Special Forces veteran inspires fitness gear revolution with GoRuck startup

Jason McCarthy’s line of outdoor gear and the teambuilding race, the GoRuck Challenge, have grown together as the popularity of the race swells and the recognition of GoRuck’s quality expands with it.

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“The brand of GoRuck came to be closely associated with this great experience that people were having at these events,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy, the founder of GoRuck, learned about the importance of gear and team building in Iraq, and it became the foundation for his growing company.

This year, GoRuck is projected to bring in approximately $21 million in revenue.

Battle-tested

McCarthy was a soldier who deployed to Iraq in 2007 with the 10th Special Forces Group — Green Berets — and served in Europe and West Africa.

“Gear is a life or death thing for you when you're out,” McCarthy said. “Take care of your equipment, and it'll take care of you. And oh! By the way, you might as well have the best with you at all times because you don't carry that much stuff.”

Being able to depend on the gear wasn’t his only lesson. He also learned about failure and responding to it, so when no one bought his treasure he founded a unique race that would help sell his product and leaned on his teambuilding skills.

Of course nobody bought any of it, because nobody had any idea who we were. So quickly, it became: adapt and overcome, or else.

- Jason McCarthy, GoRuck founder

Rucking or a ruck march, at its most foundational level, means that one is moving with weight on their back, McCarthy said. The rucksack is what carries the weight, he said.

He tried to launch the company when he was in West Africa after his service. He went there to be with Emily McCarthy, his wife who he met in high school. At the time, she was a CIA officer. Now, she’s a GoRuck senior director and the head of the company’s women’s division.

He made her a “go-bag” or a “go-ruck” for the house and her car. He packed similar rucksacks for others at the embassy. He tried to sell the idea of preparedness and kits for people who might need to flee at a moment’s notice.

But they didn’t sell.

That business model was flawed in so many ways because you can't really bring stuff over to West Africa, it's really expensive. 

- Jason McCarthy, GoRuck founder

“So that died there, and I was left with the idea for GoRuck and I moved back to New York, and slowly started work on what would become the manufacturing side of GoRuck,” McCarthy said.

The dependence on his equipment gave him the idea for his GoRuck rucksacks, but don’t call them backpacks.

“A backpack is like a cheap version of a school bag that kids carry, and it breaks, and tears, and rips very easily while a GoRuck rucksack is very tough and durable and is meant to carry a lot of weight,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy was ready to sell the first samples of his rucksack in 2010 and thought consumers would flock to his beloved item.

It didn't happen.

Adapt and overcome

So McCarthy pivoted and turned to what he did know: community building and physical training.

Those elements culminated in the first GoRuck Challenge in San Francisco in September 2010, a miles-long team event with weighted rucksacks. The event also became a means for him to not only product-prove the gear but also have people buy the rucksacks in the process.

To participate you have to buy his gear. But it proved to be effective.

“We were sitting there in the parking lot at the end of the event drinking beers together, and everyone was just smiling, proud of themselves,” McCarthy said referring to his first challenge. “There was empowerment, and there was a small day in the life of what Special Forces training is like.”

At that moment I knew, that's how we were going to build GoRuck — that's when it clicked for me.

- Jason McCarthy, GoRuck founder

Emily McCarthy also highlighted how important the GoRuck challenges are as community-building events. She explained that the challenges are team undertakings at their core, with teams starting and ending together.

“I think they’re empowering for not only women but also for kids and the entire community as well,” Emily McCarthy said. “You can’t buy your way to camaraderie, you have to earn it. And by communities pushing themselves together, they all have a shared experience, which is lasting and bonding.”

As GoRuck expanded, Jason noted that scaling and scaling quality have been a never-ending problem. He underscored, however, that he strives to only build the best gear, and that quality inspection of every item is a top priority.

“My reputation among the Special Forces community is more important than money and I just refuse to build something that one of the guys that I served with would get and say that it’s not a very good kit,” Jason McCarthy said. “The relentless pursuit of excellence is what we're about and that's directly from my time in Special Forces. It's the best or nothing.”