YOU WILL CLIMB UP INTO THAT TREE, the instructors tell us. All 14 of us. The fact that we have been exercising almost nonstop for the past eight hours doesn’t matter, they say. The fact that it’s raining, it’s 40 degrees, and the tree’s bark and branches are as slick as an unplowed road doesn’t matter, they say. The fact that we are wet, cold, covered in mud, and beyond tired doesn’t matter, they say. The fact that the lowest branch on the tree is at least 15 feet above the ground doesn’t matter. All that matters is getting everyone up the tree—fast—by working as a team. Nothing else matters.
We start climbing, and one of our number, a middle-aged man who has traveled all the way from South Africa to do this, slips from the first branch and comes to the wet Pennsylvania earth flat on his back. As he hits, his breath leaves his lungs as if from an amplified blowgun. I don’t expect him to move, but he grimaces, groans, and pulls himself to his knees. An instructor helps the guy to his feet. He walks in slow, expanding concentric circles around the tree. I think, Well, so much for the tree-climbing exercise. But the instructor looks at the ten of us still not in the tree. “You have four minutes.”
This was the 20X Challenge, taught by former Navy SEAL commander Mark Divine. Part of a series conducted at gyms around the country, the challenge promised to teach me that I am capable of 20 times more than I think I am. A 14-hour class would push me to my physical and emotional limits by using the same crucible techniques the Navy uses to mold its most elite warriors. For a few years now, as I approached my 50th birthday and a front-row seat to midlife, I had sought physical tests. The 20X appealed to me because it offered a mental one too. As countless studies show, mental strength and a positive attitude are vital to success in any realm. And I needed to know I could succeed.
But now, looking up into the tree, and at the cold, gray sky above it, I hedged. Why exactly did I need to do something quite this grueling?
I thought back to two questions I had been asked earlier in the day.
The first question comes while I’m doing pull-ups. It is asked by a short man with hipster glasses named McCleod. He’s standing to the side of the pull-up bar, barely in my field of vision. “Why are you here, Madden?” he asks. Like most 20X instructors, he’s a retired SEAL, which makes him kind of scary.
I actually thought long and hard about doing this before I sent in my $495 and signed the liability waivers. I wasn’t there to see if I could handle a SEAL-style workout. I was confident I could suffer through it, although I knew I wouldn’t shine. I was a desk jockey and a suburban dad, but under my belt was a lifetime of rigorous exercise in different disciplines from mountain climbing and cycling to open-water swimming and CrossFit. On a recent Sunday morning when I took the self-administered test to determine whether I could meet the minimum physical requirements for the 20X, I passed easily.
I was there because I wanted—needed—to become mentally tougher. A year earlier, I had left a comfortable job to start a new website in a crowded, competitive field. Instead of one patient, supportive boss, I now had four demanding ones. If I cracked under all the pressure (a very real prospect), I’d be out of a job, with no way to support my wife and three kids. Cracking meant failure. Failure meant the Madden kids went hungry. That would make me a bad father. So I needed to toughen up.
I figured Divine and his men, veterans of one of the hardest and most selective training processes in the world, would be the perfect masters. Plus, I liked the fact that Divine offered insight into things you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a tough-guy SEAL: meditation, yoga, self-awareness, compassion for your teammates. As I would learn at 20X, each of those parts is as important to mental toughness as the ability to do push-ups and pull-ups.
Again McCleod asks, “Hey, Madden. Why are you here?”
“I need to be a better father.”
“What’s that got to do with pull-ups?” McCleod asks.
“I need to be mentally tougher so I’m a better father to my family.”
The second question comes about 20 minutes later: “Hey, Madden, do you want to continue?”
We’d done a physical training test to see how many pull-ups, push-ups, and sit-ups we could do in two-minute blocks. I struggled through it, not nearly as crisp as I had been in my self-trial, wondering what the hell was wrong with me. We’d run a mile in heavy boots, and I finished dead last, brought home by Divine, who urged me to tell myself that I’m doing fine. “Say, ‘I got this,’ ” he said. “I got this.” I staggered along, trying out my new mantra, but it didn’t work.
Now, back at the gym, I’m puking my breakfast of coffee and granola bars onto the wood chips by the front door. The instructor offers encouragement in soothing tones. But the stridency of my retching brings out a new tone, one of concern. “Madden,” he says, “do you want to continue?”
It would be so easy to say no. I could leave now, before anybody knew my name, saw more of my weaknesses or could appreciate my strength, before I could see what this whole thing was about and learn anything new. Before I got anything out of it. I could go home and tell people I had twisted my ankle or something, and nobody would be the wiser. Including me.
“I got this,” I tell him. “I got this. Let’s go.”
Hours pass. We run and run and run, carrying packs and heavy bars. Another participant, a guy named Paul who is much younger and far fitter than I am, runs with his hand on my back. “You got this, Madden,” he says. If I have it, it’s because of Paul’s help. We bury ourselves in wet leaves and try to hide from those trying to find us. We haul around heavy logs, take turns carrying each other on our backs in races, and memorize a poem, “Invictus,” about being the masters of our fate. Sometimes that fate, apparently, involves falling out of trees.
As the day goes by, I notice myself feeling not stronger but at least surprised at the fact that I don’t feel weaker. Instead of being the puker, the slowest guy on the run, I now find myself offering encouragement to some of my teammates. Sore, yes, and tired. But far from finished.
It’s dark by the time they roll up the garage door at the back of the gym and tell us to assemble at the edge of the parking lot, above a rock-strewn gully. I figure we have maybe an hour or two to go. Something big and bad has to be coming. But I got this.
Divine has us stand at attention and explains that we’re all to go down into the gully to find a rock that represents our will to live and then bring it up to the parking lot.
We stumble down over the rocks, which range in size from pieces of gravel to boulders. I’m looking for the biggest darn rock I can find. Because I know that I’m not going to quit, and I’m not going to be broken, and that if things get bad, I can lean on the other guys.
I find a monster of concretion, but whether it’s the rock’s size or the tally of the day’s activities, I can’t get it up the slope. Weird. Back at CrossFit, I can throw around a 125-pound sack of sand. I stare at the rock, as if my gaze will make it levitate. It doesn’t.
“Come on, Madden,” says McCleod from above.
“I’m moving this rock that represents my will to survive,” I tell him.
Under his breath, in a conspiratorial hush, he tells me, “Find a smaller one, you [idiot]. You have to carry it for a mile.” Aah. The grand finale.
I find a smaller one, about 75 pounds, I guess. My will to live remains huge, but more portable. Then the order comes: We will pick up the rock and start walking. If one of us drops his or her rock, we all start over.
No problem. What’s a mile?
But first, we take turns immersing ourselves, head and all, in a barrel of ice-cold water. We help each other climb up and in; we duck under and breathe out until bubbles show. Helping each other keeps our minds off the shivering. Lance Cummings, another instructor and former Navy SEAL, stands behind the barrel to make sure we’re all the way under, and under for a good long time.
When some of the shivering gets out of control, they have us stand in a huddle, stomachs and chests of the bigger guys braced against the backs of the smaller ones. The heat transfers as if conducted by wire. I’m at the very back, my girth finally helping my teammates. I notice my chest is pressing against Paul’s back. The shivering stops. We carry the rocks as we take laps around the building. We stay together, urging each other on. There is a lot of groaning, screaming, and shifting of the rock from shoulder to shoulder and from waist to back as we seek a comfortable place to rest our burden. We stumble through the darkness, the glare of the sodium lights bathing us in pink. Wet, chafing, suddenly no longer cold.
We finish, and Divine tells us to take a knee next to our rocks. He walks slowly to the end of the line opposite me and says, “I want you all to think of an answer to this question: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in the past year?”
I thank God I’m at the other end of the line. I know I should be listening to my teammates, learning from their answers, and one small part of my brain does, hearing them talk about never stopping, never quitting, but I can’t think of anything to say. Is my answer something from the last 14 hours? The last seven months? About hard work and fighting and being smart and not quitting and staying true to your word, to promises made, even if they were unsaid? My mind races, but my mental tires spin in the mud of my fatigue.
“Madden?” Divine is in front of me. “What’s the most important thing you learned this year?”
I wish I could say it was a carefully, consciously constructed thought. I wish I could say my brain played, in a flash, a two-hour movie of my kids, my wife, my family, my coworkers, my brothers and sisters, and anybody who’d ever helped me and whom I’d ever helped. All the people I love and who love me. I wish I could say my fine, educated mind delivered the thought. But I don’t know where it came from. I just blurted it out.
“Love is the answer, sir.”
Divine scares me, staring at me through the cold fog of a February night. He must think I’m putting him on. Who talks to a Navy SEAL about love? He’s gonna make me take another lap with the rock. And that’s OK. At this point, I know I can do it. I’d rather not, but I can if I have to. Because at this point, I know my answer is right. Love is the answer. If I didn’t love my family, why would I have done this?
He’s still looking at me. “Outstanding, Madden. Outstanding.”
Turns out we weren’t done. We went back inside and worked out with the logs while trying to recite “Invictus” from memory. We got this.
Stephen Madden is the author of Embrace the Suck, to be published this fall by HarperCollins.