A Black Hole of Possibilities: Redefining Success at GORUCK Selection 019

*Selection photos by GORUCK

“This is how people die on Mt. Everest,” I thought.

Gazing at the stars through the canopy of swamp vegetation, anchored to the ground by the 60+ pound ruck on my back, I was a turtle; there was no possibility of flipping myself over. My mind was giving my body instructions that it couldn’t execute.

As I lay there, I remembered all of the books I’ve read about mountaineering fatalities and how people who had perished on mountains knew the end was coming, that their bodies were broken and would not take them where their mind wanted them to go. I had always wondered, “Why don’t they just keep moving?”

Then there I was, in that uncharted Everest-like territory, only it was 80 degrees in a mosquito-infested swamp in Florida. Of course I wasn’t going to die, but I definitely wasn’t able to move; it was “Death by GORUCK Selection.”

For the last many hours, I had pushed my body to its limit, brought my muscles to complete failure, then repeated that again and again and again.

Physically, I was beyond overcooked. Just before this moment, I had crawled about 400 meters with ruck on back, on my hands and knees on a gravel road. Every so often I’d tip over and start the slow process of rolling to my stomach, pushing myself up, and continuing to crawl.

The other four participants still in the event were somewhere else in the swamp dragging themselves down a similar road, but at this point I couldn’t see or hear them. I was alone, save for random swamp creatures, all of the insects and water borne illnesses on the planet, and a couple of silent cadre.

Soon, my fourth attempt to finish GORUCK Selection would be over.

More than four years ago, on New Year’s Eve in 2013, I set two goals that I thought would be equally tough to achieve: 1. Do a body weight overhead squat, 2. Complete GORUCK Selection. I got the bodyweight overhead squat easily on January 21, 2014, so I thought completing Selection was next on my checklist.

I had heard about Selection, dubbed as “the toughest endurance event on earth,” 48 hours of no sleeping or eating, tons of physical training, and  80+ miles of rucking and running; I was curious. I wondered why the completion rate was so low. All that you had to do was finish, so what was making 95% of humans fail? I had to find out.

Modeled after Army Special Forces Assessment and Selection, it was meant to be an event that tested hearts and minds; only the toughest people survived. On top of that, the standards were the same for men and women. Having two x chromosomes would bring you no mercy. Less than 5% of people who tried the event had finished, including one woman. It sounded perfect for me.

From that moment on, I researched relentlessly, messaged more than half of the GORUCK Selection finishers, asked every friend who had ever done a GORUCK event for advice, and read every book I could about endurance racing, foot care, Special Operations Forces (were there any books not written by SEALs?), and then after gathering all of the information I could, my coach and I charted out a plan.

Soon, I was crashing through the waves in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, at GORUCK Selection class 015, the only woman left in the field. That Selection ended when I quit because I could not drag a man out of the surf. Link to 015 Blog Post

Emotionally crushed, but highly motivated, I signed up for Selection the following year.

Selection class 017 was in Bozeman, Montana, at altitude in the mountains. It was extremely hot during the day and fell below freezing at night. The water temps were in the 40’s. I was once again the only female who made it into the night. That Selection ended when I got hypothermia and was medically dropped from the event. Link to 017 Blog Post

Not able to settle for less than completion, I signed up for the next one.

Selection class 018 was in Bellbrook, Ohio. I would not finish the event for the third time. Not for lack of trying, I was medically dropped from Selection when I could not hold down water and was vomiting uncontrollably. Link to 018 Blog Post

A couple of months later, I came to the conclusion that Selection was trying to kill me, so my only choice was to kill it first. My heart shouted, “Once more unto the breech dear friends!”

I signed up for my fourth go at the beast.

Going into my third year of Selection training was difficult. It was hard, because I knew what was coming. I knew what it would take to finish the event and I knew that I’d have to train harder than ever before, and in less than ideal circumstances. What lay before me was daunting, but also doable. Regardless of the challenges I’d face, my coach and I laid out my training plan again and I went to work.

This time, rucking was much harder because I’d have to do most of my miles on a treadmill in a gym. Living in the Middle East made it dangerous for me, as a single woman, to train alone outside (my husband was in another country). It didn’t matter. I’d strap on my ruck, walk to the gym, get on the treadmill, and walk for hours under the watchful eye of every curious Jordanian lady near me. It was awkward and sometimes embarrassing, but it made me appreciate the beauty of rucking outside, something I’ll never take for granted again.

My coach and I added even more overhead and upper body strength variations into training. We did weighted, strict pull-ups, weighted push-ups, every type of overhead press, jerk, and snatch with kettlebells, dumbbells, and barbells that we could think of. We did lifts from a seated position, bench position, and standing position. I bench pressed my body weight, did one arm overhead squats with dumbbells, did overhead static holds, moved sandbags and stones, practiced lifting odd, heavy objects, then repeated.

In the weeks leading up to Selection class 019, my husband and I rucked up six mountains in Colorado taller than 14,000 feet; I wore my 55# ruck, of course.

After having trained specifically for Selection for four years, there was no reason I couldn’t finish this event. I had done everything possible to prepare myself. It was happening this time.

Selection 019 was a return to Jacksonville Beach, Florida.

The event started off just right. The push-ups and sit-ups went as I had practiced, then I was able to finish both the 5 mile run and 12 mile ruck march in second place.

It was a beautiful night to crush Selection.

Completing the 12 mile ruck march ahead of almost everyone else, I had plenty of time to prepare for the notorious “welcome party,” a four hour suck-fest of physical tasks. As the other participants trickled in, I noticed that the mosquitoes and bugs were pretty intense. I had already been eaten alive by the time we were marching towards the swamp where we would be for the rest of the night. Unfortunately I had planned to be wrestling with the ocean that night, not swamp critters and mosquitos, so I had only brought a couple of insect repellent wipes. I slathered one all over my face, hoping for some relief.

Into the swamp we went. The cadre instantly dropped the hammer.

“You are crawling slower than old people f***!” Shouted one cadre.

“Who am I, Jillian Michaels now? Pull harder 064.” Yelled another cadre.

For the next four hours, I got two water breaks, ten numb fingers, possibly zika virus, and the pride of finishing my first ever “welcome party.”

I sat in the parking lot and cried. I wasn’t quite sure if I was crying because I was happy, or if I was crying from exhaustion. It didn’t care at that point; I had made it into the next evolution, and would continue to chip away until the end.

For the next few hours we carried 5-gallon buckets of muddy water, crawled, ran, and did many other exercises. I was feeling exhausted, but mentally I knew I could continue like this forever.

And then forever came to an end.

The other four participants and I were lined up on a gravel road and told to bear crawl to the next cadre.

As soon as we started, I knew I was going to have a tough time. We all assumed the plank position and my arms promptly gave out. The other four men crawled off into the night. I got back up, crawled a few steps, and fell over. It was difficult to get off my back and up into the crawling position again, but I continued to crawl, fall, and repeat for what seemed like an eternity.

Finally, I couldn’t get up anymore. My hands were numb from the ruck cutting off my circulation, so swatting at mosquitoes fell by the wayside too. I trudged along the road, falling, getting eaten alive by critters, and trying not to quit. By this time, the cadre were uncharacteristically silent. They were waiting for me to either finish the task or tap out. I flipped over and kept crawling.

I fell again.

This time I knew I wasn’t getting up. I thought about Mt. Everest and dying, freedom, and limits, doing what you love, and I came to the conclusion that I had given it my all.

I asked the cadre to take my ruck.

Cadre Mickey said, “Is this the way you want it to end?”

I said, “No, but this is where it does.”

I was finished with my fourth attempt at GORUCK Selection.

It is cathartic, training so hard for something and not quite ending up where you had planned. But this time, I am experienced enough to know that I can’t measure success or failure by completion. I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in training so meticulously, then pushing myself to my physical limits. I took my body, and mind somewhere that I’ve never been before. It was beautiful and horrifying; a perfect conundrum for any soul that wants to see beyond their own limits, into that black hole of possibilities. I am happy that I had the pleasure of “failing at something so awesome” as Jason would say. This time, I know that I have succeeded.

As I reflect on these years of my life that have been dominated by GORUCK Selection, I know they have not been in vain.

Will I do Selection again?

I’m not sure, but as soon as I was done, I thought about Diana Nyad.

Dianna is the only human who has swum from Cuba to Florida without a protective shark tank around her. She first attempted the swim when she was 30 years old, but didn’t accomplish her goal until she was 64! For 34 years, she thought about walking onto the Florida shore, triumphantly having finished this 120+ mile, open-water swim. Then one day, after all of the hype had died down, and people had forgotten about her goal, or believed that it just wasn’t possible, she did it. After she walked out of the water, the first thing she said was, “No matter what…never, ever, give up.”

Today, all signs point to never, ever, giving up.

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