S.E.R.E. Challenge 005 Philly
Having completed S.E.R.E. Boston but falling short of winning, I needed to redeem myself. Coming into this one, my body wasn’t totally there for me. My right ankle and leg were still messed up from Trek last weekend, but I wasn’t going to let it hold me back. I wanted that Ka-Bar and I would do what I had to in order to get there.
We gathered around Rittenhouse Park for the Rally Point and waited for the chaos to ensue. Sure enough the instructors showed up and ordered us to line up in the park for gear inspection and the usual introduction. We wrote our numbers on the plain white t shirts and then spray painted the S.E.R.E. logo on them.
After inspection was over, team leaders were picked. I immediately volunteered for the job and made my way up front. The leaders then had to collect all the shirts and make some “sugar cookies”. Pile up the shirts, dump 2 bags of sand on them as well as any water from their camelbaks. I don’t need a ton of water to complete a challenge, but would’ve been happier without this part. Next we had to mix up the sand and shirts and water of course. Making a big uncomfortable scratchy mess of them.
Time to pick teams. In the past this was done dodgeball style and the leaders had control. This time we had none, but I lucked out. I picked almost entirely the team I had wanted save for 1 stranger in the group, but he pulled his weight and did a great job. The teams were picked by randomly grabbing shirts from the pile.
Once we picked teams, it was time to figure out the team weights. This of course is done by relay race. We lined up in the park and each leader had to low crawl out to a point across the park and back. When we were almost back to the start, the instructors decided we weren’t fast enough so we had to start over and crawl out again, but this time sprint back. Did I mention still wearing my 50lb ruck? Next the other team members followed suit and it came down to a photofinish. Too close to call so there was a tiebreaker. More low crawls, this time as a team across the park. I’ve done my fair share of crawls but nothing compared to 005. I set up a count of 10 followed by checking on each other, straightening out and repeating. Communication and teamwork are key. When they break down you’re punished with PT and it makes things difficult. We moved on steadily and covered the ground without incident. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
Having won the race, we got to choose our team weight, either 2 ammo cans and a ruck or a pelican case. With 5 team members able to switch the weights around we went with the smaller ruck and cases. I picked up our gear and we headed off to the side for some water and snacks if we wanted. The other team didn’t get this break. It pays to be a winner, as was repeated to us many times over the next 14 hours.
We got our first mission and needed to head over to the path along the Schuylkill River. Checked the map, figured out what we wanted to do and set out on our way. At first our team was pretty even with the other, but we kept a steady pace and kept moving, never walking. The other team tried to sprint past at times, but then would slow down so we leap frogged each other a few times. The instructors didn’t like how the teams seemed to be together so we all had to do PT. After this we were up and moving again to the river. We managed to get there first and were allowed more time and water. Pays to be a winner.
The next mission was to get to the Art Museum so we took off down the path. The other team was moving along and we weren’t too far apart, but something didn’t agree with my stomach (probably the dinner I ate just prior to the challenge). My team was forced to stop while I dry heaved a few times. This turned out to be great for us, because we noticed that we could cut through the woods and up a hill which would put us right at the bottom of the Rocky Steps at the museum. After a little bushwhacking, we made it to the steps and there was no sign of the other team. More water and rest while we waited for them to show up. Eventually they came down the steps after having gone all the way around the museum and taking the long way. Another win for Team Badass as we ended up calling ourselves.
At this point Keith, the man in charge, took out a deck of playing cards and we played PT war. It’s just as it sounds, team that draws the lower card gets PT. This went on until the instructors got bored and we had to grab all our gear, then lunge up the Rocky Steps as a class. Once at the top we dropped our gear and hopped in the fountain for some dive bomber push-ups and flutter kicks. Plenty of each before getting out and doing some more PT to warm up before getting our next mission.
We had to head to the reservoir, which wasn’t on our map, but we had an idea of where it was and knew we could follow the path along the Schuylkill to get most of the way there. Again we resumed our pace, quick but not too fast that we’d tire out and never walking. After getting back to the path we had to do 2 minutes of PT for every 5 minutes of movement. This is just as much fun as it sounds, but I looked forward to the PT as it was a break for my slowly fading leg.
There were stops along the way to the reservoir for some classes on rope and first aid. The first aid was taught by my team’s instructor, John Myers and it was about triage and some basic aid for different injuries such as a “sucking chest wound” and “flail chest”. Assigning colors for priority of treatment and making sure to write on the wounded so that other medical help will have as much info as possible. For example writing the time you applied a tourniquet so that EMTs may know if it’s possible to save the limb. Great class as always.
One of the shadow instructors, Luke Kovacs taught the ropes class and we learned a few knots as well as a system for tying a rope bridge using carabiners as a pulley system to increase strength. The class was taught well and I really enjoyed the pulley idea. My only complaint is that over the course of the rest of the challenge, we were never tested on this again.
Making our way down the path, there were occasional “casualties” that we had to deal with. Note, not real injuries, just ones that we were informed of in order to test our knowledge from the first aid class. Everybody took action quickly and got our team back up and running well.
Our team was running well and we had good lines of communication open, but we were also quiet. We didn’t need the motivational coaching or yelling and we did what we needed to do. It’s important to stay unobtrusive in urban environments and residential areas. We’re guests in the city and don’t want to disturb the locals.
With what little intel we had, we found that we had a choice to make. Either climb another heavily wooded hill and get up to a road to follow to the next checkpoint or take the long way around. Climbing through the woods worked the first time so we went for it. All decisions were made as a team throughout the challenge and it really helped that we could think through things together and agree on it all.
Once again we made it to the checkpoint first and got to enjoy some water, snacks and a break while waiting for the others. We were also informed that the first team to get to the reservoir would get to hand off the team weight to the other team. This sounded like a nice bonus so we knew that we’d have to move well to get there.
Team leader shifted a few times amongst the group, but each time the leader stepped up and got the job done. We got our instructions on how to get where we needed to go and we made it happen. Keeping our steady pace was key, not too fast that we’d tire, but making good progress. We noticed that the other team was following us so we paused at the base of a bridge with no easy access to the path. The other team passed us and stopped about 50 feet down the road. We went with our usual thing and climbed through the trees to the bridge, then crossed and set out on our way. At this point we really started to put some distance between ourselves and the other team. We tried to stick to the shadows and keep the pace. One wrong turn along the way, but we turned around and got back on track quickly and thanks to our lead, it didn’t cost us.
We got to the reservoir and were able to enjoy a nice break and some water and snacks from our rucks. Thanks to Simple Fuel for the granola to keep us going as well. No sign of the other team for a while and we began to wonder what was going on, but a man walking down the road answered that for us. He told us that a group of “backpackers” was looking for the reservoir and that they weren’t too far down the road.
We had redistributed some of the things from the team weight, mostly random tools and water bottles, so we took this time to put all the tools back for the other team to take charge of our weight. Pays to be a winner. It was also time for a class by the lovely Lynn Lena on protecting yourself when in an urban environment alone. What to watch for and how to react when approached with different weapons, as well as a couple basic self-defense moves. Then we got to practice them.
We were also treated to a late night bootcamp session which really took a toll on my leg. I had to modify some of the exercises or stay in plank for a long time instead because I couldn’t do what I wanted to. This was really starting to frustrate me, but I kept silent and aside from letting the team and instructors know that it was an issue, I kept it contained.
After bootcamp it was time to get wet again. Into the muddy water for some divebombers and flutter kicks, then even some team rocking chairs. The water was warmer than the fountain but it was a little refreshing even though quite dirty and I sank into the mud up to my knees. We were told to blow bubbles in the water and even motorboat it. While getting ready for rocking chairs, one team member cut his hand on some glass and shot up with a bunch of expletives and headed for the instructors to get it taken care of. The rest of us got to finish up the chairs and then do PT to warm up again. Including some jogging and lunges. My limping/jogging must have looked a little funny, but it was what I could manage at that point so I made it work.
Checked on our teammate’s hand before we got our next objective. He had a few cuts and one that had the meat of his finger showing. Not a good sign, but being a tough guy he taped it up and kept moving. We were told that we needed to get to Tun Tavern and that we had 2 hours to get there. One teammate was relatively local and knew the general area of the city we’d need to get to so after a few of us discussed which way the city actually was, we headed out. Cutting corners when we could and always being forced to obey traffic laws, we made our way back with the typical 5 minutes of shuffling and 2 minutes of PT.
Philly residents didn’t seem to know where or what Tun Tavern was so we just kept moving, even receiving some odd looks and questions from locals. By the time we got to the city, it had been a long time since we saw the other team and couldn’t really tell whether they were way ahead/behind/missing. Not letting it get us down, we pushed on through the city and made it down to Front St where we finally saw the sign in remembrance of the birth place of the Marines. No sign of the other team so we sat down on the steps nearby for a break with some water and snacks.
During our 40 minute break here, we did get a little wary and wonder where the other team was, but sure enough they showed up eventually and put our minds at ease. My leg was hurting like hell, but I kept my mouth shut as much as I could. Lucky for me, my teammate had some painkillers so I took one and it kept me going throughout the rest of the challenge.
In typical S.E.R.E. Challenge fashion, we had to use our brains a little here. Half of each team was blindfolded and in our case 3 out of 5, then handed a rubix cube. We had to chair-sit back to back and solve the cube like that and only 1 person was allowed to speak at a time. Each person could only make 2 turns at a time and only while in a chair-sit. A few minutes in, one teammate suggested that we use our 2 turns to nullify anything and let the people who could see work on it, then we eventually just had 1 of the sighted people working to make it happen.
This was an exercise in futility but the lesson was learned about communication and intel. While I liked the idea of the blindfolds and teamwork to solve a problem, I didn’t really like the choice of rubix cube, but I understood it. After the puzzles we were told that 1 team member must remain blindfolded but we could switch out who was wearing the blindfold. I kept mine on and we went to the next challenge, a lunge relay race. Listening to what we were told, the team lunged away and when it was my turn, I handed off the blindfold so I could see for my part. The painkiller kicked in and I lunged like a champ. It was great just to be able to move without worrying about it.
We lost the lunge relay and I retrieved my blindfold. Next objective was to get to Jolly’s piano bar, not too far away but while blindfolded it became pretty interesting. My teammate tied a bowline knot that we learned in 003 and I grabbed the rope to use him as my seeing eye dog. The team called out when I had hazards in front of me and sometimes even when there weren’t just so I could look dumb. We had fun with it and we were all smiles. This was the first and only checkpoint that we didn’t get to first so we were rewarded with the pelican case. It was large and awkward but the other team didn’t seem to leave much in it so we didn’t mind at all.
At this point we were about 11.5 hours in, but in good spirits. The next objective was to get to the National Constitution Center, facing the Liberty Bell and we had 14 minutes to do it. This was about 1.4 miles according to our instructor and we hauled ass to get there. Once we hit the lawn he held up the timer on his phone and it said 13:46. We made it by 14 seconds. Time to sit, drink some water and wait for the other team.
It was a bright sunny day and quite warm too. Our next task was handed to us. Low crawls. Start at one end of the field and go. We weren’t told where we the end was, just to start and to do it. The team weight and all rucks needed to stay off the ground as well so we attached the pelican case to a teammate over his legs. I started a count and we set out. 10 counts of crawls, 5 second rest to square the line and check on the team. This continued for some time until the instructors informed us that 1 member of the team now had a “sucking chest wound”. We acted fast and ripped up a ziplock bag then duct taped it to cover the wound on 3 sides, allowing for drainage and such on the 4th.
We now had to carry the wounded as well while low crawling. His ruck was handed off and dragged behind by rope and carabiner, while another teammate and I hooked our arms under his shoulders to pull him along as we crawled. This was uncomfortable for all involved but it worked well and we trusted the system. I still had the blindfold handy even though they were no longer needed after the piano bar checkpoint. We blindfolded the casualty to help with the sun overhead. After reaching a brick walkway our teammate was revived, but then I was told that I had “flail chest” so I became the wounded and retrieved my blindfold. My chest was duct taped to equalize the issue with my chest and I was now the one being dragged. Another walkway and I was healed.
This went on for about 2 hours we were later told, but thanks to the count and communication we didn’t notice how long it was and were thankful for it. The teammate to my right was having hip issues but with what we thought was the end in sight, he toughed it out and we were proud to have him there. We switched to 5 counts of crawl and 10 for rest, but kept moving along. Once we got to Market St after 2 blocks of crawling, we were told to stand up and get in line. More water and a rest while we waited for the other team to crawl to our position.
The instructors said a little something about the day and how everybody was pushing along and doing what they could, but there was one more thing left to do. They like to end at war memorials so we would be rucking over to the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier just a few blocks away as a whole class, not individual teams.
We arrived as one and our team was awarded the Ka-Bar knives for our efforts. This was followed by lots of handshakes and hugs and a few pictures by the monument. 14 hours and 25 miles after we started, included over a mile of low crawls, we were done and had won. Next stop was a shower and a beer and they both felt great. Another successful weekend.