The dogs watched me from the living room window. Ears up, they looked at me, tails wagging, tongues out, while I sat behind the wheel of my car with the engine off.
The car had been parked for 10 minutes. I just didn’t want to move.
I was tired, dog tired and wanted a nap. The car would be fine, really.
By the end of my month of rucking — hiking with a specially designed, weighted backpack — I thought I’d gotten a handle on the activity as a fitness exercise. I’d gone from hiking on the generally flat sidewalk along Kanawha Boulevard to the gentle incline of the Carriage Trail leading up to the gates of the former Sunrise Museum.
I’d tackled Farnsworth Drive, hiked up to Spring Hill Cemetery and back down to CrossFit WV, where I’d been a little overimpressed with myself that I could do a few pullups while wearing the pack.
After that, I’d gone on a real trail hike near Coonskin Park with Laura Cooper and her dog Floyd. We were social media friends, but on similar paths (in a manner of speaking). She was training for a camping and hiking adventure in Dolly Sods.
“That sounds amazing,” I said, but also thought it sounded horrible.
I enjoy hiking and the outdoors but don’t sleep well outside.
I’m always worried the raccoons will steal my wallet.
Laura seemed farther along with her plan than I was with my monthly project.
We both carried weighted packs up a hill in the woods. I had the fancier one, designed specifically to carry steel plates which distributed the weight better, saving your lower back, probably.
Her pack was something she said she’d had since college.
“It’s old and out of date, but I love it,” Laura told me.
I had the better gear and the nice gym membership, but I had to work a little to keep up.
“You didn’t bring the right footwear,” she mentioned, after I slipped on the trail for the third time.
We’d taken the hike a day or so after a series of rainy days.
“Yeah, I should have gone with boots,” I said.
I’d considered digging them out of my closet but thought wearing boots and shorts would’ve looked pretentious so close to the city.
Even I’m occasionally baffled at how idiotic I can be.
We hiked a couple of miles, and I counted the ruck as good progress. I wasn’t even sore the day after.
So, when Matthew Hicks, my rucking mentor, asked me if I was ready to do a real workout with him, I said, sure.
We met again on a blustery Tuesday evening. There was plenty of sun, but earlier in the day, there’d been snow flurries. Gusts of wind cut through the fabric of my old sweatshirt. Once again, I felt underdressed, but I slung on the pack and followed Matthew out to the boulevard.
He asked me how I’d been and how rucking was going.
I told him I hadn’t gone out with the pack every day but had managed to get out to hike more days than not.
“What’s your pace?” he asked.
I laughed and said, “Slow.”
Short legs are a hereditary affliction, but I told him, “Around 17 minutes a mile when I’m doing pretty good, but slower if I’m not doing as well.”
Matthew nodded. It was all ok. I was a beginner.
He asked me about aches and pains.
There’d been some aches, but no lingering pains.
“Soreness is ok,” he said. “Real pain is not.”
I’d heard that before. Soreness was just fatigue and the strain caused by pushing your muscles to do more. Actual pain usually meant injury.
I told him everything still worked and most of my soreness had been in my shoulders and hips.
Along the walk, he told me a little about his family and getting in a ruck before his daughter’s softball game. I told him about some of the things I’d done with the column and what had stuck with me.
“Fitness,” I told him. “I still do that –and pies of all things. I make pretty good pies. I can do ice cream and sushi.”
He laughed, “So, food and exercise –makes sense.”
I’m a simple guy.
At the one-mile mark, Matthew checked his watch. We were somewhere in the middle of 16 minutes.
“That’s better,” I said, astonished.
“Yeah,” he said. “If you get someone talking, you can sometimes speed them up. You didn’t notice, did you?”
We’d effortlessly shaved 30 seconds off my regular pace with the pack. I hadn’t noticed anything.
We walked form the Capitol steps to Haddad Riverfront Park, where we set up in front of the stage to do a ruck workout of the day.
At gatherings, ruck groups will do workouts as part of their events. Matthew said they were almost always hero workouts, commemorating the life and sacrifice of a particular U.S. serviceman. Occasionally, they did something relating to a particular event, like 9/11 or the battle of Iwo Jima.
On the steps in front of Schoenbaum stage, we took off our packs and Matthew read aloud about Army Staff Sergeant Robbie Miller, who’d been posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor after he was killed in 2008.
Miller died saving his team, outnumbered roughly 10 to 1, during a battle fight in Afghanistan. He drew enemy fire, called out enemy positions and fought, buying his unit time to fall back until help could arrive.
He was a hero, but the workout named for him was agony and we only did a half of it.
Usually, you start “Robbie Miller,” by rucking three miles. We’d rucked a little over a mile and a half. Then together, Matthew and I did a series of movements, beginning with six rounds of pack rows, which were like bent over barbell rows using the weighted packs.
Then we put on the rucksacks and did burpee squats. It’s a sort of hybrid pushup, jumping jack and squat exercise that nobody loves, followed by mountain climbers, a move that looks like crawling in place, and what is called a Turkish getup.
Slinging the weighted packs over our chests, we laid down on the concrete and then sat up and stood –getting up.
Ordinarily, you would do 12 rounds of this stuff, but six was enough for me. At the end of the series, I felt humbled and grateful that I’d been able to do that much.
Also, I no longer noticed the cold and my clothes were soaked with sweat.
After we finished the workout, Matthew and I slipped the packs onto our backs, climbed the steps up from the amphitheater and rucked the mile and half back to the Capitol, trying to move just a little faster than we had coming to the park.
“That was rough,” I said.
“Not as rough as what Robbie Miller had to endure,” he said. “And we get to do this because of people like him.”
Matthew was right, of course.
At some point, Matthew asked me what I thought about rucking, whether I thought it was something I might continue.
I told him I’d gotten more out of rucking than I expected.
Rucking challenged my preconceived notions about how fit I was and reminded me that even if I’m getting to the gym regularly, I can fall into a rut. The exercise routine can become routine, and I think it needs to be more than that, if you really want to get stronger, faster, fitter.
I just never imagined that shaking things up would be as easy as putting on a pack and stepping out my front door.