SealFit KOKORO Camp, sounds like a good idea right, 50 hours straight to test the body and soul? I thought the same thing about a year ago when Luke told me of his experiences at the 1 Week Academy, and his plans to return for the Camp. He said the target was the middle of 2011, and if I’m interested, to start prepping for the challenge.
I’d always wondered what was really down there in the center of my being when all the B.S. was stripped away. It’s easy to say “I gave 100%” today, or “I can’t go any faster/further”, but I had a feeling I could go faster, and could definitely go much, much further. With these initial thoughts circling in my mind in late 2010, I began my road.
Preparation & Setback
My Crossfit “career” has been one of pretty extreme ups and downs, and the run-up to Kokoro would be the same. From the moment I decided to take the plunge, I looked at every WOD as a chance to build a stronger base for the camp. Things were going great, I was getting stronger, setting PR’s, and making strides, then Week #4 of Friday Night Lights happened. I had been fighting strange cramping and burning in my calves for weeks, and I believed it just a symptom of trying to get more miles in after class, but apparently that wasn’t the case. I was about 6-7 reps into the Overhead Squat portion of the WOD when I felt/heard a huge pop in my left calf. I was hoping it was just a strain or pull, but the look on Mark DiSalvo’s face as he examined it at the first aid station told me all I needed to know. I had torn it, and torn it significantly, Kokoro would not be happening for me anytime soon. What happened after that was many months of a slow decline in my physical training as I rehabbed and tried to maintain my conditioning. Even worse I has a sharp fall-off in mental focus, drive and determination. Basically, I was depressed, upset, frustrated, and felt like I had lost my last good chance put it all on the line, and my broken down body had finally had the last laugh. It was during this time that Luke called me out of the blue and basically said “Get your ass in here, let’s talk”.
I remember bringing in coffee to meet with Luke, and not knowing what to expect. He had successfully completed the Kokoro camp in June, and I found the blog of his experiences to be inspiring, terrifying, and exciting all in one. I wasn’t sure if I could even commit to a regular class schedule, much less anything above and beyond. As we talked, it had nothing to do with Crossfit, Sealfit, or WODs, we talked about why we do what we do, and how important it is to never quit, even in the face of injury or adversity. Basically, Luke spoke to me and hit the nail right on the head, and I’m paraphrasing here….. “I understand things aren’t perfect, but they could be way worse, I know you can do this, break time is over, get your skinny ass back in training because you have a camp to complete, and something to prove to yourself.” He was right, from that day, until the day I left, my focus was tight, my efforts were strong, and my mind was right. It wasn’t the first time Luke had saved my ass, and it wasn’t the last.
Ride Out & Arrival
Eventually, the day arrived when it was time to put up or shut up, and I met Luke at CFS for a 6:00AM departure. It was great to see our Sealfit class completing Murph in vests and armor just as I rolled up, and the good luck’s and best wishes were very much appreciated. We had one stop to make on the way out of town, to pick up “Allred”, who would also be attending camp, and had almost literally just stepped off the plane returning from Afghanistan. Needless to say, between the three of us in the car, if a WOD or some other sort of activity were to break out unannounced, my money would not be on myself, and honestly that was a little intimidating. However, as we continued to drive, chat, and generally relax, I let all that drift away, because it wouldn’t do me any good, and would only fester in the back of my mind.
With Luke having gone through the camp already, Allred and I were very interested to hear his perspectives, tips, and tricks. Without ruining any of the fun surprises, Luke did a great job of describing the general pace and tone of the experience, as well as some crucial nuggets of information. The biggest takeaway I kept was “Run your own race”. This was huge for me, because as anyone reading this knows, I’m rarely leading any sort of race, WOD, or exercise at CFS, and I’m often seen huffing and puffing along near or at the very back. This had worried me the entire time leading up, all of the “what if’s” around me falling behind, or costing my team a race, or how my lack of speed or stamina will cause problems. Luke’s very simple feedback “Run your own race” really put it in perspective. That’s of course not to say take it easy, or don’t put out effort, that would be less than a good idea with these instructors, but to understand your body and your effective pace. Eventually we arrived at Sealfit HQ in Encinitas, we had about 15 minutes to spare to check in, find a spot for our gear, meet the other 21 students including Luke’s friend from Crossfit L.A., Kenny Kane, and get ready for action.
Warning Orders & Grinder
13:00hrs we’re handed orders to eat, hydrate, organize into boat crews by height, memorize passages from the Seal Code and other documents, and muster out on the grinder at 14:00hrs. OK, pretty standard stuff, here we go!!!
We stand at attention on the grinder for probably 25-30 minutes, then all hell breaks loose. There are approximately 5-7 instructors prowling the grinder at any one time, and their sole mission is to sow chaos, confusion, and panic among the ranks. While going through a series of intense exercises there would be the water hose in your face and up your nose, or you would receive conflicting information on purpose, the drone of the voice of the instructor on the bullhorn was incessant, and every time a roaming instructor passed by there was always some sort of test of commitment, either verbal or physical, but usually both.
This evolution seemed to last for a couple hours, with the team slowly coming together, and I was feeling ok, as it closely mimicked our grinder evolutions at CFS, just with the intensity turned up to 11. It was during this time I think I did myself the biggest favor of the weekend by coincidence, but one that saved me a world of hurt later. There was one instructor who was a maestro with the hose, his skills for finding open eyes, mouths, noses, ears, etc were amazing, and I felt one of the things he enjoyed most was finding out who either didn’t like, or was afraid of the hose treatment. We were in the middle of getting our asses kicked, and I saw and heard him coming, but it’s hard to prepare for a pressure washing of your facial region. However, when it was my turn, I tried my damn best to not flinch, sputter, gasp, or worse, turn away from the stream. If a student did this, the instructors would pounce and begin to ramp up the pressure and volume of water to incredible levels, but if you remained calm, they would eventually get bored and leave. There’s a video Luke took of my turn for the treatment, and while unpleasant, it wasn’t unbearable, and honestly after that I was rarely ever “tested” like that again. I considered that my first small victory of the weekend.
Run & Beach
Next evolution was a run to the beach, and more fun and games once we get there. The run was what I was dreading and I immediately fell back. I had instructors yelling, students encouraging, and my inner voice starting to stress out. Then I relaxed, ran my own race, found my pace, put my head down, and kept pressing. We went up and down the hills, up and down the hills, up and down the hills, did I mention hills? After maybe 45 minutes, it was off to the beach.
I hadn’t had a chance to run with boots in sand prior to camp, and if I had one thing to change about training, I would have found a way to do this instead of learning on the fly. We went approx a mile or so down the beach, in and out of the surf, to a stretch of sand we could fan out and exercise. What followed was several hours of sprints, races, buddy carries, getting wet, getting sandy, leapfrogs, lunges, partner drags, etc. Then it was time to meet our best buddy for the weekend, our sandbags. We all went into our packs and filled our bags with approx 50#-60# of sand. Not only did we complete exercises with them individually, they then went back into our packs, and remained there for the entirety of the course. At this point, the class was strong, we were coming together, the sun was down, and things were good.
We got back to HQ and were informed we would be completing Body Armor a.k.a. “Murph”, with our packs on. For me, this was the second lowest point of the weekend as I struggled so bad I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. The mile run was ok, but when I got to the bar to begin pull-ups, I realized that between the extra weight, fatigue, and grip issues, I was having problems even getting one at a time. We were completing rounds of 5 pull-ups, 10 pushups, and 15 squats at a time, then calling them out to coaches for completion. I was just starting round 6 of 20 as some of the others were finishing, then it all went downhill. Both of my hands had already torn, and my triceps were cramping on the pushups, but then during a pull-up, the strap on my backpack broke, and two rounds later, I broke the strap on another one. They gave me a third and heavy duty one, but I didn’t properly check to see they had secured my sandbag correctly, and as I was stepping down from a pull-up, I bent over and about 5lb of sand comes pouring out the top of my bag all over the gym floor.
The best quote came two days later as I as discussing it with Allred, he said “Dude, I was right next to you and saw that shit, and just walked away because I didn’t want to be anywhere near that”. That may sound harsh, but in recollection it was hilarious in the absurdity of it all, and he was right, I haven’t heard so many f-bombs from the instructors as I did in the 30 seconds after I pulled off my instant beach maneuver in the gym. I was told to keep going, I did, and was at round 14 as everyone else was complete, and couldn’t even get one pull-up.
All of a sudden, I’m surrounded by 5-10 teammates, and they’re literally lifting me in the pull-ups, dragging me up by my pack for the pushups, and pulling me through the squats. It was embarrassing, but also amazing to feel the team rallying around me. We made it through the final rounds, slogged through the last mile run, and made it back to HQ completely destroyed. I didn’t want to quit, but I was almost morbidly curious how I was going to continue after this. We did lose one student during this evolution, he claimed a shoulder injury prevented him from going any further.
Things get a little fuzzy here, but I know we completed the following activities, just not sure on the order or time. First was dinner, which was a carb bomb of breadsticks, pasta, spaghetti, pizza, etc. It was great to eat and rest for a bit, but the food sat heavy in your gut for quite a while. We had a chance to introduce ourselves during dinner, and the skill, character, and diversity of the guys was amazing. As I looked around, there were a few other corporate warriors like myself, but the majority of the guys were hard core military, athletes, or adventurers.
Next was the sandbag round robin with us all in a circle completing basic exercises then progressing to a game of follow the leader where we had to do the exercise of the man before us and add one more. This is where the first mental cracks started showing as guys zoned out or forgot what they were doing. The instructor had a great time laughing at us as we repeatedly messed up the sequence, or made it more difficult by executing complicated movements.
By this point I had recovered a little from earlier and was feeling good again as we split into our boat crews. Being tall, I was on the team with the majority of the big boys, a blessing I’ll forever be grateful for. As the other crews ran off to their specific tasks we began the dreaded Log PT at HQ. We learned the basics, and came together fast, it was a good time, and we were all positive. Next stop was to take our log to the beach for a fire pit meeting. That’s not to say we’d be near the fire, in fact we were in and out of the surf as we dug a hole to sit in and look at the warm fire. The fun part was to sit and crack jokes with one of the coaches who bore an uncanny resemblance to Rick from the TV show Pawn Stars. Next was another mile or so log portage down the beach to drop and mark with chem lights for the next team.
The next hour or two were the absolute best of the weekend. It was probably 2 or 3 am, we were running in the quiet on the beach, the stars were out, and the weather was beautiful. Next stop was two instructors with random items covered by a towel. We were given 10 seconds to look at everything then were asked a series of questions, with the wrong answer getting a very quick response of “Wrong, get wet”. This was another exercise our team really excelled in, and our teamwork was encouraging, empowering, and contagious. It was sometime during this night evolution we lost another of our students. He was a collegiate football player that wanted to be an Air Force PJ rescue jumper, but decided the life wasn’t for him. The coaches tried to talk him out of it, but he walked away happy and feeling he made the right choice.
Next stop was another stretch down the beach, and who is waiting for us, but the one and only Coach Luke Kayyem. After a quick run up a hill, we’re to complete 3 rounds of Cindy, and we flew through both. We then had to scale the outside railing of a nearby lifeguard station 3 times each, and if we could all do it, we’d skip more rounds of Cindy. As we all got through it we looked around and noticed one of our team “JJ”, struggling. JJ had attended the entire 3 week Academy leading up to Kokoro, and was down almost 30 pounds, but was still a big man at still over 230lbs. It didn’t matter to us, we created a human chain below and above and got JJ to the top three times, and once again felt the love and sense of accomplishment. By this time, the sun was threatening to come up, we were told to get back to HQ for breakfast.
We got back to HQ and were promptly informed breakfast was back at the beach. By this point news like this was no big deal, so off we went to find the other teams and instructors for a nice break and food right?….right?….yeah not so much. About 3 minutes after our team showed up something happened and we were all informed we were taking too long and to get wet. I shoved ¾ of a cream cheese bagel in my mouth and jumped in with everyone else. The next hour or so was a repeat of the previous beach evolution, but this time we had our first extended ocean stay. We locked arms and legs, faced the beach, and sat down and laid back. We stayed like this for probably 20-25 minutes, and if you let it, either the cold, or the waves crashing over your face, could be anything from demoralizing to panic inducing. Everyone did an awesome just of just dealing with it, and I took the opportunity between waves and breaths to finish the rest of the bagel I had shoved in my mouth half an hour before. Another Allred quote later was “We were doing buddy carries and I kept picking you up and you had chipmunk cheeks and I wanted to tell you to just swallow the damn thing”. I guess I forgot I had all that food in my mouth until we got back in the water.
Back to HQ, and orders for our next evolution, which was to last the next several hours. Since I was the genius that spilled sand all over the gym, I was tasked with taking every piece of equipment out of the gym up to Lookout Point about ½ mile away and up a steep-ass hill. Once up there, we were to set up a bench station, a squat station, and inventory every piece of equipment, bar, weight, clip, kettle bell, rack, etc, etc. Additionally, the entire gym needed to be cleaned, swept, and spin n span before anything is moved back in.
As much as this evolution sucked in some ways, it was another chance for the team to work together as one, and the absurdity of Luke and the other instructors working out and messing around at the top of the Lookout was funny enough to keep everyone light hearted. As we came close to completing the cleaning cycle down below, we missed the time cutoff by 5 minutes, but had a chance to make it up on the reassembly phase.
If we could get everything back in and beat the time it took to get everything out by 5 minutes, we would avoid punishment. It was amazing to see everyone work their ass off for the next hour and fourteen minutes and beat our cutoff by one minute. Some of the loads people took were superhuman, and the feeling of togetherness was amazing, at the end we got to stand at the top of the lookout for 5 minutes and just enjoy the view. Another “high point” indeed!!
Here’s where my world fell apart, and with the help of some amazing friends, it came back together. We had taken an hour van ride to Palomar Mountain, for what was to be a 13 mile climb, recon the target, and then descend to the vans for exfiltration some 8-10 hours later. About 2 hours in, I hit the wall so hard I didn’t push through, I bounced off and got stomped on or good measure. One minute I’m trudging along doing relatively well, then I remember weaving around in the road and my teammates yelling at me to watch out for the ditch, or the cliff, or the bush, and to walk straight. Next thing I know, I’m flat on my back looking up at a light and getting asked questions who I am, where we are, and what I’m doing. Apparently the answers weren’t good enough, the van was called, and it looked like my camp was over. As I sat in the back of the van not really comprehending what was going on and staring blankly at the almonds and water they gave me, Luke heard about what happened and was not about to let this be the end of the story.
Luke spoke to the coaches and convinced them if I could continue by the time my team caught up at the next water station, they’d let me roll back into class. He then texted my wife to ask her to send over encouraging words to help me get back on track. Between the brief time to hydrate, eat a bit of food, rest and recover physically, and the encouragement from Luke, the other instructors, and my wife, I felt ready to get back in the fight. I’ll never forget standing in front of the van, looking at those messages, and talking with the coaches about my innermost feelings with tears flowing down my face from exhaustion and frustration, and feeling that I’d finally reached the core, the center of who I am. I found out I definitely had physical challenges and issues, but my mind never gave up, and I was told later that while on the ground I was trying to roll over and keep going. I realized out that nothing is more important than my family and friends, and there are very few people who know you, and care about you in such a way they’ll risk everything to see you succeed, and those are the people you need to cherish and honor. From that moment on, I would cherish and honor them by completing the course, no matter the physical cost, and setting an example for any others in a similar situation.
Once back on the road, things were not easy, I was still in bad shape physically, and my team put together a super human effort to get me up and down that mountain. “Pierre”, our eventual class Honor Man, walked behind me the rest of the way, literally pushing me. “Norway” carried my weapon the rest of the night to allow me to focus on my pack and walking. “Pierson” our team leader was always making sure all was well. “JJ” spent time carrying multiple packs as others tired or rotated duties. “Moore” was scouting ahead and behind to make sure we were on the right track and were not walking into ambushes or dead ends. And yes, all of us saw all sorts of fun/scary/bizarre hallucinations, which only added to the surreal quality of the experience. Eventually the 03:30 pickup time passed, and we were pulled off the mountain some miles form the bottom, but it was ok, nobody had completed the entire hike, even though team #2 got the furthest of any team ever. The ride back was another adventure, as we accumulated 100 team burpees every time someone fell asleep. Between both vans, I think we had 1000 when we rolled back into HQ.
After cleaning the vans and a few logistics it was back at it with burpees and our next mission. We broke into two teams, basically the healthy, and the rest, then ran back to the beach. From there we split up with the healthy group heading off into enemy territory to infiltrate, and the rest of us to build a huge “hide” to support them. This was a large pit in the sand, with camouflage including logs, branches, weeds, and tons and tons of seaweed. From there we all got in and completely covered ourselves and waited for our healthy team to return. Sounds easy, but it was so uncomfortable, the hour or more we spent in there seems like five, and sleeping was “discouraged” as we like to say. I had about 20 minutes where there was so much seaweed and crap by my face I felt I wasn’t getting enough clean air and had a suffocating feeling I had to fight off. I also head one man snoring, and several beach goers walk right past us chatting and even stop for a while, so apparently our hide was at least effective. I can only imagine if we all jumped up at once the scare we would have given those ladies. Knowing the sense of humor of our instructors, I’m surprised they didn’t order us to do it. Our infiltration team returned, and we all headed back to HQ.
Once we got back it was more burpees and grinder, then we ran up the street to breakfast. It was at an actual restaurant, and the only instruction was “Order whatever you want, but you have to clear your plate”. As usual, it was a trap, anyone ordering the pancakes discovered they were literally 12”-14” and close to a pound each. The rest of us stocked up on everything we could shove into our mouths. It was near noon on Sunday, and we knew the end was near, but also knew it wouldn’t be that easy. We decided to take food since we had the opportunity, and shoved our faces full. This might have been a mistake for some…..
After burpee long jumping our way back to HQ, we went into a Yoga class with Commander Divine. After approx 30 minutes of Yoga and breathing exercises, we’re instructed to lay back and close our eyes. Even though we all knew it was another trap, it didn’t matter, I was excited for the 5 min of sleep and took it, knowing I was going to wake up to hell. Not long after, hell it was……
Sirens, yelling, hoses, ice water baths, diving masks filled with water, etc, etc, they saved all the stops for the next 2 hours. It was the most brutal grinder session I’ve ever been a part of, seen, or heard of outside of the military, and we got worked. The pace and intensity was amazing, but even after 50 hours, the team was still working together, and nobody was panicking or losing their cool. In fact, I think this might have been the best evolution of the weekend, because we all knew by this point we could handle anything, and whatever it was, we’d get through it together.
It’s Not Over Till It’s Over
As the grinder progressed our internal clocks were telling us we were close. We saw more and more staff coming out to gather round, and all signs pointed to completion soon, that’s when they hit us in the gut on more time. As we were completing another round of Log PT, Commander Divine told us it wasn’t good enough and we’d be going down to the beach to practice till we got it right. This meant another 2-3 hours minimum. We took about 1 second to absorb the hit, adjust to our new reality, and yell “Hooyah!!”
As we all got about 100 yards from HQ, Commander Divine turned around and had us stop. We recited parts of the Seal Code, we were told to dig deep for the upcoming evolution, then out of the blue he says “Kokoro 20, class secured”. This time it took us a couple seconds to understand it was over, and we were done. We set the logs down and as they say in one of my favorite movies “There was much rejoicing”.
We took the logs back to HQ, I was lucky enough to be right behind Commander Divine as he jumped in personally on our log to help us back, and then it really hit me. I had made it, but more importantly “we” had made it. Of the original 23, we graduated 21, and both of the quitters were gone in the first 8 hours. The sense of community forged in just two days was incredible, and I feel like I’ve known these guys forever.
On a personal note, I accomplished my goals heading in to complete the course, and learn something about myself. One of the sayings was something like “When a man is beaten, tormented, and defeated, he is ready to learn something”. Looking back this is the truest statement I think I’ve heard in my life. It was at my absolute lowest on that mountain I was forced to evaluate my entire self and my life and make a decision as to my immediate and long term future. Would I accept the situation and the challenges as impossible, or would I forget all the bull shit, and make my own destiny? Or, as Luke and the instructors say “There are two types of pain in the world, the temporary pain of discipline, and the permanent pain of regret.”
I choose discipline, effort, and honor, and from this moment forward, regret can kiss my ass!!!
I couldn’t complete this story without thanking the tons of people that helped me get to and though this experience, starting of course with the man in the middle of it all….
Luke Kayyem – Thank you for everything, from showing me the Crossfit way two years ago, to encouraging me daily to be better as an athlete, husband, and human being. This journey would have been impossible without you, and the bond we’ve developed will last forever. You’re my coach, you’re my friend, and you’re my brother.
Jill Robinson – I could not have completed this experience without the support and love of my wife. Her willingness to stand beside me as I search for that greater meaning is amazing, and her unconditional love truly was the light that got me through the night.
CFS Coaches & Staff – Naj, Tiff, Skip, Jen, Hallie, Ashley, Jeff, Don, Mel, Erin …..everyone!! The community you’ve developed, and the instruction you give is second to none, and formed the backbone of my skill set. Thank you for making CFS such a special place, inside and outside of the box.
CFS Students – I can’t tell you how many times I was told good luck, or asked how many months/days till I left. I felt the support of everyone as I was preparing, and could feel it once I was there, not only was I representing myself, but our entire community. Special shout outs to the Friday Sealfit boys, I can’t wait to see who’s next, and all my friends in the Monday 6:00am class.
Tiffany Divelbiss – Diet, Food as Fuel, & 80/20……I can’t tell you how many times I heard these over the past two years. It wasn’t until I got serious and sat down with Coach Tiff did my training take off to the next level. The tools, guidance, and patience she showed made the lifetime of bad habits easier to break, and provided the fuel for my engine to continue 50 hours straight.
Mark DiSalvo & Arizona Occupational Physical Therapy – Mark and his staff have been miracle workers getting my body back together and in a position to try this. We had many ups and downs, mainly due to my dumb ass overtraining, but when the chips were down, everything worked exactly as it should have, and I came out injury free.
Don Wong – Two days before I left I visited Don for some last minute mental training, I can’t say enough how just a few key things made all the difference. Locking down my mantra for the weekend, learning to focus and rejuvenate during down times, and focusing on the positive side all contributed to success.
Sealfit Coaches & Staff – I can’t ever begin to thank them enough, beginning with their past and current service to our country, all the way through the mental and physical hell that is Kokoro. The environment they create is one that I’m not sure can be simulated outside of the military, and the discovery and lessons learned coming out of their experiences are second to none. They’re the scariest bunch of friendly guys you’d never want to disappoint. J
Kokoro Class 20 Students – I don’t know what to say here, I think the bonds we forged will last forever, and the experiences we shared will always be remembered. There were several occasions I required the pure physical help form the team, but I really drew strength from our collective will, and our determination to finish. I have a million moments and stories, each one is awesome in its own way, and I’m lucky to walk away with them.
KOKORO CLASS 20…..HOOYAH!!!!!