This is a guest AAR submitted by Jim Marchese about his recent 2019 Philadelphia HTL finish. Hopefully you enjoy this read as much as I did and it gets you excited for your next event!
Jim: Thank you SO much for sending this over!
About 2 months ago I participated in the GORUCK Philly Independence Day HTL. It was hands down the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, both physically and mentally. I won’t go into too much detail regarding the event per se, but I will go through the highlights and lowlights that I experienced. Hopefully I can capture some of the spirit of what happened in those 48 hours.
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”Mike Tyson aka, the start of the Heavy
Rolling up to the Heavy start point, I was feeling great. Mind was right, body was right. I trained for months for this event and I was going to crush it. We finished admin and got moving to Cadre Cleve’s truck to unload the coupons. Despite being in the best shape of my life, I had that “oh shit” moment when we unloaded 13 sandbags and 4 heavy duty water bladders. I’m not a big guy (5’4, <150) so the prospect of being under one of these things was mildly terrifying, particularly since we were only about 90 minutes into a 24+ hour event. It’s possible to start to go dark quickly when you’re faced with an obstacle like this, and in my case it didn’t take very long for a demon to appear. “You’re small and weak. You don’t have it in you. Do you see the size of that bag? It weighs more than you.” But the Heavy is billed as “the ultimate team event” so I grabbed a bag and started moving. I would spend the next 46.5 hours regularly silencing that demon. Fortunately, looking around at others putting in the work helped control my mindset.
The sandbags were soul-crushing. They were heavy and uncomfortable, and the team had trouble figuring out a good way to swap out without stopping. This would occur through most of the Heavy and would prove to be the team’s biggest challenge. It would also prove to be the largest mental challenge I’ve had to face later in the event as TL.
As you would expect, there was a lot of movement, both PT and miles. We got soaked and did PT in Logan Square fountain early on in the event which was a combination of pleasantly cooling and extreme discomfort. During my training period, I paid a LOT of attention to my feet. I’m prone to blisters and determined that taping my feet before the event was my best chance of success. So I continued to tape up before training rucks and soaked my feet to mimic that discomfort. It was probably the single best thing I did for my training. If you’re considering any GORUCK event, I highly recommend soaking your feet before training rucks.
The 12 mile timed ruck was right after the fountain PT. Before we took off for the ruck, people were already addressing chafing and foot care issues. The ruck itself was as terrible and boring as it was during training. 3.5 hours is a lot of time to get in your head. Most of my training was done while listening to music or podcasts but in hindsight, I would have done all my training rucks without headphones to mimic this situation.
After the timed ruck, we were on the move again. Once we got to our destination in Wissahickon, Cadre Cleve had the team go through the “Deck of Cards” PT session. It was brutal, and in the 90 degree weather caused dehydration in one of my close friends who ended up being med dropped. This was a blow to my friend, me, and the team. It underscored the importance of expecting the worst and doing your best to keep it together in those situations.
At the time my friend was med dropped, he was TL and I was ATL. By this point, we were 3 people down and the sandbags weren’t getting any lighter. The team was exhausted physically and mentally, and we were still miles outside the city. Now I was TL and it would be my time to shine and pull this team through the next few movements with flying colors. Only that didn’t happen. In fact, quite the opposite occurred. Nothing I did or said was right. I violated every personal mantra I had about leading from the front in a time of need. We made it through because of the sheer will of the team to face down this adversity. All that said, I learned a ton about what it means to be a good leader and a good teammate. As a leader, I need to communicate more clearly with both the Cadre and ATL as well as ensure the team knows that I have their back and am not just barking orders and acting like a douchebag CEO. As a teammate, I need to remember that whining and complaining about the TL does nothing to advance our mission and only hurts the team overall. Everyone should volunteer to be TL at some point in their event. Even though it’s a thankless job, you learn a lot about what you can handle in those stressful situations. More importantly though, it gives you perspective when you are dealing with a situation in the real world.
Between the Heavy and the Tough
The biggest challenge I would face would be the time between the Heavy endex and the start of the Tough. I read a lot about this stretch of time (thanks to Ryan at ruck.beer for his HTL AARs) and as expected, the doubt started to creep in. My feet were in pretty good shape, but my legs were toast, my lower back was shredded from the bottom of my ruck, and my shoulders were on fire. I couldn’t bear the thought of moving those sandbags again, particularly after my stint as TL. I was also in a nice cool hotel room with a cooler full of beer next to me and a massive Wawa hoagie. It would have been easy to bail out. But that’s not what I showed up for. It wasn’t the person I wanted to be. I bailed out on stuff all my life, from career goals to hobbies and have always been somewhat OK with it. But not this time. Bailing out on this would have haunted me forever. I had people in my corner encouraging me to push through, to take it to that next level. And truth be told, I was not injured. So I peeled myself off the bed, hastily re-taped and lubed, and stumbled out to the start of the Tough.
“This is the biggest fucking mistake I’ve ever made. EVER.”Me (at the start of the Tough)
Sheer will was on my side for about 30 seconds, and then the demons came back. “What were you thinking? You can’t handle this. If you fake an injury at the start, you can get out of this with some fake dignity.” I also realized that there were only 5 others from the Heavy that returned for the Tough. To top it all off, whoever was in charge of the flag at the start of the Tough put it on the ground at the beginning of our PT session. You can imagine how well that went over. I was going dark in a big way, but in a bizarre turn of events, I snapped out of the darkness. I was asked by Cadre Cleve to demonstrate the 8-count bodybuilder to the team which forced me to focus on doing something well, despite my soreness and fading mindset. Upon completion of the demo, I got a second wind and was able to get my head in the game again. It was also a huge help that I had one of my closest friends doing the Tough with me. Just looking over at him and hearing him call out to check in on me was exactly what I needed to keep my mind right.
The Tough progressed and was as brutal as I imagined it would be. Lots of movements, more water PT, more sandbags. My biggest highlight would come during a poignant moment where Cadre Belman asked folks to share their stories about what the Flag represents and what the country means to them. I was able to share my story of my wife getting her citizenship after having come to the US for college and then being on a visa until we got married. Being an American doesn’t mean you have to be born here, or have a certain look, or sexual preference, or religious beliefs. It was a really amazing moment and reinvigorated the team.
Movements continued, and once again we were faced with the challenge of Cleve’s Deck Of Cards. Near the end of the deck, one team member was really struggling with the movements. Our TL rightly slowed down the pace and with shouts and cheers of encouragement from the team, he was able to complete the PT. The team cheered and congratulated him, only to be fed a generous helping of humility by Cleve. We are not in a position to be celebrating anything. The mission hadn’t been completed yet. Everyone snapped back into the mindset of getting through the remainder of the event and we moved on.
As we moved back toward the city, I began to fade into a zombie walk. For the remainder of this part of the Challenge, my mind was focused on helping out as much as I can. Admittedly, I felt like I was walking a fine line between being an asset and a grey man. But as they say, “All it takes is all you got.” Even if you grab a sandbag or a water bladder or the team weight or the flag and move it for 20 steps, that’s something. It’s easy to go dark by wondering if your teammates think you’re pulling your weight, but the truth is, only you know for sure. Focus on doing everything you can to be an asset to the team.
Between the Tough and the Light
Upon completing Endex, I ran out of there as fast as I could to get to home base and shower up/eat before the Light. Since the Light start point was across town, we didn’t have much time to prep. Once again, I scarfed down a Wawa hoagie (thanks Mark Thompson!) and jumped in an Uber with my crew to start the Light.
“Dude, you fucking got this”All my friends (the start of the Light)
We reached the start point of the Light, and I was excited to see a bunch of folks from the Heavy back in action. There were also a bunch from the Tough who came back for more good livin’. Finally, there were a ton of folks doing their first GORUCK event ever, which was super cool to see. And yes, the 5 who showed up for the H and T were also back for the L.
You guessed it: more PT, more sandbags. I want to give a huge shout out to the TLs and ATLs for the Light who did an amazing job. They took the experience and knowledge of sandbag carries and transfers from those who did the H and T, internalized it, and turned it into a well oiled machine. Switching off bags and rotating in fresh teammates was smooth and efficient.
I won’t go into much more detail about the event itself, but I will mention that we had a moment during a break where people from the team went to the front of the class, held the flag, and explained what the flag meant to them. This display of patriotism never gets old for seasoned GRTs and was a great way to initiate those on their way to becoming GRTs as to what GORUCK’s mission of “Building Better Americans” is all about.
Endex for the Light was extremely emotional. The class all received their patches and new GRTs were minted. Then Cadre Cleve and Cadre Belman brought the 6 of us to the front of the class and presented us with our HTL patches. Everything we trained for culminated in that moment and it felt as great as I had hoped. A few of the HTL finishers were also presented with Cleve and Belman patches for completing multiple events with those guys. Finally, the HTL finishers were also presented with custom Washington’s Army patches from Grey Cremer, one of the founding fathers of the VFP (Valley Forge Park) rucking crew. It was truly a special moment.
As if that weren’t enough, Mark “DevilDog” Haupert presented me with a custom HTL coin. I was (and still am) speechless. This is a guy who I met through the community and have done numerous events with. His generosity, both during and outside of events, is unparalleled and I’m honored to call him a teammate and friend.
I cannot overstate the impact this event had on me. First and foremost, it helped me remember how amazing it is to be an American and live in this country. We’re not perfect, but I believe that our constant desire for improvement speaks volumes about who we are. Second, I mentioned earlier how completing an event like this gives you perspective on dealing with situations in the real world. Even though the event wasn’t that long ago, there have already been many times where I’ve said to myself, “You went without sleep for 64 hours and spend 48 of them under a sandbag, you can deal with (cranky kid, whiny managers, cold takeout food, fender bender, other BS…).” Whenever I find myself ready to fly off the handle about something, I try to remember this event. It doesn’t always work, but it’s working more often than not.
Training & Preparation Recap
Finally, I wanted to share and recap a few insights about training and preparation:
- If you decide to do an event like this, the decision is best made with friends at a bar or brewery. Most “good” ideas are formulated like this.
- Use the rules to your advantage. When I started training for this, I weighed 153 lbs, just over the cutoff point for the 30 lb weight requirement. I would have struggled with carrying a 30 lb. plate, so I decided to drop weight so I could carry a 20 lb plate. I determined that this would help me (and by extension, my teammates) be an asset and not a liability. I went into the HTL at 145 lbs.
- Know your feet. Soak them for training rucks, identify blisters and hotspots, pre-tape as needed based on what hurts, use lube, etc. But most importantly, get out there and put in the miles.
- Check out www.ruck.beer for Ryan’s packing list. It was pretty much spot on for me, although I did add a few more Clif Bars.
- I trained for months in preparation for this, beginning with 8 Weeks to SealFit and then developing my own workout based on the structure of SealFit. I did 3 days of strength training, 2 days of short distance rucking, and one long ruck per week. I also did the SealFit Yoga Short Form A routine every day.
- Get a sandbag! I didn’t have one and as a result did a lot of farmer carries with a kettlebell. It helped, but not nearly as much as a sandbag would have.
- Get a handle for your ruck. I recommend this one from All Day Ruckoff. I can’t imagine trying to do all the overhead movements at these events without it.
Thanks for reading! -Jim Marchese, aka “Cheese”