Team Assessment AAR: Shannon McFall Bass (F-04)

This After Action Review (AAR) is part of a series of blogs sourced by the finishers of the inaugural Female Division of the GORUCK Team Assessment event that took place from September 17-19, 2020 in Bellbrook, Ohio.

When the female division of Team Assessment was originally announced as a June date, there was some relief in the fact that I had a conflict. Since it was the weekend of my son’s high school graduation, I didn’t even have to consider training for and attending such a demanding event.

Bragg Heavy was on my schedule for February 2020, and I had come out of that event with a painful left foot. As I rehabbed the foot, I started doing Heavy Drop Training to focus more on strength with decrease my ruck miles. I continued to do PATHFINDER Ruck Training as well, as a great pair to HDT. As the foot started to heal, I added some miles back, and signed up for a July 4th Tough/Light in Charlotte. At the end of the Tough, I was mentioning to my favorite GRT chiropractor that the foot was better, but not healed. He examined my foot right there at Endex, and after some snaps, crackles and pops, my talus was back in place and my foot pain was resolved.

Shortly after that, it was announced that the female division would be able to do the squat cleans with a 60lb sandbag. That’s when the message arrived from Alicia: “be my Team Assessment partner”. While I had not been officially training for Team Assessment, as I considered what I had been doing, and the time left until the event, I wanted to give it a try. After some honest conversation about where we both were in training, we were now a team.

The best part about Alicia and me as a team is we had been there many times before. With two 50 mile Star Courses together, multiple Bragg Heavies together, an HTL together, Immersion, Expedition, Land Nav Heavy and many T/Ls, we knew how to support one another and communicate under stress. We immediately started talking about the PT test. I had the hand release pushups and squat cleans, but not the butterfly sit-ups. Alicia was further along with the PT requirements. We also reached out to Jennifer Lee and the three of us talked about techniques, sent videos, and updated each other frequently.

I needed a few things for the packing list, so started to order things, or borrow from stuff Alicia or Jennifer had already gotten. The biggest decision was the ruck. My preference was to use my 20L Rucker as it’s the ruck that fits me the best and has been worn for a vast number of events. But, I was concerned it would not be big enough for the packing list. Since the 25L was on sale, I ordered one, so I could make a game time decision. To break in the new ruck, I dunked it in water multiple afternoons in a row, leaving it to dry overnight on the fence. I stood on the shoulder straps, bending them in different spots. I wore it on tapering neighborhood rucks and to shadow 9/11 events. Ultimately, when we determined there would be no extra food ruck, I went with the 25L.

The other big part of prep is the ruck dump. I’ve done this at events before, but never practiced it, and never with such a big packing list. We used the video from the beta event and practiced along with it. Even if we made the time hack, we would keep dumping and repacking over and over with colorful jacket guy. We developed systems of arranging items outside the ruck so we repacked them the same way each time. We practiced with things in dry bags, and everything dumped out of bags. Even the night before the event, in a hotel in Ohio, we dumped and packed with the video. There is a lot you cannot control about an event like this, working on the ruck dump gave us confidence.

As the event approached, we talked about the taper. For many of us, tapering is really hard. Working out helps with stress and anxiety, and makes you feel prepared. But, for an event like this, you need to come in well rested and injury free. I stopped the heavy sandbag work three weeks out, and did ruck PT and more ruck miles. Two weeks out I started doing body weight PT and shorter rucks. The week of I focused on mobility work including yoga, foam rolling, and stretching. We also worked on visualization. I visualized laughing with Alicia when we were struggling with a difficult evolution. I visualized having the patch handed to me at the end.

Driving from NC to Ohio was good! Jennifer, Alicia and I split the driving and used the time to talk through the videos from Team Assessment 2019. While not all of the evolutions were repeated this year, just talking through things was helpful and made us feel prepared. We arrived Wed afternoon and checked into the Holiday Inn Dayton Centerville. I would absolutely recommend this location as it was close to lots of places to eat and stores for last minute supplies, and only a 12 minute drive to the start point.

With COVID issues restricting us from gathering at a restaurant for the ruck off, we decided to do Bring Your Own Dinner and meet at the start point. Alicia and I were the only ones who actually brought food, but quite a few people showed up and we got to put faces to names. Once back at the hotel, we double checked ruck weights and practiced ruck dumps one last time, before we tried to get some sleep. After a Thursday morning breakfast at Cracker Barrel, time spent deciding what extra food to carry, and helping each other tape our backs, we arrived at the start point shortly after 1pm. There was a lot of nervous energy as people made last minute preparations. Some teams tried to start checking in around 2pm, but Cadre didn’t want us to line up until almost 3pm.

They had female teams in one line, with open teams in another. We checked in with names and were given team numbers, then did the ruck weigh in, then filled out some emergency forms. Most females came in around 21lbs dry, with another 10 lbs once we added food and water. We were directed to assemble on the field, and told to see Cadre Hand to declare any prescription meds or significant medical issues. He would hold meds that people needed to take over the 48 hours, and bring them to you at appropriate times. We were also given this opportunity to get rid of any prohibited items, as a last free pass. The prohibited item list was reviewed, and a few participants handed over food containing caffeine.

Packing list show and tell was next and we held up items as Mocha went through the list, including MREs and ORS. We all started trying to repack things as we went, but Jason had other ideas. He made us dump everything out of every bag and start standing up while holding the empty ruck upside down. It felt good to be so well prepared for this. We missed the first attempt by just a final zipper. For me, it was mostly about the extra food I had packed resulting in many individual items. Alicia and I both got our rucks packed the second time. It was the first success of the event! It was awesome to be able to sit down and start organizing things for the rest of the event. All my food went in a zipper bag – two PB&H sandwiches, two Cliff bars, two Gatorade chews, one baggie M&Ms, one baggie dried mango. I also had the two MREs. I had my clothes in a big dry bag, smaller items in a small dry bag. I kept my extra bladder and hose, along with wipes, hand warmers, and silver blanket in the lower zipper pocket. Some carrying straps were in the outer slant pocket. A simple side pocket held the headlamp and gloves. For the teams still struggling to repack, this is super stressful. The cadre are circling, yelling, and calling people out.

Once everyone was repacked, we moved on to the PT test. Alicia and I were confident about the hand release push-ups and the 60# sandbag squat cleans. We had both been consistently over 40 butterfly sit ups, but the margin was much closer. A bad set or a few no reps and we might not pass. When we both finished the sit ups with over 40, there was a huge sense of relief. So many practice reps had been put in for the PT test and ruck dump. Seeing the results of those efforts was powerful.

We took a few minutes for people to cycle through the porta-potty and fill up water before the welcome party started. Cadre Barbarossa set up cones marking 100 meters and we would be going back and forth across this field for hours. We did bear crawl sandbag drags, low crawl ruck drags, sandbag ruck lunges, sandbag clean and toss, sandbag thruster, bounding drills, and sandbag farmer carries. We did a one mile ruck around the park, with 60lb sandbag per female team and 80lb sandbag for open teams. Then, we did the deck of cards. While I have done the deck of cards multiple times in training and during events, I have never done it with a sandbag. Females were each assigned 60lb sandbags, while the open division had 80lbs. We were given 85 minutes and the exercises were ruck 8-count body builders, ruck swings, ruck and sandbag thruster, ruck and sandbag lunge. The reason I emphasize the ruck and sandbag is ruck was not written on the board, so Alicia and I started doing those two exercises without rucks on. Barbarossa corrected us, and adding the ruck made things much harder. The lunges were terrible, as we had done so many already and our legs were already screaming. Face cards were 15 counts and aces were 20 counts. Jokers were an 800 meter ruck. This was really hard and we realized about halfway through that we would not finish. While we kept doing the work, we also started getting mentally ready to accept whatever consequence came from not meeting the time hack. It ended up being a performance failure and a slash across our patches.    

After the deck of cards we loaded all the sandbags into the trailer and set off on a five mile ruck to Jay’s house. We were given a 75 minute time hack for this, and Alicia and I were confident on pace. We shuffled some downhills and kept pushing on the flats. As we approached the house, we had a miscommunication with someone at the top of the driveway. We thought we were given the message that we had arrived at the checkpoint. Turns out, we were given a generally encouraging message. This miscommunication meant that we slowed down as we made our first of many laps around the field, and missed the time hack, coming in at 81 minutes. We were not happy about this, but it was a good lesson to not fixate on the disappointment, but to accept it and move forward.

The next evolution was brutal, the one mile wheelbarrow. We elected to have me wheelbarrow first and Alicia wear both rucks on her back while holding my legs. We went 25 hand strikes at a time, then rest. My wrists were getting beat up, and Alicia’s shoulders were under huge load. We turned around and started back, but had not gotten far before JC walked the trail and told us all to stand up. We did some burpee penalties before joining the teams that had finished the mile. For the remainder of this evolution, the endpoint was the river, about half the distance of the wheelbarrow. We did sandbag shoulder carries, bear crawls, sandbag clean and toss, bear crawl sandbag drags, sandbag over the shoulder toss, and PT at the end of each leg. At dawn, we took off rucks and were given the opportunity to take off some clothes before doing 30 hydroburpees in the river – always a good way to start a Friday!

After we bear crawled back up the hill, we got a Cadre change and Cleve was in high spirits! We started with a three mile farmer carry. Female teams had two 40lb sandbags, while open teams had 60lb sandbags. After the first mile, Christmas arrived in September when Cleve let us know we could shoulder carry the sandbags the rest of the way.

The next evolution was ruck a mile, then do an exercise, then ruck a mile, repeat. The exercises included 50 sandbag clean and tosses per team, bear crawl sandbag drags up and down the hill, low crawls up and down the hill (the WORST), and ruck get ups and press. This was when we started to see competitive teams pull ahead and do more laps than other teams, with the work based more on a time hack than a distance.

After this evolution we were allowed the 24 hour break. We took off shoes and socks to let our feet dry. We broke out MREs and tried to get some real calories. I had spaghetti for the win! We slept. At the end of the break, we were given a warning so we could get up and get moving. We had mostly packed our rucks and gotten ready before we fell asleep, so it was not too hard to ruck up and move. No doubt, muscles were tight. But the calories and sleep had been worth it.

A five mile ruck followed, with female teams starting with a water bucket mile, then a 40lb sandbag mile, then alternating. The open teams starting with a 60lb sandbag, then a water bucket, and alternating.

The next movement was a 12 mile timed ruck, and we were given a 3.5 hour time hack. Normally, this would be no problem, and we set out on a good pace. As we started the third mile, we slowed down. After all the work we had already done, we were sagging. Going up the hill every time to tell cadre our laps was taking up a lot of time. My glutes were not just sore and tired, they were painful. As we started the fifth lap, doubts crept in. We were both physically at a place we had never been. We had a long way to go. We were not meeting the standard. We allowed ourselves to move out of the current moment, and project into the future. We decided quitting was the right move – I think we actually talked each other into it.

As we arrived at the end of the fifth lap and told cadre our intentions, we were met with surprise. We had gone from not complaining, actually smiling and doing the work, to abruptly wanting to quit. A prayer from earlier in the event was answered in that moment, as Cadre Hand, Mocha, and Jason provided just a few moments of hard truths and quiet encouragement. They suggested we do one more mile, no big decision, just one more mile. We set off on lap six and proceeded to get our minds right. We regained focus, got back in the current moment, and kept going. While I initially saw this as a moment of weakness I wish never happened, I now see it as a moment of triumph. We doubted, a prayer was answered, we listened, and we persevered.

The top teams were way faster than us, so as they finished the 12 miler within the time hack, they pulled slower teams from the course as they finished their laps. We got a performance failure, our second, for not completing the 12 miler.

The next evolution was the 9/11 WOD which consisted of a 2001m run, then 11 reps of 9 exercises. The run was without ruck, which was a gift. While Alicia and I were unable to run, we could actually move at a decent pace that felt good. We repeated this multiple times, again based more on a time frame than a number of reps, so top teams went through more rounds.

The next evolution was the hardest. We had an apparatus that would come into play later. For the casualty litter carry, we used the two apparatus poles and the cargo net and sandbag, but not the wheel. The intent was for teams to low litter carry for three miles. The poles alone were super heavy, with thick carabiners for the cargo net, and then 40lb sandbags for the female division. As Alicia and I picked it up the first time, we realized we were in trouble as we could only carry it for very short distances. We ended up doing a rickshaw drag, using straps and a stick for better leverage. We alternated standing behind the stick like plow horses, and standing in front of the stick and pulling. Top teams finished all three laps, we finished one.

After everyone was assembled at the bottom of the hill, we were sent back up for a second sandbag per team and set out for three miles of sandbag baby carries. This was a front carry, not allowed to have any of the sandbag on your shoulder. It was during this evolution that most teams started hallucinating. I saw strange scenes in the reflections of other team’s headlamps – children at the beach, people in shopping malls. Alicia saw glittery kids shoes instead of her boots. We would stop at trees, press our face against them while standing up, and fall asleep instantly. While I know this was physically difficult, that part is hazy. The bigger challenge was more about just staying awake and moving forward, instead of curling up in a ball on the trail and sleeping. For our team, I was more alert the first lap, while Alicia was better the second. I can’t imagine being alone in these moments, as having a teammate was so important here. When we all gathered back where we left the poles, we had the chance for a brief nap on the cold, wet ground, which was welcome!

Cadre awakened us with instructions to head up the hill and get one slosh pipe per team, and one bucket. We went into an evolution of filling up the pipe and the bucket in the river and carrying them to the base of the hill, where we emptied the water. Alicia was the one to get in the river, as getting wet did not bother her and I was doing well at lifting the full buckets up to the bank. This is another time where having a partner was great as we could play to each other’s strengths. We did this for an unknown time, as cadre recorded how many rounds each team got. Some teams were able to carry the slosh pipe and the bucket at the same time. Others, including ours, were leapfrogging the pipe and the bucket. The worst part of this evolution was having to bend over and pick up the slosh pipe every time, as our legs were screaming at us. The Cloverleaf started during this evolution, so fresh and happy people were running up and down the hill. Their energy and encouragement were awesome! Once the time was up, we had to move everything up the hill, which took three trips. One trip was the sandbags, one was the poles, and the third was the slosh pipe and bucket.

Culex was next, and we got a moment to refit prior to starting. Some people ate their second MRE, others changed socks. I changed my bra as the straps from the first one were chafing. We all sat in the sun to warm up. People were mostly in good spirits as we could almost taste the finish.

Culex started with a competitive sandbag carry, some short PT, moving two water buckets per team up and down the hill, then 80lb female/120lb open sandbag carry up and down the hill, then building the full apparatus with the wheel. We all had a system for the water buckets by then, so while our grip strength was weak, we were able to settle into the work. Most teams completed the sandbag carry by dragging it. As soon as we dragged the two sandbags down the hill, we decided to tandem clean and shoulder carry it the rest of the way. This was much easier for us and felt like a small win this late in the event. The negative was Cadre had started spraying teams with the hose as they came up the hill. Since we had destroyed the grass on the hill, it was now slick mud, and we fell. As Alicia fell, she got intense pain in her IT band and had to take a second to recover. Thankfully, she was able to continue, but certain activities remained very painful.

Building the apparatus was fast, as while it was heavy, it was straightforward. Since we were not one of the teams competing for the win, we only moved it to the river and back, rather than do a whole loop. Cadre had a timeline! It was challenging rolling it down and then back up the steep hill, but on the flat ground we quickly figured out the steering and moved at a decent pace.

Coming up the hill with the apparatus, we saw the top teams all doing PT in the grass. Some of them had been doing PT for a pretty long time. We were instructed to disassemble the apparatus and join them. The other female teams shortly joined us and we all completed some PT together. 

Alicia was painful for most of this, as a result of her fall. The second to last thing we did was crab walks. This was funny as I truly hate crab walks and it had been a long running joke that if they asked us to do crab walks, I would immediately quit. With Alicia unable to crab walk due to her leg, cadre told us to scoot on our butts. I laughed and told her she was lucky to be injured, as I had been about to quit! A quick bear crawl around the yard brought us into a formation with our eyes closed. Unfortunately, cadre placed Alicia in the row behind me. As we opened our eyes and were told we had endexed, I wish my partner had been right beside me. But, no matter where we stood, we were done!

Cadre each said some powerful words that made me tear up. When I watched the live feed this week, I got emotional again. I do not have adequate words to describe how I felt in that moment. I can try by saying I was overwhelmed with relief to be done, I was thankful for a perfect partner, I was bursting with pride at our effort, I had so much respect for the other teams, and I could not fathom that I had done something so difficult. But, please understand, all those words are not close to enough.

We were finally told to put our rucks down, patches were given to the winners and then the finishers.  We took lots of pictures. We were given Budweisers and shown to a great spread of BBQ and mac and cheese (pro-tip: always do events with an afterparty). It was great to take off my shoes and socks and sit for a meal with people who had shared this experience.

At one point, I started to walk away from Alicia to get something, and she called my name. We had been literally within arm’s reach for over 48 hours and some habits are hard to break!

We were fortunate that a friend was willing to move our car from the park to Jay’s house. We did not stay too long after we ate, as we were fading fast. We stopped for ice cream (me) and fries (Alicia) on the way back to the hotel. We cycled through showers and Epsom Salt baths, as step one for recovery. As I laid in my smelly clothes on the hotel floor waiting for my turn in the bath, I was shocked at the number of encouraging messages, posts, and tags on my phone. It made me smile even though I was so tired!

We slept the sleep of the dead that night, and after 12 hours in bed, started the new multi-step process of getting up on our feet. My legs were so painful. I was incredibly thankful the Holiday Inn had rolling carts, but was disappointed they did not have stretcher bearers. Eventually, we managed to get dressed and make it to the car, and had a good drive home as we got to talk about Team Assessment for 7 hours!

We talked to one of our DC Star Course teammates on the way home and she asked when we knew we would finish, when was the event in the bag? Unanimously, we said it was not until we had the patch in our hands.

Recovery was slow. My biggest issue was pain in my glutes, quads, and IT bands, with some hamstring pain. I was painful enough that I had issues sleeping for five nights as I could not find a position that didn’t pull on something that hurt. I was never as hungry as I would have expected, despite being down a few pounds. I was sometimes oddly hot, other times cold. I got a mild case of poison ivy on my left arm, which I was actually ok with as I’m super allergic and it was everywhere along the trail so it could have been much worse. I’m trying to be patient with recovery, knowing I asked my body to do something extraordinary.

Final words for this AAR are summarized in the message Alicia and I have exchanged every day since we got home: “We finished Team Assessment!”

Hasty Q&A with Shannon

Why did you decide to do Team Assessment and how did you choose your teammate?

Alicia Tomlinson and I have been teammates multiple times before, so were natural partners for this event. I had been watching the event for months, but what finally got me to sign up was when the sandbag cleans dropped to 60lbs for females.

How long did you train for Team Assessment specifically, and what was your training like?

I truly feel like I have been training for Team Assessment for the five years I have been rucking. It has been a smooth build up of strength, endurance, and mental commitment as I progressed from my first Light in 2015 to Heavies and an HTL in 2019. I have done PATHFINDER Ruck Training for years, and that is the base of my fitness. In 2020 I added Heavy Drop Training, and that absolutely increased my strength with sandbags. Had I not done Heavy Drop, I would not have been ready.

Tell us what you wore and the gear you used.

25L Rucker, sternum strap, padded hip belt, two simple side pockets.

Smartwool socks, underwear, bra. I changed bras Saturday morning. The first one had a regular over the shoulder strap configuration with three hook back clasp and I was starting to get some chafing. I changed to a pullover Lululemon bra with a typical sports bra strap. This covered some of the spots on my upper back that were chafed.

Prana pants. Rothco synthetic tan t-shirt. Icebreaker wool quarter zip base layer with thumb holes. NorthFace rainjacket/windbreaker. GORUCK wool beanie. Mechanix gloves. Extra clothes in my ruck were GORUCK leggings as second pair of pants, a second pair of gloves I never wore, and an extra long sleeve shirt (Columbia Omniheat) I never wore. But, if we had gotten wet more often I would have used those extra gloves and shirt for sure.

Note: Many of us wore pants for the PT test! I had black shorts in my ruck, but it was never mentioned. This helped with packing as I had one pair of pants on my body and only one pair in my ruck. I was also much more comfortable sitting in the grass in pants as we cycled through ruck dumps and PT test, which took a while.

Items not on packing list: silver emergency blanket (used this during breaks the second night), baby wipes, hand warmers, extra long sleeve shirt Columbia Omni-heat, band-aids in various sizes (used to cover knee wound from low crawls).

What was your most challenging moment during TA and how did you get through that moment?

My partner and I lost our focus during the 12 miler. We were exhausted, painful, and not performing as well as we wanted. All of that swirled in our heads and we talked each other into quitting. I had prayed during the welcome party for God to give me mental and physical strength, and keep me focused on the moment. In an answered prayer, when we told Cadre we were quitting, they simply did not accept it. They spoke some hard truths and gave some quiet encouragement, and sent us back out where we got our minds right. I am so thankful God gave Cadre the right words, and we were able to hear that message.

What did you feel at Endex?

So many things: relief, awe, thankful, proud, supported, exhausted. I could not have asked for a better partner for me. I was so impressed by the people standing all around me.

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