GORUCK 50-mile Star Course AAR

I’ve made a habit of writing down my thoughts after significant challenges in my life, and the GORUCK Star Course was definitely a challenge!  It’s been over a month since David, Denee and I tackled this beastly rucking endurance event, and I can’t put it off any longer – it’s time to mentally re-hash the experience and let you all know what was great about it, what sucked, and most importantly what I learned.  This is my GORUCK Star Course After Action Review, or AAR – a military term that basically means a post-event debrief.
As a caveat before I start, this was a team event with David Oliva and my lovely wife Denee, and I don’t pretend to be able to speak for their individual experiences.  As much as possible I will try to include their thoughts and actions as I saw them, but I would encourage them to reply to this with their own individual stories or a full debrief from their perspective!
First a quick synopsis of the event.  The event was scheduled to begin at 9pm on Friday, May 17th, at Georgetown Waterfront Park in DC.  By 5pm the next day, we needed to check in on the rooftop of Balance Gym in Thomas Square.  Those two locations are only about 2 miles apart, but in the meantime we would need to also check in at 18 other waypoints in DC and the surrounding area.  Those waypoints weren’t known to us before the start of the event, when they handed out a list and we had as much time as we needed to create a plan (we used an app called Road Warrior where we could plug in all our waypoints and it would spit out the optimal route) and share it with one of the instructor cadre so they could quickly double-check that we were going to hit all the points and not do anything too stupid.  Unlike other GORUCK events, this would be the last time we would interact with the cadre until we crossed the finish line.  If we chose the best route, our course would be about 50 miles long.  If not, then…
The three of us carpooled together from Kent Island into DC, and valet parked the car two blocks from the ending location, so that we didn’t have to walk too far after the event was over.  More on that later…
We took an Uber to the starting point, and had about an hour before it was all going to go down so we tried to rest as much as we could.  After a quick safety briefing, the instructors handed out the waypoints and I went to work plugging them into my Road Warrior app.  It was a little clunky to work with, and Lesson 1 of this event for me would be to find a better app, and play around with it a lot more before the event to feel good about the functionality.
Our team reviewed the first few legs of our route together, and with a good confidence level in our optimization, we set off for the first waypoint — the Exorcist Stairs, just about a quarter mile away.  From there, it was a couple miles north to the National Cathedral, and the first of our “oopsies” along the way!  David (sorry for calling you out, bro) had put the list of our waypoints — which included descriptions of the exact items we would have to take pictures in front of to get credit for visiting — in his pants pocket.  As we got closer to the Cathedral and wanted to take another look at the selfie instruction there, the list was gone!  We couldn’t find it anywhere, so we decided to catch up with another group in front of us and ask if we could take pictures of their list (several pages long).  As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of Lesson 2: if you are given a hardcopy of something important, take pictures or otherwise get it on your phone as soon as possible, as there is a strong possibility that paper won’t be with you forever!
Our way uphill to the Cathedral is also when we started a 9-minute walk, 1-minute run strategy that we kept up through the majority of the ruck.  That was a huge bright spot for us, as it allowed us to pass several groups throughout the night and put us on a very good trajectory to finish the ruck in under 20 hours.  The run was not fast, more of a shuffle, but something I would highly recommend to anyone training for a long ruck.
After the Cathedral, we moved west out to the C&O Canal, which it seemed would be a very scenic hike during the day.  As it was, rucking up the C&O for about 12 miles, and then back down for another 17 miles toward Arlington would be the longest two legs of our event, and we accomplished most of it under the cover of darkness.  We had a great time, everyone was feeling good (especially on the way up), and listened to Bob Seger Radio on Pandora using a bluetooth speaker I had brought.  As we were rucking up the trail, a wiry, bearded twosome came down the trail at a full run.  Wow, we thought — they’re doing pretty good, I bet they’re going to win this thing.  The previous record for the 50-mile course was 13 hours, and as it turns out these two – one an ultramarathoner and one a devotee of CrossFit Endurance training – finished this one in under 11 hours.  Animals!
At the C&O Canal lockhouse that marked our turnaround point on the trail, it was 3am and we had covered about 15 miles.  I had packed a couple extra pairs of socks, and while my feet were feeling pretty good, I could tell that they were pretty sweaty so I got a sock change in, and we all filled up our water bladders at a fountain.  Lesson 3 – get some good socks, pay attention to your feet, and change your socks if you feel them sliding around in your shoes at all.
We were about 5 miles from the end of the C&O trail when we arrived at a spot that we had agreed to meet our resupply person, the amazing Mr. Tod Grantham, who we had given a change of clothes and some more food and water so that we didn’t have to carry it all.  I had given him one more pair of socks as well as a second pair of shoes, and my feet were starting to get some serious “hot spots” – beginnings of a blister – so I changed my socks and shoes and applied some blister relief patches.  Once your feet start going down the tubes I’m not sure you can really do much about it, so looking back maybe I could have paid even more attention to how they were feeling and made some adjustments, or maybe I could have forethought Lesson 4 – toughen up your feet with lots of long rucks before this event.  I meant to do this, but then injured my knee about a month out from the event and didn’t get in most of my long training rucks.  My feet definitely paid the price.
As we were waiting for Tod to arrive at our resupply point, a couple of lowpoints happened pretty much simultaneously.  Firstly, David said that he was considering stopping – he was starting to get really tired and sore, and wasn’t sure he was going to be able to finish it out.  Secondly, I laid down in piss.  Denee went behind a bush to relieve herself, and I laid on my back in the parking lot and remarked that it was amazing that I could smell pee from this far away.  She emerged from her hiding place and said something like, “No, dummy – you’re laying in a puddle.”  It had mostly dried into the pavement, or so I keep telling myself, but it was a good thing Tod was bringing some extra clothes.  In any case, I didn’t get up.
Back to David.  After some light cajoling and Tod showing up with fresh clothes, coffee, and breakfast sandwiches, his spirits were raised.  He even went out onto the trail and got a head start while Denee and I posed for pictures, and we couldn’t catch him for at least a mile!  We thought maybe he had gone the wrong way on the trail, but were relieved when we caught up, and then it was just a few more miles to get back into DC.
I haven’t mentioned the weather yet, but as I think back on the start of Saturday, the weather definitely played a factor.  It was hot, and very humid.  We started sweating a lot more, and welcomed the portions of the trail that were in the shade.  As we got closer to our next stop, the Arlington National Cemetery, we unofficially entered a 5K run (resting at the finish line with people probably wondering what we were doing with backpacks on), and dodged hundreds of bikes.  It was at this point that I started into a downward spiral of negativity.  I felt very jealous and spiteful of all the happy joggers and bikers without a 35-pound ruck on.  I felt my feet more and more, and focused on how painful they were.  I was still absolutely determined to make it through to the end, but I was absolutely not having fun anymore and really just trying to keep up with David and Denee, who took turns leading the pace.  Although the pain was real and my feet continued to deteriorate from there, it was my conscious decision to focus on it – or maybe my lack of consciousness to notice my negativity and put a stop to it – that now becomes Lesson 5: in a long, challenging event, pay attention to your mindset and quickly snap out of any negative loops that are playing in your head.  “This totally sucks,” or “I’m going to be feeling this pain for the next 8 hours,” are very mentally draining at a time when you need your mind to step up and refocus you away from the pain.  I should have reverted back to my mantra that Denee gifted me with in a card before my SEALFIT 50-hour Kokoro challenge: “Tough, Focused, Resilient, Impossible to Stop!”  Or even as corny as it sounds, something simple like “Easy Day, All Day” as you stay in your walking/running cadence, can really help your mind stay positive.
The other obvious drawback to getting negative while in a team setting is that you can start to bring your team down, or at least make them concerned about your wellbeing, which is not the positive impact you want to bring to the table.  As we were approaching Arlington National Cemetery, Denee and David were discussing which roads to take to navigate through the city.  I snapped at them, “Let’s just do what the GPS is telling us to do!  You guys don’t know this city!”  Which was of course not only a nasty, unproductive thing to say, and also false.  David spent years selling real estate in the DC area, and Denee has an uncanny sense of direction and knows every city that she’s spend a little bit of time in.  The result of my outburst was that everyone got quiet for a few miles, and I continued to feel sorry for myself.
After Arlington, a little bright spot in our adventure was that we found ourselves doing quick hikes from national monument to historic landmark in DC on a sunny Saturday morning.  By the time it was about 10am, although we were all starting to feel the miles building up, we were feeling really good about our pace, and I felt that if I could just keep putting one foot in front of the other we were going to finish well under the 20-hour timecap.  In fact, calculating our pace with the number of miles left showed us finishing about 2 hours early.  Could this potentially be foreshadowing a nasty surprise to come?  Read on and find out!!
Sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and taking a look at my feet once again to see if there was anything I could do to relieve the pain, we started talking to another group who gave us a head-up: when you get to the waypoint that is the beginning of Potomac Park, the picture you have to take is actually at the end of Potomac Park (a peninsula that splits the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers).  David had an idea of how many miles that would tack onto our trip, and it wasn’t good.  An extra 4 miles that we hadn’t accounted for was now potentially part of our plan.  I held out hope that this group sharing the news didn’t really know what they were talking about, but alas when we arrived at the park we saw other teams making the trek back and forth, and started down the long, tree-lined path.  After not doing our walk/run strategy for a couple hours, thinking we were in really good shape timewise, we all drudgingly agreed to begin to run 1 minute of every 10 again.  The only problem was, I couldn’t.  My run was a pathetic looking shuffle, and I tried to stay at the pace they were running at but I felt like I was really slowing them down.  Our runs were not much faster than our walks, but at least it was something and we kept it up.
After taking our picture at the glorious plaque commemorating engineering marvels in the DC area or something like that, we sat down for a 5 minute break at a picnic table and reviewed the rest of the route.  It was now about 1pm, and once we exited the park we would have 11 miles to go, zigzagging through southeast, then southwest, then northwest DC to make our objective.  We still had to hit 8 or so waypoints, and although they were relatively close together, this would be a high-tempo scavenger hunt that we had to do quickly and correctly to get it done in time.  We set off at a fast walk, and incorporated even more runs in order to make up time.  All of us at this point were tired, demoralized from the surprise 4-mile out-and-back walk, and in serious pain in various areas.  As noted several times, my feet were a bit of an issue.  Denee’s and David’s hips/quads/hammies were locking up, something that I hadn’t experienced yet but soon would.  Although we were not talking very much anymore – we would communicate but only transactionally, not the conversations about nothing that flowed the previous night – the mood of the group changed from negative to resolved, as we all pushed the pace and skipped breaks in favor of covering more ground.  We walked over the 395 overpass, cars and trucks blowing past us as we were on the sidewalk that seemed like it shouldn’t be there, into southeast DC.  You wouldn’t know by looking at us now that anyone was hurting, because we had pushed aside the physical aspect of this experience for now, and steeled our mental resolve to get the job done.
Lesson 6: In a situation where your body has broken down but you still need to go, you can.  I’ve learned through Unbeatable Mind reading and classroom work that you can accomplish 20x more than you think you can.  And it’s great to understand that academically, but I’ve also now experienced it at least twice in my hobby of “signing up for stupid stuff to see if I can do it.”  If you can push aside the nagging feelings of wanting to let the pain stop, or that there is something better for you on the other side if you just quit, you can replace them with the reminder that you are accomplishing a goal for a reason.  That you are part of a team, right now with you in the moment but also at home – your wife and your kids that look up to you.  Remind yourself that pain is temporary, and if others can endure it then you can too.
The next obstacle to overcome was represented very physically as a shitload of construction blocking our route to the Titanic Memorial (what the hell? In DC??), but it also manifested itself in an emotional response again on our part.  It’s tough to continue being emotionally resilient when it seems like there are nothing but more unforeseen mountains in your way.  The detour around a construction site when we already felt behind the 8-ball was tough especially on Denee, whose complaints almost seemed to immediately create more physical pain as well.  It’s amazing how the physical-mental-emotional aspects of our being are distinct but can be interconnected in such a cause-and-effect way.  This was Denee’s darkest point, and we still had at least 8 miles to go.
We headed north to the Supreme Court, then west across the government corridor taking pictures at the Washington Monument, White House, and WWII Memorial.  There are probably others that I’ve blacked out.  All of these took a lot longer to get to than we had calculated for on the map, due to either the specific picture we had to get or the setback of the building from the road.  We dodged throngs of tourists and probably photobombed some school pictures, and then headed back to the waterfront to find Mile Marker “0” of the C&O Canal, which happens to be right next to the Watergate Hotel (now I get the name!)  We didn’t really know what the marker would look like, and asked probably 25% of the people that were on the waterfront for a dragonboat race if they could help us.  I’ve never seen so many confused and scared faces!  When we found someone that knew and he pointed it out, David and I walked across a shaky wooden plank over the beginning of the canal.  Denee thought better of it and walked an extra 50 feet to go around, and thinking back to the potential 10-foot drop with a ruck on, that could have been a disaster!!
From there, we had about 3.5 miles to go and 3 waypoints to hit with 2 hours left.  Mission success was guaranteed as long as nothing disastrous like falling off a wooden plank happened, and we knew it, we just had to do it.  The last hour was still an experience in pushing through pain, but we were decidedly more upbeat.  As we got a few blocks from our final destination, something funny happened that also reminded me that we were part of a much larger group of people that all went through this ordeal together.  We linked up with another couple teams that were on our same route to the finish, and at every single crosswalk if we had to wait for the light to turn, we would all bend over and rest our elbows on our bent knees to take the pressure of the ruck off of our shoulders and hips.  Every single person did it, to the point where one time as we all stopped someone said, “Assume the position!” and of course we all did.
We arrived at Balance Gym, and as one last kick in the junk, we were instructed to climb the stairs to the 4th floor roof deck.  I’ve never actually needed to use the bannister before, but this time I don’t know if I could have climbed with legs alone.  The way down was even more fun!  We got up there, took a picture with the cadre, and took off our rucks for the first time since 6am that morning.  We made it in 19 hours and 10 minutes!  There was pizza and Budweiser, and I’m pretty sure they just handed us a whole pizza and we tried to find some shade to sit in.  It felt glorious to sit down and then eventually lay down and watch the other teams finish, but we knew the longer we stayed there the harder it would be to get up so after about 30 minutes of rest, we motivated back onto our soggy, stinging feet and carefully climbed down the stairs.
As I mentioned at the beginning, we had parked very close to where we were currently standing outside Balance Gym, but we decided quickly and unanimously to get an Uber for the two-block trip to our car.  When we got in we laughed and apologized to the driver, who didn’t say much, probably thinking we had some nefarious plan with our military-style rucks and our ¼ mile ride request.  We got out and presented our valet ticket for the car at the nice-looking Hamilton Hotel.  My first thought was that they were not going to give us our Dodge Durango – we probably appeared homeless and had stolen the ticket.  But without any problem we got the car and reviewed our final plan of the day – how to drive the 45 miles home using a combination of drivers that wouldn’t result in anyone running up on manslaughter charges.
We made it home safely, grabbed our kids and ordered Chinese food.  I poured myself a delicious IPA and took the next 3 hours to drink it and eat a couple bites of kung po chicken.
If anyone is interested in taking on the GORUCK 50-mile Star Course (or the 13-mile or 26-mile version) and this account didn’t dissuade you, please feel free to reach out to David, Denee or I.  If you want a visual follow-along of this story, check out the @kentislandruckers Instagram page – all of our waypoint check-ins are there, along with some other random pics I took along the way!

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