Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What the Ruck?


In 2014, I was looking for a way to supplement my CrossFit training.  I wasn’t a big fan of yoga, Bikram, hot, or otherwise.  Pilates just seemed too … bendy … for me.  And I’ve never been, nor will I ever be, a runner.  So …. what to do?

My box owner, at the time an Army Reservist, was throwing around the idea of doing the Bataan Memorial Death March.

I’d heard about the Memorial March before (a former co-worker’s aunt used to work at White Sands Missile Range and talked about this event often).  And while I’m not the best World History student, I knew the significance of the March itself, and in turn, the significance of the Memorial March. 

So yeah, Coach Mike, I’ll sign up and take myself out of my comfort zone!  Now tell me, what is this “Rucking” thing that you speak of?

It’s origin, I believe, a form of exercise and endurance-building for our troops.  Simply put, it’s walking with weight in your back pack (or … rucksack).  And when done properly, walking a bit faster than your usual saunter.  Walking … with purpose. 

Coach Mike sat down with those souls brave enough to consider rucking a full marathon in the New Mexico dessert.  He talked of training plans.  And race divisions.  Now, as I said, I’m not a runner, but there are divisions?  

To carry weight or not carry weight.  That was the real question.   To enter into the Civilian Heavy division, one must carry a minimum of 35 pounds (dry weight), plus food, water, and any clothing you might remove along the way.  As for me, I chose Civilian Light – carrying only my food, water, and additional clothing.

And then there was a matter of the gear.

Shoes (or boots) and socks and sock liners and pants and shirts (long-sleeved, short-sleeved, lined or un-lined, but always moisture-wicking and never cotton) and jackets and hats and gaiters (both for the neck and for the feet) and gloves and backpacks or rucksacks and water bottles or water bladders. 

I thought my head would explode.

And post haste, I headed to REI to gear up and prepare for one of the toughest things I’d ever done in my life.

The last Wednesday of the year 2014, we began our train-up for the 2015 Bataan Memorial Death March.

Our team of nine spent two days a week rucking throughout San Antonio, increasing the mileage (and the time on our feet) as we went.  Not only gaining ground but gaining friendships.  You learn a lot about a person when you’re walking trails for hours on end.

Wednesdays were for the shorter rucks – anywhere from 6-8 miles.  But Saturdays … Saturdays … is where the rubber met the road, where the proof was in the pudding, where you found out the strength of your own mental fortitude, and where your feet grew to hate you.  Longer rucks that increased by a couple of miles each week.

Not yet retired, Wednesdays meant setting an alarm for 4:00 a.m., gearing up, downing some kind of protein, and facing the somewhat bitter cold, rucking in the dark and being treated to some of the most beautiful sunrises.  Then rushing home to shower and get to work, adjusting my work schedule and maybe working a little late that day or other days during the week in order to get my 40.

Saturdays were meant for rucking and rucking only.  Because after you put 12 or more miles on your feet, you really wanted to do little else.  It was that year that my husband served as my support system.  My Prince Charming had a jacuzzi bath ready for me to step into when I came home Saturday afternoons.  This was followed by an ice bath for my aching feet.  And he knew there would be no other activity for Sharon on those days except for maybe a nap.

In the early days of training, you found out whether your gear would work and then you adjusted accordingly.  The shoes that I thought fit like a glove worked well for me until we were about a month into our 3-month training cycle.  Then, inexplicably, there were blisters on my feet where there had not been blisters before.  And there was another decision to be made:  suck it up like a buttercup or get a new pair of shoes (and pray I can break them in in time)? 

Armed with a new pair of boots (damn!  This whole ‘getting outside of my comfort zone’ is getting to be expensive!), I soldiered on.

And then I had to buy a new belt!  I said it was getting expensive, right? 

As it turns out, when you’re rucking, you tend to lose a few inches here and there.  But hey!  You’re also perking up the ol’ gluteus maximus.  And who doesn’t love a perky butt?

“The Nine” made their way to White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.  Along with thousands of others. 



And some very special guests.  Now in their 80’s, men who survived the Bataan Memorial Death March.  All of our training, our ruck that day, to honor them.

While Coach Mike had done this event several times before and had tried to prepare us throughout the many hours of training, I don’t think anything ever really prepares you for it.  For the physical aspect of it, or the emotional side of it.  When it hits you in the gut and in the heart. 

And you realize … this is NOTHING compared to what those brave men who fought to defend the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor went through. 

And maybe in some small way, this shows those men that we will never forget.  The horrors they experienced.  And the sacrifice of those who gave everything.

While Keith binge-watched “The Walking Dead” as he waited for us at the finish line, “The Nine” of us bundled up like Randy (that’s “A Christmas Story” reference, Ana) and made our way to the Start Line.  As the sun came up over the mountains, we embarked on the 26.2 mile journey.

Along dusty tank trails. 

And the “long hill”. 



Volunteers cheering us along the way and there to provide cookies and Gatorade (grape Gatorade is the best when your throat is full of trail dust – don’t let anyone tell you differently!)

And there were wardrobe changes.  Fleece jackets came off by the time we hit the 2-mile mark.  And at mile 8, a change of hats and shirts (from long-sleeve to short).  A fresh pair of socks, along with fresh moleskin.  And pants zipped off into shorts.  It was a beautiful day for a ruck!

The best burgers and hot dogs at the mid-way point.

The sun, beating down, and for me and my pale skin, leaving an oddly-shaped sunburn on the backside of my legs, clearly identifying the distance between my shorts and my hiking boots.

And the sand pit.  One mile of soft, squishy stuff to trudge through when you’ve already been on the trail for seven hours and have a few more to go.  The finish line (or at least the military base) visible in the distance. 

And then there is “the wall that never ends.  It just goes on and on my friend.” You know that 26-mile marker just has to be around the next corner, but nope!  Just more … wall. 

And the finish line. 

And there were smiles.  And fist bumps.  And hugs.

We survived the 2015 Memorial March, crossing the finish line in just over 10 hours. 

I just finished a marathon.  The toughest thing I had ever done.  

And there was pizza!  Because … you know … 26.2 miles!

And it was worth every dime, every minute, and every sore muscle in my body.  To honor the Battling Bastards of Bataan.

The race but a memory, some seven months later, Coach Mike, in his infinite wisdom, decided it might be fun to do this thing called a GoRuck Tough.  We had sporadically done some rucking after finishing Bataan, so why not give it a try?  I mean … we’d already completed something that is categorized as one of the toughest races in the US, maybe even on earth.

We trained little.  I upped the number of days I got to the gym.  We did a little rucking.  And in all honesty, I had no earthly idea what I was getting into.

It was 9:00 p.m. on that fateful night in October 2015 when six of “The Nine” set off in search of an elusive patch.  Wait.  A patch?  We’re doing this for … a patch?????

Well okay then!

In 12 hours, with weight on our backs (20 pounds for me), we traversed the city, some parts I don’t think were really safe to be traversing at say … 3:00 a.m..  We did military-style (probably military-light-style) PT (with the rucks on our back).  We carried heavy stuff.  We did more PT.  We carried each other.  More PT.  We were put in the San Antonio River and made to traverse it.  Twice!  (or was it three times?  I seem to have blocked out the memory.)  The foul-smelling water up to my armpits, the hope I wouldn’t trip over a dead body or something.  And there was more PT.  And we had time hacks to meet – places to be and heavy things to carry.  Didn’t make a time-hack?  More PT!!!

And in the end, we finished.  Around 14 miles in 12 hours.  With lots of work in between.  And bumps and lumps and bruises.  Literally – from head to toe.  And muscle fatigue.  And we smelled like … well … worse than sewer rats.  Not that I really know what a sewer rat smells like, but … Yeah.  That’s a good time!  Patch me!

 

And now, I had finished the toughest thing I’d ever done.

The next year, Keith decided that he would like to memorialize the Battling Bastards of Bataan and joined us.  And I decided to push my limits even more.  Unlike the first year, when I entered the Civilian Light division, I registered in the Civilian Heavy division.

A new backpack was chosen.  One that would handle the 35 pound weight requirement.  35 pounds dry.  Keith opted for the Civilian Light division.

It was during packet pickup that I found my “why”.  Why would I do such a crazy thing as to ruck 26.2 miles in the dessert of New Mexico with lots of weight on my back?  Because Paul Kerchum.  That’s why.

Survivor Paul Kerchum sat by himself when we went through packet pickup.  I asked him to sign my certificate, which he gladly did.  And when I asked if I could get a picture with him, this spry old man at the age of 86, got a gleam in his eye, and a smile across his lips.  With arms outstretched, he says to me, “The ladies are always welcome!” and he motions to me to come sit beside him.  

“Go get it, girl!” my husband exclaimed.  And as I sat down next to Mr. Kerchum, he pulled me close and leaned his head next to mine.  Bright smiles across both of our faces.  This is why we march.

Paul Kerchum
If I thought the year before was challenging, this year’s event was twice that.

For various reasons (the likes of which I’ll not delve into), I was emotionally taxed.  That added so much more “weight” to my pack and I dare say, I questioned not only my ability, but my sanity.  On more than one occasion.  My teammates urged me to continue on.

Around mile 18, the stack of rice bags I was carrying shifted.  Making the uncomfortable, practically unbearable.  Through tears (I said I was emotionally-taxed, right?), I re-packed my bag and we headed onwards. 

The volunteers with cookies, my favorite.  The guy with the cowbell (who doesn’t need MORE COWBELL?), cheering us on at each turn where he was allowed on the course.




And then there was Ian.  Ian who we passed on the course several times that day (and who alternately passed us).  Ian, who had lost both his legs, yet he was on the course.  The 26.2 mile course.  And wearing a smile.  Every time we passed each other.  Ian, who was overheard asking as he neared the finish line, if he was the last amputee on the course because, he said, when he was done, he would go back and finish with them!  



I have not one complaint.  And I found the strength to carry on.

Keith and I crossed the finish line hand in hand at just over 11 hours.  Never wanting to see another grain of rice, I quickly emptied my pack, donating my cargo to the local food pantry.

Mr. Kerchum, this one was for you!

As 2016 drew to a close, it was time once again to gear up and train up for the Bataan Memorial Death March. 

I coveted a pair of hiking boots worn by one of my teammates (yes … you read that right … I was digging on a pair of hiking boots!).  And decided I must have a pair of the moon-boots with the super-cushy-looking-sole.  The only color in stock?  Pink.  Probably my least favorite color.  But I.  Wanted.  These.  Boots.



The boots of my dreams turned into a nightmare.  My blisters had blisters.  And there were hotspots galore.  Prepping my feet before a ruck became a monumental task what with iodine-like tincture and tape and moleskin and sock liners.  I wanted to love these boots!  I really did!  But my feet were not loving them.  At.  All.  And still I soldiered on.

Keith and I, this time with 21 others on the team, made our most recent trek to White Sands in 2017. 

At packet pickup, I searched for my friend, Paul Kerchum.  He held a special place in my heart, even though I’m quite sure he wouldn’t remember me (because … you know … he’s like 87 now).  But he wasn’t there.  As we headed to the missile range in the wee hours of the morning of race day, one of my teammates said she thought he was among those survivors who we lost since the last Memorial March.

My heart saddened, I once again marched for him.

Keith and I entered the Civilian Light division this time and boy are we glad we did!

While temps in the New Mexico mountains reached an incredibly comfortable mid-70’s in the previous years, 2017 proved to be the hottest on record for the event – 91 degrees (and 101 on the asphalt).


Between miles 8 and 14, including the climb up “the long hill”, I found it necessary to stop about every 100 yards and catch my breath.  My heart beating out of my chest.  My face red.  I did not think I would make it.  I didn’t see how I could.  Other marchers stopped to ask if I was okay, prepared to call a medic should I need to be evac’d out.  “No”, I said, “I’ll be okay.”  

At the mid-way point, where I was so looking forward to a hot dog, there were none left.  A hamburger patty was all they had.  I’ll take it.  Along with a coke.  Maybe sugar would perk me up!  Oh!  But they were out of cokes!  Gatorade it is.  And a couple of puffs of one of my teammates’ inhaler – because I had forgotten my own.

As we set out for the second half of the race, the medi-vac choppers landed near and far, taking heat-exhausted participants off the course.

At the sand pits, Keith fell fate to the same ill effects I suffered earlier in the day.  “Go on.  Finish.” he said, “I’ll be okay.”  I’ve never known my husband not to finish something he sets out to do.  So I trusted his word.  And on I went.

Of course, as I walked behind someone who had comms and was listening to transmissions from the base, I heard them call for a medi-vac at the entrance into the sand pit.  I worried they were calling for Keith.

And I went on.  Alone.  Our team scattered throughout the course.

I miraculously crossed the finish line just shy of 10 hours, breaking my time of 10:03, set in 2015.  Keith came across 20 minutes later as I finished my much-desired coke.

This one’s for you, Mr. Kerchum.

The experience of that heat-exhausting day left us with pause about doing the Bataan Memorial Death March again.

In 2018, as many of our past teammates headed to White Sands, we were busy enjoying wine and fresh pasta in southern Italy.  As I live-streamed the opening ceremony for the Memorial March, I tried to send good vibes to my friends who were there that day. 

When they called roll of the survivors that were in attendance, they called “Paul Kerchum” and in response, a hearty “Here!”.  My eyes filled with tears.  For he had not passed.  And he was attending (though not marching) the Memorial March.

Santa Ruck Grinch Light
After almost two years without rucking, I decided to throw a pack on my back just last month.  Doing a charity ruck in which we collected toys for a local children’s hospital, did some rucking and played reindeer games.  It was FUN!  And it reminded me why I like rucking.

While I’m all for having fun, I’ve come to accept I’m just not cut out for a GoRuck Tough (or anything even remotely more strenuous).  And I’m okay with that.  I really am. 

Will Keith and I do Bataan again?  I’m not sure. 

But when GoRuck proposed a New Year’s Resolution for me (okay – me and the entire GoRuck community), I knew it was time to knock the trail dust off my pink boots!   

The challenge:  grab a friend (or several) and ruck 50 miles within the first 15 days of 2019.



Perhaps it took all those miles, but my pink boots now fit like a glove.  Like a squishy, cloud-like glove.  I.  Love.  My.  Boots.

And what does one get when they finish their 50 miles?  A patch. 

A well-earned and coveted patch.  What the … ?