This will be a joint AAR by me (Ryan) and Grace, my 15-year-old (at the time of this post) daughter for the 2022 50-Mile GORUCK Star Course in New York City. For the AAR, I have written my review and Grace has come in behind me to add her comments. Grace’s contribution will be in green.
What is the GORUCK Star Course?
Short version: An event run by GORUCK in which you wear a backpack with weight in it and go for a long walk. More details here.
In 2021 Grace and I participated in the GORUCK 12-Mile Star Course in Richmond, VA. You can hear my interview with Grace on the Under the Log podcast. This was Grace’s first GORUCK event (and the first time she’d ever walked more than 7 miles). Oh, and we won the event!
Grace then let me know that GORUCK had a 26-Mile Star Course coming up in DC. We signed up, showed up, and took 2nd place.
At this point, Grace expressed some interest in the 50-Mile Star Course. We set our eyes on New York (because, if you’re gonna suffer that much it might as well be in an awesome location). After the September 2021 NYC50 event got canceled, we agreed to tackle the beast in April 2022. This was a good thing. I would NOT have been ready last year.
Having seen her grit it out through 26 miles GORUCK Star Course, I knew that she had it in her to do the 50-miler. But, I also knew that she (ok, we) needed to train in order to make it happen.
The training plan we agreed upon had us doing 3 long rucks between January and March. The long rucks would be 20, 26, and 30 miles and we’d do them at the top of each month.
In addition to these long rucks we would do a 2-hour ruck every Saturday with our local GORUCK Club.
For Grace, we added in a “plan” of 3 rucks during the weekdays. She was going to do one shorter “fast” ruck focused on walk/shuffle intervals. One ruck was to be “heavy” and include a sandbag but could be shorter. And, one ruck was supposed to be above event weight (so, for her 20-30 pounds) and be a bit longer, but below our Saturday time/distance. This was a great plan that I completely failed to execute. The amount probably averaged out to 3 times a week but I didn’t do the fast and heavy rucks almost ever. I wish I would have done more interval work.
For me, I’ve rucked so many miles that I didn’t feel the need for the rucks during the week. I train almost every day at CrossFit Addict and knew that the weekend and long rucks would be sufficient for my training.
When it came to our long rucks, the goal was to acclimate to the distance and test out gear, nutrition, and strategy.
Sustain: Create a plan that is tailored to you and stick to it.
Improve: None. Actually stick to the plan.
Notes on Long Training Rucks
The first ruck of our training was 20-miles. Neither of us had rucked in “a while” and this was all about testing the baseline of body and mind. My belief is that if you can do 20 miles and not be crushed, you can do 50 miles. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but I’m saying you can do it. I snuck in a few rucks the week before the 20. Dad called it cheating, I called it smart.
We hit the 20-miles with no stops or breaks and, while a little sore, we both felt good.
The 26-mile ruck was about testing a nutrition strategy. We tested having a Gu Waffle snack on the top of every hour and an electrolyte tab at the bottom of every hour. The results of this test were very positive. It helped us maintain energy and consume more water, which was great for hydration.
The 26-mile ruck was done with just one short break and was a big success.
Neither of us “wanted” to do the 30-mile ruck, but we agreed that we needed it. We picked a there-and-back route, adhered to the nutrition plan, and knocked it out with no stops except for bathrooms. I actually felt like the right number was 35, since that would only leave 15 miles of unknown instead of 20, but I really didn’t want to do it, so I didn’t push for it when dad said 30. I don’t know if it was detrimental or not, but I probably should have at least discussed it with him.
We were as ready as we could be.
Sustain: Testing your plan and adapting as needed. Attempt long rucks with no breaks.
Improve: (Ryan) I tried to get out of doing the 30-mile ruck. Lose the negative attitude and take your medicine.
Making the Most of The Event Location
Since we were traveling to NYC for the event, I decided we should make a full trip out of it.
We took the train to NYC on Thursday.
We had NYC Style Pizza.
We went to the 9/11 Memorial. This was so… I don’t have the words…
We went to the top of One World Trade Center. The view was stunning. (My favorite!)
We had a fancy dinner. Oh… The brussel spouts!
We went to Time Square.
We visited Central Park. (Close second favorite, it was super cool)
We crammed a whole lot of fun into a little bit of time, creating some really sweet memories.
Oh, and we also tested our navigation skills by using Apple Maps to navigate from site to site around town. This proved beneficial because we learned that the maps were crazy sluggish and often inaccurate in the city.
Sustain: Get a hotel near the start point. If you have time and means, make a trip out of the event. Test your apps in as true a situation as possible.
Improve: It did feel like a lot of energy expended prior to the event. I think it was worth it, but perhaps there is room for improvement.
During our wanderings around New York we located our Start Point and calculated time to get there from the hotel.
Since the 50-Mile Star Course starts at 9:00 PM, we arrived back at the hotel from sight-seeing on Friday around 2:00 PM and took a nap. We both managed to get about an hour of sleep.
After this, we chilled and watched some TV, just trying to stay relaxed.
We went to Chipotle around 6:00 PM to get dinner. For me, this is the perfect pre-event meal. I keep it simple with rice, chicken, and some light toppings. I can’t pin down why, but I didn’t like Chipotle for a pre-event meal.
At 7:00 PM we started to get dressed, do gear check, and pack.
8:35 PM we sat down and prayed together (more on why this is in the AAR in just a bit). We specifically prayed for our physical safety and health, that we’d be able to find bathrooms easily (while I can pee anywhere, it is less than ideal to ask my 15-year-old daughter to go pee on the side of a building), and that God would be present and help us complete the Star Course.
8:40 we depart to the Start Point, check in with the cadre “Team ‘Worst Dad and Daughter Date Ever‘ reporting”, chit-chat with some folks, and try to stay warm (SP was in a freakin wind tunnel and it was like 40 degrees).
Sustain: Keep dinner simple and safe. Double check all gear before leaving for SP. Pray.
Improve: I’ve never had the luxury of napping (or really relaxing) the day of an event. I actually found it a little stressful to have so much “down” time. Not sure how to improve this, but just take it into consideration next time.
As part of our planning we created a notecard that reminded us of what to do once we were given the hit-list. The goal was to make sure we didn’t miss any checkpoints and that we did everything needed before leaving SP.
- Count all the check points. We both do a count in order to make sure we have the same number. Missing a check point would be terminal to the event.
- Entering the check points into Road Warrior. I’d note that I set up the “route” file in advance, making sure to pre set the start/end point and optimize for walking. I highly recommend this. Also, using speech-to-text for addresses and naming the stops was a big help. Finally, when renaming the stops I include which page on the sheet the stop is located. This is helpful for finding it later.
- Optimize the route and double check that the stop count matches the total you got on step one. Again, missed stops are game-over.
- Once we had the route optimized, we added stop numbers to the paper copy.
- Then, we took a picture of every page (in case the sheet got lost or destroyed).
- This seemed like it would be a time saver while on-the-move, but in the moment, we called an audible and skipped the hastag list in notes. While having the list is convenient for not having to look it up on the paper every stop, we had already spent a lot of time one all the other steps and I just wanted to get going. In the end, I think it was fine to skip.
- Take a pic and head out!
Sustain: The start point plan and notecard were a big help to stay calm and execute. Dropping the hastag step was the right call.
Improve: We didn’t practice the speech-to-text in advance and had some issues with the mic picking up things the other person was saying and messing up the text. ALWAYS test each piece of your plan (gear, food, apps, etc) to the best of your ability.
Note: The remainder of this AAR will not have the Sustain and Improve callouts.
The Answer to Prayer
We were excited and on our way to the first check point, which was about 1/2 mile away. As we approached the the address we were looking for the “carousal.” As we scanned the area, a team of two came walking toward us and said, “It is over there.” I was grateful for the help and we headed over for a picture, checkin, and off to the next stop.
The other team, who we would come to learn were Roberto and Jenny, had the same route as us and we headed off in the same direction. In the initial steps to the second stop they spouted off optimal streets to take and agreed on a plan. They were clearly locals to NYC.
As we walked, Roberto asked us some questions, one of which was “Are you two trying to be competitive?” The answer, deep down for me, was yes. Based on all Grace had done in previous events and training, I honestly thought that if all went well, we could finish in the top 3 teams.
My answer to Roberto was that we like to move with purpose and take as few breaks as possible. In my head, at this point, I though Grace and I would just walk and if our pace started to separate us from Jenny and Roberto, then we’d just be on our way. I never intended to continue with them.
But, a wonderful thing happened. Roberto and Jenny’s pace matched ours perfectly. Like… perfectly.
We approached check point two and Roberto pointed towards a ramp and said, “the sphere is up there.” I had no reason to doubt him, even though Apple Maps had me going around the corner. I looked at Grace, shrugged my shoulders, and we followed Roberto. Sure enough, there it was.
Now, here is where things get really crazy!
We snap the picture and Roberto says, “And right here is the Horse Soldier statue.”
Now, the thing about this is that the Horse Soldier statue was the checkpoint for a different stop that was several miles away. Yet, here it was. Not sure what to do, we snapped the picture, sent it to HQ, and got the thumbs up.
I don’t know what the deal was with this stop. Other teams that went to the other location ended up having to go back and get that check-point at a different time.
Roberto’s knowledge of the fact that this statue was right behind us… it literally saved us the loss of… hours?
At this point, we headed to the next check point, again matching pace with Jenny and Roberto perfectly. I began to think about what a help they had been to us in just these first few stops. And, as we walked, it began to settle in that, perhaps Roberto and Jenny were actually God’s answer to our prayers.
Between one waypoint Roberto mentioned something about needing a quick stop for something. As he attended to whatever it was, I pulled Grace aside and said let her know that I was starting to think Jenny and Roberto were literally the answer to our prayers. She said the same thing. We agreed that we’d stick with them unless we really felt like there was a reason to press forward on our own.
I’ll go ahead and spoil it for you now. I have no doubt in my mind that is exactly what they were. As the night and subsequent day unfolded, time and time again I saw how God used them to answer the prayers we said back in our hotel. From their pace matching our perfectly, to their ability to keep us on the right path, to making us feel more safe in the shady parts of town, to Jenny’s leadership to help Grace find safe places to use the restroom… and, even more than all that, their friendship and encouragement… I never thought God’s answer to our prayers would look like this, but I am so thankful it was. Getting to meet Jenny and Roberto was one of the best parts of the trip for me. They were amazing.
Check Points, Pace, and Bathrooms
After the first couple check points, I stopped using our navigation and trusted Roberto and Jenny implicitly. We learned that both of them had lived in New York for most/all of their lives. It was apparent as not only did they know the best ways to get everywhere, but Roberto gave us an amazing history lesson for almost every part of the city we walked through. It was like we had out own private tour guide to New York City.
After several hours Roberto and I had already taken the opportunity afforded to men and peed as needed. Grace, however, let me know that if there was a non-public option, she could use a restroom. Several blocks later we approached a bar. Jenny grabbed Grace and said, “Just follow my lead.” Humorously, I did not realize it was a bar until we came out of it and I looked back.
Several minutes later, the ladies came out. Mission accomplished.
This was a scene that repeated itself time and time again throughout the rest of our journey.
At one point the next day, as we were slogging back from Coney Island, Grace and I were talking about how grateful we were that God answered our prayers with Jenny and Roberto. Grace said that there were almost no places that we stopped for the bathroom that she would have felt comfortable walking into by herself. Bathroom stops included a pizza shop at midnight, port-o-john in the middle of a bridge, a Mexican grocery, laundromat, and many other spot. Without Jenny, I really have no idea how we would have managed that aspect of the event for and with my daughter.
The night passed on and we were moving really well. We saw and passed a few teams and were generally clipping along at 16+/- minute miles. Whether it was clear to them or not, it was crystal clear to me that we were now in this together. Our lives in this event were bound together. Outside of a disaster, we were going to finish this event as one team.
The Darkness of Night
One of the concerns Grace mentioned to me prior to the event was that she had never stayed up all night before and that she hated being tired. There are only two reasons I willingly stay up past 10:30: Sleepovers and New Years Eve. My ideal bed time is 8:30-9ish. Being tired is the worst. So, having personal experience with overnight events, I knew that there would be some tough spots around 3-5 AM for her.
Sure enough, plodding through Roosevelt Island I could see it setting in. She was going quiet. Her body language was a little slumped. I could see it in her eyes. We were 25 miles and 7.5 hours into the event and the reality of the GORUCK 50-Mile Star Course was setting in.
We took a short break on some benches in a parking lot. There wasn’t much to say or do to pick her (or any of us) up. We tried to eat, drink, rest… and then back to work.
The remainder to the night portion of the event was rather quiet. We all just plodded on to the next stops. One particular bathroom stop afforded us some luxury seating to grab a break.
Near sunrise we passed a team that did our route in reverse, hitting Coney Island first and saving the city for second. We asked them how Coney Island was. Their answer was short and terrifying… “Far.”
Daylight crept in and we experienced refreshment as the valley between our sleep pressure and circadian rhythms shortened. (Check out Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep to understand why you feel good at sunrise during GORUCK events.)
With daylight, the reality that 20+ miles lay ahead rose in our minds. 20 miles is a paradox. On the one hand, 20 miles is no problem. That was the distance of our first training ruck. We’ve done that distance a number of times. But… your body and mind know better. You’ve never done 20 miles feeling like this.
And, so, with that feeling we headed towards the next stops that ultimately led us to Coney Island.
It is also here that Grace and I were reminded of our gift from God, Roberto and Jenny. Even now, I don’t see or know what I did, but I had a checkpoint in an entirely wrong place. I debated with Roberto about the stop, as I just didn’t understand how my map was wrong. But, I knew he had to be right (spoiler, he was) and I tossed my route aside.
I’ve reflected on that check point (along with the Horse Soldier statue) and have come to believe that if Grace and I were on our own, those were most likely critical failure points that would have likely caused us to not finish the event. They would have caused us to accumulate too much wasted time and distance searching for things that didn’t exist. I am certain that if we had not met them I would not have finished, at least not in the time cap.
But, as the other team mentioned, Coney Island was far. Really freaking far.
By this point in our journey Roberto’s stride had noticeably changed. His ankle was clearly giving him hell. But, I knew (through hours of chatting) that he had 150+ events under his belt, including 2 Selection attempts. I knew that no amount of pain was going to stop him. He was good to go.
The journey to Coney Island felt like it took forever. We were tired, uninspired, and just slogging along. Eventually, we made it.
After snapping our pic, we popped into a fast food restaurant to sit down and assess our situation before pushing back to New York.
50 Miles is Painful (Mentally and Physically)
Grace had the 1,000 yard stare as we sat in that restaurant and I was starting to get concerned. This stop at the restaurant was one of the worst spots for me. Stopping felt so good, and I didn’t want to start again. I just wanted to be done. I was mentally just done. For me there’s a fine line between thinking about the end to much and to little, and I had crossed over to the ‘to much’ side.
We had one more check point before the finish. I was calculating total milage left and it looked to be at least 11 miles. I ran through our recent pace down to Coney Island, knowing that we probably weren’t going to be dramatically better for this last push. I was starting to get worried. If things got worse, we were going to be in trouble.
We talked about the next section and discussed the need to keep moving and push through. The goal was 20-minute miles and breaks only if necessary.
As I looked at Grace, I knew it was in her. I knew she could do it. I knew she could dig deep and tap into the grit that is so much a part of who she is. But, I needed her to believe it. I knew the voice of doubt was loud between her ears.
We picked up our rucks and headed out.
I texted concerns to my wife. She replied that I should try and get her talking. It was a strange role reversal because when we ruck I’m usually the quiet one and she helps pass our time by talking to me. My brain wasn’t super clear and I didn’t know what to talk about. So, I started telling her stories about growing up, my friends, and several stories about the stupid things I did as a teenager. This section was definitely better. I always forget how much talking helps me during events.
She perked up, we moved well, and covered 5-ish miles in fairly good order.
But, then the body and mind began to remind us that all was not well and we had a long way to go.
With about 3 miles to go to the check point, we ascended a long hill. Grace was in a lot of pain. I didn’t know how to help. THIS was the event. Somehow I had gotten it in my head that we had 1 mile left at this point. So when I was told that we had “Just 2 left” it was so disheartening.
Exhaustion and pain led to a few stops. At one of them, through tears, she said she wasn’t sure she could finish the event. This thought had been in my head since Coney Island. I hurt so much. I just wanted it to end. Also, for some reason I thought we had only 30 min left. Hearing that we had 2 hours was the first moment in quite a few hours that I actually believed what I’d been telling myself. “I can finish.” I looked at the time and looked at her. I said that we had 2 hours. All I wanted her to do was to keep working for 2 hours. I didn’t care if had to stop ever half a block for a rest. I just wanted 2 more hours of work. She looked me in the eyes and said, “ok.”
As a father, I was nervous. I was pushing my daughter into unknown territory. I was asking her to ignore every part of her body and mind that was sending signals designed to keep her alive and telling her to ignore it all and to just keep walking. I know that is what is required in moments like this. But leading my daughter into this valley was hard.
I grabbed her hand and held it tight. I was not going to let go.
We continued onward, hand in hand. With about a mile to the check point, Grace sat down. She was not ok. There were tears. She was in a lot of physical pain. She was exhausted. So exhausted in fact, that I fell asleep for a second. That was the fastest I have ever fallen asleep. It was kinda scary.
It was here, sitting next to her on the stoop of someone’s home in the Bronx that Roberto gave her the kind of encouragement that we all need at moments like that in events. He reminded her that these were the times that define the event. These are the moments that we use to spur us on when we go back to the real world. These are moments of adversity that seem too big, that we resolve to stand up and press on.
It was here that it hit me, more than any other point, that Roberto or Jenny were with us. Like, they were 100% committed to us. I knew that if Grace wasn’t going to make it, they were going to choose to not make it with her. They would, for better or worse, never quit on us. Even now, their commitment to two people they had never met brings me to tears.
As a team, we came up with a plan. We stood. We walked.
Through fear, pain, and tears, we made it to the final check-point.
We Aren’t Done Yet
Since leaving Coney Island, I had not stopped calculating pace and time remaining. I felt like Rain Man. I’d look at the clock, the miles, the pace, running it all through my head, calculating what we needed to finish the event under 20 hours.
We trained so hard. We had worked all night and day. My daughter had given everything she had to get to this point. I was honestly scared that it wasn’t going to be enough. That we weren’t going to finish.
We had a little over an hour to go 2.2 miles.
I sent our last check-in to Samantha at GORUCK HQ. While texts with Samantha are mostly pics, hastags, and confirmations, there were a few texts from her that showed she was watching us and was part of the team. About an hour prior, Samantha had asked how we were doing. I didn’t answer becuase we were in the fight. Here, I texted Samantha an update. I told her our situation and how Grace was going. For some reason, I asked her to pray for us.
In return I received the most kind and encouraging text. It brought tears to my eyes. I showed it to my daughter and I saw something I hadn’t seen in a while. She smiled.
I looked her in the eyes. I took her hand. I said, “We have just over 2 miles to go. We have to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. It is a long bridge and it is going to be packed. On the other side, we still have .8 miles to get to the finish. All I need you to do is walk a sub-30 minute mile for just over 2 miles. Can you do that?”
Then I saw it. She was going to finish and SHE knew it. It was in her eyes.
The team stood up and Roberto became a man possessed. He was going to lead us across the sea of people on the Brooklyn Bridge to the promised land of Manhattan.
We stepped up on the bridge and it was a madhouse. The team got in a single file line with Grace tucked in behind Roberto. He turned on the jets, started hootin and hollerin, and we cruised in his wake. It was amazing. Amazing doesn’t give this moment justice. It was incredible, ridiculous. I will forever love the Brooklyn Bridge for that memory.
We all experienced energy that had long been lost. We flew across the bridge. I counted down the tenths of miles as the ticked by. Every step was closer to victory.
We entered Manhattan with less than a mile to go and and 45 minutes to do it. There was no more pain. We cruised through town, rounded the corner.
As we approached, Jenny said, “We finish this as a team. Grab hands and we walk across that line together.”
And, that’s exactly what we did.
Of course, it was amazing!
Official finish time was 19 hours and 18 minutes, giving us 6th place out of 13 teams that finished. 79 people showed up, 48 finished.
RunKeeper time (started when we left the start point) was 18:53:36 with a total distance of 55.36 miles.
Words will always fail to express how thankful to God I am for the gift of Roberto and Jenny. I know that without them we would not have finished this event.
To say that I am proud of my daughter is not just an understatement–it is incomplete. I gave her the name Grace 15 years ago to serve as a reminder and declaration that God’s gifts come to those who, like me, do not deserve them. Through this event I was given so many gifts I don’t deserve. I was given the chance to receive help from strangers, to have those strangers become friends, and most of all, to watch this young woman, my daughter, grow in strength and resolve right before my very eyes.
This whole experience has been a gift. It has been Grace.
This event is a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, and I’m so grateful to have gotten to do it with my dad, the best dad ever.
Team Worst Dad and Daughter Date Ever
3 Replies to New York 50-Mile GORUCK Star Course – AAR
Thank so much for sharing this AAR. I am preparing for a 50 in October and you definitely gave me some pointers that will be a huge help. I also appreciate your willingness to reply on prayer and to share the story of how God answered those prayers. Congratulations to you both on this awesome achievement!
I loved this AAR. Truly great to hear / see people working together as strangers and turning to each other for encouragement
Great read. Thank you. And very well done to both of you!
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