IT was the moment that Niall Barrett had dreamed about and visualised a thousand times before. The moment when the mask was pulled off his face to be met by the DS (Directing Staff) telling him that he had completed the eight-day long training camp on the RTÉ show, Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week.
“I’m quite big into goal setting and visualisation,” said Barrett, or number 13 as he was known for the duration of the show.
“I’d written it down two months beforehand, I wrote in my diary that my goal was to pass selection. I used to read that every single day for two months and tried to put that feeling into my heart and into my stomach. I’d felt like I had already been in that moment a thousand times beforehand. I’d visualise them pulling the mask off and telling me and I could feel that emotion,” he added.
To call what Barrett and the 27 others that started out at the beginning of the week a training camp would be a major understatement.
It was dubbed as the ‘toughest, most gruelling reality show RTÉ has ever produced’ and that seems a fairer description.
The recruits were pushed to their physical and mental limits over a series of tasks when the programme was filmed last November but as Barrett explains, the hard work started a long time before the cameras starting rolling.
“It was quite a long application process. Step one was to fill in a really, really long detailed application form, about 40 pages long. About 800 applied and from that they invited about 100 of us to the fitness test. The fitness test was on 31 August and then I was offered the place on 18 September, six weeks before filming started.
“I don’t have a backstory, some guys were there were in prison or different things like that, I didn’t have anything like that so I knew that I had to do really, really well in the fitness test to make myself stand out. I trained really hard for that part and thank God I did enough to get picked,” said Barrett.
As a boxing coach, Barrett is used to methodically preparing others so he was quite easily able to adopt the methods he used with other people for himself and this thorough preparation really paid off.
“My preparation was really good. I have a good knowledge of preparation from training other athletes so I just basically applied all that to myself, I have a lot of knowledge on nutrition and recovery that I applied to myself. I looked at the main reasons that people failed last year and on other shows. The three main things were that they couldn’t handle hiking with really heavy weights, the cold, and injuries were number three. I devised a training programme around that.
“I did a lot of mobility and prehab work to minimise any injury risk. I’m naturally leaner than most of the guys who were there so I knew the cold was going to be an issue for me, and it was. I did a 30 minute cold bath every night just to try get used to it. That’s a good really place to have conversations with yourself because the minute you get in you are like ‘get the f**k out’. I did loads of that but the cold still got to me.
“They had us in cold water every single day, there were six or seven water events over the eight days. The last thing was carrying weights. I bought a weighted vest and went running or hiking four or five days a week to build up my tolerance,” he said.
Those training methods came to the fore on the stamina tasks and Barrett really shone on a 21km weighted hike across the Wicklow Mountains and also a trek around the Curragh.
“I came second in the Curragh event with number 23, Padraig O’Hora, and I won the 21km hike over the Wicklow mountains that finished on Tonelagee. They said we set a record pace for that,” he said.
However, no amount of training could prepare Barrett for some of the tasks and he especially struggled with jumps into the water. He almost quit in episode 6 when recruits were asked to jump into the water while their hands and legs were cable tied before being coaxed to do so by the DS.
“It was quite apparent that jumping into water was definitely a fear of mine,” said Barrett.
“One of the things was that it was filmed in Kilbride and the proximity to Naas was quite hard to deal with. Anytime they were driving us anywhere we usually went through Naas, like when they were driving to the Curragh they’d go through Naas.
“On the first night they put us into the bus and drove us off and quickly I realised we were in Naas, I was trying to suss out where we were going and the second we turned on to the Blessington Road I went ‘ah crap’. I knew what was coming.
“Night one jumping off Blessington Bridge was tough but day six, after being worn down and sleep deprived, when we had to jump into the quarry and they cabled tied our hands and legs together, that was tough, tough, tough,” he said, but there was a coaching pointer in the way that DS managed to convince him to overcome his fears.
“The DS are incredibly intelligent. There are definitely times as a coach when you need to raise your voice and get people pumped up but there are also times when you need to take a softer approach and put the arm around people reassure them and give them the belief in themselves,” he said.
Another incredibly tough episode saw the recruits have to deal with the effects of being tear gassed.
“They told us we had to go into the room and were going to expose us to tear gas. I had no experience of tear gas so had no idea of what to expect or what the effects would be. Thankfully I was the first person in because all the guys who were waiting saw us coming out and getting sick and stuff. I had no expectations so just tried to cope with it as best I could. Your lungs, skin, eyes are burning, you can’t speak, you just feel like you are getting sick and can’t get your breath,” he said.
The number of recruits dwindled with each passing episode until there were just three men left along with Barrett for the excruciating finale. That involved being placed in stress positions for hours on end all while being blindfolded with headphones pounding horrific noises piercing into their eardrums, interspersed with being interrogated by increasingly irate DS. The task lasted over 12 hours and was designed to push recruits to the very edge but incredibly Barrett and two others were able to complete the course.
“As I said on the show, I just broke it down into ten second blocks, I did counting games and breathing exercises to get me through. I’d count to ten and think that would be ten less seconds to endure and just kept doing that. I did breathing exercises when I breathed in for four seconds and out for four seconds and tried to focus on that. You’re almost meditating on your breath to take the pain away,” said Barrett, who felt the bond between the recruits was key to going all the way.
“I honestly think that course would be impossible on your own. For me, the bond really grew when there was about seven of us left, we had a lot of tough moments together. I’d be particularly close to the last three that were there, number 23 Padraig, number 12 John and number 7 Daniel, we got quite close.
“You wanted to go through the events for the guys as much as for yourself, you wanted to go home with them rather than on your own. It was definitely a major bonding experience, we still all talk,” he said.
What was hard to get across on a show that shown over an eight week period was just how intense it was for the people involved to go through that on a daily basis within a week-long period.
“You probably get an hour or two of sleep every night. We estimated that we were probably in a calorie deficit of 4-5,000 calories a day. You’re just constantly wet, from night one when we jumped off the Blessington Bridge our boots were constantly wet. The next day when we were running through the water we were wet again then we were in Glendalough Lake and you’re wet again, they put us in the hole and soaked us. You’re just constantly wet. The cold, hunger and tiredness just amplify the pain of everything else,” he said.
Having seen what the recruits were put through the obvious question would be why would anybody want to do that to themselves but as a coach Barrett asks the likes of Irish champion Gary Cully regularly to move outside his comfort zone so he wanted to show that he was willing to do the same.
“As a coach I constantly tell people to get out of their comfort zone and push a little harder. I just wanted to show people that I was willing to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. I train a lot of kids and I suppose I just wanted to show them what you can achieve if you really put your mind to something. If you prepare and dedicate yourself towards it you can really achieve much more than you could ever expect.
“The attitude I tried to carry, the whole way through, was one of gratitude. Not to look at things like we had to them but look at them like we get to do them. When else in my life will I get to abseil down those buildings or jump off those bridges? It’s an amazing and unique experience that I tried to be grateful for every day. I remember particularly when we were in Glendalough and we had to swim across the lake. I was telling the guys that nobody else gets to do this, you’re not allowed to swim in that lake, so it was an incredibly privileged thing to be able to do,” said Barrett.
Sworn to secrecy about the show’s ending, Barrett had to keep his success a secret all the while his friends and colleagues were pestering him to find out how he had got on.
“It was very strange. You know when see an actor on a talk show talking about a movie they recorded, they are talking about something they did a year ago and I really just copped on to that. It’s a very strange thing, when you see Daniel Craig talking about the latest James Bond movie, that was a year ago for him and he’s just had to sit on it. I tried to throw as many curve balls as I could to people to put them off the scent but thank God it is done now. The first episode we all got to watch together with the crew on the Sunday night before it aired on the Monday night but for the rest of the episodes I just watched them on the Monday night,” he said.
As well as coaching boxers like Gary Cully and Katelynn Phelan, Barrett also runs the Unit 3 Health and Fitness Gym and feels that the experience gained on the show can be very beneficial for his job.
“I feel like I am a stronger person after it all. One thing I learned is that everyone feels different out of their comfort zone. I felt really out of my comfort zone and I saw there how the different coaching approaches helped me. We run a gym in Naas and anytime a new person comes in we are very quick to go over to them and get them as comfortable as possible. A lot of time joining a new gym is very daunting so we just try to make people feel as settled and as comfortable as we can,” he said.