My athletic prowess is… nonexistent. So, why would I participate in the Chicago Ruck of Honor? There were a few reasons, some of which became more apparent while my body started breaking down during the ruck. Being able to participate in the Chicago Ruck of Honor was a truly an honor. By working for a company that has strong ties to the veteran community, I’ve crossed paths with and gained inspiration from some of the most amazing people who signed the dotted line at some point in their lives to make our freedoms possible. If you’ve been around a group of veterans, you know their personalities can be contagious and being around them make me want to be a better person by challenging myself in ways that flat-out scare me. Ultimately, I wanted to see if I could hack it; this was a personal challenge.
A Great Start
The Chicago Ruck of Honor is an annual event meant to raise awareness for veteran suicide before Memorial Day. New statistics have lowered the daily veteran suicide rate from 22 to 20, so the march was shortened by two miles this year. It was a beautiful day; not too hot, not too sunny, just enough breeze.
I was carrying 20 pounds, max (2 liters of water in my camelback, along with extra socks, snacks, gear, and a few other essentials). There were people rucking who undoubtedly had the equivalent weight of another person on their shoulders. Some had no legs, one leg, one arm, etc. And despite the smiles I saw on a lot of faces, this was a somber affair. I heard stories about IEDs, close friends that didn’t see it coming, people that arrived too late. Some I found were also doing it for themselves, like me.
The first 12 miles went by fairly quickly through some seriously ritzy neighborhoods on the North Side; the kind of places where you feel like you don’t make enough money to walk there, let alone live there. I enjoyed long walks growing up, so my legs didn’t find it too unfamiliar to go a bit further. Lots of groups were playing music, racing each other, laughing. We took a short break for lunch, changed our socks, and set off again. To be honest, I was lulled into a false sense of security.
Then mile 13 hit.
I was rucking with my Marine buddy, Sam. She and I are vertically challenged, so it was helpful to have someone with a stride I could keep pace with. I noticed a growing sense of pain and stiffness in my joints; in particular, my right hip flexor was speaking up. But I had done nearly three-quarters of the distance, and the weather was still good. I dug in.
Miles 14 and 15 passed a bit more slowly. My stride shortened, stiffened, and slowed even further. Sam was hurting too; we stopped a few times to briefly stretch our muscles, feel the blood rush to our feet, and hydrate. Several passing groups asked us if we needed Motrin. Though I was questioning my judgment about doing this thing stone cold sober by now, my pride told me that I’d take some aspirin at the finish line.
We reached a checkpoint; a few groups that told us we had just 4 more miles to go. Sam and I took another quick break, and began hobbling along; it was more shuffling than walking. I knew that I had hit the wall.
Embrace the Suck
Anxiety runs in the family, so it can be hard to get out of my head at times. The best way I can describe it is like a radio that you can’t turn all the way off; you can get it to quiet down for a while, but the chatter doesn’t really ever stop.
My legs now carried that same, constant sensation. They were buzzing with pins and needles, and they hurt worse than I’d ever felt them hurt. My hip was shrieking at me now, telling me to stop, to rest, to quit. I told it to shut up, and kept moving.
The two of us did whatever we could to keep our spirits high; we sang stupid songs, cheered each other on, split a bottle of electrolytes, and carried on. In a particularly funny moment, we watched a group walk past us, crowing out “I Believe I Can Fly.” Group after group passed us, stretching further and further apart. One guy passed us in silkies and prosthetics. I punched my thighs and kept going.
40 Percent Done
The path grew quieter, and Sam and I hunkered into silence, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other.
Physical pain has a way of triggering mental pain. Suddenly I was 21, standing in a food pantry line for the sixth month straight, sobbing into a career planning book, feeling like a failure. I was staring at my face in the mirror of my bathroom wondering why I was still here. I was hovering over my kitchen sink with a knife to my wrist.
I was exactly where I signed up to be today – staring that self in the face, asking myself what I was going to do about that pain.
The temperature had dropped dramatically. The wind had picked up a bit. Suddenly, I felt a drip on my arm. Rain.
We pulled out our ponchos and trudged on, but the shivering had already started. My hip felt white hot, my feet were completely numb, my knees may as well have been nonexistent. I looked back at Sam, who had fallen behind me, and stopped for a moment to cheer her on. I didn’t want to let her down.
The rain turned from a drizzle to a shower. A phrase entered my head; I don’t remember where I’d heard it before. When your brain tells you you’re done, you’re 40 percent done.
I decided to stop when I finished the course or I couldn’t move.
I can’t move
We made it another grueling mile and a half like that. My stride was about 6 inches at a time now. I was glad it was raining; tears were leaking out of my eyes from the pain. Suddenly, I heard Sam from just behind me:
“Hey, I need a break. Just a short one.”
“Ok,” I said. “I see a bathroom up ahead. We’ll stop there and get out of the rain.”
We shuffled into the bathroom, still shivering. The shivering was the worst part; it made my hip flexor tense up even more. I sat in a stall, keeping the handicap rail close by so I could get up again. We were at just over 18 miles. I ran the math in my head; it might take us an hour or more at this point.
“Alright, you ready?” Sam called out.
“Yeah, one sec.” I braced myself to stand.
It’s a very weird feeling to not have your legs respond when you want them to. I tried again using the rail – a weak tensing, and then nothing. Seriously, legs? At 18 miles out of 20? I have a shirt on that says “No Excuses” for god’s sake. You motherf-
“You good?” Sam cut into my dismal realization.
“Can’t move,” I said, letting a couple more tears out. “I’m so sorry, Sam. I can’t stand up. F*ck.”
Waiting for help to arrive gave me some time to think. I kept picturing that guy in prosthetics walking by me. This was literally nothing for other people, plenty of other groups were going to finish today. If only it hadn’t gotten cold, if only it hadn’t rained, if only I had done the smart thing and prepared more-
“Hey.” Sam hobbled over and poked her head into the stall where I was sitting. “Don’t you dare think that you failed today. You did awesome, way better than some on their first try. Be proud of what you accomplished.”
I’m not the participation trophy type. We’re our own worst critics, and I am especially rigid when it comes to my own standards of myself. I didn’t finish the course; that’s a fact, and I don’t want to deny that. It doesn’t help me to just pat myself on the back, I could do that for laying in bed that day.
However, in that second, I remembered that this ruck wasn’t just about pushing people physically (though I can say with certainty that it was the worst thing I’d put my body through, ever). The last 3 miles of that journey was purely mental. It was enduring your pain, so you could help your partner. It was enduring the next ten seconds in your own head, so you can tell yourself that you can get through the next ten seconds. Mental health – anxiety, depression, PTSD, guilt, ideation, whatever plagues you – is EXACTLY that, day in and day out. Some are able to push through it easily, others hobble along as best they can. But you do push through, because you trust that your journey through that pain to the other side will refine you as a person. It will help others around you. It will make you better. It will condition you to go farther, and endure more while suffering less.
You choose to survive. No one else can do that but you.
Finally, I was assisted to a car, leaning on another person, shuffling my now slightly-less-useless legs around. It was excruciating to walk; I believe the technical term for what I was doing would be “ugly-crying.” Not the most glamorous end to the endeavor, but it was mine.
I accomplished what I accomplished, and no one else could have done it for me. And despite the ending this time around, I can say with sincerity that I have fully embraced the suck.
As in, suck it, legs. You’re in for a serious rucking regimen now.