If there’s one thing I’m learning about endurance events, it’s to approach them with zero expectations. Every event is different and will test you in different ways to the ones that have come before it.
I’d been convinced by Max Delacy (CEO of Spartan Race Australia) to sign up for the 12 Hour Hurricane Heat (HH12HR) that was going to be run in Perth as part of the APAC Championship weekend in November 2017. Now when I say convinced, the conversation went something like this:
Max: “You should do the HH12HR. It’s going to be a Selection edition. It will be a great event.”
Me: “Sounds good.”
There wasn’t much actual convincing that needed to be done.
Fast forward to the week before the event. I’d returned from a 6-week trip to the US on the Friday before and spent two evenings buying the gear on the gear list and putting everything in my pack. The gear list spanned over three pages and included about 35 sets of clothing (ok so I may be exaggerating slightly…). My pack also had to weigh at least 16kg, so even with all the gear, water and food I still had to add a 2kg hand weight to push it over the minimum threshold.
On the morning of the event I packed the last few pieces of my gear and headed to work. I couldn’t concentrate properly as I was worried about what the night would bring, and as I sat in the car on the way to the event the nerves kicked in. I made it just before the 5pm weigh in time just in case they decided to start early. It turned out that I got there early for nothing, as we ended up just sitting around until the official start time of 7pm.
At 7pm we were ordered to get our packs and stand in two lines as the directing staff (DS) introduced themselves. The DS was made up of four men from the Australian SAS (Special Air Service Regiment) who had buff’s over their faces to protect their identities. They introduced themselves as DS B, DS C, DS E and DS J.
This event was a ‘Selection’ edition and the idea was to give us a taste of the 21-day Selection process that soldiers go through to become part of the Australian SAS. The primary focus of the event was to test our mental strength as we pushed through hunger, fatigue and sleep deprivation.
Once our packs were weighed we formed four ranks (four even lines) and awaited instructions. The first instructions went something like this:
- Drop your pack.
- Run and get a torsion bar (a 10kg bar for ladies, 12kg bar for men).
- Run back. Put on your pack.
- Return your torsion bar.
- Run back.
All within three minutes.
We failed the first time hack and were ordered to repeat the exercise… again and again and again.
I knew this was going to be a long, repetitive night.
The sun hadn’t even set yet and already I wanted to quit. As I ran back to grab a bar for the second time someone asked me how I was feeling. I mentioned that I was already over it and didn’t want to be there. I was tired and mentally exhausted from my first week back at work, and my head wasn’t prepared for a 12-hour event. I just wanted to curl up in my sleeping bag and have a nap, or go home and continue binge-watching Stranger Things. But I was at the event with no way of getting home, so I figured I’d just focus on one task at a time and do what I was told.
There’s generally a stage in every endurance event that I cry. During the HH those tears came early on. Just after the sun had set we were tasked with doing two strict pull-ups. I can’t even do one, and I started getting emotional at the thought of not being able to do a simple task. I had one attempt and got one kipping pull up, but failed the second. The DS was yelling at us saying that if we couldn’t do this simple task then we’d not be allowed to continue. This news made me even more nervous and I fought to hold back the tears as I knew I would be shown no sympathy, and I didn’t want to show any signs of weakness. Eventually the few of us that couldn’t complete the task were allowed to join the ranks which was a huge relief for me.
Over the next three hours we were constantly given orders that we couldn’t comply with. One DS would tell us to do burpees with our chest to ground, then 30 seconds later another would tell us to do push-up burpees. Then we’d get in trouble for not having our chests on the ground and be made to start again. While I was already feeling physically tired, it was nothing compared to the mental exhaustion and self-doubt that was growing.
The DS would give us an instruction that seemed ambiguous, and when we’d fail they say:
“You have failed to assimilate the instructions.”
(cue dramatic pauses during that sentence).
I honestly lost count of the amount of times I heard that said throughout the night…
The personal training (PT) session continued with us being made to do numerous exercises with and without our torsion bars including push ups, burpees, squats, push presses, bicep curls and high pulls. Those of us who couldn’t keep cadence were told to drop our bars and run around the others in an anti-clockwise direction whilst calling our last name. I kept joining “Haq” and “Azman” as we circled the group upwards of five times in the space of about 10 minutes. Then there was the fun task of doing push ups and push presses to ‘Bring Sally Up’. After the fourth round I was happy to never hear that song again.
The mental games continued when we were ordered to empty everything out of our packs, return the torsion bar to the box, re-pack our packs and go get the bar again. Once we’d run off the DS searched people’s packs and found things like a piece of paper or a pen still in a pack. We were then ordered to walk forward 10 paces so the DS could check the floor for anything we may had left behind. They found a few minor items that we’d left behind, so we were ordered to repeat the exercise, ensuring that every single thing was out of our packs, and every single thing was re-packed. I was frustrated as my pack had been packed perfectly and now it was a shamble.
It was around this time that I realised I’d have to change my thinking to get through the event. I was still hating every second of it and wanted to quit, but at the same time I didn’t want to give the DS the satisfaction of knowing that I’d quit. I thought about how upset and disappointed I’d be if I couldn’t get through a 12-hour endurance event, when I’d completed a 39 hour event in 2016. I told myself to focus on one task at a time and to think about how good it would feel to hold that patch in my hand at 7am.
I was noticing a pattern of us being given impossible timeframes to complete tasks in including being given 30-60 seconds to get a drink of water, or two minutes to run and use the toilets. The first physical task that I noticed the impossible timeframes at was just before 10pm. We were in four groups and were tasked with running around four cones and then doing an exercise at the next ‘station’ (i.e. the next cone). We were given anywhere from 60 to 10 seconds to run from cone to cone – with some only being possible if you sprinted at full force. When we failed, we’d be made to do it again and again.
At around 10pm we were given a task that I actually enjoyed. Each of the four groups was given a stack of four tyres to play the Tower of Hanoi game. We had four tyres and three positions to stack them in. We could only move one tyre at a time and couldn’t put a bigger tyre on a smaller one. I may have been trying to run with a massive stitch, but at least my mind was ready for the mental challenge. I helped my group through the challenge as they did the heavy lifting and I did the thinking. It took us 1:14 to complete the task, finishing five minutes after the first group. We commented to each other that our ‘lane’ was 5m longer than the other three meaning we had to carry/flip our tyres further than the other groups, but we didn’t dare complain to the DS.
It was nearing midnight, and as the temperature dropped the intensity was ramped up. We were ordered to grab our packs and our torsion bars and march to another field where we were given a cycle of five exercises. We had to complete 10 reps of: push ups, push press, high pull, bicep curl and squats with the torsion bar. We were then told that we had to complete three rounds of that (totalling 150 reps), then run over to the mud pits, go under the dunk wall and over four mounds before returning. That would constitute one round. We had to get through 10.
The water was muddy but warm, and the dunk wall was so low that we had to fully submerge ourselves each round. The cool wind was blowing and every time I got out of the water I wished I was back in it. People started struggling with the cold and the amount of reps that we were doing of each exercise. I barely made it through four rounds when we were told to stop and do group push ups in the water with our torsion bars.
At one stage there was a guy next to me who was shivering like crazy. I started talking to him and he said he wanted to quit as he was so cold. I told him that if he was genuinely worried about his health then he should ask for a medic, but if not, then he should keep going as this was all part of the test of our mental strength. I asked his name and he told me it was Paul. I spoke to him for another short while until the DS came over and ordered him down. When he got down to do another push up I hoped that he’d make it through.
After two hours of being wet we were told that we failed the challenge (again), and were marched back to the original field and given a chance to get into warm clothes before emptying our bags (again). Once a gear check was done, we put everything back in our packs, made some makeshift tyre sleds and were walked out to the bottom of a hill. The sled was made up of a big piece of pipe, two ropes, a silver bar and a heavy tyre. It took 4-5 people to hold the pipe and drag the heavy tyre along the sand and rocks.
We stopped at what was going to be the sandbag carry for the weekend’s race. Our task was to carry every single sandbag up the hill and back again. I’d managed to shove a bite of food in my mouth before the task and my mood was instantly lifted. I was also happy to be in warm clothes and not doing push ups or holding a torsion bar. On my third lap on the sandbag hill I saw Paul really struggling. I started chatting to him again and he said that he’d never done anything like this before. I explained that the DS wanted to break us mentally, and that even if our bodies hurt physically, our mind would be the first to give up. I told him to find a happy place and go there in his head to distract himself from the pain.
As the light started to creep through from the East, we loaded all the sandbags back into the bins and were told to sit in a circle and not speak. The DS then all walked off, leaving us for 10 minutes (or so it seemed) as we enjoyed some water and some enjoyed a power nap (I heard at least two snores). I was feeling much better as the sun was ready to rise and I knew it was almost over.
Finally, the DS returned and told us to race our ‘sled’s back to base where we were then told to drop our bags. The next task involved taping a different colour tape on four torsion bars – so each group would have a bar with green, a bar with blue, a bar with yellow and a bar with red tape. We failed ‘to assimilate instructions’ yet again, so had to leopard crawl with our bars as some groups had to re-tape their bars. The issue was still not yet rectified, so we ended up doing shuttle runs with the torsion bar and holding it above our heads once we’d finished each shuttle run until the other groups for the tape on correctly.
Our second-last task involved moving 16 pieces of equipment between three cones and replicating it in another location. We had four tyres, four metal boxes, four jerry cans and four torsion bars per group. Items were also different colours – so we had a red tyre, a yellow tyre, a blue tyre and a green tyre (etc.).
Before we were given the second part of the instructions we were ordered to stand in four ranks. Sleep deprivation was starting to affect us as we failed miserable in our attempt to make four even lines. We were all ordered to go back to our equipment, stand in a circle, have two people break the circle and walk whilst holding hands to form four lines. It’s not good to be treated like kids, but at that stage our disorganisation meant we had no choice but to follow orders.
Once we had four lines, we were given the instructions on what to do with the equipment. We had to line it up Sudoku style – where each line (horizontal, vertical and diagonal) was made up of a different piece of equipment and a different colour. E.g. one line could have been a red tyre, green jerry can, yellow box and blue torsion bar. But just to make it difficult – every two minutes the DS would yell “CHANGE” and we’d have to pick up all the equipment and run to another cone and continue trying to make the perfect puzzle.
My team just managed to figure out the ‘sudoku’ and called out to the DS that we were done. At the exact same moment that we yelled “done!”, one of the DS yelled “too late” and we were forced to quickly pack up all the equipment. It was crushing in that moment as we’d finally achieved the goal, but were told that we’d failed the task. At least we didn’t have to repeat the task.
I was tired and hungry by this point so I can’t remember what triggered the last task. Someone had done something to cause the DS to order us to put on our wet clothes and head to the water for a freezing cold swim. It may have been something to do with someone externalising their pain (i.e. making a noise) as we’d been repeatedly told to internalise our pain and discomfort throughout the night.
It was just before 7am and the sun had risen, but the air was yet to warm up. Following the swim, we did more push ups and torsion bar exercises, and one by one were picked off to report to a change tent.
At the change tent I was blindfolded and had my hands cable-tied behind my back, then was ordered to sit down in silence. I kept my eyes open under the blindfold as I was worried about falling asleep if I closed my eyes. At some stage, someone came in and pushed me onto my side. Then, after what seemed like 10 minutes, one of the DS came in and asked why some of us were lying down. I finally managed to sit back upright when we were all ordered to stand and get behind someone else (hard when you’re blindfolded). We were then marched out of the tent and told to sit.
It was only then that we were told that we’d successfully completed the HH12HR and our blindfolds were removed. We tried to applaud but it’s hard when you’ve still got your hands behind your back. I looked to my left and noticed Paul next to me, smiling and happy that he’d finished. After my hands were free I gave him a huge hug and congratulated him on not giving up! I was so happy to be done and so happy to get a chance to eat food and get out of my clothes that stank of manure.
The lead DS explained to us that while we took on 12 hours to earn a patch, those who want to join the SAS take on 21 days before they can earn a place on the SAS training program, and eventually earn a sandy beret. It must take an incredible amount of strength and resilience to get through the training that the men go through just for a shot at the SAS.
Overall the HH12HR was an incredible experience. I realised that no positive or negative reinforcement was given to us, but we were repeatedly made to fail so we’d have to repeat ourselves. Despite being constantly tested, I was bored at the repetitions and just wanted something to stimulate me mentally instead of doing yet another round of push ups. It was a challenge to force myself to keep going when I wanted nothing more than to quit.
Sympathy wasn’t shown to us, no matter how much we were hurting. The things that were said were designed to wear down everyone’s confidence, leading you to question yourself and your abilities. This was done to test our mental strength and it certainly worked.
We were forced to work together as a team, so if one person made a mistake then we’d all suffer the consequences. Even when we achieved small time hacks, something would inevitably go wrong and we’d have to start again. We were constantly told “you are not assimilating the instructions” and in my head I kept repeating “oh just f-off”.
While this may not have been the most physical endurance event that I’ve ever done, it was certainly the most mentally exhausting. Constant doubting your abilities is tiring, and it took seeing other people’s suffering to make me realise that I could get through it.
This recap only just scratches the surface of what happened during those 12 hours – in terms of what was going on in my head and what happened physically. It was an event that was unlike no other that I’ve ever done before, and I am proud of myself for pushing through and getting it done. It proved to me, once again, that I am stronger than I think I am, and that I shouldn’t allow self-doubt to stand in my way.
A huge thank you goes to the DS and Spartan Race Australia for putting on an incredible event. I’m so glad I was able to be part of this special HH12HR!
*More photos to come*
Photo credit: Scott Sheppeard Photography