The Gamut Challenge: A Test of Physical, Mental, and Emotional Fortitude

The Gamut Challenge: A Test of Physical, Mental, and Emotional Fortitude

The Gamut challenge was conceived in the mind of a highly skilled, albeit deranged, U.S. Army Veteran. Bob Keller was part of the Army’s Special Missions Unit for 10 years. His military resume is long and extensive and way beyond my comprehension.

I met Bob in the summer of 2020, at his membership only range in Fort Meade, FL. Rangewerx consists of several outdoor shooting bays, a camping area, a stocked fishing lake, and fully functioning bathrooms/showers. It is a shooter’s paradise. 

Shortly after meeting Bob and joining his range, I met his wife, Katie. She told me about a competition her and Bob were putting on at Rangewerx, “The Gamut Challenge”. Katie said with a smile “You should do it! I’m training for it”. I laughed when she told me what it was all about.

The Gamut Challenge is a two-day event.  It consists of rucking/running over 20 miles, more than 15 shooting stations (pistol and rifle), and the most terrifying obstacle course I’d ever seen. I told Katie “No, thank you” and carried on with whatever I was working on that day.

Fast forward to November 2023, where I was competing in my 3rd Gamut Challenge. I am a glutton for punishment, what can I say.

But this one stood out above the rest. We briefed just after sunrise. The fog was dense, and Bob laughed as he told us what the temperature was going to be for the weekend. Bob is always laughing. Always smiling. And he smirked as the words “Mid to High 80’s” registered on the faces of my fellow competitors.

The Gamut Challenge is full of unknowns. You won’t know what you’re getting yourself into until it’s too late. We started off with an 8-mile ruck.  My pack was sitting heavy on my hips and shoulders. I couldn’t get comfortable, even though I had done this before. My rifle felt heavy in my arms. Sweat started to pool in the crook of my elbows as I trudged onward through the sugar sand of the orange groves. 

The humidity set in, and the sun beat down on my waterproof boots. My feet started overheating. I felt what could only be described as a small but lingering panic in the forefront of my brain.  It was a primal reaction to a very real discomfort. I wanted out. Out from under my pack, out from the heat, out from the suffering.

I carried on, dragging my anxiety with me. We went to shooting stations randomly throughout the day. And suddenly, in the late afternoon, I caught up with a familiar face, my cousin, Nick. I convinced Nick to do this competition with me. 

He called it his “Misogi”, a practice he learned about through reading The Comfort Crisis. The word misogi comes from a Japanese Shinto practice of ritual purification. In the ritual, the participants wash their bodies in sacred waterfalls, lakes and rivers. More recently, the word misogi means difficult challenges in nature. The aim is to “clean off” the “contamination” caused by modern conveniences.

There are two rules when doing a Misogi. 1- Make it really hard, and 2- Don’t die. 

Nick stopped to grab a drink of water and yelled at me. “You fucker! I can’t believe you made me do this”. We were all feeling the effects of the heat. I was lightheaded and dehydrated. My feet had started to form blisters and my thighs were screaming at me to just stop already.

27 people showed up to compete that weekend. By the end of day 1, 11 of those competitors dropped out. Nick and I made a very hard decision.  We showed up ready to fully send day 2.

I came into the brief that morning confident. Historically, day 2 had always been the easiest for me. I learned my lesson shortly into that morning. We set out on a ruck, and the pack felt not quite as unnerving as it did the day before. I made quick work at a shooting station where the range officers whispered “that girl is a beast” as I ran off. I smiled, hoping they didn’t notice that I burned my arm on hot brass and made my way to the dreaded obstacle course. 

I am terrified of heights, and OH does Bob love heights. I was determined to do obstacles I had passed on in previous challenges. My goal was to always be better than my last performance. I climbed a tree that froze me with fear during the first Gamut Challenge. This time, with lots of supportive words from my constituents, I swung my legs over the branches, and slid down a PVC pipe with my eyes closed. I did it. I overcame something that once crippled me.

I used that momentum to go to the next station. Climb this metal structure leaning on a massive Oak, find the rope wrapped around the tree, climb down the tree.  Sounds simple? Well, it would have been had my hands not gotten stuck between the damn tree and the damn rope. So, I slid all the way down the tree, landing flat on my ass, and screamed out in pain.

My finger pads of my dominant middle and ring fingers were burned off. My exposed forearm was rope burned. I could feel every nerve, every twitch of my finger set off alarm bells in my head. No more. Haven’t you been through enough? 

After several minutes I went over to the obstacle course’s briefing tent where several competitors waited for my decision. The red shirt poured alcohol on my wounds, and once I was finished crying about that, they bandaged me up and I continued through the course. I did what I could with a mangled hand.

They sent me to the start where Katie was waiting for me with a nervous smile.  She asked me if I was okay, and if I needed anything. I said “no”, feeling defeated already. “Drop all your gear, take a water bottle with you, and follow the flags”.  After all of that suffering, we were supposed to run? It was high noon, and you want us to run?

So, I did, for about a quarter of a mile. And then the pain set in. Every step I took, I could feel my heartbeat in my hands and forearms. The sun beat down on my open burns. I was running out of water, out of air, out of my mind.  My heartrate was maxed out. I couldn’t get my breathing under control. My body had finally hit its fight or flight threshold. I sat down in the only shade I could find, panting. I stripped off my rifle, plate carrier, hat, gun belt. I bent over, shoving my head into my hands and I cried.

I cried because it hurt. I cried because I felt defeated. And I would not deny myself this moment of pure despair. I would not deny myself the tears that I had earned.  My boyfriend had walked with me, witnessing my undoing. He said nothing as I unraveled.

“I don’t know if I can do this.” I said more to myself than to him.

I was met with silence. He didn’t even nod his head. He just looked at me. And so, I went to war with myself. Do I quit here and now? Do I give Bob the satisfaction of me throwing in the towel? No. 

Unbeknownst to me, I was about 100 yards from the nearest water cooler. A competitor had stopped there asking if everything was alright. He had just walked by my meltdown. I asked if he had an electrolyte packet, and he gladly handed one over. 

I was brought back to life by some salt and sugar. I could breathe again. I continued through the day and placed 14/27.

Back in 2020, I was nervous to get involved in any sort of shooting competition. I assumed that these places were full of gatekeeping, ego having men and women that would not welcome a newcomer with no experience. And while there are these people at some of these events, an overwhelming majority of shooters I have met have been nothing but supportive and kind.

They’ll offer you ammo, magazines, gummy bears, an encouraging word. They’ll remind you to stop thinking so negatively. They’ll let you have a moment of weakness. And they’ll welcome you back into the fire once you’re done feeling sorry for yourself.

This community is like no other. It is one that I can’t imagine my life without. So, I encourage anyone I meet, in all walks of life, to do the thing that scares you. The Gamut Challenge reminds me of this each time I run across the starting line.

Because of this competition I have found that I can do things that scare most people. I left a career in Florida, moved to NC, bought a house… all alone. But I was not without support. Many of my biggest fans and lifelong friends I have met through shooting competitions. My life has become inarguably better since that first Gamut Challenge but not without pain. Not without sacrifice and breakdowns and heartbreak. 

Yes, that day I felt broken in mind, body, and spirit. But sometimes all it takes is a little electrolyte packet from a friendly face to bring you back to yourself and be gently reminded that you are a strong and capable individual.

By: Kaila Munkwitz

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