Every Memorial Day, fitness enthusiasts and newcomers around the country and across the globe prepare to honor fallen Navy SEAL Michael P. Murphy and many others who have made the ultimate sacrifice by completing “The Murph Challenge.”
LT. Michael P. Murphy was killed during Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan on June 28, 2005. (Courtesy of Dan Murphy)
The grueling workout consists of a one-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, and another one-mile run.
Murphy originally dubbed the workout “Body Armor” as he executed the routine with a 20-pound protective vest. He developed the workout as a functional routine that was practical for his work as a SEAL. While his average time was between 32 and 34 minutes, his best time was reportedly just over 28 minutes. The workout would prove invaluable in the treacherous mountains of Afghanistan.
Operation Red Wings
On June 28, 2005, Murphy and three other SEALs, Matthew Axelson, Danny Dietz, and Marcus Luttrell, were on a reconnaissance mission, code name Operation Red Wings, in eastern Afghanistan.
But when they were discovered by unarmed locals, their mission became compromised. The SEAL team let them go, knowing that they would most likely inform the Taliban of their presence.
LT. Michael P. Murphy created the Body Armor workout. Now, it’s called The Murph in his honor and memory. (Courtesy of Dan Murphy)
As the three SEALs attempted to return to base, scores of Taliban fighters reached their position, and a firefight ensued. The unforgiving terrain made it impossible to get a connection to call for a quick reaction force to come to their aid.
Murphy, having already been gravely wounded, left his covered position and went out into the open to get a signal. As he exposed himself to enemy fire, he was able to call for assistance before being shot again. He returned to cover, and continued to fight until he was killed. Only Luttrell would survive the battle.
The Murph Challenge
Years later, Michael Murphy’s father, Dan Murphy, approached former SEAL Michael Sauers regarding the LT. Michael P. Murphy Memorial Scholarship Foundation that was established in the aftermath of Operation Red Wings. Sauers, the founder of FORGED, an apparel company, served on active duty for 13 years and seven years as an instructor and had crossed paths with Murphy several times throughout his service.
Dan Murphy knew about Sauers’s work with the veteran community, and they discussed a fitness fundraiser for the foundation—the Murph Challenge. They worked on how to promote the challenge and prepare participants for it. Since 2014, FORGED has garnered more than $1.25 million from the challenge for the foundation, which has sponsored 33 scholarships this year alone. In total, since 2007, the foundation has sponsored more than 400 scholarships. Every year, the challenge is able to raise enough to sponsor one or two more.
“Michael’s favorite saying was ‘Education will set you free,’” Dan Murphy explained. “Education removes superstition, prejudice, rumor mongering. He said education brings us together as a people—all Americans.”
Dan Murphy established the LT. Michael P. Murphy Memorial Scholarship Foundation in the aftermath of Operation Red Wings. (Courtesy of Dan Murphy)
Since 2014, FORGED and the CrossFit community have expanded the tradition across the country and the world. Actor Taylor Kitsch, who played Murphy in “Lone Survivor” has promoted the workout and made it a staple in fitness culture. Other influential athletes and celebrities, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, have further popularized the event. Every Memorial Day weekend, Dan Murphy travels throughout his Long Island community and beyond to promote the challenge, but also to tell participants about his son’s story.
“What I always try to instill in my comments to everybody is that when they’re doing this, the idea is to think about all those fallen heroes, including Mike, who sacrificed for our freedom,” Dan Murphy said.
Michael Sauers (L) and actor Chris Pratt (R) promote The Murph Challenge. (Courtesy of Michael Sauers)
While participants try to complete the challenge as fast as they can, Sauers stressed how the event isn’t about getting the best time. The challenge isn’t a competition, but rather a way to honor Murphy and the many others who have been killed in combat. And while the workout is intense, Sauers encourages everyone to participate even if they have to modify the routine.
“Murph would have been the guy who finished, wouldn’t even have made a big deal about it, and he would’ve helped all of the other people who were struggling, and he would’ve motivated them and helped them go through the Murph Challenge,” Sauers explained.
Liz Gilroy, 52, of East Hanover, New Jersey, has completed the workout multiple times. She first learned about “The Murph” in 2012 from FORGED, and she had read both Luttrell’s “Lone Survivor” and Gary Williams’s biography on Murphy entitled “SEAL of Honor.” After a little bit of research, the CrossFit enthusiast was drawn to the challenge. Many of her brothers, uncles, and cousins have served in the military, and attempting the workout was her way of showing appreciation for the service.
“The whole never quit, never give up, and never out of the fight kind of thing really hit home,” Gilroy said.
After completing the workout for the first time, Gilroy was exhausted. But she’s kept at it, and she tends to do the challenge multiple times per year. Over the past year during the pandemic, she’s done the workout four times. This year, she’ll be adding the weighted vest.
“I don’t care if it takes me three days. I’ll just do it until I’m done,” Gilroy said.
Michael Sauers is a former Navy SEAL and co-founder of The Murph Challenge. (Courtesy of Michael Sauers)
Joe Romano is the owner of Mission Fitness, where Gilroy exercises and performs the challenge. He learned about The Murph when he started doing CrossFit in 2009 and hosts the event every Memorial Day at his gym.
“It just reminds me how privileged, grateful, and thankful I am to live in this country. There are men and women out there that throughout our history have sacrificed everything for us to be able to do a Murph, to be free,” Romano explained.
Romano has tremendous respect for the military, and he wanted to be able to pay tribute to Murphy and so many others who have died for our way of life. He’s been hosting the event at his gym since 2014. Like Sauers, Romano tells his members that the event isn’t about getting a stellar time. The challenge on Memorial Day is about teamwork.
“That’s really the essence of Michael Murphy, what he did for his teammates, and just how that organization operates. They all rely on each other,” Romano said.