It was the middle of the night, and cold. David Kim, 37, was in a conga line wearing a rucksack filled with bricks, and bear-crawling up and down the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was the same backdrop to Rocky Balboa’s inspirational, fist-pumping training run, but at this moment Kim and the rest of his group weren’t feeling so triumphant.
During a pause in the exercise, the group leader, a former Special Operations soldier, strode down the line needling his charges. “And what do you do for a living?” he asked Kim, as the rest of the group panted and groaned from exhaustion. Kim told him he was an insurance salesman, and the leader smiled wryly. “I bet you just want to kill yourself, don’t you?” he said.
In moments like this, Kim says, you had to laugh. Worn out and sweaty, the whole group chuckled in commiseration. And by the end of their long, grueling night, any barriers left between them would be torn down. They would become a team. This 10-hour overnight endurance exercise was the quintessential GORUCK Challenge. At each such event — hosted by GORUCK, the outdoor gear manufacturer — about 30 or so participants undergo a series of punishing physical tasks together, including pushups and bear crawls, under the weight of 50-pound sacks on their backs. Throughout the night, they trek 15 to 20 miles through the city, completing “missions” along the way, like carrying a very heavy log a very far distance, as a team (to simulate recovering a downed pilot). This year, GORUCK will host 1,000 challenges in 129 cities in 10 countries around the world.
Most people sign up for GORUCK’s military-style challenges — paying about $100 for the privilege — because they want adventure or to push themselves physically. The back-breaking events are certainly good for that. But according to Jason McCarthy, the founder of the Florida-based company, GORUCK has a larger mission, too: to bridge the military-civilian divide. About a quarter of GORUCK’s participants come from a military background, and the rest are civilians. By putting everyone through the wringer together, GORUCK helps break down misconceptions that people may hold about soldiers, while also offering camaraderie to military veterans who may be having trouble adjusting to civilian life.
Before he did GORUCK, says Kim, who works as director of sales operations for AIG in New York City, he, too, subscribed to common stereotypes about soldiers — the cold killing machine, for example, or the lofty war hero. GORUCK was a real education. The military guys weren’t necessarily the strongest or the burliest of the group, he says. It turned out, they’re all regular guys and gals. “What GORUCK has done is to make veterans more accessible. It humanized them,” says Kim. “They’re real guys that you can have a beer with.”
For the veterans who participate, the events can provide a sense of normalcy, says Bert Kuntz, a GORUCK Challenge leader, who, like all GORUCK leaders, was once a member of the Special Forces. He says that many service members have approached him after the challenges to tell him that they were struggling at work or at home and that GORUCK gave them a needed respite from their weary march through everyday life.
“It’s hard to take someone out of a military job, with that kind of intensity, and tell them to be like everyone else and just work,” says Kuntz. “A lot of people are looking for some connection back to that military routine. To feel that comfort of, ‘Hey, this is something that I know.’ ”
Every couple of months, GORUCK also holds aptly named War Stories and Free Beer events, during which an audience of veterans and civilians listens to former service members as they tell their stories from downrange. Sometimes, the stories bring catharsis to veterans — who talk about getting injured or losing friends in battle; sometimes, they’re comedic release, a chance to relive epic pranks pulled on comrades during downtime. Other times, they’re about the familiar banality of military life.
War Stories regular David Waikart, an Army captain who served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, likes to talk about his experience making PowerPoint slides while deployed overseas, and the absurdity of watching highly trained soldiers sit around debating the optimal hue for slide backgrounds. “You’re not going to have a story on the 10 o’clock news about an Army captain making PowerPoint slides, but that was a big part of my job,” says Waikart. He adds: “If you watch the news or read the paper, you’re either going to hear about the horrible things or the really incredible things. It’s very sterilized in a sense. War Stories is more intimate. It’s not a Pentagon spokesperson. It’s a guy or girl in civilian clothes, holding a beer and telling a story.”
None of this — not the challenges nor the confabs — was part of the business plan when McCarthy founded GORUCK after leaving Special Forces in 2008. GORUCK started as a gear company, making rucksacks (which explains the company’s name). “As I was getting out, I wanted to take the best of military gear and make it civilian-friendly,” McCarthy told blogger Ben O’Grady in 2011. “Ultimately, that philosophy has transcended just the packs and is living on in the GORUCK Challenge.”
It was the aggressive field-tests of McCarthy’s packs that eventually evolved into the challenges. He first wanted to show off the durability of the rucks by having former Special Forces soldiers fill them with bricks and take them through a typical military-style obstacle-course event, namely the well-known Tough Mudder challenge. When civilians wanted to get involved, GORUCK started holding training sessions for them too. What McCarthy was hoping for was some compelling marketing photos of mud-caked packs, highlighting their toughness. What he actually saw was unexpected. McCarthy witnessed groups of strangers coming together and, over a matter of hours, becoming teammates, then friends, and forging meaningful bonds. He quickly realized that the challenges were more about the mud-caked people than the packs.
There is a lot of power in a team, McCarthy says; it’s something most people don’t fully appreciate until they experience it for themselves. “The more you work together, the better it gets, and that’s really the power of it,” he says. Ruckers, as participants call themselves, figure out that they can actually accomplish a lot more than they ever thought. That realization happens first on a physical level, but then people start tearing down the mental barriers that they’ve set up in other areas of their lives, says McCarthy. “That’s one of the most powerful testimonials — people who say that after the GORUCK Challenge, it unlocked a whole universe to them about what they can do, and that transcends everything,” he says.
For Kim, pushing through to the finish, even when he wanted nothing more than to give up, made him a better person. “There were times when I didn’t think I was going to make it, and afterwards, I realized what teamwork is,” says Kim, who not only survived his first challenge, but has also completed several more since then. “Sometimes, you have to go through it to realize what lofty words like teamwork, courage and toughness mean.” To everyone else, they’re just words.