January 21, 2019

Conquering Kokoro: Focus on the Task at Hand

Photo by Melanie Sliwka

Photo by Melanie Sliwka

Kokoro Camp takes place at SEALFIT headquarters in Encinitas, CA — 25 miles north of San Diego. By car from San Francisco, it takes about 8 hours — plenty of time to think about why the hell I’m doing this.

Sizing Up the Team

I arrived early to find my soon to be teammates hanging out on the corner. Apparently, being early runs in my team’s blood. There was a total of 16 of us from as close as down the street to as far away as Panama. The group was pretty diverse, ranging from 5’2” to 6’3” in height, 18 to 53 years old, and had a variety of backgrounds including military (Navy), Crossfit (including a gym owner), triathlon, and GORUCK.

At this point, it was hard to tell what any of us had in common except that we showed up to see if we could go the distance. It’s funny how people handle nervous energy. Some just walk around, stretch or remain quiet. Others like to talk about what they have done or how they will approach the next 50+ hours. For me, this nervous banter has a calming effect. I love to hear about what people have done, what they have heard about the event and why they showed up.

Keep Calm, Carry On and Know Your Why

As we checked into Kokoro, the nervous energy started to build. You can watch all the videos and hear all the stories about Kokoro, but until you are standing on the SEALFIT grinder, it really does not sink in that your life for the next 50+ hours is not going to be the same.

After check-in, gear stowage, ruck/weapon selection, we got briefed on how things were going to work and what was expected of us. We then set about getting to know our team and the reasons we were about to step off into the crucible of Kokoro. Coach Divine always stresses that your Why needs to be strong or you will not be able to cross the chasm when you hit the point where you want to quit.

You Will Have A Moment. In That Moment, Know Your Why — Coach Divine

Most of the Why’s were pretty straight-forward. Several team members wanted to go into the Special Operations Forces (SOF), some wanted to see if they could actually finish and others wanted to face their demons of not being good enough.

The one that struck me as the most inspiring was from FEER. He wanted to show his son, who was filming the whole thing, what it was like to commit and complete something. Truly inspiring. It just so happens that FEER was also the oldest at 53.

Remember You Paid for This

Most military style fitness programs start off with a welcome party — the first kick in the teeth of what is about to be your life for the next 50+ hours. Kokoro is no exception. Physical Training (PT) in BDU’s, last name stenciled on a t-shirt and boots (the official Kokoro uniform) is what we started out with.

Push-ups, burpees and the ever-present water hose are a constant reminder that you need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. These first few intense hours are where your Why gets put to the test. If you thought this was going to be easy, well, think again. As Coach “Taco” Dan was fond of saying:

Remember, you idiots actually paid for this! — Coach Dan

The Visor of Leadership

It’s a funny thing what people bring to endurance events. Some have their favorite comfort food, some bring lucky socks while others have a special shirt that inspires them. All of these things are usually unnoticeable to most of us but not to Kokoro coaches. They see everything.

The uniform is meant to make all of us look the same. We are one team and being an individual just means you’ll get “special” attention, which is what happened to CORDELL. She decided to wear a visor, which immediately singled her out as a “princess”. I also don’t think the brightly colored nail polish did her any favors. For the rest of the welcome party, the teammate leading us would wear the visor of leadership. The beat down was pretty intense and pushed one of our teammates out quickly.

Double Wet With A Dollop of Sand

No proper welcome party can ever be complete with getting wet and sandy. After getting nice and wet on the grinder, we ran off to the beach to experience some more PT and the Pacific Ocean.

I don’t really have a problem with getting wet and sandy since the cool of the ocean is actually refreshing after doing physical activity. What can get complicated or rather challenging, is when the whole team has to lock arms and stay together against the pounding surf. This is challenging to keep together, especially if you are on the end. Think of it like the tip of a dogs wagging tail — if you’re the tip, you’re getting whipped around pretty good. Unfortunately, this was just too much for one of our teammates and he had to get pulled out for evaluation. One more down.

Forging An Unbeatable Mind

After the beach PT, we made it back to HQ to clean up a bit and change into slick PT gear (t-shirt, shorts and running shoes) for some instruction from Coach Divine on how to build an unbeatable mind. This was a welcomed break from the intensity and a chance to regroup your mind and body.

Coach Divine took us through the basics of his 5 Mountain philosophy and the 4 principles that we will need to practice in order to get through the rest of Kokoro. A lot of what Coach Divine stressed was about controlling your breath and visualizing your end state. This “win in your mind” first is a powerful technique that makes it a lot easier to remain calm and positive when situations get tough.

Another important point was that there will be a moment, which will be the point when you’ll want to give up. When you hit this moment, several things can get you through it.

The first is knowing your why. If your why is strong, it can be enough to get you out of your private pity party and get back into the game.

Pull Yourself Out of the Pity Party — Coach Lance

The second is your mantra. Your mantra needs to be something simple that can snap you out of your negative mindset. My mantra was “Focus on the Task at Hand and Just Don’t Pound Sand.” The third is your team. Your team can really make a difference and every single person at Kokoro 32 needed a team member to pull them through a dark time. More on that later.

Physical Fitness Test

Out of all the events at Kokoro, I feared the PFT most, since if you fail the standards, you’re out. Each of us paired with our swim buddy (mine was MONORE) to start the sequence that went as follows (along with my score):

  • Pull-ups (minimum 10): 10

  • Sit-ups (minimum 50 in 2 minutes): 57

  • Push-ups (minimum 50 in 2 minutes): 51

  • Air Squats (minimum 50 in 2 minutes): 71

  • One Mile Run in Boots and BDU’s (maximum 9:30): 8:25

Overall, I met the minimums and was relieved to have that part over with. I cannot stress enough that it’s important to train to exceed the minimums. There were several points during the camp where having been more prepared would have made my life and the life of my teammates a lot easier. Remember, this is a team event and if you don’t pull your weight or lag behind, your teammates suffer.

Green Highlighter And Aspirin Bottle

After the PT test, we got briefed on what was going to be our night evolution — three separate stations along the beach. We were split into 3 separate teams (I was with Team GOLD) and we set off into the night.

The nights in Encinitas are beautiful. The air temperature is comfortable, the water is still warm and the night allows you to stay focused since you can only really see what’s right in front of you.

Team GOLD’s first evolution was to memorize a series of items and then perform rounds of Cindy. This is harder than it sounds since we only had 30 seconds to memorize everything (there must have been over 20 items) and then 30 minutes to perform as many Cindys as we could. After the Cindy rounds, it was time to reveal each item. Overall, we only missed two — a green highlighter and aspirin bottle.

Broad Jumps Really Suck

Our next evolution was with Coach David. He warmed us up with some stair runs and then it was off to the beach for some ruck throwing broad jumps. I’m really awful at broad jumps and it showed. I ended up finishing dead last and my team had to suffer through with their packs overhead until I was done.

Remember, Kokoro is a team event and you are only done when the team is done. After a brief warming at the beach fire, we were off to our next evolution.

Nothing Focusing the Mind Like Log PT

Our next evolution was Log PT. Earlier, we had learned the basics and now it was time to work as a team. Log PT is extremely humbling. Logs are awkward and you can tell right away if someone is not lifting the load.

Coordination is paramount when lifting a 200+ pound log since real injuries can occur if your whole team in not synchronized. Thankfully, Team GOLD worked well together and we quickly got the hang of it. We got to put our new skills to the test by carrying our log down the street to the T in the road. This was challenging but as a team, we formulated a plan of micro-goals that got us through it.


After the other teams got back and we completed some of our penalty push-ups, it was time to change and get briefed on our next evolution — Murph.

Murph is named after Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Michael P. Murphy, a Navy SEAL who lost his life during Operation Red Wings on June 28th, 2005. When Coach Dan read the official CITATION, it was hard to hold back the emotions. Lt. Murphy was someone who made the ultimate sacrifice for his team and now we are honoring that sacrifice.

Murph consists of the following exercises (all with a #20 pound ruck):

  • 1 mile run

  • 100 pull-ups

  • 200 push-ups

  • 300 air-squats

  • 1 mile run

This event is another performance drop event, which means that if you don’t get it done within 75 minutes, they can drop you from the class. Murph becomes even more challenging since this is like hour 24 or 30 and we must have done hundreds of push-ups by this point. Thankfully, our whole team made it through and it was off to the next evolution with a renewed determination to never quit.

Let’s Clean Up the Box

Kokoro Camp has a lot of team competition. I think the most fun was when we had to take every single thing out of the Box, carry it up to look out point and then neatly stack it on the grinder. For this evolution, we were split into two teams — Team Coach Dan and Team Coach Lance.

Now, this may sound like an easy thing but this is Kokoro so it gets a little more complex. As we are competing to move as much equipment up to look out point, the coaches around us are pulling us away to perform “special” movements. These special movements, which I’ll keep secret, really make you have to pay attention to who is giving you the orders. At several points, we all failed.

Carrying awkward equipment can be frustrating but it also gives you a change to rest and regroup — something a lot of us needed to get back in the game. We also learned how to eat as we were moving since lunch consisted of peanut butter bagels and sandwiches — a useful skill when you are hurrying from evolution to evolution.

Breaking Your Competitors Will

After we “cleaned” the box, we were briefed on our next evolution —  a mission to recon a house on top of Mount Palomar. We were separated into Team A and Team B and hopped in the Van to drive out. At this point, we’re 35+ hours into Kokoro 32 and all of us were pretty tired. It was so easy to nod off for a brief moment only to catch yourself and wonder did I fall asleep?

Once we arrived, we fell into our groups for the long hike up the mountain. The terrain was steep and heat of the day was still intense. My team, Team B, was determined to beat Team A to the top. Throughout the Kokoro 32 experience, all the coaches stressed that it pays to be a winner — this was no exception.

As we started off on our journey, Coach Derek, Team B’s coach, told us that none of his teams have ever lost the hike to the top and this team will be no exception. With that inspiration, we promptly hatch a plan to break our competitors will.

The plan consists of having several different speeds as we ascend the mountain. Speed 1 is a slow pace, speed 2 is more of a fast shuffle, speed 3 is a brisk pace and speed 4 is to jog. Our strategy to break team A’s will was to fine the right time to pass them at a speed 4 pace. This accomplishes two things. First, it would shoe them are resolve to win and second, it gets us ahead of them so they have to play catch-up. This is important because as Coach James constantly drilled into our heads:

It’s Better to Keep Up Than to Catch Up. — Coach James

When the time came to make our move, Team B had a fire in our guts. Everyone stepped up and we jogged right past Team A like they were standing still. It felt great and we continued to keep a brisk pace going from speed 2 to speed 3 throughout the whole hike. We beat them to the top and then settled into our mission.

The Woods Are Laughing at Me

Sleep deprivation is a curious thing. On the one hand, your body feels the stress and strain of the physical activity, wanting to rest and on the other hand, your mind is trying to sort out various stimuli that only gets harder and harder as you become more sleep deprived. Trying to think rationally during this time is a constant struggle.

Our mission for the night was to recon a house on top of the hill. This entailed two of us, myself and ISRAELITT, sneaking up on the house and recording the intel. This proved harder for me than I thought.

ISRAELITT and I started off together and quickly found that it’s really easy to make noise in the grass and leaves around our hiding place. One of the coaches told us to stick to the road and get the job done. One complication on getting the job done is that there were coaches out hunting us and we promptly found a few.

ISRAELITT was the bolder of us two and he quickly sprinted off into the night — leaving me in the rear trying to figure out how to not make noise and get closer to the house. At this point, was when things started to get weird. I started to freak out a little bit and heard the woods laughing at me.

I could not go more than 2 feet without hearing a snicker and a rustling that freaked me out. It took me 20 minutes to go 10 feet and then I had to go back to camp to recompose myself. Who knows if it was my mind or the coaches laughing at me? I’m sure it was a little of both.

The Team Gels

Once ISRAELITT and I secured the intel, it was time to head back down the mountain, now as one team. We set out on our journey down the hill. Since ISRALEITT and I were doing recon the whole time, we were still pretty warm. The rest of the team, having setup a perimeter, got to rest and got a little cold. Several teammates were starting to shiver and it was a good thing we started moving.

At this point, we are all moving slowly since it’s dark and we don’t want to trip. Unfortunately, one of us did and we then had to carry them down on a stretcher. This task proved to be a pivotal point for our team.

Carrying a stretcher at night, down a grade, creates all sorts of challenges. Couple this with our need to make quick time, led HOFIUS to recommend we rotate as we go. This proved to be a great idea and we proceeded to rotate front to back, left to right as the water van lit the way. This teamwork allowed us to make great time down the mountain and allowed our injured teammate to recover enough so that they could walk down again.

Of Pirate Ships, Snowmen and Jumpy Houses

Going down a mountainside at night, with little light, plays tricks on a tired mind. Most of us saw weird and strange things including a pirate ship, inflatable snowmen and those children’s jumpy houses. These hallucinations started to make some of us have to double check our sanity. Thankfully, CORDEL and others were there to snap us back to reality and keep all of us focused on getting down the mountain.

One of the most fun situations was when ISRALEITT wandered up to the front of the line, glassy eyed with a huge smile on his face. He kept saying, “the colors are so vivid … Is this what acid is like?” I’m not exactly sure what acid is like but I am sure that whatever he was seeing, it must have been spectacular.

At times, our paced slowed since the fatigue and grueling hike were starting to take their toll. This was when DIETRICH stepped up to inspire us to hurry up. The determination in his voice and the look in his eyes gave the whole team a renewed sense of purpose. We promptly picked up the pace.

As we reached the end of our hike, all of us were tired but in good sprits. The sun was about to rise and we had all made it to day 2. Who knows how much longer we’ll need to go but at least we conquered Palomar Mountain.

The Will To Live Rock

The next evolution was a mission to rescue a downed pilot. We were split into 2 teams, a security team and an assault team. The assault team (my team) set off on the  “will to live run”, which consisted of running up flights of stairs and climbing up on concrete platforms. We did this until we hit a river where we were briefed on our next challenge: wade across the river to pick a “will to live rock.”

The will to live rock selection process consists of picking an appropriately sized rock that represents your will to live. Of course, we all have a strong will to live but there is a balance to strike when it comes to how big the rock should be. If it’s too big, you will not be able to carry it across the river but if it’s too small, then is it really your will to live.

Most of my team picked great rocks and successfully made it across the river. Myself, on the other hand, I failed miserably twice to get my rock across. Most of my failure stemmed from picking the wrong path across the river and not fully using my brain to “work smarter not harder.”

Finally, with a little help from ISRAELITT, my rock and I made it across the river. The next part of the mission was to carry these rocks back to our security team without dropping them to symbolize our commitment to our team and ourselves. Once we arrived, Coach Divine gave us a quick speech on the spirit of Kokoro and all of us with “will to live rocks” arranged them in a K to symbolize our classes Kokoro spirit.

False Peaks, Plateaus and Resolve

The ride back to SEALFIT HQ was a struggle to stay awake. The rule is that every time a coach caught someone asleep, the entire team had to do 10 burpees. I think they caught all of us sleeping on that trip (except for maybe CORDELL. For whatever reason, she was bouncing off the walls). To be fair to us, I don’t think the heat cranked to high and the classical music helped much either.

Our lull of activity soon ended when we pulled up to the beach and promptly started a bear crawl to a nearby sand berm. If any of us had the slightest thought that this was over, that slow bear crawl to the berm quickly removed that idea. I will say that nothing wakes you up more than a dunk in the Pacific Ocean. After about 10 dunks, we formed up to run back to HQ to figure out what our next evolution would be.

As we ran, my thoughts went to when this might end. These are dangerous thoughts because once you sense that the end is in sight, you get false hope. This false hope is what leads peoples to quit so close to the end because their resolve wavered. The thing that snapped me out of this was my mantra and not wanting to let my teammates down if I quit.

That morning there were several plateaus and false peaks that tested each of our resolves. This also happens in life when you think you’re done and then something happens to delay the completion of a task. These moments are extremely frustrating and the ones that survive these delays are the ones that continue to be in the moment and focus on the mission until it really is done.

Gotta Love Log Burpees

Safe and secure back at HQ, we changed into our slicks for some more fun in the sun. Since we had about 450 burpees to make up, Coach Dan took us through the burpees, while the other coaches sprayed us with water, put ice water over our heads and separated us out for some “special” attention.

During this whole time, I kept thinking there is no way Coach Dan is going to make us to 450 burpees.

To my chagrin, Coach Dan would repeatedly tell us that we will do each and everyone and it was up to us if we wanted to work as a team or be individuals.

Being an individual was a lot harder than being a team since a team burpee (e.g. Log burpee) counted as 5 while a normal burpee only counted as one. Clearly, if we could get our act together, the log burpees would be much easier and quicker to drawn down our count. I would say that we started to gel as a team again after about 200 normal burpees and finished our count with precisely executed log burpees (well, at least it felt that way).

Kokoro 32 Secured!

When Coach Divine finally uttered those three simple words, Kokoro 32 secured, most of us were in disbelief. We had made it 55 hours as a team. The rush of excitement and relief was wonderful. To come so far, in such a short period of time, truly felt remarkable. To think that 55 hours ago all of us started out as individuals and now we were a team.


Photo by Coach Mark James

Photo by Coach Mark James

This post is the third in the series (there are 4 total) about my training and experiences at Kokoro 32 on June 20th – 22nd, 2014. Kokoro Camp is a 48+ hour team endurance event put on by SEALFIT. If you’re interested in taking on the challenge, then you can check it out here.

The first post was Conquering Kokoro: The Courage to Start.

The second post was Conquering Kokoro: Front Sight Focus