(*I’m taking a little detour to post about my training this weekend while it is still fresh in my mind, bones and muscle. January recap will continue afterwards.)
The Suck – Mountain Phase
Let’s just call a spade a spade and start by saying Joe Decker is a beast and knows how to pummel a body just this side of submission. Hiking and running to the top of two of San Diego’s tallest peaks while often carrying 100 pounds or more is probably not anyone’s idea of a good time. That, however, is exactly how I spent my Friday night this weekend!
Joe is the founder of San Diego’s Gut Check Fitness (voted the #1 boot camp in San Diego) which he runs with his wife Nicole Decker. Among other things, he has been recognized as the World’s Fittest Man by the Guinness Book of World Records and is a two-time winner of the Death Race. Aside from being an extreme athlete and a bad-ass motherfucker, Joe is an exceptional fitness instructor and motivator. He leads by example and always does so with a smile on his face. I met Joe back in November when I drove down to San Diego to participate in his Gut Check Challenge event after discovering that the winner of the last two Death Races lived a few hours south of me. The Challenge kicked my ass silly. I knew then my Death Race training needed to get taken to a new level. Luckily for me, Joe mentioned he was putting together a series of monthly overnight training sessions designed to prepare participants for the mental and physical aspects of the Death Race. He appropriately called these events The SUCK. From the Gut Check website:
The purpose of [The SUCK] is to help get individuals prepared to attempt the King of the Hill series, the Gut Check Challenge, a Spartan Race, the Death Race, Tough Mudder, GORUCK, etc. or just to become a stronger person. Our goal is to try to break you, take you to the point of no return then hopefully empower you to not quit regardless of the level of ‘the suck.’ “Adversity builds Character.”
What does it mean? Defines any situation where conditions are undesirable. Commonly used around a war time conflict by members of the Armed Forces. It sounds like a put-down, but it is actually a testament to the dedication of those who endure it. Also known as “The Shit.”
I signed up for all four as soon as I could. This weekend was the second of these SUCKs. It lived up to its name and worse. It surpassed the beat down we endured in the January SUCK.
Getting it Done
The 14 brave souls registered for this night of masochism met Joe and his wife Nicole (a bad-ass in her own right whose words of encouragement helped keep me motivated and on task throughout the evening) on the east side of Mount Woodson north of San Diego at 7pm. On my way down I’d picked up my friend and fellow Death Racer Michelle in Costa Mesa. We arrived a few minutes late and quickly began changing our clothes and prepping our gear. Next time, I am leaving LA at 1 or 2pm to give myself more time to prep upon arrival!
Required gear included:
1) Backpack – At the previous SUCK I used an Osprey Talon 44. This is a 44-liter pack designed for multi-day light backpacking and NOT for carrying 50 pound loads. I learned this the hard way and suffered quite a bit for it. The entire weight pulled down on the very thin shoulder straps and the minimalist hip belt did not provide any kind of support. Lesson learned. This time I brought a Gregory Baltoro 75-liter backpack. A much smarter choice although none of these packs is really meant to carry the kind of weight we are loading into them.
2) 8-lb sledgehammer
3) Two 50-lb sandbags – I wrap my sandbags in duct tape to keep them from sagging in my pack.
4) Car tire
5) Camelbak or ultra-light running pack for carrying water bladder
6) Water bladder – I LOVE the Platypus Big Zip SL bladders over Camelbak bladders. The Platypus bladders have a top loading system which make them easier to fill compared to the cap opening system on the Camelbaks. (*TIP: After cleaning your water bladder and hose let it drip dry for a few hours before storing it in the freezer. This helps prevent any mold from forming in the hard to dry places like the inside of the hose.)
7) Trail shoes – I brought 4 pairs of shoes since I am experimenting with gear – one pair of Merrell Chameleon3 trail shoes ($14 at REI used gear sale – I think the tag said they were worn once and the buyer didn’t like the color…they retail for over $100…love REI!), two ASICS cross-trainers (as backups for the Merrells since it was my first time out with them for any significant amount of time), and one pair of New Balance MT20 Minimus Trail-Running Shoes (I got these for $20 at the REI used gear sale!) for the Gut Check 90-minute boot camp class that ends The SUCK training session on Saturday morning.
8) Two headlamps (in case one breaks) and extra batteries – My Black Diamond headlamp broke so I got a last minute Coleman 100-lumen headlamp. The brightness was awesome but the large battery pack and the over-the-head strap were cumbersome and got in the way. I didn’t bring a backup.
9) Several changes of clothes – I wore light Smart Wool trekking socks and found that these provided more cushioning than the Injinji toe socks I wore during other training sessions and obstacle races. Toe socks help decrease blisters but I found them to be too thin and not up to the punishment of an obstacle race or overnight training session. My toes actually tore my Injinji socks during the Super Spartan race a few weeks ago in Temecula.
10) Water – I add flavored Nuun electrolyte tablets to my water to replace lost electrolytes and help with my hydration.
11) Food (aka: Lickies and Chewies) – GU Energy Gels, Clif Shot Energy Gels and Bloks, and Hammer Nutrition Energy Gel (these are my new favorites in terms of sheer flavor), Clif bars. I usually bring some turkey jerky but in the mad rush to get down to San Diego in traffic I didn’t have time to swing by a market.
12) Work gloves – I use something similar these.
I also bring a first aid kit mostly to hold the mole skin I tape to my toes and heels. I don’t want to carry the additional weight in my pack while on the mountain. Crazy, I know, but every ounce starts to feel like 10 pounds after 6 or 7 hours. And, lastly, I carry a whistle and an emergency blanket in my pack in case I get lost and have to sit still for a while in the middle of the night.
So…after prepping our gear Joe rounded up the troops and we were off! In my pack I carried a 50 pound sandbag that sat on top of a Sea to Summit 13-liter Dry Bagstuffed with a pillow. This was just to elevate the sandbag so it didn’t completely sag at the bottom of the pack. I think it helped a little…just a little. In the pack I also carried my Camelbak, lickies and chewies, extra socks, extra gloves, and the 8 pound sledge hammer. Total weight was approximately 65 pounds. And that was just IN the pack!
Additionally, I carried another 50 pound sandbag in my arms or on my back on top of the backpack AND I shared a tire with my partner for the evening, Gentry. Like I said, Joe knows how to break the soul before the night even gets started! About 100 meters into the trail we stopped, dropped our gear and busted out 100 burpees before taking a group photo. I think I started laughing and silently cursing Joe’s name at this point. It was sheer insanity what we were about to undertake but so is the Death Race, right?
Up the trail we go one slow step at a time. The trail is a fire road so it is in good condition. Nothing treacherous on the feet but definitely steep. The summit is about 2.5 miles from the start. About halfway up we dropped one of the sandbags, busted out 100 squat presses and then continued on. I took the tire and began rolling it although it really wasn’t any easier than carrying it. Fairly quickly I fell behind and was at the back of the group. Near the top Joe and Ben (a fellow GRT and bad-ass) came down to help the stragglers. I was grateful for the support. I could have reached the top on my own but the group needed to move on and I needed to join them. At the summit we dropped our packs and pounded the tires with our sledge hammers until the last person arrived and completed 100 sledge hammer tire pounds. I must have done over 200 of these suckers!
And then we were off once again down the western side of Woodson towards Poway Lake. This is a 7.5 mile round trip up and down mostly rough single-track trails. We carried our backpacks loaded with the 50 pound sandbag and the sledgehammer. I made pretty good time even though the possibility of rolling an ankle was very high. Even with headlamps it was challenging to make out depth and I had to really stay focused on every step. Even so, I did take a spill at one point when my left ankle started to roll on some loose rocks. In a split second I sensed that this was bad and threw my body into the fall rather than risk trying to stay upright and potentially breaking an ankle. I laughed as I lay there because what else is there to do?
About halfway down we were instructed to remove our packs and do 100 sit-ups with the pack resting on our chest. Easy compared to what we had already done. Once finished we were told to leave our backpacks and continue down the mountain with just our Camelbaks and water! It felt like I was flying as I sprinted down the trail to Lake Poway! At the bottom we regrouped, refilled our water bladders and when the entire group had arrived we moved on to our next task…jumping into the cold waters of Lake Poway! We sprinted down a slope about 50 yards into the water up to our waists and then back up the slope. Repeat five times. I actually do really well in cold water so this part of the training and the Death Race doesn’t mind fuck me like other aspects.
We then carried our buddy up the slope to complete this part of the mission and once again we were on the move back up the trail to the top of Woodson. I made really good time until we had to recover our weight-laden packs. This SUCKED. We busted out 100 push-ups for good measure before continuing back up. Any time I had gained was very quickly lost as I slowed down to a snail’s pace. It was brutal progress to the top and eventually Joe and Ben came down to help the stragglers. No shame in it for me. I know I would have gotten to the top on my own…eventually.
At top I collected my tire and began the trek down the other side of Woodson to our starting point. Again, going downhill was no less difficult than going up. Rolling the tire was not really an option so I carried it. At different points I carried a tire or an additional 50 pound sandbag for most of the journey down. It was miserable but I kept reminding myself to smile and laugh at the absurdity of it all. It was well after midnight, I was mostly by myself on the trail, and I was often carrying almost 2/3 of my body weight. Who does this?!?!
I finally get to the bottom and dropped my gear. What a relief!!! We waited about 20 minutes for the last person to arrive and then we drove to our next destination…Iron Mountain. At the trail head we rested and refueled for about 45 minutes and then began our ascent to the summit approximately 3 miles away at about 4am. We only carried our Camelbaks so I was able to stay with the front pack. I ran almost the entire way up which felt great and was a real confidence booster in terms of how much energy I had at this point and how well my body was doing. At the summit we did 100 burpees and then went back down the mountain. Again, I had to slow down since I didn’t want to risk breaking an ankle. The trail was very rocky and uneven. At one point I lost sight of any headlamps in front or behind me and I thought I was lost. I doubled back and waited. Luckily, I wasn’t lost and I joined the back of the pack as they made their way down.
I reached the bottom as the sun was coming up and it was glorious! A real sense of accomplishment filled me as I approached my cheering comrades in pain. The air felt great, I was smiling and I knew that we had a short respite to grab food and beverages at Starbucks before beginning the final stage of the night/morning…the 90-minute Gut Check Fitness Boot Camp at Torrey Hills Neighborhood Park at 8am.
The SUCKers joined about 50 other boot camp regulars for multiple rounds of timed mile runs, push-ups, sit-ups, bear crawls, sandbag runs, and other forms of physical punishment.
And then…we were done!!!
14 hours, 12K feet elevation gain and 20+ miles (3 miles with 125+ pounds, 4 miles with 75+ pounds). Mission accomplished!
This was brutal training…not for the weak of heart. I was exhausted but happy that once again I finished. The physical part is definitely hard but the mental mind game is even more challenging. I can only think of the next step and not the end. It is why I don’t carry a watch and prefer not to know the time. It is utterly demoralizing to me to think I have just endured 7 hours of a physical beat down only to discover it has only been two hours. Why mind fuck myself like that? So…no watch. I also don’t care that I may be the slowest. I know how I will get to the next objective…one step at a time.
Thanks to Joe Decker for bringing a mountain of pain to my training! And thanks to the exceptional people who are “getting it done” right along with me!