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Royal Marines Reservists tackle 30 miler over Dartmoor

7 February 2017
One hour before dawn, high on Dartmoor. Two groups of men wait quietly in the sub zero temperatures. They are about to take on the biggest challenge of their lives and are about to make the extraordinary look routine.

During the next eight hours they will run and march the entire length of Dartmoor whatever the weather conditions.

One of the groups is 225 recruit Troop who are in week 31 of training. They are bonded, forged together by their shared experiences.

The other group are Royal Marines Reserves recruits. They all have other jobs: one works for British Aerospace on the Typhoon aircraft, one is an engineering student, one a finance manager, one a stonemason, another is a doctor, and another is in his sixth year at Cambridge studying medicine.

12 days earlier 37 reservists had arrived at the Royal Marines Commando Training Centre at Lympstone near Exmouth. Now 17 are left. They know that if they pass this test the Green Berets they have trained for 15 months to gain will be presented at the end.

“It finally hit me I’m here now, on the start line ready to go for the biggest challenge in my life” says 25 year old Tim Barker from Preston.  

The speed march starts. The groups in syndicates 10 minutes apart. They are on tracks at first so the instructors push hard to make up time. “Everyone was thinking if it’s going to be like this it’s going to be a really tough day,” says Tim.

y brain was saying I haven’t really achieved anything because I have 13 miles to go. I can’t do this. I had to push myself and go into a different mode then. It’s mind over body. Mind over pain

Jack Ardagh, RMR London

After 1.5 hours they reach their first checkpoint high on the moor where only 4x4 vehicles can reach. They eat bananas and drink water before heading off into the wildest part of the moor.  Here there are no tracks, no buildings, nothing but bogs and tors and rugged windswept landscape.  

“Walking through the sunrise was beautiful. You had time to really appreciate the ground around you,” says 22 year old Toby Webb a manager at a global logistics company from Loughborough.  

The reservists are on a two week Commando Course package. The first six days were spent on a tactical exercise on the moor. Once the exercise was finished they started the Commando tests. The 30 miler is the final test. It is one of the most famous military selection tests in the world.

“I’ve always had it in my head that I could do the 30 miler,” says 29 year old Jack Ardagh, a financial consultant from Greenwich. “That’s at the end of the course, adrenalin will get me through that no problem. Five miles in I was ‘Oh my god this is serious stuff’ considering the last 12 days I’ve had.”

3.5 hours in and the recruits reach a few scattered houses where they are fed a pasty, water and more bananas.  The crisp cold weather is ideal for a speed march where dehydration is an ever present consideration.

Throughout Royal Marines training the physical tests are controlled by physical training instructors but for this test the recruits are in the hands of Commando Training Wing at Lympstone. They surround the trainees with a safety bubble throughout the march.

The recruits carry about 40 lbs of equipment. Everything they need to deal with any conditions on the moor. Satellite phones, GPS, gortex clothing, survival rations, medical packs, collapsible stretchers and of course rifles.  

4.5 hours in and the recruits reach the third checkpoint. They are over half way.

“At half way I felt I’d achieved something – we’ve done 15 miles but then three miles later I was exhausted,” says Jack Ardagh who is at RMR London.  

“My brain was saying I haven’t really achieved anything because I have 13 miles to go. I can’t do this. I had to push myself and go into a different mode then. It’s mind over body. Mind over pain,” says Jack.

Tim Barker agrees:  “I thought this is really tough and I looked around at the guys and some of them were really struggling.”

The first part of the speed march the recruits head southwards after this its west.  After the cold crisp of the morning a strong headwind picks up and the reservists have to lean into the wind.

Checkpoint four is 5.5 hours in. Here the speed march is descending off the moor and Cornwall stretches out into the distance. More of the march is on roads and tracks and more of it is downhill.

“The roads and the downhill running was the hardest part for me.” says 22 year old Toby Webb who is at RMR Merseside’s Nottingham detachment. “At the end when you’re really pushing to get that last bit of time in it was definitely mentally: ‘right, grit your teeth now.’”  

Speed marching is a key skill the Royal Marines train for.  Marches are usually done with 32 lbs of kit and involve running downhill and on the flat and walking uphill. They are normally run on roads at a metronomic pace of a mile every 10 minutes.

The Corporals and Sergeants command courses at Lympstone start with a pass/fail four mile speed march. Basic training recruits have a criteria six mile speed march at the start of their Commando phase and their second Commando test is a nine mile speed march.

The 30 miler is a totally different beast. The terrain and length dictates that the pace is slower. The recruits walk heads down looking at the ground because they know a trip and sprained ankle now could make all the difference.

Speed marching is a skill that dates back to Commando training at the Achnacarry in the Highlands of Scotland during World War Two. The idea dates back even further to the 19th century when the British soldiers in South Africa were impressed that a Zulu warrior could run 40 miles and still fight a battle at the end.

“Everyone is of the mindset that there’s no option to give up. All the people like that have gone a long time ago,” says Toby Webb.

“Being in a syndicate you’re all in it together and that mentally helps you break the barrier that physically you’re feeling,” says Tim Barker.

Finally the recruits descend off the moor. They are almost in Plymouth and have marched half way across the second biggest county in England.

At the end they are clapped in by a few well wishers and some Marines veterans who mentor the regular recruits through training.

Then after more pasty’s, water and some hugging the reservists who have passed all the tests are presented with the coveted Green Beret. They are then addressed by Lieutenant Colonel Ed Moorhouse, the Commanding Officer of RMR London.

He tells them, “In 2010 I commanded a fighting company in Sangin for six months. I had 10% reservists out of a 180 men. They were outstanding. Today you join a family who’s linage goes from the beret you wear to the cap comforter you’ve just taken off to the hills around Spean Bridge and Achnacarry.”

After the tests are finally over what do the recruits think:  

“The 30 miler is a good example to me in life that you can make your body keep going.  And it’s not like the pain gets worse – it just stays the same,” says Jack Ardagh.    

“It’s not really sunk in. My legs hurt and my feet are killing. I think some of my toe nails may fall off,” laughs Tim Barker.

For the recruits of 225 Troop the future is nine days of drill training and then a pass-out parade in front of their parents.  

For the reservists its back to work on Monday. They can tell their workmates what they did and how hard it was but the reality is most people will never be able to comprehend the magnitude of what they have actually achieved.

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