by Maddy Zollo Rusbosin | December 10, 2018
Made in FLA: True Grit
Meet the Jacksonville Beach-based founder of GoRuck, who is changing lives with his Army-inspired gear brand.
In 2008, Special Forces veteran Jason McCarthy had left the Army, split with his wife and found himself living on a couch in New York City with his chocolate lab Java. Though he felt like he had hit rock bottom, two things helped prop him back up again: his bond with Java and his idea for a military-grade backpack that looked good as streetwear but could endure battlefield conditions. He found no products on the market that met all his requirements: tough as nails, a smart design, a sleek aesthetic and comfortable for carrying a load of weight on your back while moving at top speed.
He drew sketches on napkins and dreamed about one day making a product as tough as it was timeless. He had one problem, though. He knew nothing about sewing or manufacturing.
McCarthy posted a simple ad for a backpack designer on Craigslist, a post that would eventually lead to the creation of the first prototypes and the beginnings of Goruck, a full-blown gear company that today offers over-the-top, American-made boots, apparel and rucksacks and hosts hundreds of rucking fitness events in locations around the world each year.
“Rucking is the foundation of Special Forces training,” says McCarthy. “People don’t understand that. To move with weight on your back, it’s what you do in Special Forces.”
McCarthy joined the Army after 9/11, and in 2006, the Jacksonville native became a member of the Green Berets. He learned that rucking can be the difference between life and death, since his pack carried the gear he needed to survive the unpredictable nature of war.
After he left the service in 2008, rucking stayed in the back of McCarthy’s mind. When he moved to Ivory Coast, where his wife Emily was stationed with the U.S. Foreign Service, he made her a special ruck just in case there was an emergency during her work in West Africa. “It’s like medics: they’re only as good as their equipment. You can be fantastic, but if you don’t have stuff, you can’t save lives. It’s kind of the same thing in an emergency situation. If you don’t have the things that you need, then you’re a lot less effective,” he says.
Like many veterans, McCarthy grappled with what to do next in his life. This uncertainty was amplified when he and Emily split up, forcing him to return to the States jobless and heartbroken. Despite the turmoil, he kept coming back to the notion of creating that perfect ruck. Finally, he decided to turn his napkin sketches into an actual prototype.
Using GI bill benefits, McCarthy enrolled at Georgetown University to get his MBA, so he was simultaneously studying and working to launch Goruck. After 2 ½ years of perfecting the design and finding the right manufacturer, Goruck’s first pack, the GR1, debuted online and in men’s stores in the southeast. The GR1 is made with durable, rainproof materials with military-grade features like a super-protective laptop compartment. It also features comfortable shoulder straps that prevent it from bouncing around by keeping it close to your back, making it practical for everyday use.
After hitting the road to market Goruck, McCarthy decided to join his Green Beret friends at a Tough Mudder, an outdoor obstacle-course-style race. He soon realized that being part of an event was the easiest way to tell his story. After all, getting people to witness rucking or try it themselves was better than any advertising.
This realization prompted McCarthy to host an event, the inaugural Goruck Challenge, in San Francisco in 2010. With the help of his Special Forces friends, he began hosting events throughout the country.
“There are a few brands, if any, who build gear and run events,” he explains. While Goruck’s operations are now based in Jacksonville Beach, where he lives with his wife Emily (they got back together), their dog Monster and their kids, the brand’s reach is global. In this year alone, Goruck has organized more than 900 events around the world.
“Ultimately people wanted to be a part of a community. They wanted to do the Tough Mudder with us,” he says. “The more connected we are online, the more we really want to feel connected in the real world.”