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The Weights We Carry: Life Lessons From a Grueling GORUCK Challenge

four guys standing next to each other
How often do unexpected difficulties prevent us from seeing all the good in an opportunity? And how often do we let the weight we carry with us in life overwhelm us and keep us from doing the things that matter most, or living our fullest lives? On Memorial Day Weekend, I participated in one of the toughest endurance events I’ve experienced in my life, and I found myself face-to-face with that question. Or, rather, I realized my answer to those questions—and I didn’t like what it was. My best friend since college, Fred, invited me to join him and his two sons in the GORUCK event, and I jumped at the chance. To challenge myself physically, take the opportunity to honor the military men and women who died fighting for our country, and, most of all, to spend a weekend with Fred and his sons—It would be the perfect day. I knew the GORUCK experience would be challenging, and I trained well accordingly, but it turned out to be far more intense than I could ever have imagined.  GORUCKs are endurance events based in military training practices where you cover a predetermined distance, while carrying 30lb backpacks, and are led by a “Cadre” (military leader) through various challenges along the way. They are notoriously brutal, but rewarding. The one we signed up for was supposed to be eight to 10 miles over the course of five hours starting at 7pm. I trained for a couple months carrying a weighted pack at home and dialed in my nutrition and strength training plans with my coach and nutritionist. I was excited and nervous, but confident. I’d completed a Half Ironman and spent many years investing in my physical fitness. I felt ready and had prepared myself well. Then I pulled up to the starting area and was surprised to find that we were all parked in a dirt lot, with no bathrooms or facilities in sight. It was dark, empty, and nothing like the big show I expected. Then, our Cadre showed up in a truck full of 40-80lb sandbags, large logs, and relevant flags. He told us we were going to be carrying these—in addition to the packs we’d known about. My heart sank a bit as I processed what I learned, and I began to feel fearful and doubtful about the night ahead. For the next five hours, we walked and ran with our 30lb backpacks on, taking turns with each of the sandbags, heavy logs, and GORUCK and USA flags. In addition to that, we completed a full “MURPH” workout along the way. We stopped three times, at each stop completing one of the MURPH components: 100 pullups, 200 pushups, and 300 squats, with the prescribed two miles of running mixed into the rest of the journey. I have never been so despondent during an event as I was there. I couldn’t focus on anything but the pain and exhaustion, never knowing how far we had to go. Selfishly, I wanted to quit a few times, but Fred pushed me to keep going. All I could think about was how much I was suffering, and how I wanted to see the end in sight. And, finally, we did see the finish. We were so relieved and exhausted. In the days that followed, Fred and I reflected together on the experience. What seemed to show up the most for me, more than for Fred, was just how quickly I fell into doubt and frustration when faced with challenges I didn’t expect and feared I couldn’t overcome. (Fred is a Navy guy and has always been fully capable of seeing through challenges and accepting them for what they are without complaining. The GORUCK was no exception, despite him having an injured calf! Navy Seals, I am told, are taught to ask the question, “What in this situation can I control immediately?” I, on the other hand, asked myself, “What else will go wrong?”) I let those challenges shift the focus from excitement, hope, and gratitude—for the military members who served us and died, for the physical challenge we were completing, for our time together—to negativity and doubt. Instead of continuing to say, “How do we make the most of this opportunity? How do we take this chance to grow and learn?” I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?” and sank into doubt and disappointment. I wasn’t able to pause and collect myself and see how the night, although changed, was still about honoring those who fought for our freedom. In short, I mentally gave up. It was a case of self-sabotaging in many ways. I let my burdens snuff out the good that was in front of me—all the beautiful lessons and memories I was making but couldn’t see in the moment. I can’t help but see a similarity between the sandbags we carried and the shame, doubt, and baggage we all carry in our daily lives. These burdens weigh us down and keep us from living freely in the present and using our imagination for the future. We all have a weight—Whether it’s a trauma from childhood, an inherited belief that we aren’t good enough, or a loss of dignity that leaves us searching for belonging, we go through life with limitations we may not even be aware of. Or, we become disillusioned with that new job, or our partner, or the big project we’re working on when rubber hits the road and things aren’t as perfect or exciting or easy as we expected them to be. We become doubtful, negative, and insecure. But the beautiful thing is, we can learn to see the positive despite the challenges. And, sometimes, we can even unburden ourselves of those weights we carry—if we’re willing to reach out to others.  With about half a mile to go, I was absolutely wiped. I couldn’t imagine carrying on another step, lugging my 40lb sandbag like an albatross around my neck. Then I saw someone in the distance, about 20’ ahead of me. I called out to them. “Hey, man, I need a big favor,” I yelled. “I need help.” He asked what was going on, and I responded, “Would you mind taking this sandbag? I’m totally exhausted.” And even though he wasn’t in my group for the event, he took it from me and carried it. We started talking, and he told me his name was Peter. Then we continued on side by side, talking about our families, why we each came to the event, and how hard it was. And before I knew it, we were at the camp at the finish. The last part of the race—when we were all the most exhausted—suddenly became one of the most memorable highlights of the entire night. This man I didn’t know, and who didn’t know me, took my burden when I asked him for help, and he was able to carry it when I couldn’t. If I hadn’t yelled ahead to ask for help, I don’t know if I would have finished. Maybe I would have, maybe not. But I reached out, and he responded, and we finished together—side by side. That moment is one I’ll always remember. It’s the kind of special, fleeting experience that reminds us what we’re capable of, and how powerful connection is, and that even in the most dreadful and trying circumstances, there is light to be found and gratitude we can share.  It’s those moments we need to hold on to and remember, so the burdens and challenges we face don’t overtake us or make us feel like there’s nothing to be hopeful about. Even when we show up to the big day and find a dark, dirt parking lot with more challenges than we can imagine, we can hold our heads high and say, “This is good, we got this.” What weights are you carrying? Are you willing to ask for help, or put them down?

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