Back in 2012, the owners of Huckberry introduced me to a guy who owned a company called GORUCK. Besides making high quality ruck packs, I also learned that they put on all-night events in which participants haul a 40-lb weight in their backpack while being led through a series of physically and mentally grueling exercises like push-ups, bear crawls, and carrying an 800-lb log with their teammates. That’s how I found myself in downtown Oklahoma City at 12AM, sitting in a pond next to my brother in below-freezing weather. Nine hours, hundreds of squat thrusts, and 12 miles later, I finished my first GORUCK Challenge.
Since then, I’ve done several other events and have learned a lot about resilience, leadership, and teamwork in the process. Today on the show, I talk to GORUCK founder Jason McCarthy, who started the company after serving as a Green Beret in Iraq. What began as a backpack company has morphed into a tight-knit community of people looking to push themselves through what Jason calls “Good livin.” Today on the show, Jason and I discuss where the idea for the GORUCK events came from and what a man can learn about leadership, teamwork, and community by doing hard things with other people.
- Jason’s post-9/11 experience in the military and Special Forces
- How Jason got into the backpack-making industry
- The inspiration behind the design of the GORUCK bag
- How the GORUCK bag went from idea to fruition
- How GORUCK branched out into other bags and products
- What is rucking?
- The fitness and health benefits of rucking
- How the GORUCK Challenge and other events came to be
- What to expect from a GORUCK Challenge — including what I expected myself before I did my first event
- Why GORUCK events mimic military training, but are yet geared towards paying citizens
- How GORUCK events and cadres get you to think as a team rather than an individual
- The leadership lessons a man can learn from participating in these events
- The 4 key steps to solving any problem
- Stories of people whose lives were transformed by a GORUCK event
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Outfitted & Equipped: GORUCK Challenge
- The GORUCK Challenge: A Review
- How to Take Care of Your Feet on a Ruck
- The Benefits of Rucking
- Solvitur Ambulando: It is Solved by Walking
- How to Make an Improvised Gas Mask (a skill I learned at a GORUCK Constellation event)
- GORUCK GR1 backpack
If you haven’t done so yet, I highly recommend signing up for a GORUCK Challenge. You’ll be pushed mentally and physically and you’ll meet a lot of great people in the process.
Connect With Jason and GORUCK
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Back in 2012, the owners of Huckberry introduced me to a guy who owned a company called GORUCK. Besides making high quality ruckbacks, also GORUCK put on these all night events in which participants hauled a 40-pound weight in their backpack while being led through a series of physically and mentally grueling exercises, like pushups, bear crawls, and carrying an 800-pound log with their teammates. That’s how I found myself in downtown Oklahoma City at 12:00 in the morning, sitting in a pond next to my brother in below freezing weather in the middle of November. Nine hours, hundreds of squat thrusts later, and 12 miles later, I finished my first GORUCK Challenge. Since then, I’ve done other GORUCK events, and I’ve learned a lot about resilience, leadership, and teamwork in the process.
Today on the show, I’m talking to the founder of GORUCK, Jason McCarthy, who started the company after serving as a Green Beret in Iraq. What began as a backpack company has morphed into a tightknit community of people looking to push themselves through what Jason calls “good livin’.” Today on the show, Jason and I discuss where the idea of the GORUCK events came from and what a man can learn about leadership, teamwork, and community by doing hard things with other people. After the show is over, check out the show notes at aom.is/goruck, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic. Jason McCarthy, welcome to the show.
Jason McCarthy: Thanks for having me, Brett.
Brett McKay: You’re the founder of a company that I have a love/hate relationship with, GORUCK. I love your bags. I love/hate your events, and we’ll talk about those here in a bit. Before we get to there, let’s talk a bit about your background before you started GORUCK. What did you do before you started a company that makes awesome backpacks?
Jason McCarthy: Oh, thanks. Yeah, so 9/11 happened, and I was just graduated from college and really didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. That sort of shook up whatever plans I didn’t have. Ultimately, I wanted to join the military. I wanted to serve America in a time of war like the entire Greatest Generation did. That’s sort of been passed on from generation to generation in some ways, but this was sort of a shakeup call for me. I enlisted in 2003, after the Iraq War had sort of kicked off, and made it through special forces training and so was on a special forces A team from 2006 to 2008.
Brett McKay: What special forces unit were you with?
Jason McCarthy: I was with 10th Special Forces group, the first and best of them all. It’s Army Special Forces, often referred to as the Green Berets. We’re the only unit trained to conduct unconventional warfare. It’s sort of by, with, and through local partners. I get this question a lot. I hear “special forces” thrown out there a lot. It typically really means Army Special Forces, within the military circles. The best example of what makes Green Berets different than some of the other units is that we work by, with, and through local partner forces.
The best example of that was post-9/11 we sent a couple hundred Green Berets into Afghanistan, into the boneyard of the Soviet empire, and we linked up with the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban. Not just go in with helicopters, assaults, or some guns and defeat the Taliban, but use the Northern Alliance as a force multiplier to achieve our mission. Then in two months, we’ve got a new president of Afghanistan that was sworn in. It was a pretty awesome feat. It’s a pretty amazing regiment community to have been a part of, because there’s just so many giant shoulders that we’re all standing on.
Brett McKay: How long did you do that stint in the military, and then when did you start GORUCK?
Jason McCarthy: I was in the military from 2003 to 2008. I was married to a girl, the absolute love of my life. She was in the foreign service. She was serving in West Africa and in Africa. Actually, while we were married there, there was something that came out that said the three worst cities in the world to live in were N’Djamena, Chad, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and Baghdad, and we hit all three of those while we were married, kind of afar and doing our thing.
The original idea for GORUCK, though, came when I visited her which was in Abidjan, which is West Africa, next to Ghana and places like that. It was surprising because in some ways it was more scary than the first time I showed up in Baghdad. In Baghdad, you’ve got a team. You’re really tight, and you’re good at working together. Here, it’s kind of like they love a good coup in Africa. It can happen at any time. You’ve got to be ready all of the time. You’re driving around. You’ve got your truck, you’ve got your whatever. It’s just a general sense of unease. I build a bag for her with additional supplies, extra ammo. Sorry, for me in war it was extra ammo, extra batteries, extra grenades, and stuff like that. For her it was more like flashlights and what she would do in case of a coup if she was outside of the capital or away from home. I built another one that stayed at our home in West Africa. The idea was to be ready in a time of crisis or a time of emergency.
Even as our personal life started crashing down, because we’d been married for five years and never lived together, there was this idea of “you should do the GORUCK thing.” The GORUCK thing did not become the private security consulting service in West Africa that I destined myself to live there and sort of build, because slowly I found myself sleeping on my buddy’s couch in the East Village in New York City with an idea for GORUCK, and that was about it. The idea for the bag lived on, and then the difficulty was how to get it manufactured. Not knowing anything about manufacturing, that posed a whole new set of problems.
Brett McKay: The design of the bag, they’re really sturdy. I’ve got several of them. I use one of them for my go bag, kind of what you created for your wife and for yourself, and also as an ammo bag or sort of a gun bag. What was the inspiration behind the design of the bag? Was it something that you used in your days as a Green Beret?
Jason McCarthy: The term “go ruck” was sort of slang. Go bag, bug-out bag, that’s what you would put in the trunk of the Humvee when you go out on a mission. The military has all the best stuff, and special forces has the better best stuff. I got a lot of access to a lot of different assault-type packs, but what I found over time – especially as I personally was transitioning out of the military – was that they don’t really transition to civilian life very well. Everyone wants the toughness, but you don’t always want to have a trillion straps all over the place. I had some assault packs. They were Blackhawk and Camelback and there was an LBT giant special forces medical pack that I used for Emily in West Africa. Those were certainly inspirations from a “hey, these are a construction, this is the material, there’s a little bit of velcro.” In their case, there was a lot of velcro. There were compression straps all over the place, and they looked like military assault packs.
The original goal was to say, “Hey, we want one bag that’s going to thrive in Baghdad and in New York City.” That was the convergence of my life. I’m sleeping on my buddy’s couch in East Village, having my heart still with my team who was back in war at that time. Life was not in a really good place for me. This bag became this sort of symbol in my own head for this bridge between these two worlds that I was starting to try to cross myself. Then obviously the events became a further extension of that.
Brett McKay: You didn’t know anything about manufacturing. How did you learn that? Was it just trial by fire?
Jason McCarthy: The biggest problem was everything. I had no idea. I didn’t know the difference between R&D and scale manufacturing. I didn’t know how to sew. I didn’t know where materials came from. I didn’t know anything. I actually placed an ad in Craigslist New York City. This was 2008, so you go back then and the economy was not in a good place. This team of this couple had been laid off their job in New Zealand and then moved back to Montana. They were trolling for work to pay the bills. In these times of bad economies, there are really opportunities. You’ve got a lot of people out there with all this talent that they just want to put to work. Sometimes you got to take a chance on things. I had a little bit of money from saving up from deployments and stuff, where they don’t let you spend all that much money even if you wanted to.
They answered my Craigslist New York City ad, and they had sort of a website and stuff. It seemed really professional and nice, and that was great. They taught me. This was such a blessing in disguise, though, because they were awesome. It was Trisha and Sky Wookey. They were just awesome. They taught me the entire process of what things are. I would ask the stupidest questions. Yet through this sort of combination of … They had sort of a background in hiking and in the outdoor world, and my background was in military. The ways that you carry things and the way that you choose to create load bearing systems are philosophically and fundamentally completely different between civilian hikers and the military. There was this merging that we had between those two worlds that I got from working with them. They taught me a lot about the process, and then in the end we had what would become GR1 and our original lines of rucks.
Brett McKay: Are they all manufactured here in the US?
Jason McCarthy: They are, yes.
Brett McKay: That’s one of the big selling points for me. Besides the original GR1, you guys have branched out to other products. Anything in particular that stands out to you that you’re really proud of?
Jason McCarthy: The original line of rucks is what is our flagship line. Those came about because I kept telling Sky, I was like, “We just want one ruck. One ruck, KISS. Keep it simple, stupid.” He’s like, “Man, it’s just not much work to just add an extra compartment to another one and call it GR2 or whatever and then make another one smaller. You might find that people want a little variety.” I’m really glad we did that. It did add some complexity. That’s sort of our flagship. What we’re really turning toward now is the apparel side. In that, the Simple Pants and Challenge Pants, those are sort of the flagship products of that at this time. Behind the scenes, there’s a lot more stuff coming.
This is through, again, a great partnership that we have with Joe Duhan at KO Manufacturing out in Spokane, Washington. They build all of our apparel. It’s obviously made in the States. We’re really turning toward that for more broad appeal, if you will. Apparel is a different game. They say it’s really hard. They say everything is hard. That just means work hard, be smart, whatever that is. Set your mind to it, and you can do it. We have a great partnership with him. At the last Olympics, 25 countries were wearing performance gear that he had built in Spokane, Washington, stuff like that. He’s a great partner. We’re scaling up with him, doing a lot of the R&D work directly with him and then field testing it and back for more. The apparel is in its infancy, relative to where it’s going. We’re really proud of it.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Let’s shift gears and talk about the events. Before we talk about the events specifically, let’s talk about the act of rucking. What is rucking? Is it just putting on a backpack and walking?
Jason McCarthy: Rucking, it’s a military word. There’s no such thing as backpacking in the military. Everything is rucking. A backpack? There’s no such thing as a backpack. There’s a ruck or a rucksack. It’s really a verb and a noun. You wear a ruck and you go for a ruck, you go rucking, or however you can say it that doesn’t confuse all of those English words that I probably just messed up.
The point is that this is the foundation of all special forces training. You put some weight on your back, and you go for a walk. Now, more weight, it’s harder to go faster of course. Less weight, it’s easier to go faster. There are sort of training implications on your body. What I don’t recommend doing is the amount of weight that you have to carry in special forces training. That gets to be a lot. Some of it was 125 pounds plus for the better part of days. That’s too much. The military takes the fun out of pretty much all of that kind of stuff. Scuba diving, it’s fun until you have to go to dive school, which I didn’t but one of my buddies did. You think jumping out of planes is fun? How would like to wake up at 3:00 in the morning and stand there in line for six hours before you get your three-second fix? There’s a lot of fun that the military takes out of things, but the foundational fitness element of special forces training is just to go for a ruck. Put some weight on your back, and you go for a walk.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. There’s a lot of benefits. I think you did a video a while back ago saying you get about the same amount of workout doing an hour-long ruck than you would running a 5k or something like that.
Jason McCarthy: Right. Look, everybody hates to run.
Brett McKay: I hate to run.
Jason McCarthy: As a culture, as a society, we’ve been almost shamed into becoming fit. When you played high school sports and you messed up as a team, what did they do? They made you go run, because it sucks that bad. There are fitness benefits to rucking as opposed to running. For instance, every time you go for a run, every stride you take you put between seven and 12 times your bodyweight onto your knee. When you ruck, because the gait is different, you put between two and three times your bodyweight plus whatever you’re carrying onto your knee. The impact onto your knee is significantly less. They don’t call it runner’s knee for nothing. Running is hard on your knees.
There’s also the resistance part of rucking. You’re putting weight on your back. You’re moving with, really your money-maker is your glutes and your thighs. Those are getting a workout as well, in addition to your shoulders and your back. People in the military, they have big strong backs. Not because there’s a back machine at the military gyms that’s exclusive to those. It’s because there’s more time under weight. To sort of modernize this as well, all of us have phones. We stare down at those phones, or we stare down at our screens, and it starts to round our neck forward. This is really bad for our posture, because our body gets used to that, and then we stay in that sort of position more easily. With rucking, when you put the weight on your shoulders and back, what you’ll find is that it’s really uncomfortable to try to roll your shoulders forward. In essence, as you’re rucking, you’re correcting your posture that you’re doing while you sit at your desk or stare at your phone all day.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. Walking is just a foundational movement. I think that’s such a useful movement to have because let’s say the stuff does hit the fan and you got to get out, you’re probably going to have to walk a lot.
Jason McCarthy: Yeah. You want to be a hard target, or you want to be an easy target? You’re probably not going to be judged by your ability to pick up a car like Mr. Incredible. You might, but you probably won’t. It’s probably can you evade an escape? When stuff does hit the fan, the last thing you want to do is pick a fight. That’s one of the things that you learn, this special forces mindset is that if you’re going to get into a fight, it should be a life or death fit. Bar fights and picking stupid fights, it’s for amateurs. What you have to focus on is I’ll walk away from damn near any fight, but if I get into a fight, it’s not going to be good. That same type of mindset, yeah, you need to be able to move when it’s time to evade an escape.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I definitely prefer rucking over running. If I need to do cardio, I’ll put on my 40lb rucksack and just go to a park nearby and just ruck, as opposed to running. I will do anything to avoid running. It’s not fun.
Jason McCarthy: Yeah. The fast you go, too, you get the active part of active resistance training. Aka, rucking is the cardio. Every meathead knows that running kills muscle cells. I heard that a million times when I was in my meathead phase. I would quote it. “Running kills muscle cells. I don’t want to do that. Running breeds cowardice.” Stuff like that. Rucking actually builds it, and you get the cardio side of it. I think it’s great, especially as Americans get bigger. As we get bigger – stronger as well, not just bigger but stronger – the more mass that you have, the worse running is for your body. Rucking is a really solid alternative.
Brett McKay: Nice. Let’s talk about the events. How did that start? Was that a part of the original business plan, or was that sort of a happy accident that’s blown up to something really big?
Jason McCarthy: It was a total, total accident. Even as it was happening, I really refused to believe that it was happening. Like I said, early on I had worked with this couple to get these bags built. The bags are built, and I knew they were awesome. I’m like, “This GR1 is awesome!” I turned the website on, and that’s how we were going to sell. Guess what happened? Nothing. Nobody knew about us. As a business, what you struggle with is awareness. You have to tell people your story. At this point in my life, in 2010 when we first had the bags, the rucks if you will, I really didn’t want to tell my story because I was not committed to GORUCK. I thought that I wanted to go back and serve America wherever she would have me. Pick the worst place in the world: that’s where the most fun work is when your business is unconventional warfare. That kind of stuff.
What I didn’t want to be was the face of a company, because that would sabotage future abilities to serve. That’s just where my mindset was at the time. That said, I had borrowed money from my dad. It was an investment, but I had taken money from my dad a little bit to buy inventory to drive around to all 48 states to try to tell people the story face to face, because that’s going to get them to buy something I guess. What I found out quickly, though, is that nobody wanted to buy the bag and nobody knew about us. They were really expensive. It’s $300 for a backpack. It’s insane. You can go to Walmart of course and buy something for $20. Of course it’s going to fall apart, but people are conditioned to think what things should cost.
What happened was is I’ve got every dollar in this product that I really believe in, and I kept going down the rabbit hole of investing more time and cash into it. I really hate to fail, and so this became something that I’m failing at my marriage at this time. It was already basically done. I’m like, “Man, I can’t handle another failure at this point.” I just sort of said, “All right, I’m going to make this work.”
The GORUCK Challenge became what I thought would be a good opportunity for me to show up and take pictures of the class putting the bags through the paces. A lot of times you have to say “what makes your bag different?” It’s a really simple question, and it’s easy enough to answer even, but you have to show people, too. I thought, “Hey, we’ll get this team event loosely based around special forces training, and I’ll take pictures in these beautiful cities and show these different environments where the bags are still thriving despite all of the stress.” What I could not do anymore was go back to Iraq or go back to Africa and take pictures while I was in special forces, so I kind of said, “I know how to build a team. I’ve done it before in the military, working with foreign fighters. I’m pretty sure I can do this with Americans.”
That was the impetus for the Challenge. When the people first showed up, I was surprised that they were almost excited to be there. It was just kind of weird because it was very unknown. When you’re in special forces, the military, coming from those worlds, you think that you have sort of a monopoly on doing really awesome stuff. Yes, you do get to do really awesome stuff, but there’s a lot of people out there that share this same kindred spirit, this same love of life, that want to push themselves to extremes. I found a lot of those people through leading GORUCK Challenges and, in the course of this, building teams and getting feedback from people about they’ve never quite experienced anything like that and how they would take it back to their daily lives.
What I did not foresee was that the GORUCK Challenge would be about the people wearing the rucks, not the rucks that were on their backs. People became the focus of GORUCK through the Challenge, and via grassroots, we grew. That became the awareness driver that GORUCK needed in order to get people to find out about us, what we believe in, and what we stand for.
Brett McKay: Is that a big part of your business, the events?
Jason McCarthy: Interestingly enough, it’s a complex business to have two completely separate parts of a company, and yet they collectively form the GORUCK brand. What I mean is, operationally the manufacturing culture is largely a 9:00 to 5:00 type of blue collar work. My dad is a union member in Ohio. He shows up at 9:00 and he leaves at 5:00. Yeah, there’s overtime sometimes, but it’s machinery. It’s really hard. You’re on your feet. You’re working with your hands all day long. Then you’ve got this events culture, which is where there’s a backend at headquarters that’s marketing stuff, sure, but the actual events? They’re overnight. It’s extreme conditions of hours. It’s atypical. It’s the opposite of 9:00 to 5:00.
Culturally, putting both of those underneath the GORUCK umbrella has been a challenge – little c as opposed to big C, GORUCK Challenge. It’s also been what has sort of propelled us. As sort of a tactical business case study, if you will, the event revenue is about 25% of GORUCK’s revenue, but it sort of controls the brand. Then it raises awareness for the people who then come through our universe and buy the gear, the apparel, the t-shirts, the stuff, the training equipment, stuff like that. When you look at it nuts and bolts, it’s 25% of our total revenue, and it’s about a break-even operation, the margins on the events. It depends on how you assign overhead costs and all that type of stuff, but it’s not a profit center for us.
Early on, in the early days, what it was was people would pay today for an event that was happening in the future. I used that money in order to buy more inventory. I sort of had this yin-yang, this house of cards almost thing going, where you’re using money that you know you have to provide a service later, but it’s funneling into inventory purchases now. There was a fair amount of juggling. To a certain extent, there’s always going to be a little bit of that, from a cash standpoint. That’s a little bit behind the scenes, nuts and bolts. Ultimately for me, it’s one GORUCK. I think about both sides a lot. I think about how to strengthen gear with events and events with gear.
Brett McKay: Can you walk us through a GORUCK Challenge? If someone signs up for it, what should they expect?
Jason McCarthy: What did you expect before your first GORUCK Challenge?
Brett McKay: I kind of had an idea, because I got introduced to you via the guys at Huckberry. They told me-
Jason McCarthy: Yeah, yeah, Andy and Richard.
Brett McKay: Andy and Richard, right. They told me about this thing. I was like, “Yeah, I want to do that.” I got signed up for one. I thought it was going to be hard, but at the time … This is when you guys were first starting the events, so there really wasn’t a lot out there on the internet about event breakdowns. I just knew it was going to be all night. I was going to be doing a lot of walking, and there would be pushups. That’s what I was going in thinking. Seriously. I mean, I trained for this thing for like three months. I did some serious training. I’d go to a football field wearing my rucksack and I would do 100-yard bear crawls, all sorts of crazy stuff to get ready for this thing.
Jason McCarthy: Now you can obviously read more about it and all of that kind of stuff, but in essence what it is you sign up and you’re part of a small class that becomes a team. You show up on a random street corner, pre-designated. It’s not a total mystery. Here’s your start point, and a special forces guy shows up there. His job is to, yes, challenge you and push you, but ultimately it’s about an outcome of what it feels like to be on a team. It’s its own sort of sense of high. When you’re really on a team and you’re in combat operations or whatever it is, you start to really operate like a pack. It’s got nothing to do with the individual. It creates a heightened sense of awareness. It creates a real high. It’s a high that you search for in life, and you get that when you’re on a team.
His job, the cadre’s job, is to make sure that the team experiences what a day in the life of training in special forces feels like. That fundamentally involves being part of a team. You show up, and there’s physical challenges to sort of break down the barriers that we all bring to anything we do with strangers. You show up, and it’s like a middle school dance at the beginning. It’s nervous. It’s awkward. Everyone’s like, “Oh my god, what’s going to happen to me?” That type of stuff. The surest way to get people outside of their comfort zones and to start working together, is to put them in a stressful situation together.
The point is not the specific exercise. It’s how you as a team start to work together. It’s a long dance. It does take a while to break down the barriers and then build it back up. Look, it’s not boot camp. There’s not yelling and screaming about you’re a terrible person, blah, blah, blah. Save that stuff for the military. Frankly, people are paying to do this. There’s got to be an entertainment value, there’s got to be a learning value, and there’s got to be a challenging value. You find your demons and you punch them in the throat style. The real value comes in the evolution of the team.
You appoint team leaders, and there’s missions. “Hey, get everybody to go from point A to point B in this type of timeframe. If you see this kind of car with an out of state license plate, then you have to run off into the treeline and camouflage yourselves.” There’s a method to the madness. Something like that would be designed to say, “Hey, you don’t get to just stare at your feet when you’re tired.” You’re on your way home – that even relates back to special forces missions where one of the most dangerous parts of the mission is on the way home. You’re tired. Your chemical dump is gone. In theory, you could almost fall asleep. A lot of times you do if you’re on a helicopter. What you’re not allowed to do if you’re driving, you have to still look out for roadside bombs. You have to still look out for people who are out and about in the town. You’ve got to stay aware as part of your team, because that’s how the pack thrives together. Everyone’s got a set of eyes, and you’ve got to pay attention. There’s just various missions to help the team come together. You build contraptions. You carry logs. You name it. Google “GORUCK,” you’ll see a lot of the stuff that goes on.
Brett McKay: Right. The missions I’ve been in, someone always gets injured – pretend injured – and you have to carry them, figure that out. That’s always hard. Often the cadre won’t pick the ladies because you’re like “they’re the lightest.” They’ll pick the heaviest guy.
Jason McCarthy: Oh, always the biggest. You always pick the biggest. Part of it is that you don’t know when this is going to end. That’s a huge difference between say going road running or a marathon or a road race or whatever. You start, they give you your mile markers, and then it’s over. This is now about the miles per se. It’s about how the team is working. The event, as it unfolds, is in the mind of the cadre who’s leading the class. If the team starts infighting and bickering, it’s my biggest pet peeve. Cool breeds cool. Our job as cadre is to ratchet up the stress factor. When you ratchet up the stress factor, what it does is people get short with each other. They snap at each other, stuff like that. Our job is to correct that. That’s how life should work. I mean, if you have a bad attitude, fix your attitude. It’s not everyone around you. It’s not their problem that you’re having a bad day. That’s our job, is to make sure that that type of stuff doesn’t happen.
Brett McKay: That’s the GORUCK … What is it called now? When I was doing it back in 2012, there was just the GORUCK Challenge, that was it. Now you’ve expanded the line. I guess the all-night event is called GORUCK Tough.
Jason McCarthy: Right. The Challenge is the series now. There’s the GORUCK Light, the GORUCK Tough, and the GORUCK Heavy. Basically all three of them are founded on the same type of special forces lessons learned and teamwork, leadership, communication, stuff like that. The biggest difference is just the amount of time and the amount of stress if you will that’s placed upon the participants. It’s not linear. The Light is intentionally very accepting and very fun. There’s not enough time for the cadre to be too tough on you, if you will. One of our guidelines for the cadre is that they have to be liked. You never say that to someone who’s a drill sergeant. They need to be respected, but they also need to be liked. This is an event that people are giving up their time and money to come be a part of because they want a great experience. If they’re angry or this is a boot camp type thing, they’re not going to have a positive experience.
The light, there’s not enough time to really ratchet down on the class, to still sort of be liked, frankly. You’ve got a lot of people. There’s a method to the madness always. Yes, it’s challenging, but we don’t get to take you into sort of the depths of your spirit animal. The Tough, the 12-hour event, formerly and will always be the original GORUCK Challenge, the original GORUCK event. You will find your spirit animal there for sure. It’s because we just have a lot of time. The classic blueprint for the GORUCK Tough challenge is a three-hour welcome party. That means three hours of crossfit to start it out. If that’s not for you, then it’s not for you. It’s for more people than think it is. Everybody says, “I can’t do that. That’s crazy.” Then they show up, and they do it. These are the ones that become lifelong converts. Then there’s the Heavy. You’ll find multiple spirit animals at that one.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I haven’t done that one. I’ve done probably three Toughs. Haven’t done the Heavy yet. Then you guys have one that’s brutal. It’s Selection, which is 48 hours.
Jason McCarthy: We do. That’s a different event entirely. First off, you’re on the hook for Heavy. You’re due. I’ve heard you’re an awesome teammate at all of your events. I know you love to lift heavy stuff because I get your newsletters. Heavy is just lifting heavy stuff for longer, right? It’s a good one, though. It’s still the team event. It’s still the same philosophy of working together and stuff. It’s just longer. It pushes you harder.
Selection is kind of the dark side of GORUCK, though. It sort of stole all the oxygen out of the room a few years ago. We had a lot of them. Ultimately it’s based off of special forces assessment and selection. It’s not a team event. It’s not a fun event, ever. It’s not designed to empower you, except in so far as it will teach you a lot of humility. That’s the greatest lesson that I learned from both completing the special forces qualification course – which was only the beginning of my real service – and then serving, was humility. The guys that you serve with, they give it to you. You get it from the cadre who are in the training. Selection, if there’s a tougher endurance test in the world, I’ve never seen it.
Brett McKay: Yeah, no. It looks pretty brutal. Besides these other events, you guys have branched out. One event that I did a few weeks ago here in Tulsa was called Constellation. It was a lot of fun. If someone were to sign up for that, what would someone expect there? What’s the goal of Constellation?
Jason McCarthy: We were just chatting before. What did you describe it to your friends as?
Brett McKay: I described it as “adult hide and seek in downtown Tulsa, while learning urban survival skills.”
Jason McCarthy: Yeah. That’s about right. At the foundation of what GORUCK events are and do, is we have these special forces cadre. The depth of experience is enormous. Yes, there’s this physical event called the GORUCK Challenge, and we’ve got a pretty strong blueprint on that. We know how to build teams. Yet, there’s a lot more stuff that we can teach, our cadre can teach. Urban survival is certainly one of them. What we see Constellation as is a series that runs parallel to the Challenge. It’s authentic in all of the same ways that the Challenge are. It’s led by special forces guys, and they teach you special forces lessons.
They’re designed to empower, though. This isn’t designed for you to become a spy or anything like that. It’s designed for you to show up and learn what to do in a time of crisis. More than anything, what you’ll learn is that it’s a mindset. It’s a mindset of being in special forces, where I’m not the best thing at anything, but I know I can figure it out. I know that when hell descends, I know how to keep my calm and do the right thing. That’s sort of the purpose of Constellation and where that urban survival side of GORUCK is going to go. We also have expeditions that are out in the wilderness. Basically there’s lots of outdoor-style companies, it’s just our outdoor events are led by current and former special forces guys – Boy Scouts that also have war stories, which is pretty cool.
Brett McKay: It was awesome. I had a great time. I think it’s a great way if you’re not ready to do a Challenge event, it’s a great introduction to the GORUCK community. Then from there-
Jason McCarthy: The best part about GORUCK is the people, the community. We want people to see that community, and Constellation is certainly a new way in.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about what your big picture goals are with these events. It’s not just about selling bags or selling the GORUCK brand. It seems like you guys actually have a big picture goal. You want to change the culture in some way. The events that I’ve done, I feel like one of the big lessons that the cadres are trying to pound into our heads is this idea of teamwork. I remember, talking about that welcome party, they always said, “They welcome party will last as long as you want, or you need it to last.” I’m like, “What does that mean?” It was basically he would keep it going until he saw that we were working as a team. It always took like two or three hours for people to kind of get that idea. I mean, is that the biggest issue you see when people do these events? They’re thinking like an individual, and they don’t want to think like a team member?
Jason McCarthy: Yeah. I think all of us do it. We live our lives, and we all have our iPhones and our iFurniture and our iHouses and everything. We have this cultural ability to be so, so private. Privacy is great. I’m all for the rights associated with that. The problem is that we’re also human beings. Evolution has raised us to be part of a community. That’s how we thrive, is together. Right now, GORUCK is running counterculture to this idea of it’s all about me, me, me. Everyone sits and waits for when’s the next iPhone going to come out, because then I’ll be happy. I’ll put my headphones in and I’ll walk around by myself, and I’ll listen to my music on my phone and see my world. It’s all about me.
At our events and just in the way that we want to live our lives, we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Where I’ve seen that operate the best is in the United States Army Special Forces. It is exactly not about you. It is about your team. We bottle up that little bit of magic, that way of life, and we bring that with us to our events. It colors the way that we talk about what we do and how we do it and certainly shapes our thinking in how we should be leading events and teaching people that way of life.
Brett McKay: Right, yeah. I love that lesson. During the welcome party, the cadre just finally had to tell us out loud, “You guys have to do this thing together. Everything has to be in sync. If you don’t do it in sync, then we’re going to keep doing this until you get it in sync.” What’s amazing was that really breaks down the barriers. After that welcome party, the rest of the night, people are looking out for each other. They’re humble. They’re no longer thinking like an individual, but rather they’re thinking like a team player. That welcome party really is that rite of passage into the GORUCK community that breaks down those walls and makes you start thinking like you’re part of a team.
Jason McCarthy: The GORUCK Challenge, it’s an easier way to do this because pain is a very powerful motivator. Once you show up to any school, or to any job for that matter, you’re playing by someone else’s rules. Over time, you have help evolve those rules, maybe. Usually in military settings and stuff, you can’t. You’re just playing by their rules. At the GORUCK Challenge, the cadre sets the rules. You have to play by those rules. That’s sort of the definition of it. What we’re trying to show people is that it’s not about how fast you can do this by yourself. We see that a lot. Someone will show up, and they’re just a little cocky. “I’m going to crush this! It’s about me.”
A lot of people sign up to prove something to themselves. They learn a little something extra while they’re there, along this journey, after they eat their humble pie. They show up, and they’re barking orders at everyone because they’re doing the pushups better or the whatever, bear crawls better. Your cadre told you, “Hey, you have to do this together.” For whatever reason, breaking down the barriers of our lives, it takes a little bit of time. People naturally don’t just go up to each other and say, “Hey, let’s work together.” You have build rapport. That’s a process. It takes time. It takes trust. In this case, it’s just highly accelerated because there’s a motivator to making sure that you work together, aka pain.
Brett McKay: I love that. What lessons on leadership do you think a man could learn from taking part in a GORUCK Challenge?
Jason McCarthy: You can’t learn a lot from leadership in just books. To learn is to do. When you’re given an opportunity to lead, you have to do it. We sort of break down the process into four steps. Solving problems in life, in general. Understand the problem, visualize a solution, over-communicate, and then adapt to win. If you apply these steps to any problem, you’ll know where you are in this decision-making process. It helps you be a better leader.
Understand the problem. A lot of times people will hear what they want to hear, not what’s actually being said. They start going off in the wrong direction, solving the wrong problem if you will. After you have made sure that you brief your boss back what you thought you understood the problem to be, then now you’ve got to visualize a solution. You say, “Okay, this is how we’re going to solve this.” Sometimes it requires consensus. Other times, it doesn’t. Sometimes you’ve got to task, not ask. Over-communicate your plan to your team. By the way, over-communication is literally impossible. It’s not possible to over-communicate. It’s just life changes, anything changes, you’ve got to communicate those changes to everyone. There’s nothing more boring than being a private in life or in the military and not knowing what’s going on and you’re just told to stand over there and do nothing. That’s not a fun place to be. If you’re in charge, make sure that people know what’s going on.
Then adapt to win basically just means Murphy is going to strike. It’s not “if,” it’s “when.” You have to then reassess where you are with your plan and your team. When you’re in charge, if the whole plans changes you’ve got to go back and understand the problem again. Visualize a solution, over-communicate, and make sure that you have your whole team on board with you. Make sure that you’re going the right direction. Ultimately, that’s sort of a system. Leadership is about doing. You’ve got to do. You’ve got to make decisions. Then if they’re the wrong decisions, you’ve got to fail fast. You’ve got to eat some humble pie. You’ve got to correct it quickly, and you’ve got to keep on going with a new, better plan.
Brett McKay: What I love about the Challenge is that pretty much everyone will have a chance to be a leader at some point in the night, or they’ll have to lead some mission. Then everyone will also have a turn being a follower. I think that’s an important part of learning how to be a leader, is learning how to be a good follower as well. It’s amazing to see. Some people are terrified of actually being a leader for two hours duing a GORUCK event, but by the end of it, you can see that confidence because they actually got to practice that leadership theory you were talking about.
Jason McCarthy: Yeah, we’re really big on empowerment. There’s so many times in life where people are just too scared to take the first step. I know because I’ve been there. I’m the guy that couldn’t ask the love of his life to go out with him on a date for like a decade. I’m not sitting here some barrel-chested freedom fighter. Sometimes the first step is really hard. Being forced to take that first step can be the best thing that ever happened to you.
Brett McKay: I’m sure you’ve had a lot of stories. I think you and the Huckberry guys have done this thing where they have a battle story event, where you guys get together and drink some beer and then share stories of past GORUCK event glories. I’m curious, in your time doing the challenges and these events, have there been any stories of people whose lives were transformed because of an event, that really stuck out to you, it sticks with you and you’re like, “This is why we do it. This is why we’re doing this thing that we’re doing?”
Jason McCarthy: Yeah. I’m pretty accessible on Facebook, and so people reach out to me and stuff. Which I love, frankly. I love our community and our people. One notable story was a guy transitioning. He had already transitioned out of the military and was just in a really dark, dark place. As he’s recounting later, he’s like, “I was on the verge of killing myself, and I just needed something. For whatever reason, the idea of showing up and suffering with other people like I used to do in the military at a GORUCK Challenge, it spoke to me. Instead of killing myself, I showed up at the GORUCK Challenge, and I became part of this awesome community. It wasn’t an overnight fix for me.” Sorry, I just got goosebumps. “It wasn’t an overnight fix for me, but it brought me back to the kind of person that I wanted to be again.”
Brett McKay: Yeah, I love that story. Do you have a lot of former military guys doing GORUCK?
Jason McCarthy: Yeah, we do. The short answer is yes. The longer answer is a lot of times people will see it and they’ll say, “No thanks. I’m good. I’ve done that.” As we who have been in get more removed from it, you realize that the best part about the Army was also the people, the people that you got to serve with and beside. That’s what GORUCK sort of replicates. It fills a lot of voids in people’s lives like that, and I think for the better.
Brett McKay: I know my experience, I’ve never served in the military, but I feel like the challenges have been a way for me to rub shoulders with veterans. It’s a great way for civilians and veterans to rub shoulders and do something together and for civilians to get an insight into what veterans did. Instead of the whole “thank you for your service,” you actually get to do something with these guys. I think the veterans like that too, because they’re just doing something. I feel like sometimes they feel awkward being told “thank you for your service” and kind of being put on a pedestal. Sometimes they just want to live their life and do something just like a normal human being. That’s I feel like been a benefit to me, personally, doing the events.
Jason McCarthy: That’s a really good and fair assessment of it. For us, building a bridge between the military and the civilian world is a really important and noble calling. However many years after the wars and all of the saturation visual that we’ve been given from those wars, it’s becoming too easy for the talking heads out there to talk about how there’s such a huge gap between the military and the civilian worlds and such a small percentage of America actually serves. We forget how far we’ve come from Vietnam. We forget about the good things because they’re not the right clickbait or whatever. What we see through GORUCK events is a lot of people who – for time or circumstance – didn’t serve in the military but are leading very good and noble lives in their communities, making the world a better place in their way as well.
This is just a place where, for me personally, I thought that special forces kind of had a monopoly on awesome when I was in. It’s kind of the mindset that you have to have. However, when I got out and I was exposed to the community that became the GORUCK community, there’s a lot of people out there that are just really good people, and they want to do really good stuff. They want to serve something higher than themselves. I’ve met a lot of them. It is, it’s fun to just be out there. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, young, old, male, female, gay, straight, military, civilian, whatever. You’re just out there doing work together. I think that that’s the surest way to break down any barrier.
Brett McKay: I love that. Well, Jason, where can people go to learn more about the events and the challenges you guys do?
Jason McCarthy: Goruck.com has the whole GORUCK universe on it: gear, events, apparel, you name it.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Jason McCarthy, thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Jason McCarthy: Thanks for having me, Brett. It was awesome.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Jason McCarthy. He is the founder and CEO of GORUCK. You can find more information about GORUCK and their events at goruck.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/goruck, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic. You’ll find some links about my experience with GORUCK and how I trained for it, so check that out there. GORUCK at aom.is/goruck.
Well that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy the show or you’ve gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you’d take a minute or two to write us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It really helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: July 7, 2017