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Reach Fitness’ Hacksaw Ridge Challenge

Reach Fitness’ Hacksaw Ridge Challenge

23 May 2017 Tom Butler

Our very own Editor Tom Butler talks about Oscar-winning movie Hacksaw Ridge - based on an incredible true story - and the fitness challenge he underwent based on the events portrayed in the film, with the help of fitness guru Steve Kowalenko and Reach Fitness.

Hacksaw Ridge is a very good film, in fact it’s golden statue winning good. For those of you not familiar with the story, it’s set in Japan during WWII and covers the incredible story of Desmond T Doss (played by Andrew Garfield), a doctor and a pacifist who was drafted by the US Army. Refusing to bear arms because of his religion, he nevertheless saved 75 soldiers and risked his life under heavy fire at the Battle of Okinawa.
 
On so many levels it is an incredible tale, a true one at that. It’s also a feat that defies belief. To have the courage to run onto a battlefield unarmed and rescue one of your fellow soldiers (and avoid being shot) is remarkable. To do so 75 times is staggering, both from a mental and physical standpoint.
 

Back in March in the afterglow of the film’s Oscars success I received an email informing me of its release date on DVD (May 22 in case you were wondering) and would I be interested in taking part in a six week fitness programme to replicate, where at all possible, the challenge of carrying the equivalent of 75 men during one routine. Thinking nothing would come of it, I replied in the affirmative.
 
The following week a follow-up email arrived in my inbox asking me to report to Reach Fitness in Clapham twice a week for sessions with fitness guru Steve Kowalenko. It was a head in hands moment, what had I let myself in for. I’d never been one for doing weights in the gym, cardio has never really been a problem, I’ll run all day, but the thought of completing a pull up, or ‘benching’ a weight of any kind just wasn’t on the agenda. I didn’t know how many pull-ups I could do, I’d never tried. Later that evening in the gym I found out the answer was three. Not very impressive.
 

 
It was decided that the best way to replicate the challenge would be 75 consecutive farmers carries in the gym as this would be both physically and mentally exhausting. So began a series of sessions that involved stretches and exercises I had never seen or heard of before. The common theme was that they all hurt, a lot. At the end of the first week I could barely lift my arms.
 
Yet, as the first couple of weeks went by I could see improvements, both in the weights I was lifting and my recovery time needed between sets. Despite the pain during the weekly sessions I was enjoying it in a masochistic kind of way. By week three, whilst I still knew it was going to be incredibly tough, the challenge didn’t seem insurmountable.
 
We focused on a high level of single leg work, a large amount of pulling to strengthen the back, and a lot of hinge variants to get ready for picking up and putting down the weight multiple times as well as carrying it. There was also a heavy focus on grip and midline stability whilst loaded carries, crawling patterns, sled pushes and sprints and static holds were used regularly.


 
The day itself was hard. Much harder than I had anticipated. With 75 carries being the target I was in a lot of trouble after just 20, I had genuine concerns that I wouldn’t be able to finish such was the pain in my hands and forearms. Just as daunting as the physical side was the mental. This was going to take a long time. But then the training and conditioning Steve had put me through kicked in and slowly but surely, the carries accrued, the target came down. After one of the longest hours of my life, I’d finished.
 
A further word for Steve, who put up with my cries, gasps, moans and groans throughout with a smile and sense of humour they didn’t merit. From the very first moment he turned what could have been an intimidating challenge into something that was both interesting and enjoyable at the same time. All of this done with a smile and calm words of encouragement. Put simply, I wouldn’t have known where to start on a challenge such as this, that I managed it is entirely down to him.


 
It wasn’t lost on me that I’d done this challenge in the comfort of a gym with top professional help and it was still brutal. That Desmond T Doss accomplished it alone on a battlefield surrounded by gunfire putting his life on the line every single time is something I will never begin to comprehend. It’s a story that if you didn’t know it was true you’d mock how unbelievable Hollywood had made it and is simply one of the most incredible stories of bravery and physical endurance you’ll ever hear about.  
 
Hacksaw Ridge is out on DVD and Blu Ray from May 22.
 
Steve Kowalenko runs Virtus Strength who are based in Clapham and offer a variety of different training programmes. He is also one of only three fully certified Gym Jones instructors in the UK. I can’t recommend him highly enough.
 
Reach Fitness, run by Richard Tidmarsh, is a fantastic gym based at Clapham North Art Centre. All the trainers are qualified to the nth degree and it’s soon very apparent they’re also incredibly friendly and passionate about what they do.

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