Looking for an alternative summertime fitness workout to get you in kickass shape for summer? Check out Extreme SEAL Experience, a weeklong adventurous boot camp that gives participants an authentic taste of what it takes to be a Navy SEAL.
While an endurance program is extremely physically and mentally challenging, the success of "true story" Navy SEAL films like "Lone Survivor"—based on Marcus Luttrell's 2007 bestseller about the tragic outcome of 2005's Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan (now out on Blu-Ray/DVD)—has caused an upsurge in students interested in testing their limits, says former Navy SEAL Don Shipley, who runs the program.
"We have students paddling upriver, where it's very dark and snakey, for several miles and doing timed running wind-sprints," says Shipley, who met with GrindTV.com at the Virginia boot-camp site. "In addition, they learning various rope techniques, such as fast-rope, hook-and-pole, and jumar, all of which require real upper-body strength and legwork. I think it's a confidence booster, too; if you can get comfortable with heights as you rappel down a 20-foot tower, you can do anything in life!"
Read on to find out more about the course, which include 1,000 pushups a day (done in sets), a swimming obstacle course where attendees pull themselves across the river via a rope, and a little something called Hell Night. (Sounds daunting, but all of these activities serve a purpose: "SEAL" stands for "Sea, Air, Land," so being prepared to fight in all of these environments is the ultimate goal.)
"No matter how tired you are, you keep going!" enthuses Shipley.
What's the intimidation factor for the "regular" person doing the Extreme Navy SEAL Experience? How fit do you have to be?
The average guy does very well here. You know, I'm not running a push-up school. We work these guys very, very hard. In this course I have right now, I've got an Austrian, a German, and a young guy from Hong Kong. They're not coming all the way here to do a bunch of push-ups with me talking to them like they are children. It's the big-boy's club down here; they work very hard and very long hours. It's very physical, but we don't run a lot of organized PT to just grind these guys' gears. The close-quarter combat, the rappelling, the survival, the shooting: It's very tough physically. But the average guy in average shape is going to do very well down here.
Can anyone do this course?
Right now it's male only, 15 and older. I put a 69-year-old guy through this course. I joined the Navy when I was 17, so we open it up to the younger guys. We really want young, aspiring SEALs. I'll take a 15-year-old down here and they'll always do very well. These guys learn a lot from the older guys. I hear it sometimes, you know—"I don't want to come down here and babysit." That is far from what happens down here. This place is no different from the military, the outfit, and any branch of the service. You get the older sergeants in there and they're leading the younger guys.
Is there an age range you recommend do/do not do this program?
I've never told anyone they can't come. A lot of guys come here for many reasons: divorce, bankruptcy, they have confidence issues, they're stuck in that dead-end job, they're on their last leg. Any age, any background, they come down here and try to find that college-quarterback game face that they used to have. There are no upper limits; there's no disability I've ever turned down. It's just one of these different courses that I run. I've had severe food allergies, diabetes, cancer, you name it. This is the course for that Type A personality. If a guy tells me he can do this course, I'll make damn sure he does.
Tell us about the most grueling endurance-building activities that the participants do: Hell Night.
Hell Night is probably the most notorious and the hardest thing here to them. It's a 24-hour marathon of a lot of physical gear-grinding. But you have to be able to think as a SEAL. No matter how tired you are, no matter how exhausted, no matter how thirsty, no matter how hungry, no matter what's going on with you, you've got to be able to focus to accomplish the mission. So Hell Night is really specifically designed to grind them down, to wear them out, to completely exhaust them, and then they're expected to perform very demanding night operations (e.g., a hostage rescue and a simulated demolish break). They've got to pull it together as a team, no matter how tired they are.
In terms of the rest of the course, the close-quarter combat is very demanding. The operations that we do here are survival training. Nobody can do this course by themselves; teamwork has to be constantly present. Guys need to switch on and stay focused. This course has a lot of hair on it; you can get into a lot of trouble down here real quick. It's inherently dangerous and we do a good job of minimizing that by keeping their attention. The guys who won't listen to me when they're down here, they won't last for very long. But the course really works when they do.
What kinds of activities do you do to stay in shape?
I do a lot of hunting and fishing. I get run ragged doing the course here. I'm there for every painful, bloody minute of it. I'm an old commando; I've had my ass kicked for a lot of years, and it starts to show. As far as staying switched on, I tell these guys when they come down here, especially the young, aspiring SEALs, that they don't have to share my sense of humor or anything about me but my timeliness, my attention to detail, the staying motivated—that they have to share those with me in being a SEAL. I've never told any of these guys that they could not become SEALs; for some of them, it becomes apparent. You know, they come down to this course, they can't show up on time, they struggle to get the right gear, they struggle to focus on the target, etc. They don't need me to tell them to go look for something else to do; they realize that the Navy SEAL dream is not in the cards for them.
Do the participants need any special gear that they need to bring themselves, or is it all provided?
These guys can show up in their birthday suit and I'll get them through training. There's a small gear list: a white T-shirt, a couple of dark T-shirts, a belt, a cell phone, a camera, a laptop, a toilet kit, swim trunks, running shoes. But I've had guys show up with nothing and I can get them through this course. I have all the shirts, uniforms, boots, swim gear, foul-weather gear, cold-weather gear, hot-weather gear, all their survival gear. We have all the toothpaste, socks, acne medication, shampoo, [and] body wash in the bins.
Have you thought about opening the course up to women?
We've tried it. I actually did a television show here for the Internet called "Women vs. Workout." She was a fitness model and did the 24-hour Hell Night. She did very well. She was very charming and did a good job. I tried another young lady for the full course a couple of years ago and it did not go very well. The guys like talking about women, they like getting away from all of those types of distractions, and this gal wanted to go through that with the men. I've offered the all-female courses before, but the women don't want to do that. They want to go through [it] with the guys, who are my biggest customers. While I need to pay attention to that, I keep looking at it, because I am missing that part as a businessman. But there certainly would be some restrictions. I would never take a 15-year-old girl down here; it would be different. It does concern me in regards to the close confines and quarters.
How have you incorporated the extreme endurance we've seen in films such as "Lone Survivor" into your program?
I am running SEAL training. This is a lot of what I did, what I went through. It's the best of the best we can put down here for the guys. Extreme endurance is really based off fitness. You learn very quickly in SEAL training and in this course that you can do more with a strong mind than you can with a strong body. We want these guys to play to their strengths down here. It is a very demanding course; we find out what guys are good at and exploit that strength. With extreme fitness and the mindset comes extreme endurance. It is SEAL training down here; you've got to bring that game face. If you have a strong mind and a strong will, you'll beat the competition every time.
When you see the extreme level of fitness the soldiers experience in "Lone Survivor," that whole SEAL-team stuff with the extreme level of fitness and the endurance is real. But it's the buddies that get you through things like that. We call it "hitting a wall" in SEAL team. It notoriously happens in the Arctic when we deal with extreme temperatures. You will run into that wall. Your face will smack right straight into it to the point where you don't think you will be able to take another step, ski another step. It's your buddies that slap you back into reality and tell you to get your ass in gear, and the next day you are doing it to them. It becomes not only extreme endurance or extreme fitness, but also the deep love of your buddies, your teammates, and what you need to do not to let them down and to keep them safe. It all kind of goes hand in hand. It's the same thing here for the Extreme SEAL Experience: We demand the teamwork, the attention to detail. Bring that attitude and a good one!
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