7 lessons I learned from enduring one of Australia's toughest fitness tests

Not your average fitness camp. Photo: Supplied.

36 hours. A 10-minute nap. One Snickers bar. Rigorous physical screening tests. A barrage of psychological tests including lock picking, hostage survival, and foreign language interrogation. Close quarter combat. Multiple marches with 40lb jerry cans and 15-foot telephone poles. And I volunteered for this.

I’ve just completed the Cadre Camp, an abridged version of the international Tier 1 Special Forces selection course from the enigmatic Mill Gym in North Fremantle, Western Australia. Run by former and serving SAS soldiers, commandos, and clearance divers, it’s a unique opportunity for everyday civilians to test their ability to function within and lead a team under duress.

The Mill is a term used to represent a place where basic raw materials are transformed under extreme pressure to produce a worthwhile result. Hence, the gym’s mantra, “You Work – You Reap.”

The Mill co-founder, Nick Caldwell, says: “The human condition is to grow through challenge. Shirk the challenge and your spirit diminishes. Your fear grows. You resign yourself to a life of cowardice. Cadre Camp takes you into unknown territory. Breakthroughs are made, self-imposed boundaries are crushed, new friendships are formed, and real teamwork is forged. If you make it, you’ll prove your fortitude to withstand anything in life.”

Here are seven other life lessons learned.

1. Sense of urgency

On a cold Friday evening, I mingled with 12 men outside an unmarked warehouse on a dimly lit suburban side street near the Indian Ocean. Our instructions were to report at 19:00 sharp. At 19:10, a 1.78 metre man appeared from the warehouse.

“Grab your gear. In single file, line up in height order. Quickly!” the DS (Directing Staff) ordered in a menacing voice.

This set the camp’s culture. There was never any downtime. Move quickly and purposely. Re-check your kit. Practice the mission critical cognitive tasks. And never fall asleep.

2. Attention to detail

Photo: Supplied.

We shuffled inside the warehouse. Five Special Forces soldiers, all wearing baseball hats, black T-Shirts, and camouflage pants surrounded us like hawks with intense stares waiting for their prey. “Grab a paddle. This is your weapon. It must be within 5 feet of you at all times. “If not, you will be punished,” the DS ominously said.

Within two minutes, most of us left our paddles somewhere. It was duly noted. Any infraction was noted.

“Simple instructions! “What did I tell you? Down!” yelled the DS.

The punishment was 169 8-count burpees with our backpacks on. (13 sets for each man). The clap at the end of the burpee had to be perfectly synchronised.

“Not good enough, do it again,” sighed the DS. We’d hear this phrase a lot over the weekend.

Before the camp, we were emailed a list of items to bring. Every item was checked within 30 minutes and every hour after that. “Failure to not have all items will lead to mission failure for you and your team,” the DS reminded us during every check. On command, you needed to retrieve and display each kit item within seconds.

The lesson was learning how to control the little things to keep you on the offense during the chaos.

3. Everyone leads regardless of rank

“Act like a dick and you’ll quickly lose your guy’s respect,” the DS warned during an SAS leadership and culture presentation. “We choose to freeze on an Afghan mountain not because the PM told us; but because you cannot let the mate beside you down.”

Throughout the camp, we peer assessed our teammates’ leadership from 1 (best performing) to 13 (worst performing). This taught selflessness and humility. Check your teammate’s gear is squared away. Carry extra gear for an injured teammate. Fill up his water bottle. Remind him to hold his paddle. Suggest solutions. Don’t complain because everyone is hurting. Take the focus off yourself.

4. Your integrity will be tested

Photo: Supplied.

“Has anyone signed the form yet?” the DS smirked. We always carried two significant kit items. The first was a voluntary withdrawal form. At any time, you were one decision from an easy way out. Just sign the form and your ordeal was over.

The second item was a 6,000 calorie ration pack. No big deal. Except when 25 hours later you’ve not eaten and feel the onset of hypothermia. I also had a stack of energy gels in another bag at the side of the room.

“Who would know?” I resisted the temptation. I learned to do what’s right, even when no one will notice.

5. Mantras and visualisations work

“We’re not military. We’re just civilians. Why can’t they give us just a little sleep? A little food?”

Teammate #13 was struggling. His self-talk was diminishing his spirit. During SEALFIT Kokoro, a 50-hour Navy SEAL Hell Week experience, I learned simple mental strategies to stay in the fight.

I often said to myself, “Stay! Stay in the moment. Stay relaxed.” It kept me focused on executing one rep at a time, often with a smile during long PT sessions.

When shivering cold on the beach, I visualised my heart like a furnace pumping hot lava through my veins. I repeated, “Hot Lava!”

6. Everyone can shine

Photo: Supplied.

“Someone come to the front and sing, Happy Wander,” the DS ordered.

It was Day 2. We’d had 24 hours to learn five verses of an obscure 19th Century German song that’s become an SAS marching tune.

The brave volunteers could barely mumble past verse two. Shaking his head, the DS ordered more push ups.

“Lower! Raise! Lower! Raise!”

“Who knows the Happy Wanderer? You guys are a joke!” the DS exasperated.

Teammate #13 stepped up. He knew every single word. It saved us from more punishment.

7. Burn the boats

“Steve, I’m done. I’m going to quit,” teammate #11 told me on Day 2.

“Mate, it’s midnight. Where will you go? The beach and freeze?”

He stayed. I couldn’t quit because I had nowhere to go. I didn’t bring my mobile and wasn’t due back at my Airbnb accommodation for another day.

When there’s no other option, I learned you’ll always find a way to achieve your goal.

Steve Costello is a freelance writer, editor, and SEALFIT Kokoro 42 graduate. In a former life, he was a teacher and lawyer. Connect with him via Twitter @SteveWCostello.

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