Me sliding along the 10mile track
"Welcome to P Company, welcome to Depot Para. Outside of the various selection courses for the various elements of Special Forces, this is arguably the hardest course in the British Army": Major ‘C’ at the start of the cult 1992 Channel 4 Cutting Edge documentary ‘P Company’ (below). I remember watching this documentary and finding it both fascinating and darkly humorous. So, when earlier this year I came across something called the ‘P Company Challenge’, based on one test element of P Company, I felt it was worth exploring. The link took me to a website, which described the challenge:
"The Parachute Regiment challenges you to attempt the 10 Mile 'P' Company Cross Country Route, carrying a bergen (rucksack) weighing 35lb (excluding food and water) and wearing long trousers with military style boots. Competitors’ rucksacks will be weighed before and after the race, by race officials. The P Company Challenge is open to individuals and teams of 4 (With the first 3 runners to count). As a guide the Paratroopers Company Selection cut off time is 1 hr 50 minutes. TA (4 Para Reserve) Candidates have 2 Hours"
Forgetting for a moment the test is designed for youthful people in their early 20s, rather than midlife crisis people in their early 40s, I immediately decided to give it a go. It was due to take place at Para HQ, Colchester in October, giving me a couple of months to prepare. Looking for advice, I contacted an old mate from Leeds, ‘Maggs’, who had been a Para in the 80s and who now runs an MMA gym in Pudsey. He just said ‘put some vaseline around your thighs and arse’. Powerful stuff.
I started my training during a hot August in rural France. It consisted of getting up every morning and running with the rucksack 2.5 miles up a steep mountain and 2.5 miles down, stopping at the top for some water. It was a sweaty business and I quickly realised that Maggsy's sage advice was the difference between being comfortable and having an arse like a baboon.
It was not the best preparation as both limbs were in agony, but I thought it was more in the spirit of the event to be a bit shagged
Back in the UK I went all Michael Ryan and got myself some NATO issue DPM combat trousers and boots. Running in all this clobber and carrying the 35lb pack + water was really, really uncomfortable. I think that is the point. They need people who cannot only put up with this discomfort, but when they have finished the ten miles can get on with doing the business. They also need people who can do it in the right time - it's no good saying ‘yeah, we'll be there about 10ish give or take’ - everyone might be dead by then. This is where the cut-off comes in. Given my age and lack of military experience I thought I'd aim for the TA (4 Para Reserves) cut-off of 2 hrs.
I did a couple more 7 mile runs in full kit, supplemented with some straightforward running. I didn't want to do too many runs with the gear on as I could feel it putting my ageing body under a bit of strain, especially on my shoulders, knees, back, shins and heels. And legs. And arms. And head.
I fucked up a bit the day before the event by playing a bad tempered game of rugby. I got a smash to the top of one thigh and a stamp on my other thigh (you can actually count all the studs on the bruise). It was not the best preparation as both limbs were in agony, but I thought it was more in the spirit of the event to be a bit shagged. After treating the thighs with ice I had an early night.
As the rain came down, a gun blast signalled the start and we were off. Almost immediately I had a problem with my rucksack
On the day, legs aching, I got to the start pretty early. The weather was wet and cold but I'd made up my mind to run in a t-shirt as the body heat I generated in training was astonishing. In the top part of my rucksack I had a basic hydration system containing a litre of sports drink. The rucksack was an old style canvas day-sack used for expeditions by Outward Bound in the 80s, a compact but robust bit of kit. The weight was made up by wet sand in two sand bags, sat on top of a polystyrene block - this puts the weight nearer your shoulders and in my opinion gives a better running position. The pockets of my combat trousers contained a blister pack of Ibuprofen, jelly babies and some energy gels.
The event is held in aid of The Parachute Regiment Charity and looking around the start line, it is obviously a popular event amongst both civilians and the Airborne community. There was a lot of maroon on display and unsurprisingly, given the violent nature of the world in the last 10 years, a lot of people were running as a tribute to fallen comrades.
As the rain came down, a gun blast signalled the start and we were off. Almost immediately (within the first mile) I had a problem with my rucksack. For some reason the corner of the polystyrene block had moved around and was digging into my back, it was agony. This had never happened on the training runs and I cursed my luck. Getting out of the way of everyone, I quickly took it off and gave the offending part the sort of stamps Danny Grewcock built a career on. It worked, the sack was back to normal but I'd lost 30 precious seconds, not good at all.
My game plan was to run the whole way taking on fluid as frequently as possible and having an energy gel every three miles. At about the four mile stage my thighs were on fire and I was angry with myself for stupidly playing rugby the day before. I took a couple more Ibrufen and cracked on - my one bit of advice (apart from the vaseline) is the importance of keeping your mind in the right place. It's different to any other event in that it's relentlessly hard and designed to attack your head.
As I got to the bottom both thighs exploded in a sheet of pain - it was like cramp but more intense.
The route was roughly 3 miles of road, 4 miles of undulating Cross Country and 3 miles back on the road. The terrain on the cross-country part was, in parts, ankle deep in mud. I have no idea how much time I lost here sliding about but I would imagine it was substantial - it was impossible to run, keeping on your feet was an effort in itself. Getting back on the road I knew that I had about three miles to go but I also knew that time was running out for my two hour cut-off. Stuffing jelly babies into my mouth I changed from running to "tabbing" (marching very quickly) for a bit - this kept the pace up and put less pressure on my thighs.
About 2 miles from the end there is a steep bridge, I tabbed up it and decided to run down it - as I got to the bottom both thighs exploded in a sheet of pain - it was like cramp but more intense. I cursed myself again and carried on tabbing, my face screwed up in agony. The last mile was the hardest thing I have ever done - my thighs were burning and I knew I was damaging them - but I was spurred on by knowing I could probably make it under 2 hours. I got in at 1hr 56 minutes. Strangely, I felt no elation at the end, just slight disappointment that I could have done better with more preparation.
Clearly it's not the hardest race in the world and events like the Marathon des Sables or the Arch to Arc undoubtedly require a greater level of dedication and fitness. That said, if you are looking for a short, intense, physical and mental challenge for a good cause, I believe you would struggle to find a tougher ten miles.
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