S.E.R.E. Challenge Beta (DC) - January 2012
January 27th 2012
Guest Contributor - James Ogden
The Event: I suppose the best way to begin this review is to explain that S.E.R.E. Performance offers a multitude of different challenges and events. Their “Basic” is the baseline and starting point for everyone who wants a gut-check and a lesson in survival. It then ascends from Basic to Advanced, Elite, and then Extreme. “Only four levels?” – You wonder? Nay, nay. This includes four separate facets of Advanced. They are: Urban, Jungle, Desert, and Maritime. The idea is to complete each level before moving on to the next. Now before I go way off into the deep-end, let me be clear that this is a review of their initial challenge; Washington D.C. Basic Class 001B. We were affectionately dubbed “The Frozen Chosin Few” after the Marines that fought in the Chosin Reservoir in Korean War.
It was fitting given that is was fairly chilly outside on that night and we, the few, so bravely signed up with no knowledge of what we were getting ourselves into. This event being the first of its kind, it naturally drew the attention of a good number of alphas. The general idea of the challenge was to endure the hours of punishment from the cadre (or “Operators”, as they are referred to as) and survive. The premise of the challenge is centered on individual accountability and then, as the hours roll by, evolves into a team challenge.
From what I have read and been told this challenge may sound very similar to a GORUCK Challenge. Both require you to carry a ruck on your back. Both are cadre-driven. Both have you go for hours upon hours, miles upon miles – of “rucking” it out and probably lifting, dragging, pushing, and carrying something large and cumbersome as a class. But what S.E.R.E. Performance stresses on all levels of every challenge is “self-reliance.” So first and foremost, within the basic-level challenge, you are going to be analyzed on your leadership skills and your ability to, not only carry your own weight, but maintaining situational awareness and, if tasked, become the leader and issue orders. You should know that the operators will offer up a few opportunities to peer-out someone that isn’t cutting it throughout the challenge.
There are also a few chances to be disqualified and kicked out of the challenge if you don’t, for example, bring a prescribed item on the gear list. So if you think you’re showing up to do a few push-ups, grab some schwag, and drink beer – you are sorely mistaken. You should also expect lessons in survival that you will be taught and forced to implement during the challenge. For our class, there were some obvious and not-so-obvious lessons in “Basic” survival. We’ll tackle those as we go along. Keep in mind that this is just Basic.
Getting There & Parking: Given that our rendezvous point was about three hundred meters east of the Washington Monument; I wasn’t even going to mess with parking. I took the wiser approach and had a family member drop me off at the RP. I was not personally familiar with Washington D.C. but I would suspect that it’s not difficult to spot the monument and just drive to it. Needless to say, getting there was a cinch; no issues.
Check-in & Logistics: As you can probably guess, there was no “check-in,” per say. The process was pretty linear. You were given a gear list, a place, and a time to show up. Again, very easy.
The Schwag: For starters, when you get to the event, the Operators break out a white “S.E.R.E. Performance” T-shirt, complete with logo and design. Even though the operators use this to keep track of you, your progress, and to make everyone appear as a cohesive unit, I still count it as schwag. I am proud to say that my shirt was so dirty, even after washing three times (with a profound amount of bleach), it still did not come clean. If you don’t quit, get injured, or peered out, then you get a nifty survival bracelet of which has a very shiny metal strip with “S.E.R.E Basic” on it. Pictures don’t do it much justice but I assure you there have been many at work and around town who have been inclined to ask about it; it kind of pops out at you. And, no, I have not taken it off since I got it. I earned it and it’s freakin nifty. Thirdly, in conjunction with your bracelet, I got a finisher’s t-shirt that is OD Green. And just as an added bonus, Sherry Post (Founder and CEO of Simple Fuel) shadowed us for the challenge and hooked us up with some of her delicious granola just after sunrise and at the finish. For me, as long as I get something that equates to a finisher’s medal, I’m happy. So, needless to say, I am more than happy with the schwag that I got.
The Challenge: I thought a lot about this and decided that I am not going to go into every single detail about the event. This is mostly because the illusiveness of the challenge is one the components that makes the event so great. And, furthermore, I don’t remember it all; mostly because of fatigue. The operators at S.E.R.E. Performance prescribed us two separate gear lists. One was an individual gear list and one was a list of items, of which, we as a group were tasked with bringing. Lists as they were provided, verbatim, are shown below:
Individual Gear List:
* A Ruck or backpack – This is to hold your gear, food and water. S.E.R.E. recommends a GORUCK or Mystery Ranch Pack, but there are many other good ones out there too – typically a 3 day assault pack is more than enough, but wear what works for you (Note you never know what may go in or out of your pack during the challenge).
* Equalizer: 20% of your body weight in sand.
* Water, hydration bladder is required for this challenge – You figure out how to keep it from freezing in cold climates.
* Headlamp capable of red and white light w/back up batteries
* Gloves, dexterity may be important for E&E
* Windbreaker or Gortex jacket
* Identification and $30 quitter fee (we’ll call you a cab).
* Black Sharpie (This must be black)
* Note pad with pen/pencil – think about when and where you may be writing.
* Green Chemical Light
* (5) 1 Gallon Zip Lock Bags
* 1 Heat or Space Blanket
Team Gear List:
* Digital Camera able to take photos of caches or just photos of the elite operators in action … you never know what you need to document and view on the go…
* GPS or compass, topographical map of challenge city and map pens
* 1 Role of standard Duct Tape
* Washington Post newspaper from 1.27.12
* Bicycle with 16 inch wheels
* Pink streamers for bike
* Small raft
* One life vest
So we started, as I stated previously, at the Washington Monument. We all knew that there were supposed to be 40 of us total that signed up for the event. However, only 37 showed. I can only speculate as to why they didn’t show but I will tell you this: no one announced that they had issues with travel on our class/group Facebook page – draw your own conclusions. Our class leader was none other than Mr. Todd Sedlak who showed up in full army BDUs; he was obviously ready to get after it. As we congregated, did gear checks, and got some face time in, Keith Jolly (Lead Operator/CEO) and his two “Operator-X’s” descended from the hill of the monument out of the shadows in a spooky, clandestine fashion. Just so you know, Operator-X is someone, typically with a special forces background, that shows up to help facilitate the challenge.
Their identity is kept secret and, ergo, they show up wearing ski masks. For someone who was new to this type of challenge or did not have a military background, I can see how this could make someone nervous. With my Marine Corps Infantry background, personally, all this elicited from me was a big smile, a giggle and the thought that “this is going to be great.” After a simple introduction, we are organized in a line and the white t-shirts are handed out by size preference. We were instructed to write our assigned number on the shirt on the front and the left sleeve. We were then told that the operators would be carrying large red markers in which if we, as individuals, were caught “sandbagging”, the operator would put a red mark on your shirt. The idea was that if you procured three red marks, you were gone – dropped from the challenge.
In reality, you were given four chances; one verbal warning followed by the three hash marks. So right of the bat, the cadre let you know that they weren’t messing around. The shirts, after being written on, were tossed in a pile, and about a hundred pounds of sand were dumped on them. Along with the sand, the entire water supply belonging to six of our teammates were dumped on the t-shirts as well. Those lucky six (including Todd) were then ordered to mix the t-shirts, water, and sand together by rolling on top of them, back and forth, for about ten minutes. I felt kind of helpless, just idly standing by as those guys got sandy and wet. Todd was having fun with it, laughing and yelling out an occasional “woohoo!” whilst doing his duty. I think this is one of those things you would’ve had to see to really appreciate. The temperature was already in the forties and steadily dropping. The t-shirts were then handed back out to the respective owners. So let’s recap: I’ve got my wet and sandy t-shirt. Check. We have six teammates, including our class leader, of which have absolutely no water. Mmm-Check. Oh, what’s that? We haven’t started. Sweet.
After we put on our issued shirts, it was game time. We were notified that there were several missions that we were going to be tasked to complete. We would not know how many missions awaited us or what the next mission would entail. When the missions were all finished, it was then and only then, the “Basic” level challenge would be complete. The cadre made it very clear to everyone that the night was to be a long one. After some pre-mission PT with our rucks on and our awesome new shirts that were now wet and sandy, it was time to get started. But first, we were ordered to surrender all nutrition items that we brought, place them in a Ziploc bag, label it with our number, and place said bags in a pile in front of the formation. The first lesson learned: we brought far too much food for a single-day event. I was ashamed, both for our class and, more so, of me because of how much food we all brought. First lesson learned. The reality is that our bodies don’t need as much food as we think to properly sustain ourselves. Our punishment? No water for anyone. The operators had us place our bladder-taps inside of our ruck so we could not access them. We were not told when, or if, we would get the privilege of drinking water back. I smiled. I thought to myself, “This is getting good already.” After some prescribed low-crawls, we rucked up, and were briefed our first mission of the evening. At this point, it we had already been underway for about an hour and a half.
Our first mission was simplistic in nature: to move to each of war monuments within D.C. with our rucks, our large pelican case with our food, and other assorted pieces of gear. Then an egg was issued to each of us. Yes, an egg. The case weighed a hundred pounds or so. Mr. Sedlak is indeed a thinking man. He ordered that the case be put up front to dictate the pace of the class. This was the only challenge, that I can remember, that did not have a time limit. A warm-up, perhaps? While moving we had three restrictions: we were strictly ordered to maintain 100% noise discipline when we were within earshot of any of the monuments, to stay within arm’s reach of each other at all times, and to not break our eggs. If I remember correctly, our first destination was the Vietnam memorial. On our way, we failed at all three tasks. The three happened almost simultaneously. As we were moving towards a sidewalk, there was about a three foot drop from the edge of the park, off of a wall, and on to the concrete. While we were in the middle of descending from the wall when someone in the class tripped, causing someone else to yell (doh!), a break in contact (doh!), and someone just crushed an egg out of the pure excitement of it all (doh!). Fail, fail, and fail.
Our punishment was three hundred squats with the rucks on. Operators: 1 – Class 001B: 0. Now here’s the thing with the rucks: they all varied significantly in weight. If you’ll refer back to the gear list, the individual was responsible with bringing 20% of their body weight in sand. So the cumulative weight of sand varied from 25 pounds to as much as 75 pounds. Keep in mind that this doesn’t include the other gear or the weight of the ruck in and of itself. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the rucks stretched well into the triple digits. Mine, however, weighed in at a cuddly 63 pounds. So, case and point, the squats sucked after we hit fifty. I’ll go ahead and tell you that there were a select few that were individually tasked with bringing 30% of their weight in sand, rather than the prescribed 20%. Why and how they were picked is classified. Can’t tell you. Sorry. And I also can’t tell you the significance of the eggs. They were important, I assure you, and not in the way you’re probably thinking either. Fast forward past many other fails to the WWII monument where we concluded our first mission after a few hundred feet of low-crawling in the wet grass. And when I say “low-crawl”, I mean it in its true form where you are essentially dragging your skull along the ground; none of this hands-and-knees stuff.
We finished the first mission and it only took us just over three hours. Do the math. There were a lot of “stops along the way.” Once at the WWII monument and standing tall, one of the operators told us that we could collect the eggs and stow them in the case but there was a problem: we discarded the cartons. We looked at each other and he looked right back at us. “Figure it out.” I piped up in my typical fashion, “Can we eat them?” He grinned. “Sure.” ---Worst. Idea. Ever. Operators: 2,459 – Class 001B: -5. I would like to go ahead and formally apologize to all of 001B. It was, as we say in the Marines, good initiative – bad judgment. Raw egg , when eaten straight out of a warm shell, is heinously gross. The guy next to me, John Steiner (owner of clothing company Infidel USA) was a champ. He ate his egg whole, shell and all, and with a smile. It was quite beast of him.
As I stated above, and I apologize, I will not go into further details of how the evening transpired. If you decide to brave the Basic Challenge one day, you’ll thank me. Don’t try and game the game. Just embrace the suck, keep your sense of humor about you, and don’t sandbag. Think about your teammates. It’s a beautiful thing to witness when a group of almost complete strangers, come together over just a few hours, become a team, complete a challenge, and part as friends for life.
What you do need to know is that we entered the 38 degree water at three points throughout the challenge, had five people DOR (drop on request), two hypothermia cases (one mild, the other was sent to the hospital), moved 18 miles total, and all this fun was done within a short period of 16 hours. We finished with some wicked PT, of which I lead and screwed up the count several times. Again, sorry guys. The operators handed out our bracelets and Sherry Post was there to greet us, once again, but with chocolate chip and bacon pizza (of which was so delish, I will not cheapen it by attempting to describe with words) and more of her Simple granola.
The lessons of survival were in how to avoid hypothermia and how to recognize the signs. This was put to practice twice. And at times, people show little to no sign of hypothermia just as our second hype-case demonstrated. He simply slumped over and began to convulse. Kudos to those six that snatched him up, stripped him down, put him into a Mylar sleeping bag and began to actively re-warm him without a moment of hesitation. The other main lesson was previously hit in this review; be careful what you pack. You will THINK that you need a lot more gear that you actually need. And the painfully obvious lesson there is simple: ounces equal pounds – pounds equal pain.
The Verdict: If you value your mud-runs and are happy with those, then by all means, keep doing them. You’re already doing more than the average person. If reading this abbreviated recap of our evening excites you or even scares you, then you need to do this. Even if you finish a Basic Challenge from S.E.R.E. Performance and don’t wish to take it to the next level, that’s quite alright. You can certainly do as many Basics as you want. If fact, that is how Keith Jolly sees it happening with most that take this on. I would guess that every level that you go up will roughly double in the amount of time that it takes for you to complete but this is just an educated guess. If you go to the website (www.sereperformance.com) and they do not have an event close by, go to their Facebook page and request one. Atlanta, GA has already been successful in that regard. Keep in mind that Keith Jolly is just getting the company off the ground so keep a flexible mindset when it comes to coordination. All-in-all, I am very glad that I did this, honored to have been with the very first class, and thankful that I got to do it with such an amazing group of people. Well worth the money, time, and effort.
James Ogden is Epic Beard Man version 2.0 - the upgrade. He’s a US Marine veteran and squared away individual. He’s on a journey to the Spartan Death Race. Read about his journey on his blog: http://journeytothedeathrace.blogspot.com/