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You are in: Northamptonshire » Features

Tuesday, 18th February, 2003
SAS - are you tough enough?
Image of Chris Holmes

Chris Holmes, 31, from Northampton was selected from 1,000 people to undergo SAS training for the BBC TWO documentary SAS - Are You Tough Enough?

Here he writes about his experiences.


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FACT FILE
Bullet point SAS - Are You Tough Enough can be seen on BBC TWO on Sunday at 9pm.
Bullet point Chris is a sport development officer for Northants County Council.
Bullet point Chris trains for 12 hours a week. He regularly takes part in triathlon events and enjoys adventure racing, canoeing and mountain biking.
Bullet point Chris has previously undertaken a 600 mile cycle trek from Delhi to Kathmandu, and has climbed Kilimanjaro, Mount Mulanje and Mount Kenya in Africa.
Bullet point Chris was last on TV when he was a 12-year-old boy scout reading prayers on Songs of Praise.
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The belt kit dug into the sore on my hip. I rolled over onto my other side but the rifle butt poked into my ribcage instead. It didn’t seem to matter which way I lay; I just couldn’t make myself comfortable.

Of course, I shouldn’t have expected too much by way of luxuries. I was one of 24 men and women ‘off the street’, civvies, taking part in a BBC documentary programme about SAS selection, and spending 16 days deep in the Borneo jungle was never going to be an easy experience, comfy bed or not.

As clean white sheets and a soft pillow were not on the kit list I carried on shuffling around into a position of least discomfort and tried to get a bit of kip.

Endurance

Imasge of the volunteers
Sixteen days in the jungle

I was in the middle of what Staff Sergeant Eddie Stone had described as the "hardest two days of your lives", and whilst I hadn’t underestimated what he had said, I had certainly overestimated my abilities to cope with it.

‘Endurance Exercise’ was a replication of the sort of tasks that men from the elite British Army Special Forces unit, the SAS, undertake all the time, patrolling behind enemy lines gathering intelligence and conducting counterinsurgency movements.

With 60lb Bergen rucksacks, 20lb belt kit, 15lb rifle and heavy weight clothing, our four person patrol had tabbed (walked) for around 10 hours on the first day and were instructed to continue with our ‘hard tac’ by camouflaging ourselves for the night in an area of dense undergrowth.

Hard-tac means no comfort – no hot food, no brew, no changing from our soaking wet clothes into dry kit, and certainly no sleeping bag.

Rumbled

If we were rumbled in the middle of the night we had to be ready to escape and evade capture by being up on our feet and away in the shortest amount of time possible. That also meant keeping your belt kit on, small pouches and pockets around your hips with essential survival equipment on board – first aid kit, knife, candles, emergency rations and water bottles.

Image of SAS training
Tough training

With a sentry shift pattern operating, the best you could expect was two hours in the land of nod before it was your turn to be on guard for an hour, before you handed over to the next in line.

Three months previously, in the Brecon Beacons, I had been selected from over 1,000 applicants to take part in the programme. There were professional rugby players, adventure racers, tennis coaches, cyclists, marathon runners and a few more triathletes like me, all full of it and confident in our chances or making it through to the last four, from which the ex-SAS instructors running the training, would pick their winner. The final question…..if one of their patrol members were down, who would they want to fill the place?

Guerilla war

We were flown into the Sarawak area of Malaysian Borneo, a vast swathe of primary jungle where the temperature hovers around 90F, with 97% humidity, throughout the day.

The SAS made their name in this area, during the Malay campaigns of the 1950s and 60s, patrolling deep behind enemy lines as a strategically deployed force gathering intelligence and conducting counterinsurgency operations against the communist guerrilla’s.

Four man patrols became the standard operating procedure (SOP), with the patrols often lasting over two months with only fortnightly resupply by airdrop. The men built up a reputation for extreme toughness and durability, and the SAS continue to use jungle training as part of their selection process.

The BBC programme aimed to be a replication of that selection training, testing the possibility that ordinary, albeit fit, members of the public could prove themselves tough enough to be in the SAS. We would be put through navigation exercises, combat training, endurance tests, beasting sessions, survival techniques and interrogation, all with the aim of whittling the group of 24 down. Add to that the extreme heat and humidity, the insects, dangerous animals, loss of all comforts, plus some fierce but fair ex-SAS instructors, more than willing to dish out punishments for the slightest misdemeanour, and it would be a probing test of everyone’s physical and mental capabilities.

Exhaustion

Image of Dermot O'Leary and the team
Staff Sergeant Eddie Stone and programme presenter Dermot O'Leary

As it was, 10 of the 24 had gone by the end of the third day, less than a quarter of the way through – injury, heat exhaustion, sickness, or simply had enough.

Back on the ‘Endurance Exercise’, it got cold. No matter which way I tried to lay down something somewhere made it uncomfortable. My will was wavering and I knew it. Plenty of the others had jacked. Two words "I’m out" and it would be a hotel bed again.

With hindsight, and a few good nights sleep behind me, it’s easy to wander why I couldn’t find the strength to carry on, but I can only remind myself of what I felt like at the time.

Drained

Six days of sweat, exertion, discomfort and lack of sleep and I was deeply exhausted, to my core, far worse than any of the triathlons and adventure races I’ve taken part in. They leave you physically weary, but this had left me utterly, utterly drained, running on empty, both physically and mentally.

With no bodily strength left, the mind has to work overtime to force you to find that little bit extra, the last ounce, to persuade you to carry on. Mine couldn’t and I did the one thing I had gone out there telling myself would be the last thing I would do. I quit.

For me, the sixth day was the end. Out on my feet, I accepted my failure. I was disappointed that I didn’t get further but for me, applying and being selected had been my achievement, and in that old cliché, it’s something to tell the grandchildren about.

 

 

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