One Friday night during the Spring 2007, Martin and I sat in our local pub garden, discussing, among other things, “the youth of today” like old farts over a couple of pints of cider. The catalyst for this discussion was brought about by the fact that earlier that same evening we had been watching the film, “300.” As the conversation evolved we discovered that what had obviously impressed us most were the hardships these Spartan men were put through not only as warriors but as boys. in order that in manhood they would be the greatest soldiers of their time, known throughout the world for their superior fighting prowess. We found ourselves in agreement, that a lot of young people today could not handle anything remotely like this callous and brutal lifestyle. Hardship, to a great many youngsters today is no more than running out of credit on their mobile phones. They seem to have no drive or ambition, we agreed, as if we had always been so driven ourselves. It is highly probable that this kind of attitude has been under discussion since time began. One thing is for sure, at 42 years old, this stance is an indication of no longer being young myself. Somewhat hypocritically, nostalgic memories of unemployed days spent in bed and all night parties as a youth are still present in my mind.
However, as the dialogue continued, we began to discuss the physical hardships that we personally had endured in our later lives. Of these there were many from both sides of the table. Martin is a Sergeant in the Grenadier Guards and on a different level my training in traditional Kung-Fu, produced accounts of testing times from both of us. From a hard body conditioning session followed by some hard bare knuckle sparring in the training hall, to running miles carrying a Bergen weighing fifty pounds or more over difficult terrain.
Martin began to tell me of his most testing trial to date. I sat listening intently to the ordeal that was bestowed upon him. The upshot of which, was Martin and three other soldiers led by him, had to travel over fifty miles with Bergen’s on their backs with a hefty seventy pounds of kit. To complete the distance of each section were not the only objectives. At regular intervals throughout the course the soldiers had to complete time limited tasks that required not only physical exertion but also psychological problem solving. This was after navigating to each check point over hills and rough terrain on the Welsh Brecon Beacons. After hearing this amazing feat, I expressed a wish to do something similar and Martin agreed to organise it.
Learning survival skills had for a long time been of great interest to me. Who better then to expand my knowledge than a Sergeant in the Grenadier Guards.
One of the oldest and most battle hardened forces in the British Army. The Guards have been in every theatre of war concerning Britain since Napoleonic times. Martin himself has done two tours of duty in Northern Ireland, was in the first Iraq war and more recently in Afghanistan.
By last orders, back in the pub, we had consumed several pints each and I assumed that no more would come of our drunken plans. It was some days later that Martin came to my house and to my surprise, announced that he was still going to organise the trip. He laid out the bare bones of his plan. I listened a little apprehensively as he explained we were to do a similar test to that done by him and his men.
It consisted of a 25 mile hike over the Brecon Beacons carrying 50 pounds of weight on our backs in Bergen’s. We were to start early in the morning and travel through the day and into the night if necessary.
I was very keen to learn how to navigate using a compass and map not only in daylight but also at night, so I was pleased with his plan. There would be numerous check points to get to but as it was just the two of us we would not be doing any tasks at each point as was required by the army, thank god!
It was important to remain aware that we would have no back up should we get injured. Our only option he explained, should the worst happen, would be to call out the rescue helicopter and for Martin to call out the yellow bird of shame would be embarrassing to say the least.
Together, we made plans as to what kit would be needed, especially the type of footwear and most of the kit needed Martin would provide for me. We arranged to do it in August, leaving us plenty of time to get organised.
As the date drew nearer I was filled with mixed feelings of excitement and trepidation. In my own mind I was sure I could do it, but at the same time I knew I was totally inexperienced and there was always the possibility of injury. During the months prior to the trek, I was in training for a run that I was required to complete as part of my grading to become a full instructor with my Kung-Fu school. For this, I was expected to run three miles in under 45 minutes with a ruck-sack on my back weighing 56lbs. At that time, this was a demanding challenge and I trained hard and regularly until I was confident I could complete it with relative ease.
The day of the run as part of my grading came and I completed it well with a few minutes to spare. My job now was to maintain this high level of fitness and build on it further in order that I would perform well during the Spartan challenge. Within the realms of traditional Kung-Fu, body conditioning is very tough and the level of fitness required is high. More importantly, training and development of the mind. To keep going through hard physical exertion is fundamental. Dealing with pain and having the mental strength to continue regardless of how you are feeling was beasted into me from my first day as a Kung-Fu practitioner. So it was then that I felt I already had what was needed for such an arduous task and with a little extra training I would be up to the job.
Time prior to the challenge passed quickly and in what seemed no time the night before the off was on me. That evening, I walked to Martins house and while there he showed me how to tape my feet with zinc oxide tape to add protection from blistering. Unbeknown to Martin I paid a visit to Boots chemist and bought some further protection for blisters and some pain killers, can’t be too careful, I thought.
We ran through our kit making sure we had all we needed. Martin had provided me with DPMs, water proofs, boots and a compass. Water bottles, army food rations, enough for twenty four hours and a sleeping bag and poncho. He then showed me how to pack all this properly into the Bergen along with a few small items of my own. My excitement grew, as we again ran over the route on a map of the Beacons.
It was approximately a three hour car journey to Wales so we decided to set off at 4am the next morning.
The drive was uneventful apart from the heavily discounted full English breakfast provided by the motorway service station because we were dressed as military and the Afghan war had just kicked off. Although I felt a bit of a fraud I thought it was a great idea and soon got over it as I began to stuff my face.
We arrived at the bottom of the Brecon Beacons at 7.15am and parked the Saab in a car park that sat behind a small row of shops on the main road. We collected the burgens from the boot and swapped our trainers for army boots. Donning our camouflaged jackets then putting our packs on our backs, followed by a quick photo shoot for posterity, we set off.
I felt strong and up for it, although a bit apprehensive. The first leg was one of the steepest parts, deliberately placed at the beginning of the trek while our legs were strongest.
As we walked along the narrow tarmac road, covered either side with tall bushes, towards the first check point a massive hill loomed large in front of us. It rose over 700 meters and looked intimidating for a novice like me. It was a perfect morning a clear blue sky and the air smelled fresh and clean. The mist on the low lying fields was slowly dispersing revealing the dew covered luminescent grass that stretched out for miles in all directions. The birds were in full song adding to the beautiful serene English country landscape that spread out before us, belying the arduous task that was now under way.
The First Hill
The sun was gradually rising higher into the sky and by the time we reached the base of the first hill we had to stop and take off our jackets as we were already sweating quite heavily. Following closely behind Martin we began the ascent. After only twenty minutes or so my thighs started to burn from lactic acid build up and my breath became laboured.
The incline at this stage was steep but it was only a few meters before it became much steeper and already I was struggling to keep up with Martin. He seemed so comfortable and set in his stride. His experience and the fact he was twelve years my junior now became palpable.
I recognised the sensation of wanting to give in, it was an old adversary that was to be beaten once again. I snapped myself back to the task in hand and told myself that I would be ok. I just needed to get into the right frame of mind and crack on, putting such weak thoughts from my mind. Immediately I felt pleased with myself and my new found commitment and began to get into a rhythm.
Lifting my head I glanced up the rocky hill once again to see Martin now about twenty meters ahead of me. Not wishing to look like I was suffering at such an early stage I dug deep and started to close the distance between us. The uneven rocky ground under foot was awkward at first but with focus it became easier. I then managed to maintain the pace just behind him. As we slowly progressed I felt my body switch up a gear. This change in my body I knew well and had been waiting for it. I began to settle into my stride feeling stronger with each unhurried step. The weight of the Bergen now felt good on my back. I can only describe this as almost sadistic feeling of enjoyable strength enhancing pain that accompanied me whenever I ran with a backpack, it was no stranger to me.
I am always reminded during times like these of a quote by a Sergeant in the French Foreign Legion on a documentary I saw, he said “pain is just weakness leaving the body”.
The recruits standing in front of him looked as though they were losing a lot of weakness and he was enjoying it. A good phrase I thought and there is truth in it. Rather than adopting the mind set of the pack weighing you down, it is far easier to imagine the weight propelling you forwards. As for running without a weight filled pack there are moments of comfort, something that all runners feel. When the body actually feels good, as if it could go on forever.
Accompanying this of course are moments when the body feels tired and painful and worse still, every runners dread, hitting the wall. Running with a heavy pack on your back though is very different. Although obviously harder, body and mind adapt and you learn to just get on with it. It is a great way to get fit quickly. Having had experience running with weight I mistakenly thought it would be far easier to just have to walk with it no matter how far. Unfortunately, I had no idea just how hard it was to climb hill after hill and far more punishing still was walking down the other side of the bloody things. But when all said and done, I revelled in the challenge and took on each new hill with vigour .
We finally reached the top of the first hill, the sense of relief was short lived. The realisation struck me as I looked out across at the picturesque vista before me. I then turned my head to glance back down the hill we had just come up. This was only the beginning. The view however was incredible, rolling hills in all directions dotted with sheep grazing happily, oblivious to my suffering the little fluffy fuckers. The view seemed to have an uplifting effect on me though and as I strode off yet again I felt stronger with every step.
We took a short water break and had a drink as well, being careful not to be too greedy as we only carried three litres each and the sun was getting hotter, well, by English standards… it was only August. The next leg was yet another steep incline further up to the saddle of two hills, the one we stood on and the hill that adjoined it. Here, there was what is known as a false summit. Something anyone who has climbed has experienced and it’s not a pleasant one. Just when you think you have reached the top you realise there is still a long way to go as the next level gradually comes into view, it can be a pain in the arse.
At the pinnacle of the second rise we stopped again briefly. It was here that Martin began to explain the science of map reading. I was intrigued and tried my hardest to absorb all the information being relayed to me.
He picked out the next check point and asked me to work out where on the map we were and how we were going to get there. This I did successfully and away we went. Feeling pleased with myself, I checked the map at regular intervals to make sure we were on course. Reaching the second check point we briefly stopped again. High up on this summit was a large pile of rocks about three foot tall called a Cairn and it was explained to me that it was tradition among climbers to add a rock or two to the pile at each visit to preserve it for future climbers.
This practical marker used by hikers should they be caught in bad weather with poor visibility was a valuable indicator of the corresponding mark on the map. Keeping the tradition we added a couple of rocks.
Three Miles Done
Our journey was well under way now and we were both feeling strong. We had covered about three miles, although it seemed further.
The next three miles or so was along high ground, approximately 600 meters. The path we walked upon this ridge was long and stony, curving gradually around a natural bowl shaped summit with a view in all directions that was breath taking.
After taking a bearing, we decided to pick up the pace and run.
With the temperature now at about 28c and no shade at all the sun beat down on us relentlessly, I was grateful for the sun glasses and baseball cap I had brought with me.
The terrain was sparse and rocky which added to the difficulties of running with more than fifty pounds of weight on our backs. It felt good to be running though, and we covered ground quite rapidly, chatting as we ran.
Seven Miles Done
A thought that was constantly on my mind was how my feet would fare-up. We were now about seven miles in and still heading away from the start point. I knew that it would be a good ten miles or so in the opposite direction before we could begin to head back to the car. If my feet started to let me down it would be a long way back and would compound the punishment they would have to take but, ho-hum.
We began the descent from the long high point still gently jogging. The ground ahead of us began to turn to grass and the gradients ahead were not as steep but much longer. Further on I could see a number of small groups of walkers, out for a nice stroll. How nice that would be I thought to myself, casually bowling along with a walking stick and carrying no more than a bag of sandwiches.
As we approached the various rambling groups I made a conscious effort to straighten myself up and give the outward impression that I too was having a splendid walk in the hills, as was my want.
I was thankful for small mercies the ground was much flatter on this next leg and the pleasant greetings and small talk from passers-by made for a nice distraction. I couldn’t help feeling slightly fraudulent on these occasions as the people we spoke to obviously thought I was a soldier in training as we were dressed in DPM’s. While Martin chatted with a couple of blokes that stopped us, interested in what unit we were from, I just stood to one side in silence like the mean and moody type that might be on special ops. However, I was doing the hard work so I did not feel too bad.
The time now was fast approaching midday and we decided to stop for a well earned lunch. To our right we came across an natural shelter in the side of the hill resembling the remains of some Neolithic dwelling. It had a natural formation of rocks creating a semi-circular haven and this proved to be ideal for cooking up some food and boiling water for coffee. The air smelt of grass with a tinge of sheep shit, as we squatted down out of the breeze the heat then became more apparent. Off-loading my pack, I watched Martin closely to see what kit and food he would be using and pulled the same things from my pack. The food tasted delicious and the coffee equally so. We ate a kind of wheat cracker with some chicken pate followed by a bar of Yorkie from the rations. On the side of the wrapper was written “not for Civvies”.
We rested for about half an hour perched in our enclave, replying politely to yet more greetings and comments from walkers and drinking coffee. I realised early on that soldiers training on the Beacons was a familiar and welcome site to the locals, and everyone we came into contact with was respectful and friendly. Packing away our utensils and equipment we were careful not to leave a trace of rubbish, and just before we put our packs back on we took another bearing, a couple of photos and I had yet another short lesson in map reading.
Martin is a trained sniper and he got me to pick a distant hill or landmark, find it on the map and then try to guess how far it was before working out the actual distance.
This I failed miserably. I was a long way off guessing the correct distance. What surprised me though was how accurate Martin was. He began to make clear how important it was to judge distance well as a Sniper.
If you want to take out an enemy with one shot at maybe 8oo meters or more there are many aspects to be considered, distance being one of the most critical and obvious.
He explained how to use the terrain and look for indicators that may help in the execution of a one shot kill, such as if the target is perhaps next to a fence post, most fence posts being approximately six foot high you can work out the height of the target. Weather conditions such as wind direction and air temperature are also vital aspects to put into the equation, and so on. I was fascinated.
We set off along a grassy incline that stretched before us for what looked like a mile or so. I knew our next check point was up on a hill 700 meters high, but I was not perturbed. Feeling somewhat refreshed after our lunch break I was eager to get going again.
It was at about this point that I started to feel a slight stinging sensation on my right heel. I was a little concerned, but I had been expecting it.
After a mile or so we began to climb once again and now both my heels began to sting from the blisters that were definitely forming caused by my boots rubbing. Within several more miles I was in agony my feet felt as though on fire. Just bearable on flat ground but the moment my feet turned on rocks or we went up or down a hill every step was excruciating. The pain was compounded after we had stopped briefly to rest and then set off again. My feet swelled while resting and it took a huge effort to get moving again.
Once I was back in my stride the pain became slightly more bearable again, kept at bay with natural pain killing adrenalin. It was at this point my lower back also started to hurt. I soon recognised that my posture for carrying the pack had changed due to my problem feet, my upper body was leaning forward too much. I immediately adjusted my stance by straightening up and the pain in my back dispersed, much to my relief. Although my feet were very painful I had been expecting it. I did not want the walk to be too easy as one of the aims, from a personal view, was that I wanted to test myself I wanted hardship in order to closely examine myself and how I would deal with it. The pain helped nicely to do this.
The next time we stopped to take a bearing I made the decision to tell Martin that I thought it would be wise to alter the course because of my feet. I did not want to suddenly decide too many miles away from home base to then say I could not make it back. It transpired this was a wise decision, it was now like walking on broken glass.
We checked the map once again and worked out we were about thirteen miles out and if we changed tack slightly now it would be approximately the same distance back to the car. I felt like I was letting Martin down, consequently I was pleased when he agreed I had done the right thing.
The Battle Of Body And Mind
My body was now putting my mind under assault. The constant battle of body and mind ensued once more. It was an old adversary but I knew there was no way I was going to give in now, I was still feeling as though I could complete the course. We hit a couple more check points with the odd brief stop for a drink and some chocolate. The chocolate provided me with brief periods of energy which was welcome. I had to force it down however because it made me so thirsty and our water supply was dwindling.
I recognised I was retreating into myself. If I was not transfixed on Martins boots just ahead of me, I was becoming hypnotised by the passing ground and my own foot steps on it, a common and potentially dangerous side effect of extreme tiredness. Monotonous hours and hours of walking up and down hills was a true test to say the least. To learn a great deal about myself and my limits was why I was here, I wanted to experience this to the full and my wish was coming true. I thought to myself, be careful what you wish for and smiled.
Through intense fatigue awareness can ebb away not only of yourself but of the environment around you but I had the presence of mind to recognise what was happening.
I kept lifting my head, taking in the surroundings trying to snap myself out of the malaise and back into some semblance of concentration. I had learnt this from my Kung Fu teacher back in the early days of my training. Desperately seeking an alternative to my own thoughts I began once again to look at what Martin was doing. I noticed he was constantly adapting to the variants in the terrain. Continually altering his course, looking for the easiest path well ahead of his *******. Considering we had now walked approximately 18 miles I was impressed at the unchanging pace he set, with no obvious signs of fatigue. It took some mental effort but I tried to pre-empt his course by looking further ahead than he was, trying to work out the path to take, all the time maintaining the tempo behind him. This helped to bring my concentration back round.
I realised It had became obvious that I was displaying outward signs of weariness when Martin said to me, “If you had a million pounds, and you must spend every penny, how would you spend it?”
I knew from my Kung Fu training that this was a technique used to bring someone round, to make them concentrate on the job in hand. Rather, to take a persons mind of the severe pain and exhaustion they were experiencing. I remember feeling appreciative and not surprised at his vigilance as he had already proven his wealth of experience in such gruelling conditions. However, this I found quite difficult I could only think for a few minutes and was able only to spend about 10 grand before I said blatantly that I was no longer capable of thinking straight, but I explained, I had enough wits about me to get through to the end. In other words, thanks but no thanks. Laughing, we continued on our way.
A mile or two further on he tried again with another lesson on directions, of using the compass and map reading. The small task he set me, a simple question being, which direction are we going in, I only got this correct on the third attempt. I found this fascinating, I was so focused on myself and my suffering that this minor task was so complicated for me to focus on. However all this served to bring me out of my own torment and my awareness gradually came back, with a little concentration. This kind of falling in and out of full perception happened continually. As I analysed it, each time it reared its ugly head I found it all the more interesting.
I was learning so much, my mind raced with sensations of extreme enjoyment, strangely delighting at the state I was in, paradoxically, I was suffering immensely. Every step was now excruciating, the 50lb Bergen weighing heavy on me now and yet it felt strangely comfortable, a part of me. Each time I stepped on the smallest of rocks causing my feet and ankles to tilt one way or the other it felt as though I was walking on hot broken glass. My feet squelching inside my boots from the watery fluid oozing from the now massive blisters.
Slowly our path began a downward direction out of the hills in the general direction of the road, at first only gradually but as we progressed the gradient became steeper. Sheep scattered in front of us as we approached them, except for one that had been dead for several days. As we passed the corpse the stench of rotting flesh filled our noses, I wondered if the farmer knew of the sheep’s demise, if it had been a bit fresher I thought what a great meal one could make if this was a real survival situation.
The sun was moving slowly down towards the horizon, although still warm, the change in temperature could be felt on the air. Occasionally, far away in the distance I caught a glimpse of tarmac, the winding road that we were heading towards, way off through the clumps of trees set into the undulating slopes. Every time I saw it excitement swept over me, the end was in site after 20 or so miles, but there was still a long way to go. Here it was, I began to suffer yet more pain, this time in the side of my knees. Until this point I was coping well with everything else but as the slope got steeper it became unbearable and the pain in the side of my knees got worse, so much so that I could no longer walk a straight downward line. I looked up and saw Martin zigzagging down the gradient.
I copied him and found that it did help but only a little. The weight of the pack and my body seemed to be acting directly on my knees, it was as if someone were stabbing me in the side of each knee, with every agonizing footfall. My pain threshold I knew now was better than I thought, but this new pain was becoming unbearable. As hard as I tried to defeat it and keep going I just could not continue. I grew concerned that after all this effort I would not make the last leg and I began to get angry with myself. Seeing my frustration, Martin suggested that he take my pack just as far as the lower part of the hill where it was not so steep. I was having none of it. I was adamant that I could continue, deep down though I wondered if I actually could.
Handling the weight on my back was no problem but my knees felt like they would explode. Martin explained to me that it was not worth permanently damaging my knees just for a walk in the hills. Eventually, I relented and to my total admiration and appreciation he took my pack, hoisted it onto the top of his own pack and set off down the hill without so much as a stumble….Nails! I felt a little embarrassed but consoled myself with the fact that he had done this before.
The goal now had to be to get out of these hills and back onto the road which ever way we could. As the slope became less steep after only a hundred meters or so, I collected my Bergen and returned it to my back.
We passed through a field and on through a large metal gate onto a second field that was full of campers. Luckily I saw them early on, I was having difficulty walking upright, therefore I looked how I felt. I did not want anyone to see me in this state and on seeing the campers, some of whom were army cadets, I straightened up and styled it out until we got past them. After all I was in British military uniform and it was the least I could do for Martins sake and my own pride. Eventually we hit the road, it was a satisfying feeling.
As we trekked up yet another hill, now on tarmac, Martin some way ahead of me, I heard female voices from behind. With my head hung low, I looked slowly round and to my frustration, two women, one aged about fifty and possibly her daughter who looked about thirteen with their two small dogs, over took me. I can remember laughing inwardly and thinking… I’ll keep that one to myself.
Our water supply had long since run out and my throat felt like sand paper. I was no longer even sweating so I knew that if we did not get back soon I could be in trouble. We crossed over a small stream, I had to stop myself wading into it and I was again teased further, when we came across another larger river. It looked so alluring, an inviting oasis heaven sent to mock me, but on I went resisting the temptation to take the plunge and guzzle down mouthfuls of river water.
We trudged along the small country road for a mile or two. Although I kept walking I had slowed my pace drastically. Martin suggested I stay with the Bergen’s and he would go the last couple of miles and get the car. We had covered the 25 miles so eventually, I agreed and made myself comfortable by sitting on my Bergen. Staring out through the gate I was sat next to in a lay-by just off the narrow country road, a wave of satisfaction washed over me. The scene in front of me was idyllic.
With endorphins coursing through my brain the beautiful Welsh countryside stretched before me, the fields and trees lit up almost luminous green in the ensuing twilight, the sky turning orangey pink by the now setting sun. I could not believe I was at the end, I thought of the cold Cider in my fridge at home. Every sinew ached and my feet felt as though on fire and swollen to bursting point in my boots. I had never been through such a gruelling ordeal in my life, and I loved every minute of it.
I count myself extremely lucky to have met Martin, and that he had put so much effort into making the whole thing happen. What became most evident to me was just how tough yet humble and unassuming he was and what a fine demonstration of British soldiering he presented. This was only a taste of the kind of thing that all soldiers go through frequently. Martin was professional throughout, from organising the trip to actually doing it with me, incidentally, during his holiday.
As I sat pondering all this it seemed no time at all he was back, twenty minutes to be exact. Amazingly, after that 25 miles he had run the last two and a half miles back to the car. I could not believe it. Not only was I given the opportunity to learn so much about myself but also a great many things about survival, map reading and navigation, how soldiers work and the kind of training they endure. This was an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Written by Neil Webster 03/03/2008.
With special thanks to Warrant Officer Martin Howlin.