Seesaw of Wills

The following article by Alan MacDonald (Instructor and Partner, Fighting Fit Martial Arts) is not only beautiful but is hugely inspiring. In this account, Alan reminds us of some key 'life principles': if you believe, you can (Descarte's "cogito ergo sum" – I think (or believe), therefore I am); never, never give up (Churchill); and of course, no pain, no gain (either Joe Weider or Arnie). Enjoy!

Seesaw of Wills
By Alan Macdonald


I could see Piere in the distance ahead of me. The sunlight strobed on his back through the leaves of the many trees that line the Canal du Midi. I pounded on, my eyes riveted on his back, not daring to hope that I was actually catching him.


I was scared of Piere. He was a monster. He was one of those people who commanded everyone's attention; you know, everyone laughed too quickly and readily when he made a joke and who was always surrounded by a sycophantic group who wanted to be his mate. Mind you I didn't blame them. He was a fearsome looking mother, a half Negroid Alsacien, with cold almond eyes and a tattoo of an eye on the back of his neck. His party piece was to eat glass or bite the tops off beer bottles. I didn't really want to catch him....did I?


This was the Sac a Dos, a regular evaluation undertaken to test/ maintain your fitness. A great deal of kudos was attached to the top guys in each section who could complete it the fastest. We got treated with more respect by the Caporals and Sergents and were less likely to land strength sapping, pointless jobs. It was a gruelling race along the banks of the Canal du Midi, a picturesque body of water running along for many miles through the South of France. The run was performed in full combat gear with a weighted rucksack on your back. There was an initial sprint of 1.5 kilometres followed by the main run of 8 kilometres. It was gut wrenching, lung bursting torture all the way through.


Yard by yard, almost imperceptibly, I was reining him in. I wanted to go faster but knew if I did, the lactic in my legs, which was already screaming at me, would escalate to unbearable levels. My helmet, an old metal tin pot with canvas latticework inside was slipping all over my head, the chinstrap cutting into my chin. My FAMAS weapon, slung round my neck and across my chest restricted the breathing and the gun sling cut a weal on the back of your neck. The gun sight would catch on any body part or piece of clothing that went anywhere near it. The Second World War issue rucksack, totally impractical for running with, weighed heavy on my back. Some 25kg of kit was carefully checked and weighed into it by the NCOs before the race. My arms ached with the strain of tugging on the rucksack straps at my chest in an effort to stop it bouncing around as it did on my back. After each of these runs you would have gaping sores in the small of the back from the constant chafing. Some guys would try to insert a small towel down there to try and cushion it but if they were caught at the inspections at the end, there was hell to pay for everyone. They had to get it out and hidden quickly or else. Each of these irritations are nothing on their own but added together become an incredible annoyance when under such strain.


He could hear me behind him now. I could see him tense a little in the shoulders and try to quicken his pace. I begged inwardly that he wouldn't keep it up and I pounded on. Concentrate! Concentrate on every juddering breath. Concentrate on the monumental scrap between your body and mind. "I must stop, I can't stand it". "No, calm down, you can do it, take more oxygen in, just another ten minutes and it'll be over".


I drew painfully level. I saw him, out of the corner of my eye glance frantically at me, wondering who this was that had the audacity to challenge his fearsomeness. He was not used to this. I sensed when he saw me--a guy he'd scarcely noted before and certainly didn't worry over-- a second wind of confidence within him and he upped his pace and drew away from me again. The psychological effect this has can be fairly terminal but I knew he'd think he'd broken me and tried not to panic. I gulped enormous, calming breaths and tried to block the insistent, arresting, nerve commands that were being sent from my brain. Slowly but surely I lurched alongside again and again he dredged something more from within him. Off he went again and I screamed silently inside but concentrated on keeping it together. I focused intently on the particular style of running that has to be developed to run quickly with weights. The feet cannot be lifted high off the ground and a kind of extremely quick shuffle evolves. This allied to the fact that your arms are tied up steadying the rucksack makes it fairly amazing we were able to achieve the six minute mile pace we regularly did. We must have cut fairly ridiculous images in our frenzied, scurrying state.


I inched past him one more time. I knew I had him this time. His breathing was getting more ragged and panicky and every now and then he'd emit a rather inhumanly pleading grunting noise. I risked a glance behind me; his eyes were fixed on me but this time they were not cold and expressionless-- he wanted his mum, his face was masked in white, powdery rivulets of dried sweat, covered in dried snot and saliva and his mouth was gaping open in a corpse-like rictus mask of pain. Yeeehaaah!! I'd done it, now he'd have to respect little old me. I'm not the pushover he thought. I just had to hold it together for the last mile or so and I'd be home and dry.


His rasping breath faded behind me and an almost ecstatic sense of peace lulled over me like a dream. I felt euphorically omnipotent and flew the last mile faster than I'd ever run before. I had wings! At one point rather surreally, a luxurious, very expensive looking speedboat with bikini-clad babes sun worshipping on the sundeck glided past, reminding me of an unattainable life far, far away. But I was where I really, really wanted to be...right now. It was an ethereal moment.


On arrival we dumped our blessed kit and as we were the first back, we were able to rest and drink a little water before the jog back to camp. Piere wouldn't look me in the eye at that moment and from that day on I was included as one of his little group although I was no sycophant. Our seesaw of wills would be repeated again and again over the coming months, both in my head and between us physically with occasionally different results but nothing came close to our first monumental struggle. It taught my fragile soul a lifelong lesson; as I had seen someone I considered impregnable both mentally and physically, crumble in front of me (or should I say behind). Everyone is human as they say and we all have our limits. The trick I found was to relish the thought of doing what everyone else thought was going to be a nightmare. It worked you know.

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