Trial By Fitness

SEALFit’s Kokoro Camp is one of the most grueling mental and physical challenges a civilian can experience. It’s also one of the most rewarding.
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At 9:30 on a late fall endless summer Southern California morning, 33 men and women mill about outside the headquarters of SEALFit in Encinitas. Dressed identically in tactical boots, black pants and white T-shirts with last names printed on the front and back, the group is conspicuously muscular and fit. This is Class 35 of Kokoro Camp, the 50-hour mental and physical crucible that is the closest thing a civilian can experience to the legendary Hell Week of BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training. The doors to the SEALFit compound open at 10 and the camp officially begins at 11. The members of Class 35 look nervous.

Three women and 30 men make up Class 35. Each has paid more than $2,000 and flown many miles to participate in Kokoro. In fact, seven other people registered and paid but didn’t show up. They have all read accounts of what lies ahead: the relentless workouts, the frigid temperatures, the sleep deprivation, the mental lashings.

“You can read about Kokoro Camp all you want, but you won’t have any clue what it’s like until you go through it,” says Mark Divine, a former Navy SEAL, creator of SEALFit and the mastermind behind Kokoro. “When I see the documentaries on Discovery Channel about SEAL training, it looks like Boy Scout camp to me because I know how much pain was involved in some of the activities. But you can’t convey pain with a TV camera.”

If the physical price of Kokoro is great, the reward is profound, Divine says. He has heard from Kokoro graduates who returned home and quit their jobs or moved cities because of the life-changing revelations they experienced during the turbulent 50 hours. More often it’s a subtle change, he says, a deeper sense of what they are capable of mentally and physically.

If suffering were mountains, BUD/S would be Everest, an ascent that few people attempt and even fewer complete. The successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout, liberating the captain of the Maersk Alabama from Somali pirates, and the heroics on display in Hollywood’s adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s book Lone Survivor have skyrocketed SEALs’ stock in the pop-culture marketplace over the last few years. Intrigue surrounding the SEALs training regimen has never been higher. This is particularly true for the CrossFit population, a group who feels a natural pull toward hard work, self-mastery and an exploration of physical limits.

It Begins

A few minutes after 11 a.m., the members of Class 35 are lined up in military-style formation. Divine steps forward and delivers a terse commencement. If any recruits were hoping for a few last words of encouragement, they are disappointed. With ramrod erect posture and sunglasses hiding his eyes, Divine evokes General George Patton addressing the Third Army before D-Day.

A former collegiate swimmer, Divine joined the Navy SEALs in 1990, after getting his MBA and working as a CPA in Manhattan. He was the Honor Man (ranked No. 1) of his graduating class and spent seven years on the teams and another decade on active reserve. He started a microbrewery, launched NavySEALs.com and opened a CrossFit affiliate, called US CrossFit, which still operates within the SEALFit compound. SEALFit was born in 2007 and is the culmination of Divine’s experience in strength training, endurance sports, yoga, martial arts and his mental-toughness curriculum called “Unbeatable Mind.” In 2014, his book 8 Weeks to SEALFit became a New York Times best-seller. Away from the recruits and around his fellow SEALFit instructors, Divine has an easy laugh and is quick with a joke. In front of the recruits, however, he pulls on an ice-cold game face that’s pure commanding officer.

Mark Divine

When Divine finishes, the chaos begins. Kokoro instructors descend on the class with water hoses, bullhorns and barked commands. The recruits are told to line up, lie down, follow, lead, squat, stand up or roll over. Whatever they did was wrong, by design.

“Once it started, the voices in my head were like, ‘What did I sign up for? I don’t know if I’m ready for this,’” says CrossFit Games competitor and Kokoro attendee Alessandra Pichelli. “A lot of the demons in my head came back to tell me I couldn’t do it. It made me very emotional.”

Two at a time, the members of Class 35 are taken to an ice bath and told to hop in. As they sit submerged in the tub, an instructor dumps water over their head and face. One recruit, eyes wide in panic, jumps out of the tub sputtering and gasping. He waves his arms back and forth. He’s done. Two coaches approach and in hushed voices coax him back into the program. It’s a routine that will be repeated over and over that weekend — not always successfully.

“There’s a natural 10 to 30 percent attrition rate, but that’s not our primary mission. We are not here to make people quit. If we wanted to make them quit, that would be easy. We could make them quit in the first two hours,” says Rick, a SEALFit instructor and former Army Special Forces member who requested to go by his first name only. “Our primary mission is for these people to have a successful experience and get what they came to get. We’re very methodical with how that process works. There’s a breakdown and buildup process. We’ve been doing this for five years, so we have it down to a science.”

The Next Evolution

“My hope is that they all grow significantly,” Divine says. “We all go through life and things get stuck, energy gets stuck, and we get in these ruts. We get attached to things, mentally and emotionally. Kokoro Camp shatters all that. It really is a radical bullshit detector. It takes you completely out of your normal mode of operating. Your thought processes that work with your business or family just don’t work here.”

The instructors are the engine that drives Kokoro and fuels the evolution it inspires. “The coaches are masters at being extraordinarily tough and knowing what buttons to push to get under an individual’s skin, but they do it without a mean bone in their bodies,” Divine says. “They do it with generosity in their hearts and a really genuine interest in helping this person grow and overcome this challenge.”

Class 35 has 17 instructors and four interns, including active SEALs, ex-military and SEALFit coaches, working for the whole weekend. In order to maintain the relentless intensity, the coaches work seven-hour shifts and rotate in and out every 15 minutes. Some of the coaches are Phase II and III BUD/S instructors from the nearby Naval Special Warfare Center at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado. (Both active and former SEALs are easily recognized by the trident logo on their shirts.)

The next evolution of Kokoro takes place in the ocean. Class 35 is transported by van to Moonlight Beach, where they run for a half mile through soft sand before being instructed to lie down in the surf and link arms, forming a human chain. For two hours, they are brought onto the sand for sprints and partner carries and then ordered back into the water. Pichelli cries for the first time but not the last. Resolve begins to fail, and by the time the candidates are brought back to SEALFit headquarters, two have made the decision to drop out. The Performance Standards Test (see “Cramming for Kokoro”) sends half a dozen more home.

Finding Your Why

Fireman Carry

The key to a successful Kokoro, Divine says, is what he calls “finding your why.” A 20-year-old who wants to join the Special Forces (and Kokoro attracts many of these) is going to have a different reason to endure the 50 hours of pain and suffering than a 32-year-old CrossFit Games athlete. No matter who it is, without a strong why, a candidate will find inevitably himself shivering in the ocean at midnight and think, “What the hell am I doing here?”

Tommy Hackenbruck, who took second in the 2009 CrossFit Games and sixth in 2014 and captured Affiliate Cup team titles in 2012 and 2013, worked as a Kokoro intern for Class 35. Hackenbruck is one of the few people who have completed Kokoro twice. For his second experience, he brought his championship team, Hack’s Pack Ute, as a means of preparing for the 2013 CrossFit Games.

“It was way harder the second time. As soon as it started hurting a little bit, the thoughts started going through my head: ‘You’ve already done it. You don’t have anything to prove,’” he says. “The first time I felt like I had a better why. The second time I had to figure it out. If you don’t have a really strong why, what’s going to keep you here? The challenge is between the ears.”

Matt Hathcock is the owner of CrossFit Unbroken in Denver and a 2013 CrossFit Games competitor. Suffering from what he considered to be a case of post-Regional burnout (he missed qualifying for the 2014 Games), Hathcock entered Class 35 hoping to reignite his competitive fire and accrue some mental toughness. “We were doing “Murph” with a loaded ruck, and it sucked,” Hathcock says. “I was asking myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ I just didn’t have a good reason why I was there. It’s not a matter of physical ability. It’s about justifying the amount of suck to yourself. I didn’t see the point of it for me.

Hathcock made the decision to exit Kokoro on Saturday at 2:30 a.m., when the thought crystalized in his brain that he wasn’t burned out, he had just been steering his life in the wrong direction. Hathcock had a 15-month-old daughter at home and a wife who had put her career as a firefighter on hold so he could compete in the CrossFit Games, something he describes as ultimately “a selfish pursuit.” Sixteen hours into Kokoro, it struck him that he should rededicate himself to his wife, daughter and students rather than his quest for athletic glory. Hathcock left the camp, ate a meal at a nearby Denny’s and then booked an earlier flight home to his family.

This type of clarity is why Divine doesn’t measure an individual’s success at Kokoro by the number of hours they survive. “When that kind of insight occurs, sometimes you want to get on with your life and not have to endure the pain for the next 20 hours,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anyone who has come to Kokoro and left early, either from their own decision or performance or injury, who has not learned something extremely valuable about themselves.”

The Lessons of Kokoro

At approximately 3:00 on Sunday afternoon, the graduating class of Kokoro 35 is officially secured. Twenty people remain of the 33 individuals who started the journey two days prior. One is Alessandra Pichelli, who claims that finishing Kokoro was one of the happiest moments of her life, despite barely being able to open her eyes thanks to a corneal abrasion caused by beach sand. Speaking several days after the camp, she clearly imagines the advantage the experience will give her in the 2015 CrossFit Games. “I felt like the 50 hours is comparable to the three days of the CrossFit Games, where it can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Pichelli says. “It taught me to take it one step at a time, to make it through this evolution and then make it through the next one. I feel like that lesson translates to the Games.”

Redefining the boundaries of their capabilities is a common revelation for Kokoro participants. Bodyweight exercises had always been a weakness for Hathcock, who was surprised at how many push-ups he was able to do in his time at Kokoro. It’s a lesson he brought back home, among others. “There’s a full-life application to Kokoro,” he says. “It’s not just for the physical realm. Even with the 16 hours I did, I felt like I got what I needed out of it.”

The class of Kokoro 35 is adjusting to a new normal, digesting the lessons of the weekend and assimilating to what Divine describes as “higher state of awareness and a different level of consciousness.” “It really teaches you how much of a survivor you can be,” Pichelli says. “And it made me realize that things could always be worse. Going into other events, I can always say, ‘Well, nothing can be as bad those 50 hours in Kokoro.’”

Cramming For Kokoro

No amount of preparation will get someone in shape to crush Kokoro, but getting decimated and then rebuilt is all part of the magic. Prospective candidates should spend several months honing certain physical attributes that won’t necessarily make it easier but will increase their chances of completing the program.

For instance, during the first several hours of Kokoro Camp, candidates must pass the following Performance Standards Test. If a candidate receives two event failures in the PST and “Murph,” he or she will be asked to leave.

>> 50 push-ups (40 for women) in two minutes, 50 sit-ups in two minutes and 50 air squats in two minutes

>> 10 dead-hang pull-ups for men, six for women

>> 1-mile run in boots and utility pants on road in less than 9:30

>> Murph — 1-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, 1-mile run, all while wearing a 20-pound pack (15 pounds for women), boots and Battle Dress Uniform (BDUs) — in less than one hour and 10 minutes

“The first thing potential recruits need to do is an honest assessment of where they’re at. They should look at the standards on our website that include the Performance Standards Test, Murph, and ruck and runs. Test yourself against those standards and see where you fall,” says Divine.

Endurance

Being at the top of your box’s whiteboard for a 20-minute AMRAP is not going to cut it at Kokoro. An elite level of endurance is a prerequisite, beyond what’s demanded in a typical CrossFit curriculum. You should show up to Kokoro being able to complete a 10-mile run in fewer than 80 minutes and a 20-mile hike with a loaded pack in fewer than six hours.

“Start adding endurance to your workouts at least six to nine months out,” Divine says. “Our type of endurance means loaded rucks. If you’re doing Murph, you better be doing it with a backpack with 20 to 30 pounds. You’ll want to do that kind of training once a week.”

Durability

Injury is a major cause of attrition in Kokoro. That’s why SEALFit dedicates so much time to what Divine calls “durability” practices, including yoga, sprinting, foam rolling and weight training. All these contribute to making a person harder to break.

Gear

Don’t show up to Kokoro with brand-new gear. Take the time to break in a pair of boots and BDUs, the cargo-style pants that are required for participation. You won’t believe what a different experience it is to train in these. (You can find boots and BDUs at navyseals.com.)

Temperature

Even in sunny Southern California, Kokoro Camp involves moments of very uncomfortable temperature declines. Recruits are subjected to short ice baths, nighttime training and sustained dips in the Pacific Ocean. “You may want to start taking cold showers so the cold water isn’t a shock to the system,” Divine says.

Outdoors

Only about four of the 50 hours of Kokoro Camp take place indoors. Divine highly recommends getting out of the gym and into an austere outdoor environment to prepare as much as possible for nature’s inherent unpredictability.