So, to kick this off, if you are here looking for info on how long the march is, what happens at the RV’s and what the route is, you may as well click the little X in the top right hand corner, you won’t find any of that information here. AEE intend that you keep their secret in order to not spoil the experience for future participants (and so that they are not plagiarised in an unsafe manner by other organisations).
Also a huge shout out should go to Haydn Mann for photographing the event and capturing the experience for all concerned.
Disclaimer out of the way let’s get on to what I made of my first Test March experience.
Well, this one kicked off early – actually, before I thought it did! We were supposed to be up at 0600 for some drills however I’d missed that detail and was still soundly asleep (yeah, right). I was awake, but getting ready when I heard a small voice say “Anyone in your tent, we’re supposed to be up at the armoury” Quick as a flash I was dressed and out of my tent carrying a day sack with the mandatory stationary and some water and doubling up the hill to the armoury. This time around it would appear that the DS had decided that for added realism we were to carry a “rifle” (see scaffolding tube) which we were to have within arm’s reach at all times on base and should be kept clean at the barrel end. Interesting, although they had alluded to making it a bit more realistic to test conditions in the warm up emails.
Anyway, breakfast squared away and weapons collected and furnished with home made slings, we were split into 2 groups. One for Mountain First Aid training – delivered by the softly spoken but immensely knowledgeable staff – honestly, to get this tuition anywhere else would most likely cost upwards of a couple of hundred quid a person. He was brutally “to the point” but very interesting and had a great sense of humour in the delivery of his subject material.
The other group was for comms, delivered by the sigs officer in the main building on site. This was an essential in how to set up and use your radio which was excellently run and clearly delivered. There were plenty of opportunities to practice radio protocols for various situations and you’ll be hard pressed to find a participant who won’t keep asking you “Roger so far, over?” when in comms with them on the internet. It was an interesting crash course and something that I may look into expanding on in the future. Again, paying for this sort of tuition privately would cost a great deal per person for the time we had with him.
Following a run through of RV protocol, emergency casualty evac, a short Nav-Ex, Kit check and a (highly entertaining) demonstration of the emergency bivvi procedure, we were all but done for the day prior to the evening brief. There were a few other drills and sessions that we engaged in however, I feel that to disclose what we did would potentially spoil the fun for future participants on this march (provided they get the same drills) – lets just say aside from the scaffolding pole, other patrons informed me that some of the details varied somewhat from previous test marches.
Anyway, evening brief down, a final weigh in of my bergen and a collection of my packed lunch I was ready for bed….well, after squaring as much of my kit away as possible to the car as it was going to be an early start.
Note to self: bring earplugs next time. In total over the Friday and Sat nights I managed 3 hours kip; partially due to a painful knee after the nav ex, mostly due to the impressive sonic capabilities of my fellow participants on the campsite. You could have been forgiven for thinking there was a Lion in the campsite rather than a couple of snoring people!
Anyway, after a very brief hour of sleep, I got up and dressed at 02:45 to allow plenty of time to A) pack my kit down and get it to the car and B) assess whether my knee was OK to do the march. Mercifully the knee loosened up a fair bit as I packed kit down and got it to the car so I decided to press on but to reduce the weight slightly – starting weight ended up at 51lbs plus an 11lb rifle. So 62lbs total – to be honest that’s only around 10lbs off the full weight and part of me wishes I’d just stuck with what I’d planned to, the other part of me is glad I was actually able to finish the march. The lesson here is to pick your battles.
I made my way to the canteen ready to fill my belly with food, only to find DS Stu pointing in my direction and telling me and the 3 nearest people that the chef was late and we needed to get in and help prepare breakfast!
40 minutes, some rather al dente steel cut oats, a fry up and some OJ later and I found myself on the bridge awaiting the rest of the Ricochet marchers. Before long the DS arrived and informed us we were supposed to be in 2 ranks and that we should form up and get moving – we had some ground to cover before getting to the holding point before the start.
Around half an hour later we rolled up into a track and everyone started furiously trying to identify where they were. Participants started being called over to DS Jones for the grid ref to RV1 and before long I was off. It was lovely and dark and the first part of this march was pretty much solidly through a bog – lovely, it took less than 1k to get balls deep in mud and thus the tone was set for the remainder.
Marching alone is really an odd experience, and when you’re strung out on so little sleep it is incredibly lonely. I was always relieved to see my fellow competitors just for a boost of morale and I relished hearing the bursts of static over the net as people accidentally hit their transmit buttons. The first person I really came across was AEE veteran Ian Ford about 2/3’s of the way to RV1 – we had a little chat and that boosted me somewhat. He soon pulled away but I caught him up as half of the field converged on the RV.
I completely ballsed up RV procedure and reckon I did well to avoid a thrashing form DS Stu however, I got it right from then on and won’t be making that mistake in future. It was between RV1 and RV2 that the tiredness and loneliness nearly got the better of me. I resolved then, cold wet and miserable, knee throbbing that I’d press on to RV2 and VW – who in their right mind would pay hard earned money for this? Thankfully I caught up with Paul S who I’d met on Summer FD and a bit of banter lifted my spirits, I then realised I’d actually managed to navigate to at least one RV without getting lost and this spurred me on even more.
I think the turning point here was that when approaching RV2 one of the competitors told me that we got a Pie at the RV. That sold me. I arrived to a large queue (even on a TWM we can’t help but queue, how very British) shed my bergen, put on some warm clothes and then refilled my water before being called through to DS Jones for some interesting drills. I obviously performed fairly well as, with a hint of annoyance, he ordered me to get my pie and the get out of his RV. Happy to oblige I grabbed my pie, wolfed it down (see the highly flattering pic at the top) and then set off for RV3.
It was en-route here that I became stuck. Not metaphorically, but literally. The ground had decided that rather than be shallow mud it would try and swallow me whole and I found myself groin deep and unable to get myself out. Shit. I didn’t want to get my weapon muddy. Thankfully 2 minutes later a fellow competitor yanked me out and I could continue on my way!
I won’t go into too much detail from here on out as I don’t want to give you an idea of how many RV’s there are or how long you think you’ll be going. Suffice to say from here on out I was hanging out my hoop, and was literally saved by fellow competitor Lee who ended up finishing the march with me. Through some chats about our families and pasts, and a shared love of Soreen Malt Loaf (absolute winner) we both eventually ended up bearing down on the FRV. Met part way by Ken singing a little ditty to himself about the march.
As we approached we stopped and straightened ourselves out to avoid any chance of a bollacking (we did successfully) and then I headed to DS Stu’s transit and gave my name
“Hounsell, been a long old day for you hasn’t it? Been enjoying yourself too much have you?”
“Lets say that was the case ay, staff? ”
And that was it.
I left the FRV en-route back to the activity centre a bit numb. I’d finished but hadn’t quite comprehended it. That was until Lee came running after me, grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously.
“We’ve done it mate, I can ‘t believe its over” And just like that the relief flooded over me, I thanked him for helping me get through, although the feeling was mutual, and we both headed back up the road. Mercifully the sigs officer drove past and informed us that if we didn’t get a move on we’d miss the patch ceremony and to chuck our bergens in the boot and he’d drop them at the centre.
Now, if you’ve ever carried a heavy pack all day, the effect when you take it off can be quite comical. As your spine decompresses and your circulation returns to normal, your limbs appear to turn to jelly. It must have been quite a sight to see 2 lads half clad in filthy DPM carrying scaffolding poles travelling down a remote country road as if they’d been out on the piss all day. But still, it was a bit of much needed humour at the end of a long day.
Ken had said at the start that these events weren’t races, that they were feats of human endeavour. He wasn’t wrong and there was determination and true grit in truckloads among those who participated. I say all who participated, because there were a few withdrawals – but even showing up to one of these marches is an achievement, the trepidation before they begin is immense and the mental struggle of getting through when you don’t know the route or distance prior cannot be underestimated.
These events are set in a completely different dimension to anything else I’ve participated in, all of the variables come together to make each event unique, and I’m glad in this instance I was a part of it, to make history with the first run through of Ricochet. It makes it all the more sweeter to have earned the very cleverly designed patch and I will have it on display alongside my Summer FD 2015 patch – I’m hoping for a collection!
So, that was it, tired, I climbed in my car after the award ceremony and headed home. Thanks to the Rugby it took 6 hours and a lot of Lucozade. I’d never been so grateful for bed.
So what’s next? I’ll hit the Iron Man and P2P re-runs if I am able, if not it’ll be the Elan marches as I know I’ll miss the Winter FD this time around. If you’re thinking of signing up to a Test March – DO IT! Any suffering is quickly forgotten at the close and the sheer size of the challenge makes the reward so much sweeter. I’ll update you after the next one, so awaiting that next transmission, can you confirm, Roger so far, over?