S.E.R.E. Challenge Basic (MA) - March 2012
March 30th 2012
Special thanks to Gabby Portillo Mazal for following us around for the full 15 hours taking all these pictures.
The Event: S.E.R.E. is a team event, and this is the basic level of their challenge. There will be Advanced and Xtreme levels to come. Basic is meant to be a physical and mental challenge where trainees carry a ruck containing 20% their bodyweight in sand and whatever other supplies that are on the packing list or that they feel they need. It is led by former/current military personnel and is inspired by the military’s S.E.R.E. school in that teaching survival skills also plays a role in the challenge.
Getting There & Parking: Not being a race with a venue, you are just given a rally point in GPS coordinates. Our RP was Paul Revere Park. You just have to drive there and park. Simple.
Check-in & Logistics: There was no check-in. It was just 23 people ready to rock on a brisk Boston night.
The Schwag: No schwag for this event. Everybody got S.E.R.E. dog tags upon completion and the winning team go engraved Ka-Bar knives.
The Challenge: It took me a while to digest this event and figure out where I would start a review. It also took me a really long time to figure out how I'd rank it compared to the other endurance trials in my rankings. I wavered back and forth numerous times because my previous experiences made this challenge different for me, and I didn't want to cop out with a tie. I learned how to really think "team first" prior to this, and I also learned that my true limits far exceed whatever my perceived limits of the day are. The "I can't do this... I may have to quit" demons have been replaced by the "are you fucking kidding me? how much longer do we have to do this?" bitch squad. I feel those two things are really important not only in these challenges but in life as well, so with a sense of nostalgia, I firmly gripped the event(s) that taught me those things. At the end of the day, this was a better event in my not so humble opinion. If you're curious why, then read on. Just break out your favorite electrolyte drink and energy bar because this will be a long one.
Our rally point was Paul Revere Park in Charlestown. I was running a little late because a classmate's bag was tearing under the weight of her gear, so I had to turn around while halfway there to bring a spare pack (My trusty GoRuck GR1). By the time I showed up, nearly the whole class was assembled in the park. I dropped off a box of Simple Fuel goodie bags to the instructors, said hello to some instructors and friends, and started prepping for the night. Before long, we were lined up in two lines for gear inspection. I don't know why I always pack things so neatly into my pack before any of these events. You ultimately always end up having to take everything out of your pack at the beginning anyway.
After gear inspection, we had to quickly pack up in about 3 minutes and were led through what I'd call ruck PT. Clean and press your ruck, put it on, take it off, shoulder your ruck, squat your ruck, and so on and so on. My ruck was 60+lbs, and I was definitely not the biggest guy there, so I imagined there were some heavy rucks being thrown around here. Todd, who also is definitely not the biggest guy there, decided to have 60 lbs of sand alone in his ruck. The ruck was throwing Todd around more than Todd was throwing the ruck around. Team leaders for the 3 teams volunteered (23 people = 2 teams of 8 and 1 team of 7), and we counted off to get our "number". We then had to take the white t-shirt and sharpies we were told to bring, write "SERE" on the front and our number on the sleeves. I was 023. After we are done, we threw our tshirts into a pile. The team leaders then dump their water and some sand onto the tshirts and get PT'ed all over them. Then of course, you get to find your crusty shirt and put it back on. A school yard pick 'em goes down to select teams. I personally know or know of most people on my squad. Lisa is captain, and my fellow team members are Kym, David, Jeff, Ivana, Darren, and Todd.
NOW... The event really gets underway. The first thing we do is a team relay race. The first team to finish gets first pick of the 3 team weights that the instructors brought with them. The race consists of low crawling about 30-40 yards across the park, doing walking lunges on the way back, running up one slide, sliding down another, and then doing a lap around the park. This is all while wearing a ruck. Our team (aptly named "Team Awesome") is quick to bust out the team work by helping members on the slides and shadowing people during the first stage to give them encouragement. I went 3rd to last, and we were leading, so I did my best to hold or increase the lead. The parts before the run were smokers... sapping your strength before the run. I figured I had time to rest before we got going again though, so I tried to gun it on the run. I didn't lose ground, but we ultimately lost when a team came from behind on the last leg to beat us. Whatever. It's going to be a looong night.
We still had second pick for the team weight, and our first pick was available anyway. We grabbed 2 ammo cans. Turns out they were filled with candy and water, so we weren't really disappointed. This led into our first instructional phase. S.E.R.E. is a little different where they pepper instructional segments in with the physical and mental challenges. You get tested on most of the material, so you need to pay attention and retain what is taught. This one was on wilderness first aid. We learned proper splinting techniques for a break, making a proper arm sling to immobilize an arm injury, and a way to treat a sucking chest wound (punctured lung) with duct tape and a plastic bag. I got to rest a bit here because I was the leg-splint dummy, so I was laying down through a lot of it.
Next we were given our first objective: gather intel on the Bunker Hill Monument. I had learned from previous challenges to always have a tourist map handy (thanks Kevin), so I busted it out to plot the quickest course. From that point forward, I was "map guy" and responsible for nav for the remaining 13 or so hours of the challenge. We were told to follow traffic laws. Thinking those would be local traffic laws, none of which exist in Boston - you just walk into traffic and they stop -, we got busted at the first intersection and had to do 25 burpees. This led to us being a little contentious because the team that busted us blew through a "don't walk" signal right after and didn't receive any punishment. After our 25 burpees, off we went to Bunker Hill, and we got to do walking lunges up it for good measure.
We dropped our packs and set out in teams of two to gather our intel. After the alotted time, we regathered and got our next objective: The USS Constitution. I checked the map and saw a highway in the way. Having spent a few drunken nights in that area, I had a good feeling where a quicker way around it was than following the conventional roads. I led the team there and sure enough, the cut through is there. We get to the USS Constitution (first) and again break off into teams for intel gathering. Done. Next objective: Old North Church. This is where we finally get to our spread our wings a little bit because it was our first prolonged ruck of the night. Honestly it felt good despite my foot injury acting up a little bit. I was pretty content that it wasn't a serious issue, so I just ignored it.
We arrived at the Old North Church. I think we were first again, but I'm not 100% sure. For those that don't know, this is the site of the famous "One if by land. Two if by sea." lanterns. Here we had 2 minutes to brief our team leader on the intel gathered, and instructors would quiz her. If she got anything wrong, it was off to the sites to find the right answer. Luckily her short term memory is top notch, and we were off to the plaza behind the church. We waited for the other teams to arrive and then it was low crawling in rucks across the plaza... the plaza which is all brick. One of the military guys on our team suggested a drag crawl. We slowly made our way across the plaza in intervals of dragging and resting. After what seems like forever, we get across and get a 300 peice puzzle for our efforts.
I don't know if it's because we were tired or because we started getting real cold sitting on bricks at 2am, but that puzzle was not easy. I will forever hold a grudge against Thomas Kinkade. We were assailed by a couple drunk assholes at this point. My team's instructor, John Henry, took the brunt of it thankfully. He had them convinced we were on a spec ops training mission and were parachuting into Bogota later in the morning. Ivana and Lisa banged out the lion's share of that puzzle while the rest of us scratched our heads like monkeys seeing a person on a bike for the first time and occasionally jammed two peices together. Puzzle done (2nd I think... again things are foggy). Next objective: Christopher Columbus Park.
Now I was born in Boston, and I lived in Boston for years. I have never once heard of this place. To the trusty tourist map I went and found it just down the street. I may be giving the wrong impression about my drinking habits, but I have spent many a drunken night in this park. Tia's on the Waterfront is a nice bar that directly abuts the park. Into the park we go (definitely 2nd this time). We are told to recon this area a little bit, and then settle in for instructional segment #2. We are lectured on situation awareness. We are asked what we look for first when we go into a restaurant. "Alternative exits" and "count of paces from table to exit in case of pepper spray" are two answers. My answer was "hot girls at the bar", but I guess we just have different priorities. After that, we are taught how to easily and quickly break out of flexcuffs (zip ties) with your shoelace. It really is pretty easy.
We are also taught how to do a rope traverse across a river. We had to bring a 10-12' length of climbing rope with us, and this is where it came in. We learned how to do a bowline knot, a wireman's knot, and a simple box knot for a harness. We used these with some carabiners to secure a rope between two trees and ferry across it. Cool stuff. I made one in my backyard the following day. We then get our asses PT'ed to death by instructor Lynn. You ever see that movie Bedazzled with Brandon Frasier and Liz Hurley? I only ask because Lynn reminds me of Liz Hurley's devil character. She's good looking, but she will banish you to a living hell with glee. High planks, low planks, high plank to low plank transitions, v-ups, burpees, mountain climbers, frog jumps... you name it. We finished up with a couple laps for good measure and then it was off to our next objective: The Granary Cemetery by way of Fanuel Hall.
We start off happy to be on the move when BOOM. Your biggest team member has been immobilized and needs to be carried. Now Darren is not a small guy especially for the rest of us string beans left to carry him. I take his pack, and Todd and Jeff form a sort of connected figure four with their arms to carry him. Oh these military guys and their ALICE packs... The external frame was working wonders on the front of my hips, but I didn't want to trade spots with Jeff and Todd carrying Darren. Eventually I did have to though as Todd and I tried our hands at it. It wasn't going so well. Finally we decided there was more than one way to define "big". While Darren was the heaviest, Todd was the tallest. He decided that biggest = tallest suited us just fine, so Darren scooped up Todd on his shoulders and away we went. We ended up at the Granary 2nd.
We took a prolonged bathroom and food break here and then were told to form up and find a bronze George Washington near Beacon Street. That brought us to the Public Gardens. Myself and a member from each team were told to find a grassy area half a football field in size. Nothing really fit the bill in the Gardens, so we went across the street to the Boston Common. This would be the spot for relay race #2. Each team member had to somersault about 40 yards and then get up and run back to tag the next person on their team.
This was a fun little break. I have no idea how I did, but I somersaulted my ass off, got up with the worse case of spins ever supported by teammate Jeff, and then ran my drunk looking ass back to the line. Say what you will about Team Awesome, but you can't take away our somersault skills. We easily killed this one. Next objective: Get to Fenway and do a lap around it.
We shot straight through the Public Gardens to get to Comm Ave and follow that in. We were neck and neck with the team that busted us at the traffic signal earlier, but it was their turn to get busted and punished. That slowed them down just enough and then bad luck for them with the remaining traffic signals slowed them down even more. This is where one on my teammates really started struggling. Her shoulders were rubbed raw from her ruck and she was in serious pain. As a result, we were trading off front loading her ruck on our way to Fenway. We got to Fenway way ahead of the other teams and were almost completely done with our lap when we see the other teams. Sometimes it doesn't pay to win because the other teams didn't have to do a lap.
Here we were asked what the biggest advertisement that is part of Fenway was. Darren quickly answers the Citgo sign, and I immediately disagree. The Citgo sign is blocks from Fenway and is not "part of the park". We ask the instructors for clarification a bunch of times, send runners out to look around the park itself, and we still end up answering Citgo anyway... aaaaaaand that was the right answer. haha. Oops. Sorry team. I'm still a little embarrassed about so vehemently arguing that one. Next objective: Corey Hill. Again, I have zero clue where the hell Corey Hill can be, so I have to trust my handy dandy tourist map. I find it, and I know shit is about to get real. That's PAST Coolidge Corner. Now these are my old stomping grounds from when I lived in the city, and an unweighted walk of lesser distance after a Sox game (because Green line B trains suck) took a bit. I am imagining it in this 60 lbs ruck.
The teammate that is struggling tries to quit at this point saying we have a shot at winning without her. Everybody objects. We are a team. Winning isn't important; we just need to finish as a team and that will be win enough. This is what I really love about these team challenges. It brings strangers together in a stronger bond than a lot of us experience in our daily lives. It's something about the shared misery of the event I think. Off we go again sharing duties carrying the extra ruck. The ammo containers are pretty light at this point from drinking and eating. Like I said, these were my old stomping grounds, so I knew a quick cut through to Beacon Street that we could then follow all the way to the connecting street for Corey Hill. It wasn't much, but every second counts.
Along the way, John Henry tells us that we get to run for 5 minutes, but have to do 2 minutes of PT. This had to continue all the way to Corey Hill. I think, "Shit. This is going to take a long time." Down Beacon Street we go rucking and PT'ing, rucking and PT'ing. We work out a good system of swapping out the extra ruck every PT break. Other than that, it is pretty uneventful. People are starting to get a little tired though, and you can tell some people are battling demons. Finally we hit the connecting street for Corey Hill called Summit Ave. We turn the corner... HOLY SHIT. Corey Hill is bigger than bunny slopes at mountains I've seen. Summit Ave is pretty descriptive. Our 2:00 PT hits and poor Jeff is left lunging up Corey Hill with two rucks. The dude impressed me though. He set a killer pace even with both packs.
We get to the top and enter the park only to see a big grassy hill there. We're told to assault the hill, so Todd, one of our resident military guys, takes us through the tactics. I can't remember the name, but we broke off into to 2 squads and did an overlapping, screaming charge where one team would charge past the other, drop, and then next team would leap frog past them. I think we scared some old ladies walking their dogs at first, but they warmed up to us. After our hill assault, we take a decent break and are told our next objective: Leverett Pond. It takes a little looking to figure out where it is. As we are gearing up to leave, the second team is just showing up. Off we go and are told we'd still be doing our 2:00 "smoke breaks" on the way to the pond.
The other team must have taken no breaks at all and done a quick assault because they are on our ass in no time, and we even leap frog a little bit. They get in front during our smoke break, we get in front during their smoke break, have a smoke break, etc. I decide to clip one of the ammo cans onto my pack at this point, and the extra weight was palpable. I really started to bonk here. I refused to ask for a slow down because things were so close, but I was a hurting puppy. I never really eat much on challenges, but I realized I was famished. During the next smoke break, I quickly grab a bag of M&M's from my pack and inhale them. Next smoke break, I grab a bag of Butterfinger squares. One even dropped on the dirty ground during our PT (planks), but I still scooped it up and ate it. I was THAT hungry.
Things deteriorate into an all out sprint to the pond that the other team officially won since they had a 90 second time hack. I figured it was here that they'd dunk us, and I was right. After I gorged on every bit of beef jerkey I had, they call us over to the water. As I've said before, cold and dirty water doesn't phase me anymore. That said this water was D.I.R.T.Y. I'd rather go in the Charles or even the Swan Boat pond. Some people took off their shoes, and I thought that was crazy. You don't know what kind of needles are in this thing. We walk out to our thighs and are told to do dive bomber pushups. This forced us to submerge multiple times. When you came up, it was impossible not to gasp and with the gasping came some swallowing of that dirty, horrible water. I don't want to think about it, but that was probably a life limiting move right there.
We get out and are directed to Lynn to PT to warm up. Funny thing was that I'm still not cold at that point. I swear all the cold water exposure I've had has killed nerves. After some PT, we change and are told our next objective: The Frog Pond in Boston Common. The cold water and food has rejuvenated me, and I feel like I can go for another 12 hours at this point. Our fading teammate must have felt the same because she has a gut check and takes her pack for this leg of the trip... and it's a long one. Up Huntington we go and my calves are threatening to cramp from the cold water, but a full blown cramp never actually catches on. After a couple minutes, it's business as usual as we run in formation. I get a little nostalgic here because we go past the fire house where my father was a firefighter for nearly 30 years. A lot of childhood memories took place there from Christmas parties to going out on runs when I was in the fire house for the day.
We make our way past the MFA, Wentworth, and North Eastern. I can tell people are starting to fade a little, but nobody is complaining. Everybody is pushing hard. Finally we get into Copley Square and jump on Boylston to take us into the Common. I later found out that the other teams took Huntington as well, and at this point, not another team was in sight. We must have been killing it. We get to the Frog Pond and take a much needed rest knowing we were in the lead by a wide margin. However after the minutes ticked by, we figured the other teams were in a different location. John Henry goes out to look for them, and they were just over a hill. When we meet up with them, we're tested on the rope traverse. We pass.
Now we are in the final stretch. We are operating as a class once again and going to the Bell in Hand pub in Fanuel Hall. Off we go as one class for the first time in what seems like forever. My team leader Lisa and I are actually in front leading the way, so we are chatting with some of the members of the other team while we have the chance. On the suggestion of the illustrious Jon Leonard, we cut through Government Center. We are called to a halt and are told we have one spot to go. We break for some pictures and are quizzed on first aid for a sucking chest wound. For the final leg, we are headed back to the Old North Church. One teammate is again immobile, but this time we pick. I grab the extra ruck as Darren throws Kym on his shoulders and away we go.
We head through the Haymarket farmer's market, which is crowded as hell. We get a lot of strange looks and comments as a rag tag group of beat up looking people comes shuffling through with big rucks and buddy carries. One particularly charming toothless old hag in the North End is dropping F-bombs left and right and calling us dirty monkeys. I don't think she appreciated me calling her sunshine after that. We pass my aunt Nancy's restaurant Artu's along the way, and my stomach rumbles in anticipation of getting fed soon. Finally we reach our destination and are led into an area behind the church. There is a really nice monument there for the fallen soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan where they have a set of dog tags for each soldier killed.
We pay homage to the fallen soldiers, and our instructors call a wrap to the challenge. They tally up the points, and it's a tie. My team ends up winning because of refusing to let our teammate quit. Bonus! Here she was worrying about her costing us the win by staying on. Instead, she got us the win by staying on. That's what these challenges are all about. Everybody will eventually go through moments of weakness, and they'll have to rely on somebody outside of themselves - the team - to pick them up. It's an amazing experience for all of us superhero athletes that aren't use to it. I actually envy her a little because I know she fought some serious demons over the course of the last 15 hours, and she won. We are the last team to receive the engraved Ka-Bar knives for winning the challenge. Timing is everything in life! Thanks for everything Team Awesome. It was a pleasure going through this with you. Each and every one of you impressed me.
The Verdict: This was a great all around event. We were only the 2nd class after the “beta” class that James wrote about for this site, and you could feel it in some parts. There was some miscommunication between instructors and with class members. There also wasn’t uniformity in some areas, and if this event is meant to be a team competition, then the playing field should be level. These are really the only negatives as I see it though, and I feel those will be ironed out as the challenge matures. Those were really tiny things, and this event is absolutely a must-do.
As I said in my opening, I ultimately am going to give this event the top spot in my rankings. The reason why is that it combines the team building and limit pushing of other similar challenges with squad on squad competition and instruction too. Now it doesn’t focus quite as much on team building and limit breaking, but I feel the sum of its parts make this really great. I’m looking forward to attending another Basic challenge, but I’m really excited about what’s in store for us at the Advanced and Xtreme Challenges. I really can’t recommend it enough. Try it out for yourself and see. For a S.E.R.E. event in your area check my calendar or their website: http://www.sereperformance.com
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