A review by Gillian Puddle.

HERCULES – half man, half god - a legend, whose greatest task was to complete 12 impossible labours.  Now 12 men have gathered to complete 12 new labours, 12 new acts of incredible athletic endurance, over 12 consecutive days.  One man will rise above the rest to become the new Hercules…

Weakened and disorientated, Andy Wilkinson, record breaking Endurance Cyclist, collapsed.  “It’s crazy, this.  This is crazy,” he whispered.  It was Day 9 of the competition and he had just narrowly beaten his opponent, Mike Dixon, six times Winter Olympic Biathlete, in the first half of the Herculean labour entitled ‘The Wrath of Poseidon’.   Mike Dixon was also suffering and visited the medical tent for treatment to the injuries he had sustained days earlier but which had been aggravated as he turned the giant Archimedes screw which displaced water from his 25 metre trough into that of his opponent.  The 90 minutes of sheer torture, had also taken its toll on the other two competitors - Keith Longney, UK Quadrathlon Champion, and, particularly, Lee Rankin, Extreme Gym Champion, who, at one point, had left the apparatus in despair suffering from severe motion sickness.  Having put in some impressive performances and topped the League of Hercules on Days 5, 6, 7 and 8, Lee Rankin was expected by many to become the winner of the competition.  But, with the scoreboard wiped clean, and everything resting on this labour, had his fortunes changed?   Rain lashed down as the bell sounded the second half, and, with grim determination, the four men began to rotate the apparatus once more….

Little over a week ago, twelve athletes, all champions in their chosen sports, had arrived at the Hercules camp.  Highly competitive, focused and determined, it was clear each believed he could complete the twelve daily labours in the shortest time to win the Shield of Hercules.  Each athlete had been allowed to bring two supporters - a mix of friends, coaches, wives, mothers and a grandfather – to help plan strategies, massage aching bodies, and encourage flagging spirits.  The athletes and their supporters lived alongside each other in a cluster of tents, set in a beautiful wooded valley.  Flags and banners, in the various team colours, denoted which team occupied each tent.  Conditions were basic, the narrow canvas beds looking particularly uncomfortable.  Not that the athletes complained, although some of the supporters seemed unimpressed at first.  There was also a team of experts on site, including a doctor, a physiotherapist and a sports psychologist. 

At one end of the campsite stood a huge naked golden statue of Hercules.  Morning and evening, the athletes gathered at the foot of the statue and gazed solemnly upwards to the ‘messenger from the gods’, Paul Darrow.  Dressed in an immaculate white suit, hair ruffled by the seemingly ever-present breeze, he stood on the plinth directly underneath the statue.  Gravely, he would welcome the ‘brave challengers’, outline the day’s labour and explain the legend upon which it was based.  At the end of the day, often illuminated by the warm glow of the setting sun, he would congratulate and award a medal to the winner of the day, before sympathetically commiserating with the athlete who had been eliminated.  Paul’s robust and unflagging commentary throughout the competition was delivered in a way that perfectly reflected the unrelenting toughness of the labours and the grit and determination of the athletes.      

The first day’s labour, ‘the Hoops of Odysseus’ was based on the story of Odysseus and his men escaping from the cave of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, by clinging to the underside of his flock of sheep so they were carried outside when the sheep were let out to graze.  The athletes were required to dangle for 100 minutes from gymnastic rings suspended on wooden frames, which were situated on a cliff overlooking the sea.  Although there was little action, it was clearly a difficult challenge as the athletes found they could only bear to hang from the rings a few seconds at a time, and suffered ‘blisters upon blisters’, as well as shoulder and arm injuries as the day wore on.  By the end of the day, Darren Eli, World Kickboxing Champion, had been eliminated and Steve Frew, Commonwealth Games 2002 Gymnastic Gold Medalist, was awarded the medal as ‘Hero of the Rings’.

Overnight, huge wheels were set up in the valley for the second day’s labour ‘the Wheel of Ixion’, which was based on the legend of Ixion, who was chained to a fiery wheel forever turning in the underworld as punishment for trying to seduce Zeus’ wife.  The athletes’ task was to walk or run within the wheels for 4,000 revolutions, the equivalent of running an entire marathon uphill.  During the day, rivalry sprang up between the teams of Lee Rankin and John Brown, British Fell Runner, which spurred both men to superhuman effort.  Meanwhile, Bryce Alford, the World Record Treadmill Runner, who had been a favourite for this event, suffered a knee injury and was forced to pull out of the competition.  In pouring rain, the eight remaining athletes completed the task - at a cost.  John Brown, finished first in just over 6 hours and 9 minutes, but admitted, “That was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, without a doubt.”  He suffered from sickness afterwards, but recovered sufficiently to join his supporters in their green tent party to celebrate his success as the ‘Big Daddy Hamster’. 

But the evening’s celebrations were overshadowed by a medical drama.  40 year old Mike Dixon, who had sustained a shoulder injury the previous day and had struggled to complete the ‘Wheel of Ixion’, collapsed.  As he slipped in and out of consciousness, an ambulance was summoned to take him to hospital, where he was diagnosed as suffering from Hyperventilation.  His wife, Dulcie, feared for his life, thinking he was having a heart attack.  She subsequently remarked it was the toughest thing in 16 years she had been through with him. 

And yet, seemingly undeterred, he was back the next morning, ready to compete on the ‘Ladder of Hades’, which involved scaling ramparts to achieve a total height of 7,000 metres.  At the beginning of each day’s competition, Paul outlined which parts of the body would be put under stress by the forthcoming event.   Pain in the lower leg muscles, cramps and strains, arm and shoulder muscles liable to suffer from repetitive strain injuries and an extreme test for heart and lungs were expected on Day 3.  Yet, as this labour progressed, it appeared that, although climbing the ladders was tough, more problematical was the friction caused by repeatedly sliding down the15 metre slide, necessitating some soothing massages later in the day to some very sore backsides.  Other treatment was more extreme - Mike Dixon received further painful acupuncture for his increasing catalogue of injuries.  He yelled as the physiotherapist plunged a needle into his hand.  “You’re so sensitive to these, you really are,” she said, brightly.  “I think that’s why you respond so well to it.”  She must have been right as he made it through the day, but the ‘Ladder of Hades’ saw the elimination of Jamie Quarry, Commonwealth Games 2002 Bronze Medal Decathlete.

On Day 4, ‘the Anchor of the Argonauts’, which involved raising a 50kg anchor 800 times (the equivalent height of Mt. Everest), proved too much for the youngest competitor, Richard Blagrove, British Indoor Rowing Champion, who had sustained a shoulder injury on the ‘Rings of Odysseus’ on the first day, but had bravely battled on.  

On Day 5 the sun beat down as the athletes took part in ‘the Rock of Deucalion’, which involved hurling a 25kg rock down a 15 metre track for an accumulated distance of 9,000 metres (equivalent to the entire span of London Bridge 100 times).  This event was the undoing of Greg McDonald, British Triathlete, who collapsed with heat exhaustion and was invalided out of the competition on the orders of Dr. McAvoy, the ‘Hercules’doctor.  “Gutted, absolutely gutted,” Greg McDonald said, as he sat in the ambulance, his dreams of becoming the ‘new Hercules’ shattered.  “It’s so hard to leave this place.  The longer you spend here, the more rapport you build up with everybody.  You get used to it – it’s great – a fantastic experience.”  

On Day 6, Darron Cordon, Endurance Swimming Champion, was eliminated following ‘the Oar of Hercules’ labour, which entailed rowing an equivalent distance of 70,000 metres.

Before Day 7’s labour, ‘the Chase of Apollo’, the extent to which many of the athletes were suffering was evident.  Steve Frew had found the previous day’s rowing challenge particularly difficult, as had John Brown, and both received treatment from their respective support crews prior to tackling this day’s labour.  Mike Dixon visited Anna, the physiotherapist, once more to have his hand and arm strapped, which prompted Lee Rankin to joke, “Will Anna be able to rebuild the 6 billion dollar man – Mike Dixon?  I think she’s having to put his arm on again today.  See if he can get through another day.  The guy’s a machine – I don’t know how he does it.  Every single day Anna rebuilds him and he goes again.  Awesome.”  ‘The Chase of Apollo’, which required the athletes to wade for a total distance of 20,000 metres through a 25 metre ditch filled with water to a depth of 1 metre, proved the downfall of Steve Frew, who struggled to complete the labour, and was finally forced to withdraw through injury.

Hauling an 80kg chariot around a 50 metre track for a distance of 20,000 metres on Day 8, was too much for John Brown, who was unable to find a successful strategy to cope with the task.  This left just four athletes to go ‘head to head’ in ‘the Wrath of Poseidon’ on Day 9.  The dramas of the first half of the challenge were compounded in the second half and, despite trying to use the ‘spotting’ technique in an effort to combat motion sickness, Lee Rankin saw his chance to win the Shield of Hercules slip through his fingers as he lost the fight against dizziness and nausea.  His surprise elimination now left Andy Wilkinson, Keith Longley and Mike Dixon to battle it out in the final three days.

The ‘Torment of Theseus’ on Day 10 required the athletes to totally immerse themselves in a tank of water for a total of two hours thirty minutes.  Prior to the event, Dr McAvoy called a meeting of the medical staff as he considered this task potentially the most dangerous, and subsequently tried to impose a maximum diving limit of 90 seconds and minimum rest limit of 30 seconds between each dive.  However, the athletes rebelled and were allowed to set their own speed.  Andy Wilkinson not only had to concentrate on the task in hand, but also deal with his fear of enclosed spaces.  He found the mental battle to stay underwater made this the toughest challenge to date, so did well to be placed second to Mike Dixon’s first.  But, with less than three minutes between the final scores that day, the competition was still wide open.

Day 11 brought no respite.  The challenge of ‘the Ascent of Olympus’ entailed building a stairway of 26 levels using 1200 blocks.  During the course of the day, the athletes would shift 12 tonnes of concrete.  Keith Longley relished the task ahead, explaining he enjoyed the challenge itself.  His shoulder and forearm strapped once more, Mike Dixon predicted the day would see some horrendous competition.  Despite the doctor’s warning to take it easy, he started at a relentless rate, which he sustained, finishing first.  Almost from the start, Andy Wilkinson suffered from severe back pain.  Nonetheless, he finished just a few seconds behind Keith Longley, but collapsed as he raised his flag at the summit.   He was treated for Hyperventilation, and ordered to rest that evening.

The final day’s challenge consisted of shortened bouts of three of the challenges – ‘the Ladder of Hades’, ‘the Rock of Deucalion’ and ‘the Wheel of Ixion’.  Paul told the athletes that the challenges would push their mortal frames further than they have been pushed before and wished them luck.  Asked how he would cope with the day’s labours, Mike Dixon said every day had been hard but he had got to push hard up and down the ladder and then the other task and then the other task and would see what happened.  He did just that, winning ‘the Ladder of Hades’ and ‘the Rock of Deucalion’ rounds which gave him a 24 minute lead as he stepped onto ‘the Wheel of Ixion’.  Keith Longley admitted to feeling ‘wrung out’, but nevertheless summoned up enough energy to finish first, with Andy Wilkinson, who had added a shoulder injury to his knee and back problems, finishing a brave second.  Mike Dixon needed to turn his wheel 150 revolutions in 24 minutes to win the Shield of Hercules.  His rivals watched, breaking into cheers as he sprinted for home.  He had taken 73 hours 18 minutes and 19 seconds to complete all 12 labours, an 8-minute lead, which made him Champion of Champions - the ‘new Hercules’.

Andy Wilkinson and Keith Longley paid tribute to Mike Dixon’s exceptional courage and determination as he pushed the limits each day.   Anna, the physiotherapist, said, “He knows how to focus his mind and he is incredible at it.  I have never known anyone who can exert so much power in that way.”  Mike Dixon’s secret?  A simple mantra he recited throughout the competition:

My will is strong
I must succeed
Nothing will make me swerve
Away from the goal
The ultimate prize
That I deserve

“It worked.”