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Saturday, March 24, 2001 - Sunday, March 25, 2001 -- Virginia Beach, VA
SEAL Adventure Challenge (iPO Event Id#: 2779)
Story by Rex Palmisano

[Details] [Coverage] [2000 Seal Coverage]

"Of all the victories, the victory over yourself is the first and the best" - Plato

No acting necessary for the SEAL Adventure Challenge
This past weekend I journeyed to Virginia Beach to participate in Odyssey Adventure Racing's, SEAL Adventure Challenge. OAR was founded by former Navy SEAL (Ret.) Don Mann. Don began the SEAL Adventure Challenge (SAC) initially as a simulation for friends interested in grasping the mental and physical demands upon potential SEALs in Basic Underwater Demolition (BUD/S). As SAC gained popularity, Navy Recruiting Command contacted Don and asked him to modify and structure SAC to simulate the notorious Hell Week as a recruiting tool. Although SAC was designed as a recruiting event, Odyssey continues to welcome men and women of all ages to participate in 24 hours of no sleep, and grueling evolutions. One day of BUD/S for civilians.

As Don quietly and calmly pointed out to the 28 recruits Saturday morning, it is not physical fitness or strength that gets you through the Challenge. Like BUD/S, it is the mental focus and 'intestinal fortitude' of wanting to finish that gets you through to securing your training. Don conveyed the fact: that of the 132 men in his BUD/S class, 12 graduated. That simple stat tells you how tough the training is and how rare the individuals with extreme mental endurance are in the population. This past Saturday 28 motivated individuals wanted to find and test their limits. Most were young, but there were some older participants. The youngest was fifteen years old, the oldest fifty-four. There was a father and son. Two women also participated. One of the women was a Korean actress, accompanied by her film crew for a documentary.

A good number of the participants were less than twenty-five years old and with military experience. As participant Chris Russell recounted afterwards, "The instructors knew exactly what buttons to push, when to push them and how hard and how many times to push them! There was over 200 years of SPECWAR/SF experience on hand between the instructors to dish out the festivities to us. Didn't matter to them how fast or strong you were. They eventually found your weaknesses and capitalized on them. But all in all, everyone would learn the concept of teamwork, overcoming adversity within and as a team, and to give 110% no matter what. It's mind over matter...if you don't mind, it doesn't matter."

The day began with a short drive to the pool, where we would spend the next three hours. IN the parking lot outside the pool, we were instructed in the basics of military drills and line formation, shown how to "correctly" perform exercises. Push-ups, for instance, are always done facing the water. Instructors assigned a swim buddy to each person and formed platoons. Buddies are responsible for each other. You had to know where your buddy was at all times. When your buddy gets punished, you get punished. Platoon leaders are responsible for their team members. Instructors mixed up their commands, moved people around, and complained how unprepared, how unorganized a group we were. It also emphasized the urgency to act and function as a group. We learned that nothing we did was correct or to instructor satisfaction. Before beginning Pool Drills, we were down on the pavement doing push-ups or some other exercise. If one person didn't do it right, EVERYBODY does them again.

If someone miscounts a rep, EVERYBODY does the set again. You soon heard groans. We probably did about a hundred to hundred-fifty pushup and numerous flutter kicks before entering the pool. When a platoon did regular or punishment PT, the platoon leader had to ask for permission to recover (resume standing at attention). If you slacked off thinking the exercise set was completed, your platoon got nailed with more exercises. Instructors had an odd habit of leaving us in the lean and rest position of our exercises. We were hard of hearing from their screaming, but amazingly they exhibited signs of selective hearing with platoon leader requests for recovery. The day was still young.

Just another day at the beach...
Pool Drills began with a timed half-mile swim. Choices of either the underwater recovery stroke or breast-stroke. The underwater recovery stroke (UR) or combat swimmer stroke (CSS) is used by SEALs to keep a low signature in the water while conserving energy. Swimming lanes were crowded but everyone did their best in the stroke of their choice. When the half-mile swim was over, there was a fast trip to the water fountains and on to the relay race. A human dummy was carried across the pool from one team to another. Simple rule: do not get the dummy's head underwater. As you swam three instructors would splash water into your face, possibly rip your goggles off, or otherwise impede your progress. Your job was to get the dummy across the pool. The winning team earns a break, while losers get punishment PT. Recruits randomly were asked where their buddies were during Pool PT. As my unfortunate luck would have it, my buddy was one of two identical twins. That early in the Challenge, I couldn't tell them apart yet. We tricked the instructors now and then. Later Pool PT involved one half of the recruits doing spider walks around the pool while the other half did crab walks. We switched exercises and direction. Everyone did an excruciating set of flutter kicks with instructors splashing water into our faces. Our next evolution was drown-proofing.

Drown- proofing in BUD/S is a confidence test to prevent panic-induced drowning. With your feet and hands tied behind your back, you learn to breathe and sink by emptying your lungs until you hit bottom. You then push yourself up to the surface for the next breath of air. We were all required to do five minutes with our hands tied under the direct supervision of an instructor. Our feet were not bound. Once done with drown-proofing, you were directed to jump into a swim-lane with the other recruits. That lane soon became a congested water-treading mass. Instructors, who have never ceased "motivating" you, would occasionally tell us that five people could rest on the wall for a couple seconds. This exercise was to help you overcome your fear of claustrophobia, and develop teamwork. If you see a team mate struggling and know a wall break was offered, you get that person to the wall. Think of someone else instead of yourself. The last test was to swim the distance of 25 meters, length of the pool, completely underwater. Everyone took the test without failing. In BUD/S candidates are required to do fifty meters underwater. Once out of the water we rested a few minutes and listened to Don relay his experience how a confidence test (drown-proofing) saved his life on a mission. Each evolution had a purpose.

Rushing to change out of suits and fulfill our instructor's time constraint, while knowing the location of our buddy, the platoon crews were starting to show cohesion. As one instructor warned us, it not the individual but the TEAM that makes the evolutions bearable. We would learn to draw upon each other. We returned to the base, gathered gear, and marched into the campground, where we would stay for the remaining twenty hours. Our next evolution was the SEAL PRT (Physical Readiness Test). The timed half-mile swim was the first part of our PRT. The remaining events were timed push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and a 3-mile run. In the real SEAL PRT there are small rests between events and 1.5 run. In our PRT, there were no breaks. I did well (and hope to improve next time), but many recruits accomplished great scores. The PRT marked the end of "individual competition." Team building became the greater emphasis for the remainder of the Challenge.

The next evolution was, in my opinion, the most grueling. Each platoon or boat crew was assigned to a six-foot section of a log. Each log weighed approximately two hundred pounds or better. Hoisting the log onto our shoulders we walked down a paved road and onwards to sandy and yielding sand dunes. The front man guides your footwork over the sandy hills. It is the longest, painful walk you can imagine. We arrived at the beach. Somehow nothing we did was correct. Instructors switched people around, complained about our poor ability to follow simple instructions. They decided that they needed another log. Off I went with five other guys back to the camp to fetch the log. We arrived late, which was not a problem, but the instructors thought we looked awfully hot. Into the forty-six degree water, with instructions to run and dive in, run out, and roll in the sand. Somehow we were slow to our log. EVERYONE paid with overhead log presses, lunges, and my favorite, sit-ups. The instructors were particularly kind here. While you were in the up position of a sit-up, they would shovel sand down your back. While executing overhead presses, they placed more sand into your pockets. Instructors were especially paranoid because they kept accusing us of bumping into them and getting our sand on them. Punishment PT. Instructors thought our new log was hot so into the ocean, where we sat down and rolled the log in the cold water while waves crashed around us. We knew that we could not drop the log into the water.

Back to shore, we placed our logs down and yards from us, Instructor Grinch said he wanted everyone to run and touch a part of him, but without getting sand on him. While not his real name, Grinch was among the nicer names we had for him. Sprinting and diving short of him we became a pile of wet, sandy and writhing mess - all with a hand or finger touching his pant legs. We helped each other touch him. As we fanned out from him on the ground, we had to simulate a volcanic eruption by throwing sand up into the air above us. The sand showered down on top of you, saturating our clothes and wet bodies. Confidence tests for claustrophobia and discomfort. Our next task was the log one hundred yard dash. Each instructor offered strategy, reminding us of dire consequences if we lost. A crew would run with the log down a sandy one hundred yard stretch, return to start, and then repeat. Four hundred yards later, my crew won. We were allowed to relax and get water. Our instructor shook each of our hands, thanking us for our effort, and introduced his wife to us. The losers received surf torture, where you line up single file, arms interlocked, and turn your back to the ocean. You sit there shivering as the waves came in crashing in against your back or over your head. I enjoyed my water. It paid to be a winner.

The stump run. This is where I was injured. The stump run is a running single line where a small tree stump is passed from the rear of the line towards the front. Up sand dunes, down hills, up, down, and across beach stairs. I passed on the log, and moving down the umpteenth section of downward stairs my right hamstring went and I took a header down a flight of stairs. The people behind had little time to understand what happened so I had about five people run over me before I received help. Jon, a Ranger, came over later and said it was one of the nastiest falls he had seen someone take. He received extra motivation from the instructors. Jon was the first person to run me over. I emerged unscathed with no head injuries or broken bones. My leg was locked and the recurring hamstring pull from a few weeks ago tightened and tightened with spasms. I was taken to the doctor, and one of the instructors tried helping me with a stretching exercise. At that point I knew I couldn't run. The doctor indicated I would risk further injury. He also removed the inch long log splinter buried deep in my thumb. It took an hour and a half of stretching before I could stand and be a biped again without hamstring spasms.

Mind Over Matter: "If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."
Dejected, I was very upset because I didn't want to let my boat crew down. I realized that I couldn't participate at full capacity. I felt utterly useless, morally and physically. Quitting was looking like a solution and I was more upset. Don wouldn't accept me quitting. Another instructor suggested I become the wounded man in the boat drills. The wounded man is placed into the boat while others carried the boat overhead. Since I had to do a fair amount of stretching just to stand up and walk, I missed the boat drill. It would turn out to be a blessing in disguise for a boat crew. Don asked me if I would be the wounded pilot for a reconnaissance evolution. I agreed. While the boat crews did a grueling set of PT drills called the Monster Mash, a student passed out and another was injured. The woman who passed out was the Korean actress. Her film crew filmed everything including the attempts to find a vein for IV. Her boat crew, I found out later, helped her best as they could during the evolutions. I don't know the details of the other injury. Injuries are really demoralizing because, while the injury sucks, it is the feeling of letting your teammates down that hurts most. In past Challenges, people would quit or simply disappear without saying a word. Odyssey made it mandatory to surrender car keys until the Challenge was secured or if you voluntarily quit.

It was already early in the evening when I was injured. After losing time to stretching, I hobbled out for a long ride to where I played downed pilot. The boat crews were later debriefed that I was held hostage by terrorists, with possible injuries. I would be identified by successfully answering two questions about my first car and favorite pet. Who names their cat, Scruffy the Cat? I sat a couple miles away in twenty-eight degree weather in a jump suit waiting for my guys to find me. You were allowed to change clothes after the Log PT, but your feet were wet and cold. If you didn't have the forethought to bring extra clothing, you stayed wet and sandy through the night.

My terrorists didn't show up until two hours before I was rescued. I spent an eternity in the cold and brief rain. When I was rescued and answered my questions (old VolksWagon wagon and Scruffy the Cat), I had to inform my rescue party that I had two broken legs. I was carried through the sand dunes and shifting sand by four guys. It was not a smooth ride. I mentioned earlier that it was a blessing that I wasn't in the boat drill. The rescue crew tried to put me in the Zodiac boat but couldn't lift me in the boat. If they could have done the task earlier, they couldn't now because of fatigue. I bore the discomfort of being carried via fireman's carry by members from the two boat crews. Every step bought a jolt and discomfort. It was a long and bumpy couple of miles. Jon, the stalwart Ranger, gave me my most comfortable ride. The blessing was that they could've had a taller and heavier pilot. At 5'5 Ft and 145 lbs my weight still gave them a considerable challenge in the fireman's carry. Hour and half ahead of schedule, we came upon the campground. The Challenge was secured.

Wobbly and sleep deprived we warmed ourselves against a fire. Many were nodding off standing up. We received our awards and listened to Don reiterate the importance of teamwork at the Challenge and in the Teams. He also conveyed that Attitude is everything, especially in tense situations. Don congratulated us because March is usually the coldest time of the year for the Challenge; but more importantly, nobody quit. Not once did any dissension or disagreements break out among the participants. The Korean actress returned. It was very emotional for her to receive her award. We were all happy she was OK. We realized earlier in the day she was in over her head. She couldn't complete the half-mile swim, and everybody tried to help her with the evolutions. Outside the Pool, she was barely able to do ten push-ups. We were certain that she was misinformed of the event's rigor. Don may have said teamwork will get you through, but one must be in good to better physical shape to participate. At the end of twenty-four hours of no sleep and intense physical work, the instructors appeared human. Sleep deprivation hallucination? Within twenty-four hours, they were tasked to ratchet up the abuse while conducting everything realistically and safely for the Challenge - a remarkable statement of their professionalism.

While I finished in a way that I didn't expect, I learned a lot about myself from a unique angle, that within physical and mental stress I am strong BUT stronger when I have others with me to trust. The biggest stress for me was the separation from my team. The physical pains would pass. I realized we all have our strengths and weakness at different times. You realize you can't do any of this alone, and that you are not alone if you surrender yourself to trusting others. Ridding oneself of Ego is the first step and casualty. I came home Sunday afternoon with every muscle in my body aching, my arms sand burned, and throbbing hip flexors. The hamstring was still tender. I enjoyed the Guinness I set aside as my celebratory drink while I pulled out the remaining log splinters from my hands.