MIKE VALLELY ASCENDS the GORUCK Challenge

ASCEND • MIKE VALLELY

by Eric Hendrikx

EMBRACING HIS WARRIOR MENTALITY
When Mike Vallely and I first discussed his emergence from a severely broken arm to completing the GORUCK Challenge—a twenty-mile trek through the night in the Las Vegas desert and city while carrying massive boulders and logs (even fellow GORUCKers)—I had no idea that I would be joining him. The morning we completed the Challenge, I was covered in dirt, gravel and scum. My shoulders, hips, and legs were destroyed. Much of the skin had been scraped off from my forearms. My knees and hands were filled with gravel and splinters. And I’d never felt better.

Soon after the Challenge, Mike and I got together to discuss the difficulties and rewards of completing the Challenge, his enthusiasm for the American-built backpack producer and why he believes this authentic brand is in a league of its own, flourishing high above a world of lost brands that lack pure identity.

REVOLT IN STYLE: What interested you in branching out from skating and hockey in order to complete another physical challenge?

MIKE: I broke my arm, the humerus bone in October of 2010. It was a total destruction of the bone—a spiral fracture from my shoulder to my elbow. It was a devastating injury. That’s a hard bone to break and a rare bone to break. It really took me out of commission. Five seconds before it happened I was in the best shape of my life-then I was in the hospital.

The first day I saw the doctor he said, “Oh man, I feel so bad for you. You’re in such great condition right now and you’re going to lose it all.” He told me I wouldn’t be able to do any physical activity for six to seven months. I had broken my leg five years prior and healed much faster. The length of time to heal from this injury became a real head-trip. It was depressing. I just sat there on the couch waiting for my bone to heal. first few weeks I could feel a lot of movement of the bone. It’s a really sickening feeling to move your arm and hear the sound of the bones grinding against each other. It makes you not want to move at all. As soon as the bone jelled I started using every other part of my body that I could without hurting my arm. I didn’t have my doctor’s blessing so I started real easy and safe. It was important for me to stay in some form of proper physical condition. I had to do whatever I could to stay active. It was therapeutic. I couldn’t ride a skateboard. I couldn’t play hockey. Either one would have re-broken my arm. But I could go to the gym. I went everyday.

It wasn’t long before I felt I needed some sort of physical challenge. I needed a goal. My whole life I’ve challenged myself. That’s how I make a living. And when it was all taken away, I was reminded that it’s not about the professional career. It’s not about the paycheck. It’s about who I am as a person—the warrior mentality I’ve taken on my entire life.

RIS: Why did you pick GORUCK over any other physical challenge?

MIKE: The reason that GORUCK spoke to me was because I like the company. I like the product. I like the bags. I like the ethos of the company and the brand. And the fact that the Challenge is led by Green Berets told me that it’s not a meathead thing. Special Forces guys generally aren’t meatheads—they’re complete human beings. I’ve always put those guys on a very high pedestal. So when I saw that the GORUCK Challenge was led by Green Berets, I was motivated because it’s a culture that I respect, that I could relate to, and that I would like to immerse myself into.

I also like that the Challenges take place in urban environments. Being a street skater, it’s that environment that I am interested in expressing myself in. If their challenges took place in the wilderness, I would still participate. But what a great twist—to have them take place in the cities around the nation. To have these Green Berets take you on a tour of the city—now that’s, as they phrase it, Good Livin’. These guys were speaking my language and presenting something that I find righteous, yet greatly lacking in society. What they are about as a brand and in their Challenges—I wanted to be a part of in some way. And the only way to be a part of it—is to do it.

RIS: How was training for the GORUCK Challenge different than training for skateboarding?

MIKE: The best way to train for skateboarding is just to skate. There aren’t any exercises that are going to help you be a better skater, other than just getting on your board and riding. As far as the Challenge goes, my trainer Scot Prohaska really prepared me. When I told Scot  I had signed up, he got a light in his eyes. He got excited. It was an opportunity for him to really turn the heat up. It was a complete mind-fuck. He would come up with these extreme challenges each day for me to do, putting me through the riggers of shit I wasn’t prepared for. One day I’d be pulling a weighted sled down the road and back. The next day I would be circling the building backwards with a lead jacket on. He was constantly pushing me to the point of breakdown. I loved it and hated it at the same time. By the time I got to the GORUCK Challenge, I wasn’t concerned about what was going to happen. I was more focused on just embracing it.

RIS: What was the most difficult part of the Challenge?

MIKE: To use a boxer’s analogy—I’m always better in the later rounds. I always have been, whatever I’m doing. I warm up slowly and by the time other people are gasping for air, or on their last leg, that’s when I’m hitting my stride. So I expected that the beginning of the Challenge was going to be the hardest part for me. I’m also a bit of a snob. I’ve lived a pretty good life as a pro skateboarder—traveling first class, living first class, and being treated like royalty wherever I go. Needless to say, getting on the ground and crawling for hours really isn’t my idea of fun. I’ve done my share of crawling to get where I am in my life and those years are behind me. To me, low crawls are something that some kid should be grunting over to get into the army. Make him crawl. I’m a fucking man. I don’t crawl on the ground. That’s how I felt. As soon as we started—I felt above it. Why the fuck am I crawling on my hands and knees in dirt and gravel? I don’t want to be in the army and I’m no kid. This argument going on in my head was the hardest thing to deal with. Once I quieted my head and focused on the task at hand, my energy completely changed.

About eight hours into the Challenge I felt like it was coming to an end. But it wasn’t. It got way harder. That was when Jason, our cadre, had us take our brick-filled packs off and carry them in front of us without use of the straps. It was miserable from the second it started and it went on for miles. I think if we would have started the Challenge like this it would have crushed everyone more so than the bear crawls and crab walks. The only reason we were able to get through it was because we were in the zone. No one was quitting at that point.

RIS: So the Challenge became progressively more and more difficult?

MIKE: It was so strange—the bear crawls and crab walks were so difficult, that when we began with the lunges, it actually felt rewarding. Lunges fucking suck. But yet they felt like a vacation compared to what we were doing before. Go do lunges around the block. It’s terrible. You’ll be in misery. But compared to the low crawls it was amazing. Next, we got into a duck pond full of dirty water and shit. A disgusting pond. But by the second time we got into it, I was glad to be in it. I was so happy to be doing flutter kicks in the water and not bear crawls on the gravel. There’s a duck pond across the street from my house, and nothing would ever make me want to get in there and do flutter kicks. And yet, during the Challenge, I was hoping we would be put back in the water. That’s fucking crazy. And it was like that every step of the way.

In order to progress, our team had to constantly rotate our positions. We were assigned to carry two huge boulders for several miles—boulders so heavy that two people could carry them for only five or ten steps before a fresh set of hands was needed. So it was critical to have a good system in place to keep things moving. It was all spirit and attitude—two things that had gotten me to the point where I am at my life with skateboarding. And I knew they wouldn’t let me down here. From that point on, I think only a serious injury would stop one of our teammates from continuing. And even then, with the mental state we were in, someone would probably just drag an injured limb before quitting.

RIS: What lessons did you take away from the Challenge?

MIKE: Looking back I realize that we were all broken down individually and built back together as a team. And while it was, in a sense, done for us—it took our realization to begin working together and maintain the unit. It was at that point when my focus changed from my own predicament of how I was going to get through something, to how to I could help the team accomplish something better together. The systems we used to carry the boulders, logs, case and brick bags—we created those systems. We weren’t told to use them. And once we created that, we kept it going throughout the entire Challenge without being prompted. I remember Jason saying he thought very highly of our group because of that. We continually did what we had to do in the moment. That was the important thing. I also realized that, in a sense, none of the training mattered. It’s really about what you already have inside—your spirit and your attitude. That’s what is going to get you through this thing. You definitely need some kind of physical foundation. But it’s really more about a spirit of character and I’ve had a lot of experience with that in my life, in skateboarding and otherwise. I’ve always known that I have what it takes to get through something. But you can never rest on your laurels. What you’ve done in the past is done and dead. Who you are now and what you are doing in this moment is all that matters. I got a lot out of the GORUCK Challenge because of that ideology. It was another test, another threshold, and another experience. I’m about experiences.

If I would have come across the GORUCK Challenge and dismissed it—I really would have let myself down. But I came across it. I made a commitment and I did it. That’s the story for me. I wasn’t out looking for some fucking cool thing I could brag about. This was something that felt right to me. Unfortunately, a lot of people might come across something like this that perks their interest, read about it for a minute, and then turn the page. I’m not like that. Once I zero in on something I’ve got to see it through. The GORUCK was one of many experiences in my life and one of many more.

RIS: Beyond the Challenge, what is it about the GORUCK brand that interests you?

MIKE: I want to say this about GORUCK. I make a living by endorsing brands. That’s what I do. It’s a gross living. It’s a necessity and part of the world that I stepped into. But I often ask myself questions like, “What I would wear if I didn’t have to wear it?” “What boards would I ride if I didn’t have to ride them?” Well I’ve gotten to a point in my skateboarding career where the stuff I’m riding and wearing is really the stuff I would choose. I’ve had a number of bag sponsors over the years—some good, some crap. Like I said, that’s the way it goes in my world.

The GORUCK stuff—I love it. It’s my favorite bags I’ve ever used, ever had. I will utilize their products and be about their brand for an unforeseeable future and I expect nothing in return. I’m just glad to have found the company, glad to have completed the Challenge, glad to have met Jason. I love the stuff and I’m gonna represent it. Not as a pro skater showing off the bag I use—which I will do just as a circumstance of who I am—but more so in my personal life. It means something to me and I’m going to continue to use it, buy it, and travel with it for many years to come. I really can’t say that about any other brand. I love the brand, and I would never want to be sponsored by them. I wouldn’t want to taint the relationship like that. I love it the way it is now. It’s real pure. It reminds me of skateboarding and punk rock when I got into it—an exclusive community of like-minded individuals before the culture grew up and became ugly. It’s the Do-It-Yourself spirit. They take pride in how they make their products in America, and in their headquarters. It’s really good shit, man. Jason has created his own culture.
He didn’t say, “Oh I want to create a bag company,” and then go to China and have them made. He didn’t ask the questions and allow other people to answer them. Jason asked himself the questions. He answered the questions himself. And then he went about doing it. That’s exactly the attitude that brands need to have. They need to come from a place of substance. It starts with an individual idea, an individual dream, an individual vision, and then sticking to your guns—having an ethos and sticking to it. Not for the potential rewards that are out there for you, but for the reward to yourself that you’re doing it your way. That’s everything. I understood that the second I opened up the first page of their website. I immediately became a fan of the brand. And that’s why I decided to do the GORUCK Challenge. I wanted to immerse myself in something that’s fucking cool. Everyone these days is chasing cool. It’s rare that anyone is really cool. Don’t chase cool—be cool. These guys proudly broadcast who they are and what they are about. No apologies. “This is who we fucking are.”—It’s awesome.

For more information and to check out Eric Hendrikx:

http://hendrikxphotography.blogspot.com/2011/09/goruck-ascent.html

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