It was April 30th of this year that I visited the GORUCK website and clicked the big, green, stupid, gets-me-into-tough-situations-with-great-people button again. Having done more GORUCK events than I can count, it’s a very predictable cycle. “Should I click the button? I clicked the button. Oh crap. Let’s see if I can talk people into this. Shit, they actually fell for it, now I have to do it…”
This event, this time, was different though...this was Star Course and this was a lot of damned miles. Once I had signed up, my initial plan was to do it by myself, because I knew no one at my gym, at my church, or in my circle of friends could ever possibly be interested. I got busy carrying heavy shit everyday after the primary workout at MBS Crossfit and before long, people asked what I was training for. Once I got the words “50+ miles with weight on your back” out of my lips, most people got that ringing sound in their ear that you hear when someone says something psychotic. And I totally get that…that’s a very rational response. Lucky for me, I met 3 incredible people that weren’t feeling rational.
I had made a great initial connection with 2 very different people at our gym. Hannah is 29, and Greg is…I’ll just say “almost gettin’ a discount at IHOP.” I noticed that both of them pushed really hard each and every workout, always did extra work, and clearly had a fire deep in each of their bellies. As we got to know each other, GORUCK came up, and the impending Star Course entered into the fray. Before I knew it, we were spending our weekends and free time wandering the streets and trails of Colorado. After talking about our weekend ruck plans, Peter overheard the conversation, and being an endurance athlete himself, was intrigued. Just like that…I had invited 3 more people into the GORUCK cult/family.
Normally for GORUCK events, I just tell people to sign up and that’s that. But with Star Course, I wanted people to know what exactly they were signing up for. So before I would let any of them sign up and spend their money, I made them do a 10 or 15-miler with me so they truly understood what this rucking thing was all about. They did it, it was miserable, and they all still signed up. I guess I was all in now…no turning back.
Fast forward a few months, and on September 1, 2018, @ruckin_whistlepigs crossed the finish line in second place. Here’s how (I think) we did it.
Training for Star Course is relatively straight-forward. You definitely know you’re going to be doing ONE thing for a very long time, and that’s rucking. There will, however, be variables during the event that you will have to contend with: weather, terrain, elevation, traffic, large events with road closures, and technology malfunctioning to name a few. You and your team should train for all of these things…because they will happen.
We rucked when it was early, we rucked when it was late, we rucked when it was beautiful, and we rucked directly into a 3-hour severe thunderstorm.
Out of all of our training and finishing the Star Course, here are the tips I would give to people wondering how best to attack Star Course.
- Get your miles in, get your gear figured out. There is nothing more foundational than simply rucking. The furthest we rucked as a team was 30 miles. Miles take time, and in time, you learn what breaks down, what doesn’t feel right, and how fast you can go. It took me a few weeks to settle on my shoes…and the Under Armour Valsetz were incredible. Training rucks are just as much about toughening up your feet as they are figuring out your shit.
- Get your nutrition figured out. We weren’t the best at this during training. We had many things we figured out NOT to do (don’t take too much caffeine, don’t skimp on calories, don’t overhydrate, don’t skip electrolytes). When the event rolled around, we were able to address many of these negative experiences and I think we’re all pretty happy with how things played out nutritionally.
- Vary the time. Most people have never physically exerted themselves in an event starting at 9pm. If you’re not used to how your body reacts at 4am after going for 6 or 7 hours…you should give it a test run.
- Ruck heavy and steep. We did most of our training at 2x or better the required weight. And we didn’t find the flattest land possible, we found every hill we could find, and even went up a mountain for one ruck.
- Don’t just ruck. The 4 of us did Crossfit everyday at 5:15am. I know having a base level of strength and fitness benefited us greatly.
- Set waypoints. We didn’t do this. But, waypoints give you Micro-Purpose™ (we’re working on trademarking that). Basically, rather than thinking “I’m going 30 miles tonight,” it’s much easier to say “the next waypoint is only 4 miles away.” This will also give you a chance to test out apps or gear you plan to use to track mileage or do route-finding.
- Watch the weather. Ruck when it’s miserable. We are blessed in Denver with a semi-arid climate and rain at night is fairly rare. We rucked over 10 miles one night into a severe thunderstorm with 60mph winds and zero coverage or shelter available, which made our clear-skied zero-precipitation event almost like a vacation (not really). If your event is in Oklahoma in the middle of the summer, you and your team better be chasing tornadoes.
The Actual Event
We arrived nice and early, got all checked in via instagram and started to talk to a few of the other teams. There were just shy of 30 teams, and you could tell everyone was nervous to get started. Lots of first time GORUCK event participants, which was awesome. I waited until the last possible minute to put my boots on During the briefing, Cadre Mocha Mike echoed some simple words of wisdom: “you live and die by your route.”
I cannot underscore these words enough…YOU LIVE AND DIE BY YOUR ROUTE.
I had read a handful of Star Course AARs and investigated an endless array of route-optimizing apps and experimented with several of them. At the end of the day I chose Road Warrior and our team couldn’t have been happier with this decision. You search for each of the waypoints, save them on your map, and let the app optimize your route for you. I’m a software engineer, and this was the kind of black-magic wizardry I was looking for.
While the technology is great, it does take some common sense to augment and further optimize the route the software is giving you. Some things to think about with your route:
- What’s going to be closed and does that matter?
- Are there any major events happening along our route that could cause road closures or large amounts of traffic during our ruck? (The answer was yes for us)
- Does your route have a bunch of rapid-fire waypoints in a concentrated area (like downtown Denver)? This is a huge morale boost and will make time pass by pretty quick…when will your team need it? We decided to hit that first to keep everyone busy during the night, and we knew traffic and events wouldn’t be an issue in the dead of the night.
- There will most likely be a waypoint that’s way the hell away from all the other spots. Ours was a ~9-mile trek from Mile-high Stadium to The Stone House and then another 9 miles from that point to Washington Park. We knew that the end was going to be a slog, but there was a real beauty in knowing that at the end, you didn’t have to think, you didn’t have to mess with Instagram, you just had to ruck and focus on keeping your pace and putting one foot in front of the other.
Star Course is as much about using your brain as it is crushing your legs. Take your damn time to plan your route. We saw other teams scramble out of the start point at 9pm sharp…whereas we didn’t leave until around 9:15pm. Here’s what we did in those 15 minutes:
- Asked the Cadre if any of the locations were time-sensitive or required being open.
- Looked at an actual physical map.
- Decided as a team which direction to head first.
- Double and triple checked our waypoints to make sure we didn’t miss any. YOU DO NOT WANT TO MISS A WAYPOINT AND HAVE TO GO SNAG IT LATER.
As a result of this, our route was ruthlessly efficient and with a few minor exceptions, we executed it as well as I could have hoped.
We routed the 17 waypoints and it came in under 50 miles. Something had to be wrong, we thought. We triple-checked everything and re-entered the waypoints into our apps…it was still just shy of 50. The team asked the Cadre if there were any other waypoints, and there were none. At that point, we decided to depart and assumed that the extra mileage would be made up by the unexpected that was sure to happen.
I debated withholding this information because to say our team did less than 50 miles makes me feel like we cheated or something and I want to take nothing away from our amazing team and the demons they overcame. But, the more I’ve thought about it, it needs to be underscored that we accomplished the mission in the most efficient way possible and your team should aim to do the same. It reminds me of something I heard Jason say in the GORUCK sandbag video…there’s smart pain and dumb pain. We ended the course at just over 47 miles total. One team we talked to didn’t plan well at all, and they went 63 miles. Kudos to them and their physicality, but in my opinion, that’s dumb pain.
We used multiple apps to do our routing and waypoint-to-waypoint navigation and I think this was the key to our success. When the team crossed the finish, we showed Mocha Mike our mileage and asked if we needed to go out 3 more miles or something. He gave us the red-hot negative, and told us to grab a beer. It was the best tasting beer I’ve had in recent memory.
Our team wanted to finish in 19:59:59. We had planned to go up to 60 miles in our heads. No matter what, we just wanted that patch and to say we did it. We had no idea that a second-place finish was even in the realm of possibility. As I sit here reflecting on the incredible experience and the success of our team, I just smile. The Whistlepigs not only finished, but we destroyed our preconceived expectations.
I’m convinced that Star Course is a challenge that anyone can accomplish if they’re willing to train for it and prepare appropriately. It will take time, a lot of miles, but you can do it. I asked my team to answer a few questions for me, and I’ll leave you with some of the lessons we all learned as we reflect:
- Technology will fail you at some point. Test everything thoroughly and have a plan. We had a Garmin GPS watch tracking our total mileage and current pace all night. It was great to instantly be able to see our pace and keep the miles up. But, at 40.38 miles, it died. And, we had some technical issues while charging it that wouldn’t let it charge and track miles. Greg felt like he failed the team (he totally didn’t) as a result. I used Runkeeper on my phone for a little bit until we were back up and running…no big deal.
- Have a leader. Have someone holding the metaphorical flag at all times. This person will change, but at every single point in the night there was someone that was driving the team. At the start, it was me navigating us and making sure our route was good. Throughout the night, Peter would be ahead of us hitting traffic crossing signs and stopping us from chewing up time waiting for lights. When there were just about 5 miles to go, Hannah was pushing us all to keep going. With just 2 miles left and intel that a team had just crossed the finish line, Greg yelling “I don’t wanna be a party pooper, but we’ve gotta f**king go!” got us the motivation we needed to literally run the last 2 miles.
- Get a support system in place. We were completely spoiled by having Greg’s daughter and a friend meet us at key waypoints so we could refill water and change out gear as needed. I cannot underscore how vital this was to both the health of our bodies as well as our overall morale. Having a cooler filled with ice-cold jugs of water and good food at each stop was like Christmas morning each and every time. It’s so nice to not have to carry any more than you need.
- Your navigator will be busy. If you have one person doing the navigating and the Instagram at each stop, they are going to be busy at each spot for at least 5 minutes. Make sure you check in on them and how they’re doing. My team did a great job of this. While I was checking in stuff, they were filling my water, getting my food, and even rubbing my tight calves when I felt like my tendons were going to rupture.
- Understand that everyone will be in a dark spot multiple times throughout the night. It goes without saying, but there will be times when one or more people on the team are going to go to their not-so-happy place. Expect this. This is where it’s important for each person on the team to know their “why.” Why are you doing this? What demons are you exorcising from your soul right now? Our team knew our why, and it carried us across the finish. As with so many GORUCK events, the lessons are very analogous to life…if you have purpose, a true-north, and some goals, you can and will crush the Star Course.
If you care, here’s all of our waypoints:
- Rosamond Park to Wings Over The Rockies Air & Space Museum (6.1 Miles)
- Wings Over The Rockies Air & Space Museum to Denver Botanic Gardens (4.5 Miles)
- Denver Botanic Gardens to Molly Brown House Museum (1.5 Miles)
- Molly Brown House to Colorado State Capitol (.3 Miles)
- Colorado State Capitol to Denver Mint (.9 Miles)
- Denver Mint to The Dancing Aliens at Sculpture Park (.5 Miles)
- Dancing Aliens to Larimer Square (.5 Miles)
- Larimer Square to Paramount Theatre (.7 Miles)
- Paramount Theatre to Holy Ghost Church (.4 Miles)
- Holy Ghost Church to The Denver Central Market (.8 Miles)
- Denver Central Market to Coors Field (.7 Miles)
- Coors Field to Highland Bridge (1.4 Miles)
- Highland Bridge to Mile High Stadium (1.4 Miles)
- Mile High Stadium to The Stone House (8.3 Miles)
- The Stone House to The Big Garden @ Washington Park (8.5 Miles)
- Big Garden to Mary Reed Hall @ DU (2.2 Miles)
- Mary Reed Hall to Endex @ Rosamond Park (5.3 Miles)
Total Route: 44 Miles (on paper)