The vacation I no longer wanted.
Monday, August 20. It was my last day at work before heading to Colorado for Go Ruck Ascent. I had most of my gear packed but needed to throw in the last-minute items and double check everything. Ascent was going to be 3-ish days, but I was heading out a couple days early to spend time with a friend who lived near Denver. Or at least I had planned to.
My friend RJ had visited NY a couple weeks prior and notified me he was going to do an internship and wouldn’t be able to spend time with me. Since I had booked my flight early to hang with him, I was more than a little upset by the news. I felt tossed to the side. I understood the need for him to focus on his internship, but I couldn’t help but be annoyed at the extra time taken off work for no reason and the extra money I’d have to spend on food and rental car away from home. I was already strapped for cash, an issue I didn’t mind if it meant I could see my friend, but this situation wasn’t helping. We had also been talking almost a year about climbing a 14-er together, something I had been really looking forward to doing with him, but knew was no longer going to happen.
We had a couple surgeries scheduled that Monday afternoon. My shift was 11-9, so I started prepping the OR as soon as I got in. For anyone who isn’t aware, I am a Veterinary Technician. A few hours later the patients were recovering from surgery and I went to the office to take a quick break. About 4pm I was sitting on my phone catching up on messages as I ate my lunch. The surgical Veterinarian for the day started mentioning medications to me to be dispensed for the patients; There’s never a true lunch break for a tech. I read a message from my phone and froze, disoriented. The Vet continued to dictate medication doses and I asked “what?” as I scribbled something probably illegible on a piece of paper. She asked me if I was ok, and I said no as I dropped my pen. The words barely made it out of my mouth. “My friend died in a motorcycle accident yesterday.” I’m sure the words didn’t come out that clearly, but I heard her ask me if I needed a minute and I said yes as I grabbed my phone and ran outside. I was shaking as I collapsed onto the ground and re read the messages on my phone, hoping I was mistaken somehow.
The messages were from Kristina, a girl I went to crossfit with years ago, who happened to know a bunch of my friends from the neighborhood. I had messaged her about a gluten free pizza in her IG story earlier in the day and her response was “you heard about Eric, right?” “No, which Eric?” “The EMT from Bellerose, he was killed in a motorcycle accident last night and Anthony was with him. I know you are friends with them all.” I re read the messages two more times and burst into tears.
Anthony is one of my best friends. I have known him about 7 years and in that time, he’s been by my side through every hardship. Eric is Anthony’s best friend. They’ve known each other since they were kids. The two of them joined a bike club about a year ago and have been attending events across the country with their club ever since. Anthony had just invited me a month prior to go to a party with the club. I deeply regret not going.
Eric was an FDNY EMT. When I first met him, I didn’t take that well to him initially, cuz he was loud and a little obnoxious and I was very sensitive. He would crack jokes and I would take offense, and he would laugh. Nothing he said was that serious, he was just playing around. I came to realize that over the years. He was a jokester, but it was all coming from a good place. He had fun, no matter what he did. Over time I started to really appreciate his loud bubbly persona. He had the wildest laugh you ever heard, and it was infectious. He never hesitated to allow me into his home, pick me up in his van, or hand me a beer. He was the kind of guy who just wanted to make sure everyone was having a good time. The last time I saw him, we were drinking at my friend Melissa’s house and I was teaching him how to do headstands in the living room. No, strike that, It was my best friend Nicole’s birthday and we were playing ping pong. The last time I spoke to him was a couple days prior, when he asked me for advice on the Keto diet, which I had just done for 4 months to prep for an event. The last thing I sent him was a recipe for keto pancakes. So trivial.
*The last photo I have with him, he’s standing behind me with his face covered, oddly.
I picked up my phone and called Anthony, as I sat on the ground outside my job with my hands shaking. He answered bewildered, saying his phone was in his hand and he was just about to dial my number. The conversation is foggy in my mind, but his mom was driving him home and I told him I would come over when I left work. As I hung up my coworker Lisa came outside with a cup of water. I was hysterically crying. She said she hated to see me that way and went back inside, I don’t think I got any words out. When I finally gathered myself together and went back inside, the doctors told me I could go home. Lisa was going to cover my shift. I thanked them and headed home.
I called Nicole on the way and told her what happened. Then I stopped at my boyfriend’s house and succumbed to a cigarette before I was able to gather myself enough to go home and change for the drive upstate to Anthony’s house. I packed my gear for the trip in under an hour, not caring very much if I had missed anything, and left, stopping to grab a bottle of Jameson before I reached his house at about 7pm. I had a flight the next morning at 8am, but it didn’t matter.
Anthony threw his arms around me in the street and laughed that I was there because Star Wars was on tv. I had made him binge watch the movies years ago after he had told me he never watched them. He cracked the bottle and poured us shots the second we walked in the door. The story of the night prior came out of him immediately. I won’t share it here because it’s not my story to tell, but Eric had died in his best friends’ arms. Anthony was obviously beside himself, but was holding up his tough exterior. My heart broke for the devastation I knew my friend was feeling, and the knowledge there was nothing I could do. I stayed with him the whole night taking shots, exchanging stories, and listening to music. We eventually passed out together on the couch. I woke up around 3am and headed home to grab my gear and make my way to the airport.
I had an aisle seat, but by some magic, the woman sitting at the window moved to the middle because she wanted to put her things in the seat back and we were behind the exit row. I asked if it would be ok for me to sit there since she wasn’t, and my long legs could use the extra room. She obliged, but asked that I leave the window open. I said no problem, knowing my hangover would allow me to sleep anyway once i could lean my head on the wall. I tried to stay awake till the plane took off and I could say goodbye to New York from the window, but within minutes, I was asleep.
The light periodically woke me up, but each time only long enough for me to picture Eric’s face as he was passing (or my imagination of what it looked like) for a moment, and then to fall back to sleep. That happened about 3 times. When we finally landed and I couldn’t fall back asleep, I cried silently as the plane taxed to the gate. I didn’t want to be in Colorado, not even a little bit. I belonged home with my friends, not in a state where I felt unwanted and out of place. I texted RJ that I had landed, knowing he wouldn’t be home for several hours. I grabbed my bag, a donut and a coffee, and hopped on the shuttle to the rental place. The Alamo salesman convinced me my compact sized vehicle wouldn’t hack it in the mountains, and convinced me to opt for the $90 upgrade to full sized. I drove out of the lot in a Dodge Charger, so despite the extra fee, I was ok with my decision.
A rainy day in Denver
Next stop, REI, and I stopped at a Q’Doba on the way. It started to rain as I got back into the car with my burrito. At REI, I grabbed some last-minute essentials: a hydration bladder, some fire starting cubes for my pocket stove, and sunblock. Also a pair of Sorel sandals on sale which are now pretty much my favorite pair of shoes, and I was glad I had them out there. That Denver REI is like heaven. As if I wasn’t obsessed with that store enough, this one had 3 floors and a rock wall. It took everything in me not to go on a shopping spree. It also had an enormous parking lot, which I left my car in to go explore the neighborhood.
As I took a stroll down the riverwalk, the rain got heavier. I actually love the rain, particularly when I’m feeling down, it feels soul cleansing. I had no choice but to make the best of this week ahead of me. I checked out all the local shops and walked down the strip till I reached the end, the Denver Brewing Company, then walked back to my car. RJ texted he had just gotten out of his internship and I suggested he meet me somewhere to grab dinner and drinks together. He said he would be about 40 mins with the rush hour traffic, so I decided to meet him at his house so we could save time and go out together.
We met up and he shared some liquid goodies before we headed out to a local brewery. On the way out of his complex, we ran into his roommate, who he invited to come out with us. Somewhere between there and the brewery his friend decided he was hungry, he didn’t want to go to the brewery, and he wanted to bring food back to the apartment. I was peeved, but I didn’t say anything. I figured my presence was already being ignored, I might as well not make the situation worse by complaining. Night 1 in Colorado, and I spent it on a couch in front of the TV, watching Ted and eating bad Mexican takeout, which I had already had for lunch. The week was off to a great start. We were all in bed by no later than 10 and of course, he had to be up and out of the house early the next day.
He woke me up in the morning before he left to say goodbye, I hugged him and he said sorry, then left. I showered and drove into Denver to grab breakfast at Fork and Spoon. I had a delicious breakfast burrito with sweet potato fries and a cup of coffee that was refilled probably 3 times. The breakfast would’ve been the first nice part of my trip had it not been for constantly texting my friends back home checking on everyone. My friend Justin, who had decided just a week prior to register for Ascent, texted me that his flight had just landed. I told him I would come get him after I got my check. Naturally, a group of about 20 walked in the restaurant at that moment and it was a struggle to get the waitresses’ attention. I arrived at the airport about 40 minutes after he landed.
Driving in, I noticed for the first time a giant blue horse that seemed to be guarding the airport. It had red eyes and looked rather demonic, and I found it odd that this demon horse would be welcoming people to Denver. I mentioned it to Justin and he seemed to think it was a Bronco, which would’ve made sense. Later in the trip, I looked it up online and discovered that the horse is referred to as Bluecifer, and he is a fiberglass Mustang. His story gets more interesting. The horse killed its creator, when a piece of it fell and severed an artery in the sculptor’s leg. Apparently, some groups protested the sculpture being put there, but obviously, they lost.
Justin needed to stop at REI too, so we went there before swinging by a dispensary, a must-do stop in Colorado. I am not a big lover of mary jane nowadays (though I was in high school), but given the way I was feeling and where we were, I gave in. I walked out of that store with some brownie squares, chapstick, a transdermal patch, a packet of sunflower seeds, and a toffee. I put them away for safe keeping and didn’t think about them for a while. Then we headed over to Denver Brewing company where we both had a flight, got more than a little buzzed, and shared a lot more about ourselves with each other than we ever had.
I had met Justin at a Go Ruck Light in February of 2017, my first event. I don’t recall speaking to him much that night. Since then we have done several other events together, and he also ended up briefly dating a very good friend of mine, but we never really spoke about anything other than endurance events. Thanks to several beers and a rough time in both our lives, a lot came out at DBC. I was very thankful he was on this trip with me, and I think I can say the feeling was mutual. Over the course of the trip I came to find we are similar people, and I appreciated having someone who understood me. He was wonderful emotional support out there so far from home. Once our beers were emptied, I had a couple glasses of water and he spent the time photographing dogs that walked by, then we started the drive to Camp Tahosa, where we would sleep for the next few days.
As we pulled up to the entrance, Justin was quick to spot a group of GRT’s by someone’s Challenge pants. We hopped out of the car and were greeted by Vito, Troy, Melinda, Corey, and Max. The bunch of them were sitting at the welcome sign and informed us the camp owners had no idea where we were supposed to set up camp. After about an hour of waiting around, we eventually made up our minds to head deeper into the campground and set up wherever we felt like it, since no one was telling us where to go. Max, an 18-year-old kid from NC, pulled out his American flag and hoisted it up on the flagpole at our chosen site. We had all set up our tents by the time Go Ruck photographer Nick Schrein pulled up and told us we were at the wrong campsite. I was happy to see Nick had brought his dog, a 2 year old German Shepard named Ripley. I was thrilled to know we had a dog on the trip with us. The sun was setting and we figured no one else was going to show up where we were at now, so we left our stuff where it was, deciding to move camp in the morning. Then we headed into town as a group for one last real dinner. Corey, a very sweet guy from Texas who’s presence felt very familiar to me, as if I’d known him forever, drove us down into town.
We rolled into a cute little pizzeria/restaurant in Nederland, and everyone ordered a custom pie but Justin, who ordered a ginger ale. He was feeling some sort of altitude sickness I think, as our camp was above 9,000 ft. I also realized he hadn’t eaten all day and we had been drinking. I snuck off to the bathroom for a while to talk to my best friend about the funeral arrangements and make sure everyone at home was ok. When I got back to the table Justin had left to go lie down in the car. The rest of us ate dinner with a drink or 2 and got to know each other a bit. I took quickly to Melinda, who was the only other woman in the group so far. She was my mothers age, a mom to 2 military boys, an ultra-runner and a long time Rucker. When we got back to camp we all went straight to bed, as it was already after 10 and we had to move our stuff in the morning, eat breakfast, and be in formation to begin the official Go Ruck event at 9am.
We were all up around 7 am. I sat on the bench eating a bagel with peanut butter as Justin fired up his jet boil to make us some coffee. Melinda strolled over and sat with us, eating her bowl of oatmeal which she noted wasn’t very tasty. We got to talking and she mentioned that she signed up for Ascent for free, on an event credit given to her by Go Ruck after the Ft. Bragg Heavy. Justin had done the same.
I’m sure most of you are going to need some background here. Go Ruck’s Fort Bragg Heavy is the hardest Heavy of the year. It takes place in February and is a memorial event for Major Joe Warner, a former Go Ruck Cadre. The 24 -hour endurance event is led by several Cadre, including the president of Go Ruck himself, Jason McCarthy. I had briefly debating signing up for this event during the black Friday sale at the end of last year, but decided firmly against it for fear of too much pain. A few people I know went to Bragg. Go Ruck live streams updates on their FB page because of all the interest. I was glued to updates the entire first night, then I went to bed. When I woke up in the morning and checked, there was no update. I thought it was odd, but went about my day to my morning yoga class. When I got back in my car after yoga, I checked the page again. This time there was a letter.
I re read it multiple times.
I was introduced to Jerome by my friend Steve at the 9/11 Tough last year. He was very good friends with Steve and my good friend Hairon. I had done a few rucks with Jerome, and had messaged him to say good luck a couple days prior to the Heavy. His last facebook post said how nervous he was, and ended with the hashtag #dieliving.
I sat in my car crying trying to get a grip on the situation for a while, then I messaged Hairon to ask if he had seen the Tough page. When he said no, I called him. I was crying when I told him the news. It was heartbreaking to hear him cry. The call was short, he thanked me and I hung up. I must’ve sat in the car staring at my phone for another hour before I drove home.
The outpouring of support from the Go Ruck community was tremendous. People made die living patches, shirts were made, a memorial workout was set up, and all the money was sent the money to his wife and children. The funeral home was filled to the brim with people, and the VP of Go Ruck showed up to personally give his condolences to the family. For Paddy’s day, we all wore our Jerome shirts (it was his first event last year), for Bataan we carried his ruck (he was registered for the HTL). And I made a promise to myself to go to Bragg next year for him, even though I know I’m not ready for it. There are rumors it will be a double heavy in 2019, one for Joe, and one for Jerome.
*Jerome standing on my right during the 9/11 Tough
So Melinda and Justin started talking about Bragg, and I sat in silence as they spoke. When Melinda stated that she was next to him when it happened, and started getting into details, I broke down. “I’m sorry, but I can’t handle this conversation.” My voice cracked as my eyes welled up. Melinda apologized and asked if I knew him as she gently rubbed my back. Justin nodded with me and I wiped tears off my cheek as I answered her, adding that I had also just lost a friend on Sunday and was likely going to be an emotional disaster the whole weekend. I excused myself from the table for a moment and when I came back we started breaking down our tents.
We moved all our things to the new campsite, higher up on the grounds. It was much prettier there. We seemed to be on the edge of a mountain, with a valley below us. There was sparse tree cover so we could see well into the distance.
Now that we were all together, Cadre John asked us to move our cars down the mountain as it wasn’t safe for us all to have our vehicles so deep in the woods. We all moved whatever gear we had left in our cars into our tents and one by one moved down. I was backing my car up when a van pulled in behind me to drop off someone. The van hit a very large rock in the ground, which took off the entire side panel of the vehicle, and left my car stuck between that car and a tree. Justin, the cadre and I, spent some time trying to direct the car backwards out of the camp site. When it was finally time for me to back out, I was paranoid and moving slowly. Cadre John jumped in front of my car and started guiding me out of the spot with some wild hand gestures I had never seen before, but somehow was able to comprehend perfectly. As the last ones down the mountain, Justin and I were the last ones back. We joined the rest of the GRT’s and lined up in 4 ranks at 9am. I was pleasantly suprised to find 2 other women in the ranks, Madison, Nick’s girlfriend, and Amanda, who was wearing a OCRWC hoodie.
Cadre John B introduced himself, followed by Cadre Edge and Cadre Monty. They selected the 4 people at the ends of the ranks to be rank leader responsible for their group for the duration of the event. I was the lead on rank 3. Edge asked us all to close our eyes and raise our hands if we were offended by foul language. Being GRT’S who are used to cussing and dirty jokes to get us through tough events, we all laughed. I’m sure no one raised their hand, but he wasn’t wrong to ask. I don’t think I’ve ever heard more cursing come out of a man’s mouth than I did from his. But I was oddly impressed by the sentences that spewed out of his mouth over the course of the trip. Most notably “God damn motha fuckin booger eatin motha fuckas.” I do not recall what that was in reference to, but it flowed out of his mouth so seamlessly I cannot forget it. My response was a mix between a head scratch and a giggle. The cadre told us today we would be doing a performance test, then classes. The performance test was a 6 mile run. I groaned. John heard me and told me he enjoyed running. I said I didn’t, and added, “ One of Go Ruck’s motto’s is ‘Running Sucks.’” He laughed and said that was true, but we are running anyway.
A short hike down the road and we lined up at a trailhead where Edge led us in some dynamic stretching and mobility exercises. He practices and teaches form of yoga called Kinstretch. After the warmup he had us all sit down and he told us he studied under Wim Hof, an athlete known for his breathing techniches, who is worth researching if you’ve never heard of him. Edge led us in a breathing exercise that probably lasted 20 minutes. It was a great meditation, made even greater for me when Ripley decided to run up and boop her wet nose on my chin while my eyes were closed, a pleasant puppy suprise that I greatly appreciated. Now that our heads were in the game, we took off on our run.
I was slow in the beginning. Uphill running at altitude is certainly not my strong suit. Among this group of athletes, I felt weak. 25 minutes in, the first guy was already running back downhill. I couldnt believe how fast he was. Someone later told me he lived in CO and was used to the altitude, but his time was still impressive. By the time we reached the top of the trail, I was basically power- hiking. Luckily, I’m decent at running downhill. On the way back I managed to put 10 people behind me, but it still wasn’t fast enough. I finished in 58 minutes, and learned later from someone who had tracked the run, that it was probably closer to 5 miles. I was dissapointed in myself, but I shook it off. We were split up into different performance groups based on our time, and I was in the last group. Alpha team was to head to Mt. Evans the next morning, while Bravo and Charlie would head to Gray’s Peak. I was relieved B & C group stuck together.
The rest of the day was classes. The first was map and compass reading and land navigation coupled with pacing. Then we learned knots and rock climbing. The night ended with a trip to town to pick up sandwiches and then it was off to bed. We had an early wakeup call for the mountains, roll call at 4am.
At 4 am the next morning, everyone was still scrambling to get ready. I was annoyed and eager to get on the move, so I was almost excited when Cadre John got fed up and yelled “Front leaning rest!” All of us in ranks fell right into high plank, and those still at their tents suddenly ran over. Next thing I know he’s calling out count and we’re all doing burpees. That part I wasn’t so excited about. In case you were wondering, burpees at 9,000ft. aint fun. Luckily, he only counted to 11 before he told us to recover, and then we moved down to the parking lot. We all carpooled to the mountain, but as it was a while away and we stopped for gas and bathrooms, we didn’t arrive till about 7 am. The road up to the mountain was narrow and rocky, so half the group had to leave their cars in the lot at the bottom, while those with SUV’s shuttled everyone up the mountain. I was in the first group up, so I took the opportunity to stretch out my hips, and advised others to do the same. By the time we set out on foot, it was 8am.
I was anxious. Had I planned a 14-er on my own, I wouldve started at 5 am. Now it was terribly late and my stress had kicked in full on. They had told us 11 am turnaround time, which only gave us 3 hours to get up there. Edge was keeping the lead pace, and Monty was keeping the slow pace. John had gone with Alpha group to Evans. I started with Edge and tried to keep up, but my lungs werent cooperating and I fell to the middle of the pack. Luckily, we all kept a reasonable pace overall. The scenery was beautiful, the weather was nice, and Ripley kept running up and down the line checking on all of us.
We made our way steadily up the mountain and of course, the higher we got, the harder it was to breathe. Eventually, I found myself stopping every 15 minutes or so to rest.
At one point I noticed it was all switchbacks, and I thought I could save some energy by scrambling up the middle. Bad idea. The ground in between the trails was loose, and if I didnt continue quickly, I lost my footing. I made a significant gain in elevation, but by the time I crossed the trail again, I was very winded. I sat on a rock and struggled to catch my breath. I heard Joseph ask “What did you do that for?” and I replied that I thought cutting up the middle would be shorter. “Shorter doesn’t mean easier.” I laughed and rejoined the group at a steady pace when they caught up to me.
We all stopped together just below the final summit bid to have some snacks and take pictures. Edge advised us all to meet back at that spot on the way back down.
We all headed up Grey’s, snapped some photos, shared some congratulations, and turned back around.
There was Torey’s right next to Grey’s which I had my eyes and heart set on, but Edge declared we didn’t have enough time to make it, and my heart sank. It was right there, I could see it. So close…
Realistically, the climb up was steep, and it probably wouldve added another couple hours onto our trip. But I still was sad for not going up it.
Edge gave us repetetive words of wisdom “Breathe Mothafucka, Breathe.” The way down was much easier. We were all happier and chattier. We shared stories and experiences and took a nice group photo at the bottom, after we collapsed into a discombobulated pile on the floor.
We headed down the mountain again piling as many people into the cars as we could. Cadre Montey hitched a ride on the outside of Nick’s Jeep.
We went out to a local restaurant, then headed back to camp. I was starting to get a horrendous migraine on the drive back, so when we hit camp, I popped a couple of excedrin, changed into comfy clothes, and collapsed into my sleeping bag. I was only lying down for about 5 minutes before I heard Edge yell for us to get up. He wanted us to go for an icy recovery dip in the lake. You’ve GOT to be kidding me, I thought. Every part of me didnt want to get up, but I did anyway.
Barefoot and in my silkies and a sports bra, I headed down to the lake. He wanted us in there up to our necks for 3 minutes. It was COLD. No one was making much chatter and it was getting worse, so I started singing baby shark to get a couple laughs. People started showering in the lake. When he dismissed us I ran to the showers on the campground, which we all had just learned existed. After nearly 3 full days without a shower, it felt amazing.
Melinda and I walked back up the road to our camp as the sun started to set.
Back at camp, Nick taught us how to throw a tomahawk and we had some target practice. Then Shawn taught us how to start a fire and we practiced that for a while. We chatted, shared some beers, and maybe some edibles, and suddenly we were just a bunch of GRT’s goofing off in the woods. It was the best night I had there. The moon was full and shining through the trees, and suddenly I felt at peace.
Eventually, I crawled back into my tent. We had another early wakeup call the following morning for rock climbing. Alpha group was still out, and I was envious of them. We had come back down so early. We definitely had time for Torrey’s if Alpha was still out hiking or whatever they were doing. Incapable of changing my circumstance, I shook it off and went to bed.
I was awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of howling. A pack of coyote obviously nearby, who were very excited about something. I got out of the tent to see if I could see them, but they were probably further than I thought and their voices were carrying up the valley. They kept me up for about 15 minutes before I drifted off to sleep.