Goruck extreme event is all about teamwork

When the shadows grow long from the Liberty Memorial this evening, about 30 people will be near, waiting for the test.

All will carry their signed waivers. Most will be stretching their legs and back muscles before hoisting rucksacks filled with duct-taped bricks and bottles of water.

But their heaviest load by far is the invisible baggage in their heads.

Can my body take this?... Those cadres look just like my old drill sergeants! ... Am I too old for this?


I am so going to kick butt! ... How many miles tonight?... When will it cool off?

The events tonight and after dark Saturday, known as the Goruck Challenge, are the newest form of extreme sport fad. Evolved from testing the toughness of the Goruck company’s backpacks, the sleep-depriving workouts will cover at least a dozen miles with former Special Forces members barking out marching orders for a series of obstacles or missions.

But unlike other extreme sports, such as the Insanity Workout or the Tough Mudder competitions, this event is not about who is strongest or fastest.

Instead, it’s a team-building endurance exercise, carved out through hours of shedding egos, uncovering strengths and weaknesses and leaving no one behind — while accomplishing seemingly impossible tasks together.

“Yeah, you need to be in good physical condition to be Goruck tough,” said 31-year-old Mel Stepp of Des Moines, Iowa, who’s already completed four challenges this year around the country. Most of the challenge is mental, she said: “Learning how to push past your comfort zone.”

Since 2010, Goruck Challenges have been held nearly every month somewhere in the United States. More than 2,000 Goruck Tough alums are on Facebook, many waiting for the next challenge.

According to John Franklin, Goruck’s spokesman, 75 percent of participants are not former military.

“There’s been lots of people from different backgrounds, different age groups, different levels of fitness that have done this. It’s not just for 27-year-old studs.” Franklin said the team works to find everyone’s talent.

“Each challenge is a semiscripted, self-inflicted hazing ritual, both exercise and public theater. Each challenge leads participants through a new city. There is no map or set schedule. Usually, the mission is simply to finish together,” wrote a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter who watched them in New York.

Tonight is Kansas City’s turn. The team or teams will charge through our dark streets without corporate sponsors, fanfare or an audience, although bemused passers-by might get a chance to watch the devoted bob up and down, doing push-ups. Bodies are worked past exhaustion with lunges, push-ups, crab walks and low crawls, all while carrying between four and six bricks, depending on the participant’s weight.

Goruck teams often are ordered into rivers and oceans.

In Los Angeles, members took turns lugging a 25-pound piece of steel from the north World Trade Center tower nearly 22 miles; in New York City, a team hauled a log weighing 1,000 pounds over a bridge and into a city park. The heavy stuff is sometimes called a coupon.

Just as on the battlefield, weaker members often are helped and even carried by the stronger. Stepp, a member of the Iowa Air National Guard, 132nd Fighter Wing, says each class is only as strong as its weakest member.

“This is the closest a civilian can get to belonging in a military family,” she said. “I do this for the sense of pride I get afterwards, the patch, and that feeling of knowing that I’m Goruck tough. I would go anywhere with my Goruck friends.”

Stepp hopes to complete her fifth challenge tonight, then pull a “b-to-b” (back-to-back) — and go for her sixth Saturday night.

The Goruck company was founded in 2008 by 20-something Jason McCarthy, an Army Special Forces veteran who went on to the University of Georgetown for his master’s in business administration. He wanted his military-inspired, U.S.-made ($295 retail) rucksack to be the best in the world.

McCarthy’s active duty buddies from Special Forces started testing his rucksack designs in extreme conditions. More friends asked to join in, and a new sport was born. Each challenge is led by a former Special Forces officer, called a cadre. (Ten dollars of the $160 registration is donated to the Green Beret Foundation, a nonprofit to help wounded Green Berets and families of the dead.)

“I think they’ve taken the ideas from the Special Forces qualification courses,” says Jeff Forker, a 50-year-old former Green Beret. “But this challenge is a connection, like we all have this intrinsic need to connect with others.”

So far, no one has died in a Goruck Challenge, something that has occurred in other kinds of extreme events.

Organizers tout a 95 percent completion rate for those who try it.  

Forker says he isn’t doing this just to get a little patch.

“People want to let their inner beast howl. So do I.”