“You’re signing up for the HTL.”
It was a warm June evening. I was sitting in a bar in Hartford, Connecticut following my first T/L. My first Light had been just a couple weeks before, where I was talked into my first T/L at the bar after that.
Isn’t that how most of these stories begin? The damn bar.
“I don’t even know why you’re fighting it.”
I started to get it from all angles. It felt like every person at that table had a secret meeting before where they would all combine forces to talk me into signing up while I was half drunk.
I remember blue eyes locking in on me: “You’re signing up.”
I wasn’t asked. I was told.
Typically filled with doubt on my abilities, being told that I was signing up might have been the perfect way to get me pull the trigger.
And I have a feeling he knew that.
Here’s the story of what happened after that night.
WHAT’S AN HTL?
Since I know you’re only reading this if you already know what an HTL is, we’re gonna fly right over a canned explanation.
If you truly have no idea, your first mission is upon us: FFIO.
The night after that fateful evening in Hartford I was all signed up.
As a New Yorker I knew there was only one HTL that made sense for my first one: 9/11.
That means I had 12 weeks to train from that night to the start point (SP) of the Heavy.
Training began immediately.
KNOW YOUR WHY
This is one of the most important aspects when prepping.
Your “why” will play a major role in not only the event itself, but in your training leading up to it.
Because like I always say, signing up for an event is not the hardest part. Anybody can enter a CC number into a computer and tell people they signed up for something looking for a pat on the back.
That’s the easy part.
To me, the hardest part is what happens next. It’s the days and nights sandwiched between the day you signed up and the evening you make it to the SP.
Without a strong why, you won’t train as hard. You’ll take it easy. You’ll give in to people who try to test your willpower.
And really, I had more than one occasion where I was told “The gym will always be there” or “You don’t have to train EVERY night” – and really, could that be true? Sure. Would missing one night of training hinder my ultimate goal? Probably not. But giving in would show that I wasn’t committed. It would undermine my “why” – and as you’ll learn, your mind is going to play a huge role in the outcome of your HTL, and those moments where people try to throw you off are going to be your first tests.
Do not let them get in your head. Live and breathe your why. This is important.
CRACKING DOWN ON TRAINING
Since my genius ass had about three months to amp it up, I had to immediately get to work.
Luckily I had a solid team behind me that all contributed to various factors of my prep.
- I had training partners to go on long rucks with and who literally had to deal with all of my questions and ramblings on a daily basis. (But they fucking deserved it because they are two of the people who convinced me to sign up that night in Hartford)
- I had one of my amazing CrossFit coaches program me strength and ruck workouts 2-3x per week
- I had a buddy with about 5,000 years of experience who’d give me feedback, tell me when I sucked, gave me way more advice than I deserved and kept my mind right
- I had my entire CrossFit box behind me, throwing on sandbags whenever I went on training rucks, counting reps for me or sitting outside in the dark to time my planks. CrossFit Flushing, I will love you guys forever.
Without getting too crazy into the details of my training, I basically did about 3 training rucks per week:
Monday: Heavy Short Ruck
Wednesday: Standard Ruck
Weekend: Long Ruck
I kept doing programmed WODs 5x per week. Mondays/Wednesdays I would stay an additional 2 hours for my ruck workouts (sandbag movements, PT, sled pulls/pushes, farmer’s carries, etc.).
I had been told that the run for the PT test doesn’t typically happen in a Heavy due to the amount of time it takes, so I didn’t specifically train running.
Spoiler Alert: I should have trained running.
I kept that training pattern up pretty well. It was the summer so whenever I did go away (I went on vacation for one week in August), I brought my ruck and a sandbag and made it work to the best of my ability. Insert: A deck of cards.
I strung in another T/L over in Pittsburgh in July, and that’s where I tested how it would feel to do an event without eating. Just in case the Cadres took away our food.
One of my buddy’s also made a mock event for his girlfriend and I. That’s when he taught me how to pack and unpack my ruck in 60 seconds, the magic of zipper lube, how to actually use my hip belt, and how to hold a box of donuts (aka our “team weight”) with nothing but paracord and a dream.
FOOT CARE (AND BODY CARE)
I spent a lot of time figuring out my feet. The last thing I wanted was to be taken out of an event because my feet weren’t prepared. In general, foot issues are preventable if you have your routine down, and I didn’t want to have any preventables be my downfall.
Note: Don’t cut corners here. Be smart. Figure out your fucking feet.
I had already had my boots locked in from my T/Ls, so I used all of my training rucks to test out different socks. I ultimately went with the socks I used for both of my T/Ls – cause if it ain’t broke…
On more than one long ruck my feet went haywire. One was riddled with blisters (I made the epic mistake of using cotton socks on a 90 degree day when I was in a hurry), and another took me down with a case of Plantars Fasciitis merely 3 weeks out from my HTL.
But I learned something from both of those things:
- Don’t fucking wear cotton socks.
- You have super high arches. Get inserts.
- Frozen water bottles and tennis balls will be your feet’s best friends. Don’t wait for an injury to utilize them.
As much as the plantars scared me at the moment, I was super happy it occured during my training. I immediately adjusted and looked up dozens of stretches and remedies, got myself a pair of inserts and kept it moving.
Note: Plantars can develop from tight calves. Tight calves can develop from tight hips. Yoga will be your saving grace. Believe me.
Speaking of yoga, I also incorporated tons of stretching and accessory movements. A few training rucks revealed some tightness in my hips, calves and a stabbing pain on the side of my knee, all of which were relieved with a combination of hip openers and a daily focus on strengthening my glutes and hips with a handy resistance band.
THE WEEK OF THE HTL
About a week and a half leading up to the HTL I ceased all training and focused solely on yoga and rolling out my feet. I also made sure to get a tune up from my chiropractor about 8 days out and a deep tissue massage 4 days out. #treatyoself
What else I did:
- Dropped off extra gear/clothes at my “transition house” for between events. Luckily for me a friend lives about .5 miles from the Freedom Tower. This helped me TONS.
- Drank a gallon of water per day beginning 5 days out
- Drank a bottle of pedialyte per day beginning 3 days out
- Cut out all crap food
- Got my mind right
I was lucky enough to have four all-stars leading the event:
- Cadre Flash
- Cadre Cleve
- Cadre Belman
- Cadre Matt
Yes. You read that right.
A quick note on the above names: If you can do an event with them, one of them, a combination of them, whatever you can muster, do it. My soul is better because of what each of them brought to that weekend. Their passion is so palpable that simply being in the same proximity has some kind of osmosis that makes humans better. One word that describes them all? Genuine. That’s important here. I’d gush some more, but I’d really prefer you learn for yourself.
We also had a special guest of Cadre Jason, the owner of GORUCK, who I learned really loves overhead squats. More on him later.
I don’t want to get too deep into the actual happenings of the events, because the best part about an HTL is the unknown, but I’ll paint enough of a picture to fulfill the interested and spark the curious. But the real details are burned into the memories of those who were there.
EVENT 1: THE HEAVY (24+ Hours)
We gathered on Randall’s Island, a group of 55 where I only knew two other GRTs. It’s interesting to remember the moment when everyone was still a stranger – because you become close quickly under these circumstances.
After about 15 minutes the cadre walked up like Reservoir Dogs. They did their cadre thing, checked gear, made sure we knew that they were going to crush our souls – and we set up for the one thing we knew was coming: the PT test.
What I thought the PT Test would be:
- Max Pushups in 2 minutes
- Max Situps in 2 minutes
- 12 Mile Ruck in Under 3 Hours 30 minutes
What the PT Test was:
- Max Pushups in 2 Minutes
- Max Situps in 2 Minutes
- 6 Mile Run in Under 55 minutes
- 12 Mile Ruck in Under 3 Hours 30 minutes
See that fun little addition? That is why I should have trained running.
Regardless, 54 out of 55 people survived the PT test, and I will say I felt awesome during it. My strategy here was to not blast myself on anything. Just don’t be last. I instead wanted to make sure I would be helpful to my team later on in the event, so I kept a steady pace, sang to myself when I was alone on the loop, and made friends when I could. When done, we rucked up, took far too long to figure out the Pain Train and moved out for the Welcome Party.
The Welcome Party claimed another.
53 of us pressed on with 60 million pounds of team weight. (This may or may not be a very slight exaggeration).
“Why are we here?” TO HONOR THE FALLEN
We were thigh-deep in the Harlem River performing 22 8-count body builders for the 22 veterans who commit suicide each day.
“Who are we?” GORUCK
Cadre Cleve was running back and forth on the shore yelling commands, you could feel his passion as his voice cut through the night.
“LOUDER! Why are we here?” TO HONOR THE FALLEN
We were soaked from head-to-toe now, each 5th count submerging us again.
“Who are we?” GORUCK
“DOWN! One!” ONE
“Why are we here?” TO HONOR THE FALLEN
Our spirits were louder now. Bellowing in unison as we came together as a team.
“Who are we?” GORUCK
We finished the 22 body builders and emerged from the river, a GORUCK baptism that had us all remembering exactly why we were here.
I can tell you now, looking back with a clear mind, that moment in the river was when I first truly felt the souls of the fallen. There was just something about howling out in the middle of the night that felt spiritual to me – the moment when we all came together and for the first time belted out exactly why we were there: To honor the fallen.
The rest of the Heavy is entirely our own. Our souls were cracked open in that river, making way for every one of us to embrace what was to occur over the course of the next 17ish hours of our first event.
We shared stories. We cried. We did more PT. We rucked for miles under heavy weight. We rucked the Brooklyn Bridge, which was one of my favorite moments. Anybody that knows me knows I have a special love for the Brooklyn Bridge.
But it was where we ended up that was truly special.
We were heading over to an iconic firehouse, one with strong ties to 9/11 and even stronger heroes who work there.
Ladder Truck 118, of Engine Co. 205, was depicted in a famous photo from 9/11, a lone firetruck on the Brooklyn Bridge rushing towards the smoking Twin Towers. When the photo was taken, nobody fathomed that every person on that truck would be lost that day.
Knowing where we were heading made any “pain” we were experiencing completely dissipate. We were about to be entering the home of the six men that were lost that day: Vernon Cherry, 49; Leon Smith, 48; Robert Regan, 45; Pete Vega, 36; Joey Agnello, 35; and Scott Davidson, 33, and paying homage to those men moved every one of us.
We honored the fallen of Ladder 118 in the best way we knew how: we got blasted with their firehose while doing PT in the street and reciting our “why”.
After a variety of movements and tons of fun had by the firemen, we moved out and back over the Brooklyn Bridge, getting closer to the Memorial.
We stood before the reflecting pools, man-made waterfalls that sit where the footprint of the Twin Towers once stood.
Earlier in the day, during storytime, my new friend Mark told us his experience on 9/11, revealing his close connection with Ground Zero and making everybody shed a tear when he looked at Cadre Cleve and said: “I’m not scared of what you’re going to do to us. I’m scared of what’s going to happen when I go back there at 6:30 tonight.” Mark let us know he hadn’t been back to Ground Zero since 2001, and that the smell still hasn’t left him.
I had been bonding with Mark after his story, when we were both on the flags and rucking over the Brooklyn Bridge, and once we got to the reflecting pools I wanted nothing more than for him to know that he was loved and safe, so I grabbed his hand and we stood there silently.
Time was dwindling now and I wondered if we were going to skip the movement I had suspected was coming: The stair climb to commemorate the heroes who climbed the WTC that morning.
We moved from the reflecting pools when we came upon a staircase.
“You’re doing 33 rounds of this. With your rucks. The first 10 rounds including all additional team weight.” Cadre Flash was talking this time. We fell in line and began the climb to hit 1,980 steps.
Once the climb was over we performed a few scenarios before making our way to endex.
That’s when Jason popped up.
The owner of GORUCK, Jason McCarthy is known for picking one movement and driving classes insane with them. What did he choose for anytime he reared his Cadre head during any moment of the HTL? The overhead squat.
I think the words “Find the bottom of a squat!” will be burned into the nightmares of anybody that participated in any of the three events that weekend.
But it was what came next that we’ll always remember.
We were right there.
We were getting into formation to get patched when we didn’t move fast enough for Cadre Flash: “RUCKS OVERHEAD!”
And all hell broke loose.
Suddenly we had all five cadre surrounding us, with Cleve yelling “DID YOU THINK THIS WAS OVER?” as we were doing elevated pushups.
Yes, we did think it was over. And as we all learned that night, it’s never fucking over.
After a good chunk of time was spent re-humbling the class and pulling us back together, we got patched.
The Heavy was officially over, but for anybody going for their bolts, the hard part didn’t even hit yet.
TRANSITIONING TO THE TOUGH
We had about 4 hours to figure out our lives before heading to the SP of the Tough. I made my way over to my transition house, and while sitting outside her apartment waiting to be let in, my buddy walked up with two bags of Shake Shack and a smile that made me feel whole again.
Note: If you have a friend that can have food ready for you, this will help tremendously.
Remember the most important aspects of the transition:
- Eat & Hydrate
- Set up your ruck for the next event
- Fix your feet/elevate them
If you can successfully do all of those things, then and only then can you consider:
- Taking a nap
Luckily I had enough time to shower and lay down for a bit. I didn’t exactly nap, but I did have at least 45 minutes to lay on a bed with my feet stacked up on 3 pillows.
EVENT 2: THE TOUGH (12+ HOURS)
Contrary to what I’ve read and heard, getting to the start of the Tough was not the most difficult part for me. I was still amped up and ready to go. I had done a couple of T/L’s so I figured if I finished the Heavy the rest would just come.
Ha. What a naive HTL newb.
Sure I did some T/L’s before, but none were after 24 hours of a soul crushing beat down.
This would be an entirely different experience.
I got to the SP of the Tough and was happy to see some familiar faces from the Heavy.
Unfortunately we did lose a few who had planned on going for their bolts, but we rucked on knowing they’d want us to keep going.
From what I can remember, I think we only lost one to the Welcome Party, although if we had to “find the bottom of a squat” one more time they might have lost me too.
Just kidding. I actually never once contemplated quitting. But I did contemplate murdering whoever invented the OHS.
All the fresh Toughs really did help out the HTLs. I’m still in awe of how much they all wanted us to succeed. None of the HTLs wanted to just float by, but whenever we were struggling, the Toughs jumped right in to grab a team weight or give a kind word.
During the witching hour, which was probably around 3am, I don’t actually remember all that much. I know I was sleep rucking, and I know I was holding on to someones ruck infront of me to keep me from wandering into the street, but I will say I didn’t hallucinate – although I had sort of looked forward to “seeing pikachu” like a buddy of mine said he did.
We wandered through Times Square where we did some more PT, and although I was tired I didn’t feel awful yet. We even climbed the 1,980 steps again without too much of an emotional hit, although the storytime that came after did leave us with quite a few tears.
And then the long ruck down the West Side Highway happened.
Note: Elevate your feet whenever possible. This will help reduce swelling. Also, stretch whenever possible. This will help with life in general.
I don’t remember how long it lasted, but I remember falling silent. This was the same route we had taken during the Heavy and all I kept thinking about how much I didn’t want to go back over the Brooklyn Bridge.
My teammates started to sense that I was going dark and began asking me how I was feeling, with every new question causing me to tear up. Just feeling how much my feet were aching and how much I just wanted to have transition time into the Light, I started to sink fast.
I silently cried a few times during that ruck, not wanting anyone to see, but knowing that they all probably felt it.
“Smile, Dee. Get out of your head,” Cadre Flash was suddenly next to me, the one cadre who knew me through every event I had done. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
I don’t know if it’s because he’s seen me through multiple events at this point, but Cadre Flash knows exactly how to give me just enough to remind me that I have the power to pull myself out of my own mind.
And he wasn’t wrong. Smiling is one of my trademarks. Appreciating that I have lungs that work and a body that can do this stuff is something that I always want to remember. Because there are people in this world, and people not in this world any longer, that would give up everything to be able to do exactly what I’m doing.
And so I smiled. And I began talking to my team again, trying to pull the positive back out and connecting with them – because like you’ll learn, everybody is feeling the same emotions as you at different moments, and relying on each other will do wonders for all of you.
TRANSITIONING TO THE LIGHT
We didn’t have much time now. Our endex took a little longer with a bunch of awesome speakers that came to share their 9/11 stories, so we had approximately 2 hours to get back to our transition areas and fix ourselves up for the next event.
And my body was in alot of pain.
My friend presented me with some Dunkin Donuts coffee and an egg and cheese croissant, and I cried into both of them while complaining to one of my friends and training partners, Thor.
Exact Text Message Excerpt:
Me: “I do not want to go loll”
Thor: “Fuck off. Go. Don’t you fucking dare”
Me: “And everything hurtssssss”
Thor: “This is everything you want. Don’t trade what you want most for what you want now. Go get it all. Everything you have dreamed of is right there waiting. You just need to step forward and grab it.”
I had about 15 minutes after fixing my feet and prepping my ruck to relax. I raised my feet and cried a little more. It was cold and rainy out now, and I did NOT want to go back out there.
But I did. Because when you’re faced with things you don’t exactly want to do because they’re uncomfortable and you’re tired, that’s when transformation happens.
EVENT 3: THE LIGHT (~5 HOURS)
Getting to the Light was easily the hardest part for me. I rucked the 18 minutes crying half the time. There I was, this maniac with a filthy ruck and dirty hair just weeping while hobbling through the streets in the rain.
But by time I hit the SP, all of that faded.
I was here. Some of my buddies were here to see my through the end, including my favorite couple in the world, Thor & Angelina, who were not only part of the group in Hartford that convinced me to do this in the first place, but also my training partners ever since. My good friend Roger was here, a friend near and dear to my heart that has been in our close group of OCR buddies since 2014. A few buddies from the Heavy that skipped the Tough were here. And, of course, my fellow HTLs were here.
We were about to do this.
The Light was a lot of trying to keep up with all the fresh people sprinting down the streets, visiting and thanking some firehouses, telling more stories and doing PT.
I was 100% certain we weren’t going to be climbing anymore stairs, so I felt like this was going to be a relative breeze compared to the other two events.
We made it back to Ground Zero and I could feel my bolts.
“You’ll be doing 33 rounds of stairs.” It was Cadre Belman this time. My heart sank. My legs didn’t want to do this… for a third time.
Every part of my body was screaming by that point, and for two entire rounds I cried silently. Luckily Angelina was right there next to me. I told her she could go at her own pace, but she stayed with me the whole time. I love that girl.
GETTING OUR BOLTS
The end of the HTL was magical. There we were, 18 people who all showed up that weekend with one goal: To honor the fallen in the best way we knew how. 18 people who were all strangers to me at that SP on Randall’s Island were now family, bonded by what we experienced over 48 hours, across two boroughs, on one island, over one bridge, in one river, and standing before the names of the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives on 9/11.
On top of my bolts I, along with a few others, was presented with Cadre Flash’s special patch. These are reserved for those who complete 4 Tough/Heavy events with Flash. Make this one of your goals and thank me later.
TO HONOR THE FALLEN
As a New Yorker from Queens, 9/11 will always be personal to me. It’s hard to get the memory of that morning out of our heads, to forget what the air smelled like and erase the amount of friends I knew who lost somebody – but I also don’t ever want to. The pain of remembering needs to fuel us – to come together as a city, as a nation, and as Americans.
I’m more than honored to have completed the GORUCK NYC 9/11 HTL under the watchful eye of four amazing cadre, all of which poured every ounce of their passion into the event. I’ve always been the most in awe of people when they’re doing exactly what they were meant to do, and those four men are meant to lead, to teach, and to build better humans.
And to my HTL brothers and sisters, to the Toughs who helped us succeed and the Lights that saw us through the end, thank you.
Because “thank you” is all we need to say.
BONUS: AFTER THE EVENT
Like I’d leave you guys hanging now.
I had taken off from work the next day (Monday), and if you’re going for your first HTL, I highly suggest this strategy.
Things to Do:
- Hydrate + Electrolytes
- All the food
- Epsom Salt Bath
- Elevate your feet
I spent basically the entire day crying in bed. I had never experienced pain like this before. I fully expected the be insanely sore, so I wasn’t technically surprised by it, but I was very happy that I was able to spend the day at home.
One thing I did develop, however, was something called Morton’s Neuroma. This basically means the nerves in your feet and toes have been under too much pressure so the tendons around your nerves begin to thicken. It literally feels like you’re walking on crumbled up socks. It’s super weird, but taking two weeks off from any exercise resolved it.
Remember: You body just did a fucking awesome thing, and you spent a lot of fucking time training for it. Let it recover. Be smart. You want to be in this for longevity, so rest as needed.
I was super happy with how I trained for the event. My body, engine and feet felt pretty good during the entire event considering everything it was going through. Some pains here and there, but adjusting to yoga and accessory movements played a huge role in how my hips and calves took the weight and mileage. Be smart & listen to people smarter than you.
Nutrition/hydration wise leading up to the event was pretty on point also. I felt great through the PT test and the Heavy, I never got dehydrated and all my insides were running pretty smooth. I only experienced one bout of nausea, during the long walk in the Tough, and that was easily solved once Flash told me to eat something. Boom.
“So Dee… would you ever do an HTL again?”
Yes, yes I would.