GoRuck: Inside the seriously grueling challenge run by Special Forces soldiers

Airmen from the 366th Civil Engineering Squadron fire department use a fire hose to spray members participating in the GORUCK Light Challenge July 12, 2014, at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. Mountain Home AFB is the first of 18 Air Force bases to test the Team Cohesion Challenge, which will end in November. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Benjamin Sutton/Released)

(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Benjamin Sutton/Released)

After he parked and got out of his car, he didn’t introduce himself or offer any welcome. The unnamed instructor just said, “okay everybody get over here and sign your death waivers.”

This was my first introduction to a GoRuck Challenge, a team endurance event run by former U.S. military special operators. It was the 83rd challenge to take place in Dec. 2011 — running around Tampa, Fla. with 24 people. Since then, it’s grown to more than 2,500 events that now comprise various skill levels.

GoRuck Challenges usually attract a certain demographic of people: Former military personnel, law enforcement, and fitness enthusiasts. Especially with the ominous intro from our instructor, a former Green Beret, anyone taking part in a GoRuck event knows it will be rough, to say the least.

Members of the 97th Air Mobility Wing carry a telephone pole across the base in a GORUCK Light challenge, Oct. 18, 2014. The team carried the pole from the south end of the flight line to the track. The Airmen completed the challenges as a team while carrying weighted rucksacks or backpacks. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class J. Zuriel Lee/Released)

Members of the 97th Air Mobility Wing carry a telephone pole across the base in a GORUCK Light challenge, Oct. 18, 2014. The team carried the pole from the south end of the flight line to the track. The Airmen completed the challenges as a team while carrying weighted rucksacks or backpacks. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class J. Zuriel Lee/Released)

“We want to promote the sport of rucking,” Kit Klein, partnership manager for GoRuck based in Jacksonville, Fla., told The Tampa Bay Times. “We’re trying to put it on the map.”

The “sport of rucking” that GoRuck promotes now consists of “GoRuck Light,” a four to five hour challenge that covers seven to 10 miles, “GoRuck Tough,” a 10 to 12-hour challenge covering 15 to 20 miles, and “GoRuck Heavy,” a much more demanding 24-hour-plus challenge that can cover more than 40 miles.

But those times and distances can vary, as one of the company’s mottos is to “under-promise, over-deliver.” (For the GoRuck Tough challenge I was on in Tampa, we did roughly 23 miles over 15 hours).

“Your class is led from start to finish by a Special Operations Cadre whose job is to build a team by pushing you to overcome, together,” reads the description of the challenges on the GoRuck website. “You stay with your class the entire time aka a true team event, never in any way confused with a road race or a mud run. And no, your Cadre is not a drill sergeant and no, this is not bootcamp. That stuff belongs to the military, this is simply an event about your team.”

Benjamin Evers, Air Force Personnel Center Outdoor Recreation operations specialist, hold the United States flag July 12, 2014, at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. Evers held the flag for participants while they performed challenges and obstacles during the GORUCK Light/Team Cohesion Challenge. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Benjamin Sutton/Released)

Benjamin Evers, Air Force Personnel Center Outdoor Recreation operations specialist, hold the United States flag July 12, 2014, at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. Evers held the flag for participants while they performed challenges and obstacles during the GORUCK Light/Team Cohesion Challenge. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Benjamin Sutton/Released)

Founding GoRuck

All of the challenges require participants to carry around weights or bricks in a backpack, which is why these events exist in the first place.

In 2008, GoRuck was a new company making rugged backpacks designed to withstand the rigors of military combat. Founded by former Special Forces soldier Jason McCarthy, he sent his bags to friends in the field to test out and he quickly realized selling backpacks may not be his only business.

From Men’s Journal:

McCarthy spent two years developing the bags that make up most of GoRuck’s product line (four styles, starting at $195). Early on, he battle-tested his prototypes, literally – sending them to Green Beret buddies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then he grew concerned about sending unproven gear to men in danger, so he established another proving ground: the GoRuck Challenge. In these team-oriented endurance runs, which are led by combat veterans and incorporate Special Forces training, participants carry a GoRuck sack loaded with rocks or bricks.

goruck challenge

Part of the class from GoRuck Tough Challenge 083 in the water in Tampa, Fla on Dec. 10, 2011. (Photo: Paul Szoldra/WATM)

“The original intent was very nearsighted,” McCarthy told The Cincinnatti Enquirer of starting his first challenges. “I had a bunch of inventory and wanted people to know about our bags.”

People did learn of GoRuck, and more: “People kept describing this as a life-changing event,” McCarthy told the Enquirer. “I got more and more and more requests to host events.”

An Iraq war veteran, McCarthy began the events in 2010 while attending business school at Georgetown University, according to The Washington Post. Beyond marketing his bags, he told The Post, his goal is “to build better Americans” with his challenges. He does this by promoting leadership, teamwork, and honoring the sacrifices of military service members.

“It’s spiritual, emotional experience they take away,” Derek Zahler, a GoRuck cadre and former Special Forces soldier, told News4Jax. “They get to learn a lot more about themselves. Especially their goals and what they perceive their ability to achieve those goals are.”

The company has moved beyond backpacks and challenging events, however. It now sells apparel, fitness items, and even firearms gear, which it developed in 2014. In that year, the company had $10.8 million in revenue — nearly 30 percent more than the previous year’s figures.

Check out more on GoRuck at its website here.

OR READ: The definitive guide to US Special Ops >

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