As I have been discussing in my series of posts on the Extreme Close Quarters Concepts (ECQC) course that I fell into recently, Craig Douglas’s approach to the course is unique in my experience in being “interdisciplinary.” We learn and practice verbal agility, close quarters shooting, and the vast world between “a harsh word and a gun” (to borrow again from Chuck Haggard).
The sheer physicality of the upright grappling portion of the class on part of Friday night and Saturday afternoon had me nearing exhaustion, and we had not yet gone to the ground. But “if you carry a gun,” Douglas argues, “you need at least six months of jiu-jitsu.” He recognizes that what he is teaching in ECQC is just an overview and contextualized for armed self-defense. So, Douglas insists, “You need to keep training like this after this weekend.”
We learn just a few basic techniques to protect ourselves, to make space between ourselves and our opponents, to escape, and get back to our feet. We practice all of these on the gravel-studded sandy ground of the sheltered area at Trigger Time Range.
Already in the first drill using our feet to rotate our bodies while on our backs, I acutely feel my lack of core strength and my hamstrings start to cramp. This just in time for the day’s grand finale: a ground fighting evolution.
According to Douglas, “evolutions” are meant to validate the day’s learning. We take many of the techniques we have been practicing and pressure test them in an unscripted, non-consensual and competitive “fight” to see what we can and can’t do.
The first evolution involves a relatively simple set-up, with the armed defender on his back and the unarmed adversary standing leg distance away at the defender’s feet. The first line of defense here is to use your legs to keep from getting passed. Once the adversary has passed you, you are in trouble and you have to use techniques for making space and escaping, while possibly trying to access your gun and preventing your opponent from doing the same.
In this evolution we use training guns with marking cartridges and FIST helmets. Douglas pairs people off that seem to be good matches for each other in terms of ability, or so it seems (see Coda below). As I wait my turn, I feel my hamstrings getting tighter and the fatigue of the day setting in more and more on the rest of my body. My biceps and back are sore. My neck and stomach are sore.
Everything is so sore, in fact, that I fail to take any pictures or any video of the Saturday evolutions (photos here are from Sunday). Thankfully, one of the other students, Eli Knight, sent me a couple of videos he had posted to his social media. The first video is fairly representative of the challenge defenders had in the evolution. Knight fairly easily mounts and controls the defender here.
The second video shows Knight as the defender on the ground actually escaping and getting to his feet. To my memory, he was the only one in the 18 ground fighting evolutions that did so. Did I mention that Eli Knight is a jiu-jitsu black belt and trainer himself?
Fairly close to the end, Douglas finally pairs me with Bobby. I put on the FIST helmet and as before my glasses fog up almost immediately. The heat of my breath fills the helmet and makes it seem like I am not pulling in oxygen from the start.
I start on the ground and Bobby quickly passes me. As I struggle with him, he gets my back. As I am face down with Bobby on top of me, I try to fight. I can hear Douglas yelling at me to fight or keep control of my gun. I can’t remember which. I try to move side to side to get off my stomach and I hear Douglas offer an affirmation. But with each effort, my body grows weaker and the sensation of not being able to breathe inside the FIST helmet grows.
At some point, I have no idea when, I pull the helmet off, effectively ending my evolution before Douglas could call it.
I apologize and say I couldn’t breathe. I am gasping for air. Douglas reassures me, saying in a soft, level voice, “No problem buddy.” He gives me the FIST helmet back to take my turn as the adversary for Bobby. I put the helmet back on but immediately feel suffocated, take the helmet back off, and apologize again saying, “I can’t do it.” Douglas gives me a “no worries buddy” or some such words of encouragement and pulls someone else to complete the evolution with Bobby.
After we wrap up the 11-hour day around 7:00pm, I approach Douglas and apologize yet again for not completing the evolution. He again says it is no problem, that it happens regularly. He also points out that if you can say “I can’t breathe,” then you can breathe. It was then that I recalled a piece of advice that John Johnston of Citizens Defense Research gave me before the class: “If you can shout, ‘I can’t breathe,’ you can in fact breathe.”
The fact that I do not know how to fight was no great revelation to me. So the fact that I couldn’t defend myself against a more skilled adversary in Bobby, who also had the initiative in the evolution, didn’t trouble me psychologically. This failure simply showed me an aspect of my self-defense game that I need to work on, and that was an extremely valuable lesson. I am sure every student comes away from ECQC learning this much.
But a more important lesson for me came from my bigger failure in the evolution. My lack of physical and aerobic conditioning led me into a downward spiral of anxiety about being unable to breath in the FIST helmet. I came away from the experience realizing I had ultimately failed not by being unable to escape from or defeat Bobby, but because I did not even make it through the evolution. DNF. Forfeit.
Experiencing this failure in such a visceral and emotional way was profound. The rest of the night and as soon as I woke up the next morning I thought about rebounding to do the final two evolutions on day 3 of the course. It’s like getting back in the batter’s box after you’ve been hit by a pitch, I told myself. You’ve done that before, you can do this. But each time I imagined putting my head in the FIST helmet again, my anxiety level rose. I finally had to admit to myself, and to Craig Douglas, that I couldn’t do any more evolutions. That default reinforced the embodied experience of failure in the first evolution and gave me still more concrete evidence of my shortcomings when it comes to being able to defend myself.
To be clear, I do not feel like I am personally a failure and I am not beating myself up about this. Neither Craig Douglas nor any of my fellow students nor any of the many friends I have made through gun training have characterized me personally as a failure. To the contrary, the ECQC course is designed to give everyone the opportunity to test their abilities and to see, as Douglas puts it, “where their wheels fall off.” My wheels just fell off more quickly and more spectacularly.
In writing up this experience, I had no clear memory of who I fought in my evolution. For some reason I vaguely recalled a royal blue Under Armour hoodie, so I looked back through my photos to see who had worn one. Bobby confirmed by email that he was the one involved in what I characterized as “my spectacular flame out.” He also generously added, “I wouldn’t say you flamed out at all. You were fighting hard and with my experience on the ground I had to put an equal amount of effort in the few techniques I used to keep you from getting me off of you. I remember thinking, Dang that was a good explosion, when I got on top of you. If I didn’t know what I was doing, you would have gotten almost anybody off of you. That’s what I believe caused you to panic. I was applying so much pressure to you and no matter what you did you were stuck. Trust me, I know the feeling and it’s almost claustrophobic and definitely demoralizing to have somebody do this to you because it’s been done to me hundreds of times over the years!”
Although encouraging, Bobby’s comment about his experience ground fighting (his email address also alludes to the legendary Gracie Brazilian jiu-jitsu family) also made me wonder if Craig Douglas had overestimated my ability in making this pairing? Or was he trying to teach me a lesson?
A couple of weeks after ECQC, I also followed up with Douglas because I wanted to know from his perspective what happened to me. He told me it was something he had seen regularly before. Quite simply, “You had a panic attack, owing to the totality of the circumstances. Exhaustion, performance anxiety, motor skill deficit, strangers. These feelings coalesced into claustrophobia, which is a physical manifestation of what is going on emotionally.”
Finally, there is that damned FIST helmet. I am thinking about buying one to wear around and train in so I will be more prepared the next time around. Or maybe do a GoFundMe for something a bit more serious like an LBX Adaptiv Helmet. One way or the other, I’ll be back.