After Action Review: Kokoro Camp 25
It’s kind of useless to describe Kokoro to people who don’t know about things like SealFit or BUD/S or Q-Course. What I usually say is, Kokoro is a military-style adventure event where you work out for 50+ straight hours and it involves team building and mental toughness challenges. The reality is it’s a two-day beatdown that involves finding your Warrior Spirit and pushing yourself to do 20X more than you thought possible. There are a lot of pushups, a lot of rucking, a lot of chaffing, a lot of yelling, no sleep, and it costs nearly $1300 for the privilege of embracing the suck. Coaches are former Navy Seals.
I’ll try to answer the question of why to do Kokoro, or at least why I did it, because it’s a legit question. This will be the first in a 3-part series of posts on Kokoro. I’ll address training and gear in the second and third posts:
Kokoro is comprised of a series of evolutions, where an evolution is a workout or a challenge combined with some teamwork, mental toughness, and leadership elements. Ostensibly the purpose is to evolve you as an athlete as you progress through the work. Some of the evolutions are short, say one hour, while most of them are multiple hours. The longest evolution we did was over 10 hours. The entire camp itself is a macro-evolution, with a long build-up, climax and denouement.
I’ll describe a couple of the evolutions just to give you a taste of Kokoro. I think it would be a disservice to the event to reveal everything…part of the fun is the unknown and being surprised by what’s around the corner. It’s a truly unique experience and the full monty should be reserved for the brave few who sign up and experience it themselves.
It’s worth noting there are plenty of videos online that show extensive Kokoro highlights. I posted one below. These give a good sense of how it works but do not come close to the actual experience. There are hours of surprises in the waiting. Also, Kokoro is several levels more difficult than the videos portray, if you can believe that. It exceeded my expectations by a long shot and I went into it knowing it was going to be rough. I need to emphasize this point. It is much much harder than expected.
The Stenciling Evolution
The very first thing we did was stencil our names on our t-shirts with sharpie markers. We had to do the front and back on eight shirts, and we had exactly one stencil and one hour to complete the task. The class started with 17 people. As you can imagine, with one stencil, it took forever to get all 136 shirts done. Who’s got the R? I need an O! It was a ridiculous exercise but it set the tone for the entire camp. Use teamwork or die. While we were stenciling, we had to get our gear squared away, get dressed, apply anti-chafe, hydrate, and prepare to muster on the grinder for initial inspection.
Every single minute of Kokoro is thought out and designed to maximize the experience. You don’t own any time and you’re at the mercy of the instructors. Even the meals had time hacks. This is part of what makes it completely different from a regular athletic event.
There’s also no warm-up time for anything. If you’re the kind of guy who needs to warmup or stretch before a PFT test, you’re in for a nasty surprise. You have to beast your way through everything with zero prep time.
The Muscle Beach Evolution
One of my favorites, this was basically a 3-4 hour CrossFit team WOD. We started off with Coach Moser and Coach Miller drafting all of the athletes onto two teams, then we divvied up all of the weight and gear in the gym. From there both teams blasted through a buy-in of ground-to-overheads, pushups, and pullups. Immediately after the buy-in, each team had to run every single piece of equipment up a hill and back. The rule was that you could only carry one piece at a time, so even if it was a 10 lbs plate, you only carried one. That put more emphasis on speed and covering distance. I estimated the run was around 500M and I probably covered close to 5 miles.
Temps were mid-80′s and staying hydrated and cool was a major issue. At several points I was sprayed with a hose or climbed into an ice bath, which felt awesome. One more twist: Muscle Beach happened during lunch, so we ate sandwiches on the run. I literally jogged up a hill with a dumbbell in one hand and roast beef sub in the other.
This was the funniest evolution. The coaches were shit talking each other and trying to distract the other team with dumbass tasks. At one point I had an opposing coach ask me to do a dumbbell snatch demo in order to slow me down while the other coach barked at me to forget the snatch and go run a med ball up the hill. I got a kick out of it. The coaches were highly competitive with each other.
Muscle Beach was my best performance. I got into a zone and started lapping people and generally just felt great.
It should be pointed out that Kokoro evolutions are extremely long in comparison to normal CrossFit WODs, with a heavy emphasis on running. If you’re thinking about doing Kokoro, you need to be comfortable working out for 3-4 hours at a shot and running 3-5 miles per evolution. Just doing regular CrossFit will not get you prepared. You want to be more of a runner and less of a lifter for this. If you hate running, this ain’t the camp for you.
The Palomar Mountain Hike Evolution
I’ve been on a lot of kickass hikes with gorgeous scenary. This was not one of them. Palomar is essentially a dirt road that switchbacks up a mountain, with no flats or descents for 10 miles. It is unrelenting. To compound the suffering, we did the bulk of the hike at night, in pitch black dark, with packs and sandbags and faux-weapons and glow sticks for lighting. If you include the van rides were we couldn’t sleep, the ordeal took over 10 hours, with 5.5 hours of ascending. Dinner was an MRE (I had the McRib).
FML there was nothing good or holy about Palomar. Everyone was a walking zombie. I saw shit and fell asleep while walking a few times. I was at my nadir physically and mentally and kept falling out. It would be accurate to say I crossed the threshold of deciding to quit…I was waiting for the right moment and I was wording my quitter announcement in my head. I was absolutely shattered and had no resources for getting back in the game.
Here’s how I made it. One of the instructors caught me falling out and said the perfect line that pissed me off enough to sack up and finish the ascent. Once there, I did the recon and lead the team down the mountain. I felt completely renewed and even carried extra weight for several miles when one of my teammates got into some trouble. I had my lowest point and perhaps my highest point of the entire camp on that mountain. It was a once in a lifetime experience and really made me see the power of the mind in a dark moment.
Back in the vans, we were slapping each other in the face to stay awake. It was hilarious.
There were a zillion more evolutions I’m not detailing. We did log PT, giant tire PT, sandbag PT, grinder PT, and tons of surf torture. We did a lot of races on the beach with several variations: buddy carries, buddy drags, wheelbarrows, skipping, log team races, individual races, etc, all of which was strenuous and also kind of fun. I loved jumping in the ocean and getting wet and sandy even though it was a little chilly. I loved becoming a sand cookie. I got covered completely in seaweed and bitten by sand fleas. All of that stuff feels like playing on the beach to me.
There was a crazy element where the instructors waited for the class to fall asleep (there were two of those opportunities) and then they bum rushed us with megaphones and sirens and water hoses and PT’ed the crap out of us while we were disoriented and confused. This was an excellent exercise in mental control during a high stress and high chaos environment and it’s something most athletes don’t deal with. I’m glad we got to experience it even though it sucked while it was happening. It must have been hilarious for the coaches to watch us running around like idiots.
One of my favorite elements was a team building exercise with a log, where we stood a log up vertically and each person in the boat crew had to climb to the top and sit on the log. You can see an example of this in one of my pics above. Totally awesome.
Injury and Nutritional Concerns
Muscle failure, especially on pushups, is a major issue because we’re doing hundreds and hundreds of reps. We sat in the lean and “rest” position for what felt like hours. I got severe muscle cramps in both calves, both biceps, and my abdominals. My right calf cramped so bad it ended up a muscle pull and hobbled me for much of the camp. Two guys had shoulder issues and they basically couldn’t hold stuff over head at some point.
Staying hydrated and consuming electrolytes was a major concern…there simply wasn’t enough time to get everything in and recover between evolutions. I have some suggestions for solving this problem and I’ll review that in my Gear post.
At one point on Friday evening I felt my kidneys getting sore and I thought I was screwed, maybe headed towards rhabdo. I pulled out of it by consuming tons of chia seeds mixed with water and I think that saved my ass. Consider using chia seeds as an electrolyte replacement if you’re an endurance athlete. They’re cheap and work better than typical sports drinks.
Three people dropped out and one guy was basically a medical drop because of knee issues. One guy on my boat crew got rhabdo early Saturday morning and went to the hospital for a three day stay. Injury is a very real risk at Kokoro and you need to know what you’re getting into. There were a number of issues that could have knocked me out and I feel lucky I made it all the way through.
Last but not least, everyone got severely chaffed. I had pulsating rashes on both inner thighs and chaffed spots on both shoulders. I saw guys with annihilated feet and toes, raw knees, lower backs, shoulders, and even their butt cracks. Sand and seawater just destroys you. I was lucky with my boot and sock configuration and had only minor blisters on my feet. I do have this really weird tingling sensation in several toes that hasn’t gone away nearly two weeks after the camp. I think it may be nerve damage.
The difficulty level of Kokoro is off the charts. It will drastically reset your standards for what you consider is a challenge. Doing any one evolution is manageable, even easy, but stacking them all together for 50 hours straight with no sleep, no recovery, and lousy nutrition is a donkey kick to the face. It is beyond brutal. This is not a regular event you can take lightly.
Coach Divine is a guru of mental toughness and he might be one of the only instructors in the country that can offer a true holistic experience that challenges you on physical, mental, and emotional levels. There were a couple of moments where I teared up because the experience was so intense and I felt like I really saw who I was. Further, there are many teaching moments during Kokoro, instances where you learn something about yourself and about being a courageous, honorable creature. These moments of insight are what separate Kokoro from any other event on the market. It’s a game changer.
Bottom line: Kokoro was fucking awesome. Just a few days later I was raving about how awesome it was and how much I got out of it. It truly is an opportunity to prove that you can do 20 times more than you think you can and find a piece of your Warrior Spirit. That in itself makes it a priceless experience.
Lastly, Coach Divine told us the story of how he became a Navy Seal, where he experienced a clarity of purpose–what he called Knowingness– and how that clarity carried him through BUD/S. To me, Knowingness feels like the concept of Grace and there was an instance where I felt Grace on Saturday morning and it was at that point I knew why I was there and that I’d finish. It was a powerful moment.
I’d like to give thanks to Danny and Raquel Padua, the owners of CrossFit Firebase, who gave us the flexibility and space to train. Big props to Andrew “Jr” Hand for kicking ass and getting me to go and finishing Kokoro like a total boss. Props to John and Cory for being great training partners. Thanks to David Rhoden at 5.11 Tactical for getting us geared up and hosting us the night before. Thanks to Bill, Iassen, Christian, and the GRT’s who gave us great advice on things like foot care and keeping our heads straight. Finally, props to Team Bravo for putting out like hardass mf’ers! HOOYAH!!!