The Dark Night Sky and Unbroken Dreams

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The sun is setting over the Pacific Ocean. I stare at the last sliver of light, hands on knees, slightly bent over so I can breathe more efficiently. Sweat drips off the tip of my nose and I watch it hit the dirt; it is one of the driest summers in the last decade in Southern California. With every step I take, I create a giant cloud of dust that I end up inhaling.

Standing tall, I pop the 60-pound sandbag off my neck for a moment, move my 25-pound weight vest around so it chafes a different part of my shoulder, breathe, then shuffle back down the hill into dusk. This is the last of 10 repeats, 400 meters straight uphill, 400 meters back down. When I reach the bottom, I still have half a mile to walk to my car. 85 pounds is almost 70% of my body weight, and I have been running up and down hills for more than two hours. It doesn’t phase me anymore; carrying heavy things has become normal.

In my training log, I wrote:

“Selection is two months away and 46 hours longer than that session. Learn to love that hill.”

Two months later, I laid on my stomach at the bottom of another hill in Bellbrook, Ohio, gazing forward and up. This hill looked nothing like the one I had trained alone on for a year; it was covered in grass, mud, and men…grunting and rolling their rucks, low crawling and heaving, steam rose off everyone’s backs. Some people laid in one place, paralyzed with exhaustion. There was no beautiful sunset over the Pacific here, just a dark night sky and broken dreams.

“Low crawl and push your ruck up that hill 026,” one cadre directed as he addressed me by my roster number.

I dry heaved and started moving.

With each push of my ruck, I dug my knees into the soft, wet earth and moved forward with all that I had. I passed someone.

“Don’t let 026 pass you” shouted a cadre at another participant.

I passed that guy too. Dry heaving again, I stood and threw my ruck uphill. It rolled quickly back towards my feet.

“We said low crawl, not stand and throw your ruck 026. You have 30 seconds to get to the top of the hill.”

The countdown began. Just as the cadre reached the end of his count, “…3, 2, 1…,” I rolled my ruck to the top of the hill, but that wasn’t good enough. Nothing is ever good enough during a Selection welcome party.

“Run back to the bottom of the hill 026.”

As I was running back down the hill, I listened to my breathing, looked around at the stars, and realized that I would never be in that moment again. Feeling a strange sense of appreciation, I smiled and ran faster. I willed myself to relax, and just as my friend Holt, and my fiancé Larry had told me, “let the end come.” However, I wasn’t prepared for it to come so soon.

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Selection class 017 starting 12 mile ruck march. Photo by David L. Thomas

For three years, I have visualized finishing GORUCK Selection, one of the toughest endurance events in the world. Selection is 48 hours of physical tasks that mimic Special Forces Assessment and Selection. There are standards and they are the exact same for men and women. These standards are difficult, but not impossible to meet; 24 men (Olof Dallner, has passed twice) and 1 woman (Paige Bowie), have finished the event.

What makes Selection so tough? To put it simply, you must be many things at once. You must be a distance runner, solid ruck marcher, weight lifter, and endurance athlete. Being too skinny makes it difficult to stay warm and keep a high energy level while you are starving; being too big makes it hard to move quickly and do hours upon hours of conditioning.

Most people who attempt this event are drawn to it because of the impossibility of the task set before them. Just as climbers go to Everest knowing that few ever summit, people go to Selection knowing that less than 5% of participants pass. The odds are never in your favor, yet people pay money for the pleasure of being tested.

Selection 018 was the third time I had this distinct pleasure. Yes, I have failed this test three times now, but looking back I don’t see any of those experiences as failures.

At Selection class 015 in Jacksonville, Florida, I couldn’t drag a man quickly enough out of the surf. I quit because I believed I was not strong enough to complete the event. Later I learned that no matter how hard I try, I will not be perfect at everything so I should just keep going. Not only did that lesson make Selection seem easier, it made life easier too.

During class 017 in Bozeman, Montana, my second attempt, I got hypothermia and was medically dropped from the event. It broke my heart to wake in a truck, heaters on full blast, not knowing what happened. It took me a long time to get over that loss, but during the next year of training I focused on conditioning my mind and body to deal with cold more efficiently and with greater awareness.

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Selection class 018 in the river. Photo by GORUCK

Sitting in the river in Ohio, with the other 15 remaining participants in Selection 018, I thought to myself, “This is beautiful. I’m not cold.”

We flutter kicked, rolled, twisted, pressed our rucks, did push-ups, holds, sprinted in and out of that river during the coldest part of the night. It was in the 40’s and I felt warm. The months of cold showers I had taken, the year of mental and physical preparation I went through with a coach, and sports psychologist, the boring meditation drills I did, feeling comfortable in odd positions during yoga, all of that made me able to deal with the cold. Being in the river was a non-issue this time around.

Then I started vomiting and cramping uncontrollably.

Even through training in arid desert climates with little water, I had never experienced that level of vomiting and cramping. I told myself to focus on breathing and try to stop throwing up. All of my mental prep and calming techniques were futile. For the next hour or so, I vomited every ounce of water left in my body; most of my muscles cramped, and I could barely stand. Eventually, I was medically dropped from Selection 018.

What does it mean to not finish this event for the third time?

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It means that each time I’ve failed, I’ve taken the lessons I’ve learned and become better. It means I’ve gotten back to training again. It means I’ve put everything, my time, my work, my relationships, my body, my heart on the line committing to completing this event. It means I’ve given 100% of my effort, every moment of every day, for years. It means I’ll do it again 100 times, if not for Selection, then for some other goal.

Many people have already asked, “Will you do Selection a fourth time?”

It is a hard question to answer just yet. But if my literal dreams are any indication of what is in my heart, this happened a few nights ago:

I jerked hastily, suddenly, hitting Larry as I woke myself.

“What were you dreaming about?” Larry asked.

“I dropped a log at Selection,” I answered.

I’ve never lifted a log during Selection in real life, yet there I was in my head still doing work. It seems as though, even under the dark night sky of subconsciousness, my dreams are unbroken.

Foreshadowing?

Maybe.

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21 thoughts on “The Dark Night Sky and Unbroken Dreams

  • There is famous Lou Holtz quote where he states that “…titles are given from above, but leadership is built from the bottom up.” Jaala – you are an inspiration and a genuine leader. As one of the lucky people who got to train with you this summer I saw just a sliver of the hard work you did and it inspired me. While others shoot for the moon – your goal is to break into other galaxies. I love that about you. So proud of you. Congratulations are in order because in my eyes you continue to pick up, keep moving forward and set the example and expectation of reaching your goals and being a leader.

    • Jenn, your words always make me so appreciative of your friendship, of you. I see this in you too! I know that you’ll achieve anything you set your mind to; I can’t wait to run across the Grand Canyon with you or do any other endurance event with you that you choose. Thank you, thank you for always being a friend, always being encouraging. I love you bunches!

  • I am not a wordsmith like you. Jaala, I was there at 015 when you VW’d. I was there in Bozeman when you snapped out of it. And I was there in Ohio, i could hear you heaving from atop the hill. While you already know that, I want people to know that you are truely an amazing person. I am impressed by not only your determination, but your growth and work ethic. Sometimes I wonder what I could do if I had your drive.
    There is something that is just different about this event. It always amazes me the true emotions that come out of it. It’s raw! People pay good money for this experience that in the moment crushes people’s hopes and dreams. And yet after the dust settles we appreciate it and life in a different way.
    Love you and Larry more. ;p

    • Mark! You have been there through my entire Selection journey, always encouraging, always like an older brother to me. You are there for me to talk to and to joke with whenever I need you, and that means so much to me. I appreciate your friendship, your humor, and the way you look at life. Love you too, and I also love Larry more!

  • I was one of the Cadre for two of your three SELECTION attempts and constantly impressed by your personal growth and outlook. Your mindset and physicality are beyond reproach and an EXAMPLE to all who want to make themselves better. I’m a better person for meeting people like you, Jaala! I’m very proud of you and can only hope to see you (and Larry) at future events. I loved the story and think everyone attempting SELECTION should read it. I would take you on a Team anyday!
    r/
    BD

    • Thanks so much BD. Most people think that Selection is a negative experience, that it is just a beat down and a chance to fail something. But through my experiences, through not completing Selection, I’ve learned so much about life, about myself. I thank you and the other cadre for encouraging me, and giving suggestions on how to be stronger. I’m better for it, and that is priceless.

  • Thank you so much for sharing Jaala .. Inspiration is in understatement and so glad to see you pushing through and using this situation as growth. Which I would expect nothing else.

    • Thanks Ashley! It is women like you who make me better too, always trying to be stronger and live life to the fullest. Thanks for all you do as well, you inspire many people.

  • I consider it a stroke of luck that I found your card today, Friday January 13th. I often wondered and thought about you since we met at the run shop in Ohio. Did she finish? I hope so. Could she finish? If heart alone mattered she did. Now I’m lucky enough to know hot only how that chapter played out for you but it reiterates a message of resilience that has been sent my way like arrows from many directions. Your positivity will push me along my journey and I consider it an honor to have met you and read your story. Peace be with you Jaala!

    • Hi Holly, thank you so much for your kind words! It is so sweet to hear that you wondered about me, and now that my writing and story will help you move towards your goals. Not finishing Selection again didn’t make me want to give up, in fact I am training for the next one and know that I have enough strength, experience, and knowledge to finish it this time. The truth is, it takes a lot of mind and heart, maybe more than physical strength. I know I have the physical capacity, but going through life, learning and dealing with all the challenges, makes me strong enough to finish. Every step is a learning process and we all just ned to keep trying , keep aiming high, and know that anything is attainable, it just takes time. Sending love your way!

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