre Brian Richardson, met during their Green Beret Selection course. It is this experience which the GORUCK Challenge most closely strives to replicate.
The GORUCK Challenge markets itself as being "8-10 hours. 15-20 miles." That said, their motto is "Under promise, over deliver." Challenges have no set time and no announced course, but they will commonly go well over 10 hours and well over 20 miles (In fact, I've heard of recent Challenges going over 16 hours and as far as 27 miles). Unlike the larger obstacle races, there are no special obstacles that the people doing the Challenge must overcome. The Challenge moves from city to city and aims to profile the best parts of a location, be it monuments or bridges or famous beaches.
There are, however, some common elements common to every GORUCK Challenge. The first is the ruck - everyone must bring a backpack (preferably a GORUCK bag) with them. If you're under 150 pounds, you must have four bricks in the bag; if you're over 150, the requirement is for six bricks (teams must also share an additional 25 pound-plus weight of their own choosing). Thus a 180 pound person doing the Challenge will carry a bag that could weigh close to fifty pounds, with drinking water. The second common element is that, as described by GORUCK Challenge Director Sophie Pollitt-Cohen, "there will be a lot of the Challenge - whether you want to measure the Challenge in hours or miles to go before you sleep, you're going to do a lot." Whether you're running laps on the biggest set of stairs a city has to offer, doing PT exercises in shallow surf, or doing bear crawls on the beach, the Challenge will change your definition of intense.
The third common element is perhaps the most defining one of the GORUCK Challenge: the log. Somewhere along the way, the team will be given a large log - a found object that could be a full-on tree, or a heavy railroad tie. The point is it's big, it's wooden and it will weigh hundreds of pounds. The team will be responsible for moving it for a significant portion of their Challenge.
GORUCK founder McCarthy describes the importance of the log in the process of a Challenge. "The log is a great metaphor for the Challenge. When it begins, there's total disbelief at how heavy it is. For the first hour, the class struggles against working together and assumes that they''ll be allowed to stop before long."
"During the second hour, there's a slow acceptance and recognition of the need to work together." McCarthy gets excited as he reaches the conclusion, "In the third hour, the class just doesn't give a shit. They've figured out their system and how to implement it as a team."
And yes, in case you missed it, McCarthy is saying that the class will often have to carry logs that weigh more than 600-700 pounds for over three hours. The process is one where individuals must move past their breaking points and learn to work as a team.
As a result, while being a muscular Super Man may work for something like Tough Mudder, it doesn't guarantee success at the GORUCK Challenge. In the context of replicating the training of Special Forces operators, working together as a team is critical. Lead Cadre Brian notes that, "Leadership comes in different forms." McCarthy adds, "Leadership isn't just being able to push a tractor. Everybody has a strength."
Before Brian signed on to help lead the GORUCK Challenge, he was skeptical that anyone would actually want to participate in it. "I thought the GORUCK Challenge would be nonsense. I had to do this sort of training, but I was paid to do it. Why would someone pay to go through this?" Richardson then went to witness an early Challenge. He says, "I saw how the Challenge brought people together and I believed in it."
This sentiment is echoed by recent participants. Devin Maier, 31, the Managing Director of Balance Gym in Washington DC was in Class 095. He says his favorite part of doing his first Challenge was "the camaraderie and great sense of accomplishment once you finish." Likewise, Collins Roth, a forty-one year old father of four, reflects, "It's not for everyone - you have to be ready for a real mental and physical beat-down. But it was unbelievably fun."
McCarthy's perspective on the Challenge shows his deep commitment to the idea that this is an experience that is valuable for the participants and something that they'll want to share. "The ultimate goal is to bring people together and allow them into a community for organizing themselves." Given how many people do multiple Challenges and how the Challenge has grown in popularity, McCarthy seems to be hitting his mark.
GORUCK Challenge recently put on their 100th class. They're expanding beyond the main event to include special, alumni-only events. This past summer Ascent brought GORUCK Tough alums to the Rockies, where they summited as many 14,000 foot peaks in four days as they could. Beached will put people through four days of survival in and around the waters of Key West. They're also doing a spy craft style event called Trek and are now doing scavenger hunt events in a core set of major US cities. Each of these events seeks to replicate the field craft skill testing America's elite military forces go through.
As more and more people turn away from marathons and triathlons to more extreme obstacle races, expect the GORUCK Challenge to keep growing, as individuals seek to test themselves not just as athletes, but as team members and leaders.
This is the second post of a three-part series. In my first post, I looked at the GORUCK brand history and its recent growth. The final piece will look at my own experience in GORUCK Challenge Class 110, this February in Baltimore.
Follow Matt Browner Hamlin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mattkbh