By Brian Reed, MTI Contributor
It’s 0530 and I’m alone in my garage gym – just enough space next to my wife’s car and my snowblower and surrounded by tuff boxes containing some Army kit and climbing/hiking gear. I was midway through 70 reps of sandbag get-ups at 60# (per Session 21 of Peak Bagger V4), and I asked myself, “Why the hell am I doing this?”
I’m 56 years old and recently retired from 3+ decades in the Army…I don’t need to do this shit. I looked at my 50# and 35# bags and thought that I should at least drop down a weight. It’s the end of January and I’m in an unheated garage in an old unit sweatshirt, shorts, a knit hat and some light gloves. I thought, “This is stupid. I should go back to bed.” But I continued, not because I’m some sort of hero, physical specimen, or masochist. I’m just an ordinary dude, not super gifted with physical attributes – I’ve had to work hard to achieve the right levels of fitness throughout my life/career. I was never the guy who was going to wake up on any given morning and go out and max the APFT or ACFT…I had to train for it (spoiler alert – I never maxed the ACFT even when training for it.)
But I’m not going to quit. I consider myself a disciplined person and a little hard-headed. I recycled Ranger School twice back in the day (started with Ranger Class 1-90 and graduated with Ranger Class 3-90). Before that, West Point didn’t come easy to me, but I didn’t quit, and I graduated. And I’ve always believed that doing physically hard things built mentally hard people.
Every physical therapist in the world would rail against me for this, but as a battalion commander getting my unit ready for a year in Iraq, we did our battalion runs (no less than 5 miles) in body armor. Why? Because it’s hard and physically hard things make you mentally hard. I don’t have any academic research to back me up on this. This is just based on my own experiences over a lifetime of service as an Infantryman in the U.S. Army.
Anyway, I was in my garage gym that January morning because I’m going back to the White Mountains at the end of February, and I need to be ready.
Why the Pemi Loop…and How I Got There
I retired from the Army in 2023. I had a great career, but it was time. I wasn’t looking for something to fill a gap after retirement, but I was looking to prove something to myself – something physically hard that would also push me mentally. I was feeling soft and uninspired physically and mentally. For me, the two – the physical and the mental – are intertwined. I’ve always felt that physical toughness builds mental toughness. Push yourself past your perceived limits. Be mentally hard. “There are no crowds lining the extra mile…”
I’ve done a lot of hard shit in the Army – Ranger School, combat, long foot marches over unforgiving terrain, etc. All of it pushed me past the limits I thought I had. I don’t necessarily need someone else to push me or to remind me to suck it up, to quit whining, and to get it done. I can do that to myself.
That said, I do enjoy being part of a like-minded team working to achieve hard goals. The combination of this and my desire to do something hard pushed me to this event run by Guardian Revival, a non-profit for veteran’s and first responders. (https://www.guardianrevival.org/). I was intimidated at first – not by the event, but by the team I would be a part of. Veterans and first responders come in all shapes and sizes. Backgrounds are unique. How would I fit in?
How It Went
A random Google search will tell you all you need to know about the Pemigewasset (Pemi) Loop in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In short, it’s a collection of roughly 31.5 miles of interconnected trails, over rugged, knee-buckling terrain with over 9000 feet of elevation gain. For the physically gifted, it can be a one-day event. Most mere mortals make this a 2-3 day event. For our team and me in early June, it was a 3-day, 2-night backpacking trip with 36.66 miles of hiking in 45 hours, and 11,529 feet of elevation gain. It broke me off, and it was awesome.
We had miserable weather. It rained and it was cold on Friday and Saturday, with snow and sleet at the higher elevations. Again, this was June! This of course added to the suck level. Sunday though was beautiful! It was a tremendous way to finish it all up.
The footing was terrible. I spent a lot of time on my ass sliding down rocks. To be clear, this is not too out of the ordinary for me…grace and finesse have never been my strengths! I did earn the nickname “Bounce Back” when I took a pretty good spill coming off a summit and some random hiker looked at me and said, “Wow, you bounced right up.”
And as it turned out, I fit right in with the group. The camaraderie was incredible. It was a well-organized event with professional guides and all-around great people with various life experiences. It was Type 2 fun – you know, the kind of fun that is hard and somewhat miserable when you’re going through it, but afterwards you’re like “that was great…. that was fun…I can’t wait to do it again!”.
What I Learned and Why I’ll Keep Doing It
I need to do physically hard things, or at least things that push me out of my comfort zone. It keeps me alive. And I love the process. Training for a big event and then the feeling of accomplishing something hard is good for my mental health, in addition to my physical health.
Coming clean, I have quit before, and I’ll never forget it. Under the guise of frostbite and altitude sickness and what’s best for the team, I quit on Denali several years ago (my therapist and others told me I didn’t, but I know the deal). I can’t shake that feeling of not being in the right place mentally. I failed myself and others. Fortunately, it wasn’t catastrophic. Maybe I’m constantly looking to prove myself…to myself.
I feel this tremendous need to continue to push myself to stay young. Age is a number and it’s real, but your mental and emotional toughness is ageless. The Army kept me young and now that I don’t have that, I need something.
As a side note, I was feeling great when we got off Pemi after 3 incredible but grueling days, and then I met 2 dudes in the parking lot who just finished running the trail in less than 8 hours. A good lesson in humility was an appropriate way to end the trip.
Brian Reed is a U.S. Army Veteran with 34+ years of active-duty service as an Infantryman.