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S.E.R.E. Urban Challenge – New York City Weekend – Part 3

After the Brooklyn bridge crawl, we arrive to the Brooklyn War Memorial early in the morning. It’s getting light, but I can’t feel the sun yet. Another couple of hours. Rucks are off. I inquire about pee facilities, and am sent in the direction of the closest bushes. I am no stranger to bushes, but given how we are in the middle of the city, a friendly coffee shop might have been more respectful to the public.

I try to get some calories in. This is the first endurance event where I do not time my nutrition intake – largely, because I expect we would be missing our food for a good portion of the event. So far, the intensity has been pretty low, so I am not bonking.

Mission: each person would complete 4 exercises, covering the length of the park – dragon walk, drunken bear, frog hops and high crawl, and then sprint back. Apart from frog hops, I think the other three exercises were made up by the instructors on the spot. I think in the end, all four ended up looking approximately the same – awkward crawl on hands and feet [see photo below – I can’t even identify which of the four we were doing here…].

This was to be a race between teams. In other words, each person had to complete the exercise and sprint back, before the next member of their team could take off. Each person had to complete each exercise. The first team to complete the whole challenge would win a hot chocolate break.

With 10-12 people on each team, this challenge resulted in a lot of waiting time. I try my best to complete the exercises, but they are pretty hard on my wrist, and so I move slowly. I am also absolutely freezing at this point, and bored out of my mind.

See if you can find me in this picture… [I actually do not remember this being taken].

I wasn’t the only one struggling with the cold, as we lost two people at some point during this challenge – two women from other teams started shivering violently, and simply could not warm up, and thus, were advised to discontinue. I thank Mike for helping me to survive this portion of the trek, as he was trying his best to keep me warm. That guy is an oven on legs. Must be nice to be generating this much heat all the time.

What seems to be hours later, our team wins this challenge. We lock elbows for a triumphal last sprint, and then sprint even faster to the nearby diner for a hot chocolate. “Screw hot chocolate”, I think to myself. “I need a coffee.”. I feel sluggish and sleepy.

As we walk in, Mike is already in a booth with Jessica, another brave soul, who has been following us around, freezing her butt off and taking pictures. I get a coffee, and feed myself from three plates that Mike and Jessica push my way. A little piece of sausage, a bite of French toast. And coffee, glorious coffee.

It’s time to go. I hold on to my coffee up, as if it contains diamonds, and head back to the memorial. The rest of the teams are already there, crowded around one of the instructors. We get a short talk on situational awareness, or paying attention to your environment. The instructor points out how important it can be in a military context to be aware of small details. Then we complete few rounds of fireman carry – this is my first time carrying someone like that. It’s not bad. I’m just constantly worried about dropping my buddy on his head.

I am a little thrown by the fact that the memorial itself is never acknowledged (apart from using the nearby bushes as a port-a-potty). The inscription reads: “This memorial is dedicated to the heroic men and women of the Borough of Brooklyn who fought for liberty in the Second World War 1941-1945 and especially to those who suffered and died. May their sacrifice inspire future generations and lead to universal peace.” The memorial was built in 1951 in memory of 300,000 American men and women who served in World War II. Using the bushes for a pee break seems somewhat blasphemous.

I mean… talk about situational awareness…

Next mission: we are instructed to make our way to the waterfront park, with a side note that the last team to make it there would get wet.

We run to the wrong part of the park, and are last to arrive. The rest of the group are already stripping. A couple of onlookers are hanging around, trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

Cold water was in the books from the beginning, and I’m just thankful we did not have to get wet at night. At this point, sun is up, and I am warming up. Well, at least I was… Until we touch the water. We are instructed to keep the S.E.R.E. shirt, and line up, hooking elbows. I keep my socks on to provide some minimal protection for the feet, and since I have a dry pair.

Photobomb alert – watch out for a random naked guy in the background. I have no idea who that is. I mean… it couldn’t have been one of the instructors…

We turn around, and get into plank, with our wrists and elbows in the water. The next item on the instructor’s entertainment agenda includes us doing multiple dive bombers, making sure to dip the face and head in the water on every rep. I end up tightly squeezed in by teammates on each side.

Ironically, the cold water feels good on my wrist, and I’m immediately awake. That lasts about ten seconds, after which the refreshing feeling turns into a burn, and finally into intensifying pain from the cold. Cold water immersion is the most common pain manipulation used in social science research. And, apparently, in mental endurance events… It’s easy, cheap, and clean. [Hello, Death Race.]

Another rep, another rep. There is a large flat rock in front of my face as I lower down, so I have to awkwardly crank my neck to the side to get a full dip in the water.

My hands. I can’t feel my hands. Or rather, I can feel them, and they are burning, screaming in pain. Fifteen reps or so… My skin feels like it’s bursting from the inside. Finally, instructors call us out.

Note to self. I do not deal with the cold very well. HA! Newsflash.

Next round of torture… Instructors ask who wants to volunteer for the next [optional] challenge to earn extra points for their team. Very simple rules – all volunteers get into the water. The last person standing wins their team two extra points.

I shrug and start putting my clothes back on. After a short bout with cold water, I know I wouldn’t last long enough to make a difference. This is not where I would be of benefit to my team.

Leyla, on the other hand, is already sprinting to the water. Jeff joins her – and thus, we have two (really stubborn) individuals from our team volunteer themselves for extra points. In total, eight people volunteer – Leyla is the only woman to go in. The rest of us are waiting for them with emergency blankets and towels. Few guys keep their shirts off – to immediately provide body heat to those coming out of the water.

They go in and lock elbows. Few squats, heads above the water. The first dip, head under water – full submersion. Then again. And again.

The first phase of cold water immersion is cold shock response, and lasts for about a minute after entering the water. Rapid cooling of the skin results in an automatic gasp reflex, impacting the breathing. Some people report the sensation of constriction in the chest. The arteries narrow, and the heart muscle has to work harder to deliver blood to the tissues.

One by one, four people get out of the water. Four remain. Jeff starts to shake. Leyla’s lips and then face is turning various shades of blue. “I don’t like this”, I think to myself. “I don’t like this one bit”.

Although for most adults, hypothermia does not set in until you’ve been submerged in ice water for 30 minutes or more, it only takes a few minutes to start losing basic motor functions, such as strength in the hands and feet.

“She’ll keep going until she passes out”, says a teammate. I believe him.

The funny thing is that no one “won” this challenge. The instructors pulled the remaining four out after about seven minutes. The three guys have to half-carry Leyla, who collapses into our arms. One of the guys on our team starts carrying her, but stumbles, and they both fall awkwardly on the rocks.

I think this is about where I lose it… Tears well up, as I look away from Leyla, who is shaking violently. “This is stupid. This is dumb. This is too much. I am an athlete, not a freaking Polar bear”, I think to myself. Thoughts race. I am angry. At instructors. At Leyla. At myself. I walk away from the team, cheeks wet. Mike is nearby, watching the circus unfold. I hang on his neck. “I can’t”, I’m sobbing. “I just can’t”.

“I think Leyla really needs you right now”, is all he says. I get up, wipe away tears, and shaking myself (but not from the cold this time) head back. I think this is the definition of “getting your shit together”. Or as I often say… “finding my inner penguin”. [“Fight Club” reference – yay!]

“My feet, my feet…”, Leyla keeps saying. Everyone is rubbing her torso and arms with towels, but her feet, bluish-white, are sticking out from underneath the emergency blanket. I sit down next to her, grab her feet, and lifting my shirt, press them against my bare stomach.

Few minutes later, dressing is a challenge. Have you ever tried putting on compression tights? Have you ever tried putting them ON someone? Three people tug and pull. The base layer is on. Emergency blanket wrapped around the torso, then tightly zipped up jacket. Few heating pads in her shoes.

Finally, we gather around for a lesson on escaping from handcuffs. Leyla and Jeff are still shaking. I am not quite mentally present. I am shaken. I am angry. I am also tired and sleep-deprived, and that’s not helping.

We are ten hours into the challenge… I am ready to be done.

[to be continued…]

P.S. You can read more about the phases of cold water immersion here.

Signing off, Solo


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