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CHAPTER SIX - IT’S NOT ABOUT A TROPHY
Everything about the race was going better than I could have hoped. There were enough clouds in the sky to blunt the heat of the sun, my rhythm was as steady as the mellow tide that sloshed against the hulls of sailboats docked in the nearby San Diego Marina, and though my legs felt heavy, that was to be expected considering my “tapering“ plan the night before. Besides, they seemed to be loosening up as I rounded a bend to complete my ninth lap—my ninth mile—just an hour and change into a twenty-four-hour race.
That’s when I saw John Metz, race director of the San Diego One Day, eyeballing me at the start-finish line. He was holding up his white board to inform each competitor of their time and position in the overall field. I was in fifth place, which evidently confused him. I offered a crisp nod to reassure him that I knew what I was doing, that I was right where I was supposed to be.
He saw through that sh@t.
Metz was a veteran. Always polite and soft-spoken. It didn’t look like there was much that could faze him, but he was also a seasoned ultra-marathoner with three fifty-mile races in his saddlebag. He’d either reached or topped a hundred miles, seven times, and he’d achieved his personal best of 144 miles in twenty-four hours when he was fifty years old! Which is why it meant something to me that he looked concerned.
I checked my watch, synced to a heart rate monitor I wore around my chest. My pulse straddled my magic number line: 145. A few days earlier I’d run into my old BUD/S instructor, SBG, at Naval Special Warfare Command. Most SEALs do rotations as instructors between deployments, and SBG and I worked together. When I told him about the San Diego One Day he insisted I wear a heart rate monitor to pace myself. SBG was a big geek when it came to performance and recovery, and I watched as he scratched out a few formulas, then turned to me and said, “Keep your pulse steady between 140 and 145 and you’ll be golden.” The next day he handed me a heart rate monitor as a race day gift.
If you set out to mark a course that could crack open a Navy SEAL like a walnut, chew him up, and spit him the fu@k out, San Diego’s Hospitality Point would not make the cut. We’re talking about terrain so vanilla it’s downright serene. Tourists descend year-round for views of San Diego’s stunning marina, which spills into Mission Bay. The road is almost entirely smooth asphalt and perfectly flat, save a brief seven-foot incline with the pitch of a standard suburban driveway. There are manicured lawns, palm trees, and shade trees. Hospitality Point is so inviting that disabled and convalescing folks head there with their walkers for an afternoon’s rehab stroll, all the time. But the day after John Metz chalked his easy, one-mile course, it became the scene of my total destruction.
I should have known that a breakdown was coming. By the time I started running at 10 a.m. on November 12, 2005, I hadn’t run more than a mile in six months, but I looked like I was fit because I’d never stopped hitting the gym. While I was stationed in Iraq, on my second deployment with SEAL Team Five earlier that year, I’d gotten back into serious power lifting, and my only dose of cardio was twenty minutes on the elliptical once a week. The point is, my cardiovascular fitness was an absolute joke, and still I thought it was a brilliant idea to try and run a hundred miles in twenty-four hours.
Okay, it was always a fu@ked-up idea, but I considered it doable because a hundred miles in twenty-four hours demands a pace of just under fifteen minutes a mile. If it came to it, I figured I could walk that fast. Only, I didn’t walk. When that horn sounded at the start of the race, I took off hot and zoomed to the front of the pack. Exactly the right move if your race-day goal is to blow the fu@k up.
Also, I didn’t exactly come in well-rested. The night before the race, I passed by the SEAL Team Five gym on my way off base after work, and peeked in like I always did, just to see who was getting after it. SBG was inside warming up, and called out.
“Goggins,” he said, “let’s jack some fu@king steel!” I laughed. He stared me down. “You know, Goggins,” he said, stepping closer, “when the Vikings were getting ready to raid a fu@king village, and they were camped out in the fu@king woods in their goddam tents made out of fu@king deer hides and sh@t, sitting around a campfire, do you think they said, Hey, let’s have some herbal fu@king tea and call it an early night? Or were they more like, fu@k that, we are going to drink some vodka made out of some mushrooms and get all drunked up, so the next morning when they were all hung-over and pissed off they would be in the ideal mood to slaughter the sh@t out of some people?” SBG could be a funny motherfu@ker when he wanted to be, and he could see me wavering, considering my options. On the one hand, that man would always be my BUD/S instructor and he was one of the few instructors who was still hard, putting out, and living the SEAL ethos every day. I’ll always want to impress him. Jacking weights the night before my first 100 mile race would definitely impress that masochistic motherfu@ker. Plus, his logic made some fu@ked-up sense to me. I needed to get my mind ready to go to war, and lifting heavy would be my way of saying, bring on all your pain and misery, I’m ready to go! But, honestly, who does that before running a hundred fu@king miles?
I shook my head in disbelief, threw my bag to the ground and started racking weights. With heavy metal blaring from the speakers, two knuckle draggers came together to put the fu@k out. Most of our work focused on the legs, including long sets of squats and dead lifts at 315 pounds. In between we bench pressed 225. This was a real deal power-lifting session, and afterwards we sat on the bench next to one another and watched our quads and hamstrings quiver. It was fu@king funny…until it wasn’t.
Ultra running has gone at least somewhat mainstream since then, but in 2005, most ultra races—especially the San Diego One Day—were pretty obscure, and it was all new to me. When the majority of people think of ultras they picture trail runs through remote wilderness and don’t often imagine circuit races, but there were some serious runners in the field at the San Diego One Day.
This was the American National 24-Hour Championship and athletes descended from all over the country hoping for a trophy, a place on the podium, and the modest winner-take-all cash prize of, ahem, $2,000. No, this was not a gilded event, basking in corporate sponsorship, but it was the site for a team comp between the U.S. ultra-distance national team and a team from Japan. Each side fielded teams of four men and four women who each ran for twenty-four hours. One of the top individual athletes in the field was also from Japan. Her name was Ms. Inagaki, and early on she and I kept pace.
Ms. Inagaki and I during San Diego 100
SBG turned up to cheer me on that morning with his wife and two-year-old son. They huddled up on the sidelines with my new wife, Kate, who I’d married a few months before, a little over two years after my second divorce from Pam was finalized. When they saw me, they couldn’t help but double over in laughter. Not just because SBG was still beat up from our workout the night before, and here I was trying to run a hundred miles, but because of how out of place I looked. When I spoke to SBG about it not long ago, the scene still made him laugh.
“So ultra marathoners are a little weird, right,” SBG said, “and that morning it was like there were all these skinny ass, college professor looking, fu@king granola eating weirdoes, and then there is this one big black dude who looks like a fu@king linebacker from the Raiders, running around this track jacked the fu@k up with no shirt on, and I’m thinking of that song we had in kindergarten…one of these things is not like the other. That was the song going through my head when I saw this fu@king NFL linebacker running around this damn track with all these skinny little nerds. I mean they were some hard motherfu@kers, those runners. I am not taking that away from them, but they were all super clinical about nutrition and sh@t, and you just put a pair of shoes on and said, let’s go!” He’s not wrong. I didn’t put much thought into my race plan at all. I hatched it at Walmart the night before, where I bought a fold-out lawn chair for Kate and me to use during the race and my fuel for the entire day: one box of Ritz crackers and two four-packs of Myoplex. I didn’t drink much water. I didn’t even consider my electrolyte or potassium levels or eat any fresh fruit. SBG brought me a pack of Hostess chocolate donuts when he showed up, and I gobbled those in a few seconds. I mean, I was winging it for real. Yet, at mile fifteen I was still in fifth place, still keeping pace with Ms. Inagaki, while Metz was getting more and more nervous. He ran up to me and tagged along.
“You should slow down, David,” he said, “Pace yourself a bit more.”
I shrugged. “I got this.”
It’s true that I felt okay in that moment, but my bravado was also a defense mechanism. I knew if I were to start planning my race at that point, the bigness of it would become too much to comprehend. It would feel like I was supposed to run the length of the damn sky. It would feel impossible. In my mind, strategy was the enemy of the moment, which is where I needed to be. Translation: when it came to ultras, I was green as fu@k. Metz didn’t press me, but he kept a close watch.
I finished mile twenty-five at about the four-hour mark and I was still in fifth place, still running with my new Japanese friend. SBG was long gone, and Kate was my only support crew. I’d see her every mile, posted up in that lawn chair, offering a sip of Myoplex and an encouraging smile.
I’d run a marathon only once before, while I was stationed in Guam. It was unofficial, and I ran it with a fellow SEAL on a course we made up on the spot, but back then I was in excellent cardiovascular shape. Now, here I was bearing down on 26.2 miles for just the second time in my entire life, this time without training, and once I got there I realized that I’d run beyond known territory. I had twenty more hours and nearly three more marathons to go. Those were incomprehensible metrics, with no traditional milestone in between to focus on. I was running across the sky. That’s when I started thinking that this could end badly.
Metz didn’t stop trying to help. Each mile he’d run alongside and check on me, and me being who I am, I told him that I had everything under control and had it all figured out. Which was true. I’d figured out that John Metz knew what the fu@k he was talking about.
Oh yes, the pain was becoming real. My quads throbbed, my feet were chafed and bleeding, and that simple question was once again bubbling up in my frontal lobe. Why? Why run a hundred fu@king miles without training? Why was I doing this to myself? Fair questions, especially since I hadn’t even heard of the San Diego One Day until three days before race day, but this time my answer was different. I wasn’t on Hospitality Point to deal with my own demons or to prove anything at all. I came with a purpose bigger than David Goggins. This fight was about my once and future fallen teammates, and the families they leave behind when sh@t goes wrong.
Or at least that’s what I told myself at mile twenty-seven.
I had gotten the news about Operation Red Wings, a doomed operation in the remote mountains of Afghanistan, on my last day of U.S. Army Freefall school in Yuma, Arizona, in June. Operation Red Wings was a four-man reconnaissance mission tasked with gathering intelligence on a growing pro-Taliban force in a region called Sawtalo Sar. If successful, what they learned would help define strategy for a larger offensive in the coming weeks. I knew all four guys.
Danny Dietz was in BUD/S Class 231 with me. He got injured and rolled just like I did. Michael Murphy, the OIC of the mission, was with me in Class 235 before he got rolled. Matthew Axelson was in my Hooyah Class when I graduated (more on the Hooyah Class tradition in a moment), and Marcus Luttrell was one of the first people I met on my original lap through BUD/S.
Before training begins, each incoming BUD/S class throws a party, and the guys from previous classes who are still in BUD/S training are always invited. The idea is to juice as much information from brown shirts as possible, because you never know what might help get you through a crucial evolution that could make all the difference between graduation and failure. Marcus was 6’4”, 225 pounds, and he stuck out in that crowd like I did. I was a bigger guy too, back up to 210 by then, and he sought me out. In some ways we were an odd pair. He was a hard-ass axe handle from the Texas rangeland, and I was a self-made masochist from the Indiana cornfields, but he’d heard I was a good runner, and running was his main weakness.
“Goggins, do you have any tips for me?” he asked. “Because I can’t run for sh@t.”
I knew Marcus was a badass, but his humility made him real. When he graduated a few days later, we were his Hooyah Class, which meant we were the first people they were allowed to order around. They embraced that SEAL tradition and told us to go get wet and sandy. It was a SEAL’s rite of passage, and an honor to share that with him. After that I didn’t see him for a long time.
I thought I ran into him again when I was about to graduate with Class 235, but it was his twin brother, Morgan Luttrell, who was part of my Hooyah Class, Class 237, along with Matthew Axelson. We could have ordered up some poetic justice, but after we graduated, instead of telling their class to go get wet and sandy, we put ourselves in the surf, in our dress whites!
I had something to do with that.
In the Navy SEALs, you are either deployed and operating in the field, instructing other SEALs, or in school yourself, learning or perfecting skills. We cycle through more military schools than most because we are trained to do it all, but when I went through BUD/S we didn’t learn to freefall. We jumped by static lines, which deployed our chutes automatically. Back then you had to be chosen to attend U.S. Army Freefall School. After my second platoon, I was picked up for Green Team which is one of the training phases to get accepted into the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), an elite unit within the SEALs. That required me to get freefall qualified. It also required that I face my fear of heights in the most confrontational way possible.
We started off in the classrooms and wind tunnels of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, which is where I reconnected with Morgan in 2005. Floating on a bed of compressed air in a fifteen-foot-high wind tunnel, we learned correct body position, how to shift left and right, and push forward and back. It takes very small movements with your palm to move and it’s easy to start spinning out of control, which is never good. Not everyone could master those subtleties but those of us who could left Fort Bragg after that first week of training and headed to an airstrip in the cactus fields of Yuma to start jumping for real.
Morgan and I trained and hung out together for four weeks in the 127-degree desert heat of summer. We did dozens of jumps out of C130 transport jets from altitudes ranging from 12,500 to 19,000 feet, and there is no rush like the surge of adrenaline and paranoia that comes with plummeting to earth from high altitude at terminal velocity. Each time we jumped I couldn’t help but think of Scott Gearen, the Pararescuman who survived a botched jump from high altitude and inspired me on this path when I met him as a high school student. He was a constant presence for me in that desert, and a cautionary tale. Proof that something can go horribly wrong on any given jump.
When I jumped out of an airplane for the first time from high altitude, all I felt was extreme fear, and I couldn’t pry my eyes from my altimeter. I wasn’t able to embrace the jump because fear had clogged my mind. All I could think about was whether or not my canopy would open. I was missing the unbelievable thrill-ride of the freefall, the beauty of the mountains painted against the horizon, and the wide-open sky. But as I became conditioned to the risk, my tolerance for that same fear increased. It was always there, but I was used to the discomfort and before long I was able to handle multiple tasks on a jump and appreciate the moment too. Seven years earlier I had been rooting around fast food kitchens and open dumpsters zapping vermin. Now I was fu@king flying!
The final task in Yuma was a midnight jump in full kit. We were weighed down with a fifty-pound rucksack, strapped with a rifle and an oxygen mask for the freefall. We were also equipped with chem lights, which were a necessity because when the back ramp of the C-130 opened up, it was pitch black.
We couldn’t see any damn thing, but still we leapt into that moonless sky, eight of us in a line, one after another. We were supposed to form an arrow, and as I maneuvered through the real-world wind tunnel to take my place in the grand design, all I could see were swerving lights streaking like comets in an inkwell sky. My goggles fogged up as the wind ripped through me. We fell for a full minute, and when we deployed our chutes at around 4,000 feet, the overpowering sound went from full tornado to eerie silence. It was so quiet I could hear my heart beat through my chest. It was fu@king bliss, and when we all landed safely, we were freefall qualified! We had no idea that at that moment, in the mountains of Afghanistan, Marcus and his team were locked into an all-out battle for their lives, at the center of what would become the worst incident in SEAL history.
One of the best things about Yuma is that you have horrible cell service. I’m not big on texting or talking on the phone so this gave me four weeks of peace. When you graduate any military school, the last thing you do is clean all the areas your class used until it’s like you were never there. My cleaning detail was in charge of the bathrooms, which happened to be one of the only places in Yuma that has cell service, and as soon as I walked in I could hear my phone blow up. Text messages about Operation Red Wings going bad flooded in, and as I read them my soul broke. Morgan hadn’t heard anything about it yet, so I walked outside, found him, and told him the news. I had to. Marcus and his crew were all MIA and presumed KIA. He nodded, considered it for a second, and said, “My brother’s not dead.” Morgan is seven minutes older than Marcus. They were inseparable as kids, and the first time they’d ever been apart for longer than a day was when Marcus joined the Navy. Morgan opted for college before joining up, and during Marcus’ Hell Week, he tried to stay up the whole time in solidarity. He wanted and needed to share that feeling, but there is no such thing as a Hell Week simulation. You have to go through it to know it, and those that survive are forever changed. In fact, the period after Marcus survived Hell Week and before Morgan became a SEAL himself was the only time there was any emotional distance between the brothers, which speaks to the power of those 130 hours and their emotional toll. Once Morgan went through it for real, everything was right again. They each have half a Trident tattooed on their back. The picture is only complete when they stand side by side.
Morgan took off immediately to drive to San Diego and figure out what the hell was going on. He still hadn’t heard anything about the operation directly, but once he reached civilization and his service hit, a tide of messages flooded his phone too. He floored his rental car to 120 mph and zoomed directly to the base in Coronado.
Morgan knew all the guys in his brother’s unit well. Axelson was his classmate in BUD/S, and as facts trickled in it was obvious to most that his brother wouldn’t be found alive. I thought he was gone too, but you know what they say about twins.
“I knew my brother was out there, alive,” Morgan told me when we connected again in April 2018. “I said that the whole time.”
I’d called Morgan to talk about old times and asked him about the hardest week in his life. From San Diego, he flew out to his family’s ranch in Huntsville, Texas, where they were getting updates twice a day. Dozens of fellow SEALs turned up to show support, Morgan said, and for five long days, he and his family cried themselves to sleep at night. To them it was torture knowing that Marcus might be alive and alone in hostile territory. When officials from the Pentagon arrived, Morgan made himself clear as cut glass, “[Marcus] may be hurt and fu@ked up, but he’s alive and either you go out there and find him, or I will!” Operation Red Wings went horribly wrong because there were many more pro-Taliban hajjis active in those mountains than had been expected, and once Marcus and his team were discovered by villagers there, it was four guys against a well-armed militia of somewhere between 30–200 men (reports on the size of the pro-Taliban force vary). Our guys took RPG and machine gun fire, and fought hard. Four SEALs can put on a hell of a show. Each one of us can usually do as much damage as five regular troops, and they made their presence felt.
The battle played out along a ridgeline above 9,000 feet in elevation, where they had communication troubles. When they finally broke through and the situation was made plain to their commanding officer back at special operations headquarters, a quick reaction force of Navy SEALs, marines, and aviators from 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment was assembled, but they were delayed for hours because of lack of transport capacity. One thing about the SEAL teams is we don’t have our own transport. In Afghanistan we hitch rides with the Army, and that delayed relief.
They eventually loaded up into two Chinook transport choppers and four attack helicopters (two Black Hawks and two Apaches) and took off for Sawtalo Sar. The Chinooks took the lead, and as they closed in on the ridge, they were hit by small arms fire. Despite the onslaught, the first Chinook hovered, attempting to unload eight Navy SEALs on a mountain top, but they made a fat target, lingered too long, and were hit with a rocket propelled grenade. The bird spun, crashed into the mountain, and exploded. Everyone aboard was killed. The remaining choppers bailed out, and by the time they could return with ground assets, everyone who was left behind, including Marcus’ three teammates on Operation Red Wings, was found dead. Everyone, that is, except for Marcus.
Marcus was hit multiple times by enemy fire and went missing for five days. He was saved by Afghan villagers who nursed and sheltered him, and was finally found alive by U.S. troops on July 3, 2005, when he became the lone survivor of a mission that took the lives of nineteen special operations warriors, including eleven Navy SEALs.
No doubt, you’ve heard this story before. Marcus wrote a bestselling book about it, Lone Survivor, which became a hit movie starring Mark Wahlberg. But in 2005, that was all years away, and in the aftermath of the worst battlefield loss ever to hit the SEALs, I was looking for a way to contribute to the families of the men who were killed. It’s not like bills stop rolling in after a tragedy like that. There were wives and kids out there with basic needs to fulfill, and eventually they’d need their college educations covered too. I wanted to help in any way I could.
A few weeks before all of this, I’d spent an evening Googling around for the world’s toughest foot races and landed on a race called Badwater 135. I’d never even heard of ultra marathons before, and Badwater was an ultra marathoner’s ultra marathon. It started below sea level in Death Valley and finished at the end of the road at Mount Whitney Portal, a trailhead located at 8,374 feet. Oh, and the race takes place in late July, when Death Valley isn’t just the lowest place on Earth. It’s also the hottest.
Seeing images from that race materialize on my monitor terrified and thrilled me. The terrain looked all kinds of harsh, and the expressions on tortured runners’ faces reminded me of the kind of thing I saw in Hell Week. Until then, I’d always considered the marathon to be the pinnacle of endurance racing, and now I was seeing there were several levels beyond it. I filed the information away and figured I’d come back to it someday.
Then Operation Red Wings happened, and I vowed to run Badwater 135 to raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a non-profit founded as a battlefield promise in 1980, when eight special operations warriors died in a helicopter crash during the famous hostage rescue operation in Iran and left seventeen children behind. The surviving servicemen promised to make sure each one of those kids had the money to go to college. Their work continues. Within thirty days of a fatality, like those that occurred during Operation Red Wings, the foundation’s hardworking staff reach out to surviving family members.
“We are the interfering aunt,” said Executive Director Edie Rosenthal. “We become a part of our students’ lives.”
They pay for preschool and private tutoring during grade school. They arrange college visits and host peer support groups. They help with applications, buy books, laptop computers, and printers, and cover tuition at whichever school one of their students manages to gain acceptance, not to mention room and board. They also send students to vocational schools. It’s all up to the kids. As I write this, the foundation has 1,280 kids in their program.
They are an amazing organization, and with them in mind, I called Chris Kostman, Race Director of Badwater 135, at 7 a.m. in mid-November, 2005. I tried to introduce myself, but he cut me off, sharp. “Do you know what time it is?!” he snapped.
I took the phone away from my ear and stared at it for a second. In those days, by 7 a.m. on a typical weekday I’d have already rocked a two-hour gym workout and was ready for a day’s work. This dude was half asleep. “Roger that,” I said. “I’ll call you back at 0900.”
My second call didn’t go much better, but at least he knew who I was. SBG and I had already discussed Badwater and he’d emailed Kostman a letter of recommendation. SBG has raced triathlons, captained a team through the Eco-Challenge, and watched several Olympic qualifiers attempt BUD/S. In his email to Kostman, he wrote that I was the “best endurance athlete with the greatest mental toughness” he’d ever seen. To put me, a kid who came from nothing, at the top of his list meant the world to me and still does.
It didn’t mean sh@t to Chris Kostman. He was the definition of unimpressed. The kind of unimpressed that can only come from real-world experience. When he was twenty years old he’d competed in the Race Across America bicycle race, and before taking over as Badwater race director, he’d run three 100-mile races in winter in Alaska and completed a triple Ironman triathlon, which ends with a seventy-eight-mile run. Along the way, he’d seen dozens of supposedly great athletes crumble beneath the anvil of ultra.
Weekend warriors sign up for and complete marathons after a few months’ training all the time, but the gap between marathon running and becoming an ultra athlete is much wider, and Badwater was the absolute apex of the ultra universe. In 2005, there were approximately twenty-two 100-mile races held in the United States, and none had the combination of the elevation gain and unforgiving heat that Badwater 135 brought to the table. Just to put on the race, Kostman had to wrangle permissions and assistance from five government agencies, including the National Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the California Highway Patrol, and he knew that if he allowed some greenhorn into the most difficult race ever conceived, in the middle of summer, that motherfu@ker might die, and his race would vaporize overnight. No, if he was going to let me compete in Badwater, I was going to have to earn it. Because earning my way in would provide him at least some comfort that I probably wouldn’t collapse into a steaming pile of road kill somewhere between Death Valley and Mount Whitney.
In his email, SBG attempted to make a case that because I was busy working as a SEAL, the prerequisites required to compete at Badwater—the completion of at least one 100-mile race or one twenty-four-hour race, while covering at least one hundred miles—should be waived. If I was allowed in, SBG guaranteed him that I’d finish in the top ten. Kostman wasn’t having any of it. He’d had accomplished athletes beg him to waive his standards over the years, including a champion marathoner and a champion sumo wrestler (yeah, no sh@t), and he’d never budged.
“One thing about me is, I’m the same with everyone,” Kostman said when I called him back. “We have certain standards for getting into our race, and that’s the way it is. But hey, there’s this twenty-four-hour race in San Diego coming up this weekend,” he continued, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Go run one hundred miles and get back to me.”
Chris Kostman had made me. I was as unprepared as he suspected. The fact that I wanted to run Badwater was no lie, and I planned to train for it, but to even have a chance to do that I’d have to run one hundred miles at the drop of a damn hat. If I chose not to, after all that Navy SEAL bluster, what would that prove? That I was just another pretender ringing his bell way too early on a Wednesday morning. Which is how and why I wound up running the San Diego One Day with three days’ notice.
After surpassing the fifty-mile mark, I could no longer keep up with Ms. Inagaki, who bounded ahead like a damn rabbit. I soldiered on in a fugue state. Pain washed through me in waves. My thighs felt like they were loaded with lead. The heavier they got the more twisted my stride became. I torqued my hips to keep my legs moving and fought gravity to lift my feet a mere millimeter from the earth. Ah, yes, my feet. My bones were becoming more brittle by the second, and my toes had banged the tips of my shoes for nearly ten hours. Still, I fu@king ran. Not fast. Not with much style. But I kept going.
My shins were the next domino to fall. Each subtle rotation of the ankle joint felt like shock therapy—like venom flowing through the marrow of my tibia. It brought back memories of my duct tape days from Class 235, but I didn’t bring any tape with me this time. Besides, if I stopped for even a few seconds, starting up again would be near impossible.
A few miles later, my lungs seized, and my chest rattled as I hocked up knots of brown mucus. It got cold. I became short of breath. Fog gathered around the halogen street lights, ringing the lamps with electric rainbows, which lent the whole event an otherworldly feel. Or maybe it was just me in that other world. One in which pain was the mother tongue, a language synced to memory.
With every lung-scraping cough I flashed to my first BUD/S class. I was back on the motherfu@king log, staggering ahead, my lungs bleeding. I could feel and see it happening all over again. Was I asleep? Was I dreaming? I opened my eyes wide, pulled my ears and slapped my face to wake up. I felt my lips and chin for fresh blood, and found a translucent slick of saliva, sweat, and mucus dribbling from my nose. SBG’s hard-ass nerds were all around me now, running in circles, pointing, mocking the only; the only black man in the mix. Or were they? I took another look. Everyone who passed me was focused. Each in their own pain zone. They didn’t even see me.
I was losing touch with reality in small doses, because my mind was folding over on itself, loading tremendous physical pain with dark emotional garbage it had dredged up from the depths of my soul. Translation: I was suffering on an unholy level reserved for dumb fu@ks who thought the laws of physics and physiology did not apply to them. Cocky bastards like me who felt like they could push the limits safely because they’d done a couple of Hell Weeks.
Right, well, I hadn’t done this. I hadn’t run one hundred miles with zero training. Had anybody in the history of mankind even attempted something so fu@king foolish? Could this even be done at all? Iterations of that one simple question slid by like a digital ticker on my brain screen. Bloody thought bubbles floated from my skin and soul.
Why? Why? Why the fu@k are you still doing this to yourself?!
I hit the incline at mile sixty-nine—that seven-foot ramp, the pitch of a shallow driveway—which would make any seasoned trail runner laugh out loud. It buckled my knees and sent me reeling backward like a delivery truck in neutral. I staggered, reached for the ground with the tips of my fingers, and nearly capsized. It took ten seconds to cover the distance. Each one dragged out like an elastic thread, sending shockwaves of pain from my toes to the space behind my eyeballs. I hacked and coughed, my gut twisted. Collapse was imminent. Collapse is what the fu@k I deserved.
At the seventy-mile mark I couldn’t take another step forward. Kate had set up our lawn chair on the grass near the start/finish line and when I teetered toward her I saw her in triplicate, six hands groping toward me, guiding me into that folding chair. I was dizzy and dehydrated, starved of potassium and sodium.
Kate was a nurse; I had EMT training, and went through my own mental checklist. I knew my blood pressure was probably dangerously low. She removed my shoes. My foot pain was no Shawn Dobbs illusion. My white tube socks were caked in blood from cracked toenails and broken blisters. I asked Kate to grab some Motrin and anything she thought might be helpful from John Metz. And when she was gone, my body continued to decline. My stomach rumbled and when I looked down I saw bloody piss leak down my leg. I sh@t myself too. Liquefied diarrhea rose in the space between my ass and a lawn chair that would never be quite the same again. Worse, I had to hide it because I knew if Kate saw how bad off I really was she would beg me to pull out of the race.
I’d run seventy miles in twelve hours with no training, and this was my reward. To my left on the lawn was another four-pack of Myoplex. Only a muscle head like me would choose that thick-ass protein drink as my hydrating agent of choice. Next to it was half a box of Ritz crackers, the other half now congealing and churning in my stomach and intestinal tract like an orange blob.
I sat there with my head in my hands for twenty minutes. Runners shuffled, glided, or staggered past me, as I felt time tick down on my hastily imagined, ill-conceived dream. Kate returned, knelt down, and helped me lace back up. She didn’t know the extent of my breakdown and hadn’t quit on me yet. That was something, at least, and in her hands were a welcome reprieve from more Myoplex and more Ritz crackers. She handed me Motrin, then some cookies and two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which I washed down with Gatorade. Then she helped me stand.
The world wobbled on its axis. Again she split into two, then three, but she held me there as my world stabilized and I took a single, solitary step. Cue the ungodly pain. I didn’t know it yet, but my feet were slivered with stress fractures. The toll of hubris is heavy on the ultra circuit, and my bill had come due. I took another step. And another. I winced. My eyes watered. Another step. She let go. I walked on.
Way too fu@king slow.
When I stopped at the seventy-mile mark, I was well ahead of the pace I needed to run one hundred miles in twenty four hours, but now I was walking at a twenty-minute-a-mile clip, which was as fast as I could possibly move. Ms. Inagaki breezed by me and glanced over. There was pain in her eyes too, but she still looked the part of an athlete. I was a motherfu@king zombie, giving away all the precious time I stored up, watching my margin for error burn to ash. Why? Again the same boring question. Why? Four hours later, at nearly 2 a.m., I hit the eighty-one-mile mark and Kate broke some news.
“I don’t believe you’re gonna make the time at this pace,” she said, walking with me, encouraging me to drink more Myoplex. She didn’t cushion the blow. She was matter-of-fact about it. I stared over at her, mucus and Myoplex dripping down my chin, all the life drained from my eyes. For four hours, each agonizing step had demanded maximum focus and effort, but it wasn’t enough and unless I could find more, my philanthropic dream was dead. I choked and coughed. Took another sip.
“Roger that,” I said softly. I knew that she was right. My pace continued to slow and was only getting worse.
That’s when I finally realized that this fight wasn’t about Operation Red Wings or the families of the fallen. It was to a point, but none of that would help me run nineteen more miles before 10 a.m. No, this run, Badwater, my entire desire to push myself to the brink of destruction, was about me. It was about how much I was willing to suffer, how much more I could take, and how much I had to give. If I was gonna make it, this sh@t would have to get personal.
I stared down at my legs. I could still see a trail of dried piss and blood stuck to my inner thigh and thought to myself, who in this entire fu@ked-up world would still be in this fight? Only you, Goggins! You haven’t trained, you don’t know di@k about hydration and performance—all you know is you refuse to quit.
It’s funny, humans tend to hatch our most challenging goals and dreams, the ones that demand our greatest effort yet promise absolutely nothing, when we are tucked into our comfort zones. I was at work when Kostman laid out his challenge for me. I’d just had a warm shower. I was fed and watered. I was comfortable. And looking back, every single time I’ve been inspired to do something difficult, I was in a soft environment, because it all sounds doable when you’re chilling on your fu@king couch, with a glass of lemonade or a chocolate shake in your hand. When we’re comfortable we can’t answer those simple questions that are bound to arise in the heat of battle because we don’t even realize they’re coming.
But those answers are very important when you are no longer in your air-conditioned room or under your fluffy blanket. When your body is broken and beaten, when you’re confronted with agonizing pain and staring into the unknown, your mind will spin, and that’s when those questions become toxic. If you aren’t prepared in advance, if you allow your mind to remain undisciplined in an environment of intense suffering (it won’t feel like it, but it is very much a choice you are making), the only answer you are likely to find is the one that will make it stop as fast as possible.
I don’t know.
Hell Week changed everything for me. It allowed me to have the mindset to sign up for that twenty-four-hour race with less than a week’s notice because during Hell Week you live all the emotions of life, all the highs and lows, in six days. In 130 hours, you earn decades of wisdom. That’s why there was a schism between the twins after Marcus went through BUD/S. He’d gained the kind of self-knowledge that can only come from being broken down to nothing and finding more within. Morgan couldn’t speak that language until he endured it for himself.
After surviving two Hell Weeks and participating in three, I was a native speaker. Hell Week was home. It was the fairest place I’ve ever been in this world. There were no timed evolutions. There was nothing graded, and there were no trophies. It was an all-out war of me against me, and that’s exactly where I found myself again when I was reduced to my absolute lowest on Hospitality Point.
Why?! Why are you still doing this to yourself, Goggins?!
“Because you are one hard motherfu@ker,” I screamed.
The voices in my head were so penetrating, I had to bite back out loud. I was onto something. I felt an energy build immediately, as I realized that still being in the fight was a miracle in itself. Except it wasn’t a miracle. God didn’t come down and bless my ass. I did this! I kept going when I should have quit five hours ago. I am the reason I still have a chance. And I remembered something else too. This wasn’t the first time I’d taken on a seemingly impossible task. I picked up my pace. I was still walking, but I wasn’t sleepwalking anymore. I had life! I kept digging into my past, into my own imaginary Cookie Jar.
I remembered as a kid, no matter how fu@ked up our life was, my mother always figured out a way to stock our damn cookie jar. She’d buy wafers and Oreos, Pepperidge Farm Milanos and Chips Ahoy!, and whenever she showed up with a new batch of cookies, she dumped them into one jar. With her permission we’d get to pick one or two out at a time. It was like a mini treasure hunt. I remember the joy of dropping my fist into that jar, wondering what I’d find, and before I crammed the cookie in my mouth I always took the time to admire it first, especially when we were broke in Brazil. I’d turn it around in my hand and say my own little prayer of thanks. The feeling of being that kid, locked in a moment of gratitude for a simple gift like a cookie, came back to me. I felt it viscerally, and I used that concept to stuff a new kind of Cookie Jar. Inside it were all my past victories.
Like the time when I had to study three times as hard as anybody else during my senior year in high school just to graduate. That was a cookie. Or when I passed the ASVAB test as a senior and then again to get into BUD/S. Two more cookies. I remembered dropping over a hundred pounds in under three months, conquering my fear of water, graduating BUD/S at the top of my class, and being named Enlisted Honor Man in Army Ranger School (more on that soon). All those were cookies loaded with chocolate chunks.
These weren’t mere flashbacks. I wasn’t just floating through my memory files, I actually tapped into the emotional state I felt during those victories, and in so doing accessed my sympathetic nervous system once again. My adrenaline took over, the pain started to fade just enough, and my pace picked up. I began swinging my arms and lengthening my stride. My fractured feet were still a bloody mess, full of blisters, the toenails peeling off almost every toe, but I kept pounding, and soon it was me who was slaloming runners with pained expressions as I raced the clock.
From then on, the Cookie Jar became a concept I’ve employed whenever I need a reminder of who I am and what I’m capable of. We all have a cookie jar inside us, because life, being what it is, has always tested us. Even if you’re feeling low and beat down by life right now, I guarantee you can think of a time or two when you overcame odds and tasted success. It doesn’t have to be a big victory either. It can be something small.
I know we all want the whole victory today, but when I was teaching myself to read I would be happy when I could understand every word in a single paragraph. I knew I still had a long way to go to move from a third-grade reading level to that of a senior in high school, but even a small win like that was enough to keep me interested in learning and finding more within myself. You don’t drop one hundred pounds in less than three months without losing five pounds in a week first. Those first five pounds I lost were a small accomplishment, and it doesn’t sound like a lot, but at the time it was proof that I could lose weight and that my goal, however improbable, was not impossible!
The engine in a rocket ship does not fire without a small spark first. We all need small sparks, small accomplishments in our lives to fuel the big ones. Think of your small accomplishments as kindling. When you want a bonfire, you don’t start by lighting a big log. You collect some witch’s hair—a small pile of hay or some dry, dead grass. You light that, and then add small sticks and bigger sticks before you feed your tree stump into the blaze. Because it’s the small sparks, which start small fires, that eventually build enough heat to burn the whole fu@king forest down.
If you don’t have any big accomplishments to draw on yet, so be it. Your small victories are your cookies to savor, and make sure you do savor them. Yeah, I was hard on myself when I looked in the Accountability Mirror, but I also praised myself whenever I could claim a small victory, because we all need that, and very few of us take the time to celebrate our successes. Sure, in the moment, we might enjoy them, but do we ever look back on them and feel that win again and again? Maybe that sounds narcissistic to you. But I’m not talking about bullsh@tting about the glory days here. I’m not suggesting you crawl up your own ass and bore your friends with all your stories about what a badass you used to be. Nobody wants to hear that sh@t. I’m talking about utilizing past successes to fuel you to new and bigger ones. Because in the heat of battle, when sh@t gets real, we need to draw inspiration to push through our own exhaustion, depression, pain, and misery. We need to spark a bunch of small fires to become the motherfu@king inferno.
But digging into the Cookie Jar when things are going south takes focus and determination because at first the brain doesn’t want to go there. It wants to remind you that you’re suffering and that your goal is impossible. It wants to stop you so it can stop the pain. That night in San Diego was the most difficult night of my life, physically. I’d never felt so broken, and there were no souls to take. I wasn’t competing for a trophy. There was no one standing in my way. All I had to draw on to keep myself going was me.
The Cookie Jar became my energy bank. Whenever the pain got to be too much, I dug into it and took a bite. The pain was never gone, but I only felt it in waves because my brain was otherwise occupied, which allowed me to drown out the simple questions and shrink time. Each lap became a victory lap, celebrating a different cookie, another small fire. Mile eighty-one became eighty-two, and an hour and a half later, I was in the nineties. I’d run ninety fu@king miles with no training! Who does that sh@t? An hour later I was at ninety-five, and after nearly nineteen hours of running almost non-stop, I’d done it! I’d hit one hundred miles! Or had I? I couldn’t remember, so I ran one more lap just to make sure.
After running 101 miles, my race finally over, I staggered to my lawn chair and Kate placed a camouflaged poncho liner over my body as I shivered in the fog. Steam poured off me. My vision was blurred. I remember feeling something warm on my leg, looked down and saw I was pissing blood again. I knew what was coming next, but the port-a-potties were about forty feet away, which may as well have been forty miles, or 4,000. I tried to get up but I was way too dizzy and collapsed back into that chair, an immovable object ready to accept the inevitable truth that I was about to sh@t myself. It was much worse this time. My entire backside and lower back were smeared with warm feces.
Kate knew what an emergency looked like. She sprinted to our Toyota Camry and backed the car up on the grassy knoll beside me. My legs were stiff as fossils frozen in stone, and I leaned on her to slide into the backseat. She was frantic behind the wheel and wanted to take me directly to the ER, but I wanted to go home.
We lived on the second deck of an apartment complex in Chula Vista, and I leaned on her back with my arms around her neck as she led me up that staircase. She balanced me up against the stucco as she opened the door to our apartment. I took a few steps inside before blacking out.
I came to, on the kitchen floor, a few minutes later. My back was still smeared with sh@t, my thighs caked in blood and urine. My feet were blistered up and bleeding in twelve places. Seven of my ten toenails were dangling loose, connected only by tabs of dead skin. We had a combination tub and shower and she got the shower going before helping me crawl toward the bathroom and climb into the tub. I remember lying there, naked, with the shower pouring down upon me. I shivered, felt and looked like death, and then I started peeing again. But instead of blood or urine, what came out of me looked like thick brown bile.
Petrified, Kate stepped into the hall to dial my mom. She’d been to the race with a friend of hers who happened to be a doctor. When he heard my symptoms, the doctor suggested that I might be in kidney failure and that I needed to go to the ER immediately. Kate hung up, stormed into the bathroom, and found me lying on my left side, in the fetal position.
“We need to get you to the ER now, David!”
She kept talking, shouting, crying, trying to reach me through the haze, and I heard most of what she said, but I knew if we went to the hospital they’d give me pain killers and I didn’t want to mask this pain. I’d just accomplished the most amazing feat in my entire life. It was harder than Hell Week, more significant to me than becoming a SEAL, and more challenging than my deployment to Iraq because this time I had done something I’m not sure anyone had ever done before. I ran 101 miles with zero preparation.
I knew then that I’d been selling myself short. That there was a whole new level of performance out there to tap into. That the human body can withstand and accomplish a hell of a lot more than most of us think possible, and that it all begins and ends in the mind. This wasn’t a theory. It wasn’t something I’d read in a damn book. I’d experienced it first hand on Hospitality Point.
This last part. This pain and suffering. This was my trophy ceremony. I’d earned this. This was confirmation that I’d mastered my own mind—at least for a little while—and that what I’d just accomplished was something special. As I lay there, curled up in the tub, shivering in the fetal position, relishing the pain, I thought of something else too. If I could run 101 miles with zero training, imagine what I could do with a little preparation.
Take inventory of your Cookie Jar. Crack your journal open again. Write it all out. Remember, this is not some breezy stroll through your personal trophy room. Don’t just write down your achievement hit list. Include life obstacles you’ve overcome as well, like quitting smoking or overcoming depression or a stutter. Add in those minor tasks you failed earlier in life, but tried again a second or third time and ultimately succeeded at. Feel what it was like to overcome those struggles, those opponents, and win. Then get to work.
Set ambitious goals before each workout and let those past victories carry you to new personal bests. If it’s a run or bike ride, include some time to do interval work and challenge yourself to beat your best mile split. Or simply maintain a maximum heart rate for a full minute, then two minutes. If you’re at home, focus on pull-ups or push-ups. Do as many as possible in two minutes. Then try to beat your best. When the pain hits and tries to stop you short of your goal, dunk your fist in, pull out a cookie, and let it fuel you!
If you’re more focused on intellectual growth, train yourself to study harder and longer than ever before, or read a record number of books in a given month. Your Cookie Jar can help there too. Because if you perform this challenge correctly and truly challenge yourself, you’ll come to a point in any exercise where pain, boredom, or self-doubt kicks in, and you’ll need to push back to get through it. The Cookie Jar is your shortcut to taking control of your own thought process. Use it that way! The point here isn’t to make yourself feel like a hero for the fu@k of it. It’s not a hooray-for-me session. It’s to remember what a badass you are so you can use that energy to succeed again in the heat of battle!
Post your memories and the new successes they fueled on social media, and include the hashtags: #canthurtme #cookiejar.
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