2019 GORUCK Tough Battle of the Bulge AAR – Cleveland, Ohio
At 0700 everything seems like a pretty good idea. Get together with some friends, meet at a blustery beach park in sub-freezing weather, talk about the events of the Battle of the Bulge and attempt to complete your first GORUCK Tough event.
Seems like a normal day in the life of a weirdo.
At 0700 my mindset was to crush it.
Admin phase was what you would expect. Roll call, gear check, quitters cash check, ID check, water check. Any medical concerns; I raise my hand.
I don’t know what these events are like for someone without T1D. I’d imagine much like my life before I was diagnosed just a little less than a year ago; easy with no regards on carb counts.
Just before the start of the event my buddy Chris, from the Steel City Ruck Club, met up with more folks from his home club. Shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, checked out their new team weight in my trunk and also explained where all my med stuff was in each of our packs. Insulin, blood meters, and most importantly, glucose tabs. Chris carried an extra insulin pen and glucose in case I went down. Always have a battle buddy.
When Cadre Igor asked where all my stuff was, I explained in my pack where to find glucose, and who else to find it from. Satisfied, it was time for a welcome party.
Coming into this event, just 2 weeks ago as I write this, I fell during a 12 mile timed ruck with my home club, Cleveland Area Rucking Crew. I took a spill on ice directly on my left shoulder. It took 2 full weeks to regain range of motion and during those two weeks I had not worked it out at all. It felt weak and sore and I had no idea what this event would do to it. My goal was to just survive this event without hurting it further and contribute to the team in other ways once it was at failure and I could no longer carry heavy weight.
I just wasn’t expecting to feel the pain 3 push-ups into the welcome party as our team lead called out our push-ups in cadence. I knew right then it was going to be a long long day. Cadre said, if you are hurting, feel like quitting, don’t quit. Nothing is worth getting hurt over. If you need to take a knee do it, just show me you are giving 100% at all times.
Rules of the day were simple. Work together and communicate and whatever you do, never get in front of the flag on a march. It took us about a walk across the park after we filled up sandbags on the beach to make that mistake. On a cold icy path at Edgewater Park, we learned how serious Cadre was when the GORUCK flag passed the American Flag.
Trivia time. What day did the Battle of the Bulge kick off?
December 16, 1944. So we owed Cadre 20 pushups…times 16.
We lined up, front leaning rest. We were going to team share the 320 reps we owed him. It would start on left side of the line, work down until the end of the line where the person on the end would do two reps and down the line in the opposite direction it would go. We would do that until we reached 320.
We were doing great until we got to 290. At 290 the next person missed count and added 10. So you heard, 290! 300! Two-nine…301!
He let us get to 320 before we stopped and went back to 290 and did the last ones again. He would have zero counted us had we not had such a hard target time we had to hit. Needless to say, lesson learned.
Our first Team Leader and Assistant Team leader were probably the best we could hope for. Two Army grunts from West Virginia working up for a deployment. They could communicate clearly, effectively, and knew exactly what they were doing. We reached a hill and instead of the leisurely walk up the walking path, we were instructed to walk up the sledding hill.
We were halfway up when the team leader noticed that Cadre selected the back two guys as casualties. 4 or 5 of us peeled off with Team Leader to assess and get them up the hill. I grabbed victim 2’s ruck, strapped it on my front and somehow grabbed the victim with the help of two other guys and started walking up the hill. Halfway up the hill someone grabbed his ruck off my chest and we recovered both.
Due to the magic of GORUCK Victim 1 and 2 made a miraculous recovery at the top of the hill.
We were given our first objective to hit and the time hack and the Team Leader didn’t know where we were, so I offered my help. I am from the Cleveland area, lived in this part of town for years, and I knew I would eventually not be able to carry weight, so I offered my services as a navigator. I showed him the most efficient route, gave him waypoints and landmarks. He moved us out and away we went.
We made the first time hack and it was our first victory. We had gotten some miles in under coupon weights, which was 2 80 pounder sandbag and a 60 pounder (i think; it’s all very fuzzy to me). Team Leaders were fired, which was a bummer, I would have followed those dudes all day. They did great work. Quick break, blood sugar check 140. Solid. Quest bar.
Next movement was to a park probably 2 miles down the road. Time hack, move out.
The new team leader now knew I was a local, she asked for advice on the objective. Straight down the road we had been traveling. This will work fine. We hit that objective no problem. We learned how to patrol and did some movement to contact drills.
Our former team leads from the Army were exceptional. I was the heavy machine gunner with the sandbag for the Alpha team. Every time we would hit the deck he would crawl over to be my assistant gunner (AG) and he was concerned when my gun wasn’t firing, so like and idiot I’m making machine gun noises. It was fun. Before we bound to our next position he would tell me exactly where to put the gun before we moved, giving me a target to hit and a position that provided adequate cover. It was really neat to get a glimpse of life in combat. I know this was exactly nothing like combat, but that drill alone gives me a ton of respect to infantrymen everywhere who do this stuff for a living.
We circled around and played a game. 10 questions. The prize was 16 reps. We add 1 for every one we get wrong. We subtract for every one we get right.
We went 50/50 so we got 16 reps..of stairs.
I’m not talking like regular stairs, we had those too, but in Lakewood there are something called solstice stairs. Think stadium seating on the lake to view awesome sunsets. Each step up was knee height. 16 trips up and down using the regular stairs and what we dubbed the big stairs.
First trip up, no rucks. Then it got progressively harder. Add rucks. Add a person in a newly found litter fetched from a GR2 that would make Hermione Granger proud. Add a sandbag. New victim. Big stairs. Little Stairs. Sprint. Walk.
Halfway through my legs are screaming, I’m contemplating my decision to even do this event and I’m going internal. Chris my battle buddy from PGH kept checking in, my response all day was, “I’m not dead.”
The last trip up the big stairs after I was selected as the Team Leader and Chris my Assistant Team Leader my legs started to fail. Step up the big stair, buckle, drop. It was on the last step when Eric, holding a goddamn tree trunk by himself offered me his hand and pulled me to the top where both legs again buckled and I dropped down. Catching my breath. I got up dusted myself off knowing everyone in the group was smoked.
I took the instruction from the cadre, clearly stated our next movement and moved out. The objective was to reach the start point in 90 minutes. The sandbags were now hooked together and we cannot unhook them. 4 miles into this 6-mile movement, we are slow Cadre gives us a reprieve. Unhook the sandbags, hydrate and continue on. We have 30 minutes and just about 1.5 miles to go.
As we entered the park we had to traverse down that hill, this time on the path with some ice in places. Flashback to falling, I slowed down and was careful. As we got to the bottom of the hill I realized I was pretty far behind the hydration curve. Legs muscles started to cramp up and I pounded ice cold water from my bladder. Just had to make it across the park where we could drop the weight, hit the head, and hydrate.
I just had to get there.
As we reached flat ground legs felt better. We make it to the start point on time where I see my other battle buddy George with his other Light class teammates. Fresh bodies.
I ask Chris if I can grab one of his Gatorades. 22 carbs, I was ok with that, only 3 units of insulin if I needed it. Blood sugar check. 46. That’s dangerously low. No brain fog, I was clear as a damn bell. No low sugar shakes. Check again 46 and steady, don’t need insulin. I need carbs. Ok. Pound the gatorade, 1 glucose tab, quest bar, and hit the head. Stretch, hydrate, repeat. I was good.
While the light class was going through their gear checks the Tough class was instructed to figure out how to get our groceries to the homeless shelter. Our service project was pretty awesome.
There was a homeless shelter 2.9 miles from our start point and they are always in need of food. They serve the homeless 3 meals a day, 365 days a year. It’s completely funded by donation. So the Tough and Light class did a food drive. We probably had close to 150-200 or 500 pounds of food (who knows but it was heavy as hell). From cooking oil to 10 lb bags of sugar to jars of mayo and peanut butter. We loaded the litter up, threw smaller canned items into our rucks. I got 6 cans of tuna a 16 oz jar of peanut butter in my ruck. It was probably 5 pounds tops, but felt like a million pounds on a tender shoulder.
We carried this stuff what felt like 10 miles, it was only like 3 miles but it was a long hard 3 miles because we also had the coupons from the tough class. The food was broken down into 2 40 pound sandbags, an 80 pound sandbag, a 5.11 Rush24 pack, the litter, plus the two team weights.
At any given time there were only 2 people without something to carry. I remember carrying the sandbags of food, and it wasn’t terribly heavy, but awkward as hell.
Before we could offload to the homeless shelter we came to a park near it, where Cadre gave us a history lesson on the Battle of the Bulge. After he was through he lined us up. Sandbags every ⅓ of the way down. Tunnel of love time. Last person goes under the legs of everyone and so on. Then the sandbag for that ⅓ of people and so on until we reach the objective.
I instantly got nervous. My shoulder is hurting something fierce and I had to somehow fit in a very tight place. My confidence was shaky at best.
Chris my battle buddy goes through. Looking good Chris. George follows. Sometime in the next few iterations, it was then my turn. On my belly, low crawl. Cleared person 1, 2, 3 and felt ok. ⅓ of the way there I land on the shoulder wrong. Searing pain. I could feel the tears rolling down my cheek onto my facemask.
Cleared person 10, I’m clearly struggling.
I can hear teammates, “dude you got this, take your time, breath, we got all day, no hurry, keep going.” I don’t know who the first few people were but I was offered a tap out. I could pop up and he would finish it for me. I declined.
From then on it was a fight with myself. My teammates kept encouraging me. I knew this because I felt them pulling my pack between sets of legs to help but I could hardly hear them over my inner monolog.
“Get moving you fat fuck.”
Shoulder and left arm go numb.
“You couldn’t do this a year ago.”
“That pain in your shoulder isn’t going anywhere, remember you’re alive.”
“Just keep moving.”
Teammate slaps my back and yells, don’t you quit
“I’m not gonna fucking quit!” This time it was out loud and I’m pretty sure I shouted at the ground.
I looked at my right arm and saw a patch with some special meaning there. It was dirty. #NeverForgetDrew.
A patch I had made at a turning point in my life. It memorialized Captain Drew Ferguson, a brother, cousin, son, proud son of Avon Lake (my hometown) and a Ranger and Green Beret. He lost his life to suicide in 2017. I was on that same path at one point. I couldn’t relate to Drew in any way except that I know how dark that darkness is. That patch is the reminder to myself as I drew that line in the sand at his funeral. Never will I turn toward that path unprepared for the battle that would face me. I put myself at this event to fight the darkness. I was in that dark place battling for it. I did this to me.
I reached the end of the tunnel, rolled to my side and was then pinned down by my pack. I dump it, get up, ruck up grab the flag, wipe off my eyes, and take my position in line.
Chris was directly under me for the second when we heard we reached our objective.
Chris popped up and asked me how I was doing.
George asked me how I was doing.
Joe asked me how I was doing.
Come to think of it, every single person checked in on me and made sure I was good. Made sure my sugar was good. Did I need anything?
That was more than a low crawl through legs for me. That was an epic battle with myself. It was overcoming the ambush. I struggled, badly.
I’m still alive.
This is when I realized it wasn’t about me. I don’t finish that exercise without the team. I don’t finish the rest of this event without the team. I’m not a team of one. Those folks were my fire team in that struggle with myself. They covered me as I moved. I am grateful and I cannot say thank you enough to them.
I grabbed a team weight and we move out to the homeless shelter. We reduce our weight as we drop our food. These guys were a little surprised when we just kept opening bags and we filled their table in their holding area quickly.
I’ve never heard so many grateful thank-yous.
We headed downtown from there. Again, feeling a little down on myself I grabbed what remained of our 5 gallons of water. Quickly realized I can’t hand carry it without some extreme discomfort so I carabiner it to my shoulder strap and press on, but not before we owed Cadre 320 push-ups on the Detroit Ave Bridge. Same as before. Down the line, double push-ups from the end guys, back down the line.
We reach Mall C and more patrol drills, move to contact, more patrols drills, more move to contact. It was the most fun of the day. Exciting and I’m sure the people in the park with their dogs were confused as to what we were doing.
Everyone was smoked. Everyone was tired. My shoulder was on fire, my right knee had a good contusion on it. Team leader got his marching orders. Head back to the beach to start point for endex. Again I was asked for help navigating. I was happy to oblige. I knew I couldn’t do much else.
Cross the Detroit Bridge. Quiz time. “When did Adolf Hitler do the World a Favor.” That’s when Dan Bailey became our new best friend. Correct answer. We dropped the 60 pounds of sand in the flower bed. 40 more blocks to go until our right turn towards the beach.
10 blocks to go, stop. Challenge time. Cadre wants 320 sit-ups in the same fashion we did push-ups. How long will it take? If you win, you drop one of the 80-pound sandbags. If you lose you carry it to endex. We say 15 minutes. He gives us 12. If we mess up count, start at zero and deal is off.
Team really pulled together. We each called out our rep clearly and at the end, a little silly to keep everyone in the game. We complete the challenge in a little less than 7 minutes. 80 pound sandbag gets emptied in a flower bed, my bladder gets emptied in some bushes.
I grabbed one of the two flags and I was going to carry that thing into the endex. As we turn into the park, the wind is howling off the lake, it’s cold, and for the first time I realized I was about to complete my first Tough.
I was emotional coming in, quiet, and was reflecting in my head of all that our team accomplished. There was no way we carry that weight without each other. There was no way we get any history questions right without studying the Battle going in. There was no way any of this happens without everyone working together.
At endex Cadre tells us we traveled about 22 miles as a Tough class. Not bad. This was now the single longest distance I’ve rucked. The light was with us for 10 of those.
Photos with Steel City Ruck Club.
Photos with Chris and George.
Mission Accomplished. We did it.
I’m still alive.
Post-event dinner. Blood Sugar Check. 86. Perfect. I then pushed my single largest dose of bolus insulin I have ever taken at once. I ordered 3 galley boys and onion rings from Swenson’s with a diet vanilla coke ( didn’t want to use a whole 300 unit pen on 1 meal by ordering a regular coke). Dinner cost: $34.50 for Chris and I both including tip. Insulin Cost: $131.04 and worth every. Single. Penny. The most delicious cheeseburgers on the planet with extreme soreness and we didn’t even have to get out of the car? Priceless. Thanks Swenson’s!
I learned a lot from this experience and about the Battle of the Bulge.
You’re never alone if you surround yourself with the right people and the right team. Clear, simple communication is more effective than shouting. I need to train harder. I don’t want to survive the next one, I want to thrive. I have a plan on how to do that. I heard that Bryan Singelyn guy is a sadist, I’ll have to find out.
The Battle of the Bulge had the single costliest casualty rate for the Americans in WWII, but a 14 man recon unit held back an entire tank division for 14 hours helping the Allies by slowing down the advancing Germans. It’s amazing what a small effective team can do against a much larger but less trained enemy.
Further actions: sign up for my first Tough/Light in Pittsburgh in June. Battle of Ramadi, I’m coming for you.
Thanks for reading.