Tears streamed down my face.
The Navy SEAL leading the group had asked a question, but for the life of me I couldn’t come up with an answer.My mind raced, flooded with thoughts of what had happened during the past six months as I prepared for the SEALFIT 20X Challenge
, a day-long boot camp modeled after Navy SEAL training.
I felt pride in the many hours I’d spent training, and gratitude for the injuries I was able to bounce back from. I also felt thankful for the many joyful times I’d had with my wife and daughter along the way. But I also still ached from the tragedy our family had suffered just a few weeks before.
Now it was the weekend of the 20X. Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine was just a few feet away from me. Many of the other 25 people taking on the challenge were spread around the room inside SYR CrossFit in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
I expected that we’d be pushed to our physical limits, but I hadn’t thought that I would break down crying. And I certainly never anticipated that I’d be bawling before the physical training even started.
In fact, the actual 20X, which took place on a Sunday, was still a day away. It was Saturday, and Divine was leading us through some mental training techniques—things that can improve your focus, sharpen your goal-setting, and strengthen your sense of purpose. He ended the event with a 39-minute guided meditation, during which the group spread out in a circle, lay on the ground and took deep, powerful breaths through their noses.
At three points during the meditation, the guide instructed us to hold our breath following an inhalation. The feeling that resulted wasn’t the panicky sensation you might get by filling your cheeks with air and trying not to breathe. In fact, the holds—which seemed to last several minutes—felt effortless. By the final hold of the sequence, I felt a sensation throughout my body that was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
I felt as if raw, pure energy were flowing through me from head to toe. All four of my limbs were tingling. My eyes saw a gray light, which turned white. Then I saw leaves on a branch break up the light. On a path ahead of me, I saw my wife and daughter walking as a breeze gently blew through the trees. When I saw their faces, they smiled.
The meditation ended. We sat up. Every part of my body wanted to smile, laugh, even shout with joy. But I couldn’t control my face. All it would do was cry.
After a long silence, Commander Divine asked if anyone in the group wanted to share his or her experience.
A woman in the group said what she’d experienced reminded her of shamanic healing.
Divine nodded his head. After a pause, he asked if anyone else wanted to describe their feelings. Finally, I was able to speak.
“I feel alive,” I said. “I feel ready.”
“Things in life are only as hard as you make them.” –SEALFIT Coach Chriss Smith
SEALFIT 20X Challenge participants awaiting orders at 5:30 a.m. (Image courtesy of Jim Rutan/CrossFit Honor)
Just before 6:00 a.m. the following morning, 26 of us stood at attention inside SYR CrossFit. Each person wore combat boots, military-issue pants called BDUs, and a white t-shirt with his or her last name stenciled in black on the front and back. All of the lights in the facility were dark. After a long period of silence, four SEALFIT coaches entered the room.
“Drop down!” one of them shouted.
The command means “get into a position that looks like the top of a Push-Up”—hands on the ground, arms fully extended, body in a straight line from head to toe. Chriss Smith, a SEALFIT Coach who spent 12 years in the Navy SEALs and other Special Operations forces, addressed the group.
“You know that Mark Divine had trainees hold a 45-minute Plank,” Smith said. “We’re going to set a new record: 47 minutes.”
The group made a noise that was something between a groan and a gasp. Suddenly the speakers inside the gym started playing the theme song from “Jeopardy.”
I took a deep breath and tried to get comfortable. It was going to be awhile.
Most of our group held firm through the first five minutes or so. By 10 minutes, many were squirming. From that point on, people started picking one hand or the other off the ground to rest an arm, or listing their hips up to try and rest in a what looked like a quasi-Downward Facing Dog pose.
Those kinds of adjustments were allowed—at least until one of the coaches noticed. The only inviolable rule, coaches told us, was that our knees were not allowed to touch the ground.
On the gym’s PA system, “Jeopardy” turned to the sounds of children crying, then to the noises of various farm animals, then to what sounded like a World War II-era political speech in which the words were indecipherable (at least to me). On the floor below my face, a puddle of sweat grew larger and larger.
Coaches walked through the room, sometimes offering words of encouragement, other times—not so much.
“Hey look, it’s the guy who made that special training video,” said Coach Brad McLeod as he hovered over my shoulder, in a tone you’d use if you asked someone, you think you’re hot sh*t, don’t you? McLeod looked at the accumulating pool of sweat beneath me and said, “Is that special training video helping you now?”
Late in the 40-plus-minute Plank, participants’ form begins to break down. (Image courtesy of Jim Rutan/CrossFit Honor)
“I wouldn’t call it ‘special,’ sir,” was all I could say.
Past the 35-minute mark, I could tell I was in trouble. Some of the muscles surrounding my left elbow were wobbling. They felt like they’d fail any minute, sending me face-first onto the rubber mat beneath me. I looked around the room, hoping to draw power from my teammates.
Several looked as if they hadpower to give. To my left was Covert, a 230-pound mountain of muscle built like a Bernini sculpture with blonde hair. He was hanging in there.
Even more stable was Peck, the woman to my right. She. Did. Not. Move. She just held her plank, looking totally focused and generally unfazed.
That put her in the minority as we got north of the 38-minute mark. By then, nearly everyone was wobbling, doing whatever they could to stay off the ground. The coaches offered us several chances to escape the drill if we could all drop our butts and hold a strict plank for 20 seconds, but every time, someone would break form and we’d have to start over.
Finally, at the 43-minute mark, Coach Smith asked if the group wanted to do something new.
“Hooyah!” Several shouted the Navy battle cry.
“OK,” Smith said. “Stay 6 feet behind me at all times.” He began briskly walking toward the rear exit of the building, which was a cargo bay door wide enough for a truck.
We all leapt up and tried to get behind Smith, which meant you had to jog past him and then walk backwards to be in the right spot. As soon as we were all out of the building, Smith—whose bio describes him as a competitive ultramarathoner—took off running. Fast.
“It is easier to keep up than to catch up.” –Chriss Smith
So much for “6 feet at all times.”
Our group was strewn out across the quiet parkway outside SYR CrossFit. If someone had been filming us from a drone flying overhead, they’d have seen something like the Big Dipper—one person (Smith) way out in front, a couple of brave souls in a line trying to stay in contact, and several of us bunched together at the back, trying not to fall apart.
I was with the group toward the back. I hadn’t expected to be there. Going in to the 20X, I had thought running was my greatest strength. I’ve completed six marathons, including the Boston Marathon, which requires runners to meet a high standard just to enter. But as Smith pulled farther and farther away, everything in my body told me that if I were to go any faster, I’d be hurling on the macadam.
I was seriously questioning whether I’d be able to make it through the day. It was not yet 7:00 a.m.
Smith stopped and instructed us to do the same. Nearly everybody was gasping or panting. As they attempted to catch their breath, a few people placed their hands on their hips. Which was a very bad idea. “No hands on hips or in your pockets” is a rule.
“Fitz!” Smith said, calling out a man who had his hands on his hips. Fitz was the only challenger besides me who’d come to the event from Cleveland. Smith ordered him,“Put your hands in your pockets and do five Burpees.”
If you’re wondering how on Earth a person can perform a Burpee with his or her hands bound to the side, so was Fitz. So were all of us, really.
Standing in the grass, Fitz showed a look of total bewilderment. He made several noble attempts to get onto his belly without his knees touching the ground first, but every time his legs instinctively came to the rescue—which meant he had to try again.
Eventually, another challenger named Wells stepped in and showed us how to do a No-Hands Burpee. Here’s how it’s done: You kick your legs back, throw yourself on the ground, and try not to break your nose when your face smacks the dirt.
After Wells and Fitz finished their five flops, Coach Smith addressed the group. He said, “People, it is easier to keep up than to catch up,” Smith said. “You expend more energy trying to chase someone than you will if you just stay with them. So push from the back, close the gap, and stay together.”
Eventually, we figured out that if we ran as a group—spreading out, taking up the entire road, and staying together as a pack—Smith’s pace would slow. By the time SYR CrossFit was back in sight, we were running in one large column. Our Big Dipper looked more like a tight square.
Smith led us back into the parking lot and instructed us to greet Coach McLeod as a group with one loud cheer. As we passed McLeod, we shouted “Hooyah, Coach McLeod!”
We’d come together as a team and survived the first hour of the 20X. But we were nowhere near done.
“You want to be just like that duck right now.” –Brad McLeod
After giving us a few moments to catch our breath, coaches instructed us to spread out across the parking lot. Time for some PT.
The scene that followed looked like something you might see in SEALFIT videos on YouTube. One coach shouted out exercises while three others splashed us with water or sprayed us with hoses.
We did Up-Downs, which are exactly what you think they are: You get up, or you get down on the ground, and do whatever other command coaches shout at you. We did an interminable number of Four-Count Flutter Kicks. Then the coaches wanted to see whether we could perform the number of Push-Ups required to meet SEALFIT’s standard.
It was a test I’d been sweating about in the weeks leading up to the event. Whereas I’d felt endurance was a strong point for me, I knew Push-Ups were an Achilles’ Heel. Even on my best training days, I had only been able to complete a few more than the required 40 reps within two minutes.
At first, our team made the attempt as a group. Here’s what we quickly learned: Doing Push-Ups after you’ve held a Plank for three-quarters of an hour is hard. Really hard.
People started dropping to their knees when the count reached the mid-teens. Group fail.
We spent a few minutes doing more PT, then were given a second chance to meet the standard. This time, coaches paired us off two-by-two. One challenger was to do the Push-Ups while his or her partner provided a target by putting a fist on the ground beneath the sternum. This made the exercise slightly easier, since you didn’t have to lower your body quite as far. But it still wasn’t easy.
I was paired up with Meske, a seemingly unflappable collegiate wrestler. The guy wore a smile throughout every challenge that day. He enthusiastically shouted out my count as I worked my way toward the goal in bursts of five.
“Twenty!” Meske shouted. No problem.
“Twenty five!” He said. Still going.
“Thirty!” Meske continued. I’m slowing and I can tell. Worse, my form is getting sloppy. I resolve to make the rest of the reps clean.
He hadn’t finished the word when the muscles around my left elbow—the same ones that had been complaining during the long Plank—gave out entirely. My arms splayed out to the side and my left knee spiked down into the ground.
I shouted out a word that’s unsuitable for publication. I’d failed and I knew it.
Coach McLeod, who had seen what happened, walked over to me holding a full bottle of water. He poured it on the back of my head and said, “Hey, now, don’t get frustrated. Do you feel that water rolling off your back? That’s what you need to let this go. You want to be just like a duck right now. Let that roll right off your back, and move on to the next thing.”
Now it was Meske’s turn. If I couldn’t make the standard, I thought, at least I can be a good cheerleader.
I shouted out Meske’s rep count and tried to give him whatever energy I could with my enthusiasm. Not that he needed help. Meske passed the required 40 without pausing, hammering out Push-Up after Push-Up with mechanical precision. He didn’t slow down until he reached 85. From there, he somehow gutted out 15 more and hit an even 100. The group erupted in cheers.
“The name for the space between the known and the unknown is fear.” –Chriss Smith
Soon after the Push-Ups, all of us challengers were crawling on our bellies through a nearby drainage ditch. Our orders were to crawl until the ditch ended in a concrete slab, slap the slab with both hands, then turn left and crawl up a small hill, where the unknown awaited.
“The name for the space between the known and the unknown is fear,” Coach Smith told us. “But everything you need in life is right in front of you.”
I took his message to mean: Focus only on the task at hand. Don’t waste energy stressing over what might come next.
I was paired up with a young professional hockey player named Hextall, who was taking on the 20X for a second time. He’d completed one at the same CrossFit facility the year before.
The first thing Hextall did was save my *ss. When we reached the slab, I totally spaced out and forgot about the two-hand slap.
“Sabin, put both of your hands on the concrete,” Hextall whispered to me.
I immediately did, and heard a shout from SEALFIT Coach Jim Rutan.
“Sabin, you better say, ‘Hooyah, Hextall!’” Rutan said. “He just saved your butt.”
“Hooyah, Hextall!” I said.
We reached the top of the hill, where the unknown came into view. On the ground ahead of us sat two big gray tubs of brown water. Fragments of ice floated around in the mud, along with bits of grass and leaves. The coaches instructed us to get in.
In the ice bath, the author was nowhere near as calm as this guy. (Image courtesy of Jim Rutan/CrossFit Honor)
“That water is disgusting,” Coach Smith shouted. “Do not drink it. Keep your mouths closed.”
The water was frigid. Sliding into it sent shivers up and down my body. Muscles in my chest, shoulders and cheeks tensed up. My breathing got shallow and rapid.
The challenge was to put our heads under the water and hold our breath for a count of ten. Every part of my body said, Nope, not possible. I felt I could do it if I could just calm down, but I couldn’t seem to relax. Maybe if I had more time to adjust to the water—but, no. It was time.
Hextall and I clasped hands, then sank our heads beneath the brown swill. I listened for the coach’s count, but I don’t think he’d said “one” before I panicked.
I surged up out of the water and gasped for air. Instead, I got a mouthful of muddy water, which went straight down the pipe. I started coughing uncontrollably.
I don’t know exactly what happened next, but suddenly I was holding Hextall’s hand again. They were giving us a second chance.
Again we submerged, and this time I think I made it to “four” before I shot up out of the water. Several coaches started yelling at us. I blurted out, “I can’t do it!”
The statement was almost spinal. I hadn’t made the choice in my head to say it. It just came out.
Coach Smith told us to get out of the bath and go back to the group.
We did as instructed. I felt hugely disappointed in myself. I’d failed to reach the mark on Push-Ups, couldn’t hold my breath, and worse, I’d freaked out and shouted something that sounded a lot like quitting.
But on the way back to the group, Hextall looked at me, smiled, and said, “That was awesome!”
Those words saved my day.
Everything about the way Hextall looked indicated he meant what he said, and I trusted him since he’d been through this before. Maybe that wasn’t failure, I thought. Maybe that was progress.
I turned my focus back to the task at hand, which was to meet the rest of the team at the bottom of the muddy ditch and do more PT: Burpees, Bear Crawls, and Duck Walks, complete with “Quack quack, waddle waddle” sound effects. When it was my turn to Duck Walk, I put a ridiculous expression on my face and tried to sound as duck-like as possible to make my teammates smile. Some noticed and laughed.
Coaches broke up the PT and called our group back to the muddy ice baths. The team formed a circle around them.
“Sabin, how long do you think you can hold your breath underwater?” Coach Smith asked.
Everything in my mind said, Well, my track record so far indicates that I can’t.
“However long you tell me to, sir.” I responded.
Smith smiled. “Good answer. But really, I want a number. How long?”
Jesus. I thought. I really have to dig my own grave here.
I didn’t want to say just the bare minimum of 10 seconds. But I also wasn’t fully confident that I could make the 10.
“Fifteen seconds, sir?” I said. It came out as more of a question than a statement.
“OK,” Smith said. “Where’s the guy who said he could do 25?”
The guy who’d said he could stay underwater for 25 seconds was Gil, who apparently was part dolphin. Gil stepped into the ice bath next to me and took my hand. All of our teammates and coaches gathered around. All eyes on us.
“Fifteen seconds,” Smith said to us.
Down by the cold, dirty water, I nodded. Ready.
I plunged my head underwater and waited. It felt like eternity passed before I heard the coach shout,“One!” But this time, I didn’t feel panic. My lungs weren’t screaming for air. I felt calm as he counted up to ten.
“Eleven!” I heard the coach say. “Twelve!”
I knew I could make it to 15. When we did, I squeezed Gil’s hand, and he squeezed back. He was good. We could keep going.
“Seventeen!” The coach shouted. “Eighteen!”
By now my body wanted oxygen. But I held on until I heard, “Twenty!” We popped our heads out of the water to a roaring cheer from our teammates.
SEALFIT says that the 20X Challenge is named as such because it teaches you that you are capable of 20 times more than you think you are. In this one test, I’d done exactly that.
“The Master of My Fate”
After a change into dry clothes, our team was broken up into groups of five, herded into vans, and handed copies of a poem—Invictus, by William Ernest Henley. We were told to memorize it on our drive to whatever was next.
Temperatures outside were in the mid-70s, but inside the van, our driver, Coach David Powell, had the heat blasting.
“I’m trying to give you guys the full experience,” Powell said. “When we did Kokoro [SEALFIT’s even-more-intense 50+ hour challenge], the vans with the hot air—that was part of it. We wouldn’t want you to think that you came here and got only 19X.”
Inside the van with me was Hextall the hockey player, Rotta the CrossFitter from Brooklyn, Sokolofski the bear-sized ball of muscle who must win the award for “Pennsylvania’s Fittest State Trooper” every year, Palmieri the guy from Virginia who was considering a career in the Navy, and Ashley Rutan, the daughter of SEALFIT Coach Jim Rutan.
From left: Ashley, Jim and Jake Rutan. (Image courtesy of Jim Rutan/CrossFit Honor)
At just 17 years old, Ashley was taking on her second 20X Challenge. A year before, she’d become the youngest person ever to complete the event. That distinction was in jeopardy, however, as her 15-year-old brother Jake was taking part in this year’s challenge. Suffice it to say: The Rutans are strong people.
They’re more than just strong physically. To do the types of workouts that Coach Jim leads nearly every Saturday at SYR, which can last up to four hours, one has to be mentally capable of persevering through long periods of hard effort. The kids also must have powerful self-belief, as they have the confidence to take on an event that has made grown men cry or puke (sometimes both at once).
Inside the van, Ashley was leading five of us grown-ups as we tried to commit Henley’s poem to memory. She’d say a line, then we’d repeat it.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
We arrived at the trailhead, were tested on our Invictus knowledge, and recited the poem well enough to pass. Phew! No Burpees.
Everyone put on their rucksacks, which were stuffed with various weights. Most carried sandbags; however, Coach Rutan outfitted my pack with a kettlebell that I think weighed 25 pounds.
We crossed a stream, stepped onto a rocky trail, and started hiking uphill. Within a matter of minutes, Rutan, who was leading the group, brought our pace up to a jog, then an all-out run.
Most struggled to keep up. The kettlebell bounced inside my rucksack, going wap-wap-wap! against my tailbone as I ran. Eventually I figured out a way to hold one of the pack’s straps in my hand to keep the weight from jostling, but not before it had left what look like a shotgun spray dispersion of black and blue marks on my lower back.
Coach Smith ran alongside of us, making sure no one was slacking.
“This is an individual effort exercise,” Smith said. “You should be passing somebody.”
I was by no means feeling good, but I didn’t feel awful either. My years of running, combined with my experience working with trail runners and ultramarathoners during the five years I spent at Runner’s World, taught me how to manage my energy. I was maintaining what I felt was a sustainable pace in the middle of the pack when Smith strode up next to me.
“Are you taking a break, Sabin?” Smith said. “Get to the front. Then you can take a break.”
I picked up my pace and made my best effort to catch the leader, running over the leaves and plants to the right of the trail to pass my teammates. The surge sent my heart racing, but not so much that my body went into meltdown mode. After climbing to the top of a long, gradual ascent, I could see Coach Rutan at the bottom of the sharp downhill below. I leaned forward and barreled toward him.
Once I got within a few feet of Rutan, he picked up the pace. There was no break.
But maybe getting a break wasn’t the point. Maybe the point was that Smith’s challenge had pushed me to do what I was actually capable of, rather than just what I thought I could do to survive.
After some impossibly steep climbs, we reached the top of a beautiful green hill that gave us a 360-degree view of the valleys and rolling hills surrounding us.
The team reaches the top of the hill during the ruck. (Image courtesy of Jim Rutan/CrossFit Honor)
We got a break to refuel and rehydrate. More PT (Squats while holding our rucks overhead) followed. Then it was time to run back to the start.
In theory, the run back should have been easier. We were starting on top of the hill, so the course was supposed to be downhill, right?
The problem was that the route undulated greatly. Some of the climbs on the way back felt far more difficult than they had on the way out.
It was probably the most challenging run I’d ever taken on. I worked to stay as close to the front as I could, and it took everything I had. At several points, I was completely hunched over, placing my hands on my knees to try and get any extra push I could get, taking what seemed like the tiniest of steps uphill.
During one climb I was certain I was falling apart, not covering any more than a few inches at a time. I pictured each of my teammates passing me with pitying looks on their faces. I didn’t dare look up to see how far away the top was. Instead I kept my gaze only as far as my next step.
Only no one passed me, and eventually, panting and huffing, I finished the ascent. When I did, I discovered that I wasn’t that far away from the front after all. Coach Rutan was maybe 50 meters away on the path ahead. I took off after him.
When our team reached the trailhead where we’d started, the coaches issued an order that sent panic across most of our faces.
“Put your rucksacks in the van, then get back to the trail,” they said. “We’re running it again.”
The camera blur gives a nice representation of how delirious we all felt after the ruck. (Image courtesy of Jim Rutan/CrossFit Honor)
Thankfully, mercifully, the coaches were joking. Kind of.
We did get back out on the trail, and ran up much of the first climb. But after we covered about a third of a mile, we were sent back down the hill to the vans. Time for lunch.
This seems like a good point to mention an odd fact. In the days following the 20X Challenge, more than one person from our group said that they actually missed the event. I am one of them.
It might sound insane to say it, but I can explain why we felt that way in a single word: Teamwork.
To make it through a 20X, participants have to come together and be a team. The event has a bunch of rules—such as keeping all of the many buttons on your BDU pants buttoned up and your shirt tucked in at all times—that make it so you have to keep an eye out for one another. If one person fails, everybody fails. So throughout the day, you see people helping each other out, even tucking in each other’s shirts. Because if you didn’t: Burpees.
But the teamwork went far beyond that. During the ruck through the hills, teammates freely shared bottles of water and sports drinks. During lunch, people who had spare shirts or sets of dry socks handed them to others who hadn’t packed so thoroughly. Wells, the master of the No-Hands Burpee, was also a massage therapist, and he performed adjustments on a few of us who were especially beat up. Everybody was eager to help someone else.
Helping one another—and going through so much hard work together—quickly establishes a strong bond. In the days that followed the event, members of our team sent hundreds of messages to one another on a group text thread, and we have kept in touch on social media. It is my sincere hope those friendships last.
It was a good thing our team bonded so well, because teamwork was essential to survival in the next challenge.
They call it Log PT. It’s exactly what you think: You and a few teammates work together to carry a fairly significant portion of a tree. Then you perform Squats while holding said tree. Then Lunges. Then Sit-Ups. And more.
“Log PT is either the ultimate team-builder or the ultimate buddy [insert word that rhymes with ‘trucker’ here],” Coach McLeod said. “Either everybody pitches in, or somebody screws over everybody else.”
Coaches led us over to a pile of long, thick timbers.
“Team, greet the logs,” Coach Smith said. “Hooyah, logs.”
We were separated into groups of five based on height. I stand about 6-foot-2, so I was in a group with four other fairly tall guys. It had to be the luckiest break I had all day, as the four guys on the log with me were all really strong.
The author (center) with his Log PT teammates. (Image courtesy of Jim Rutan/CrossFit Honor)
We had Covert, the Atlas lookalike, at the front. Behind him was Youpa, a Pennsylvania native who’d been spending his weekends training with Coach Rutan. I was in the middle, and behind me was Fitz, the other guy from Cleveland, who regularly did CrossFit. Bringing up the rear of our log was Beck, one of those guys who may look skinny because he’s so tall, but who’s actually quite muscular and can lift serious weight. Or at least serious log.
With this powerful team, most of the Log PT felt like a break. Don’t get me wrong, certain parts of it were difficult—especially the Pause Squats, in which you’d place the log on a shoulder, squat down until your legs were parallel to the ground, and just hold it. And when we’d run with the log, the timber would bounce and occasionally smack us in the backs of our heads. But since everyone was pitching in, the work wasn’t so bad.
The toughest part of the entire workout wasn’t even tough so much as it was gross.
We were instructed to carry the logs into a large pool of standing water at the end of a field. I’m not sure exactly what it was, perhaps a small reservoir or place for water overflow to collect from nearby drainage ditches. Whatever it was, it was nasty.
Log Sit-Ups in the Malaria Swamp. (Image courtesy of Jim Rutan/CrossFit Honor)
The water was brown and tepid, with brown and black chunks of what I told myself algae deposits floating about. In this disgusting puddle, which we nicknamed the malaria swamp, we sat down and performed Log Sit-Ups.
Covert had spent time at SEALFIT’s weeklong academy program in Encinitas, so he knew a trick to making Log Sit-Ups more manageable. And at the risk of giving away the secrets, here it is: When your back is on the ground (or in our case, several inches deep in swamp water), you use your arms to pull the log as close as you can to your chin. Then, when it’s time to perform the rep, you yank the log down your torso and into your lap as hard as you can. This basically propels your torso upward.
The trick only works if everybody on the team moves together. But that’s exactly what we did, and as a result the work wasn’t so hard. But it as still gross.
The 20X Challenge wasn’t all workouts, all the time. Throughout the event, coaches offered short lessons about training, or life, or both. And they occasionally offered helpful hints that made the challenge itself more manageable.
For example, while our group was standing at attention and nervously awaiting orders early in the day, Coach Smith walked through our group singing a lullaby.
Measuring the marigolds
It’s funny how it seems to me
How beautiful they are.
Your first response might be to think the scary drill instructor was messing with us. But in fact, he was offering a suggestion. Singing a lullaby can calm your nerves in a tense situation.
If you don’t believe me, I don’t blame you. I didn’t believe it myself until I felt it firsthand. But try it the next time you feel “the butterflies” flapping around in your belly. You might find that those insects don’t kick up as much wind.
Throughout the day, whenever I felt anxious about a challenge, I sang the song, either out loud or to myself, and it helped me relax. I heard other team members doing the same thing.
The coaches also offered encouragement that could lift your self-belief at times when it flagged. At one point, after yet another particularly difficult stretch of PT, Coach Rutan pulled me aside.
“Look at me, Brian” he said. His eyes were staring directly into mine with a force that could knock over a wall. “You’ve got this, Brian. There is no quit in you.”
“I’ve got this, Coach,” I stammered.
“Say it with me,” he said. “You’ve got this, Brian.”
“You’ve got this, Brian,” I said more firmly. I felt recharged.
After the Log PT, the coaches led us to an enclosed ditch that was about two and a half feet in diameter. Get in, they instructed us, and crawl to wherever it leads.
Several team members were claustrophobic and looked visibly nervous. Coaches told us to stay in contact with one another by occasionally tapping the feet or ankles of the person in front, letting him or her know you were still there.
I was toward the back of the group, with Meske in front of me and Hextall behind. Just before I entered the tunnel, Coach Rutan spoke to me.
“You literally have the chance to write your own story, Sabin,” Rutan said. “What do you want your story to be?”
I thought of my family, and how I wanted to be the best possible person I could be for them.
I thought of my wife, and how she’d had to crawl her way through so many dark times in the past year, dealing with the loss of her mother and the miscarriage she suffered, all while keeping a positive attitude and a smile on her face as she raised our daughter.
I thought about my teammates, and how brave they were for taking on this event.
And I thought about how I wanted to do whatever I could to help all of them. Then I crawled into the darkness.
One by one, we inched our way through the tunnel. After just a few feet, the blackness was pitch and complete. We couldn’t see anything. The only way we could keep track of where we were was to tap the person in front, which I did often. Other than the jostling of hands and knees over corrugated metal, water and gravel, the only sound was our group softly singing.
“Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds…”
After a long crawl, we eventually saw the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. We emerged, hosed off, and changed into shorts and running shoes. It was time for Murph.
“Murph” is the name of a workout that is a tribute to Navy Lt. Michael P. Murphy, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2005. If you’ve seen the movie Lone Survivor, you know Murph’s story: He was the one who exposed himself to enemy fire in order to make a call for help. He died trying to save the lives of his teammates.
As you can imagine, the SEALs take Murph’s workout pretty seriously. Before it begins, one of the coaches reads Murphy’s citation from President George W. Bush out loud. Then you start the work: a 1-mile run, 100 Pull-Ups, 200 Push-Ups, 300 Squats, and another 1-mile run to close it out. Coaches instructed us to perform the workout in 20 rounds of 5 Pull-Ups, 10 Push-Ups, and 15 Squats. They also told us they’d be strict on form, and that if we cheated on even one rep, the entire set wouldn’t count.
Our group headed out the door and hit the road to start the run. The opening mile was the best I felt all day. I ran stride-for-stride with Meske, the unflappable wrestling enigma. We were the first ones to make it back to the gym.
I leapt up, grabbed the pull-up bar and started my first set. After my fifth Pull-Up, I heard Coach Smith shout at me from across the gym.
“Sabin, fully extend your arms at the bottom of the rep,” Smith said.
Damn! I thought. Back to zero.
I eventually finished the first round. Push-Ups were much tougher than I’d anticipated. I learned later that at some point during the event, I managed to dislocate one of my ribs. As a result, every rep felt like a gut punch.
I may have been the first through the door to start the PT, but I was nearly the last person out. I felt totally drained during the closing mile. A SEALFIT rule states that you’re supposed to “suffer in silence,” meaning you should avoid grunting and whatnot during a workout, but during the last half-mile I was out of gas, and I called out the names of my daughter and wife to help me.
“Piper Josephine,” I said. Stride stride stride. “Natalie Louise.” Stride stride stride.
I stepped back into the gym, feeling ready to flop down on the floor and catch a breather. As soon as I entered, however, several of my teammates passed me and headed back out to run with Ashley Rutan, who had to finish her last mile. One of my teammates, Leiser, shot me a look that said, “you can do this.” I popped a Nuun tablet into my mouth and headed back out onto the road with them. We finished Murph as a group.
The Rock is Your Will to Live
Coaches led us behind the gym, to where a pile of rocks were scattered around a ditch. They instructed each of us to pick one up.
“You don’t want your rock to be too heavy to carry, because you wouldn’t want to drop your will to live,” Coach McLeod said. “But you also don’t want it to be too light, because then you’d have no will to live.”
I picked through the pile and found what I thought was a pretty reasonable rock. Then I saw the boulders that some of my teammates grabbed. Sokolofski, the bear-sized state trooper, held what looked like a cornerstone to the pyramid in Giza.
“If you’re thinking twice about the rock you picked, it’s probably too light,” McLeod said.
I went back and found a bigger rock, one that was densely packed and almost cylindrical.
Our team stood in a line, each of us holding our boulders. They instructed us to spend some time thinking about what we’d experienced that day. Then they began pairing off a few of us, telling us to maintain eye contact when they did.
“Ashley,” Coach Smith said. “Go stand in front of Sabin.”
She did as instructed. Her eyes were big and blue—just like my daughter’s. I felt suddenly filled with a mix of pride and admiration, love and gratitude, and sadness and loss.
The pride and admiration were for this incredible young woman, and what she had challenged herself to do—and indeed was doing—at such a young age.
The love and gratitude were for my own family, and how they are an incredible blessing—the greatest I’ll ever know.
And the sadness, of course, was for what our family lost just weeks before—a child, who perhaps would’ve had big beautiful eyes like Ashley’s. Like Piper’s.
Since the miscarriage, I’d tried not to think about loss. I tried to focus only on what we had, and the fact that we can try again. And I think that approach is helpful in that it kept me moving forward rather than stuck in a tragedy I didn’t cause and couldn’t change. But perhaps it also prevented me from coming to terms with the experience.
Staring into Ashley’s eyes, I felt for the first time that I fully appreciated both the magnitude of that loss and the powerful wonder of what I still had. And this poor girl had to stare back at me as tears streamed down my face.
“It’s OK,” she told me. “Just breathe.”
McLeod led us on a long walk. Thinking about my family, my dreams and everything else that the stone on my shoulder represented, the rock never felt heavy.
“You better find some composure!” –Chriss Smith
This couldn’t be the end. Could it?
We were lying on our backs on the floor inside the gym. Coaches told us to close our eyes and meditate.
Several minutes passed. It was silent. A few in the group dozed off to sleep.
Then, suddenly: BRRRRRAAAAANG!
Coach Powell came running through the gym sounding an air horn. The other coaches surrounded us, shouting orders. Up! Down! On your backs! On your belly! On your feet!
The commands came quickly and often conflicted. Our group struggled to keep up. Coaches told us to start performing Flutter Kicks. They then ordered us to lie on our backs and hold our legs six inches in the air, just over the face of the person in front of us. My legs shook as I tried to avoid giving Youpa a nasal dose of my stinky, waterlogged Nike Frees. But eventually that happened, just as the shoes of the person behind me ended up on my face more than once.
We were then instructed to form one long push-up group, with each person placing their feet on the shoulders of the person behind them. With your legs off of the ground, the Push-Up is all chest, shoulders and arms—all of the muscles that had nothing left for me. My elbows collapsed on a rep, sending my whole team to the floor. I vowed not to let that happen again. We got back up, and I put every ounce of force I had left into every rep. Our team stayed up and kept pace.
Next we were led outside, back to the big gray tubs, which were freshly filled with water and what looked like three times as much ice. A coach handed each of us a small green army man toy.
“This is your token from today,” one said. “Do not lose it. And remember the pose.”
My army man depicted a soldier down on one knee holding a rifle, as if he’d just spotted an enemy. I secured him inside my sock and tried to get my mind right for what was next.
Each of us were to do the ice bath test again. This time we were to spend 10 seconds underwater while holding a rock overhead.
My heart was pounding. Although I’d stayed underwater for 20 seconds earlier in the day, I had really, really hoped it would be the last time. I wasn’t certain I could repeat the feat.
My turn came. This time there was no supporting hand to hold, just a rock that we were ordered not to get wet. I sank under the water and listened for the count.
“Eight…nine…ten!” I heard the group shout.
I burst upward out of the water and tried to get out of the tub. I was probably too eager to do so. “Go again,” the coaches said.
A look of panic must have flashed across my face.
“You better find some composure, son!” Coach Smith shouted to me.
OK. He was right. We were paired up in twos, and I felt horrible for having made my partner go through the drill again. I got ahold of myself, calmed my breathing, and lowered my head beneath the surface again.
I wish I could tell you that I’d had some deep thought while I was down there. Or that I felt so comfortable I could’ve stayed submerged all day. But really, I was waiting on every second, and I felt a huge relief when I heard the group shout “ten!”
This time I was smart enough to take my time getting out of the bucket. When I stepped onto the pavement, I dropped to a knee, lifted my arms as if they were holding a rifle, and shouted, “Contact! Dennis Rodman’s coming this way with whole army of North Koreans!”
The group erupted in laughter and shouted, “Hooyah!”
The author strikes a pose after completing the breath hold challenge. (Image courtesy of Jim Rutan/CrossFit Honor)
After the second ice baths, there was one final test.
We were all standing outside, soaking wet from the baths and feeling the evening breeze. At first I was shaking from the cold. Then one of our teammates, Palmieri, told us to breathe in and out only through our noses. It helps raise your body temperature. Sure enough, it worked.
I thought about something Mark Divine had written in his book Way of the SEAL. He recounts the story of a time during the SEALs Hell Week, when he and his team of candidates were left outside in the surf all night. Although the temperatures were frigid, he imagined himself on a beach in Hawaii. And it helped him stay warm.
As the sun set in the distance, standing in a parking lot and covered in frigid water, I visualized standing on a sunny beach in Florida. I pretended that the chill-inducing winds I felt nipping at my back were actually soothing breezes I needed to cool me down on a 100-degree day. I pictured my wife and daughter there with me, playing in the sand.
I looked to the sky and closed my eyes. The white light I’d seen during meditation the day before was there. I saw my wife’s face. She blew me a kiss. I wasn’t cold anymore.
Coaches told us to have the person who felt he or she knew Invictus the best lead the group in reciting it. Rotta, the Brooklyn CrossFitter who’d been in the van with me, stepped out. His voice grew louder and more confident with each stanza, until he (and we) shouted the final four lines.
It matters not how straight the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul
“SEALFIT 20X, you are secured,” Coach McLeod said when we finished.
The group erupted into cheers. Covert gave me a giant-sized hug. Then everyone in the team piled in together forming one enormous group hug, shouting, “Hooyah!”
Just before the 20X, after I’d described the event to a group of friends, one of them asked me, “What do you get for doing it?”
I answered honestly. I said, “I don’t know.”
The event is different from a marathon, or any other race-like event, which tries to entice entrants with shiny medals or big belt buckles. In fact, SEALFIT doesn’t list on their website any awards for completing the event.
As it turns out, you do get a couple of things for making it through a 20X. There’s the army guy, of course. He’s yours to keep. And each of us got a t-shirt, a patch, and a coin.
The items are nice. But the true rewards of the day were far greater.
A great reward came as I was leaving the facility. Coach Smith was in his truck preparing to leave. I pulled my car alongside him to say thank you for leading the group that day.
“You did a great job out there, Sabin.” He told me. “I’m proud of you.”
A Navy SEAL told me he was proud of me. Marathon medals end up in a drawer, but that is a moment I will never forget.
Another great reward is the bond I formed with my 25 teammates. I didn’t know any of them before the event, but now I feel strong ties to all of them.
But the greatest reward came on my first morning waking up in my own house after the event. A series of storms the night before had caused my flight to be cancelled, leaving me with the choice of either waiting them out and breaking a promise to my daughter to be by her side when she awoke on Tuesday morning, or driving through the night to get home.
Remember your why, I thought to myself. Then I headed to a rental car desk.
My daughter woke up early, as 2-year-olds do. Exhausted, and aching in places I didn’t even know I had, I walked down the hall and picked her up out of her crib.
We went downstairs and looked out a window. Outside the morning was still gray and overcast from the storms.
“It’s a beautiful day, huh, Dada?” Piper said to me.
SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 1: What Happened When a Regular Guy Tried to Train Like a Navy SEAL
SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 2: 3 Ways SEAL-Style Workouts Change Your Life
SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 3: The World’s Hardest Workout Has a Ridiculous Name
SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 4: Inside the Devil’s Backpack: The Only 5 Things You Need to Get A Hellishly Hard Workout Anywhere
SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 5: How Not to Hurt Yourself (Like I Did)
SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 6: Finding the Silver Lining
SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 7: The Question That Tells You Whether You’ll Succeed
SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 8: Meet 3 Guys Who Might Kill Me
SURVIVING SEALFIT, part 9: The Dress Rehearsal
Well, if you made it this far through the post, dear reader, you’ve just completed an endurance challenge of your own. STACK Executive Editor Brian Sabin thanks you for spending so much time reading about the experience he had taking on SEALFIT’s 20X Challenge. He also wishes to thank SEALFIT, Commander Mark Divine, Coaches Brad McLeod, Jim Rutan, Chriss Smith, David Powell and Will Talbott. Sabin isn’t sure if he reached elite military-grade fitness, but he did learn a lot from the past six months of training for the event, and from the 20X itself, and can do way more Pull-Ups now. If you want to learn more about SEALFIT’s Challenges check out SEALFIT’s website, and to keep up on whatever Sabin decides to do next, visit him on Twitter and Google Plus.