The opportunity to train and compete with the military’s best is not something that occurs very often. In this case, I had the chance to do just that in a test that challenged me physically and mentally more than anything else I have ever experienced. Coming from my background as an All American middle distance athlete, that is saying a lot. What I left with was a whole new perspective of our elite soldiers and a new level of pride in my own abilities as a mentally tough athlete.
Let’s be honest. This is fucking crazy (and not exactly legal). A civilian with no prior military experience jumping into SFRE (Special Forces Readiness Evaluation). SFRE (pronounced SAFARI) is a pre-selection phase for candidates to enter into Special Forces Selection. It’s the first step of many to becoming a Green Beret.
Being a member of a Special Operations team is a desire I’ve had since I was a kid. My opportunity to become a Navy SEAL came and went with my 28th birthday and my daughter born in the same year. Looking for alternatives led me to Special Forces aka Green Beret’s about 4 years ago. Albeit, it’s not something I share much with others. However, I do have a few crazy friends that I figured would be interested in joining me for a weekend at Camp SLO (San Luis Obispo). One of them was Andrew Elliott, a former member of my gym (CrossFit San Mateo) and a great athlete. He’s also a crazy bastard.
Although we knew the events called for the Army PT test, 50m swim with boots and ACU’s, obstacle course and a 12 mile ruck with 55+lbs, no amount of crazy could prepare us for our weekend. On the way down, we made fun of ourselves, joking about the military and how only an absolute asshole would walk completely blind into such an event. As you can see, we fit the bill perfectly.
I say completely blind from a non-military experience line of site. Overall, we were both physically well prepared. Having CrossFit at the core of our training, I was very confident in my abilities. Despite the lack of running and rucking in my program, I’m the strongest I’ve ever been with a back squat approaching 400 and a deadlift around 520. A healthy does of constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity has a done an excellent job of physical as well as mental preparation. As a CrossFit NorCal Regional Competitor, I walked into this event with a lot of confidence and rightly so. I walked away from it humbled and with a new found respect for our Special Forces soldiers.
Our journey began at 1800hrs with 50 other candidates from every branch of the military. Upon walking into our initial briefing and scanning our surroundings, it was evident this event also brought the best of the military’s meatheads. Of the 50 were Marine Recon soldiers, Army Rangers and multiple other candidates that had previously gone through BUDs. It was humbling and exciting at the same time to be around these guys.
During our briefing we were told nothing specific (this would be a theme for the weekend), only that we would be assessed on a “total man” approach. We were always being watched and expected that we would give our best. Once dismissed to our barracks, the cadre set a laid back atmosphere, telling us to relax that night, chill out and constantly check the whiteboard in the hall for announcements, such as a formation time in the morning. Lights out at 2130 and our first set of orders was to keep “fire watch” that night where every man in a barack wakes the man next to him on 15min rotations. Not much sleep was had this night.
I remember being woken up twice by Andrew. The first time I was already pretty much awake. However, the second time, I was out cold, finally being able to fall asleep. Andrew was shaking me, “Dude, wake up.” I woke up at 0330, just early enough to not fall back asleep again for formation at 0400. Upon formation, all of the candidates were put into 5 lines (sticks) of 10 men or so. Each stick had a leader who was also a Green Beret solider.
The Green Beret’s are keen on keeping everything secretive and for keeping potential candidates in the dark. While your cadre at BUDs may get in your face and yell, these guys take the opposite approach. There’s no performance feedback given at all. Cheering or encouraging other candidates is forbidden. Directions (if any at all) on how to complete a task are only given once. The result on the outside is a calm atmosphere. However, what it creates is turmoil within the mind of every potential candidate. Humans crave feedback, whether it’s good or bad, especially under stressful conditions. When that feedback is withheld, what happens is a bit of a breakdown inside the brain. You’re constantly asking yourself, “How did I do? Was it good enough? What’s next? How far should I go?” When you’re dehydrated, sleep deprived and have only had one MRE, the little things start to wear you down.
In an attempt to keep this code of secrecy somewhat intact, I’m going to jump straight to the final and most important part of the evaluation: the ruck. The ruck is a military backpack with 55lbs of gear (not including water). Our team of 50 was cut to 15 and I was one of the them. Upon completing the obstacle course and getting fully dooshed with mud, sand and of course more sand our orders were to take 5 minutes to change into dry socks (I didn’t even bring a pair, total rookie move) and begin our ruck. When asked, how far should we go? The answer was as far as you can! We had 3 hours to complete the course which we figured was a 3 mile out and back. We also guessed it would be about a 12 mile ruck.
Within the first 3 miles, I could tell this was going to be a difficult experience. The one thing I had not prepared my body for was moving weight for long periods of time over long distances. Although I had gone on a 10 mile ruck the weekend before, I was fresh, hydrated and well rested. This is was a different scene. All of us entered the ruck a little fatigued and completely drenched. I also made the mistake of not stuffing my face with as many calories as possible during the day. Something else they don’t tell you. One thing was for sure: it was a road march, the hills were steep and it poured on us throughout.
At each end of the 3 mile out and back were check points where each candidate would state their name and MOS (designated job in the military). As I came up, the question was called, “Candidate, what’s your name?!” “Mahoney, sir!” I replied. There was some silence….”Mahoney?…what’s your MOS?” “None, sir!” More silence….”Awesome!” was their reply. As if I hadn’t stuck out like a sore thumb before, it was damn obvious now that I was a civilian with no prior military experience.
By mile 6, what we figured (and prayed) was the halfway mark, my feet were killing me. Not that they weren’t before but by this point I can say without risking my pride that they were barking pretty badly. By mile 9, my legs began cramping. In fact, my legs were in so much pain that all I could do was focus on one step at a time and the only reprieve I had for not stopping was that I was already at the farthest point away from home! No one was coming to get my ass and if they did there was no way I was going to be towed back home in a pickup in that group. During the ruck, I was able to make friends with another candidate. We kept each other company and pushed each other from point to point. We found taking small bites, focusing on an object only 50 yards away and then trying to jog to it helped our moral, sped up the ruck and kept us honest.
Up until this point, I had been battling some serious demons in my head. You know the one’s…what are you doing here?…why am I doing this?…what’s everybody doing at home?…does this even matter?….this sucks!! I was under so much pain and stress and they sounded so nice too. “You could be back home in bed, warm and cozy. You don’t need this..” They were becoming increasingly hard to fight back in my mind. I remember thinking, “Fuck this man. These guys don’t even talk to you the entire weekend, nobodies allowed to say shit to anybody…this sucks…why do I want to do this…I’m just going to punch my card and walk in….”
My teammate and I were both hurting pretty badly with just 2 miles to go. Dragging one of his legs because of cramps, I had to keep talking to him to keep pace together. Our ONLY form of performance feedback came with 1.5 miles to go when one of the cadre said as he passed us in his pickup truck, “You better hurry boys, you’re not going to make it!”….
And then something snapped in my head. I went from feeling sorry for myself to getting pissed off. Something came alive. A voice yelled out against the whispers in my head and said, “Fuck off! I didn’t come all the way out here to fail. Let’s fucking move!” It was like a switch went off and away I went. Every single step was pure fucking agony. I kept thinking to myself, “Brendon, only a complete moron would show up to an event like this without hardly ever putting on a ruck. You deserve what you get. Suck it up!” So I did. In the process I dragged my friend through as well.
I swear it was an emotional experience when I saw “the finish line”. It brought me back to those days in cross country when the end is in site but everything is shutting down on you, the tunnel vision sets in and your legs feel like lead. When I crossed the line I was drooling and I think I might have yelled, “Fuck yeah!” I waited at the end and cheered my teammate on who had fallen a few yards back. Of course, the cadre did not like that and immediately reprimanded me.
Upon finishing every candidate weights their pack. It has to be over 55lbs w/o water or it’s an immediate disqualification. Wouldn’t you know mine weighted in at 65lbs. Way to go rookie! What an idiot…
Once back to the barracks, each candidate laid in his bunk, awaiting orders from the cadre. They would call us out one by one. It almost felt like I was rushing a fraternity. However, there was a shift. Every Green Beret there all of sudden became the nicest guy in the world. Now that it was over, they were checking to see how we were, asking us how we felt and joking around. Finally a little personality! It was then that I realized their plan. To treat us like men, not like children and see where the chips fall.
Although in their own words “it was a tough decision,” they wanted someone with more military experience and of course, a faster ruck. Overall they were very impressed with my numbers (113 pushups in 2 min, 93 situps in 2 min, 11:18 road 2 mile and 25 dead hang pullups in gear). I finished the course in 2:55, cut off was 3:00 hrs. They invited me back in May and stated next time, “Do a lot more rucking.” Lol
Despite not making it, the experience was invaluable. Whether or not I choose to come back in May, it gave me an enormous sense of pride to compete and hold steady with some of the militaries best. The most important part was yet another opportunity for introspection. What kind of man am I? Do I quit when things get hard? What kind of athlete am I? I walked away with my head held high, knowing that I bested my demons, put myself way beyond my comfort zone and stood strong in the face of another challenge. To me, that is priceless.
What’s your next challenge? How can you put yourself out beyond your comfort zone? Until then…
Never Let It Rest,