My first ruck: the 18.6-mile Norwegian Foot March

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Peter Reft
  • 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Left. Right. Left. Right. Keep pushing. Do not quit.

One thought ping-pongs inside my skull as all my leg muscles scream in chorus to remind me how I’m not able to finish my first ever ruck march, the 18.6-mile Norwegian Foot March: “What am I even doing?”

Just two weeks prior, my captain notified me of the Norwegian Foot March, an exercise event I had never done and for a distance I had never attempted.

How could I say no to the spirited challenge of my captain who whimsically showed me a photo of her Norwegian Foot March group when she successfully did the first round, and went on to compete at the 4 Days March the Netherlands.

I earnestly started training with a modest 17-pound bag to get a feeling of the 4.2 miles per hour speed I would need to march at to qualify for the coveted Norwegian military patch.

My morale meter went from full to half almost immediately.

I ate some humble pie, lowered my expectations, and then spent the next week-and-a-half pelting my friends with questions, like an annoying younger sibling who can’t keep quiet during a movie.

Armed with knowledge from experienced friends and professionals alike, I trained myself how to walk again and how to wrap my feet with blister armor, but the reality of potential failure rapidly sank my hopes.

No longer was I gunning for the qualifying time, I was simply asking myself if I could merely finish it. I had not even begun shedding my Thanksgiving potluck weight.

Fast forward to the big day, I find myself surrounded by immensely more fit-looking individuals with serious ruck gear.

Holy cow, the Marines are here too.

There is no denying the level of palpable energy from the crowd perks up my morale, but before I even reach the first turn, I’m already dead last.

I get an occasional burst of energy and toss a few jokes to other back-of-the-pack denizens, but I still find myself lagging behind everyone with the safety truck hot on my heels. 

With throbbing feet, screaming hamstrings, and digestion troubles threatening to end my attempt, I shamble past the first lap line with my morale at an all-time low.

“What am I even doing?”

I am a desk jockey in the Air Force who taps on a keyboard most of the time and have never deployed. The call of duty that I answer consists of phone calls and emails. The only bullets I get to sling are for award packages and annual performance reports.

At the very least, this 18.6-mile foot march isn’t the first severe challenge I overcame in the military.

I brace the last shred of my morale with memories of crushing cold in Alaska, mind-bending monotony of Pacific Ocean sailing, and joint-twisting jungles of Okinawa.

“No big deal,” I said to myself, knowing it was a lie.

I mentally grasp at withering straws for anything that can answer my question. The echoes of the Chaplain’s opening speech ring in my ears, “Don’t quit. Whatever you do, do not quit.”

Sir, yes sir! Left. Right. Left. Right.

Still, my crippling doubt lingers, and the pain and exhaustion threaten to put me flat on my face.

Oh, and I’m still in last place.

On the long empty road, everything in front of me is just bleak, meaningless emptiness. I stumble around another corner towards the darkest stretch of road I never knew existed.

“What am I even doing?”

I’m not quitting. That’s what I’m doing.

Every fiber in my body and mind wants to quit, but I’m not quitting. Ten more steps? Done. Reach the next turn? We’ll see when I get there.

I manage to pass the first person I’ve seen in more than an hour. There’s a glimmer of hope, that is, until the follow truck disappears too. My short-lived elation is pummeled by my screaming feet and hamstrings.

I’m so exhausted I can’t even remember to blink. I force my eyes shut whenever the burn of cold air rips out another teardrop. The road beneath my feet doesn’t seem to be moving at all. I can’t possibly be making any real progress.

Another hour passes and I have no idea where I’m at. With each step, I’m fighting myself to not give up. The allure of a free ride to the finish is tempting beyond belief.

Then the inevitable happens. My left leg begins to lock up with cramps and my right leg tingles with malignant anticipation.

My gut is burning with brimstones from an overdone preparation diet. This is it. I’m done. There’s no way I can finish this march. I stumble in the darkness and pray the follow truck can rescue me.

The truck finally pulls up.

Like an idiot, I give a weak thumbs up to the driver, who contently pulls off into the abyss ahead, leaving in me in the dark once again.

“Seriously, what am I even doing?”

I’m not quitting. That’s what I’m doing. Left. Right. Left. Right.

Here’s another turn, and now I can see the lights of Patriot Village on the horizon!

“You have to finish this,” says a checkpoint volunteer. She offers me more ibuprofen, but I let her know I’m already past my safe painkiller limit.

I feel guilty for the sleep-deprived checkpoint volunteers who wait for the stragglers of this whole march, but I have never felt more thankful for somebody merely handing me a simple banana and bottle of water. These volunteers are the real heroes of the event.

Then the world cruelly reminds me how close I am to failure. The follow truck passes me with the last person I managed to overtake, and I am again dead last.

All I can do at this point is repeat what the woman told me to do: finish this.

My stiff shoulders pull my neck towards my ribcage, and my left leg twitches painfully in and out of cramps. My right leg is now dragging the entirety of my weight with each step.

I’m not quitting. I don’t know why, but I’m just not quitting. I have nothing to gain from this, because I won’t qualify for the badge.

Then a cheer from my supervisor, who finished ahead of me, breaks the silence. He stuck around to see me finish! The shriveled, empty corpse of my morale gets a donkey kick to the gut, and I force my legs to keep going.

I round another corner and to my surprise, there’s also my captain on her cargo scooter who informs me I’m closer to the finish than I realize. I finally feel like I can finish this forsaken ruck march, and my own captain is here to cheer me to the end!

Her scooter dies. The battery gives up. It’s dead in the water.

We look at each other and realize this 460-pound paperweight needs to get off the road and somewhere safe.

As my captain begins pushing the cargo scooter herself, I stubbornly brace myself on the rear tailgate and begin pushing, ignoring her pleas for me to leave her behind. With all due respect, not happening ma’am.

“Oh my gosh, seriously, what am I doing?”

I’m helping somebody. That’s what I’m doing. Left. Right. Left. Right.

With the finish line in sight, my right leg finally locks up and I drop my grip on the scooter. I can now hear my supervisor shouting something into my ear. It’s all I can cling onto as I stumble the last few yards to the finish line.

I may be dead last, but I finished the Norwegian Foot March despite all my own doubts and struggles.

I never knew until now what is possible when my body and mind are nearly broken and every little voice in my head is screaming to quit. I’ve been in situations where I was physically exhausted or mentally exhausted, but never both at the same time during a multi-hours-long onslaught of nonstop pain and suffering.

This event taught me deep respect for all the service members who do this sort of activity on a regular basis, whether for fun or in necessity.

Diving into a completely unknown area of expertise was no small feat, and I have my friends and coworkers to thank for giving me advice and pointing me to useful resources.

The subtle beauty of being in the military is experiencing first-hand what it means to execute a plan with the support of so many others.

Without their help, I would not have been able to finish that foot march. Heeding all their advice, I not only completed the ruck, but also avoided any injury.

In the military, the amount of danger from assumptions can be life threatening, and we don’t know what we don’t know. This is why setting aside any ego, taking a slice of that humble pie, and relying on the help of others is so important.

I have no idea what sort of challenges may land at my doorstep in the future, but I do know one thing, I’m not going to succeed alone.

The Norwegian Foot March was a memorable lesson in the importance of arming myself with knowledge for the unknown, and withstanding mentally and physically overwhelming situations.

The question is no longer, “What am I even doing?”

Now I ask myself, “How much can I improve?”