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Extreme Sports

Goruck or Go Home

The sidewalk in front of 384 Broadway is just about a half mile north of Ground Zero. It’s also where, if you happened to have walked past the burning flares of New York police security checkpoints at 12:01 last Sunday morning, you would have found an orderly line of men and women—mostly men—dressed in ultra-marathoner’s gear, spelunker’s headlights, and loaded paramilitary backpacks.

Some cradled kettle bells and coils of heavy duty fire hose. They’d all signed won’t-sue-if-we-perish death waivers. Each had his or her duct-taped bricks. Now they were lying nose to heel on the Broadway sidewalk, counting off pushups.

Soon a small crowd gathers—bemused couples on dates, bewildered late night shoppers, a nonplused Nigerian street vendor of belts and purses, cat-calling office coworkers, their shirt tails untucked after a seven-hour happy hour. An art director in chunky glasses and jazz shoes Facebooks his iPhoned Hipstamatic with the phototag: “WTF?  9-11: OMG.” A cosmo-stained twentysomething in dancing clothes pivots on a wobbly high heel and squints in confusion. “What is this?” she asks. “Sort of 9/11 thing?”

It certainly is for Jason McCarthy. He’s the one barking the orders and inspiration here, a disarmingly lanky guy in shorts and t-shirt. Once, McCarthy was a Florida kid who watched the towers fall on his TV. He felt a rage that needed outlet. He found it in the recruiter’s office. Ten years later, McCarthy is a former Green Beret who looks nothing like you imagine a former Green Beret should.

He’s also the founder of the Goruck Challenge, one of the latest and most grindingly hard core of the new breed of extreme sports. It’s a variation on the current fitness trend of bizarre and exhausting obstacle-course, cross-fit challenges such as Tough Mudder or Muddy Buddy. Goruck is perhaps the most militaristic of the breed—a Navy Seal training-inspired, Special Forces-led marathon of grit and muscle and masochism.

Voluntary Public Hazings

Each challenge is a semi-scripted, self-inflicted hazing ritual, both exercise and public theater. Each challenge leads participants through a new city. There is no map or set schedule. Usually, the mission is simply to finish together. Tonight, the mission is a tribute as well. So far, the NY 9/11 Challengers have raised over $26,000 for the Green Beret Foundation.

Jason McCarthy is the Tyler Durden of Goruck and this is his fight club. In the staging rooms of each city the Goruck Challenge visits, tattooed guys in Under Armour clock his every move and follow his commands.

But McCarthy’s not creating an army—he’s building a business. The challenge started as a photo-op and test run for his military-inspired, expensively American manufactured Goruck backpacks. (The name is a shortening of “go rucksack” or backpack.) When the test proved as popular as the packs themselves, a challenge was born.

The business is less than a year old and already booming. Several athletes huffing on the sidewalk are veterans of challenges in L.A. or Denver or Washington.  The 9/11 Goruck Challenges started two days earlier, and this will be the 61st “mission.” These are the most popular yet. In addition to McCarthy’s 40 on the floor, another Goruck”cadre” is running 40 more toward Times Square; each paid a registration fee of $120 to $160 and wears one of Goruck’s backpacks ($295 retail). McCarthy is simultaneously building a brand and a legion of rabid, if exhausted, brand fanatics.

Tonight’s class contains a correction officer, an EMT, a firefighter, a downtown hotel manager, a Washington procurement specialist, and a lawyer. Individually, these are competitive, high-performance people. But the grunting folks doing “bear lunges” and “buddy carries” toward Washington Square Park are not racing. The point is toughness with togetherness, the destruction of the individual in service of the whole.

Burdened by Bricks and Emotion

It’s a page Goruck borrowed from the fraternal DNA of militarized organizations. Not surprisingly, many Goruckers are ex-military, police, or firefighters. It’s an extremely USA-proud crew. Here in New York, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, their personal loads include more than a “bitch bag” weighted with bricks; there’s a great deal of grief, rage, and excess energy as well. McCarthy knows exactly how to burn it off.

The Goruckers march west into the Village at New York University, toward Washington Square. The park is grooving after dark, with lovers canoodling on the shaded benches, kids passing cigarettes, the remnants of a drum circle by the fountain. All that stops with the surprise arrival of McCarthy’s army. The all-night jam session sputters like a needle pulled off a record, leaving only the clank of hastily-stashed bottles and the hiss of snuffed joints. All freak eyes are on the fuzz, but the fuzz is acting freaky. McCarthy has them on their hands and knees now, Indian Runs over human hurdles, the line doing slow, silent laps around the fountain, dragging forward in penance. Jason calls this “crushing souls,” and it makes him smile in an utterly unsettling way.

A disturbed young woman with a Mohawk screams: “Who told you to come to my park!” She runs at the crouching Goruckers, hurdling the line like a steeplechaser.

“Don’t hurt her,” begs a barefooted man in a cape. But the only ones getting hurt here are the Goruckers who paid for it. McCarthy’s got them doing genuflecting squat steps called Bear Squats. Up. Down. Up. Down. The Goruckers move through the dark park like a parade of mute Oompa Loompas.  The musicians start up again, but the Goruckers are still going. “These peoples is crazy,” Superman says.

It’s past 3 a.m. when the grunting team leaves the park, trotting downtown. The Goruckers are exhausted, but McCarthy has plans. Their log is waiting.

;A Half-Ton Bridge Crossing

They find it just inside the pedestrian gates of the Manhattan Bridge. The log is several gauges broader than a phone pole and waterlogged to weigh well over 1,000 lbs. The sheer reality of this challenge draws lines across the Gorucker’s faces. They still have their backpacks, the bricks, the weights, the hoses. Some backpacks weigh 60 pounds; one man carries two. (“They really make my arms pop,” he says through a gritted smile.) The first rule of Goruck is: Everything must be carried. Even the exhausted and the injured will be carried. Now the log must be carried, too—across the 1,470 feet of the Manhattan Bridge, an inch at a time.

“On this journey, you will need to solve your own problems,” McCarthy barks.

The team scurries and bends and lifts. They grunt and moan like galley slaves. There is a shuffling of sneakers on asphalt.

“You come to me—what, you want me to fix your relationship too?”

There are cries for help, cries asking who needs help, as members swap in and out. The log shifts from shoulder to knee, using whatever muscle group is still working. The sky begins to glow electric with the approaching dawn.

“That log touches the ground, that’s 25 pushups,” McCarthy says.

“You hear that?” says a bulging young man. He’s got a fractured fragment which has splintered from the main log hard across his back, a hundred extra pounds scraping his ear bloody. “We do not drop the log. DO NOT drop this log.”

America on Their Shoulders, too

As he promised, McCarthy has indeed brought his A-game. The 9/11 anniversary challenge has become a symbol for what his America can endure. For Jason, it’s a sacred test.

It’s 4 a.m., 5  a.m., 6 a.m. They’re still hauling and huffing. The D train clangs and screams once, twice, a dozen times.

“At every step you hear demons,” McCarthy says. He says it with that that same, easy, boyish cadence, the mild expression of a kid pulling wings off a fly. “There are vultures flying up, the spirits of the undead…”

The Goruckers and the log look like ants carrying a Cheeto. They move with staggering slowness, trailing a thick cloud of human sweat, effort, inflammation factors. The effort is difficult even to watch. What was grueling before is now sadistic. Under Armour seams have ripped at the shoulders. Ears are red as those of wrestlers.

And finally, beautifully, awfully, they do it, inching the giant log across the bridge, down to the  waterfront park and—with an earth-shaking drop—finally, smack on the banks of the East River.

Across the water, it’s daylight over Manhattan, a clear 9/11 morning, dawn light glinting off cranes atop the new Freedom Tower. The Goruckers breathe, hands on their knees, trying hard not to hurl.

It’s 7 a.m. Only five more hours to go.

Graeber is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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