The last of the sky’s bruised-purple tint has faded to black, and now it’s anywhere from eleven at night to four in the morning. The miles and hours pile on top of each other until it’s impossible to tell what time it is. The straps of my backpack are soaked through with sweat, and the log on my shoulder keeps slipping, biting into my neck. I grunt and heave it into place, and we start running again.
A headlamp flashes back at me and says, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Squishing along behind him, my shoes still wet from the last stream crossing, I shake my head.
“No,” I say. “You’re wrong.”
Pain is pain. It hurts, and that’s all.
Orwell said it best: “Of pain you could wish only one thing: that it should stop. Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain. In the face of pain there are no heroes.”
But here we are, hiking through town for hours, hauling 45-pound packs through the dark—less heroic than insane.
We’re a few hours into the GoRuck Challenge, an all-night sufferfest designed to replicate U.S. military special-ops training. No one knows what’s next or how long this will last. We do what we’re told. Our packs can’t touch the ground—and neither can the American flag, flying from a four-foot dowel, which stays at the front of the line, no matter what. We’ve faced windsprints through football-field sprinklers, countless push-ups, miles of ruckmarching. We’ve turned our palms to hamburger bear-crawling down gravel trails. We’ve carried brick-filled backpacks, huge logs, each other. People have cheered for us, stared at us, locked their doors as we went by. The cops have stopped us. Twice.
We stop by the gas station just off campus to refill water bottles and buy energy bars. People laugh and joke with passers-by who want to know why 12 sweaty people with backpacks are in front of a gas station in the middle of the night.
We drink the last of our water and gather around Brent, our “cadre”. He tells us what to do, and then we do it.
“Your team has sustained six casualties. You need to buddy-carry half your team to the evac point at the East Gallatin Rec Area,” Brent says. Under the florescent lights, faces go white and jaws drop. The smiling stops.
“Bozeman Beach?” someone says. “But that’s past Wal-Mart, past the interstate. It’s like three miles.”
“Actually three point one,” Brent says. “And you have three hours to get there. Starting now. Get moving.” He pulls up his hood and walks off into the darkness.
Our team leader shakes his head. “Okay, we need to pair up and start moving. Find someone about your weight and head north. This might not be too bad.”
I scan the group, searching for someone my size. Kevin walks over. I look up at him and can tell he played football in high school: broad shoulders, big arms. “There’s no way you’re 185 pounds.” I say. “You’re at least three inches taller than me.”
He shrugs. “I’m 183, actually. You wanna go first?” He cinches down the straps on his pack.
“I’ve never buddy-carried anyone before,” I say. Around us, groups have paired up and gathered at the corner of the block.
“And stay together,” Brent calls out. “If you don’t work as a team, you’ll have to start over again.”
Kevin gives a little hop and lands across my shoulders, his chest on my pack. My knees buckle in and my feet shuffle like a punch-drunk boxer. I hook my right arm around his knees as he grabs my left bicep. “Ready to go?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he grunts. “Just try to move quick—it’s hard to breathe up here.”
I take a tentative step forward, ready to roll into the grass when my knees cave in. They don’t. I take another step. Not sure which part of my body will give out first, I start trotting, gaining speed, racing alongside groups trying to make it to the end of the block before something breaks.
A little mental math puts the total on my back somewhere near 300 pounds. About the weight of an NFL linebacker compressing my spine. This is the slowest I’ve ever walked, but the hardest I’ve ever tried to do it. Kevin cheers me on, wheezing from my pack pressing into his sternum.
I plod faster, gasping for air, shoes still squishing from the football-field sprinklers. Just as the concrete turns into pavement, I lean forward to dump Kevin off my shoulders and collapse in the grass, lungs heaving. The other groups file in and gather round. No one is smiling anymore. “You did really great, man,” Kevin says, looking off down the street. “Only about three more miles to go.”
Over the next three hours, we carry our six casualties past the Molly Brown, down 7th, past Wal-Mart, over I-90, a few hundred yards shy of Bozeman beach. We collapse on the grass. Brent gives us a few minutes to drink water and prepare for the next phase of the challenge.
And a few hours later, after more pushups, more massive logs, more ruck-running, more bear crawls, after the sun has reached full morning light, after we’ve buddy-carried our teammates up Peets Hill, covered ourselves in mud and grass for camouflage, and sprinted back to the GoRuck warehouse, it’s over.
We gather in the parking lot, finally dumping our bags to the ground and easing our bodies onto the curb. Brent reaches into his pack and says, “You guys have earned this.”
He hands me a patch, Velcro backing, silver text on black, with an arrowhead pointing right and the words “GORUCK TOUGH” underneath. That’s all. I turn it over in my hands. My battered knees and hips scream at me to lie down, go to sleep.
Napoleon bragged that he could train men to sacrifice their lives for a scrap of ribbon.
No one else is looking at their patch. The extra 30-pound backpack filled with beer that we took turns carrying for the last 10 hours is lying open on the asphalt, cans spilling out. Our group circles around it. Everyone takes a warm, shook-up Budweiser in hand, smiling and laughing, comparing battle stories and scars. These 12 strangers, brought closer overnight than in a month of Sundays at the bar.
I stuff the patch in my pocket and crack open a beer. Smiling in the warm morning sun, already, a small part of me wonders when the next GoRuck will happen.
This year Bozeman hosts two GoRuck Challenges, on June 14 and September 7. Get more info and sign up at goruck.com/events/challenge.