“You’ve been chosen to compete in a month long adventure race. This will be a multi-million dollar Mark Burnett production to be aired prime time on ABC. Here’s a list of things you’ll need to get done before you leave for an unknown location in seven weeks. Make sure you train really hard, because this expedition is going to be incredibly difficult. Also, your involvement in this show is top secret, so you can’t tell anyone anything about it.”
That was basically the speech my fellow police officers Rob Robillard, Dani Henderson, and I received from a TV producer in a conference room in Los Angeles in January 2011. They flew us out and sequestered us in a hotel room for three days. We were let out only for interviews, medical exams, psych exams, drug testing, swim tests, and meals. The show was Expedition Impossible, producer Mark Burnett’s epic adventure race. I’d never heard of it. At that point no one had. It wasn’t until weeks later that we found out we were going to the Kingdom of Morocco. I had to Goggle Morocco to locate it in North West Africa.
I was chosen because I applied to Survivor a year earlier, and I’d figured nothing had ever come of it. Then, in November 2010, I received a call out of the blue from one of Burnett’s casting directors. He said, “You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are.” He explained the basic premise of the show and he said he wanted me to put together a team of Boston area cops. It didn’t take me too long to find two friends whom I thought would be up to the challenge.
After the meeting in Los Angeles, we flew back to Boston with our heads spinning, contemplating how we were going to accomplish all this while maintaining our everyday lives and working our full-time jobs.
The show’s producers told us that in our remaining seven weeks, we had to find a certified mountain climbing instructor who would sign off on forms stating that we were qualified in rappelling and climbing. Also, we needed a certified horseback riding instructor to attest that we could ride and handle a horse. We were also given a list of immunizations we needed from our doctors.
We were told “potential race disciplines” could involve swimming, riding horses “and other animals,” climbing, rappelling, zip-lining, piloting various watercraft, and trekking across a wide variety of terrains. At first we were told mountain biking was involved, but at some point they must have realized that biking across rough terrain with a heavy pack was a recipe for disaster.
It was suggested that we cross-train two hours per day, and that on the weekends we should go for 5-6 hour hikes. They also reminded us to not to get hurt and to get plenty of sleep. However, how we accomplished all this and structured our training for the rigors of cross country travel was left up to us.
Even though I am a strength & conditioning specialist, I believed this required a sport-specific training program beyond my knowledge. We had no time to waste, so I decided to call in the big guns.
I contacted my friend John “Sully” Sullivan, a national level strongman competitor and the former strength & conditioning coordinator for Tapout Gym in Boston. I told Sully that my two teammates and I needed a physical assessment and a training program that would prepare us for the specific stresses of all these unrelated activities and we needed it yesterday.
Obviously, Sully wanted to know what all this madness was about. I told him it was on a need to know basis, and he didn’t need to know. What he did know is that we’re cops, and I’m a member of a regional SWAT team, so he came up with a theory that we were chosen for a top secret mission to hunt down and kill terrorists. I confirmed his suspicions and told him not to tell anyone.
The Program For The Program
Sully did an extensive physical assessment and gave us a training program he designed to prepare us for the mission ahead. He had us stretching and strength training three days each week for about 90 minutes each session, along with various forms of cardio four times per week.
Because we’d be carrying a heavy pack during all of our racing, we knew we would need to increase core strength and endurance. We did countless sets of ab circles on a stability ball and dumbbell side bends. For endurance, we did front and side bridges, dead bugs, and bird dogs.
To prepare us for the paddling and rowing, we did inverted rows from the fixed bar of a Smith machine. We also used a high pulley with the rope attachment to do face pulls with external rotation and two-handed pulls alternating to each hip. In preparation for all the climbing and descending from mountainous terrain, Sully had us do squats, jump squats, walking lunges, and step-ups on a box. For these moves, we would either use a weighted vest or hold a pair of dumbbells.
As cops with experience in foot pursuits, we knew the biggest concern when running across uneven ground is an ankle injury. This danger is compounded exponentially by carrying a heavy pack. In order to deter this type of potentially race-ending injury, we performed a warm-up of hops in every direction, followed by a series of ankle stretches and tilts from all angles. When I wasn’t trying to prepare for the show’s specific demands, I also tried to fit in some of my regular bodybuilding style workouts in an attempt to hold onto some size and strength.
This, of course, was in addition to specific activities we were practicing in preparation of the journey. These included: hiking, swimming, rappelling, and horseback riding.
Hiking and Running
There’s an expression in the military: Train like you fight. We needed to put our boots on the ground and start logging some real miles. The problem was this was the winter of 2011 in Boston, and 10 inches of snow was falling each week.
It was time to adapt and overcome. My teammates and I somehow came up with three pairs of snowshoes, and when two or all three of us were free, we would take long hikes through the woods. If you’ve never done it, snowshoeing in virgin snow is like walking in knee deep water. It was a great cardio workout, but more important, a way for us to bond as a team.
Due to the slippery road conditions, I couldn’t risk going for a run, but I knew I needed more real world cardio. So whenever I could, I put 35 pounds of weights in a backpack and went for power walks of 5-6 miles.
We were told that we would need to pass a swim test that included a non-stop swim of 250 meters. We found a fitness center with a 25 meter indoor pool and practiced there a few times. I remembered the swimming technique I learned in junior high and I swam slowly. In this manner, I could easily complete the 250 meters.
I’ve done some rappelling with my SWAT team, so I know it’s all about conquering the natural fear of heights. But we still needed a certified instructor to sign off, so I contacted the owner of Boston Rock Gym.
I couldn’t tell him why we needed him to sign the forms, and our conversation went south when I told him we would be rappelling off 300 foot cliffs. I’ll never forget his response. “No you’re not!” he said. “No one does that. It’s way too dangerous.”
Just as I felt he was about to hang up on me, I said, “Would it matter if I told you we’re cops and this is job related?” I could hear the stress fade from his voice and he agreed to schedule us in. We had a private three-hour session when the gym was closed and he signed our forms.
There is nothing incredibly physically demanding about normal rappelling, but that changes when you have 300 feet of rope hanging straight down. The problem arises just before you go over the edge. You need to pull the rope up behind your back with your braking hand to obtain some slack. This immense amount of rope has some serious weight to it, and some of the smaller competitors had trouble lifting it.
My team would have no trouble with any of the rappels in Morocco. This meant no drama and therefore, no rappelling airtime during the show.
With five weeks left to go, we still needed to learn horseback riding, in Boston, in the middle of winter. Amazingly, we found a school with a covered corral and secured an instructor.
Riding a horse that’s walking, I’ll say in hindsight, is kid stuff. Trotting is also easy enough once your butt figures out the timing. Now let me tell you about galloping. I’m not afraid of anything, but when my horse went from trotting to galloping, it was a moment of sheer terror I will never forget.
What struck me was that I had nothing to hold onto for balance. Sure, I had the reins, but they were just hanging loose. The only parts of my body touching the horse were the insides of my knees. My head was probably nine feet off the ground, while I was on the back of a 2,000 pound running animal. My life flashed before my eyes; I’ve never felt so close imminent disaster.
I’ve seen girls using the adductor machine at the gym, but I had never remotely considered it for myself. But after my first riding session, I immediately started doing 3-4 sets each time I worked out. I figured this would help me grip onto the horse while I was riding. In hindsight I think it helped.
After three separate 90 minute sessions and we were ready for our first rodeo. Or so we thought.
Check out Part 2 of this article : Was I Prepared For A Reality TV Adventure Race? Part 2
About the Author
Jim Vaglica is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Team Labrada Athlete, Jim competed on the Reality TV shows American Grit, hosted by John Cena, and Mark Burnett’s Expedition Impossible. He is a Police Sergeant with 16 yrs on SWAT and the Owner of JimVaglica.com