Nothing I could have imagined would have prepared me for Kokoro 52…. I was pushed further and harder than I have ever been pushed before, I developed a deep camaraderie with men who were strangers to me hours only before, I hardened myself in ways that would have been impossible outside of this environment, and I was pushed to and through my break point again and again and again. Hooyah!
We began at 10am on Friday. Of the 30 of us who signed up, 25 of us showed up. 5 down before we had even begun.
As we nervously milled about, getting to know one another, an absolute specimen of man approached us and began barking instructions and warnings.
“Stay hydrated men, many have been hospitalized for lack of hydration. Always stay within 6 feet of your swim buddy, we will be doing dangerous things – this is for your own safety. You are your team – this event is not about yourself, the more your give, the more you’ll get. This event is punishing, I expect only 30 percent of you will complete.” Encouraging words to start the day.
We were off on our first evolution. 40 pound rucks carried approximately 2 miles to the “Grinder,” where the “Breakdown” would begin. 20 minutes or so into the hike, one gentleman began to struggle to keep up. Yikes, this guy was in trouble!
The breakdown began around 11am… 6 massive ex- navy seals ran out at us barking orders and creating panic and confusion amongst us. Buckets of ice water were thrown on us, and we were sprayed in the face by a hose as we conducted push-ups, flutter kicks, bear crawls, overhead squats and burpees. The ex-seals wrestled our weapons away and tossed them making us bear crawl to our weapons and into an ice bath. Welcome to Kokoro! One guy had a deer in headlights look after 45 minutes… not looking good for him. I don’t think he really knew what he got himself into. He may have lasted another hour or so…
Drill counts, formations, rotating group leaders. Water sprays on the face, more ice baths. More drills. We must have been drilling for 3 hours or so at this point. Are we having fun yet?
Abraham, I hear you can do 30 strict pull-ups in a row. Where did this guy get his information from?
“Well, I never said strict… “
“So, you’re telling me you’re a liar”
“Well no, I didn’t say that, either”.
“Fellas, we have a liar on our hands here,” he belted to the group “let’s see how many pull-ups you do during the Physical Standards Test,” he grinned at me.
I wasn’t going to let them get under my skin as they are trained to not only physically challenge you, but mentally as well. I don’t like being called a liar, but I bit my lip.
As part of Kokoro there are two tests, one of the two you must complete, otherwise you are considered a burden on your team and are asked to leave.
Test 1: Murph. Wearing a 35 pound backpack we were required to run one mile, do 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, and run another mile in under 70 minutes. I almost quit after 5 pull-ups, in my head I thought there was no way I could get to 100 (I had trained with a 20 pound pack). I kept pushing, one set at a time, one movement at a time. Focus, breathe, visualize. I destroyed my hands, but completed in 66:52. Major win for my confidence – physically I was capable of participating in Kokoro! Approximately 10 guys or so did not make the cut off… they would have another chance to qualify during the PST (physical standards test).
We then went on to burpee exercises, bear crawls, low crawls hill sprints and man carries.
During one of our man carries, I’ll never forget the image of one teammate projectile vomiting while on the shoulders of another guy. Again and again and again. He finally stopped, looked back at me, smiled and gave me a thumbs up. Hooyah!
Test 2: PST: 1 mile run (under 930) 50 push-ups (in under 2 minutes) , 50 sit-ups (in under 2 minutes) 50 squats (in under 2 minutes) and 10 strict pull-ups (no time). Since I had completed murph in time I had qualified, but I still had the respect of myself and my teammates on the line. “Abraham, I heard you can run under a 6 minute mile as well!” These guys were FB stalkers! By this point, I had learned not to respond. Wet boots, pants and 8 hours of exercise, I ended up running a 730 mile. Fine. Pushups: 62, sit-ups: 47 (failure!), squats: 92 (#2 in the group!), pull-ups: 11.
There were about 3 remaining who had failed both tests. There were 19 or so left at this point.
It was dark and cold now. They brought out the flood lights, where we lost the view of the coaches and only heard their barking orders. More physical training.
Finally, they brought out food for us, which I devoured. Some did not eat as much. Given the number of hours of exercise we had completed and not knowing the next time we would eat, I thought it silly not to eat as much as I possibly could hold down.
I’ll fondly think of our warmth circles. It was about 50 degrees outside and we were wet. As we waited for the next evolution, I suggested we get in a circle to my delta team. Heavenly! We decided to rotate people in and out of the middle of the circle – what a treat to be surrounded by all that warmth. I was ready for the next evolution!
The trainers rotate in 10 hour shifts. We were on to the next set of trainers. These guys were not nice.
We began with a set of push-up drills. No matter what we did, we were punished for not doing them correctly. We must have done a few hundred. My arms were shot, my entire body shaking. Welcome to the next evolution! My energy and spirit were beginning to drain.
The coaches pep talk: “We’re about to ruck Mt. Palomar. It sucks. It is painful, it is cold, it is a mind fuck. There are 19 of you left – 19 will not come back. Drop out now and make it easy on yourself and your teammates.” Three took the bait and left. Down to 16.
Mt. Palomar was about 1 hour away. Our rucks were heavy, about 50 lbs, and the rucks themselves were very uncomfortable, shoulder straps tearing into my back muscles and weight sitting on my lower spine. I later referred to my ruck as the “pain train.”
We began our hike around midnight. The end unknown to us. My energy was low as my body worked to digest the food, and the hour long car drive stiffened my body. As we began the ruck up 6,100 ft of vertical elevation, I began to fall behind the pack. Trouble was ensuing.
My swim mate was required to stay with me and offered inspiration to push me along. As we caught the group, they suggested that I lead the pack along with another gentleman. The other “slow” fellow was big and heavy. By his grunting and contorted footsteps I could tell he was in a lot more pain than I. He slowly started to fall back. Eventually I heard from one of the other guys he couldn’t go on and decided to drop. Down to 15.
My focus was simple: breathe deeply through the nose, one foot in front of the other. Visualize making it to the top. Rinse wash repeat. The pain was very real, and I almost quit several times. My focus on my “why” moved me forward through the pain. I chuckled to myself, “so this is what a death march is like. Awesome way to spend 2500 bucks!”
After literally hours, we made it to the top. Here we were given 15 minutes to scarf down an MRE. I had beef cheddar Mac and cheese. Yummy!
I was re-energized on the way down and lead the group down the mountain. More than anything I wanted to get the “pain train” off my back and wanted the “death march” to end. Silly thought in retrospect. The Seals test being able to redirect and manage pain, not getting it to end.
Several others had taken ill during the march, one guy vomiting, another with an ankle injury so severe that he could no longer carry his pack down the mountain. A serious injury, but he did not want to quit. We rotated carrying his pack and his weapon down the mountain. Everyone felt his pain as he repeatedly cried out during the 10 mile journey back down the mountain. Each step was agony for me as I had developed massive blisters on the balls of both of my feet. We arrived at our starting point around 630am. Absolutely brutal.
The trip back was challenging in a completely different way: it was comfortable! The van was hot, and we were cold, sleep deprived, food deprived, in pain and exhausted. They lulled us back to comfort.
As we arrived back to camp, I was jolted awake. “Back on the grinder and in formation!”
Several of the guys were already out there, and I could see them getting sprayed with the hose and jumping into the ice bath. 50 degree weather.
I had found my limit. No more. It would be another 30 hours of the same experience, my mind and body could not wrap itself around continuing on.
“Coach, I’m done.”
I did not want to quit. I wanted to return the energy that my team had provided to me. I was not letting myself down, I was letting my team down, but my will to go on had come to an end.
I was not prepared enough for this test, physically, and mentally. I was not tough enough to continue on. This was more challenging than anything I had ever attempted, by a multiple of 10. I got exactly what I wanted from this event, which was to find my absolute limit, a place where I could take no more.
Throughout the next 30 hours, 5 more dropped, leaving 9. 30 started the journey, 9 completed. 3 of the 9 are going on to attempt to become Navy Seals. These gentlemen are incredible badasses, and I have the utmost respect for them.
This was an intense journey. One I will remember and cherish. The pain was momentary, but the process of becoming more and pushing myself beyond any imaginable boundary will stay with me throughout my life.
I went to battle with 25 other men at Kokoro 52, and it was an absolute pleasure sharing that experience with each and every one of them.
I can’t wait to give it another go.