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 published in Reader's Digest Magazine February 2014

steve madden tshirtAndrew Hetherington for Reader’s Digest
It would be so easy to say no. I could leave now, before anybody knew my name, saw more of my weaknesses or could appreciate my strength, before I could see what this whole thing was about and learn anything new. Before I got anything out of it. I could go home and tell people I had twisted my ankle or something, and nobody would be the wiser. Including me.

“I got this,” I tell him. “I got this. Let’s go.”

Hours pass. We run and run and run, carrying packs and heavy bars. Another participant, a guy named Paul who is much younger and far fitter than I am, runs with his hand on my back. “You got this, Madden,” he says. If I have it, it’s because of Paul’s help. We bury ourselves in wet leaves and try to hide from those trying to find us. We haul around heavy logs, take turns carrying each other on our backs in races, and memorize a poem, “Invictus,” about being the masters of our fate. Sometimes that fate, apparently, involves falling out of trees.

As the day goes by, I notice myself feeling not stronger but at least surprised at the fact that I don’t feel weaker. Instead of being the puker, the slowest guy on the run, I now find myself offering encouragement to some of my teammates. Sore, yes, and tired. But far from finished.

It’s dark by the time they roll up the garage door at the back of the gym and tell us to assemble at the edge of the parking lot, above a rock-strewn gully. I figure we have maybe an hour or two to go. Something big and bad has to be coming. But I got this.

Divine has us stand at attention and explains that we’re all to go down into the gully to find a rock that represents our will to live and then bring it up to the parking lot.

We stumble down over the rocks, which range in size from pieces of gravel to boulders. I’m looking for the biggest darn rock I can find. Because I know that I’m not going to quit, and I’m not going to be broken, and that if things get bad, I can lean on the other guys.

I find a monster of concretion, but whether it’s the rock’s size or the tally of the day’s activities, I can’t get it up the slope. Weird. Back at CrossFit, I can throw around a 125-pound sack of sand. I stare at the rock, as if my gaze will make it levitate. It doesn’t.

“Come on, Madden,” says McCleod from above.

“I’m moving this rock that represents my will to survive,” I tell him.

Under his breath, in a conspiratorial hush, he tells me, “Find a smaller one, you [idiot]. You have to carry it for a mile.” Aah. The grand finale.

I find a smaller one, about 75 pounds, I guess. My will to live remains huge, but more portable. Then the order comes: We will pick up the rock and start walking. If one of us drops his or her rock, we all start over.

No problem. What’s a mile?

But first, we take turns immersing ourselves, head and all, in a barrel of ice-cold water. We help each other climb up and in; we duck under and breathe out until bubbles show. Helping each other keeps our minds off the shivering. Lance Cummings, another instructor and former Navy SEAL, stands behind the barrel to make sure we’re all the way under, and under for a good long time.

When some of the shivering gets out of control, they have us stand in a huddle, stomachs and chests of the bigger guys braced against the backs of the smaller ones. The heat transfers as if conducted by wire. I’m at the very back, my girth finally helping my teammates. I notice my chest is pressing against Paul’s back. The shivering stops. We carry the rocks as we take laps around the building. We stay together, urging each other on. There is a lot of groaning, screaming, and shifting of the rock from shoulder to shoulder and from waist to back as we seek a comfortable place to rest our burden. We stumble through the darkness, the glare of the sodium lights bathing us in pink. Wet, chafing, suddenly no longer cold.

We finish, and Divine tells us to take a knee next to our rocks. He walks slowly to the end of the line opposite me and says, “I want you all to think of an answer to this question: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in the past year?”

I thank God I’m at the other end of the line. I know I should be listening to my teammates, learning from their answers, and one small part of my brain does, hearing them talk about never stopping, never quitting, but I can’t think of anything to say. Is my answer something from the last 14 hours? The last seven months? About hard work and fighting and being smart and not quitting and staying true to your word, to promises made, even if they were unsaid? My mind races, but my mental tires spin in the mud of my fatigue.

“Madden?” Divine is in front of me. “What’s the most important thing you learned this year?”

I wish I could say it was a carefully, consciously constructed thought. I wish I could say my brain played, in a flash, a two-hour movie of my kids, my wife, my family, my coworkers, my brothers and sisters, and anybody who’d ever helped me and whom I’d ever helped. All the people I love and who love me. I wish I could say my fine, educated mind delivered the thought. But I don’t know where it came from. I just blurted it out.

“Love is the answer, sir.”

Divine scares me, staring at me through the cold fog of a February night. He must think I’m putting him on. Who talks to a Navy SEAL about love? He’s gonna make me take another lap with the rock. And that’s OK. At this point, I know I can do it. I’d rather not, but I can if I have to. Because at this point, I know my answer is right. Love is the answer. If I didn’t love my family, why would I have done this?

He’s still looking at me. “Outstanding, Madden. Outstanding.”

Turns out we weren’t done. We went back inside and worked out with the logs while trying to recite “Invictus” from memory. We got this.

Stephen Madden is the author of Embrace the Suck, to be published this fall by HarperCollins.