How I fared on a 12-hour extreme challenge with the military commanders- 'I was high for days afterwards, proud and satisfied'
Eager to step out of her comfort zone, in the dead of night Jillian Bolger put herself in the hands of special forces commandos for an extreme 12-hour challenge that would push her to her limits, both physically and mentally…
I felt sick with nerves all week. As March 18 drew nearer, I lay awake at night trying to imagine what lay ahead. The details I knew were scant: I was to be in Dublin's Herbert Park at 10pm. I knew I would be carrying 15 kilos on my back for 12 hours, plus whatever additional weight I'd be assigned on arrival. I knew I would be rucking (hiking with a loaded backpack) all through the night, covering 15-20 miles in the dark, and that at some point I would end up in the water.
I knew I'd feel cold, hungry, tired and that I'd be pushed mentally and physically. What had I signed myself up for?
Was I really ready for a GoRuck challenge?
My CrossFit regime had been lax for the previous six months, so when I heard about GoRuck I decided it would be a good goal to get fit for.
Founded in 2008 by former US Green Beret Jason McCarthy, GoRuck began life as a gear company. In 2010, they began running challenges to market their rucksacks. Today they hold over 700 events annually, including several in Europe, with around 20,000 participants. The ratio is currently 70/30 civilian to military participants.
The challenge levels are light, 4-5 hours covering 7-10 miles; tough, 10-12 hours covering 15-20 miles; and heavy - more than 24 hours covering 40 miles.
Based on special forces training, the challenges are led by members of the US military called Cadre. "Our Cadre have one main task: to teach the leadership lessons they've learned serving in the nation's most elite units, in the world's harshest environments," the website reads. "Their job is to test your limits, push you beyond them, and build your class into a team.
"There are no cash prizes at the finish. All you earn is a 2x3 inch patch and the respect of everyone to your left and right."
Physically, I hoped I would be able to hack whatever was thrown at me on the Tough challenge, but I'd never before tried to push myself mentally, much less haul weight for 12 hours on no sleep. Essentially, I just fancied getting out of my comfort zone.
I liked the idea of a team event too, where you problem solve together, learn to trust each other and dig deep to share the work. But most of all I liked having something to prove to myself.
So, at 10pm that night, along with three friends from Ronin CrossFit, I joined 22 strangers - mostly American, British and German - in the dark. We met our Cadre, both US Army Special Forces combat divers, currently on a break from active duty.
These elite military commanders introduced us to an hour of intense physical drills in the park - push-ups, burpees, flutter kicks, mountain climbs and thrusters - all the while wearing our weighted backpacks or hoisting them overhead.
Marching behind an American flag and Tricolour - at all times carried by two of our group - we hit Sandymount Strand around midnight, getting down and dirty in the sand. Here we crawled on our bellies, combat style, pushing our rucksacks in front of us.
We moved 'casualties', dragging each other's bodies along the sand on our knees as if avoiding overhead gunfire. We loaded up fabric sandbags with 350 kilos of sand; some 10 kilos, some 20, others 30 and one giant sandbag that weighed almost 200 kilos. Several of the smaller sandbags were tied together in an awkward chain, which meant walking in synch as we balanced the 'Pain Train' on our shoulders.
Over the next five hours we toiled in rank the 5km from Sandymount to Poolbeg Lighthouse and back, laden down with back-breaking weights. As the sun came up, we found ourselves on our bellies in the mud flats, crawling in the icy water.
Occasionally we had to carry each other. Many times we weren't allowed talk. At no time could our rucksack ever touch the ground, even when we were resting.
But we all survived - and, indeed, thrived - and finished muddy, exhausted and high on endorphins to be awarded our green GoRuck 'St Paddy's Tough' patch. Truth be told, I was high for days afterwards, proud and satisfied and amused.
Friends wondered what had possessed me to undertake such a bizarre activity. Why would anyone want to put themselves through such an ordeal for fun, they asked.
Stepping into the unknown had worried me sick, but I did so with no outside pressure. The anticipation of leaving my comfort zone proved far worse than the event, and the sense of accomplishment was overwhelmingly self-affirming.
I learned that I am more resilient than I believed, that I enjoy putting myself under pressure and, most significantly, that there are immeasurable rewards to be gained from taking on something you've never done before.
Given the fact I've already signed up for the next Irish GoRuck Tough challenge next year, it seems I've had to redefine the parameters of my own comfort zone, and boy, does it feel good.
The next Irish GoRuck Tough Challenge takes place on March 18, 2017 in Dublin. See goruck.com
5 ways to get out of your comfort zone this summer
Dingle Adventure Race Mini: June 11
Beginners' adventure race of a 1km run, 1km sea kayak, 7km cycle, 5km beach run, 6km cycle and 1km run to the finish, €65. dingleadventurerace.com
Ironmind Sprint Distance Triathlon: July 9
Beginners' triathlon of 500m lake swim, 18km cycle, 4km run at Belvedere House and Gardens, Mullingar, €64.20. alustforlife.com/events/ironmind- triathlon-2016
Beast of Ballyhoura Adventure Race: July 30-31
A 24-hour adventure race that includes mountain biking, kayaking, swimming, rope work, trekking, orienteering as well as other special tasks. €1,200 per team of four. beastofballhoura.com
GaelForce West: August 20
A 67km endurance race starting in Connemara cycling, running on trails, kayaking across Killary Fjord, climbing Croagh Patrick, and finishing in Westport. €85. gaelforceevents.com
Hell & Back Titan: September 10
Off-road 7km or 12km obstacle course along man-made trail runs and mountain paths at Killlruddery House, Co Wicklow, from €48. hellandback.ie