Training + Community: Pathfinder Ruck Training Program Review

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I had been hearing good things about this training program from my fellow adventure racers and GORUCK junkies for some time, but I kept putting off signing up for one (for reasons I will get into later). Shortly before Class 010 was due to start, Kirk Deligiannis (co-founder of Charity Challenges, evil genius behind Mettle Forger, and an all-around awesome member of the rucking community) died suddenly after an event. Class 010 was made a memorial class with proceeds going to help his family. There was no question at that point, I was signing up.

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Many of us wore his roster number, made it a point to include some of his signature workouts in our training, and I kept the following quote on the cover of my training journal:

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The program turned out to be both a fitting tribute and an awesome training regimen.

What Pathfinder is NOT

The main reason I had shied away from this program even though better athletes had recommended it: I thought that it was something different than what it actually is.

I’m the kind of person who tailors my training around my event schedule as soon as I decide on doing an event. It is not uncommon for me to have training planned out for a year or more into the future, and I thought that I would have to scrap that to follow the Pathfinder workouts.

This turned out not to be the case. Pathfinder is not an every-day-planned-out, do-this-and-only-this training plan. It is much more open-ended and adjustable, so it can be fit around other training. (I successfully got PF requirements completed while continuing my 100M training. If I can fit it around a time-consuming plan like that, it can fit around whatever workout program you are on.) While there is a schedule of workouts that you can follow if you like, as long as the requirements of the program get met, no one cares when or in what order you get them done. One of the advisers completed the 12-week program in a month, just to show that it could be done.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is also not a virtual race where you get the finisher’s insignia regardless of if you actually did the work. While it is on the honor system, you have to complete the required challenges and log them online in order to be listed as a finisher and receive your patch.

The Pathfinder Program

The program is intended to help you perform at a higher level at ruck-based events, or as they say, “Thrive, don’t just survive.” It also puts those of us who are dedicated to this type of training together so that we can motivate each other and help each other out. (Fellow Pathfinders met me on trips to Minnesota and Texas to get workouts in together.)

There are three levels of training, but I am only going to detail out the beginner level, Pathfinder Forward. The others are the same idea, but with more miles, more workouts, heavier weights, and shorter time limits (for individual challenges, all levels are still 12 weeks). You can find more details and sign up here.

To complete the program, you have 12 weeks to:

  • Ruck at least 75 miles
  • Complete at least 20 workouts (10 workouts must involve your ruck)
  • Complete at least 4 Pathfinder Challenges

For the challenges, you must pick four from a list of options:

  • Pass the Army PFT (pushups, situps, and 2-mile timed run)
  • Attempt the above test 4 times, showing improvement
  • Ruck a total of 36 miles immediately before or after workouts
  • Ruck 8 miles on mountain trails (parking garages and sandy beaches have been used as a flat-land alternate)
  • Ruck 15 miles in the dark
  • Carry additional weight 8 miles (intended to be done with a team, 45# for every two teammates)
  • Ruck 12 miles in 3.5 hours or less
  • Ruck an additional 75 miles (150 total)
  • Ruck yet another 75 miles (225 total)
  • Complete a ruck-based challenge like GORUCK Light or Tough

You are provided a sample schedule and list of suggested workouts, but you are free to alter the schedule, use different workouts, and choose different challenges based on your abilities and preferences.

You will be added to a Facebook group for the class and assigned an adviser who has been through the Advanced program. It is a great place to ask questions, make sure that your idea for a workout or challenge will count, share your accomplishments, and encourage your teammates. I didn’t expect it, but the social aspect of it helped me push harder and do more than I would have if it were just me keeping track of the workout log. I’ve also found that I will care more about meeting a time hack when I have to report a success or failure to my team.

Notes and Advice

Having been through it once now, I can look back to see what went right and what I could have done better.

Make sure you have more than one path to victory. You don’t want to find yourself counting on passing the APFT on the last day and miss it by one rep. In my case I had planned on the 15-mile overnight ruck and the 150 miles total. I got sick, missed a couple workouts, and had some crappy weather prevent me from getting in miles that I needed, so I missed those two challenges. I was able to replace them with the mountain ruck and the 12 miles in 3:30. Plan ahead so that you have multiple options.

It is much easier to put in the work at the beginning and start out ahead than to start out behind and try to catch up. While the looming deadline can push you to get more done, it can also make you panic when the task in front of you is so big that you don’t know where to start.

If you are, like me, in a place where weather can severely affect your workout plans, think about that when you decide what challenge you are going to do when. Some of what I did in the January snow would have been so much easier when it was 50 degrees in November.

Conclusion

I think the best way to convey my feelings towards this program is to say that I am already signed up for the next 3 classes. The training is solid, the community is awesome, and having the requirements and time limits helps keep me focused on my training. If I just update my workout journal and put it back in my ruck, its easy to loose track of the big picture and lose motivation. Logging that workout, seeing the progress toward earning your patch, sharing all of this with your team, somehow makes the progress more tangible and more real.

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State of the Monk Address 2017

Just after the new year, I’m taking a moment to take stock of where I have been and where I am headed in 2017.

Perhaps the most notable highlight of 2016 is the realization that some of my readers see what I’ve done and realize that they can do it too. People who have tried their first obstacle race or GORUCK event, those who used my logistical notes to plan a trip, a few planning to do the Snowdrop. I love seeing this. It reminds me of what drew me into this realm of crazy physical challenges to begin with:

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Its not about you. Its about the person next to you that you can help. I’m overjoyed that what I do has helped some of my readers.

I laid out some goals for 2016 at the start of the year. Some of them I smashed, some I didn’t quite meet, but I at least made progress on all of them. I now test out younger than my actual age in body-age assessments, I’m measurably stronger and faster, and I’ve learned a few (often painful) lessons on what I can and can’t let slip in my training.

2016 taught me that having a very few train-for events (events that I need to specifically tailor my training toward in order to complete) and some extra train-through events (things that are just for fun and don’t require a break from normal training) is definitely better than trying to over-pack the year with train-for events. My big events for 2017 are the Bataan Memorial Death March, A GORUCK Heavy, a few other GR events, and the SUCK at the Decker farm in Illinois.

Since this is most certainly a ruck-intensive year, I’ve signed up for Pathfinder training programs that will cover most of the year. I will be finishing my first in the next few days, so look for a review of the program to be posted shortly. I’m also starting some back-to-basics running training, hoping it will help my speed over the ground, which has always been my weak point.

I recently changed to a new gym, and I am finding it a much better fit. The reason for this didn’t really hit me until I suddenly realized that no one at the new location had looked at what I was doing and asked what in the world I was training for. I don’t think I went a week at the old gym without that question. There is much less talking and a lot more grinding, everyone working on their own goals, which suits me perfectly. I think it sums up the general feel of the place to note that, being a 24-hour facility, at one time or another I have been there every hour of the day, from lunchtime workouts to 3 AM wakeups to getting there at 10 PM and leaving sometime in the wee morning hours, and I am yet to be the only one there. There seems to always be at least a few people putting in work, no matter what the rest of the world might be doing.

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Snowdrop 55 Hour Logistics

A few friends have expressed interest in doing the Snowdrop next year, so I thought I would throw out my thoughts on what I did right and what I could have done better.

First and foremost, whatever else happens, make sure you get your long training runs in. My training for about a month before the race went sideways, and I paid for it in additional pain. Long runs are time-consuming and tough to fit in the schedule. Find a way.

Get your foot care regimen sorted out well before showing up. The more you prevent, the less you have to fix. The foot medic they have there is awesome, and you should not be shy about going to see her, but the better you do at preventing problems the less you will need patched up.

The tent sites are inside the loop that you will be running. Make certain that where you pitch your tent is at a local high point, as the lower areas flood when it rains. (A few people brought pallets to make a walkway across the low spots and help keep feet dry.) The site can be windy, so when you come to set it up bring enough gear to weight it down. Also be familiar with your tent, as mine would leak if I didn’t position gear to push out the walls. Having a dry place to catch a 20-minute rest can mean the difference between moving on with high spirits and standing there wondering why you thought you could do this.

In addition, a rain shelter outside of the tent (with chair and waterproof gear bin)would have been great. It would have been much easier to be able to tend my feet and grab pain meds without having to crawl into the tent. There was a significant amount of time I refused to stop for gear, worrying that I would stay in the tent and not want to move. Having gear dry outside would have made it easier to grab what I needed without stopping.

Having some piece of gear that you can put your feet up on when you lie down helps enormously. I used the rucksack that had all my extra clothes.

The food selection is awesome. Eat a lot. Drink a lot. Do not allow yourself to feel hungry or thirsty. You know that calories and water in are going to be an issue, so head it off before it becomes a problem.

Bring all the socks you own with you. Bring several pairs of broken-in shoes. If you have different styles for different trail conditions, bring them and change as conditions change. Bring extra clothing in more than one style (i.e. if you usually wear compression, bring some loose-fitting stuff). The compression shorts that served me well at 50 miles were killing me by 75, and my jersey seemed to be strangling me by mile 60. If all I had brought was multiple sets of the same clothes, I would have been in trouble. Changing into boxer-briefs and a loose T shirt fixed the problem. Also, bring rain gear. You may be able to take a break when it rains, you may need to keep moving through it.

Plan for as many things to go wrong as you can think of. You are less limited in the gear you can bring here than in any race I have ever done, so take advantage of that fact.

 

“I Still Function”: Snowdrop Ultra 55 Hour 2016

I instantly latched on to the idea of this race when I heard about it. Raising money for a childhood cancer charity,  3/4 mile track, as many laps as you can manage in 55 hours, which means aide station with access to drop bags every 3/4 mile. The short loop format (at least in theory) would eliminate most of the problems that have kept me from reaching the 100 mile mark thus far.

The physical exertion and lack of sleep caused my memories from this event to be a bit random and scattered, but I will do my best to convey the experience

My drop bag/ rest area was a tent along the edge of the running loop, close enough that I could jump off whenever needed to take care of my feet, rest a few minutes, change clothes, whatever I needed. Speaking of clothes, the two outfits I spent most of the race in got rave reviews from my fellow racers:

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The first unusual thing that I noted about this race format is the lack of separation by ability level. On a point-to-point or even a 10-mile loop course, the people string out over the course and the only people you see are the ones at roughly your level. Here, everyone is seeing everyone constantly, which helps develop the one-big-family feel of it. It also amazed me to see the variety of athletes that showed up, from national record holders to people who had never run more than a 5K. Some people had a plan for miles to cover each day and then went back to the hotel, some did all 55 hours in one go.

In addition to the snacks constantly available at the aide station, we were called in for full meals three times each day (and pizza tended to show up in the hours between dinner and breakfast). I can honestly say that eating enough and keeping my energy levels up was not a problem. The foot medic that was on site was awesome, and I learned a few new tricks from watching her patch up my feet.

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We were told early that rain was expected in the wee hours of the second day, and that it would behoove us to get as many laps in as possible before then. I managed to make it to 63 laps (47-ish miles) before lying down for a power nap, and much of the rain passed while I was sleeping.

Alarm goes off, prep feet, back at it. I was almost completely walking by this point, legs just didn’t want to run, but I kept moving and was keeping a solid pace. The trails had been changed by the rain and the passage of many feet, becoming something like lumpy concrete that was very tough on my feet. They were taped well enough to prevent serious blisters, but over time the pounding took its toll, and they just started to ache.

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Keep going. Silly jokes and sharing encouragements with fellow racers and volunteers.

At one point the volunteers were having an impromptu dace party as I came by, and I stopped to join in. Another racer yelled out, “If you can do that, you need to be running faster!” I replied, “But I can only do this about 40 seconds before my body says no…”

The signs posted around the loop were great motivation, ranging from the joking “You could have chosen chess as your sport” and “Chuck Norris never ran an ultra” to photos of the cancer patients that we were running to help. Also reminding us of the greater purpose of the race were the crosses, being erected every hour to represent the number of children who lose their fight with cancer within that hour. This photo represents the 55 hours we were out there:15825776_1205454899562607_3942594064538766006_n.jpg

During the second night, I had a realization that I found quite empowering. I was thinking that I would need to stop, and was not sure that I could get enough laps in the next day to come home with a buckle (minimum is 100 miles or 134 laps). Then I analyzed exactly what I was feeling: It was not blisters that would get worse with more miles. It was not the stress of a tendon that could tear if pushed too far. It was simple pain, nothing more. Just what feet feel like when you have been on them for 40 out of the past 44 hours.

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Push the pain to the back of my mind, and keep going. The base level of pain sort of faded into the background and I could forget about it if I didn’t think too hard.

A few hours later, pushing through the dark, I hit a serious low point. I have a high pain tolerance, and this was beyond it. Everything hurt, and everything seemed to make it hurt worse. Some people passing asked how I was feeling, and while I really wanted to say something more positive, all I could come up with was, “I still function.”

I leaned into the pain and force-marched it, march two laps, eat, march two more. Breaking down sobbing then muttering profanities, but keeping moving. I wanted to stop, but knew that it carried a risk of either not starting again or falling asleep and not having enough time to finish, so I kept pushing. I have no words to describe how hard this was, or how badly I wanted to quit in that moment.

At lap 123, I finally couldn’t push any more and decided to take 20 minutes to lie down, take some pain meds, and put my feet up. As feared, I fell asleep and missed my alarm. Luck smiled on me though, as I woke 15 minutes later to rain pattering on the tent.

Get through the sudden panic, realize I still have time to grunt out 11 more laps. I won’t say my legs felt brand new after the rest, but they felt much better. Not new, but still under warranty?

Pain levels increased with each lap, but that was balanced by the knowledge that the distance to go was short and I was going to make it. The way this race handled each runner hitting 100 miles was awesome. When you come in on the next-to-last lap, they will confirm that this is your “bell lap”.

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You then ring a bell and head off on your last lap.

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I can’t say I ran that whole last lap, but I force-marched it hard, then pushed into the fastest run I could manage for the last 100 yards. When they saw me coming in, the MC announced my name over the loudspeakers and told everyone I was coming in for my first 100 mile finish. Two volunteers held a finish-line ribbon for me to run through.

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And the photographer caught the exact moment where the pain caught up with me:

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Lots of hugs, lots of congratulations, receiving my buckle, and learning that the finish ribbon is also a memento that each finisher gets to keep (a really nice touch).

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I am writing this about a week after the event, and my emotions have still not quite settled down. This is a goal I have been chasing for a long time. Without a doubt, this is the most I have ever wanted to quit (including events where I did) but I pushed through.