How Murph Became the Most Legendary Fitness Challenge Ever

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On Memorial Day weekend 2007, Dr Joshua Appel had an idea. The American holiday, held at the end of May, had become associated with beers and barbecues. But Appel, then a medical resident in Albany, New York, wanted to remind himself and others of the day’s original purpose – he wanted a way to contemplate with mind and body those who had lost their lives in military service.

Appel had recently begun to train at CrossFit Albany. “I heard about this Hero Workout of the Day called Murph,” he says. Hero WODs are dedicated to a military member or first responder killed in the line of duty. “And I was, like, ‘I wonder if that’s the same Murph.’”

It is one of CrossFit’s hardest workouts, a prolonged thresher that blends endurance and calisthenics with a whole lot of time in your head, beating back millennia of human wiring telling you to slow down or tap out. It goes like this: you run one mile, do 100 pull-ups, 200 press-ups and 300 squats, then run one more mile – all as fast as possible, while wearing a weight vest.

Appel was not a typical medical resident. He had been involved in the military since 1994 as an air force para-rescueman; he was a combat search-and-rescue specialist trained to retrieve wounded service members. He enrolled in medical school in 2001. “I graduated on 11 May 2005,” he says. And that’s when things got hot. He was on a plane to Afghanistan two days later. “Then, on June 28, we got the call that the Chinook [helicopter] had been shot down and a Navy SEAL team was missing.”

Operation Red Wings went as tragically as a mission can. Early that morning, the military dropped four SEALs – Lieutenant Michael Murphy and Petty Officers Danny Dietz, Matthew Axelson and Marcus Luttrell – about 3km high in the Hindu Kush Mountains. The team was to provide reconnaissance for an impending action against the guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah.

The plan twisted southward when some goatherds stumbled on the team’s position. Within hours, the SEALs were taking fire on three sides by a force of more than 50 anti-coalition militiamen. The SEALs, all wounded, were pinned against cliffs, which blocked the signal they needed to make a distress call. Understanding his team’s predicament, Murphy, according to the US navy, “unhesitatingly and with complete disregard for his own life moved into the open, where he could gain a better position to transmit a call to get help for his men… This deliberate and heroic act deprived him of cover and made him a target for the enemy… He was shot in the back, causing him to drop the transmitter.” Murphy picked it back up and completed the call.

Murphy, Dietz and Axelson died on that mountainside – as did the 16 special forces service members whose helicopter was shot down while racing in to extract the four SEALs. Luttrell escaped. Locals discovered him and carried him to a village, where they kept him for three days. Luttrell’s story is told in the book and movie Lone Survivor.

“I was the para-rescue team leader who rescued Marcus Luttrell and recovered Michael Murphy and Danny Dietz,” Appel says. He kept the body armour he wore when he recovered Murphy’s body. Two years later, after he’d started CrossFit and realised that the Murph workout on the board was, in fact, the same Murph, he approached the owner of Albany CrossFit and said, “We should get everyone together and do a Hero Workout on Memorial Day.”

Appel suggested Murph. “We had 13, maybe 15 people. I thought it would be cool if everybody did Murph, so everyone has the same goal.” He wore his body armour.

“It was very unifying and brought all kinds of people together,” Appel says. “It wasn’t a race. It was just going out and suffering together for Memorial Day and thinking about the people who sacrificed everything… It sounds kind of corny, but it drives and motivates you.” Then he wondered, “Could it be bigger?” “I thought this should be a national thing,” he says.

It Starts with a Man

“When Michael was two years old,” Dan Murphy, Michael’s father and a Vietnam veteran, tells Men’s Health, “he saw our neighbour’s pool. He ran up to it, didn’t even look and just jumped in. So I run and toss my wallet and keys to jump in and save him. And Michael just swam to the other side and popped up with this big smile on his face.”

He recounts other stories, too. His son earned the nickname “the Protector” in school after he challenged a group of bullies who were picking on a disabled student. As a teenager, he defended a homeless can collector who was being harassed.

At Penn State University, Michael Murphy studied psychology and political science, played ice hockey – and did his civic duty to help ensure that the college held its place as one of the nation’s elite party schools. He planned to join the FBI, so he applied to law school. He was also interested in enlisting, though his father – who understood the reality of war – disapproved. But the navy would allow Murphy to channel his protector spirit and make a living. So, in 2000, he signed up. He earned the SEAL trident in July 2002 and completed three tours. His fourth, in early 2005, took him to Afghanistan to support Operation Enduring Freedom.

Upon deciding to join the navy, Dan Murphy tells MH, his son began running, doing callisthenics and climbing a rope tied to a tree in the backyard of his childhood home. Then he discovered CrossFit: “And he put together his own [CrossFit-style] workout that fit in with his job as a SEAL.” They run. They push. They pull. They lift. Michael Murphy did it while wearing a 7.4kg military-issued vest. That’s how Body Armour, as he called the WOD that would become Murph, was born. “Michael’s standard time was 32 to 35 minutes,” says Dan.

Body Armour required very little equipment and could be done almost anywhere. Troops stationed in Jordan, Qatar, Djibouti or Afghanistan don’t have access to exercise gear. But they do have body armour. And perhaps a tree, crossbeam or door frame to use for pull-ups. The workout allows remotely stationed service members to work the movements and patterns they need to swiftly attack and evade. Scoring a fast time is not easy, but neither is war. SEALs would find that a good Murph time also served as an indicator that they’d reached the level of fitness required to fight.

The Man Becomes a Movement

When news about Operation Red Wings began trickling out, Dan Murphy had
to reckon with his son’s selfless nature. The navy “told us they believed that there was at least one survivor,” he says. “I remember turning to Michael’s mom, Maureen, and saying, ‘We know the way Michael is. If there’s going to be one survivor, it’s not going to be Michael.’” After his death, Murphy’s Body Armour workout started to spread by word of mouth among the SEAL teams – at outposts in Afghanistan and Iraq and at US bases and training centres.

That’s when Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, got involved. “Darren Andersen contacted me to ask if I’d honour the death of his commanding officer with a WOD named after him,” Glassman says. Andersen “was one of the hundreds of [SEAL] team guys who made the pilgrimage to Santa Cruz” – home of the original CrossFit box.

Back then, CrossFit only had about 13 boxes, but Glassman would log on to crossfit.com and post fitness principles and daily workouts. His training method had gained a following among special forces operators and other first responders due to its focus on function over form, at a time when bodybuilding was the norm in the military.

“We did Body Armour three to five times before it came out on the CrossFit website,” says Greg Amundson, one of the first CrossFit adopters and a former DEA agent. He was part of Glassman’s famed 6am class. “That class was where the fire-breathers were. We were the guinea pigs. It was common for us to do workouts that Glassman would come up with around the whiteboard, and only thereafter would they make their way onto crossfit.com.”

The people doing Body Armour, as it was still known at the time, wore any weight-carrying apparatus they owned, Amundson says. Some wore the standard 9kg (20lb) vest; others went lighter or heavier. “But it didn’t matter. It was unified. You wore your kit.”

Hero WODs had come before. But Body Armour felt different. “The nexus between the SEALs and the box in Santa Cruz was very pronounced,” says Amundson. “Many of the SEALs who came to train there had known Lieutenant Michael Murphy.”

The grind of the workout also led to more camaraderie and – because it called for partitioning the reps – strategy. “You didn’t know what your partner on your left or right was going to do,” Amundson says. “All you knew is that you started the run together and you had to end with the run. But in between that… man, who knows what’s going to happen? It was an adventure. There was something about Body Armour that had an inherent spirit to it.”

On 17 August 2005, Glassman posted the details of the workout to crossfit.com as the WOD and included a note: “In memory of Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, 29, of Patchogue, NY, who was killed in Afghanistan 28 June 2005. This workout was one of Mike’s favourites and he’d named it ‘Body Armour’. From here on, it will be referred to as ‘Murph’.”

The Movement Goes Viral

In October 2007, Michael Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honour, the most prestigious US military decoration, given only to those who have committed exceptional acts of selfless valour. Appel had made doing Murph every year a personal Memorial Day tradition. In 2010, he contacted Dan Murphy. “I hadn’t ever talked to Dan before, but I figured if I was going to do something nationally, in his son’s name, I should probably get his approval.”

Appel wanted to start a fundraiser by building a website and asking CrossFit boxes if their members would be up for joining the challenge. There would be a small fee, and all proceeds would benefit military charities and the LT Michael P Murphy Memorial Scholarship Foundation, which Dan created in 2007 because “one of [Michael’s] favourite sayings was: ‘Education will set you free,’” Dan says.

“So we talked,” says Appel, “and Dan’s, like, ‘Let me get this straight. You’re going to ask people to pay money to go to their own gym and do a workout? Do you think people are really going to do that?’ And I said, ‘You don’t know the CrossFit community.’”

In 2011, around 7,800 people signed up and donated. The next year, Appel called Mike Sauers, a former SEAL who had founded Forged, a military-inspired apparel brand, and asked if he would be willing to make T-shirts to incentivise people to participate. “Forged ended up shipping all the T-shirts to us because we had all the mailing lists. It was well over 10,000. And this was my wife and I, stuffing shirts into envelopes,” Appel recalls. “We’d just had twins and my wife was like, ‘There’s no way we can do this next year.’”

Sauers was happy to take charge. “We jumped on board and started setting everything up, organising and facilitating the fundraiser,” he says. “Murph was known as a really gruelling workout in the SEAL teams and CrossFit community. We discovered that a lot of people were biting off more than they could chew.” Sauers didn’t want anyone to fail, so he began calling it the Murph Challenge. “If we put the word ‘challenge’ in there, it’s an alert that this isn’t a 10- or 15-minute workout,” he says. “And we started bringing in workout programmes and making sure there was a path for everyone to perform the Murph Challenge to the best of their ability.”

Appel puts it this way: “My saying is, ‘What’s your Murph?’ You don’t have to be a Navy SEAL to do this workout. Sure, it helps. But you can scale it, and anyone can do Murph. Can’t do pull-ups? OK, do ring rows. Can’t run? OK, row. Even if you’re in a wheelchair and 90 years old, we can create something for you.” That something just has to be long and hard – maybe the longest, hardest thing you do all year.

Completed at full tilt, however, Murph can ice even elite athletes. Dave Castro, a former Navy SEAL and CrossFit’s director of sport, used Murph as a welcome party for competitors at the 2015 CrossFit Games. “It was tough,” he says. The temperature at the Games peaked in the 80s, turning the StubHub Center in Carson, California, into a furnace. The weight vest acts as insulation, making it even harder for your body to cool down. (Welcome to being a soldier in the Middle East.) The athletes “were all still really fast,” says Castro, and Björgvin Karl Guðmundsson won with a time of 38 minutes and 36 seconds – but as the headline in the San Diego Union-Tribune announced that day, “Murph Makes Games Athletes Look Mortal”. The world’s fittest gasping for air only added to the workout’s legacy.

Sauers, meanwhile, was working his connections to get the Murph Challenge to people outside the CrossFit community. “I had helped to train Chris Pratt for his role in Zero Dark Thirty and we’d remained friends,” he says. “He’s done it since 2012.” John Krasinski did it along with the Rock in 2018. “What an honour it was to drop sweat in honour of Lt Michael Murphy,” Dwayne Johnson wrote on Instagram. “I love that it was designed to help push us, help humble us, and dedicate a little bit of pain and sweat to the man who gave everything he had.” This kind of megawatt celebrity shout-out helped Murph go mainstream.

The rise of Instagram – offering the ability to share the grind, which now fills feeds each Memorial Day weekend – pushed the challenge to more people. The workout has received half a million pings via various hashtags (#murph, #murphchallenge, #murphwod) on the platform. And the pandemic made Murph stronger. On Memorial Day last year, Spartan racer Hunter McIntyre set an unofficial record, completing Murph in 34 minutes and 13 seconds, and Lee Davis of Rhapsody CrossFit in Charleston, South Carolina, finished 16 rounds of Murph in less than 24 hours. But that’s nothing on Graham Dessert, who did Murph every day for 365 days, finishing in February this year.

Three things have made Murph iconic, says Castro: its dedication to a SEAL with such a heroic story, its monumental difficulty and the community around it. Next year’s Murph Challenge takes place on 30 May, but you can pay personal homage any time. Master the workout, then sign up at themurphchallenge.com. Your fee goes to the LT Michael P Murphy Memorial Scholarship Foundation.

You don’t need military-level fitness to complete the workout – just the will to push your limits. Scale it according to your level of ability.

1. Choose Your Murph

2. Scale the Moves

Not everyone can do hundreds of reps of the excercises, so scale your MUrph with these substitutes.

3. Optimize Your Murph

Strength and conditioning coach Ian Creighton has helped many people train for Murph and do it fast. It’s never easy, but these tips will help.

► Start slowish:
You won’t win Murph in the first mile. Run a pace that’s a minute slower than your pace for a 5K.

► Carry the load:
A swaying vest can make your run awkward and slow. Hook your thumbs just above the armpits of the vest and pull it out in front of you, which will secure the weight and reduce its movement.

► Play to your weakness:
“Most people run into problems on the pullups or pushups,” Creighton says. First, stay far from failure on every rep. If you can do, say, 10 pullups and 20 pushups, you’ll want to perform sets of, say, 3 pullups, 6 pushups, and 9 squats. When you start to burn out, chop up your weakest sets even further. For example, if you’re hitting snags on the pullups, you could do 2 pullups, 6 pushups, 1 pullup, and 9 squats.

► Drop the hammer:
Lean into the suffering and go for broke on the final 1-mile run.

This story appears in the September 2021 issue of Men's Health UK with the headline The Legend of Murph.

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