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Fighting Through Pain: Lebanon's Mark Klemm Begins Recovery From Grueling Event

  • Kingston Klemm, 5, right, stops to check on his dady Mark Klemm, 33, of Lebanon, left, as he does his first home workout Friday, November 11, 2016, since completing the GORUCK Selection, a 48 hour physical endurance event that took place in Bellbrook, Ohio, in October. The event is based on Army Ranger selection and Klemm is only the 24th person to complete the full event since its founding in 2008. "My body was really smashed up afterwards," said Klemm, who took about three weeks to rest and heal afterwards. "I'll never do it again." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mark Klemm, 33, of Lebanon, does sit ups while holding a section of telephone pole on his chest Friday, November 11, 2016. Klemm owns Baan Muay Thai in Lebanon and teaches the martial art. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mark Klemm, 33, of Lebanon, runs a circuit of his property Friday, November 11, 2016 to warm up for his first workout since completing the GORUCK Selection in October. Klemm is a Navy veteran who worked as an aviation ordinanceman on the USS Enterprise during his service from 2002 to 2006.(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Klemm nears the completion of Goruck Selection on Oct. 15, 47 hours, 55 minutes after it began.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, November 14, 2016

Lebanon — U.S. Navy veteran and Muay Thai fighter Mark Klemm prides himself on seeking — and conquering — novel challenges. Even an endurance event billed as the toughest in the world wasn’t too much of an obstacle.

Klemm, 33, last month completed Goruck Selection, a test of physical and mental guile unlike most on the planet. Relentlessly subjected to a battery of intense military-style drills issued by a rotating cadre intent on breaking participants, the course covers some 80 wooded miles — this version was in southeast Ohio — over 48 hours. That’s for those who actually endure all of the punishment.

Most don’t. Klemm did.

The 33-year-old Lebanon resident broke less than 5 percent odds, becoming Goruck Slection’s 24th finisher of 498 participants over 18 editions of the grueling event since 2012. All the while, Klemm carried about 60 pounds of weight on his back as a baseline — all competitors must wear backpacks, known as rucks, containing at least 45 pounds of gear not including food and water.

Now back as a trainer at downtown Lebanon’s Baan Muay Thai Academy, which he owns with his wife, Serena, Klemm is a living testament to Goruck Selection’s claim as the toughest endurance event. He’s still recovering physically, with numbness in his big toes as a result of their relentless pounding over two full days — a condition a doctor told him will dissipate. Nearly a full month later, he’s also still easing back into his normal training regimens while recovering from a badly swollen knee.

“I try to do 1-2 things per year to push myself, and this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Klemm said in an interview last week. “I’ve done 50-mile ultramarathons, I’ve done the Spartan Race. None of it was close to this.”

It started with nearly five months of preparation for Klemm, who trained six days a week outdoors in the Upper Valley, cross-training with running, mountain biking and hiking to build endurance and complement strength training. He’d travel by foot from his Lebanon home to Mount Cardigan, where he’d practice pushups and other exercises on the trail. The Appalachian Trail over Smarts Mountain and Mount Cube was another one of his favorite training routes.

“I’d do 15 to 20 miles at a time, always carrying 60 to 65 pounds on my back because I knew that’s what it was going to be like (at Goruck Selection),” Klemm said. “I tried to do 20-minute miles.”

On the first day of Goruck, the 37 participants who showed up were first subjected to physical training tests in which they needed to execute 55 pushups and 65 situps, with each discipline alotted two minutes for completion. They then had to run five miles within 40 minutes and another 12-mile “ruck run” within 3½ hours. Klemm was one of just six participants to pass every PT test; only those who did were allowed to continue.

Next came an after-dark “welcome party,” a four-hour test of mettle where Klemm and his comrades were forced to perform bear crawls and other exercises through water in 39-degree temperatures, all while a swarming cadre urged them to quit.

“They call it the welcome party, but it’s more like a goodbye party,” Klemm said. “They’re trying to break you the whole time.”

All six made it past the welcome party, but most probably wish they hadn’t. With increasingly heavier backpacks due to waterlogging, the cadre forced Klemm and company to hoist 60-pound sand bags over their heads, intermittently ordering the sacks to be heaved, retrieved and re-heaved — often uphill. They also had to carry heavy logs or five-gallon buckets of water for miles at a time, with plenty of mind games mixed in.

“There would be Sharpie lines drawn in the buckets, two inches apart, and we had to keep the water between the lines,” Klemm recalled. “Then we’d get to an angle at the top of a hill where it was impossible to keep it between the lines, and we’d be ordered to do the whole thing over again.”

The punishment was too much for all but Klemm. The group had shrunk to five by the 18-hour mark and to just a pair when Klemm and his sole companion received a 15-minute break after 24 hours. It was first time they were allowed to eat; Klemm dined on a soaked homemade hodgepodge of wheat crackers, almonds and raisins.

The respite proved too tantalizing for the other surviving Gorucker; a half-hour later, Klemm was on his own. After more bear crawls and sprints into the night, Klemm was ordered to perform the PT test again with the same standards as the first.

“I failed miserably,” Klemm noted. “I think I did 35 pushups and 41 situps. I’d lost a ton of weight by that point because of all the calorie burning without eating. They let me keep going; it was really just to show me how much weaker I’d become.”

Entering a second cold night, Klemm suddenly found himself with a black bag over his head and being spun in dizzying circles. He was transported by pickup truck to the start of what is known as the long walk, a grueling 20-mile final stretch.

It was 3 a.m. when the walk brought him briefly into the city of Bellbrook, about 15 miles south of Dayton.

“My knee was killing me at this point, but I was excited when we got into Bellbrook, just to see houses and cars after 30-plus hours in the woods,” Klemm said. “It was a little taste of civilization.”

Unfortunately for Klemm, it didn’t come with a matching flavor of sanity. He began to hallucinate, likely due to his lack of sleep combined with extreme physical exertion. At first, tiny seahorses lined his vision; later, portraits of people; finally, a giant black and gray boat.

“At first I didn’t say anything about the hallucinations because I didn’t want to be medically dropped (from the event),” Klemm said. “After the boat, I had to say something to the cadre. They all thought it was funny. They said I found my spirit animal.”

Continuing the long walk into daylight hours, Klemm grew more and more disoriented but remained steadfast. The punishment continued — still plenty of bear crawls through creeks and heaving sandbags uphill. Finally he reached the home stretch, where a group of supporters, including Serena and his two young children, 5-year-old son Kingston and 2-year-old daughter Kiana, awaited.

Cadre members splashed water in his face and berated him in the Ohio sunlight, giving him one last opportunity to quit. He didn’t. Beyond sore from head to toe, bloodied from the constant abrasiveness of the pack straps and more than a little delusional, Klemm finished the event.

Posing for photos with family in front of a large U.S. flag, Klemm was congratulated for being one of the fewer than 5 percent of participants to ever finish the event. In a field dominated by military personnel — it was founded by Special Forces veteran Jason McCarthy — Klemm is the first Navy veteran as well as the first New England resident to complete it.

Instead of falling immediately into bed, Klemm ironically couldn’t sleep more than 1-2 hours per night for several days. When he finally did crash, it came hard.

“(Goruck organizers) had been streaming some stuff online, and I couldn’t believe how much attention it got,” Klemm said. “I had 600 friend requests from people all over the world the first time I looked at my phone, including someone from Hong Kong. They just barely stopped coming.

“We got back on (Oct. 17), and I had a private training session (to lead) the next day. It wasn’t pretty. That night, I crashed and basically slept the whole week.”

The next Goruck Selection event is scheduled for September 2017 in Jacksonville, Fla. Klemm plans to attend, but not as a participant.

The only way he would do Goruck again is if the stakes were higher — after all, Klemm is forever on the look for more difficult obstacles.

“I’ve done it once; I have no interest in doing it again,” he said, before pausing. “Maybe if they made it 72 hours and had everyone who ever completed it come back for a best-of-the-best type thing. Then you might see me back out there.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.