Sometimes people ask me why I like to camp out in the snow, lug heavy loads across unforgiving terrain or otherwise make myself as miserable as hell. I often wonder about that too. I guess I enjoy pushing through unpleasant situations. In doing so, I overcome the part of me that can’t cope and the part of me that can, expands. Or I’m just a masochist.
Masochistic Madeley made a snap decision back in March to enter The Special Forces Experience Bootcamp. A weekend of training with ex-special forces personnel including a 10-mile, load-bearing race over the Clwydian Range, Wales. Here’s how that went down.
Travelling to the midst of north Wales was never going to be easy. Most Special Forces operatives would parachute in from high-altitude. I got dropped off by my mother, I like to create a good first impression. To further enhance my tough guy image I announced that I wouldn’t run the 10-mile race to the staff at check-in. Two week prior to attending I’d aggravated a hip injury and walking was proving tough enough. The Directing Staff, or ‘Staff’ for short, told me to inform the medic. He didn’t seem too bothered. Nor did the medic.
Day one comprised of a medley of lessons from navigation, firearms training, survival, some first-aid and kit hints and tips. This was spliced with special lessons in timekeeping, listening to what the staff told you and not losing your weapon (aka a meter-long metal pipe weighing the same as an assault rifle). The medium for these special lessons was intense PT, known as a beasting.
Our first special lesson of the day came as a result of three of our number standing around chatting instead of being sat listening in to a brief by the DS. ‘Right! Everybody outside NOW! Move!’ Some sprinting, lots of press-ups and squats later we came back in to finish the brief. I felt nauseous ‘bloody hell’ I thought ‘it’s only 8:30.’
Fortunately the navigation class, taught by A-Squadron company founder and ex-SAS soldier, Bob Podasta, went on for some time and I was able to regain some composure. My Ice Warrior navigation training put me in good stead and I managed the map reading exercises with relative ease.
Before or just after lunch came our PT session. I can’t remember exactly when as I was in too much pain to recall much. I’ve never wanted to cry while doing push-ups before but by the third round of carrying heavy shit up and down a field, through smoke grenades while being shouted at, I was just about ready to shed a few tears.
During the PT session my hip decided it’d had enough. Bolts of pain shot through my groin and down to my knee. If I was going to make it through this weekend I needed to break out some big guns. During a water break I opened my first-aid kit and reached for the inter-continental missile of pain relief, cocodamol. One tablet of that and I couldn’t detect my hip pain, the burning in my thighs or which century it was.
Post lunch Bob took us through some firearms drills. This was good fun (albeit with the constant threat of beastings hovering in the background). We used Airsoft pistols and learned how to handle a weapon and make it safe. The Bob showed us how to roll with a pistol and we split into teams to have a go diving, rolling and shooting at a target (by shouting bang-bang, like playing army at school).
More deadly skills came after when we learnt some Krav Maga. The Israeli fighting system is horribly effective and I can see why it is used by police and military forces the world over. It builds on our natural response to a violent situation and deals with a threat in a highly aggressive manner. But this too, was fun. I began to think that there’s a darker part of me that enjoys violence. Perhaps it’s because it releases pent up frustrations of working in a cubicle, the failure of the Arctic expedition to go, again, cycling through busy London streets and the thousands of other little paper cuts of stress that build as par of the course in ‘normal’ life.
By the afternoon I had popped 3 cocodamol. Occasional stabs of pain ran through me if I made sudden twists or turns but otherwise I felt good. The only real annoyance became the other recruits who couldn’t be time, left their kit lying around or otherwise pissed the DS off. In doing so we’d all get beasted for their errors and they’d be made to watch while we sprinted here and there, crawled around or held stress positions until someone quit.
During the afternoon we went on a 3-4 mile tab. A tab is a quick march while carrying our heavy Bergen rucksacks and bit of pipe. The DS shouted out ‘prepare to march!’ We repeated his command, then he shouted ‘march!’ And we were off down the narrow Welsh country lanes.
The warm weather drained us and we looked a rag-tag bunch as we hobbled along at London commuter pace (that is walking quickly, as if desperate for a shit). There were about 40 of us, mostly men, only 4 women. ‘Double!’ said the DS, we began to run. There were all ages too, from 18 to somewhere over 60.
I felt fine during the tab, in fact I felt pretty good. I’d stayed at the front of the pack for the duration and kept a good pace. I could actually do this, I thought.
Day one drew to a close with a hearty pasta dinner and a few more lessons from a serving member of the forces (‘no photos of the staff!’). By this point tiredness had set in and my brain felt heavy. We wrapped up our day just before 10pm. I called Lisa and hit the shower before drifting off to the sound of a pub karaoke competition…
The day of the race arrived. I twitched awake in my sleeping bag. I tentatively moved my legs – no shooting pains, that was a good sign. The weather was clear yet not too hot. The remnants of the night’s downpour clung in big droplets on my tent. I began packing my kit away and decided to have a go at the 10-mile race.
Post breakfast we all got a beasting for a number of late comers to the daily briefing. Then again when someone forgot their notepad. And again when someone left some kit behind.
The staff had us perform a quick orienteering exercise to build on our navigation skills from yesterday. Then we hopped into cars for the drive to the start point. I’d asked for a lift from Luke, a serial competitor in the SF Experience races. He came 3rd in the Fan Dance last summer, then 3rd from last in the winter version in February.
Our starting point was part of a national park. Miles of rolling hills stretched out into the distance. They spelt out a good bit of elevation and declination, my legs gave out a little whimper. My fiancé met me at the start along with my dad. I asked if she had any snacks, I had nothing to eat for the race. She ran to the car and passed me 4 pieces of dark chocolate, that’d have to do!
After a quick briefing there was just enough time for another beasting (someone had left tent pegs in the ground at the campsite). We formed 2 lines and had our bags weighed will chatting about what lay ahead. Our rucksacks needed to be 35lbs not including water or snacks. Then we were off.
The Sun was out warming the glorious countryside. Groups of friends and families had the right idea; strolling up the dusty hillside path in shorts and t-shirts with cans of refreshing, cold beer packed next to glutinous feasts to enjoy over the views.
We drew some stares and a few ‘good luck’ shouts from the crowds as we double-timed up. We kept in our files until the first check-point at the top of Moel Famau. From there we began to find our own pace and the field stretched out.
I caught several of the early starters and pride crept in, swiftly followed by a fall down a steep section of path. The rock had become exposed and I slipped on the edge of a stone, landed on my arse and slid about 10-feet into a gully. Other than a bruised ego and some skin-loss on one finger, I was fine. I carried on quickly marching up the steep sections and jogging down the slopes.
I was nearly at the half-way checkpoint when I met Kevin – the SF Experience record holder heading up and towards the finish. ‘Go on mate!’ I said as we passed, he looked at me, coated in sweat, effort etched into his thin face. He didn’t say anything but carried on at pace up the slope.
The half-way point was at the top of a re-entrant, the steep side of a hill or mountain between the gently sloping spurs. Bob told us that a re-entrant was a good place to attack an enemy position as it’d be unexpected – only a lunatic would try and attack someone after climbing something so steep. I did feel like a bit of a loony at this stage. Still, I believed I could make it, and ploughed on, continuing to be passed by competitors on their way back. Some shouted encouragement.
At the half-way mark I ate my remaining 4-pieces of chocolate, swigged some water and had a chat with the jovial Welsh staff (who looked very ex-SAS). Then I was off, I didn’t want to linger and lose time or my muscles to seize-up.
The rest did me good and I flew along until the final stretch. Suddenly I felt completely knackered and I didn’t want to run anymore. My shoulders ached and my quads were on fire. I thought about taking another rest and having a sit down. My legs were wobbling at each step, I didn’t know if I could finish, my tank was near empty and I was running on fumes. If only I’d brought more provisions…
Then, when all seemed lost, among the dust and stones lay a jelly sweet. It could have been a Haribo, I’m not sure. I peeled it from it’s stone platter and popped the sticky-sweet goodness into my gob. It was the dusty boost I needed to make the kilometer climb to the final checkpoint.
‘How’re you feeling?’ Asked the staff, previously in charge of the beastings. ‘I’m fucked staff.’ ‘Well, it’s all down hill from here’ he smiled ‘plenty of running.’ My eyes would have rolled but they could barely stay open at this point.
I just let gravity do the work, my quads were numb and my footfalls were heavy. People instinctively moved out of the way when they saw me, a zombie with a huge rucksack and metal pipe come tearing down the hillside.
Then, around a bend I saw the finish. A couple of staff stood around with stopwatches and clipboards, one had a camera and was taking a picture of a young lad who’d finished shortly before me. This lifted my spirits and I managed to squeeze a faltering trot from my tired legs.
‘Well done’ the bald race organiser congratulated me at the finish. He told me my time was 3 hours 13 minutes and that ‘wasn’t bad’ which I took as a huge compliment. ‘Did you enjoy it?’ he said, I replied that it was type 2 fun and it’d be fun on Monday after a rest.
In retrospect I’m not sure it was fun. But it was worth it. I remember looking up hill towards the last checkpoint. My mind screaming ‘you’ve done enough! Just rest and take it easy.’ My body tired and bloodied. I remember me just taking a moment to breathe before taking each step as it came and before long, reaching the top. Now I remember that I can endure more than I think myself capable and that’s why I do these things.