Many events test endurance and fortitude; Triathlon, Iron Man, Tough Mudder, but there’s not yet been one that replicates a military selection assault course…until now. The Arb’s Toby ‘Lawrence’ White and Chris ‘Stirling’ Skarratt take on the inaugural ‘Commando Series’ at Hever Castle…
Saturday morning, 07:30. Cadets Stirling and Lawrence arrive at Hever Castle to participate in the first ‘Commando’ series event, a 6km course through the grounds, featuring 15 obstacles created by the Royal Marines, emulating their assault course at Limpstone. It’s early, it’s November and it’s drizzling. After all, we wouldn’t want to do this in basking sunshine on a leisurely summer Sunday afternoon, would we? That’s not for Marines.
We’re buoyant and confident as we sign in, issued with kit (event T-shirt, security tag, ‘camo’ paint), giving the course map the once over before we swagger to the warm-up ground. I notice beefcakes in white T-shirts, camo cargo pants and military-issue boots dotted among the competitors; these I learn are the genuine article – Royal Marines – our instructors and marshals. If I was led by the advertising that this would be a family-style ‘fun run’, that preconception was starting to dissolve.
And it pretty much went out the window halfway through the warm-up. A few leans, a few reaches, a little stretch, then our DI gets us dropping to the floor, star-jumping, sprinting on the spot…you know the drill and, yes, the slowest gets 10 press-ups. Twenty minutes later – yep, a twenty minute warm up – visibly puffing as we’re asked- ahem, ‘ordered’, to jog to the start line, I look at Stirling and he gives me the same look back. “No picnic this, old chap.” Not a sausage roll in sight, old boy.
There’s a course briefing delivered a little too matter-of-factly, particularly when advised of certain obstacles en route, “So, that’s full of water…watch that one as it’s a 30ft slope and muddy…you’ll get in the river here…” and so on. I look among my co-competitors, there are those who have chosen to do it with 20lb bergens and mock rifles. Before I have a chance to let an official know I might be at the wrong event, we’re off.
800 metres in and the first obstacle; a 10m tunnel. Piece of cake, actually. As we exit and jog on, I turn to Stirling, “It’s not so bad. Reminds me of a cross-country jog at school…” By the second, however, having seen the first casualty to the mud ahead of us, we’re barked at and nearly thrown to the ground to crawl through a trench half-filled with water.
(Stirling takes up the story…) What Larry fails to mention is the A and B option given to all competitors — Option A: get around the course like a champ, all smiles and a jolly good time. Option B: Get beasted around the course by the legendary PT instructors of the Royal Marine Commandos (and their rather too eager hangers-on). When I say ‘option’, I mean no option at all. We, of course, are given and accept with grace the green ‘commando’ wrist band – no jolly good time for us.
And the authentic treatment continues as we pursue the front runners around the course. Some of the obstacles are relatively fun (the 30m water/mud slide – which someone decided to name the ‘Doom Drop’), some are less so (the ‘Chasm’, for example) but the real painful truth of what you have committed to is when you round a corner and a PT instructor is standing there screaming at you “20 BURPEES! 20 BURPEES!” Neither of us dared resist. And is that a patch of stinging nettles I’ve decided to do them in? Oh good, it is.
My energy lags on the first half, Larry urges me on. “Come on old chap, think of the beer credits you’re earning”, I smile feebly and inject a little more pace. About half way round our fortunes switch, I find my leaden legs have suddenly discovered a second wind, they are light and energised, what wonder is this! Now Larry is in need of the famous Commando camaraderie – and it’s on the course in bundles. We see helping hands pulling sodden runners out of rivers, shouts of encouragement from fellow racers, even the PT staff break from the rigid, officialdom to offer words of praise – I wasn’t expecting that.
We’re nearly there – only a handful of obstacles left. But the one that surely everyone dreads is coming up fast – The Sheep Dip: a 2 metre long, fully submerged tunnel. There’s only one way to do this – get on with it. I jump into the tank, hardly stopping to see where Larry is, the Marine instructor shouts clear, concise orders, “Hands here, deep breath, 3, 2, 1…” I duck down, am shoved hard and then push through the tunnel. Eyes are clamped shut, water surges past, I expect to emerge any second but it’s going on – and then – rapture! I break the surface, emerging like a drowned rat, but very pleased I’ve done it. I put myself out and run on, Larry, grinning, is right along side me.
(Larry concludes proceedings…) The last bend, the two final obstacles a good 800 metres apart, water-logged from the sheepdip, we’re into the castle grounds and there’s one last haul before the finish; the 30ft climb. A cargo net hung from a wooden frame isn’t the tricky bit, it’s the commando crawl we’re ordered to do before it. I give the instructor a look, pointing weakly to the ropes, “But the…”, before I throw myself to the ground, crawling to the treeline and running back to take on the obstacle. It’s nothing if not full of surprises to the last.
The thrill of the finish seeps through our sodden garments, we high five the achievement – small as it is – swiftly feeling better for having come in under the hour and proud with the knowledge that the wives are still tucked up in bed. “That’s a way to kick-off a weekend, old chap,” Stirling tells me, “Right, where’s the scotch?”.
But there’s one final army-style pleasure to be had. A warm shower. Not just any warm shower; a field shower. Near the camp’s tents, a frame supporting a dozen gargantuan water barrels is slowly heated by a huge wooden fire. I’m offered a bucket of steaming water and step into a makeshift canvas cubicle. I fill the ‘shower’ – another bucket with a hole in it, basically – hoist the rope it’s attached to, and bask in the cascade. And it’s joyful. Until all the pain registers from press-ups in brambles, and legs ringing from constant wading through stinging nettles.
Right, two laps next year, then, eh?
For more information about the Commando Series 2016, visit www.commandoseries.co.uk.