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Ultimate Hell Week: Reality TV or just another day for a GP?

‘Allan! Are you going to give up?’

Another Special Forces operative hurls abuse. He uses a loudspeaker just in case there is any chance I don’t hear him. I’m on a beach in South Africa with 11 other wet and miserable athletes. I stubbornly motivate myself to stick with this brutality.

‘You’re an old man! Physically weak. You on my shit list, Allan!’ Barks the Korean Navy Seal instructor. This is nothing new. I think I have been on everyone’s shit list from the start of this BBC2 sponsored experience – a programme in which every couple of days an operative from a different Special Forces group from around the world simulates the gruelling selection process. Through a combination of recruits quitting and being pushed out, the 22 recruits were whittled down to just seven by the final session.

I just keep on thinking about the next 30 seconds rather than the end game and try to remain strong against this tirade of abuse. I am not unique in this group at all. Many of us are the product of broken marriages, intense school bullying, family disasters and miscellaneous life difficulties. I had found medical school tough: inspirational tutors were hard to come by and I was too interested learning about the small print stuff than the common things that come up in exams. This might explain my niche interests in mountain and tropical medicine. I had also been more interested in sky-diving and mountaineering than patients’ problems. I had been a poor medical student.

Does all this breed resilience? I think about what people mean by ‘the resilient GP’. There was a workshop on this subject at a recent trainers’ conference. I didn’t go. I’d ticked that box getting through this show day by day. 

How the hell did I get on this ‘Ultimate Hell week’?

A generic email from the BBC via the secretary of my mountain rescue team. A normal person would have consigned this to their trash bin. My wife made some comment about me applying before I got too old. She was not at all against the idea of her husband being put through a world of pain.

‘What makes you cry? When was the last time you had a fight? Have you ever been in the armed services? What makes you scared?’ Two hours later I emailed the form to the BBC. I am told there were several thousand applicants.

February, 2016. I receive a phone call from a very enthusiastic individual inviting me to attend an interview in London. I arrive at the waiting room at the BBC filled with triathletes, runners and fitness enthusiasts. 

I talked about myself for 20 minutes. Mountain and ultrarunning, unicycling, Judo, paragliding. Family and being a GP. All good. Well, good enough to be invited to the final selection weekend in Wales. Down to 50 candidates now from several hundred interviewees. A male stripper from Ibiza, a singer from one of the UK’s leading Spice Girl tribute acts. I see what they’re doing here. It’s not enough to be fit: the casting crew want a back story. I meet lots of driven and interesting men and women. Completely inspirational. Two days of swimming tests, a cardiology assessment, intense physical exercise and crawling around in mud follow with scowling army types writing performance evaluations.

I pass and reach the final 22 ‘recruits’.

The show

April. Five weeks of preparation. Swimming, high intensity fitness exercises, running with loads. A rendezvous with casting and the other 21 recruits at Heathrow and departure for South Africa. We have two days in an upmarket hotel near Cape Town getting to know each other better, and having some last minute physical training with our British army instructors. I am anxious. Am I physically strong enough? I can keep moving for hours, even days. I’ve completed many ultramarathons including the 100-mile plus Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc and the 65-mile Bob Graham Round over 42 Lakeland fells, in under 24 hours. But I’ve never stepped foot in a gym in my life. Many of my fellow recruits are young enough to be my children.

What follows is hard for me. Physically brutalising but my body never actually gives out to injury. Psychologically, it’s also tough, perhaps tougher. I grate on some recruits’ nerves. Bonding is easy with others. The editors play their games but I have no arguments with the outcome.

I am still reflecting on how this experience changes my thoughts on general practice as a career with a Government that increasingly challenges all our resilience. But is that reason to just give up? I didn’t give up on the show and I’m not giving up on general practice just yet.

Dr Stuart Allan is a GP in Cumbria