I spent yesterday afternoon doing a GoRuck Light event – because it seemed like an interesting challenge. I do 5k runs regularly, and mud runs have been a lot of fun. This seemed like the next level up, and I was curious. As it turned out, it’s really not the same sort of event at all. The basic gist of GoRuck is a team-based march with weighted packs and exercises sprinkled in throughout.
When I decided to take part, I figured it would be an opportunity to try out some vintage gear a in real-life situation – I have a pattern 1945 US field pack that seemed like it would be the right size and ought to be durable enough. It was introduced too late to see much widespread use in WWII, but it was the standard pack for US troops in Korea, and was still in use in the early years of Vietnam. Now, backpack construction and standards have improve quite a lot in the 69 years since this thing was adopted. Today we have lightweight water-resistant materials, carefully designed suspension systems, padded supports, and so on. In 1945, the technology was all-canvas construction, no padding, and a waist belt whose sole job was to hang more weight on – not to help support the pack.
The GoRuck web site is pretty skimpy on details of what you will actually DO in their events, so I was a bit hazy on what to expect. I did know what had to go in the pack, though: water and bricks. Since I weigh more than 150lb, I was to carry 4 bricks, weighing 4-6 pounds each, and wrapped in duct tape to protect the pack interior. Water was an absolute necessity, and my 3-liter Camelbak just barely fit in the leftover space (that 1945 pack may be heavy and uncomfortable, but it isn’t very voluminous). I added in a spare pair of socks, a bayonet (there’s a tab for it right there on the side of the pack), and a bag of trail mix (in my pants cargo pocket for easy access). Considering that I was doing this to get a firsthand idea of just how much WWII and Korean War web gear sucked to use (or built character, if you prefer), it is worth noting that I was not carrying the additional cargo pack that hooks to the bottom of the field pack, canteens, ammo, a steel helmet, bedroll, entrenching tool, rifle, or other kit. My load was definitely the light version of an actual combat loadout (it weighed in at exactly 30lb).
The fun began with an introduction to different types of movement. First up – buddy carry. With packs, everyone carried a teammate about 75 yards. Then low crawl, run back, bear crawl, run back, crabwalk, run back. Then two 75m (roughly) lengths of walking lunges. I should also mention that there was a 15lb team weight that had to be carried at all times (it got passed around the team throughout the 6 or 7 hours we were doing this). There was also a nice big American flag and pole to be carried by the team at all times.
After the movement warmup, we went into a sequence of exercises. Oh, and we were introduced to the rule that for the rest of the day, none of our gear was allowed to touch the ground at any time. Letting it do so would result in penalty exercises. Anyway, the complete workout sequence was 24 each of pushups, flutter kicks (lie on your back with heels off the ground and alternate raising each leg), squats, military presses (hold your pack above your head and lift it up and down), and monkey****ers (take a wide stance and grab the insides of your ankles, and then alternate bending and straightening your knees). And lastly, the Tunnel of Love. Everyone gets in a circle with hands and feet on the ground and hips raised up (way up) in the air. Then in sequence, each person has to low crawl through the circle (twice). All of this, of course, with packs, lag, team weight, and without letting any gear hit the ground. And, of course, these were military count exercises – up, down, up, ONE; up, down, up, TWO – so we were actually doing double the number that was counted out.
That pretty much concluded the introduction, and we went from there into actual travel. We were given 75 minutes to get to “A” mountain (the summit that the University of Arizona has painted with a huge “A”) – approximately 4.5 miles from our starting point. Oh, and we were also informed that this was non-permissive territory, and so any time we came within 50m of a police, fire, or EMS vehicle or officer, we would have to stop and exercise (15 reps for a person, 25 for a vehicle, 50 for a building like a hospital or police station, again military count and thus actually doubled). That happened 6 or 8 times. Also, we were not allowed to use bridges. Road goes over a wash or river or arroyo? We go down and across.
We failed to make the destination in the allotted time, so we had to climb up to the top of the peak without using the pack straps. Had to carry pack cradled in the arms, balanced on the head or shoulder…but no straps for support. After the final push to the top, we got a few minutes to rest (but still, no gear allowed to touch the ground) before reversing course in the now-setting sun and taking a different path back to our starting point. Again, with only 75 minutes to cover the 4.5 miles. We successfully made the return time, by using a combination of fast walking and slow jogging. By this point, it sucked. A lot. I was having trouble with both calves alternatives charlie-horsing on me, and was pretty much hating life. Fortunately, since we made the time trial, we only had to follow it up with 200 arm circles (hold your arms horizontal out from your sides and rotate in small circles form the shoulder) and 150 flutter kicks (again, still military count and still without letting gear touch the ground).
So…back to the pack. The main shortcomings of the pattern 1945 field pack are its water-absorbent canvas construction, complete lack of padding, and lack of hip support. Once I started sweating, the back wall of the pack soaked it all up, and by the end of the evening left my lower back thoroughly shredded from rubbing. If we had been forced to get into water, it would have soaked up plenty of addition weight, and remained wet and heavy for hours (in fact, the back panel of the pack is still damp with sweat as I write this the morning after…ewww).
The heavy canvas construction did mean that it had no issues of fragility – the bricks presented no threat at all of tearing anything. However, I did have one equipment failure – the metal buckle on one of the connections to the waist belt snapped (I think it was during the Tunnel of Love). when I tried to jerry-rig it back into us, more of it snapped off – so I ended to just double-knotting the strap, which held for the rest of the day. I definitely did not expect a metal buckle to fail, but it clearly was too brittle.
How does the 1945 pack rate overall? Well, it would not be my first choice. Or second choice. But if it’s what you have, you can be pretty confident that it will get the job done. It will beat you up, but it will carry anything you can cram into it without tearing. The metal buckles are all pretty much optional, since the load is carried entirely be the canvas shoulder straps, which are thoroughly stitched to the pack. The 4 straps just hold the waist belt up, and that can be worn tight over the hips to support its own weight even if all the straps fail.
And how does GoRuck rate overall? If you are expecting something like a mud run on steroids, you are in for a surprise. It is much more accurate to call it a condensed sample of boot camp. It is a grinding physical challenge, and the mental challenge portion is basically just gutting it out and not quitting. We did have one guy who started but dropped out at the start of the bear crawl – he was rather out of shape, and having a really hard time. He wouldn’t let anyone else take his pack, and despite our attempts to get him to push through, he decided he was a burden to the team and left. I totally understand his mindset, but the purpose of the event is to work as a team and support the slowest teammate.
Ultimately, the concept is more rote physical hardship and less mental activity and variety than I really enjoy, and I don’t expect I will be doing another one (did I mention that the Light is the shortest and easiest event GoRuck puts on?). If I really wanted to do more of this, I would join the military, and get paid to do it. But it was an experience worth having, and it will make everything else I do for a long time feel a lot easier.