What’s Navy SEAL Training Really Like?

Facing a new job and the stress of midlife, Stephen Madden wanted to get mentally tougher. Could training with a former Navy SEAL set his mind for success no matter what?

By Stephen Madden
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine February 2014

steve madden holding rockAndrew Hetherington for Reader’s Digest
YOU WILL CLIMB UP INTO THAT TREE, the instructors tell us. All 14 of us. The fact that we have been exercising almost nonstop for the past eight hours doesn’t matter, they say. The fact that it’s raining, it’s 40 degrees, and the tree’s bark and branches are as slick as an unplowed road doesn’t matter, they say. The fact that we are wet, cold, covered in mud, and beyond tired doesn’t matter, they say. The fact that the lowest branch on the tree is at least 15 feet above the ground doesn’t matter. All that matters is getting everyone up the tree—fast—by working as a team. Nothing else matters.

We start climbing, and one of our number, a middle-aged man who has traveled all the way from South Africa to do this, slips from the first branch and comes to the wet Pennsylvania earth flat on his back. As he hits, his breath leaves his lungs as if from an amplified blowgun. I don’t expect him to move, but he grimaces, groans, and pulls himself to his knees. An instructor helps the guy to his feet. He walks in slow, expanding concentric circles around the tree. I think, Well, so much for the tree-climbing exercise. But the instructor looks at the ten of us still not in the tree. “You have four minutes.”

This was the 20X Challenge, taught by former Navy SEAL commander Mark Divine. Part of a series conducted at gyms around the country, the challenge promised to teach me that I am capable of 20 times more than I think I am. A 14-hour class would push me to my physical and emotional limits by using the same crucible techniques the Navy uses to mold its most elite warriors. For a few years now, as I approached my 50th birthday and a front-row seat to midlife, I had sought physical tests. The 20X appealed to me because it offered a mental one too. As countless studies show, mental strength and a positive attitude are vital to success in any realm. And I needed to know I could succeed.

But now, looking up into the tree, and at the cold, gray sky above it, I hedged. Why exactly did I need to do something quite this grueling?

I thought back to two questions I had been asked earlier in the day.

The first question comes while I’m doing pull-ups. It is asked by a short man with hipster glasses named McCleod. He’s standing to the side of the pull-up bar, barely in my field of vision. “Why are you here, Madden?” he asks. Like most 20X instructors, he’s a retired SEAL, which makes him kind of scary.

I actually thought long and hard about doing this before I sent in my $495 and signed the liability waivers. I wasn’t there to see if I could handle a SEAL-style workout. I was confident I could suffer through it, although I knew I wouldn’t shine. I was a desk jockey and a suburban dad, but under my belt was a lifetime of rigorous exercise in different disciplines from mountain climbing and cycling to open-water swimming and CrossFit. On a recent Sunday morning when I took the self-administered test to determine whether I could meet the minimum physical requirements for the 20X, I passed easily.

I was there because I wanted—needed—to become mentally tougher. A year earlier, I had left a comfortable job to start a new website in a crowded, competitive field. Instead of one patient, supportive boss, I now had four demanding ones. If I cracked under all the pressure (a very real prospect), I’d be out of a job, with no way to support my wife and three kids. Cracking meant failure. Failure meant the Madden kids went hungry. That would make me a bad father. So I needed to toughen up.

I figured Divine and his men, veterans of one of the hardest and most selective training processes in the world, would be the perfect masters. Plus, I liked the fact that Divine offered insight into things you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a tough-guy SEAL: meditation, yoga, self-awareness, compassion for your teammates. As I would learn at 20X, each of those parts is as important to mental toughness as the ability to do push-ups and pull-ups.

Again McCleod asks, “Hey, Madden. Why are you here?”

“I need to be a better father.”

“What’s that got to do with pull-ups?” McCleod asks.

“I need to be mentally tougher so I’m a better father to my family.”

The second question comes about 20 minutes later: “Hey, Madden, do you want to continue?”

We’d done a physical training test to see how many pull-ups, push-ups, and sit-ups we could do in two-minute blocks. I struggled through it, not nearly as crisp as I had been in my self-trial, wondering what the hell was wrong with me. We’d run a mile in heavy boots, and I finished dead last, brought home by Divine, who urged me to tell myself that I’m doing fine. “Say, ‘I got this,’ ” he said. “I got this.” I staggered along, trying out my new mantra, but it didn’t work.

Now, back at the gym, I’m puking my breakfast of coffee and granola bars onto the wood chips by the front door. The instructor offers encouragement in soothing tones. But the stridency of my retching brings out a new tone, one of concern. “Madden,” he says, “do you want to continue?”

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