"How many of you have not done a GORUCK event? Holy shit! This is gonna' be fun. You nerds didn't even think of trying a Light first, before doing this?"
Walking to the start point from Detroit Tough gave us hope that rain was done. The forecast earlier in the week had been calling for rain all night. It wasn't predicted to be too cold. 40º is freezing when you're wet though. The rain had come and gone, there was even a bit of sun passing through the clouds. Our flags were rippling in the wind as we approached another seventy people waiting in Hart Plaza.
Handshakes, hugs, smiles.
"You ready for this?"
"This is gonna' be fun."
"I'm scared shitless."
Soon the voices of the Cadre filled the main auditorium. TL's (team leaders) being called up, rank and file being established on the curved stone tiers, flags up front. Chaos. We didn't know who we were standing next to. We were eighty eight in all. We quickly found ourselves with our chests on the deck, feet elevated, fingers overlapping with someone you've never seen in your life. We were rubbing elbows. I couldn't be more literal.
"DOWN! UP!" "ONE!"
"DOWN! UP!" "TWO!"
"DOWN! UP!" "THREE"
And so on.
After every evolution, an honorary, additional three movements.
"One for Sgt. Wright!" "ONE FOR SGT. WRIGHT!"
"One for Sgt. Higgins!" "ONE FOR SGT. HIGGINS!"
"One for SSgt. Antonik!" "ONE FOR SSGT. ANTONIK!"
Three men that made the ultimate sacrifice for their brothers-in-arms.
My heart started to waiver a little. Where was my team? Where was my family? Where was the group I came with? Fuck. Months and months of waiting for this and I'm not going to be able to experience this with ones I love?
"Roger! Where's Dyjak?! Get your people together. Get them down here in this team now. Get it done."
Soon I was standing shoulder to shoulder with those I came with. Those that I've sweat with. Bled with. That I will sweat and bleed with again. This was going to be difficult. I knew that any sort of nepotism would require reciprocation. It didn't matter. There wasn't a possibility of quitting while with these people. Not while with family.
"These are yours to lose."
Team One policed up the auditorium quickly, got into formation and moved out. We descended the steps of Hart Plaza to the River Walk and headed east. Just beyond the Renaissance Center, Cadre Bert stopped us. We rolled up our flags. We set down our team weights. My heart rate started to increase.
It was time for the Welcoming Party.
Cadre set his ruck down, opened it up and I could hear the crackling of thin plastic. He stood on one end of our two columns, something in his hand.
"In the Army, when this is done, you receive the award with your left hand and shake with your right."
Black rectangles. Grey arrowheads and the words "GORUCK TOUGH." These were our patches.
Patch in my left hand, my right hand shaking Cadre's. It was an agreement. Looking Cadre in the eye and silently proclaiming, "This is in my care. This will not be returned to you. This will be earned. This will be mine."
"I've never done this before. This has never been done before. These are for you to lose. If you want to quit, you tell your TL. You tell me. Then you have to tell everyone on this team why you're quitting. Keep these safe and easily accessible. Get ready to move."
We were administered a basic Army PT Test. Max push-ups and sit-ups, two minutes each. A measure of where you are and what you need to fix. You knew you were going to be tested, this was just an indicator. Get your shit dialed-in.
"TL, you have five minutes for everyone on your team to learn everyone's names."
The Name Game.
TL Tracy came by and blinded us with her headlamp. Each of us. That way we could see one another. Five minutes moved quickly. Time to work. Font-leaning rest position until two teammates can name every member of the team back to back.
First round: fail. Push-ups. On the way down, "One team!" On the way up, "One fight!"
"Two more minutes, TL." This time we stood in two columns with our names in alphabetical order. We chanted each of our names as each of our faces was illuminated by Tracy's light. Time's up.
Front-leaning rest position.
Second round: Fail. Push-ups.
"One team! One fight!"
"Two more minutes, TL." More chanting.
Front-leaning rest position.
Third round: Fail. Rucks on bellies. Flutter-kicks.
"Two more minutes, TL." More chanting.
Front-leaning rest position.
Fourth round: pass.
Just in time for the rotation. We got to our feet and before we left...
"Get your patches out. You've got twenty seconds... Twenty, nineteen, eighteen..."
I dropped my ruck on my boots, quickly grabbed the zipper-pulls, opened up the top and opened the inside, top pocket. Pulled out my black rectangle with hook-and-loop on the back. It was briefly illuminated by a flashlight as Stef looked through her ruck next to me. Another black rectangle. I quickly put my patch back in my ruck in the top pocket. Its home. For now.
We headed over to visit Cadre Andy and his hill.
Cadre Andy's unit had been ambushed in Afghanistan. First and last humvee disabled. Bullets careening down. He and his men had to scale the side of a mountain to get into the fight. When he saw that pretty little hill on Atwater street, he claimed it.
So did we.
Two columns. Bear-crawl up the hill. Move as a team. Watch your line. Crab-walk down. Move as a team. Watch your line.
Two columns. Death-crawl up the hill. "HANDS FORWARD! FEET FORWARD! CHECK YOUR LINE! HANDS FORWARD! FEET FORWARD!" It's difficult to yell when you can't breathe. Bear-crawl down. Move as a team. Watch your line.
Eat shit if you're not smart like the second column. They figured out crawling backward was the smart way.
Two columns. Get your teammate. Wheelbarrow up the hill. Those rucks are heavy, aren't they? Move as a team. Watch your line. Get to the top. Run down. Time to switch. Back up the hill.
Move as a team. Watch your line.
Staying hydrated was key. There is no room for error when it comes to maintaining water. At the top of the hill, I noticed my bite valve for my bladder was missing.
"Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. TL, I lost my bite valve on the hill. I need to find it."
This is what happens when you face-plant while playing wheelbarrow. Softball Dan and I got the go-ahead from Cadre Andy and scoured the hillside for a green and tan bite valve amongst green and tan ground cover. Thankfully, it was located. We hustled back to the top of the hill to commence log PT. We got to play with the Miserable Bitch. When our evolution ended, we met with Cadre Jason.
Hustle down the hill. Form on the sidewalk. Hustle down the sidewalk. 360º defense position.
In the distance, another team popped their heads up from the ground and quickly moved to the fence line opposite us, also falling into a 360º defense position. Seeing family immersed in goose shit, dirt and determination was a welcomed sight. A smile. A wink. A laugh. A cat burglar.
Cadre Jason now had us shuffling down the sidewalk. Don't lose your spacing. If you do, you pay. Stop at the light. Set the team weights. Neatly. Roll up the flags. Neatly. Do NOT let them touch the ground. Put your heels against the wall. Do NOT sit on the wall. Do NOT put your hands on the railing. We were about to become intimate with that wall.
Feet elevated. Rucks on. Front-leaning rest position. Two minutes. Go.
If your chest touches the ground for more than two seconds, team starts over. Do it over, and over, and over until you get it right. "The last team was up here the full forty minutes doing this."
A minute in. "CHESTS ON THE DECK!" Starting over. Thirty seconds in. "CHESTS ON THE DECK!" Starting over. Forty-five seconds in. "CHESTS ON THE DECK!" Starting over. A minute and a half. "One-thousand..." A minute forty. "One-thousand... Two-thousand. CHESTS ON THE DECK! Start over. Fifteen seconds. Get ready. Begin. Get those feet up. One-thousand... One-thousand... On your feet! That wasn't fast enough. Back down. On your feet! Not fast enough. Back down. Fall in on the flags. Quickly. Team weights up front."
We weren't quick enough. There was too much deliberation. Time for some up-downs.
Twenty quickly turned into thirty-five. Thirty-five came and went. We stood there, waiting for instruction from Cadre.
"What? You're gonna' forget about my boys? You're gonna' forget about those three men?"
"ONE FOR SGT. WRIGHT!"
"ONE FOR SGT. HIGGINS!"
"ONE FOR SSGT. ANTONIK!"
We were ready to move. Or so we thought.
This time, the hustle was fast. I'm no runner. In fact, it was what I feared most. I'm a big guy and I can't run well. Add a forty pound ruck and a full, five-gallon water jug... A jog is about as much as I've got. We lost our spacing. Fuck.
"Rucks off. No straps. Duck walk. Asses below the crease of your knees. You don't want to do it right? Fine." You do it right or you pay.
We eventually made our way through an opening in the chain-link fence that I had been looking through nearly an hour before.
"How far do you think that hill is? Quarter mile? Does anyone know about the Raid of Cabantuan? The 6th Ranger Battalion, Company C, First and Second Platoon low-crawled for a mile, with equipment, to rescue POWs. Your hips and your chests better not come off the ground."
The cold, wet ground felt refreshing. I could feel the moisture seeping through my clothes, cooling my skin. I could smell the goose shit smearing on my shirt. We kept our line spaced and even. We were then introduced to a railroad tie. A railroad tie we were to bring with us. We crawled a few meters, Dallas, Rick, Sheila and myself pushing a water jug along the field. A change-out was needed on the tie. I made my way as quickly and closely to the ground as I could, grating the ground behind the group. I grabbed Jim's foot to get his attention so he could slide out of the way and get a break.
Jim is one hard motherfucker. Jim is an inspiration. Jim got in front of the entire GRC 991 class, Cadre, shadows, observers and shared with us that he was there in memory of his wife. She battled cancer 'til her death. Jim is 65 years old. He was there with his son Brent, a nephew named Jason and a good friend, Brandon. Brent is one of three siblings. The one Jim always signs up for events. Soon, Jim will be embarking on the El Camino De Santiago. A FIVE HUNDRED MILE pilgrimage in Spain. When was the last time you even THOUGHT of doing something that profound? Get your fucking mind right.
Jim reminded me a lot of my brother that died nearly three years ago. He was also an adventurer. Perhaps not in the same sense, but still the kinda' guy that loved experiencing life. A "cowboy," as he had once told me. My brother always held those who have and had served this country in the highest regard. I thought about him a lot during the challenge. One of the memories I had to work through. A demon that has been chasing me. He helped me out and I turned my back on him. He never saw my first assignment run on the Detroit Free Press website or in print. He died the day I sent him the link. I think he'd be proud of me for dragging my body across this ground, alongside Jim. He would've liked Jim.
"One. Two. Three. Flip!" We flipped the tie over and over. Cadre Jason called us up on our feet. Our bodies covered in mud, grass, shit. We hoisted that tie on our shoulders, carried it off the field and met again with Cadre Bert.
"Everyone has a plan until they've been hit."
"That team better not catch up with you. You better move that tie. If they catch up, you'll pay for it." We shuffled west on Atwater. North on Beaubien. West on Jefferson.
Bad choice on which side of the street you were on, Team Two. The lights were in our favor. We set the tie down on the small square island at the center of Jefferson and Woodward. Joe Louis' fist looming above.
It was trivia time.
We quickly found that Cadre Bert knew more about Joe Louis and our fair city than we did. Our push-ups were adding up with each incorrect answer. We started to shiver from the breeze as we refitted with water. The same breeze gently interrupting the Motown coming from Cadre's phone. He stood opposite The Fist listening to "Papa Was a Rolling Stone."
My ruck had been restored to full weight with a water refit. I had gotten complacent with its weight and was quickly reminded that if you want something, you need to earn it. Even water.
We hoisted the tie again, this time with a new time-hack. Eighty minutes to reach Belle Isle from the heart of Detroit. Megan volunteered to be our new TL.
I was sitting in Ian's living room with he and Megan a few weeks ago. They were listening. I was venting and spouting off about the divorce I'm currently going through. About my concern with somewhere to live. About my gratitude for having a place to stay temporarily. About big things. About little things.
Ian has been crucial in my navigation of this difficult part of my life. Without his guidance, it's likely I would've made hasty, big decisions by this time. I immediately felt like shit upon realization of his problems in contrast to mine. It brought me back to reality. I'm not the only one with problems. It's not about me. It's not about the pain that I'm in. It's about the pain I can remove from my teammate. It's about the person to my left, right, front, back. The person whom I directly effect by my action or inaction.
I slipped my shemagh under the tie to blunt the pressure a bit. We hustled up to Jefferson and Fisher, taking a short break for the ladies to find a restroom in the Speedway. It was 0330, according to the telltale Blue-Cross Blue-Shield sign, painting the sky blue and gold.
Hydrate. Snack. Breathe. Elevate feet. Piss.
Hoist that tie. Pick up those team weights.
"TL, I don't think we're gonna' make this time-hack at this pace. I think we may need to hustle a bit more."
What's this? A 7Eleven?! When did they return to Detroit? Last I checked, there wasn't a single 7Eleven within Detroit city limits. I know I'm a bit smoked but, c'mon. I'm not hallucinating... Am I? Derek, did you seriously buy a Slurpee? Rick? You got one too? Brilliant. Team Slurpee. It was the greatest tasting Slurpee. Ever.
The tie back on our shoulders, we shuffled down the sidewalk, cars slowly driving by. Passengers hanging out of the windows with their cell phones.
"Hole on the left!" "Watch the left!" "Fire hydrant!" "Watch the middle!" Team communication. No missteps. No injuries. Watch out for everyone.
"Hold up! Stop moving!"
"I need a few strong men."
"What's going on? What are they getting?" "Holy shit. Is that what I think it is?"
Everyone, meet the Bert-Block. A six-foot piece of solid concrete used to stop multi-ton vehicles from rolling forward into buildings or people. It was now on our shoulders. Time-hack? What time hack? Just move this heavy motherfucker to Belle Isle. We were near Jefferson and Jos Campau. We had nearly two miles to move the Bert-Block. Let's move. Let's go. The faster we get there, the sooner we're done with it.
"Flash bangs were going off left and right and I looked back and realized I was alone."
Bert was infiltrating a building with his crew. What the fuck could be scarier than being in a high-risk situation and realizing that you didn't have anyone at your back?
"If I see anyone that isn't within an arm's reach from their teammates, they and their closest teammate will be a casualty. TL, I suggest you get an ATL (assistant team leader) to help with this."
I stepped out of formation to take upon my new responsibility. There will be no casualties on my team. Failure at this is unacceptable. I don't give a shit if you think I'm annoying. I don't give a shit if you hear me tell you the same thing over and over again. I'll do it until you get it. Until you know my job just as well as I know yours.
"Hey, I need you to put a hand on the ruck in front of you." "Close this gap now. Thank you." "Step to this column, keep your distance." "Hey, put your hand on that ruck." "Close this gap." "Watch your step, close this distance and don't step on the street." "C'mon, catch up. Close this distance."
I struggled internally. I should've been under that concrete block. I should've been shouldering that weight with my team. I should've been there to relieve my comrades when they needed it. I stood on the outside and watched the faces of my teammates grimace in pain. I watched them break their backs. I watched the incredible women on my team shoulder that railroad tie, not asking for help, sympathy or pity.
"Hey, keep your distance."
"Get your hand on that ruck."
"Close this gap."
Those phrases were utilized less and less. Team One was learning me and I was learning them. I knew I could count on them and they knew they could count on me.
The phrases turned into, "You're fucking amazing." "Does anybody need anything? Water? Snacks? Relief from a team weight?" "Rick, you're a monster." "Adam, you okay? You need some food?" "Derek, let me get your bite valve for you." "Stefania, you okay with that weight?" "Steph, you're doing great." "Hey, Emily, could you please close that gap just a little?" "Billy, I better not hear you say you can't. You can."
"Get every man on that block!"
The blue and pink in the sky started to match the intensity of the street lamps over the MacArthur Bridge. Team One was shuffling the block and tie down the bridge and heading east on Belle Isle. We stuck to the sidewalk, crossing the street as quickly as possible while under the duress of the formed concrete. The dew from the grass began to make its way into my boots as I circled the team, keeping an eye out. We made our way beyond the boat house and eventually parallel with a parking lot.
"Hold up!" "Stop!"
The women took control of the railroad tie. They placed their bodies under its weight once more.
The men that had handed it off were bounding down the slope, through the wet grass, toward the parking lot to help the others that were near the fence line.
"Get that block over the fence. Do not break the fence!"
I swear I felt the ground move. The sound generated from concrete meeting earth was euphoric. I hadn't shouldered the damn thing so I could only imagine the relief. Team One had moved that bastard, barn-shaped, concrete stick one and three quarters of a mile.
Get water. Rest. Walk. Rotate positions on that railroad tie.
I finally saw Roger emerge from the team, rotating out.
"How do you feel?" "You good?" "Hey, let's close this gap." "SWITCH OUT ON THE LEFT!" "You did great, brother." "You're killing it." "Fuck that concrete." "You just helped carry that bitch from Jos Campau."
"Look at those clouds. Look at that sky. It's beautiful."
"It pays to be a winner."
"Everyone rest. This is time to recover. Take a teammate, use the bathroom. Get water. Get food. Take your rucks off. If you have any problems with your feet, tell me and I will inspect them. If you have extra socks, change into them now. You will be getting wet but now is the time. You have until the other teams are back. You worked hard tonight."
We stomped down the dew-laden grass to the latrines, the sun bouncing within the tiny droplets of water. Billy and I were chatting about complacency in life. About how our friends think we're odd for putting ourselves through something like this. As I looked up from admiring the broken leaf stuck to the toe of my boot, two familiar faces came into focus.
Two more smiling idiots in the brisk morning. Covered in sweat and dirt. Their bodies, like ours, aching. The shared knowledge that we weren't near the finish. Reasons for many, if not most, to be dreading the world. We were alive. We were savoring the time we have here. We were as dumb as a sack of hammers and beat-down to boot, but those grins had "shit" written all over them.
As Billy and I headed back to our team, I asked him why he was here. He said he had lost a friend, US Army Pfc. Jason Meyer. He hadn't said anything at the beginning of GRC so I had no clue until that moment. The name struck me. I pushed into my memory, trying to figure out where I had heard it. A good friend of mine also knew Jason and I have seen an annual post in his memory. Such an odd, weird world we live in.
We approached our team and got some awesome news.
We were about to participate in some more GRC history. The team competition events.
The task: Run twelve miles as a team.
Everyone has to run at least one lap around the gravel, quarter-mile track. Forty eight laps.
Time hack: three hours.
The caveat? You must run with a ruck containing six bricks.
The winning team : No PT. The other two teams pay with more exercise.
You need to get better.
It pays to be a winner.
I was the only person on the team to have a GR0 with full bricks, so I readied my ruck for the run. All non-essential items were removed aside from one.
Damn, we felt good. We were smiling. Our team weights were sitting on top of that railroad tie that we had carried from Atwater, to The Fist and, finally, here. It was working for us, not against us. We got our first few runners together and on the line. Quick changes of the ruck and run like hell. It's only four hundred meters.
"All it takes is all you got."
Holy shit, Team Two had some legs. Their team was absolutely flying. I swear I could see dust come up from that wet gravel track. We all had to run. That meant me. Big and slow. It didn't matter. It's gotta' get done. I watched as each member of Team One wrapped around that track. My growing hoarse from trying to project my heart into theirs via diaphragm.
Jim took the ruck. That bastard ran clear around the track, never stopping. He never quit moving his feet. One foot in front of the other. I could see the duct tape covering the knees on his pants from the third turn. Black squares on khaki pants moving methodically up and down, growing larger and larger with each stride.
My turn was coming. My heart was starting to race. I repeatedly clenched my fists, mustering everything I could. I knew this was going to be a struggle. This is what I had dreaded. This is what I had feared.
Time to put that to bed.
I strapped my ruck down and plodded along the track.
My legs started to burn.
"Your team is counting on you."
My lungs were sucking.
"Hurry up. Your teammate is on the line waiting for you."
My vision was narrowing.
"Do not fucking quit. Keep your legs moving."
"Almost there. Push harder."
I took off my ruck and handed it to the next runner. Breathe. Rest. Breathe.
Running isn't my game. Moving heavy shit is something I'm much better at. I figured I could better serve my team by cheering them on. I found Jim and walked to the side of the track near turn three.
We talked about his nine grandkids. We talked about our experiences so far during the challenge. We had a few laughs and encouraged our teammates together. This is what GRC is about. Sharing yourself with someone and really learning about them.
"Who is that? That's Dallas, I think." "That's James." "That's Dan." "That's Steph." "That's Joy."
Jason came over and joined in on motivating our teammates as they came down that last stretch. After a while it didn't matter if the person running was on my team or not. We were all in this together. We were all doing this for one reason or another but we all had this one thing in common. We all wanted to be there to push ourselves.
As I made my way back and forth along the edge of the track, jogging and shouting one way, picking up garbage the other, I repeatedly found a lump in my throat. I found myself moved as I watched my teammates and my family drive themselves along that gravel oval. Faces red. Jaws agate. I could hear their breaths as they rounded the turn heading toward me. Everything was being put into this. We worked our way through the dark of night to get here. We crawled, we walked, we lifted, jumped, ran, fell, slid, pushed... To get here. To get to another point where we pushed ourselves again.
That's when something clicked. I needed that ruck on my back. I needed to bring that ruck home. I needed to run that ruck again. If I run one more time, that'll be one less teammate that has to do it. That'll be one more teammate that can rest.
I headed back to the start line and watched a few runners come and go. Suddenly Team Two erupts.
"ONE FOR SGT. WRIGHT!"
The team took to the track to run their victory lap. They had finished the relay. Everyone joined them on this lap. It didn't matter if we were still racing, it needed to be done. We all wanted to do it. As we neared the start we were reminded that we still needed to finish the relay.
"ONE FOR SGT. HIGGINS!"
A few of us stood by the start line and waited for our teammates to bring the rucks by so we could continue.
"ONE FOR SSGT. ANTONIK!"
Four laps to go.
Three laps to go.
Two laps to go.
One more lap to go.
"It's my turn. This time, I'm gonna run harder than the last. I'm gonna' burn out my legs. If I can't breathe, I don't care. I'll push so hard I black out. It's gotta' be everything."
I pulled down on the tabs of my ruck, getting it tight to my shoulders. I shoved one leg in front of the other. My legs and lungs were searing by the second turn.
"Your team is waiting for you to finish."
"Your team is counting on you. Why are you fucking quitting?"
"Do not stop moving your fucking legs."
"Get your head up. Get your eyes up."
My entire team, Old Glory in front, was running towards me. Yelling. Motivating me.
My heart was full.
I dug my boots into the ground and gave it everything that I had.
My feet were heavy. Didn't matter.
My ruck was heavy. Didn't matter.
My throat was raw. Didn't matter.
My team was with me. Beside me. Behind me.
That's what mattered.
I crossed the finish line and folded over, searching for the breath that eluded me.
Twelve miles. Forty eight laps. One hour, thirty seven minutes and twenty two seconds.
The ruck that was cinched to me had been on the back of every one of my teammates. Within that ruck, there was still one little thing that I didn't remove. Something that needed to be kept safe and readily available.
A small black rectangle with a grey arrowhead on it and the words "GORUCK TOUGH."
"I'm a hugger."
After all the teams finished with the relay, we got ready to move again. This time, together. All three teams. We unloaded the railroad tie and fell-in behind the other two teams and headed to the river.
We all went in. We all got wet. We all got cold. It's what we came for.
We headed back sipping on whiskey and snacking on trail mix. We garnered attention and strange looks. We were now on our own time and made our way at a comfortable pace. Thirty walking dead and Cadre Bert walking with his Bo Jackson baseball bat.
We ascended the steps to Hart Plaza from the River Walk and passed Team Two as they were receiving their patches. We fell into formation on the steps of the auditorium where we had been fourteen hours before.
"So. How many push-ups do you owe me? Three hundred? When I say 'down,' you say 'go.' When I say 'up,' you say 'ruck.'"
"Stay there. When I say 'down,' you say 'GORUCK.' When I say 'up,' you say 'tough.'"
We pulled out our black rectangles. The ones that clung against our bodies in our pockets. The ones that got wet in the river. The ones that got crushed under the weight on our shoulders. The ones that got lost between the Gu and Clif Bar wrappers. We showed them to Cadre and this time, instead of a handshake... A hug.
That silent agreement reached fourteen hours ago had been fulfilled.
They are no longer ours to lose. They are ours to keep. They are ours to honor.
They are ours to earn every day.