OAKLAND -- For nearly 48 hours straight last week, Paige Bowie shouldered a 50-pound rucksack while she ran, hiked and pumped out grueling military-style exercises designed to break down Special Forces trainees.

She became the first woman to complete a grueling endurance challenge called the GORUCK Selection, which has only been held four times in Florida, Washington, D.C., and the Bay Area. Sixty-six other tough men and women have attempted the challenge, but only 13, including Bowie, have finished.

"It's pretty much designed to be a 48-hour version of what it's like to go through Special Forces selection," said Bowie, a 34-year-old Oakland resident and Alameda County firefighter.

Alameda County firefighter Paige Bowie, of Oakland, who this weekend completed a 48-hour race through the Marin Headlands.  (Courtesy of Paige Bowie)
Alameda County firefighter Paige Bowie, of Oakland, who this weekend completed a 48-hour race through the Marin Headlands. (Courtesy of Paige Bowie) (mdufrene)

The five men who started with her dropped out -- three of them after only about six hours. By the 24th hour of the challenge, she was the last person standing.

Wearing a headlamp and with a 50-pound mandatory rucksack on her back, she trekked, with only the company of a cadre, in the dark though the Marin Headlands and over Stinson and Muir beach.

She did jumping jacks in the 51-degree ocean, ate only the food rations -- Meals-Ready-to-Eat -- provided by organizers and pushed on while the "cadre" screamed orders for another round of sit-ups.

"They are really trying to get you to quit," said Bowie, referring to the decorated combat veterans who led the event. "They play with your mind; they play games with you."

Part of the challenge of the race is that participants must carry at least 45 pounds in their brand name GORUCK sacks. The company started organizing endurance events, which range from four to six hours to the 48-hour event, to test their gear for combat. And at any point in the race, the cadre can weigh the pack and boot a participant who is under the weight requirement.

Bowie carried a change of clothes and extra shoes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, beef jerky and energy bars in her pack. But that wasn't nearly enough weight, especially after leaders took away everyone's food. GPS devices, cellphones and watches were confiscated at the starting line.

So, Bowie tied two 10-pound weights inside her sack.

Participants carried their own water and were encouraged to stay hydrated. Crews also checked their vital signs regularly and did allow Bowie a short power nap when she was freezing from being in and out of the icy water for various tasks. She said she never felt she was in harm's way.

Bowie started the event Feb. 28 and finished March 2, when she feasted on steak, salmon and potatoes around a campfire. She said thought about quitting a few times but instead pooled her mental strength and kept going.

"In my head, several times I got close (to being done). I had told myself, 'Don't listen to those negative thoughts.' I tried to focus on the task at hand and keep moving," said Bowie, who played basketball at UC Berkeley and softball and basketball in high school in Fresno.

Bowie said her training as a firefighter and athlete helped her push on under tough circumstances. To challenge athletes, the cadre used a bullhorn, calling people by their race number, never their name. Talking to other participants and whining are never allowed. But there is some silliness. One previous group was forced to sing the theme from "SpongeBob SquarePants" while standing in freezing water.

Company officials said the foundation of the GORUCK events is the wartime experiences of the cadre, who served in military special operations. Organizers want participants to survive, but they don't make it easy.

"We'd been wondering for a while when the first female would pass GORUCK Selection. Very happy that day has come. Huge congrats to Paige," said Sophie Pollitt-Cohen, one of the company directors. "There will always only be one first, but we know she won't be the last."

Alameda County fire Capt. Jim Call isn't surprised Bowie was the first woman to finish.

"I'm incredibly impressed, but Paige is one of the strongest people I've ever met -- mentally and physically," Call said.

He said Bowie always follows orders stoically, relentlessly.

"She doesn't really show her cards; she just plugs away and does her job, does the task at hand," Call said.

The GORUCK Selection is relatively new and has only been held three previous times in Neptune Beach and St. Augustine, Fla., and Washington, D.C.

No prize money is involved.

Bowie earned a special patch and a keepsake coin and also contributed to a worthy cause. Organizers donate $10 from each entry fee to the Green Beret Foundation.

Reach Kristin J. Bender at kbender@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/kjbender.

Information

Learn more about the GORUCK Selection at https://www.goruck.com/events/Selection/.