Monday, March 25, 2013

What I Did this Weekend

You cannot buy this patch. Its issuer will never sell it, nor do I expect that anyone who has one will sell it. You have to earn this patch, and doing that is not all that easy. The short version of earning mine was spending six and a half hours walking and jogging 13 miles through the streets of Washington, DC while carrying 12 pounds of bricks and three liters of water on my back. At various points along that journey, I carried other things including a 15-pound stuffed bulldog, an American flag, and a share of a large log. I never carried another person though I was carried by someone else on more than one occasion.

I earned this patch as a member of Class 002 of an event called GORUCK Light. The people who run the event describe it here. I know. They say four to five hours and seven to ten miles, and I said six and a half hours and 13 miles. It's all relative. Class 001, in New York City the weekend before, lasted seven hours and covered 11 miles. It's whatever time and distance it takes a team to complete the missions devised by its cadre or director. You can read more about cadre here. Ours was Devin. There was another team as part of this Light; Brent was their leader. They finished an hour before we did, which means we had an hour more fun than they did.

The Light was scheduled to begin at 7:00 a.m., but when the sons and I were dropped off at 6:30, there was already a large number of people there. The starting point was the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and not all the people there were going to take part in the Light. With the sun rising behind the Washington Monument at the far end of the Reflecting Pool, the Lincoln Memorial is quite popular with photography buffs. I know I would have had my camera out if I'd had one with me. I didn't, though, because a GORUCK event generally involves getting wet in some way. I also didn't expect to have the opportunity to stop or slow down and do any shooting.

There were 60 of us there for the Light. Some had done other GORUCK events and knew what to expect. The newbies among us had learned a few things from what other people had posted on the web and from the two Facebook groups associated with the DC Light, only one of which could be viewed by the cadre who would be running the event. We started by lining up in four ranks. Roll was checked, and the cadre walked among us checking thatwe  each had the required number of bricks in our pack--two for someone weighing less than 150 pounds and four for someone weighing over 150. After we put the packs back on, we were told that they could not touch the ground until the Light was over. If we were supposed to be lying on our backs, we had to move the packs to our fronts. Someone else could carry our pack if the need arose, but under no circumstances were we to let one touch the ground.

Most GORUCK events start with something called the Welcome Party, which some people find more welcoming than others. We started with pushups with, yes, brick-loaded packs on our backs. Then we bear crawled from the mid-level terrace we'd been on, up the steps to the top level of the Lincoln Memorial. We had to coordinate this, each row moving as a unit, not leaving anyone behind. With 15 people in each row, this wasn't easy. When we'd all reached the top level, each rank turned around and began to crab walk down. I was doing this with the sons, though I was not in the same rank as they were at this point. Older son and I had been training for the Light with the SEAL Team Physical Training program, and we do a lot of bear crawling and crab walking. We talked later about how relatively easy this part was for us, and how looking down our respective rows and seeing many people sitting down gave us some confidence that we were going to do okay at this.

Once we'd crab walked from the top of the Memorial down to the edge of the Reflecting Pool, we did some leg raises and flutter kicks while lying on our backs wearing our packs on our fronts. Again, this was something I was fairly used to except for wearing a pack while doing it. We were then told to arrange ourselves into two equally sized teams. Someone yelled out that the logical way to do that was for the first two ranks to be one team and the second two to be the other. I was determined that I would do this with the sons, so I jumped ship to their team, which was perfect because we ended up with Devin as our cadre. He's finishing up a master's in international security at Georgetown, and the Facebook group had discussed getting him something Georgetowny as a gag present. I bought a stuffed bulldog and replaced the torso stuffing with 15 pounds of lead shot. This made the bulldog count as the 15-pound weight that each team was required to have along with an American flag. I naturally made sure that Devin's team ended up with the bulldog while the other team carried a 15-pound chain.

Because one person on our team had misplaced their ID somewhere on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the other team left well before we did. I have no idea if they did the same thing we did, though we did cross paths with them once during the day. The cadre are all Special Forces veterans, and what the team does is designed like a mission. The cadre appoints a team leader and assistant team leader from the team members, gives them the mission, and then watches how the team carries it out. Our first mission was to get to a certain location; our leadership was chosen from people who claimed to live in DC and know their way around. We moved in buddy pairs, trying to stay about an arm's length behind the pair in front. We also moved in Indian run fashion. The person at the front right carried our American flag. The person at the front left carried the bulldog. As the group moved along, the back two people would move faster around to the front and take over flag and bulldog duties. When they were in position, the new pair at the back would start up.

While the pace we were going at felt like jogging to me, the sons assure me that it was really nothing more than a fast walk. I am not always good at walking fast because I am not always good at lifting my feet up very far. Sure enough, there was a crack in the sidewalk with the far edge jutting up about half an inch above the near one. My toe caught it and despite my best efforts to catch myself or to execute the front fall I know from karate, it didn't work. The weight of the pack on my back made the fall happen super-fast and also pushed my head forward so that the top right corner of my face cracked into the cobblestone sidewalk. I must say that it actually made a nice thwacking sound. Immediately, there was another team member beside me saying that she was an EMT. Cadre Devin was there, too. They told me to roll over onto my back. I refused to, saying that my pack would touch the ground. They took my pack off and handed it off to another team member. The sons appeared and explained who they were and their concern. After I rolled over, the EMT asked me what day it was, exactly the question I'd been expecting and one which I nailed. They eventually let me sit up. They asked me--again--how I felt, and I answered that I felt more embarrassed than anything else. Devin told me that someone usually stumbled, and I had just gotten it out of the way early on. I assured them that I had never lost consciousness and felt fine except for the pain where my head had hit. The waiver one signs for these events includes a clause under which you agree that if the cadre tells you that you cannot continue, you will willingly stop. Fortunately, Devin allowed me to keep going after I guaranteed that I would inform him of any dizziness, blurred vision, whatever, that might indicate some sort of concussion. Someone was given my pack to carry, and my buddy was supposed to keep an extra eye on how I was doing.

It was clear at one point that we weren't moving as quickly as Devin would have liked. He stopped us and told us that since we weren't moving fast enough, he was going to give us more weight to carry. He pulled some empty sandbags from his pack and instructed some team members to run over to a beach volleyball court and fill them with sand. We then had to carry those with us, passing them from team member to member to share the weight. At another point, we let too large of a gap develop between two buddy pairs. We were told that we had suffered two casualties as a result meaning that two bodies had to be carried. This was after I'd fallen, so I didn't have a pack on. A team member (nick)named Bear flung me over his shoulder as if I were a rag doll. Another team member buddy-carried a third team member, and we continued on our way until we were told that the bodies/buddies could be put down.

We arrived at our first destination, one we'd been expecting that we would visit at some point. This was the bottom of the Georgetown staircase made famous by the movie The Exorcist, the staircase down which the priest is thrown. During a short break, which included a chance to use a restroom (there was no mirror so I couldn't see just how bad my head looked), I asked if I could have my pack back. Since it was equipped with a water bladder, I needed it if I wanted to be able to stay hydrated. If I'd thought about it, I might have waited to ask because our next mission was to get all 29 team members up the steps and past cadre Devin within 50 seconds. Someone on the team suggested that the slower people go first, and I specifically asked if I could be in that group. The stairs are in three different sections, and I didn't really feel the pain until the third one. Fortunately, I managed to pick my feet up enough that I didn't do another face plant. Even more fortunately, we all made it up with about a second to spare meaning that we didn't have to go back down and try a second time.

We got new leaders at this point and a new mission, to head to Roosevelt Island. This involved crossing several bridges, one of which we were told was under fire meaning that we had to bear crawl across it, staying below the level of the concrete sides. When we got to the Teddy Roosevelt statue on the island, we were told that the next part of the mission was to retrieve the fuselage of a downed aircraft and move it to a landing zone from which it could be extracted by a helicopter. Our route to the downed fuselage involved a footbridge which we were told we could not use. This meant that, as we had expected, we would be getting wet going through the water instead. Wet and cold. And muddy. I think this was where I most appreciated my teammates. I am not one of those people who can just jump into water no matter the temperature. I'm the one sitting on the side getting my legs wet, then sitting on one of the steps at the shallow end, then walking very slowly out, splashing water higher and higher on my abdomen until finally, when I can put it off no longer, I go all the way in. Mustering every bit of courage I could, I walked into the water up to my ankles, then knees, then thighs. And then the muddy bottom got very suctiony, and I started to slip. The man ahead of me grabbed my hand and held me up. He didn't let go as we went on. At one point, I was afraid I was going to lose at least one shoe to the mud; I could not pull either foot out easily. The person behind me took my other arm, and between the three of us--not to mention other team members offering verbal encouragement--I made it to the other side and up onto dry land.

Once everyone was across, we were shown a rather large log and told it was the fuselage. The path was at this point about three feet above the level of the ground. We were told that we had to lift the fuselage onto the path and then carry it down the path back past the statue we'd started from. Fortunately, we could use the bridge on the way back. The men among us managed to get the log up onto the path without much trouble. Trying to carry it back offered what may have been our biggest teamwork challenge. Several team members had rowed crew and offered guidance in terms of the best way for a group to pick up a very long object. While we tried to put the taller people at the back and the shorter ones at the front, some people ended up with more weight than others. Also, the front of the log was forked, meaning that it was much wider than the rear. This caused problems whenever we had to curve. Finally, we weren't the only people using the path. We had to step aside for runners and dog walkers and anyone else who thought it was a good day to get some fresh air. At one point it came up that not everyone knew exactly what the mission was; pushups were offered as encouragement to stay better informed in the future. Eventually, though, we did manage to get the fuselage to the landing zone, accomplishing that part of the mission.

We then had to cover two miles in 30 minutes, something we didn't do too well at. After multiple times of people calling from the back of the line for the group to slow down, the slower members were put at the front and told to set the pace. At times I had trouble keeping up the pace while wearing my pack, and each time another team member took it from me. Those who know me well know that I don't like asking for help, but I did here.

At one point, we stopped at the World War II Memorial, a place I'd never visited. One of the members was doing the Light as a tribute to a friend who had served in the military and who had died last fall. He gave offered tribute to his friend as we stood in the middle of the memorial. It was quite moving. At some point I'd like to go back and explore the memorial in more detail. There was much more there than we could take in in the little time we had.

When we ended up back at the side of the Lincoln Memorial, we were given the choice of heading up the Mall to the Capitol or over to the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin. The Capitol won, so we headed down the Mall. At one point we slowed enough that cadre Devin informed us that half the team had been killed. This meant buddy carries with the odd person (we were a team of 29) carrying the flag. We did make it to the Capitol end of the Mall, where we posed for a somewhat formal group shot as opposed to all the photos that were snapped of us as we'd moved down the Mall. After an extended rest that included a group availing themselves of the Smithsonian's facilities, we headed back to 14th Street, where we made a right turn to be able to finish at the White House. We did, with the last distance being done as buddy carries again. Cadre Devin congratulated everyone and distributed the patches of the type shown above. He noted that while we had done a GORUCK Light, we had not done a GORUCK Easy. He said that he thought everyone on the team had what it takes to complete a GORUCK Challenge, which is good because that's what the sons and I are trying in May.

Cadre Devin also asked everyone not to dispose of their duct-tape-wrapped bricks in public trash cans around DC, noting that GORUCK would like to maintain good relations with the DC Police. And the DC Police do know whenever there's a GORUCK event. After the group split, many to go for lunch and beer with cadre Devin, the sons and I headed to a Metro station. We walked past a police car only to then hear over its loudspeaker, "Congratulations! We know you did a fine job out there today." That was a nice way to have it all end.

Some random thoughts after a couple days of incubation. The Light may well have been the hardest thing I've done when both the physical and mental aspects are considered. (I have to get the mental side in there, because twelve hours of labor is nothing to sneer at physically.) I feel a real sense of pride that I was able to do it. On a couple of occasions during breaks, male team members told me that when they saw me fall, they were convinced I'd end up stopping or being stopped. They congratulated me on keeping at it and not giving up. That made me feel good. While I saw some people drinking beer from cans during the course of the morning, there was apparently more alcohol consumption going on that I was aware of. No one offered me any, which was good because even one beer would likely have put me under. Finally, when one is wet and cold, merely putting on a dry windbreaker does wonders. It also helps to be wearing wicking fabric that dries quickly, something I appreciate much more now.

Finally, I am aware that this post has but one photo. Our team was actually accompanied by a GORUCK photographer who took over 900 photos, including more than several of my forehead. I expect that some of those will go up on the web, but it may take some time to select which ones. When that happens, I'll add a link from this post to the photos, so you can see some of the fun we had. And, yes, it was fun despite being a bitch in terms of the effort required. The sense of accomplishment I feel comes with a very real appreciation for the teamwork involved. I know that I could not have done what I did Saturday without the help of others. I only hope I was as much of a help to some of them as others were to me.

Breaking news: Photos from the event, including some close-ups of yours truly, can be seen here.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic!! You are strong, you are tough. I don't think even the most extreme orienteering course I've done was as physical as this was for you. Keep up the training and be sure to tell us about the Full challenge when the time comes.


Terri said...

Janet said it beautifully. You are a tough and strong woman, Jean! There is no way I would be able to do this!
Terri xx

Megan R. said...

Great story Jean! I hadn't appreciated all the challenges until I read about them here. Congratulations on a patch well-earned and much deserved. ~Megan

Debi said...

"They finished an hour before we did, which means we had an hour more fun than they did."<---This encompasses your awesome attitude and spirit as well as anything could. You, Jean, are beyond awesome! Congratulations!

Va said...

"Grandma" VA knew you could do it, falling down just added another layer of difficulty that no one else overcame. Always have loved you for your spirit!

Christian D said...

WTG Jean!

Mo said...

You are indeed tough and strong and probably the most interesting person I have had the privilege of knowing. WTG Jean.