On April 16, 2016, I had the privilege of participating in the Tough Ruck in Concord, Massachusetts with Team Unicorn (a name we, a group of four friends who are all dumb enough to sign up to carry heavy rucksacks for 26.2 miles straight, gave ourselves during the trip). It was quite the adventure!
The Tough Ruck is a marathon ruck event that is orchestrated by the Military Friends Foundation in conjunction with the Boston Athletic Association and Boston Marathon. Each participant rucks in honor of a fallen member of the military or first responder and carries that person’s name on their ruck. Participants that wish to compete for a winning time must carry at least 30 pounds in their ruck at all times and all participants that complete the Tough Ruck receive the official Boston Marathon medal. The event was once held at the same time and on the same course as the actual Boston Marathon but was moved in 2014 to the Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord due to security concerns with people carrying backpacks following the bombings in 2013. Approximately 600 people participated in the Tough Ruck and it was a sold out event.
If you have never done a marathon ruck, it’s an interesting beast. I have completed GORUCK events that covered many more miles but there is something about logging all of those miles continuously, without mixing in PT and other activities, that make it totally different. It’s rough and it’s a mindbender. In the Team Spearhead PATHFINDER Ruck Training Program, we call the marathon ruck, “The Character Builder”.
Our wild adventure began with a road trip from the DC area to Boston the night before the event. We left a few hours behind schedule and didn’t arrive until about 3:30 in the morning. The owner of the house where we were staying, a friend of one of the four of us, graciously got up to let us in so that we could get about 40 minutes of sleep before we had to get up and head out to the marathon start point.
The start point for the Tough Ruck was The Old Manse, a clergy house built in 1770 for Rev. William Emerson, the town minister in Concord, MA at the time and grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Wikipedia, “The Old Manse”). There, we were joined by a group of people to include many members of military and also some fellow GRTs. It was cold as hell waiting for the event to start and my feet were so cold that I could not feel them at all despite the fact that I was wearing doubled-up wool socks. Luckily, we didn’t wait too long until the reading of the rules, a few short speeches by the event organizers and supporters and the singing of the National Anthem and then we were off!
Not far into the ruck, the four of us naturally broke into pairs based on pace. The course started with a ruck on pavement though town for the first four miles or so, switching to a gravel path upon hitting the first of the aid stations and entering the National Park. The aid stations along the whole course were great - lots of variety of drinks and snacks and tons of smiling faces that were extremely enthusiastic about cheering on the ruckers. The gravel path lead us about 5 miles across the length of the National Park and was just beautiful. We rucked around farmland, up and down hills, over boardwalk bridges in the swamp, through the forest and past many historical buildings where park personnel were dressed in colonial garb and providing educational opportunities for park visitors. Being Patriot’s Day weekend, there were a lot of visitors in the park but it never felt too crowded. What started as a freezing cold morning, warmed into the perfect weather with just the right breeze.
After rucking for a long time, we reached a turnaround point where we learned that this was just the first half of an out-and-back movement that we’d have to do twice. The idea of turning around, rucking back to somewhere we had been before and then out to this place again and back once more was not a happy one. I tried to look at the course map to understand just how far back we had to go but I really couldn’t understand it. (Maybe it was because I had just rucked 9 miles on 40 minutes of sleep or something!) We had a snack, I took some Advil for my very tight hips and off we went back to wherever the heck we were going. Along the way back, we bumped into the Boston GOREV GORUCK Heavy Class. It was great to see their faces and I got to quickly communicate with and hug a couple of my fellow brothers and sisters in pain and suffering. After that, I felt like we were just rucking and rucking. I finally broke down and asked a couple people how much longer we had to go until we reached the turnaround spot and got wildly different answers. (Note: Don’t ever do this! People aren’t good at estimating distance and you could get your heart broken when they drastically underestimate the distance.) We kept on going until finally, a high point came when we passed a sign saying “Mile 15”. I thought, “Yes! Only one more mile until we are on the last 10 miles!” However, when we finally reached the turnaround point, which ended up being that very first first aid station where the pavement turned to gravel as we entered the National Park, someone said, “Congratulations! You have completed 14 miles! You are halfway done!” WTF!!!!!!! But, we had just passed the 15 mile sign! What was going on? Apparently, that sign was for when you were on your way back out the second time, not for when you were on the way back in the first time. It was a seriously horrible moment and I wanted to scream at that person about how they were wrong and that I was going to kill them for it. But instead, we took a short break and got back up, disheartened and downtrodden, and made our way out for round two of the out-and-back movement.
One thing we had going for us this time was that we knew it was 5 miles out and 5 miles back on the loop and that this was the last time we had to do it. We knew where we were going and had some familiar landmarks to give us an idea of how far we had to go. I have to hand it to my amazing friend and partner in marathon ruck hell, Heather, for lightening the mood by joking about what a great experience we were having. In no time, I felt better than I had the whole event and we were moving faster than we had at any point previously. It was time to get this event done! We lucked out and just happened to come to the location of the battle reenactment that was being held as part of the park’s Patriot’s Day activities just as it started. We got to watch the reenactment as we rucked and spectators and park volunteers cheered us on as we rucked past them. It was great! Definitely one of the happiest moments of the whole event! We once again reached the turnaround spot, agreeing to stop as briefly as possible and get right to completing the last leg back to that aid station. Once we had that done, it would just be two more miles on pavement through town and back to the start point at The Old Manse, which was also the finish line. That final 5 miles back in went slowly but we had fun, talking and hanging out along most of the way. As we got closer to the aid station, however, things started to get dark. Maybe we were just tired or maybe we were starting to let our guard down and go into that mode where you know you’re almost done and lose some toughness. Either way, the suck level was on the rise!
When we finally hit that aid station, we kept right on moving, determined to get the event over with. We were both severely done with rucking and wanted to finish ASAP!!! As we stepped onto the pavement, we realized that the change in surface material completely sucked. Everything started to hurt more, tense up, and feel 20 times worse! Mentally, everything got harder to deal with. It was only two miles but it went on forever, one step after another in a hell that seemed not to end. My stomach hurt and I really wanted to cry a few times. It was just completely awful! I wavered between total despair and telling myself that I was choosing to have those negative feelings and that I must find a new, better feeling to have. I don’t think I found a better one though. I was just desperate to finish. After walking what felt like 42,708 miles on the pavement, I checked my GPS and it said The Old Manse was 0.5 miles away. Moments later, we saw a sign that said “Mile 25”. None of us will ever forget that evil sign! People in other groups cursed that sign as they passed it too. I decided that my GPS was right and we only had 0.5 miles and that the Mile 25 sign could go fuck itself. I ended up being wrong as the GPS didn’t follow the course map. After seeing that sign, we rucked what was way more than a mile. It kept seeming like we were almost there but then we would turn a corner or go up a hill or do something other than finish. It truly seemed like the end would never come, like we were stuck forever in this endless prison of rucking. I remembered to remember who I was rucking for, Lt. Jeffrey Walz, an FDNY firefighter who lost his life on September 11. I won’t go into more than that about Jeffery Walz because I want to write a separate post about why he is special to me and why he is who I ruck for. Thinking about him didn’t make the end of the event hurt less but it did make hurting be ok, something to accept rather than fight. It made things bearable.
Finally, we crossed the finish line! We got our medals, we hugged and I laid down on the ground for a few, happy to be off my feet. As always, it was great to finish! We all hobbled to the bus that would take us to our car and then hobbled to the car. We were all really jacked up - our bodies were aching, tightening, doing painful and weird things. We all agreed that the whole thing was awful and that doing the Tough Ruck was a dumb idea. We swore that we wouldn’t do it again. We got back to the house, napped, ate steak, napped again, woke up at 11:30 pm and went to shadow the GOREV Heavy briefly, ate pizza and went back to bed. The next day, we had an amazing brunch in downtown Boston, wore our medals to the marathon finish line and had a glass of Samuel Adams 26.2 Brew at Cheers before driving home to DC. On the way home, being the sickos that make stupid decisions that we are, we determined that we would do this again next year and PR the shit out of it. All in all, it was a fucking awful experience but it was also one of the best bad decisions we ever made!
About the Author
I have completed 38 GORUCK events including 3-GORUCK HCL's, and have done a variety of other endurance events including Ironman Maryland 140.6 two times. I am a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and health coach, scientist, minimalist, nature lover and single mom but on a more basic level, I'm just a woman in her 40's that likes to push her limits and write stuff sometimes. This blog is a way of sharing some of my experiences and insights.