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.
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.
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?
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.