“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” -J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit
From across the United States, we live in our own versions of hobbit holes. Houses large and small, made in ways to enhance our comfort. Maybe yours has a white picket fence, a park down the street, or a comfy couch with an imprint in it that fits your rear (and only yours) just so. Mine happens to have three crazy kids, three crazier cats, and a grey couch where my wife and I enjoy a quiet evening binging our favorite shows on Netflix. Every now and then, however, we need to venture out from these holes we’ve crafted ourselves and intersect our lives with the greater story around us. We need to challenge ourselves and come together in ways that remind us that life is more than what goes on in the walls of our own house. It’s not about just us!
About 80 of us were so drawn to Pittsburgh in June of 2021 to embark on the adventure presented in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings Custom GORUCK events. We eagerly trained for months to prepare (or not, as the case may be. You do you, Dave!). The gauntlet was thrown down by Cadre Igor, a veteran of deeper and darker battles than any of us have endured, who is a wonderful storyteller and a favorite among the GORUCK Cadre. He invited us to journey to Middle Earth (if only in our minds), to do something hard together, and to have fun with each other while doing it. There was to be trivia contests, costumes, and crazy heavy objects to carry for hours! What fun! For me, it was something to train for and look forward to. Every training ruck, I cranked up the audiobooks of the Lord of the Rings and imagined I was walking through the Misty Mountains, on my way to Mordor to destroy the One Ring.
As Bilbo Baggins said, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” We began at a grassy park, under a big oak tree in downtown Pittsburgh. The park was ringed by a black fence, with an auspicious sign affixed to it “No Admittance Except on Party Business.” The team arrived from the four corners of the US, festooned in costumes ranging from hobbits, elves, and Gollum (twice!), to our favorite nerdy t-shirts. There was a spirit in the air of fun, excitement, and anticipation for what was to come. Some of us eyed the giant, oak whiskey barrel that the Cadre had brought with them with suspicion. Party business indeed!
After gathering us together, Cadre Igor broke into one of his famous opening speeches. This event was about bringing us together to build better Americans and to honor the epic stories of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings that many of us loved dearly. If you haven’t participated in a GORUCK event before (as many gathered that morning hadn’t) it’s hard to describe that combination of “this is going to be awesome” with the feeling of “what have I gotten myself into” when you’re staring at a stack of sandbags, Pelican cases full of bricks, a sack of potatoes (I’m not kidding), and a giant whiskey barrel being told that you’ll have the privilege of carrying this load for the next few hours and many miles. We weren’t told how many miles we were going, just that we would be going, and that was enough.
With the opening pleasantries out of the way, we were quickly mustered into a long column of crazy weirdos and headed off to our first event for the day. Cadre LDB and Igor went (thankfully) easy on us with the opening PT evolutions, keeping it to Elven yoga, some dwarven lunges, and other light work to get our bodies and minds ready for the challenges ahead. Throughout the morning, Igor regaled us with his storytelling from the Hobbit. Dwarves, hobbits, wizards, orcs, and Smaug the dragon were in our thoughts as we set off into urban Pittsburgh with our friendly sandbags, the flag of our country and of Gondor leading the way.
With each movement of the morning, a new team lead was chosen from our ranks, and it was a special delight to see a couple of young girls step up and lead our merry band. They donned Gandalf’s hat with pride, and kept us all in line as we rucked between the various challenges of the morning. This is one of the many refreshing things about this event that I loved. There’s a perception about GORUCK events that they’re just cold, dark sufferfests without a lot of smiles until the beers and patches at the end. But today, adults and kids alike joked as we walked along, laughing with the citizens of Pittsburgh who looked at us funny when they saw us walking by. How could you not laugh when not one, but two half-naked men are dressed as Gollum and carrying a whiskey barrel?
With many miles and smiles under our belt, we rucked on. The few times we stopped, Cadre Igor told more of the story of the Hobbit, and we would have a challenge to perform. One challenge pitted us against each other in teams in a battle of wits in the form of a trivia contest. I went against a young lady dressed in a fantastic hobbit costume and got absolutely smoked by her quick and accurate answers to even the most out of left field questions about the books (I wish I had written them down!).
As they say, it pays to be a winner, and the teams that didn’t meet the standard in the trivia contest were cordially invited to a party filled with pushups. The cool thing was, we didn’t let our teammates suffer alone. Everyone joined in and built each other up. In a world where so much divides us, from politics, to masks, to religion, etc. we all came together around a common goal: have fun and move some heavy crap together. Do the work, and be better. That was the motto we all lived by that day, and for all of us it was a breath of fresh air (unless you were stuck under the aforementioned bag of potatoes… then the air was a bit less fresh as the day wore on). We kept rucking on, each picking a buddy to share a sandbag with. We talked about where we came from, what we enjoyed doing when we weren’t carrying awkward and heavy things, what life has been like for us during these crazy times, and generally distracted each other from the work we were doing. I buddied up with Chris, who was the best dressed Gimli the dwarf I’ve ever seen.
The creativity of this event made it so much fun, and as we ticked off the last couple of miles back to the start point we were almost sad it was over. Our shoulders said we were idiots for saying that, but there was a general sense from even the youngest and least trained of the group that we would have loved to spend more time together. We enjoyed some well earned drinks together, chatted about the event and how fun it was, gave hugs of respect and camaraderie, and parted ways for the next adventures to come. Thankfully, there was the Lord of the Rings Tough event that evening where most of the team showed up again!
The Tough event was a different animal. For one thing, it started at 9 PM, so there was that “oh man, we’re going overnight” sentiment that I’ll never get over with GORUCK events. Thankfully, the Cadre didn’t make us carry the whiskey barrel all night! The night started off with a fairly brisk PT session that set the tone: we’re past Party Business. It’s time to take the One Ring to Mordor. As Boromir said, one simply doesn’t walk into Mordor. After the costume contest was handily and rightly won by an incredible Witch King of Angmar, we headed off into the night, with our familiar (and now very smelly) baggage in tow.
The rubber really hit the road when we came to a set of stairs that just didn’t seem to end. You know when your parents told you “back in my day, we went uphill to school, both ways!” If they were from Pittsburgh, they would have been right. Good gracious, that town has more stairs than all of the other cities in the US put together (don’t quote me on that, it’s a metaphor!). We really did feel like we were ascending the Pass of Caradhras on our way to Moria as we climbed the stairs for what seemed like hours. With each step, those 80# sandbags got a little heavier. Those smiles from earlier? Most of them had turned into grimaces of extreme effort and pain. But some smiles still remained, and we encouraged each other up the steps, one by one. Whatever it took, from giving someone a break from their ruck, exchanging sandbags, or just letting someone know they were putting in good work and to keep after it, we came together as a team on those stairs. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like mutual suffering to build bonds of friendship!
When we mercifully finished climbing, we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the city skyline. I honestly thought that two of the buildings looked like the Two Towers mentioned in Tolkein’s work. I could almost imagine myself in the shadow of Isengard as Cadre Igor recounted the tale, while our team chugged water, sipped on electrolytes, and stretched to prepare for the next few miles. At this point it was sometime after 11 PM (no watches were allowed, so this is just my best guess), and at this point is where I typically start to feel those dark thoughts I push to the recesses of my soul creeping out to say hello. It’s a special kind of “fun” at GORUCK events to face these parts of ourselves head on, and it’s why so many of us keep coming back for more. We’re there with our teammates and have all the help we need when we suddenly think that we can’t take another step. When we feel dehydrated, tired, worn down, and that all the pressures of life are telling us that we don’t have what it takes, we can look over at the person next to us and see that they’re going through the same thing. We can ask our teammate, “how can I help?”, “do you need some water?”, “can I carry that for you for a while?” and in encouraging someone else we find ourselves lifted up a little bit. When we stop focusing on how much we think things suck for us and instead ask how can we serve someone else, it brings our true selves to bear on the world’s problems and makes us better people. This is why remembering events like this from the comfort of my hobbit hole, with a cup of coffee, listening to the haunting strains of Howard Shore’s soundtrack from the Fellowship of the Ring brings a tear to my eye. Some of the most excellent people I know were once random strangers that I shared a sandbag with at 3 AM.
After a few more miles of sharing sandbags and misery, we arrived at a grassy field in the middle of a neighborhood that would have been quite confused if anyone had been awake to see us. Along the way, we passed a few late night parties and exchanged quite a few laughs when a couple of drunk people tried to join us or engage in conversation. “You guys are doing what?? Man, you crazy!” To the random dude stumbling out of his buddy’s house at 2:30 AM with a pink shirt on and not a care in the world, we salute you. There’s nothing quite like following up weird looks from locals with a team challenge like the Tunnel of Love. We raced through the legs of the person standing in front of us, eagerly pulling sandbags behind us, until we emerged in victory at the other side.
I really wish I was kidding about that, but ask anyone who was there. We have pictures.
Like any good hobbit, at this point of the night in a GORUCK event I just keep telling myself if I can make it to daylight, I can make it to breakfast, and if I can make it to breakfast I’m going to be ok. Fantasies about bacon and biscuits can get me through a lot. And guess what? We made it to daylight! And a bunch of us dudes peed in some bushes in the early dawn. And you know what? It was delightful.
Smiles and miles returned with the dawn, as Cadre Igor began to finish up the Return of the King. I still have made props for this man being able to sandwich three massive books into just twelve hours. As I sit here reflecting on this event, I’m asking myself what did I learn and what would I like to pass onto you who have read this far (thanks!). It reminded me to embrace my weird. I love fantasy stories of epic battles, orcs (or orks, as the case may be), elves, heroes and villains. I love people who love those things! I love getting together with people who get me and doing hard things together. I love facing my inner demons and shining a light on them like Samwise Gamgee with the Phial of Galadriel, with my buddies by my side. I love the taste of a massive breakfast after 12 hours of hard work on a hot, humid night. I love the feeling of a new patch in my hand after a job well done, and putting those on my ruck (or on the headliner of my truck) to remind me that I can do hard things. Every time I see those little 2” x 3” tokens of gratitude, I’m reminded that life isn’t so bad, that I have a team beside and behind me to reach out when I’m falling down, and that at least it isn’t 3 AM and raining. Most of all, I love the kind of people who come together for a GORUCK event. You who know me and are reading this, you know who you are, and I can’t wait to smother you with a giant hug at the next event.
If you’ve got a passion for great stories, or there’s a universe that you love, reach out to GORUCK and get a custom event made for it! Do you want to see a Dune event and dress up like a blue-eyed Fremen? Make it happen! Do you want to have a BattleTech themed event with all sorts of stompy robot costumes? Sign me up (seriously, sign me up I’ll be there in a heartbeat). A Star Wars event with a 3 AM lightsaber duel to determine who gets to do burpees? Let’s do it! Here’s your link to get the process started: https://www.goruckevents.com/custom-corporate-events
As for me and those who love the works of Tolkein, our next opportunity to get together will be here before we know it! Get signed up, and I’ll see you in DC in June! https://registration.goruck.com/event/basic-washington-dc-the-fellowship-of-the-ring-06182022-0600-17627
For the steps and further details on creating your own Custom GORUCK Challenge, check out our How-To Here.
– Dan Zehner
Photo Credits: Timothy Galloway
About the Author:
When Dan isn’t diving in the dark with Navy SEALs, rucking through the cold with a team carrying logs, or building something in his shop, he’s serving his wife and three kids in the ways that only he can in Lafayette, Indiana. Every day he’s showing others how to have an epic, adventurous life and love the journey!
You can find him and his team of creatives at The Anthem of the Adventurer, where they have a blog and podcast about living and adventurous life. Check out this episode with GORUCK’s own Emily McCarthy!