Rucking For Life

Rucking For Life

By Gordon Meehl

When I say that rucking literally saved my life, I mean just that. There’s no hyperbole in my statement. If not for my regular rucking program, the likely reality would have been that I would have ceased to exist.

After a stint as a college athlete, a couple of decades later I found myself as an out-of-shape and poorly motivated middle-aged me. I had a dream job in marketing tactical weapons and muzzle devices for a company that was a major player in the defense industry. I developed a passion for long-range precision shooting and heard about what is arguably the toughest shooting competition in the world, the Vortex Optics Eberlestock Mammoth Ultimate Sniper Challenge, commonly known as Mammoth.

Mammoth is a grueling rucking and precision long-range shooting event. Competitors must carry everything they think they’ll need to be self-sufficient for three days of unknown physical, mental, and shooting challenges. The load-out of food, ammo, sleep systems to camp for two nights, and weapons systems usually weighs 45-50 lbs depending on what equipment decisions you make. 

One hundred teams of two will ruck various distances between stages at a minimum pace of 16 min/mile. The total mileage over three days is generally between 40 to 45 miles. Usually, half the competitors fail to finish the entire three days. While this is not a rucking competition, all ruck movements must be completed in the allotted time to avoid disqualification.

The first year I competed, I was part of the 55% of competitors who failed to make the minimum ruck pace. The second year, I managed to survive until the fifth ruck on the first day. I had trained more, had a reasonable pack weight (50lbs), and was generally on track to finish the weekend. It was an errant pinecone and my failure to watch my footing that led to rolling my “bum” ankle. I fell off pace by 10 seconds and missed the ruck cut-off time. The third year of competing I had dialed in my training with a year-long rucking program, figuring out a per mile calorie replenishment and hydration schedule and getting my pack weight down to a max of 45lbs. Crossing the finish line after the last 7-mile ruck was one of the most satisfying athletic accomplishments of my life. 

Training immediately started for my 4th year. Over the next 9 months, I upped my rucking, working through a rigid schedule of light, medium, and heavy days. Rucking was my zen and I was enjoying all the benefits. My 60lbs days were getting easier so pushing the pace became the norm. I was more than confident of a repeat Mammoth finish. 

On November 27, 2021, I found out just how critical rucking would be to my life. I decided a heavy day was in order since Mammoth was five weeks away. My wife and I had gone about 2 miles at a 14:30 minute pace when I noticed my collarbone starting to ache. I adjusted my straps but the pain got more acute. I told my wife I should stop rucking rather than risk an injury so close to the competition. She was concerned as I usually never put my pack down until the workout is finished.

While she was gone to get our car and collect my pack, I started to feel very dizzy and dysphoric, forgetting why I wasn’t still rucking. My neighbors noticed me pacing back and forth in front of their house and got very concerned since I was pale and apparently mumbling to myself. They called 911 and it sounded like the operator was asking a long list of diagnostic questions. All I remember was my neighbor shouting “I don’t know his medical history. It looks like he’s having a heart attack!” At that point, my wife pulled up and the neighbors struggled to get my pack in the car as I got into the passenger seat.

On the way to the emergency room, the pain in my collarbone increased and what felt like a combination of hunger pangs and indigestion rose just below my sternum. The words “heart attack” echoed in my ears, but dismissively I thought “I’m just really dehydrated and all I need is a few IV bags and I’ll be good.” 

I was in decent shape, on my way to my ideal weight. I’d been keeping my cholesterol and blood pressure in the healthy range and I’d been doing a strict cardio routine for months. The reality of a heart attack wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. 

As the nurses rushed to get all the electrodes in the right spot, the EKG spat out a long ribbon of squiggles. The tone of the room changed and a nurse muttered “oh dang” and double-timed to the doctor. Immediately the activity of the room went from purposeful to a well-organized machine. Noticing I had an IV in each arm, I was being given various color pills to swallow and told, “Okay Mr. Meehl, I need you to relax, we’re gonna do everything in our power to help you.”

After a brief discussion with the doctor, my wife walked over to me and gave me the news: “Babe, you’re having a massive heart attack, most of your heart isn’t getting any blood and they’ve called for life-flight to take you to a cardiac emergency center.”  My mind was racing. I’m not sure if I thought or actually said “no frickin’ way”, but I was in disbelief. There was no sledgehammer to the chest feeling. I was lucid. Surely this was an overreaction.

As one of the nurses asked me to swallow another pill, I fished for some reassurance, “I just don’t want to die today.” What I wanted to hear was an explanation of how far out of the realm of possibility that was. Instead, I heard “We’re going to TRY to not let that happen.” Try? Yoda’s voice popped into my head “Do or do not. There is no TRY.”

The nurses said a prayer for me. I was given a sedative and then wheeled out across a parking lot to the helipad into a waiting chopper. I don’t remember the ride to the cardiac care center, but I do recall the unique smell of fuel mixed with antiseptic as the flight nurse prepared my chest for more electrodes. 

Waking up in my room, I learned how serious things were. Only about 15% of my heart was getting any blood, two major arteries were 95% blocked with blood clots, including the LAD, known commonly as a widowmaker blockage. 

I was lucky. Lucky that my wife acted quickly taking me to the ER, lucky a helicopter was waiting, and lucky the surgeons were at the ready. After removal of the clots, angioplasty, and insertion of stents to strengthen the arterial walls, the prognosis was what the doctors called “encouraging.” Not exactly what I was hoping to hear, I accepted the fair condition listed on the cardiac ICU chart. 

In the days to follow, doctors monitored my heart. They were keying in on what damage had been done to my heart after such a “major cardiac event.” I was told that because the cardiac muscle was deprived of blood and oxygen, I’d have to be prepared for permanent cardiac muscle damage and some lifestyle changes. Amazingly enough, all the testing that followed showed only bruising with no muscle damage. This was confirmed in subsequent aftercare visits. 

My cardiologists were taken aback. The only explanation they offered was that my heart had been made strong enough to survive this type of trauma unscathed. I completely and fully attribute the strengthening of my heart to the fact that I was rucking so consistently. More than mere walking or jogging, moving with weight on my back supercharged my heart to withstand a widowmaker. Rucking was the only consistent exercise I’d been doing over the prior year. 

The story doesn’t end there though. This traumatic event not only impacted my heart but also my mind, body, and soul. My recovery was a two-year journey to developing the courage to put on a GORUCK pack and start moving down the road again. 

Gordon Meehl is a 56-year-old writer and architect living in Charlotte, North Carolina where he enjoys time with his wife and two daughters. He’s looking forward to taking part in many GORUCK events. Gordon will forever be an advocate for the benefits of rucking.