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Forget trust falls. I got team-building lessons from Special Forces vets.

How I carried a 40-pound backpack through a river at night, blindfolded — and came out better for the suffering.

By Matt Crossman

Photos by Kevin M. Young

Come with me, said a man I knew only as Shredder. He is a former Special Forces soldier with a chest like a rhino, thighs that could choke an alligator, and the barest hint of a perma-smirk that is simultaneously charming and terrifying. The twinkle in his eyes as he ordered me to follow him … no, I didn’t like that twinkle at all.

It was 3:30 a.m., 9 1/2 hours into an endurance event called Go Ruck Tough — a cross between an obstacle-course race, boot camp, and team-building seminar — and I was physically and mentally depleted.

I was trudging through a soccer field in Naperville, Ill., carrying a 40-pound backpack that had been with me for all of those 9 1/2 hours, including while I was hiking in a river. I had just completed 110 thrusters and a 1.5-mile run. My fellow 81 participants — sleep-deprived, soaking wet, questioning why they signed up for this — gulped damp air as they recovered. My body ached with them. Exhaustion gripped me. My thoughts staggered around like a drunk trying to find his way home.

Shredder, one of the expedition’s leaders, stopped near a line of trees. Using his sausage fingers, and with all the delicacy of a dump truck, he pushed the bill of my Detroit Tigers hat over my face and wrapped duct tape over my eyes.

He blindfolded a handful of others, too. I assumed that in his heart of hearts, Shredder — who in his non-Go Ruck life is a business information systems professor named Mike Castillo — cackled maniacally. Someone led me to my backpack, which I had dropped next to a guy named Sal Picolla, and left me there.

I was helpless.

Then Picolla took control.

When I described my plans for a Go Ruck Tough adventure — I’m going to pay $150 to carry a 40-pound backpack all night while guys I’ve never met yell at me and boss me around! — my friends and family thought I was nuts. I would have agreed with them seven years ago. Then I got laid off from my full-time job in 2013.

It was the toughest challenge I’ve ever faced. Stress, anxiety, and fear consumed me. How would I feed my wife and kids? What would they think of me when I failed? I was ill-prepared to deal with suffering because I had experienced so little of it. Since then, I have tried to make myself miserable (in controlled environments) so that the next time something horrible happens — and there will be a next time — I’ll be better prepared.

I am not the only one looking to channel anxiety into perseverance. There are, by now, a glut of obstacle course races, Ironman triathlons, ultramarathons, and other endurance races that create misery in order to help participants prove their mettle.

Some participants were blindfolded with duct tape.

Go Ruck Tough creates misery, too, but with a more deliberate purpose: to teach teamwork and leadership. I signed up with five friends because I wanted to learn about those attributes, and Go Ruck promised to teach me in its own unique way. Imagine a trust fall exercise, only it takes 14 hours and rains the whole time (well, it did for mine, at least), and you carry a heavy backpack, and ex-Special Forces soldiers bark orders at you, and you lift teammates and their backpacks up a 12-foot wall, and you get the drift.

“Humans require pain to learn,” said former Green Beret Danny Stokes, another leader on my Go Ruck Tough weekend. “Unless you’re able to inflict some pain in a classroom setting, the learning is going to be minimal.”

Yes, that’s debatable — but then, this wasn’t purely an educational event. I crave what so many people in our increasingly disjointed society crave: kinship, camaraderie, community. I found it in Go Ruck, before, during, and after the event. Though I barely saw my five friends that night, our training beforehand strengthened our relationships, especially our accountability. I owed it to them, and they owed it to me, to get in good enough shape to not embarrass ourselves in front of Shredder, Stokes, and other participants.

Yeah, I’m 48 and feel peer pressure.

Former Green Beret Jason McCarthy founded Go Ruck in 2008 as a gear company with the goal of producing the toughest backpacks on the market. Go Ruck events began as a marketing ploy: He wanted to prove how tough the packs are. (Ruck, short for rucksack, is a military name for a backpack.) If his packs could survive a Go Ruck event, certainly they could handle being crammed into an overhead bin. The events evolved to include his desire to impart lessons he learned in his Army career through military-style physical training.

Soon the Go Ruck weekends became a thriving part of the business, as well as a way to show off the packs and other Go Ruck gear, including footwear, pants, and shirts. There were 150 Go Ruck events in 2010. This year there will be more than 1,000. Most are spread across three designations: Light, Tough, and Heavy, with Heavy a 24-hour suffer-fest that only loons sign up for. Don’t even get me started on the designation beyond Heavy, the hell that is Selection.

Most Go Ruck events are public, but some are created for companies or clubs, from fraternities to entrepreneurial organizations to Google, Comcast, and the bourbon distillery Buffalo Trace. All Go Ruck event leaders are veterans of Special Operations in the U.S. military, among the most challenging leadership positions in the world.

I’m too old to have an epiphany. But memories of that night, and what we learned, lingered with all three of us for weeks after.

Unlike endurance races, Go Ruck events focus less on individual performance and more on what people learn while persevering. Unlike conventional leadership seminars, Go Ruck creates shared physical suffering and uses that as a teaching point. “They’re not the kind of stressors we see in the normal world,” Shredder said. “But stress is stress.”

Shredder left the Army in the 1990s after 10 years as a Special Forces engineer. Since then, he has worked in the robotics, laptops, and gear industries and as a professor. I found this grandfather of four a delightfully charming rogue — Han Solo as drill sergeant — when I wasn’t totally pissed at him for making my life temporarily horrible.

Right before we reached the river, Shredder had lashed out at us for screwing up getting into formation. He acted like sending us into the river was punishment, but his anger was mostly performative, because one way or another, we were going to end up in the water. That’s his thing.

Shredder knew that being wet would make us miserable, and that our collective misery would force us to form bonds that we otherwise wouldn’t. He made us lay down on our backs in the water, which was maybe a foot deep, then hold our packs above our faces and do flutter kicks. Pushups with our packs on our backs were even worse, not least because the DuPage River does not taste good.

My frustration eased when Shredder told us to be silent and walk through the river. I couldn’t be mad at Shredder AND concentrate on traversing the rocky river bed AND help the men around me at the same time.

The author (center) rests after the Go Ruck Tough event in Naperville, Ill.

The 81 of us split into three groups. Our red headlamps shined like floating constellations, casting a melancholy pall on the water. We used hand signals to alert others about big rocks, which we felt rather than saw in the now-waist-deep water. We took turns shouldering sand bags, rocks, a medical kit, and water bags. Most men fell at least once, and all were helped up. One guy dropped and lost the rock he was carrying. He was “allowed” to replace it with one from the river, but the best he found was twice as heavy. When it was my turn to lug that thing, I hated it.

Shredder’s barest hint of a perma-smirk grew. We were learning, one shuffle step at a time. My team of 27 had yelled at each other constantly early in the evening. Nobody listened to anybody. We slowly became better communicators by barely talking in those dark, rainy, almost sacred conditions. “You’re one with the environment,” said Shredder afterward. “It touches our inner souls as humans. You’re the master. It’s pretty badass.”

A bolt of lightning far ahead of us snaked toward earth, and we scrambled to shore.

We never screwed up getting into formation again.

We didn’t yell at each other anymore, either.

The Go Ruck Tough event I participated in was branded as “Grow Ruck” and was customized for F3, a no-cost men’s workout group that aims to invigorate male community leadership. Go Ruck and F3, of which I am a member, share many common principles. Both preach that to be a good leader, you must first be a good follower.

F3’s credo is “leave no man behind, but leave no man where you found him.” It’s a feel-good aphorism that we take literally, never more so than on that rainy night on that soaking soccer field.

Participants gather at the end of the event for a group prayer.

Blindfolded, I had no choice but to follow, and Piccola had no choice but to lead me. From the first words out of his mouth I knew I would be well cared for. He was calm, thoughtful, reassuring. I can’t quote him exactly — it’s impossible to take notes when you’re blindfolded in a rainstorm — but if he didn’t literally say, “I’ve got you,” his every action communicated it.

He is married with two kids and works at PNC Bank in Pittsburgh. Hundreds of people report to him. Team building and leadership are crucial to his life and career, and he attended our Go Ruck Tough to strengthen those skills.

When it was time to move out, I reached forward with my left hand, found a loop in the back of Piccola’s backpack, and crammed my fingers into it. We crossed a line of trees and turned left onto a sidewalk. Piccola narrated obstacles along the way. He pointed out curbs, branches, and puddles and counted down before turns.

Wind lashed the trees. Rain pounded the pavement. Drenched from the river and sweat, I couldn’t feel it. A man named Clay Campbell was ahead of me to my right. He slowed down to walk beside me so I could hold on to him with my right hand. That helped me to walk straight and stay on the sidewalk. I didn’t know I needed that help. Campbell said he had been watching my feet and was worried I was going to twist my ankle where the sidewalk meets the grass.

After we covered about two miles in 45 minutes, we stopped. Someone tore the tape off of my face. When the sting faded, I regained my bearings. We were in a park, with a wooded section in front of us, an idyllic respite from the storm.

Then Stokes ordered us to go into that forest, find three logs that were at least 20 feet long and two hands thick, pick them up and carry them.

Which we did until dawn.

Stokes told me beforehand that he hoped to teach all 81 of us “at least one thing that they can use back home in their world, whether in their job, their family, their community, their church, whatever.”

I can’t speak for everyone. But the three of us — Piccola, Campbell, and I — learned about teamwork, following, and leading in the 45 minutes that I was blindfolded, to an extent we never would have otherwise.

Are there easier ways to learn? Of course. I could go to some seminar somewhere. But I doubt I’d remember any of it a week later. Nobody waxes nostalgic about how they sat and listened to some seminar speaker. My friends and I will talk about Go Ruck for as long as we are friends.

Just because something is memorable doesn’t mean it’s effective. Do Go Ruck’s teaching methods work? The company’s growth suggests they do; so do its rabid fans and repeat clients. This was Piccola’s third Go Ruck event, and others I talked to in Naperville were in double digits.

I’m too old to have an epiphany, and I can’t say with a straight face that one all-night walk in the rain, no matter how meaningful, changed my life. But memories of that night, and what we learned, lingered with all three of us for weeks after.

“I’ve been speaking about it at work. I’ve been speaking about it to my children,” Piccola told me afterward. “This could happen in real life. Not necessarily blindfolded. But in order to finish something very important, you need to pitch in and go the extra mile to thrive, not just survive. I could have just pulled you along and survived it. But I wanted to thrive for you and the rest of the team.”

By that he meant it would have done no good for Piccola and Campbell to, say, pick me up and carry me. We would have merely survived. But we thrived, because we solved the problem of how to get me from point A to point B while I was blindfolded together, as a team. We each needed to play a role if we were going to learn what Shredder wanted us to learn.

In the time I was blindfolded and since then, I examined my life. At times of great stress, when I was metaphorically blindfolded in a rainstorm, who guided me, and did I show appreciation? After I got home, I wrote an email to thank the person who most fit that description — a mentor and friend who led me through my first months of being self-employed.

Another set of questions fought for my attention, harder to answer but also more important. Have I noticed when others around me were blindfolded? Did I step into their storm to lead them? Did my actions or my words say, “I’ve got you”? I must confess, I didn’t like my answers. I hope to recognize future opportunities to help, like Piccola and Campbell did for me in the rain — and then do so.

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Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis.


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