A full 90 minutes before the 2018 Ruck4HIT was to begin, ruckers started drifting in to the Courtyard Restaurant in Bourne, dodging a drizzle they hoped would get no worse. As rucksacks were weighed and last-minute preparations made, the crowd and chatter grew until all 10 teams were assembled. Stories were swapped of last year’s event, run through an all-night downpour, as teams assembled for photos and pep talks.
As for the rains of 2017, the misery made people stronger and more mentally tough, said Drew Caplin, of Nashville, TN, and Team Mitchell. “Especially when it was a downpour at 3 in the morning, that’s when you reach down and try to think to yourself, ‘Why am I here? I’m here for the best purpose in the world.’”
Caplin was back, along with more than half of the field. “It was definitely the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done,” said Thara Babineau of Cotuit. “But also the most rewarding.”
As the start time approached, Heroes In Transition co-founder Cyndy Jones asked everyone to be safe while trudging the roads and bike paths of all 15 towns on Cape Cod, from Woods Hole to the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown for the next 36 hours—or more. “The greatest gift I ever had in my life was being a mother, and that remains with me,” she said. “I feel like a mother to all of you, so you’d better all be careful. I won’t sleep until you’re all back.”
As the final notes of the national anthem—sung by 18-year-old Falmouth High School senior Taylor Gonsalves, whose mother, Tracey LaGrassa, was about to head out with the Barnstable County Sheriff’s Office team—rang out and a moment of silence was observed, ruckers were sent to the start line by Steve Spencer, co-director of the event, after one final question:
“Who do we ruck for?
The answer rang out in the night sky: “For those who can’t!”
Silence reigned as the ruckers and drivers walked to the start, perhaps contemplating the ordeal ahead. Under a huge flag hoisted by the Bourne Fire Department, they took off together at 12:30 a.m., headlamps shining the way to the first exchange zone, where the seven runners and two drivers making up most teams would find their still-tidy vans awaiting them.
The first night went by quickly, energy and adrenaline putting the lead teams ahead of schedule. Jones, hosting the first food stop, was ready for the first team long before the first birdsong wafted along the shoreline at 4:55 a.m. Her famous homemade scones—180 of them—were laid out alongside yogurt, bagels and bananas, soon to be swooped up as ruckers poured out of each van. A few hopped on a physiotherapy table set up in the headlights of a GMC Sierra pickup with veterans license plates before quickly heading back out on the road. By the time the last teams left, their headlamps were off.
The day had dawned, and by noon it was turning into a hot one. As the first teams arrived at the Eastham Superette soon after, temperatures had spiked into the high 80s and humidity hung heavily in the air. The soaking rains of last year were suddenly looking good.
Two legs later, runners were being greeted with ice packs to swaddle their wrists and neck. Physiotherapist Alycia Markowski took a break from treating co-director Nicole Spencer’s ankle—taped due to an early fall—to take the temperature of a rucker coming off the bike path. Uneasiness crept in: Would the ruckers have to contend with this intense heat all day?
Then, as Team Ruckhabilitation’s Brian Calandra gave a whoop while sprinting off on his leg, the sun retreated behind a cloud. Moments later, the hint of a sea breeze promised that the worst might be over. It was, but the heat had taken a toll.
By 5:30 p.m., in the Terra Luna parking lot, Nicole Spencer napped in the back of the Team Spencer van as a teammate slept with his feet dangling out the open passenger window. It was cool enough by now for coats, and the Cape Cod Coffee set up by its purveyors was welcome. Coming up soon was the first Team Challenge: climbing the Pilgrim Monument. One by one as they arrived, each team donned their rucksacks to tackle the 116 steps and 60 ramps up the 252-foot, 7.5-inch tower. Amid a howling wind, everyone paused for a team photo before scrambling back down.
They were only halfway done, heading into a steady headwind, and darkness would fall soon.
“Next year let’s do a golf outing,” joked one rucker at 7:30 on Saturday morning, wearily stretching his legs at exchange zone 58 of 70. It had been a long night of catnaps, but no real chance to sleep as vans leapfrogged their runners from one stop to the next. Resolve wrestled with stiff legs that didn’t want to work; the former would always prevail in the end but not without a battle. (“It takes a lot just to get out of the van,” said Andy Jordan of Team Mitchell. “It hurts everywhere.”) Emotions rode a roller coaster, from tears of exhaustion to pride at gaining on the team ahead.
At 12:34 p.m. Team Mitchell—the first team to finish—broke the tape at Dino’s Pizza and Sports Bar. After taking the lead at the fifth exchange, they would finish just over an hour ahead of Team Shamruck, the runner-up.
Asked how his team managed to come out on top, captain Chris Mitchell of Mashpee said it was a matter of taking things one leg at a time, but always as a unit. Even overnight, “Everybody’s out at every exchange rooting everybody on and keeping pumped up,” he said. His proudest moment? “The whole time; the team coming together and lifting people up when they need it.”
Among those at the finish line were Ron Bonvie of Bonvie Homes, the primary sponsor of the event, who said he was especially impressed by the crowd’s anticipation while waiting for the teams to round the last corner. As the brother of a Vietnam veteran who passed away not long after his return from the war, Bonvie said, “I know something about what a veteran or the family of a veteran goes through. It’s so important for us to do better by our veterans.”
With the finish-line party well under way, event co-directors Nicole and Steve Spencer asked for crowd’s attention, thanking the runners, drivers, support runners, physical therapy team, sponsors … everyone involved in helping raise what would reach $117,000 by the following Wednesday. They introduced Caroline Wilson (Sandwich High School) and Avery Maher (Barnstable High School) as recipients of the two $2,500 scholarships awarded to children of veterans or active duty military. They announced that part of the Ruck4HIT proceeds would be awarded to the Yarmouth Police Department for a new dog in honor of Sgt. Sean Gannon, killed on April 12 in the line of duty.
Then Steve Spencer wrapped things up. “We started on Friday morning with one question: Who do we ruck for?”
“For those who can’t!”