Matt “Ralph“ Crossman, a freelance magazine writer and member of F3 Nation brings us behind the scenes of GTE-36 to see how cadre and PAX alike, turn suffering into growth. Subscribe to his newsletter at https://mattcrossman.substack.com/.
“If we can’t cause a few ripples in their work life, in their home life, and as fathers and husbands, then we’re kind of falling down on the job.” – Brent “Yodel” Matheny
“If they feel this is the hardest thing they’ve ever done, good.” – Danny “Linus” Stokes
ST. CHARLES, MO- Rob “CFIT” French looked behind him into the dark Missouri night and saw a constellation of red lights. They came from headlamps worn by Charlie Platoon, one of four teams comprising GrowRuck Training Event class number 036 (GTE-36). Those lights bounced up and down and swung left to right as the men humped along carrying a 15-foot section of a utility pole, in addition to their 45-pound rucks.
CFIT adjusted his ruck (short for rucksack) as Charlie Platoon’s lights grew closer … closer … until they arrived alongside his own platoon, Delta, who also shouldered a 15-foot section of utility pole and their own rucks. Now 60-plus men and two utility poles crowded onto a gravel trail built atop an old railroad track. A short drop-off led to forest on the left and right, which meant Delta suffered the shame of standing to the side as Charlie scooted by.
Soon Charlie’s red lights faded in the distance, and as they disappeared, so did Delta’s confidence.
John “Slaughter” Lambert, Delta’s cadre-event-leader, or cadre in F3 parlance, adopted from a military title meaning instructor-leader, barked at his platoon leader, Matt “Cold Call” Ramshaw: “How did we get passed by another platoon, and what are we doing about it?”
Cold Call swallowed hard, and said nothing, by which he said everything. Cold Call was, he said, “terrified” and out of ideas.
I know many of the men in Delta. Picking just three – CFIT, Ronda and Beans – they are the elite of the elite in F3 and GTE veterans. Taken out of context, if I saw the looks on their faces, I would have wanted to call an ambulance. Even knowing what they had been through – eight-plus hours of grueling work – I was startled.
CFIT is in my shieldlock (a small accountability group). We’ve done many intense workouts and adventures together, and I’ve never seen him as exhausted as he was.
Kristian “Ronda” Robert, F3 Nation Sector Q of the North Central Region, made a howling-crying-moaning-that-frigging-hurts noise I’ve never heard before and never want to hear again.
Mike “Beans” Sluhan, the F3 Nation Q of Expansion whose planning of the St. Louis GTE two years ago set the standard by which every other GTE is measured, looked like someone ran over his puppy after his puppy ate his favorite F3 shirt.
Six hours remained in the 14-hour Crucible Ruck, and these High Impact Men appeared spent. Still they trudged on, hoping, praying, that their night would get better.
Ahead of them, Slaughter, the Nant’an of F3 Nation, listened to their increasingly desperate conversations – the kind he has heard in all 18 GTEs he has participated in, the kind necessary for the men to grow in the way GTE organizers hope. There was beauty in that desperation. “The magic is happening,” Slaughter told me as I walked alongside him. “Just like clockwork.”
Magic was one explanation. Life-changing leadership lessons was another. Finally, Delta had enough. Cold Call stopped them, told them to put the utility pole down and sit on the gravel trail – a courageous act of leadership in and of itself. Normally that would be a bad move, as Rule No. 1 is keep moving. As hard as it is to carry a utility pole, it is harder still to pick it up after you put it down.
Their dysfunction needed to be fixed and Cold Call recognized it would not happen on the fly.
Slaughter walked back to the men. It was the moment he had known was coming since before they picked up the utility pole 2.5 hours earlier. It was time to show these broken men that they were not, in fact, broken. It was time to show them that however depleted they thought they were, they could…no, they would…do more.
It was time for “The Speech.”
The Tension Between Toughness and Tenderness
GTE is F3’s premier leadership training exercise. It combines an overnight, team-based endurance event and a leadership seminar. The highlight of the Friday through Sunday festivities is the Crucible Ruck, a roughly 14-hour hike in which participants carry backpacks weighing at least 45 pounds plus assorted “implements of woe.”
In this case, the men lugged utility poles, sandbags and 160-pound kegs on a crushed limestone trail that runs parallel to the Missouri River in St. Charles County (Missouri), just west of St. Louis.
I participated in a GTE in Naperville, Illinois in 2019, came away a changed man, and wrote about it here. Cadre Danny “Linus” Stokes, a retired Green Beret, led it, and we have become friends in the years since by bonding over our shared loves of shared suffering. As GrowRuck Director and lead cadre, he helps plan and is responsible for every facet of the event. When he offered me the opportunity to embed with him and the other four cadre for GTE-36 in my home F3 region of St. Charles: The Last Stop, I jumped at the chance.
I knew what participants took out of GTEs—changed lives.
I did not know what cadre put into them—which turned out to be the same: changed lives.
I stayed with Linus and his four “assistant” cadre at their Airbnb HQ. On a sun-kissed Saturday afternoon, as we rode to the GTE in Brent “Yodel” Matheny’s Jeep, I asked them, “What’s the most challenging part about being a cadre?” Their answer was unanimous: Balancing toughness and tenderness.
Shared suffering is crucial to a GTE. The cadre have to let the men fail. Nobody will learn anything if it’s easy or if someone stops a participant before he screws up. But there comes a point where too much physical, emotional and mental stress means no learning happens. The cadre must know when to figuratively put his boot in a man’s ass and when to put his arm around him. That’s all art and no science, and if it sounds like parenting, well, yes, only instead of giving your kids timeouts you make men do burpees.
I saw toughness, tenderness, and the rewards of both as I bounced from cadre to cadre throughout the event.
Talking and Teamwork
Alpha Platoon labored under self-inflicted toughness. In addition to the two 160-pound kegs that were the, ahem, “normal” part of one section of the event, they carried an extra 120-pound sandbag as a “trophy” for coming in last place in a competition between platoons. Two men stopped to pee. The rest kept going, leaving the two men behind, presenting a perfect example of when the cadre must decide whether to put his boot in their ass or his arm aro—“YOU LOST TWO PAX! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?”
That’s cadre Addison “Motorboat” Haynes. Before he joined F3 four and a half years ago, he tried a workout in his basement. He lasted about three minutes before he had to stop because he thought he was having a heart attack. He stayed in his basement another 30 minutes before he could summon the energy to summit the stairs.
Now in top shape, he wants the men in his platoon to accelerate like he has, and if he must scream at them to make that happen, consider it done.
During the chaos amid the two lost men, the platoon leader left his ruck unattended, a huge mistake under any circumstances and especially so considering Linus happened to be walking by. Shocked at this transgression about which he had specifically warned the participants, Linus picked up the ruck and hid it without the platoon leader knowing. “I wanted him to experience the pain of losing accountability of his equipment,” he said. “He needed to learn that lesson.”
It’s a lesson Linus learned while on a mission with Special Forces. He sat down during a security halt. His ruck was heavy, and he loosened the shoulder straps so he could sit up straight. When it was time to go, he stood up and started walking … leaving his ruck behind. He was carrying load-bearing equipment around his waist, and in his exhaustion, mistook the weight of that for the weight of his ruck.
Ten minutes later, he realized his mistake.
As the team’s communications sergeant, Linus faced the embarrassment of confessing to his team leader that he left the radio ruck unsecured at the last break. Alpha’s platoon leader, after dashing up and down the trail looking for his ruck, offered a similar confession to Motorboat. Motorboat responded by ordering each man to hold his ruck over his head and started counting.
It seemed like forever and all I did was watch.
I looked up into the night sky. To the left, the sky remained as black as anger. To the right, gray crept into the edges, heralding morning’s arrival, an apt metaphor for the transformation beginning within Alpha.
While Motorboat’s s-l-o-w count proceeded, the platoon leader located his ruck…as did Linus on that fateful night years ago with his Special Forces team.
When Motorboat finally stopped counting, the men put their rucks on, picked up the kegs and sandbag, and resumed walking. I expected them to continue to struggle because they would be smoked and pissed—at each other, at Motorboat, at themselves for shelling out $150 to be yelled at all night. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the magic, no, the life-changing leadership lessons, happened.
Motorboat’s goal going into the event was to teach his platoon “communication about a problem and working together,” and now they applied both. They stopped yelling at each other and started listening. They encouraged each other. The platoon leader, ruck snug on his back, called out rotations for men carrying the keg, instead of waiting for each man to ask to be replaced. The change in performance was as sudden as it was profound.
They arrived at the next checkpoint 10 minutes before every other platoon. They transitioned from the low point of the night to the high point, and all it took was talking and teamwork, which were the result of toughness, which led to tenderness: Motorboat let them drop the extra sandbag and told them they earned that reprieve.
Random Behind-The-Scenes Detail Part 1
Imagine a tree stump. Give it arms and legs and an indomitable spirit. That’s what Sparta was like. A member of Delta, he offered to carry the ruck of any man who needed a break. “Who’s going to volunteer to give up their rucks?” Slaughter said from behind the platoon. “Nobody will say yes. But everybody wants to.”
A few minutes later, after Slaughter had moved to the front of the platoon, one man after another took turns letting Sparta carry his ruck.
If it Was Easy it Would be Pointless
Slaughter describes the changes GTE brings about in men as good news, bad news. The good news is you know you are capable of more than you thought you were. The bad news is you have to apply that new knowledge. “Once you go through a GrowRuck and you discover something new about yourself—an undiscovered mental, physical, emotional level – you can never unknow it. So, when adversities and challenges come up in your life, you know too much to be able to shrink away. You’ve got to run toward the danger instead of running away. That’s what we’re supposed to be teaching these guys.”
The cadre in the Jeep nodded their agreement. Slaughter, seated in the front, turned to face me: “Another way to put what I’m talking about is, once you become a pickle you can never be a cucumber again.”
A smirk grew under Bravo cadre Jeff “Flight Nurse” Marsh’s epic mustache as he cracked: “I think Confucius said that.”
If Slaughter was the philosopher and Motorboat the yeller, Flight Nurse was the jokester. But don’t let his humor fool you. Paraphrasing Kyle “Brick” Luetters, Nant’an of the host region, who has done two GTEs with Flight Nurse as his cadre: One minute you’re doubled over in laughter, the next you’re doing 100 side-straddle hops in cadence.
Cadres from left to right: Yodel, Motorboat, Linus, Flight Nurse, and Slaughter
Flight Nurse uses humor as a defense mechanism, to cut tension, to tweak those who need it, and because he’s good at it. Underneath that joking demeanor lives a keen observer of the human condition, and in his team he saw traits he didn’t necessarily want to see. He saw strength. He saw stamina. He saw problem-solving. Because of that, he didn’t see any growth.
I don’t know if Bravo’s pole was lighter (possible), or if Bravo’s men were collectively fitter (unlikely), or if they simply figured out a better way to carry it (probable). Regardless of the reason, as Slaughter’s team flailed, Flight Nurse’s thrived, and in the context of what cadre hope to teach their men, that was worse. They would never discover that new mental, physical or emotional level Slaughter talked about.
They would remain cucumbers.
So, Flight Nurse engineered their failure. He stopped the group and delivered a long speech about how much he loves nature, the sole purpose of which was to make the men stand there and hold the utility pole.
He snuck into the woods and hid. He initiated a suitcase carry of the rucks. He forced the men to be quiet as a way to challenge the platoon leader and assistant platoon leader. “There are times in life when you have communication problems and you have to rely on other methods,” he said.
He sent Brick into the woods to grab a log. A few minutes later, Flight Nurse stopped the group, told them again how much he loved nature, and ordered them to grab another log. The two new logs took five men out of what had been a solid rotation. “He knew the exact time to inflict the most pain, when we were really confused,” said Brick, and only in GTE can that be meant with admiration, “and he was going to make the situation worse by getting us pissed off at each other.”
Each little bit added tension and stress. Each little bit sowed frustration. Each little bit taught the men lessons they never would have learned if they continued in (relative) ease. “If you don’t introduce something to upset the apple cart a little bit, to push them, they just stay status quo,” Flight Nurse said.
Random Behind-The-Scenes Detail Part 2
During a rare break, Mike “Deep Dish” Girsch rested with his head on his ruck. I could have blindfolded him with dental floss. He greeted me and I noticed his voice had changed, as if he had filled his water bladder with laughing gas. Later I noticed the same odd timbre from Brad “Lamb” Dempsey and Bryan “Waffle Fries” Emerson, who passed out after the 2-mile PT test run, dragged himself up off the ground and kept going for 13 more hours.
The Best-Laid Plans
The firetruck arrived early at the technology park that played home to the opening hours of the Crucible.
The schedule called for it to pull in at 8 p.m., during the “welcome party,” a brutal F3-style workout. Instead, it showed up at 7 p.m. in the middle of the PT test. Linus had to make a snap decision: continue with the PT test and ask the firefighters to wait or pause the PT test and let the firefighters soak the men now.
He chose the latter and stood among the men and got drenched as approximately 5,000 gallons of frigid water rained down on them. Educated guesses put the temperature of the water between 35 degrees and negative 22.
Soaking wet, the men then continued the PT test by completing a two-mile run. All of which showed that GTEs are massively complicated events that organizers spend months planning, sometimes down to the minute, but what’s drawn up is rarely what actually happens. Plans change and morph and change again, and cadre have to adjust on the fly. Nothing showed that more than “The Yodel Games,” which were held on “The Yodel Field of Woe.”
On Friday morning, 32 hours before the Crucible started, Linus and Sam “Kramer” Feld, the host Q of GTE-36, visited The Yodel Field of Woe. They knew the men would drop the utility poles there, but they didn’t know yet what would happen immediately after that. Linus wanted to see the field, roughly the size of several football fields in a flat plain a few hundred yards from the Missouri River, to see if laying eyes on it sparked inspiration.
Suddenly his eyes popped wide. I’m surprised a cartoon light bulb didn’t appear over his head. “THAT’S what we’ll do,” he said, half to Kramer, half to himself. “We’ll have a Bloodbath Games.”
That’s a GTE-ism for a competition among the four platoons.
But what kind of competition? Linus assigned Yodel to figure that out (and in the process Bloodbath Games were re-christened as Yodel Games).
Yodel and I have been friends for almost five years. We’ve ridden our bicycles across Missouri together three times. When he told me GTEs reduce him to a blubbering, ugly-crying mess, that didn’t surprise me. Nor did the fact that the ideas he pondered for Yodel Games were brutal.
Plan No. 1 was to have the men lay down on their backs, shoulder to shoulder, and pass a 200-pound sandbag the length of the field without letting it touch the ground. Plan No. 2 was to cover that distance by having the men hand the sandbags to each other between their legs. Plan No. 3 was to roll the utility poles and carry them back.
Motorboat laid down on the field as if rehearsing and realized there were too many hard stalks. The field was unusable.
That’s why, 14 hours later, CFIT stood not in the field but in an adjacent parking lot, as he saw another constellation of lights, this time in front of him, 125 strong. These lights were not gaining on him but standing (mostly) still. The ghastly red faces under those lights screamed and chanted and willed their teams to victory.
The Yodel Games comprised a simple competition: which four-man team could hold up two 200-pound sandbags the longest? Overall winner got to brag, overall loser had to carry an extra 120-pound sandbag during the next evolution (see Alpha, above). That produced a raucous, loud and deeply partisan sufferfest, proof (if any were needed) that men will be competitive about anything.
Random Behind-The-Scenes Detail Part 3
The scope of the work behind the scenes before and during GTE was staggering. Dozens of men volunteered; some flew in from across the country, including Jon “Rapid” Snow, who arrived from California to help with the support team.
On Thursday afternoon, Linus, Jim “Cyclone” Ottomeyer (local support Q), GTE trainers Matt “88” Ryburn and Drew “Power Clean” Ishmail and others visited what appeared to be a utility pole junkyard.
Using a tape measure and black Sharpie, Linus marked 15-foot sections on 36-foot poles, and Cyclone cut them with a chainsaw. We planned to carry them to a trailer, but someone at the junkyard offered to load them using a forklift.
We accepted because we did not want to carry those poles 20 feet.
The men of GTE-36 carried them 4.6 miles.
As terrible as the utility pole carry portion was, consider this: the original plan was that each platoon would carry two.
There’s No Such Thing as Happily Ever After
Slaughter’s speech lasted three minutes. He opened by acknowledging Delta’s struggles, their exhaustion, their doubts and their fears. “You guys are in that spot where your body, your mind, your emotions, have told you that you don’t have anything left. Do you have something left?”
Their faces were dull gray canvases.
A few choked out meager “yeahs.”
“It’s so hard to pull it out of yourselves. This is what makes the man. This right here, right now, is why we do this. It’s fucking hard. You’re thinking about your bed and your wife and your dog and a hot shower. All that shit, right? It’ll be there when you get back. This is what’s important.
“Dig down inside. A little bit further down inside. You’ve got to know your why. There’s a why that got you out here to begin with. Don’t forget about that why now. Hold your head up high. Ask somebody how they’re doing. Dig down a little deeper. It’s going to hurt, and it’s going to hurt a little bit worse. But you know what? Come Monday, when you’re standing around the water cooler telling the stories, you’re going to be just fine. Nobody’s going to die. Pain is only temporary. Pride is forever, right?”
“Aye,” the men said.
“You can do it. You’ve got something left, aye?”
“Aye,” they said again.
“So, reach down there and fucking grab it by the balls and let’s get going!”
The change was immediate. Their steps grew more sure, their mumblechatter more encouraging, their pace quicker. And then…and then…I wish I could say Delta crushed it the rest of the night, but they didn’t. This wasn’t a movie; this was real life. In real life, obstacles don’t stop getting in your way because you overcame one. If anything, the opposite is true because your ability to overcome obstacles makes you more likely to risk encountering them.
Yes, Delta crushed it for the next half an hour, but they struggled later. Then they crushed it again. Then they struggled again.
The point of Slaughter’s speech, the point of the whole event, was not to overcome the utility pole struggles and finish one night well. The point was for the men to learn they are capable of more than they thought they were. The point was for the men to learn and grow through shared suffering. The end result will be that when they face hardship in the future, they will know they can overcome it, because they overcame worse in GTE-36.