Pushing Limits: A GORUCK Tough Finisher’s Journey – An Interview with Courtney Johnson

With the determined spirit of a warrior echoing through her, Courtney Johnson’s (CJ) tale emerges—a postdoctoral researcher on a journey to fulfill her purpose. In this interview, her unyielding determination and pursuit of challenging boundaries resonate with the indomitable spirit of those who embrace adversity and thrive amidst it.

SGPT: Tell us about yourself?

CJ: I am a postdoctoral research scientist fortunate to be on the path to living my “why”. As an undergraduate I discovered my purpose was to share the joy of learning and of challenging yourself to find what you are capable of when tested, which inspired me to become a professor with my own lab pushing the boundaries of knowledge. I am not there yet, but on (hopefully) the last step.

From the beginning I knew the path to becoming an academic scientist had very low margins of success and would require me to become the type of person who is focused, disciplined, thrives in adversity and lives for challenge.

Instead of being inspired by the “greats” of science, I felt there was more to learn from stoic philosophers and Navy SEALs. I reasoned that much like someone with academic dreams, Navy SEALs also needed to beat a pipeline that rejected more than 90% and all warriors needed to learn how to thrive in adversity.

The lessons I was studying from books such as Living the Martial Way and Way of the SEAL were paying off, but my graduate school experience was an exercise in challenge and adversity delivered in daily doses and I felt the need to “calibrate my pain sensor” by taking on a challenge so extreme it would make my daily challenges seem easy in comparison. My desire to learn these lessons led my shoulder to the underside of logs and litters which I carried through the dark of night as part of the Special-forces inspired GORUCK Challenge.

SGPT: Did you have an athletic background growing up?

CJ: Not at all. I lived a sedentary lifestyle as a child and did not grow up in a family that exercised, played sports or even went for walks. I had to decide for myself as an adult that I wanted to be healthy and fit, educate myself, and start from the bottom. It has been difficult and overwhelming at times, but it has also been a joy to discover what my body is able to do that it previously couldn’t: be it lifting more weights, moving faster for longer or physically moving in ways that it previously couldn’t.

SGPT: How did you train for the GORUCK event?

CJ: I was following the Onramp program in the book “8 Weeks to SEALFIT” (and later the SEALFIT online Onramp WODs) and also incorporating additional Grinder PT workouts (with and without a ruck) and rucks ranging in distance from 1-5 miles. I never did a ruck more than 5 miles before my 20+-mile Tough events.

SGPT: Tell us a little about the event? Where was it?

CJ: I have completed multiple events, but there are three GORUCK events that I have completed which have the most meaning to me. These three events met me at different stages in my journey and taught different lessons:

1. My first event ever: July 4th GORUCK Light in Dallas Texas

The first light I signed up for on a whim with two weeks notice: I had just found out about GORUCK and had hoped to train for a future event because I didn’t feel ready but they had free signups for first timers. I was a broke student so that was a big appeal but I also had no gear as a result: just the bulky Condor Urban Go-Bag that I was carrying to class every day and New Balance shoes. Plates were not yet a thing so I bought several bricks to use as my weight.

Despite being “only” a Light it was the hardest thing I had done in my life to that point physically: being a new athlete, I had never been pushed myself to such extreme levels. For our welcome party we held our rucks overhead while a teammate read the Constitution. When you are doing a workout on your own, you choose the pace and when to stop or pull back. Having a team and standards that you are being held to alters the equation. If you put the bag down, the team suffers. If you are too slow, the team suffers. If you alone fail to pay attention to detail, the team suffers. You also learn that sometimes you can’t do it alone and to rely on others when in need, and likewise to help your teammates and always be looking out for them whether it’s calling out steps or obstacles in the path or looking to see whose weight you can take when they’re struggling.

For me, it was the absolutely punishing mid-summer Texas heat that almost took me out early. I thought I was well-hydrated but just standing with our rucks overhead for an extended period drained me, making me feel dizzy and weak. I cannot emphasize pre-hydrating enough and my teammate rescued me by having a cold bottle of water and instructing me to pour some of it down my neck which actually worked!

  1. My first 12 hour Tough event: Charming the Snake in Raleigh, NC

This event was special to me because it was my first tough and I wasn’t sure if I was ready, which is why I did it: to find out. I had been training steadily for a couple years at this point and the training really paid off. I absolutely crushed this event which was heavy, but slower. We met every time hack as there were some true beasts on this team and I was able to keep up and be an asset, helping with the carries. Our team carried a litter loaded with heavy sandbags for much of the night and we were able to work into a solid rotation and gel as a team.

There was also a component to the event where we were quizzed throughout the night on questions from the US citizenship test. Failure to answer correctly led to getting wet and sandy. This was also a strength for me and I was one of few to get all questions correct and stay dry (although I had fun getting sandy later on!)

At the beginning of the event we were each asked individually what we bring to the team: how will we earn our seat at the table? This was a great way to start off on a positive team-focused footing and a great point to reflect on through the night. However, after finishing this event I had doubts: the event had played to my strengths and I had trained to the extent that I struggled more during my first event, was this success a fluke?

3. My second tough: Memorial Day in Raleigh, NC

In my second tough I found out. This was the opposite of the first tough event: all of my weaknesses were exposed. The event started out with a welcome party where the class was split into two teams who raced across a football field distance doing walking lunges with linked arms and rucks held out in front.

After, there were several rapid time hacks that were faster than I could achieve slick (without a ruck) and I was the cause of many failures to meet these time hacks through the night. The fast time hacks and being the weak link because of it meant I was putting out at 100% of my capability the whole night. When a teammate who had snuck a watch in revealed that only three hours had passed I seriously contemplated quitting. I was unsure of how I could make it a few more minutes, let alone 9+ hours.

I am a Doctor Who fan and had recently watched an episode called “Extremis”. The theme of the show played in my mind: “Virtue is only virtue in extremis: without hope, without witness, without reward.” What this meant to me is that it is easy to be strong on a good day. It’s easy to take a selfie at the gym of your sweat-soaked T-shirt and muscles and feel like a badass when you hit a PR. But it is the worst days, at your lowest, when everything is going wrong that reveals your true character. I saw this as the ultimate test of that and repeated it to myself as I kept going.

I could barely breathe so I was focused only on the breath, trying to exhale as much CO2 as possible, and putting the next foot in front of me. Trying with complete focus to keep up was the #1 thing I could do to support the team at that point and I wasn’t barely doing that despite giving it my all. Ironically though, I could PT with the best of them. Whenever we had to do PT I was ok, it was the fast, long movements where I was struggling but in-between I was ok. When we reached the end I was overcome with emotion for what I had done because there were so many moments where I was sure I wasn’t going to make it.

I feel conflicted about this event: I wish I could have been a better asset to the team, but surviving this event was so much more deeply meaningful than the first Tough and other events that I crushed because all doubt had been erased and I proved that no matter how long and how hard it sucked I would find a way to break through, which has been an incredible confidence booster I have carried forward in my life.

SGPT: What was hardest part of the event?

CJ: I could PT and shoulder carry litters with the best of them but I could not for my life ruck fast enough even slick if the time hacks were fast. My 1-mile PR run time is 14:30, which is terrible. So I was putting out at 100% of my capacity the entire time any time there was a time hack that was <16 minutes. There’s an added mental cost to knowing in these cases that you’re the weak link and feeling like the team would be better off without you. Each event and cadre is different though, so you can’t always know when you sign up whether an event will play to your strengths or weaknesses, you can only do your best to train to be ready for anything and in my case it wasn’t enough. I was arguably in better shape overall for my second Tough but my performance was so much worse because of what the challenge consisted of.

SGPT: Any tips for up and coming athletes that want to do GR event?

CJ: Whatever your event ruck weight is, train with MORE at least some of the time, and even if over some shorter distances. I trained with a 45# plate before my first Tough event and that was a deciding factor for me feeling ready enough to pull the trigger even if I was overall uncertain.

SGPT: What kind of boots did you use for the event?

CJ: My first event I only had basic New Balance shoes – but they fit well. Later on I had success with OTB 6” Bushmaster and Blackhawk Ultralight boots.

SGPT: Did you use double socks or body glide on your feet to prevent blisters?

CJ: I had heard the advice to use double socks and without fail every time I doubled up I got blisters. I’ve found the USOA anti-microbial socks worn alone with well-fitting boots to be my ticket to avoiding blisters during events. Testing before events is super critical because you don’t want to find out things don’t work midway through an event that you were otherwise physically prepared for.

SGPT: What kind of ruck did you use for training and the event?

CJ: My first event I only had a bulky but cheap Condor Urban Go Pack. After that I saved until I could afford a GR0 (now called GR1 21L) that I’ve used ever since (the GORUCK rucker was not a thing at the time). I’d recommend the Condor Prime to ruckers who are looking for a cheap entry point since it’s more similar to a GORUCK GR1 form factor than their older bags, but if you can afford it the GORUCK Rucker 4.0 is your best entry into GORUCK’s bags.

SGPT: What good book are you reading now? Are you listening to a good podcast?

CJ: I am reading About Face by Col. David Hackworth and Discipline is Destiny by Ryan Holiday.

SGPT: Many thanks for the interview Courtney. We really appreciate you taking the time for this interview.

CJ: Thanks for having me Coach!

About the Author:

Brad McLeod, former Navy SEAL brings first hand experience to conquering big gnarly goals.

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