GoRuck Challenge – Promoting a Bag or Building a Team?


When you first hear about the GoRuck Challenge you can’t help but think that it sounds like shameless self-promotion with a bit of revenue generation thrown in – an extreme workout that you pay $120 to participate in, all for the right to test out a bag and earn a patch if you complete it? Really? But a closer look reveals that this is no sales gimmick, and that patch, once earned, is worn and recognized at other extreme events as a badge of honor among the baddest of the bad.

True Intentions

This is an experience unlike any Crossfit competition or boot camp or mud run. The GoRuck Challenge is one of the most in-demand extreme athletic challenges in the country.

fitness2xtreme-images-goruck-challenge-01-traversing-riverIt’s being hosted in cities all around the country and expanding all the time, taking total strangers or groups who sign up together on elite, military style missions to test their mettle and teach leadership and teamwork through trial by fire.

They train in place and they train hard, traversing highlights and low lights of a landscape for a dozen straight hours or more, using whatever the particular city has to offer to test them, traveling a minimum of 15-20 miles in what feels like an endless march.

Participants surmount obstacles that numb their minds and push their bodies to the breaking point while cadre leaders are constantly on the lookout for what else they can be thrown at them; in the end, they come out as a unified team that has faced one of the most brutal, exhausting and exhilarating tests around.

Birth of GoRuck

fitness2xtreme-images-goruck-challenge-06-tough-mudder-testedThe story behind the GoRuck Challenge is worth repeating. Jason McCarthy is the founder of Goruck – he’s a Green Beret and Georgetown MBA who decided to design and market a backpack/ruck that would hold up to the rigors of combat – something he would have used in his time in Iraq.

He tested his bag himself, carrying it on a seven mile Tough Mudder course, and that field testing ended up morphing into the challenge that his company offers today.

McCarthy wanted to prove that the bag would hold up – and he knows that it will for a lifetime. Now the question has become whether the people who sign up for the challenge will be able to endure as well as the ruck does.

Leveraging the surrounding elements

One of the things that make the GoRuck Challenge such a draw is the fact that every event is different based on where the challenge is held. McCarthy and his fellow cadres design the course the way that a special op would be run.

They analyze what they have and use it, wherever they are, and of course whatever they come up with is designed for maximum effort – or sadism. A GoRuck in St. Augustine, Florida included an exhausting run that ended at the tip of a distant island park.

As beautiful as this stretch must be in the day, it completely sucked right then. It was pitch black dark, we were doing Indian runs in soft beach sand, and it was windy. Once we reached the tip of the island and saw the lights of downtown St Augustine in the distance, we realized a horrifying truth…we had to turn around and cover the same miles back. There was no way to exit the island without retracing our steps. We were probably eight miles out from homebase with two of those miles in sugary beach sand. Everyone was exhausted, hobbled, dehydrated, and bonking. This was where my mental state turned from “upbeat” to “beaten down.”

The run back was the longest, most brutal, darkest stretch of running that I have ever done in my life. There were several long stretches where I was mentally checked out. My feet hurt so bad I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up and I spent most of the last few miles hanging onto the back of the group. It royally sucked. –Ben O’Grady

fitness2xtreme-images-goruck-challenge-04-cityIf you’re in Philadelphia you can be sure you’re going to see so many flights up and down the famous steps that you never want to hear the Rocky music again.

If you’re in D.C. your mission is going to take you through the monuments and end at the White House in a tour that would freak the Capital police out if they weren’t already aware of it.

Running through the mean streets of almost any American city means you’re likely going to end up carrying somebody’s discarded, beaten up couch or a blown tire, complete with wheel – you just never know what it’s going to be.

fitness2xtreme-images-goruck-challenge-02-in-the-darkThere are also a couple of constants. GoRuck is almost always run at night, basically a dusk-to-dawn operation carried out like a military op. It either entertains or spooks city residents who see the group of thirty bear crawling and perspiring through their streets at three in the morning.

fitness2xtreme-images-goruck-challenge-goruck-pack-flThe bag is another constant. It doesn’t have to be a GoRuck but it’s kind of strange for it not to be. It’s loaded with enough bricks to make sure that you’re uncomfortable with carrying its weight from the start and completely drained by the end.

Every GoRuck involves a lot of discomfort, whether it’s cold, wet, sandy, muddy, or all of the above. If you end up carrying a buddy you’re going to carry his ruck and whatever else he’s been assigned to carry as well, and that’s just one of the endless challenges that are another constant– whether laps up and down endless stairs or hauling around fire hoses or hours of PT in the surf, you’re going to travel a minimum of fifteen miles from point A to point B that will be punctuated by as many tortures as your cadre leader can dream up.

fitness2xtreme-images-goruck-challenge-10-carrying-miseryAnd then there’s the log. Some teams opt to name the log with appellations such as “Misery” or “Pain”. It’s a several-hundred pound companion to every GoRuck Challenge, and unlike the logs that have been used in some of the SEAL-type training camps, this one is not just an obstacle or something to be carried for a short stretch but a part of the trip that is a kind of seven stages of grief exercise.

First you fight it, then you bargain with it, then you finally accept it.

It’s soaked with water to ensure that its weight is maximized, and carrying the log as a team and making sure that it gets where it’s going without touching the ground takes up two to three hours of every Goruck Challenge.

A GoRuck that marked the anniversary of 9/11 in New York City included carrying the log across the quarter-mile long Manhattan Bridge.

The GoRuckers and the log look like ants carrying a Cheeto. They move with staggering slowness, trailing a thick cloud of human sweat, effort, inflammation factors. The effort is difficult even to watch. What was grueling before is now sadistic. Under Armour seams have ripped at the shoulders. Ears are red as those of wrestlers.

And finally, beautifully, awfully, they do it, inching the giant log across the bridge, down to the waterfront park and—with an earth-shaking drop—finally, smack on the banks of the East River. –BusinessWeek

In fact, nothing can touch the ground, and everything is done as a team. Break that rule and you’ll be subjected to push ups or other punishments that your already-weary body just can’t afford to take on.

Embracing the “Suck”

Some Goruck veterans will tell you that the “suck” is another constant – that at some point you are just plodding through with the blind knowledge that the challenge you’re enduring is hell and it’s not going to be better ‘til it’s over – and it’s not going to be over for a long, long time.

And yet a high percentage of the group you’ll find yourself participating with will turn out to be veterans of previous GoRucks who just had to do another.

The mere fact of surviving the experience is an incredible high after having gone through such lows, and that’s why the patch that they give you at the end is worn with such pride, and why it’s respected by those who recognize it.


The thing about the GoRuck is that it’s viciously hard, but it’s about far more than the effort. There is no part of this event that is a race or a competition. You are quickly made to realize that nothing is done alone – you’re part of a team and it doesn’t matter how strong your most powerful members are, you still have to deal with members’ weaknesses and figure out a way to work with them.

The teamwork aspect becomes vital, as does the realization that every GoRuck veteran ends up having – that all their preparation and anticipation and psyching themselves up and out for the Challenge was just so much noise.

Jason McCarthy, the founder of the GoRuck Challenge, would call this “over-gaming” it. So many of those who sign up for a GRC go through the same process that I did. They search for any and every element of the Challenge that they can potentially control and game the hell out of it, from taping and strapping bricks to determining the precise amount of gel packs one will need for energy. But after completing my first GRC last month, I’ve learned one very important lesson – you can never fully prepare for the Challenge–it is an experience like none other. –Paul at MudRunManiac

Every GoRuck is run differently and there’s no way to adequately prepare when your cadre leader is actually making up challenges on the fly or decides that the course should go for a few more miles than was initially indicated or what you trained for.

You simply have to be far more than strong.

You have to be adaptable and able to accept a challenge for what it is – something that you simply need to accomplish regardless of whether you’ve physically prepared for it or not.

That’s the way things work in combat, in business and in life.

It’s how wars are won and how leaders are made, and it’s the reason why having the patch to prove you survived a GoRuck Challenge is quickly becoming one of the most respected and sought out athletic status symbols around.


Speak Your Mind