TEAM ASSESSMENT 001 - FEMALE DIVISION
September 17-19, 2020
I traveled to Bellbrook, OH on Wednesday, September 16th to meet my partner, Teresa Garcia. Just three days before, I had expressed doubt about my participation in the event. Not doubt about wanting to be there, just doubt about passing the PT test. I had the pushups and squat cleans down cold but those situps? I remained a few reps shy of the standard. That conversation really set the tone for the week. We encouraged each other about our respective concerning aspects and got excited about the trip. For the remaining days, I continued to work on situps and tapered everything else. For about ten days before, I wasn’t doing much more than situps and low volume bodyweight work. I didn’t sleep well Monday night of that week but Wednesday morning, I woke up well-rested and ready to go.
After arriving at the hotel, Teresa and I reviewed our gear, vacuum-sealed our
clothes and began our final ruck dump practice. My event ruck is a 21L curved-strap GR1. The required packing list made for a very tight fit. I also brought a Rucker and a GR2 so I had options. I really debated using the Rucker but eventually chose not to because it was only slightly larger than the GR1. This was not enough of an advantage to give up the narrower straps of the GR1. The GR2 would have made the ruck dump a breeze but I’m 5’2” so it’s so huge on me. Not only have I never done an event, or even PT, in that but I didn’t have nearly enough gear to fill it up. I believe in the ‘don’t try anything new in an event’ rule and I’m so glad I stuck by that in terms of ruck choice.
There were two things I was concerned about in terms of the event. I knew it would be arduous and the work would be brutal. What got in my head were the moments more likely to be seen by an audience - the ruck dump and the PT test. In choosing my usual event ruck, I took a moment to acknowledge that I may be the very last one - or the only one unable - to repack my ruck in the required time. I knew that, as embarrassing as that moment might be, the other 47+ hours of the event I would be grateful for my GR1. As it turned out, I never made the time hack getting it repacked but it didn’t rattle me. It was a calculated risk of my own choosing.
As for the PT test, I found uncharacteristic resolve to simply do the best I could. My goal in TA was never to win. That wasn’t in the cards for me. My goal was to complete the event by giving every evolution my very best effort in order to earn the patch. As I waited my turn for the situps, I did a few reps to shake out my nerves. This focus helped. On pushups, I did almost 20% more than my previous best and I did as well as I ever had on squat cleans and situps. Having both of these tasks behind me was a great relief. I knew nothing short of a catastrophic injury would take me out of the event.
I was surprised by how calm the time during and following the admin phase seemed. We were at a park and near a port-o-john. Between announcements and elements when cadre weren’t addressing us, we were pretty free to take bathroom breaks and get our rucks repacked. A few even went back to cars parked nearby. When I noticed this, I realized that I had accidentally left my peanut M&Ms in my car. I was fairly light on food because the details on the event registration page didn’t make it clear that we were allowed to have anything other than the two required MREs. In my ruck, I had two PBJ sandwiches and one package of Honey Stinger gummies. Definitely not enough calories for two days but I had the MREs and I tend to mostly graze during events anyway. At any rate, I had a feeling that those M&Ms would come in handy if nothing else but to cheer me up a little so Teresa accompanied me to my car to grab them.
Following admin, we began a few hours of the worst PT evolutions I’ve ever endured. Cadre lined us up at the end of a field and described the first evolution. Pointing out the cones we were to move between, they asked if we understood. We did. But then, explaining the movement, one of them said ‘100m’. I thought to myself, oh my. If you guys are implying that the distance between these cones is 100m, I’m on a collision course with a massive pain train. I do a lot of park workouts and step off distance frequently. This distance was MUCH more than 100m. I later heard that Jill Bates went back to measure it and reported that it was indeed 240m.
Evolutions here included walking lunges with a 60# sandbag, bear crawl sandbag drags, low crawl, he-sees-me-i’m-down. All were done with your partner. We had been told that we would be evaluated as a team throughout the event and that sometimes we would know the standard and sometimes we wouldn’t. During this time, I thought a lot about that and how much effort I could put into each rep and still remotely keep up with others in the field. I care a lot about form for safety’s sake as well as integrity but there were a couple of the iterations that I found nearly undoable. Chiefly, the knee-to-ground walking lunges with a 60# sandbag. I typically don’t touch my knee to the ground on lunges simply because I’m in my gym and don’t care to hit my knee on the floor repeatedly. Doing so on grass is great but I learned quickly that dropping an extra inch to actually touch the ground was a killer. Add to that, the fact that my ruck + sandbag topped 90# and my 122# body really struggled on every rep past the first 15 or so. I could control the descent but maintaining my balance coming back up was extremely difficult.
These were followed by a series of single partner movements. One teammate would stay at the start and do continuous reps of a single exercise until the other returned from a so-called 200m movement. Both sides of this were taxing in my mind. Being stationary and repeating an exercise under the watch of cadre was arduous but then leaving Teresa to do that while my short legs made their way all too slowly across the field was mentally tough as well.
Next up was the Deck of Death. The exercise choices were brutally fitting for an event of this caliber. Squat clean and press, 8ct bodybuilders and lunges, all with a ruck and 60# sandbag, and mercifully, ruck swings. Jokers represented a 800m ruck which we jokingly referred to as ‘going for a stroll’. We had 85 minutes for this task and were forewarned that missing the time hack would result in a strike on our team patches. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it so we got our first strike.
Around midnight, we set off on a five-mile movement to the McCarthy home. Teresa and I were at the end of the line for most of this time, only overtaking a team in the last couple miles. It was during this time I felt we really came together as a team to overcome our short stride length. We hardly spoke but there was a seamless trade-off in pace-setting. Sometimes, she would be a step ahead and I’d work to match her pace. Others, I’d get a burst of energy and pull ahead to push her pace.
When we rounded the corner of the house into the McCarthy’s backyard, the event took on new meaning. Having seen it on live feeds in previous events, I took a moment to absorb the fact that I was now here to face work I’d only witnessed from a distance before. And yes, I felt the presence of The Hill.
I am not the best at remembering the timeline of every evolution. I’m sure other AARs will cover that excellently. My memory retains much better what I felt and thought throughout. Further, in events, I don’t get mentally bogged down by thoughts of what hurts or if I’m achieving. Rather, I employ a technique suggested to me by my friend, Jason Kidd, before my first Bragg Heavy years ago. I set benchmarks and simply work my way to each one. It’s a very singular focus that keeps me from being overwhelmed and enables me to do my best in each iteration.
At this point, I had a sizable blister on my left heel. I first felt it back at the field in the park but there was no time to address it. What perplexed me was that that area was well-covered by leukotape. Unless somehow that had moved (which I knew I’d also feel), I knew I had blistered under the tape, something I didn’t know could happen.
This brings to mind one of my biggest takeaways from Team Assessment - the importance of experience. What my GORUCK experience lacks in terms of quantity of events, it makes up for in terms of variety and consistent leveling up. A continual push to challenge myself more has afforded me opportunities to overcome my limitations by pushing through elements which I may not have actually been ready to take on. While self-doubt often plagues me in advance of an event or evolution, once I’m in the middle of it, my head goes down and I simply go to work. This mental habit served me very well in this event.
There was some panic in my mind that the blister happened with so much time left in the event but I had had a similar issue at the Nashville HTL in June. As much as it hurt while I waited for the chance to fix it, especially on the five-miler and up and down that hill, I knew that once I drained it, it wouldn’t hurt any more. Knowing there’s a solution or an end to discomfort was all I needed to block out the pain of those hours.
EARLY AM FRIDAY
I have to give a huge shoutout to my partner for her performance in the half-mile wheelbarrow evolution during the first overnight. She chose to go first on that and I was continually amazed at her strength and ability to persevere in that. For me, this was the first time I thought, ‘I can’t do that’ but the work Teresa put in provided inspiration and confirmation that yes, I actually could.
Morning came and we headed to the river for hydro burpees. Funny, in all the events I’ve done, I had never done those before. The water was chilly but not terrible. Still, I was glad to be done with them. Even more so, I was grateful for the bear crawl exercise to follow. One, because it warmed me back up but also because our size was finally an advantage at something! I believe we came in third of seven, our highest placement of the event.
Which brings me to a point I struggled with often. As one of the last teams to finish most movements, we got very little rest. Often we had about ten minutes for our ‘priorities of work’ - feet, food, water refill and one that requires much less time and thought for the guys, bathroom breaks. As women, sometimes we needed supplies from our rucks before heading over to the restroom which took precious time from the other things we needed to address. Feet, normally your top priority, had to slip to third place after bathroom and water refills. At one point, we passed one of the cadre in the field and he told us we were too slow. Teresa replied that we had had to stop for feminine reasons. His reply was that he didn’t need to know about that and I bit my tongue. I mean, sure no one needs to know about that but we don’t have the luxury of ignoring it either.
I was proud of how we stayed unified in these moments and decided together how to use our rest time. And I was grateful when after eight or so miles on that blister, I had time to take care of it. I put a lot of thought into how I organized my ruck. I had two small dry bags - one green, one red. In the green one was all things comforting and sustaining - food and electrolytes. The red held safety, first aid and gear - tape, batteries, anti-chafe, etc. In a moment of genius, I had pinned a large safety pin to a loop on the top of the green one. Not having to dig through that bag for such a tiny item was a huge morale boost for me whenever I needed it.
LITTLE BY LITTLE
I'm not exactly sure at what point she said it but most likely, after one of my many apologies for not being faster or better at something, Teresa said, ‘little by little, Renée. That’s how we’re getting this done.’
I laughed and replied, ‘you’re right and that’s us, little you and little me - little x little.’
The impromptu nickname stuck and cheered us. During a subsequent rest, Jason asked how we were doing. I told him about our new team name and he chuckled. ‘Alright, little by little! Good for you!’
From then on, when we made it to the top of the hill, if he was there, he was chanting, ‘little by little!’ Once he even played a song by Oasis titled, Little By Little. Other cadre would call us out by the nickname too and it was a bright spot among the misery each time.
The middle day is the biggest blur of the event for me. Work, work and more work. So often, when we were called to formation at the top of the hill, I would listen to the instructions and think, ‘oh ok, here’s the thing I’ll fail at. This is the thing I can’t do.’ But when that thought arrived, I didn’t grab on to it. I envisioned it rolling off my back as I reached for the sandbag or bucket.
Just do the work, I thought to myself. It’s just work. Figure it out.
Continuing my habit of setting benchmarks and noting where the sun was, I knew our 24-hour mark was approaching and that we’d get a better break around that time. Nevertheless, I will never forget reaching the top of that hill and hearing Cleve say, ‘alright, ladies, priorities of work. You’ve got ninety minutes.’
Pure joy and elation!
We chose a spot to set up our little camp. Boots and socks off and in the sun. MRE out. Eat, eat, eat. Lie down, feet elevated. Jason was roving back and forth coaching us through it all. I took all his suggestions but quickly regretted that I’d never opened and prepared an MRE before. Doing so would have saved me time and a bit of frustration. Once finished, I packed up my ruck and laid down, first in the sun because I was so cold, then later in the shade once I warmed up.
This time passed all too quickly but once it was over, I reset mentally and enjoyed a moment of confidence for making it past the halfway mark. Once again, I focused on the need to simply do work to finish strong and earn the patch.
When the 12-miler was announced around 7pm, I was glad for it. We knew it was coming at some point and mentally, I was both ready for it and ready to get it over with. The time standard was the usual - 3:30. With the varied terrain of the one-mile loop - trail, sand, high grass and of course, The Hill - I figured we couldn’t make the time hack but once again, my mind let that slip right on by.
Do the work.
It was during this evolution I began calling The Hill, Thank God Hill. Not flippantly at all. Every time I reached the top, I remembered where my strength and power came from and was grateful for the belief in a power greater than my own.
All told, I think the 12-miler was the evolution I’m most proud of. For twenty-four hours, we had been last or nearly last at everything. We didn’t get discouraged as a team but it did weigh on me. It made me wonder if I belonged there. Once we set off, though, something kicked in. Teresa and I both hit our quiet places and we were two little, fast-paced, arm-swinging women on a mission. Every so often, one of us would utter a quiet, ‘drink water’ and we did.
The miles clicked by. At this point, we had reversed course on the mile and we watched for chem lights marking a treacherous stretch right before we turned left at the river to head up to the hill. Those lights were a sign of accomplishment and they seemed to come around a little faster each lap. We ended up logging ten miles before time was up. While our failure to meet the standard earned us our second strike, I’ve never worked harder or been more proud of ten miles.
It wasn’t long though before I hit my lowest moment of the entire event. We were instructed to complete a three-mile bearhug carry with a 40# sandbag. No weight on the shoulder. All front carry. I didn’t think this would be too bad but I had the misfortune of picking up a bag full of not sand but rocks. It was harder to maneuver and soon I had a shooting pain in the left side of my back. This is the other example of how prior event experience helped me persevere. In my first HTL attempt, one of my knees was hurting badly. I don’t have knee problems so it really freaked me out. I ended up dropping from that because I feared I would end up truly injured. Two days later, my knee was absolutely fine. I took note of that and have never forgotten it.
So as my back spasmed, I took deep breaths and remembered the regret of missing that HTL with just a few hours left in the Tough. Work I know I could have done. Teresa was exceedingly patient with me during this time as I was in a bad place and very slow. I set the bag down way too often and made her miles much harder than they should have been. I’ll never forget her quiet acceptance of the fight I was in.
As the sun came up on the second day, the end felt both so close and so far away. Getting up and down off the ground was slower each and every time. I was constantly cold and losing interest in food. While that might sound like the end of self-will, it was quite the opposite. I tracked the sun and counted the hours. The end was coming and there was only one way to get there.
Do the work. Just do the work and drink water.
Though not something I consider a strength of mine, I enjoyed the water bucket carries. Maybe it was just getting away from those sandbags that made it seem easy. I also enjoy how Teresa and I worked together on these evolutions. We had a simple, quick method of transition and changing up our grip in the shared carries. It was a little dance of few words, silent encouragement and the occasional, ‘drink water’.
On one of the bucket movements, I had a sudden, shooting pain in my right ankle. It felt like a knife sliding up under the bone. I sat down and stripped off my boot and sock, thinking that maybe a hornet had gotten trapped in there but there was nothing. No insect, no marks on my skin...nothing. The pain continued for the next 100m or so but eventually, it either subsided or I blocked it.
On the evolution with the slosh pipe, we caught a lucky break that at first didn’t seem like one. We had decided that she would be the one to get down in the water and I would lift the buckets up and carry them to our rucks. On the first trip, I put the cap on the pipe and tightened it down so it wouldn’t leak. We had been instructed to empty it at the top but we couldn’t get the cap off. Neither could any of the men we asked to help. Cleve instructed us to leave the water in there and continue. The extra effort of dragging the pipe with water the whole time was well worth it because the other teams had to drag theirs to the river each time to refill and recap it. All we had to do was fill a bucket and be on our way.
Having done movements with the litter poles before, I dreaded the apparatus a bit. Those poles were very heavy and larger enough to make my forearms burn quickly. Controlling it down the hill was unnerving, especially considering how tired we were, but we made it there and back from the turnaround point...little by little. As we made our final trip up that hill, Teresa was having a lot of trouble breathing. She is asthmatic and in every event, I am amazed at how valiantly she fights through it. We were nearly to the top and she seemed to hit a really critical point. People at the top were cheering us on and urging us to keep going but it was clear to me she needed a break. I tried to move the apparatus on my own but unfortunately, all I could do was hold it while she rested. As we began to crest the hill, she collapsed on the ground. This is a moment I will always question in my mind - did I do right by my teammate by holding our ground or was I not empathetic enough to her struggle?
NOTE: Teresa asked me to add here that my choice on the hill was right. That the time I spent holding the apparatus on the hill by myself bought her the recovery she needed to keep going. (See how awesomely encouraging she is?)
The wheels weren’t yet to level ground and this time I managed to pull it up myself. At last, we were on top of the hill and I asked her to just stay beside me while I pulled it to the spot where we were to dismantle it. Once there, Cadre Barbarossa allowed her to get her inhaler and I began to break it down. Anyone who knows Teresa knows her power so it wasn’t very long before she was back at my side, pulling the collars and wheels off.
Endex was near but it wasn’t over. Neither were her breathing troubles. As we lay on the ground lifting our feet at Cadre JC’s command, I listened to her resolve expressed in ragged breath. As we low crawled, I stayed beside her as she alternately crawled and regained her breath. Crab walk back. Up for a bear crawl. In formation and squatting. All I did was listen in awe as she breathed and worked. As we were told to close our eyes, I knew the end had come. I listened to the cadre commands but my heart listened only to my partner, this giant of a warrior in the tiniest form who had fought with me the greatest physical fight of my life.
I have struggled greatly to process this event and all it meant to me and for me. Team Assessment coincided with the closure of a very difficult chapter for me personally, a process that wasn’t quite complete when the event began. At endex, I felt a greater freedom from that part of my life knowing that I had stepped onto a bigger, very intimidating stage and had persevered in that amid fears about the personal situation resolving.
That being said, I have struggled to believe I earned the finish and the patch to the degree that others ranking higher did. Ultimately, I believe that’s a continuation of the mental challenge. The standard was set and I did my very best both in preparation and in execution. Could I have done better? Yes, always but life doesn’t run on a schedule of our own choosing.
When the day and time came for Team Assessment, I was there as ready as I could be in this year and at that moment. At every turn, I did my best to honor God, my teammate, myself and my Nashville Rucking Crew family who I knew were cheering me on. Recalling that, I will continue to try to shake away doubts. After all, when showing up scared me the most, I did it anyway.
GORUCK 21L GR1 Curved Strap
Women’s Simple Pants - Power
Though I don’t currently work in the fitness field, I am a long-time personal trainer. I wrote my own training program for TA, focusing on my weaknesses and training for the PT test. This year, I have rucked far fewer miles than any since I began rucking. What quarantine took from me in terms of events and miles with my ruck club, it gave back to me in terms of consistency in strength training, flexibility work, increased sleep and focused nutrition. I believe these, along with mental focus and clarity, enabled me to overcome the lack of rucking mileage.
Renée Aly is a founder of Nashville Rucking Crew and works in Nashville as an office manager. Find her on Instagram @_renee_aly_.