Packing It All In

Building on his military training, a veteran sparks a grab-and-go trend

What the...Ruck?: Jason McCarthy hopes to make rucking the next big fitness movement in the US through his military-inspired GORUCK challenges.
Courtesy of GORUCK

Not long after Jason McCarthy 01C graduated from Emory with a degree in economics, the September 11, 2001, attacks changed his future.

“After 9/11, the country was in a different spot, so I joined the army,” says McCarthy. “It just felt like the right thing to do.”

Those years serving in the United States Army Special Forces—and true love—were the genesis of GORUCK, a gear and event company poised to make revenue in excess of $20 million this year.

While McCarthy was serving in Iraq, his wife, Emily McCarthy, was serving as a diplomat with the Foreign Service in West Africa.

“It was a dangerous place, and I wanted her to be ready in case something happened,” says McCarthy, who used his special forces training to prepare a “go bag” for her to keep with her at all times. “It was filled with survival stuff—batteries, a solar powered radio, water, a multitool, running shoes. People always forget running shoes.”

In 2008, as McCarthy was transitioning out of the army, Emily suggested he take his talent for “go bags” and turn it into a company.

He took $75,000 of their deployment savings to design one backpack, the GR1, a backpack advertised as “tough enough for Baghdad and cool enough for the streets of New York City.”

It wasn’t until 2010, after an infusion of cash when he sold a portion of his company to his stepfather, that GORUCK made a profit. This year, he’s on track to sell about fifteen thousand of those $300 bags and GORUCK is projecting profits of more than $20 million. What began as a business to sell one backpack has divested into a selection of gear with an entire division devoted to GORUCK Challenges, “rucking” workout adventures based on Special Forces training.

“I had a sharp focus at Emory,” says the two-time All-American tennis champion who graduated Phi Beta Kappa. “My only goals were to do well in school and in tennis.”

After leaving the army, McCarthy earned an MBA from Georgetown as a Connelly Scholar, where he worked through the GORUCK business plan. When McCarthy says that rucking is the next big fitness trend, it’s easy to believe him.

“If you have carried books in a backpack across campus, or an airport, you’ve rucked,” says McCarthy.

In fitness terms, to "ruck" is to load weight into a backpack and walk or march. During a GORUCK Challenge, an ex-Green Beret or ex-SEAL adds drills and distances to the ruck, and they last anywhere from four to twenty-four hours, depending on the group’s skill level. There is no published route, just a starting point.

“We leverage the cadre’s experience and push past the limits,” says McCarthy. “It’s about movement, training, and performance, but it’s also a way of life.”

About 150,000 people have signed up, with more than nine hundred of the events—in the US and around the world—on the calendar for 2018.

“It’s not just a fad,” says McCarthy. “Rucking is the very definition of smart Homo sapiens doing work. The human back has evolved over millions of years to carry weight. Fast forward to the modern world, we’re all rolling forward to look at our phones and computers all day long. Rucking forces us to straighten our backs, creating better posture. The caloric burn is roughly equal to CrossFit or jogging, without the runner’s knee.”

McCarthy is creating video tutorials and working on a book focused on the benefits of GORUCK Challenges.

“It’s going to be a kind of bible of rucking, describing its role in the special forces community and the health benefits. Rucking is going to happen,” he says. “Just remember, in the seventies, only the weirdos jogged.”

To learn more, visit Emory's Alumni website.

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