28 km of guts: dissecting a route march

Crosspost

The dreaded Route March is a strange beast. For the uninitiated, perhaps a sample of what it might possibly entail is in order. A few, perhaps brave, possibly deluded, for the most part disbelieved, would tell you it is a mere walk, a stroll in the park. Some others (quite a lot of others, come to think of it) are likely to provide you with detailed imagery and evocative description of a fair bit of suffering, Sisyphean endurance, and a smattering of (possibly Promethean) frustration. And you might also encounter a fellow, when asked about route marching, will slowly turn his head that you might look into his eyes and see his pupils retreat to infinity, as he begins cowering in fear, before finally bursting into wailing and great heaving sobs in a fetal position on the floor.

Suffice to say, it is an unpleasent experience. (For NSFs that is. Persons in the regular employ of the Singapore Army are a whole different breed of human.) To march 28km with a full load, with rest points that always seem too far apart and breaks that last far too short a time, and to call it a “walk in the forest” is purely the reserve of those superhuman regular servicemen. For mere mortals who wish dearly to be done with full-time employment with the SAF and to carry on with study or work, coping, struggling through, and finishing instead of giving up are pretty swell objectives.

To truly relish the full flavour of the Route March, one needs to experience it firsthand. But, as many Singaporeans are unfortunate enough to not have the opportunity to enjoy the experience at the SAF’s financial expense, I’ll try and distill the essence of it.

PROLOGUE

To begin, one must know that a march, no matter how easy a walk it seems to oneself (who knows, you might be descended from a Russian cossack, have shoulders the size of basketballs and willpower to move a 747. I’m not discriminating), begins days, maybe weeks in advance of the moment one shrugs on the pack and puts the first foot in front of the other. The anticipation (or trembling with an urge for bowel movements, depending on one’s level of distaste for route marches) is a hugely important part of the overall experience.

Oftentimes, the dread (statistically proven [i.e. pulled out of my ass] to be the most common emotion prior to marches) of a march is coupled with a sense of not-quite-anticipation, because completion of the march means one less thing before completing whatever training course it is part of, and being one step closer to clawing one’s way out of whatever (subjective) hellhole one finds oneself currently stewing in. This strange brew of dread, despair, and “damn it all!” plus a masochistic desire for time to pass faster and the hour of the march to be upon oneself is quite intoxicating. It it a unique sense of internal conflict. And when all around one sees one’s fellows trying with limited success to hide that same queer emotion, the experience of goading them and alluding to the upcoming trial is all the more uniquely bittersweet.

CHAPTER 1: DISTRACTION

Surprising as it sounds, the pack is heaviest not at the end, but at the very beginning. After every possible delay is made, every excuse exhausted, the final moment before the march must absolutely begin becomes a reality, and the pack is swung through the air with the greatest of ease (like that daring young man on the flying trapeze). It executes a perfect arc before resting squarely upon the shoulders, yet it never sits well; it is always either too tight, too loose, too high, too low, or perhaps even all four. The weight sits like an oppressive load and an unwelcome reminder that the task at hand will require that pain be endured. There are endless adjustments to redistribute the load, but they always accomplish nothing; the load never seems optimally balanced before the command to march comes.

Some initial fiddling with the pack in the first few hundred metres of the march is expected, but in this first leg before the first rest point both morale and energy remain high, so light chatter and joking often ensues. There is no great physical pain or numbness yet, no utter exhaustion, so the mindless conversation continues. Any topic, any observation, will do, because it is not result or conclusion of conversation that matters, but the very act of talking that takes thought away from the mind-numbing monotony and silliness of the march. The conversation will continue, save for brief pauses to catch up with the person in front and keep the contingent whole. This distraction is the first line of defence in the march.

CHAPTER 2: DESPAIR

By the second rest point (sometimes the first) dips in morale and energy are noticeable. The decline in energy is expected, and although it falls it often rebounds past the two-third mark of the march as troops draw strength from a desire to finish the damn thing instead of suffering a re-march. Morale, on the other hand, often sinks to a nadir very quickly as the march progresses, and then proceeds to astound even the most pessimistic by completely disregarding the term and continuing its relentless downward march off the bottom of the chart.

Marching troops commonly find themselves told to march a distance of approximately 4km to the next rest point, within the stipulated timing of 45 minutes. Usually, they are cursing their commanders under their breath (and over their breath too, come to think of it) by the 45 and a quarter-th minute. A common refrain is “$%*#%)#)% this is definitely more than 4km f**k this *(%&#)*%&#)”.

There exists a perpetual and intractable debate over whether the distance is greater than 4km (hence the troops’ despair and venting of frustration through profanity), or whether the commanders’ unwavering response of “you’re marching slow la that’s why” is accurate.

In either case, however, morale and motivation are crushed, and give way to the infinite pit of despair. Nowhere is this more true than when troops are told by their commanders that “the rest point is just 500m/5minutes ahead”, only to find it a (subjective) 2000m/20minutes distant.” It might or might not be a ploy by commanders to motivate troops to make a final push to the rest point, but, regardless of the commanders’ intents, this sense of (apparently) being cheated and lied to only serves to further destroy morale.

The lowest point can be observed at the seemingly always too short rest points, as tempers flare and temperatures rise. Soldiers will inevitably shout at each other, irritability will boil over into anger, and animosity will spread because of the slow ones, the uncooperative ones, the ones who hold everyone else up and waste their allocated time of rest.

For each soldier the point varies, depending on his fortitude and attitude. But there is no staving off the inevitable. Eventually, troops are pushed to the point of despair, finding themselves teetering at the precipice of madness.

CHAPTER 3: DECEPTION

At which point, they discover that madness is the solution; insanity is the path to completion and going down the rabbit hole is the only way to the end point.

Insanity takes many forms, all necessary to finishing the march. It takes a madman to reason that the pain he was feeling in his shoulders doesn’t matter all that much any more, because his feet are starting to hurt like hell. It takes a special kind of lunancy to renounce thought and reasoning, the things that make man more than a mere beast, in order to fixate on the singular goal of the next rest point and to doggedly chase it.

But of course, the true mark of derangement is desiring more pain. There comes a point in time where it seems things cannot get any worse. But somewhere before reaching that state the marcher must face himself and say “this bloody hell hurts like the dickens. But by golly, maybe if I keep pushing, it will hurt so much that it won’t hurt any more. Maybe I’ll be in so much pain I won’t be able to feel it, at which point I can renounce my humanity, become a numb zombie, and complete this march by repeating “left foot in front of right foot in front of left foot””.

And so, by deceiving themselves, the troops fall over the precipice into madness and on to the road to the end point.

EPILOGUE

When the shambling army of zombies reaches the end point, they fall motionless, unsure of how to proceed. Like zombies, their brains are mush. To do anything but put one foot in front of the other in the presence of a constant background throbbing in the muscles is a novel concept that needs deep consideration. Boots are washed, food is consumed, and weapons are sent mechanically and with scarcely a thought. Life and sanity only begin to return as the first boot is violently wrenched from around the foot, the second sluggishly tugged off, and as water and soap strive to wash off the grime of the march.

As the muscles uncoil, the brain realises they will ache the next day. But it also begins to recollect, to store away images of the march as memories tinged with the warm glow of nostalgia and accomplishment. The daunting, unscalable mountain of an obstacle is, with the magical power of hindsight, unsurprisingly reduced to a proud conquest. As the eyes close and the body prepares for sleep, the mind builds a picture based little on fact or memory, and far more on the ideal of a bloody triumph being celebrated.

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