Below the Beltway

Stratford Landing Dads Make Rucking a Big Part of Their Week

In the Stratford Landing neighborhood about a dozen neighborhood dads gather to make the trek to the Mount Vernon mansion and back, about four miles roundtrip.

Left to right: Steve Schlacter, Paul Dean, Jeff Sessine, Doug Zimmerman, Barry Hutchison, Dave Richkowski and Piper, Jeremy Fisher, Justin Keister, Jeremy Higgins, Charles Jackson, Mike Olson, Cory Culver

Alexandria, VA – The 22308 Ruckers rise at o-dark-early on Wednesday mornings and marshal at the same spot every week. In the Stratford Landing neighborhood near George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, about a dozen neighborhood dads, give or take, gather while safely distanced to make the trek to the Mount Vernon mansion and back, about four miles roundtrip. Many carry rucksacks ranging from 25 to 45 pounds to add an extra challenge. In the military, a ruck is a walk with a weighted pack, meant to build endurance, strength, and character.

It all began last spring when recently retired Army Officer Doug Zimmerman approached his neighbor Conor Hutchison, a high school senior who had been accepted to the University of Iowa’s ROTC program. “I volunteered to take Conor on a ruck march to prepare him for what he would face in ROTC,” said Zimmerman.

A brisk walk in the woods is a fantastic way to start the day and something they all look forward to.

After Conor left for college, his dad, Barry Hutchison, followed up with Zimmerman to see if he wanted to continue rucking, because it was great exercise and a welcome connection to his neighbor in these days of COVID isolation. Hutchison invited a few friends to join them and soon more than a dozen guys were meeting on Wednesday mornings. They were all thankful to be outside, getting fresh air, adding a new form of exercise to their routine, and, most important, connecting safely with friends.

“I look forward to this hike every week,” Hutchison said. “In a time when there is not much ordinary structure in a week, this provides one consistent event. It also is a great opportunity to catch up on everyone’s week while getting a great workout.”

Doug Zimmerman and Dave Richkowski catch up on a Wednesday morning ruck. (Photo: Joe Mulligan)

Neighbor David Richkowski agreed, saying, “It is great having this group. I have gained friends and gotten to know my neighbors, what they do, and about their families. You have the chance to talk to different guys during each ruck and really get to know them.” A bonus for Richkowski is bringing his chocolate lab, Piper, on the rucks. “It gives Piper a great opportunity to get a nice long walk in to start the day.”

Retired Navy Officer Cory Culver used to run four miles in the morning but much prefers rucking with the group. Of his previous solo runs he said, “It was dark, I was running alone, and after 50 years of abuse, my knees would hurt for days afterward.” When Hutchison offered the opportunity to do a ruck, Culver jumped at the chance. “I get to do something with friends in the neighborhood, I still get a good workout, and my joints don’t punish me later.”

Culver mentioned the weekly outings to two co-workers and learned they are also part of ruck groups. “It’s becoming a popular thing now,” he said.

The 22308 Ruckers walk the full four-mile loop in about an hour (some faster, some slower), which matches the military’s unofficial minimum pace of 15 minutes per mile. The hill approaching the mansion becomes gradually steeper, but they all emphasized that walking downhill is tougher on the knees. Middle age is no picnic.

Not everyone carries a rucksack, and some are heavier than others. It’s all about personal preference.

In keeping with military tradition, the Ruckers sometimes refer to each other by their call signs, such as Peaches, TouchTone, Running Late, Lovie, Fabio, and VO-5. At one point, an inadvertent texting typo brought the group to the attention of a man in the Midwest. Also a fan of rucking, he was all in at first, then crestfallen when he realized these Ruckers were several states away. Here’s hoping he was inspired to start his own ruck group.

The 22308 Ruckers’ success is largely due to the need to connect with people and to be outdoors. “We’re not breaking any speed records out here,” said Steve Schlacter. “It’s just great to be together outside. For an hour, you have different conversations and even a little therapy session sometimes.”

Group t-shirts made for fun holiday gifts.

The group hasn’t missed a week so far. They detoured from the trail one early morning when it was too icy to walk safely, but otherwise it’s been smooth and steady sailing. Hutchison said, “The best part is when we set a new personal record, and we get our four miles in under one hour. Second best is the cup of coffee waiting for me when I take the heavy pack off at home.

“The worst part,” he added, “would have to be the 5:45 wake-up call, but that is soon forgotten when we all get going at 6:30.”

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