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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Is the new GORUCK Star Course non-stop 50-mile, 20-hour military style endurance event the new holy grail of endurance activities? Has the Ironman Triathlon, with its Emmy Award winning, reality show hype and boom growth in the early 2000’s, trended?

Both events were founded in military tradition. Both were started on a dare. One event is trending upward as participation grows, another is waning downward as participation and event integrity declines. The evolution of the two events acknowledges the normal life cycle of a brand and the typical behavior of trends in American fitness and leisure activities. One is growing, one is dying.

The Ironman Triathlon has struggled with course modifications from bad weather, traffic control concerns on the bike courses, an inability to enforce competitive rules resulting in rampant bike course cheating, escalating entry fees and costs associated with doing the three-sport event. It has also been hit by growing concern over bicycle/car accidents in training as dangers like distracted driving become more prevalent.

The GORUCK event brand, that produces over 500 annual endurance events of various distances around the U.S. has benefitted from much lower entry fees, lower financial barriers to entry, safer training and participation, fewer requirements for expensive equipment, simpler preparation and finally, that one litmus test that grants any event true credibility: Toughness.

The start of the first-ever GORUCK Star Challenge earlier this year in Washington D.C.

While Ironman has become a caricature of its original self with nearly every participant finishing, GORUCK Star Course boasts a brutal 40-50% dropout rate. Most people who enter Ironman can finish within the cutoff time. About half the field at GORUCK Star Course don’t make it, hobbled by foot problems, navigation errors, undertraining or an overall lack of the toughness it takes to survive 20 hours on your feet, in the dark, in bad weather with a heavy load on your back.

GORUCK Star Course is also a team event. Teams consist of 2-5 people. For many competitors, the social aspect of having a small team adds additional value to the experience and makes training, travel to events and participation more attractive. While the Ironman triathlon has a reputation for ruining relationships with its solo training and financial demands, GORUCK Star Course actually reinforces core relationship values.

For companies looking for team building, wives and husbands, fathers, mothers, daughters, brothers and sisters looking for a bonding experience, GORUCK Star Course brings small numbers of people onto a cooperative team competing against the rigors of distance and time more than the other teams.

This evolution in event status also signals something else in U.S. popular culture, the ascension and erosion of “street cred” in participant sports and the social status of iconic, discretionary accomplishments. The Ironman “M-Dot” used to carry significant clout and status, but as the number of Ironman finishers exploded in the early 2000’s, the exclusivity and status of Ironman was diluted over increasing numbers of finishers. Ironman was no longer perceived as being quite as “extreme” as it was prior to large numbers of people finishing the event.

One big difference between GORUCK Star Course and the Ironman Triathlon is media. Ironman rose to prominence on the back of network television coverage prior to the explosion in internet and social media. People entered Ironman after seeing it on TV. People will enter GORUCK Star Challenge as word spreads on user-contributed social media. It’s unlikely GORUCK Star Challenge will ever be the subject of a network television broadcast or spin off a version of itself as an Olympic sport. But ultimately, it will be the participants that spread the virus of the GORUCK Star Challenge as more events take place and the participation germ spreads on the winds of social media. How fast the epidemic spreads remains to be seen.


 

Author Tom Demerly training for the upcoming GORUCK Star Challenge 50-Miler in Cincinatti, Ohio. Demerly is a former member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team (LRS) and Company Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He has raced endurance events on all seven continents including Antarctica and completed over 200 triathlons including the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona. Hawaii. His articles have been published in Outside, Business Insider,Velo-News, Bicycle Guide, Bicycling, Inside Triathlon, Triathlete, Triathlon Today!, USA Triathlon Magazine and many other publications around the world.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com.

There’s no politically correct way to express this, but, yeah… ahhh. I feel a little out of place.

I’m a 56-year old conspicuously Caucasian guy in the crowd-packed center of the massive Mexicantown Cinco de Mayo street celebration late on a hot May afternoon in Detroit.

There’s heavy ganja haze in the air. It’s thick enough for a contact buzz. I’m carrying a huge U.S. flag in my hand, and feeling like I’m not particularly understood or appreciated here. Other than the double file line of about 50 quasi-military, tacticool, mostly white guys and girls with a distinctly law-enforcement look that are behind me, I feel pretty isolated. And pretty conspicuous with my flag and backpack as we navigate the tightly packed downtown party crowd of tens of thousands. There is almost no room on sidewalks, the streets are bumper to bumper and packed with crowds. And smoke.

We’re doing GORUCK Light Detroit 2018.

In the evolution of participation sports GORUCK events have emerged. With approximately 500 events scheduled in 2018, GORUCK challenges are huge now. Today I’m in my first one. I’m wondering if it’s coming slightly off the rails.

GORUCK Light is a team endurance event that includes military style calisthenics, running and a lot of walking or “rucking” between 8 and 12 miles in group formation while you wear a weighted backpack. Think basic military training, then add your new constant companion, a 10- 40-pound weighted backpack that makes everything that would have been easy for a reasonably fit person, a good bit tougher.

GORUCK events are inspired by contingency training for military special operations units.

Jason McCarthy, a fit, chiseled, dark- haired guy with that bolt upright posture that screams former military, founded the GORUCK brand in 2008. There are a lot of remarkable things about GORUCK, but the single most remarkable thing is its growth. In only ten years GORUCK has become huge.

McCarthy founded GORUCK while still in U.S. Army Special Forces and deployed in the Middle East during the Global War on Terror (GWOT). He made an emergency survival and evacuation “Go Bag” backpack for his wife who served in the Foreign Service. If there was a coup d’état, an IED attack, or any other threat in one of the most dangerous places on earth, Jason’s wife Emily could grab her “Go-Ruck” and evacuate with the essentials of food, water, additional clothing and rudimentary survival gear.

GORUCK founder Jason McCarthy (center), a former member of U.S. Army Special Forces.

Without knowing it, McCarthy had conglomerated an idea that had been around for a long time into a saleable brand, then began to parlay that brand into an image, an event and even a lifestyle.

GORUCK could have become just another military backpack brand, and in the wake of the 9/11, there are a lot of them. But Jason McCarthy also built something else along with his simple, sturdy, square, tech-free backpacks. He built a vibe.

The GORUCK vibe is a learned responsibility. It’s isn’t politically yawed, it’s not a “movement”. It’s an insight and acceptance of the real world in accelerated change. A change that in the post-9/11, Arab Spring and polarized U.S. political world can just as easily come off the rails as it can evolve into a new unified world. Either way it goes, the GORUCK ethos is adaptable. And capable.

Most participant endurance sports are compensation. Compensation for a sterile life lived too easily, too slowly, too conveniently. Our culture has become overweight and underprepared. If most Americans got a flat tire in a rural setting and had to walk six miles in hot weather to find a tow truck they would be in deep trouble, especially if their smart phone battery died. GORUCK Light acknowledges that. So, you train for the “real world” and gain some functional fitness and endurance while meeting friends and re-connecting with how to cooperate on a team. GORUCK events are no different in terms of compensating. They offer a “synthetic” or contrived set of discretionary challenges. But much of what you learn and practice at GORUCK is practical, and it may come in handy if you are ever have to walk your way to safety, or even make a connecting flight across the airport after the shuttle has left.

GORUCK Light Detroit on Saturday, May 5, 2018 in Hart Plaza.

In December, 2016 CNN reported that, “Karen Klein, 46, was headed to the Grand Canyon National Park with her husband Eric and their 10-year-old son. State Road 67, which leads to the canyon’s north rim, is closed for the winter and their car’s GPS detoured them through forest service roads.” Klein was stranded in her car and forced to endure a brutal, freezing 26-mile solo hike for 30 hours. CNN reported she, “Subsisted on twigs and drinking her own urine, to get help.”

In December, 2006 Daryl Blake Jane was stranded in snow in his Jeep Cherokee on a remote U.S. Forest Service road west of Mount Adams, Washington. He was forced to survive in his vehicle, in the depth of winter, for nearly two weeks.

In between these instances there have been many more when people had to rely on basic fitness and skills to survive. This isn’t the fringe “prepper” or “survivalist” mindset. This is basic responsibility for your own life and the people around you. GORUCK teaches and tests that responsibility.

Different from the vibe of Ironman triathlons with their finisher photos and individual stories, GORUCK is about the group. It’s about cooperation, teamwork, unity and acceptance. It is about admitting your shortcomings and about doing more than your share while not expecting an extra pat on the back. It’s about carrying someone else’s ruck when the going gets tough, and having them carry yours. Everyone has a bad moment in GORUCK. There are no solo finisher photos in front a branded banner, no medal around your neck. You get a Velcro patch for making it as a team for the hook and loop section of your GORUCK. Every tribe has its icons.

GORUCK events include a community service component where participants have to plan and execute a project that benefits the community. Every participant is required to play a role in the community service project. Our event participants collected food and clothing for homeless people in Detroit and raised cash donations for shelters.

GORUCK events vary in intensity from the GORUCK Light, the easiest and shortest introductory event, to the difficult long distance, non-stop GORUCK events like GORUCK Tough and GORUCK Heavy. GORUCK also provides practical skill training events.

The GORUCK events mesh well with the Crossfit, veteran, law enforcement, emergency services crowd but don’t have an exclusive mindset. This is about teamwork, integration, doing more than your share and accepting help when you inevitably have a weak moment. And everyone has a weak moment sooner or later. But the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, and that is one of the lessons of GORUCK. Two is one, one is none, and synergy gets everyone to the finish as a group. In GORUCK, you are never more than an arm’s length from a teammate. Stray too far, and you are doing another combination of push-ups, bear crawls or eight-count body builders. You don’t even go the bathroom in a GORUCK event by yourself.

We’re through Mexicantown now in full Cinco de Mayo swing. Now we’re making our way at a fast trot along Vernor Highway, underneath the iconic Detroit ruins of the Michigan Central Train Depot. We hump our packs up from underneath the train tracks and through Roosevelt Park where we pose for a group photo. From there it is double-time east on Michigan Ave. as we enter the final miles of the event at a fast clip.

Our team carries a simulated casualty on an improvised litter in the final miles of the event.

But one man goes down from heat, dehydration and the workload of moving fast with a heavy pack. Our “cadre”, the instructor/administrators of a GORUCK event, show us how to rig an expedient casualty litter from an eight-foot section of 1” tubular nylon climbing webbing. In only minutes, we have the “casualty’s” ruck off, I wear it on my chest with my ruck on my back, and we continue east at combat speed on Michigan Ave. You never know the distance or course in GORUCK. We may have another three miles to go, or another five. We may have to climb four parking structures, or one. We may have to cross open waterways (the GORUCK Light event earlier in the day in Detroit was in the Detroit River four times). Not knowing the course or distance is a component of the event.

Finally, we reach Washington Blvd. and take a right, still moving fast, still carrying our “casualty”, a roughly 230-pound lad who is finding out that riding in a field-expedient improvised litter isn’t much more comfortable than humping a 40-pound ruck. Everyone is out of water. There are no aid stations in GORUCK. No support. No mile markers. No course map before the event. Like selection for the most elite special forces units you never know when the instructors will stop the “class”, circle you around, and declare “ENDEX” or “end of exercise”.

The GORUCK baby elephant walk.

One of our scouts veers off into a parking structure two blocks from the Detroit River. It’s dark now and I wasn’t looking forward to figuring out how to move our “casualty”, our rucks and ourselves through the dark water of the Detroit River as the air cools way off. So, I’m glad when our team hits the stairs and begins to run up eight flights to the roof of the parking garage. I’m glad until I realize I am at the front of the group running up flights of stairs wearing two 35 pound rucks. By the fifth floor I am destroyed. Three to go.

At the top of the parking garage our instructors “Wild Will” and “DS”, one a former U.S. Air Force Special Operations Combat Controller, the other a former U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations member, both with combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, circle us around. What now? When does this thing end?

Wild Will unzips one of the team weights we have been carrying over the last 8 or nine miles, a massive and awkward cordura duffel, and produces a can of Dos Equis. We’ve learned a lot today at GORUCK Light Detroit, and perhaps the best lesson is that, whether it is in a big party crowd in Mexicantown on Cinco de Mayo or carrying your new buddy in an improvised litter down Michigan Ave in Detroit, GORUCK Light brings people together. Then we hear those magic words:

“ENDEX! You made it.”

GORUCK Light Detroit 2018 ENDEX, “End of Exercise.

 

 

Author Tom Demerly is a former member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team (LRS) and Company Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He has raced endurance events on all seven continents including Antarctica and completed over 200 triathlons including the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona. Hawaii. His articles have been published in Outside, Business Insider,Velo-News, Bicycle Guide, Bicycling, Inside Triathlon, Triathlete, Triathlon Today!, USA Triathlon Magazine and many other publications around the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com (originally published in 2004)

The weather report said the sun would go down today at 7:49 pm. And it did.

Now it is dark.

In the street there is a sporadic, somber procession. It is a black and white picture. There is no color, no pageantry, and no grandeur. The grace is gone and now and it is down to gritty reality.

It is the time of The Strugglers. 11:18 pm, Taupo, New Zealand- the 20th, 2004 Anniversary Bonita Banana Ironman Triathlon.

The Pros are asleep. Their stomachs are full, their muscles are massaged. Their performances are a matter of record now. They are done. Have been for quite some time. They finished in the sunlight in the front of cameras and microphones racing for paychecks and trophies.

It’s easy to understand why they race. They should race. They look like they should. Lithe and toned and buff and tan and serious, the Pros and the other talented athletes reap the generous gift of genetic athletic abundance, meticulous preparation and clear-cut motivation. They are here to kick ass. It doesn’t take a psychologist to decode their motives. They’re athletes, and this is the big show. It’s what they do.

The pros’ time is over. Now it is time for The Strugglers.

There are no levels of performance for The Strugglers. You either are or you aren’t one. If you haven’t finished by now and you’re still out under the lights you are a member of this vaunted fraternity, The Strugglers. Just as the stark street lights leave either harsh illumination or black despair for The Strugglers this is a matter of finish or not finish, victory or defeat, do or die, pride or humiliation, success or failure. It is all the chips on one square, all the cards face up on the table, and all the aces have already been dealt today. The Strugglers play high stakes with a bad hand.

It may never have been pretty for The Strugglers. Most of them may not be athletes in the sense that they spend hours and hours every week training, but they line up nonetheless to do this race. The downtrodden, the meek, the ones with something to prove or something to defeat. Whatever it is they bring it here and beat it into ugly submission over 140.6 miles, each one a full 5,280 feet. The Strugglers earn every inch of every foot of every mile.

In a day so daunting and fearful they line up on the beach as if bravely facing the gallows. A cannon sounds the beginning of their trial and there is little known at the onset about how matters will be resolved, except to say it will be hard and uncomfortable and then downright painful. That may be the most frightening part: The not knowing. Some will find absolution, some will teeter and wobble and fall. There will be polite acknowledgement of their ambition, but ultimately, for The Strugglers the only thing that matters is Finishing. It’s what they’re here for.

So for The Strugglers, this is a huge gamble. Hero or failure. No in between.

And struggle they might, against awful odds and distance and poor conditioning and genetic poverty, but in bravery they are absolutely peerless. Without equal.

The Strugglers know it will not be pretty. They know it is not a sure thing. They do not have the luxury of prediction or past performances or experience. This is not their aptitude. But this is their choice and their bold dream.

Imagine being sent to do something, something beastly difficult. You know in your heart of hearts you are not prepared, maybe not even suited for this. You know the stares of others less brave and more envious fall heavily on your effort. They want The Strugglers to fail. For every Struggler who crosses the finish line it is a failure for those who never dared try. For every Struggler who sadly and reluctantly succumbs to the distance before the finish line and is carried off the course it is a victory for those who never started. They take sick pleasure in that. Shame on them.

Those who never had the courage to try have no right to cast judgment on The Strugglers.

The Pros are comfortable and resting. But the Strugglers have not left their sacred vigil. They soldier on, unswerving in their oath to finish, No Matter What. People marvel at the Pros performance, but I say The Strugglers are the real athletes. Explorers on the terrible frontier of self-doubt, fear and potential embarrassment on a grand scale. They bring less to the start line and they do more. Longer, harder, more painful: It is a different race for The Strugglers.

It is a parade really. A parade of people so brave and tough and fearless that they don’t care if it might not work. They bank on the fact that it could. They don’t back away from the possibility of failure. Imagine their performance as set against the backdrop of the very best in the world and they are not self-conscious about their version of the very same dance. Ask yourself, would you take the stage at the Kennedy Center after Barishnikov or Pavoratti? Are you that brave?

The Strugglers are.

Their performance is tedious and grinding. It is utterly relentless in its duration. The distance, the time, the struggle cannot be compromised. The Strugglers know this, they accept it- embrace it even. And they never succumb. Under the street lights, through the cool air, in filthy clothes streaked with their own discharge of minerals and fluids and sometimes even tears and blood.

The Strugglers do a different kind of race. A harder one. And they are Elite. It takes longer. It is less practiced. It seems to never end, and it does more damage.

Decode their motives if you will. But I decode yours as trying to explain more why you didn’t try than why they are. Instead, I respectfully suggest, salute them. Unless you have walked with The Strugglers until midnight on the Ironman course they stand above you in the athletic arena. Struggle as they may, they mustered the courage to try.

 

 

Tom Demerly has been doing triathlons since 1984, still does them (but slower and fatter now) and just completed the Detroit, Michigan GORUCK Light event. He worked in the triathlon industry since it began, and the bicycle industry from the age of 15, over 40 years. Today he is a correspondent for TheAviationist.com in Rome, Italy.

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

After the shortened course and prolific drafting at this year’s first U.S. Ironman in Texas, it’s worth asking: has the gold standard of endurance sports become a diluted accomplishment-for-purchase?

The answer is an unfortunate, undeniable “Yes”.

The sooner Ironman’s new parent company, Chinese conglomerate The Dalian Wanda Group, acknowledges the decline in event quality, the sooner it can be restored. But the problem is real, and it didn’t happen overnight.

Ironman is entirely different today than it was when the race began on the beach in Waikiki in 1978. In the early 1980’s Ironman struggled for legitimacy. By the end of the decade, in 1989, Dave Scott and Mark Allen’s “Ironwar” two-up race duel vaulted the event into something even more significant than athletic competition. In 2004 I wrote “The Strugglers”, an homage to the everyman finisher at Ironman you can read by clicking here.

Ironman became legend. It was revered as somehow tougher than mere athleticism. Scott and Allen’s high noon, mano a mano slugfest defined a gritty toughness that transcended other endurance events. Marathon running, once the high bar of the everyman endurance world, took a back seat to completing an Ironman triathlon. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, Ironman became modern gladiatorial combat for the masses in a new electronic coliseum.

Emmy winning television production spotlighted the transformation of the everyman to hero status. With spectacle like the Julie Moss crawl to second place, Ironman was depicted as the one-day filter through which a mortal person could pass to achieve super-athlete status. Everyday people arrived at the Ironman start line as caterpillars, left as colorful M-Dot butterflies decked out in officially licensed “Finisher” apparel.

Ironman became big. Then came the internet. And Ironman became enormous.

The defining Dave Scott/Mark Allen “Ironwar” race of 1989.

As internet and social media exploded a universal virtual podium made Ironman status visible around the world instantly. It became normal for Ironman participants to chronical every step of their journey to Ironman in social media, triathlon forums and blogs. They would top it off with wordy, indulgent “race reports” for all to (presumably) read.

All that was missing from Ironman was the mass production of this new event-product. It was so well recognized that one trademark defined our impression of a person the instant we saw their t-shirt, bumper sticker or tattoo. That status was bestowed when you crossed the finish line and the verbal Excalibur, “YOU! Are an IRONMAN!!!” touched your shoulder.

A person could earn a college degree, raise a family, beat a terminal disease, overcome a disability or serve in the military. But until they dragged their life story across the finish line at Ironman to earn the M-Dot stamp of significance, it was just average. Just life. At Ironman, it became significant. It became a story. A filter through which we must pass to achieve exceptional status.

Ironman sold. And sold. And sold. Events a year away sold out in minutes. Entry fees went up, travel and lodging costs climbed. You had to earn an Ironman finish, and by the turn of the century in 2000 it took not only a deep aerobic base but also deep pockets to finish an Ironman.

Ironman gave the well-heeled everyman the opportunity to be exceptional. And while the majority of the participants in Ironman did have an intrinsically challenging experience preparing for and completing an Ironman, the heavy-handed branding of the event created a brand more conspicuous than structural.

As prices and participation climbed, the quality of race venues and officiating suffered. The event became increasingly “interpretive”, with swim cancellations, course shortenings, inadequate drafting enforcement and no effective athlete drug screening.

Ironman became pass/fail.

I worked and raced in the triathlon industry since the early 1980s and had a front row for the transformation of the sport. I saw it change from fringe endurance activity to apex life-defining event. Then into a credible athletic sport including Olympic competition. And today into a just-about-anything-goes social media stunt. Cutting courses, drafting and using performance enhancing drugs is more likely to be enforced in the kangaroo court of social media than by the people paid to administer the race.

As Ironman peaked in popularity, the races filled from the back of the pack. Race winning times did get marginally faster among top professionals. But the bigger expansion was at the back of the race. Despite a proliferation of “wind tunnel tested superbikes” triathletes were going slower and slower as a group at Ironman.

In the 1980’s and ‘90’s when I either raced or watched an Ironman event, the volume of finishers after 13 hours tapered off to a trickle. By the early 2000’s the floodgates opened at 13 hours with hordes of everyman Ironmen streaming across the finish line. That influx of participants created more demand for Ironman events. Individual athlete performance and overall event quality suffered. If you could drag yourself across the finish line at Ironman, whether you made the 17-hour cutoff time by a second or nine hours, whether the swim was shortened or cancelled, whether the bike course was long, short, flat, windy or mountainous, “YOU!” were still “An IRONMAN!” There was a distinct lack of standards for what had been a high bar of endurance sports.

The double edge sword of social media that helped immortalize and proliferate the sport has now become its undoing. The event organizers appear immune to criticism and largely unconcerned with maintaining event quality. Today brandishing an M-Dot logo on a calf tattoo, bumper sticker or officially licensed T-shirt doesn’t carry the clout it once did. Ironman has become a sketchy, “everyone’s a winner” attention grab that is low on event quality control and high on licensing fees, entry fees, and official merchandise prices. Until that changes the Ironman motto, “Anything is Possible” has become a decidedly cynical commentary of a once great event.

 

 

 

Author Tom Demerly has raced triathlons and worked in the triathlon industry since 1984, completing over 200 races including the Ironman World Triathlon Championships in Kona, Hawaii in 1986 and Ironman events in Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. He has participated in the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge, The Raid Gauloises, The Marathon des Sables, The Antarctic Marathon and the Jordan Telecom Desert Cup. He raced bicycles as an elite amateur in Belgium for the Nike/VeloNews/Gatorade Cycling Team and is three-time Michigan USA Cycling State Champion. He is a former member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team (LRS) and now works as an aerospace and defense columnist for TheAviationist.com, the world’s foremost defense and aerospace blog published in Rome, Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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