So about two weeks ago I had my first test in the army, my ‘Yom Sayarot.’ Yom Sayarot is, depending on the time of year, a one or two day long test of your physical and mental endurance. Those who take part in the day and succeed in passing the test are in turn invited to one of three other, longer tests: Gibush Matkal, Gibush Shayetet, and Gibush Hovlim. But more on that at the end. This is a very long post that gets into the details of the day. If you are a skimmer, you can take my word that it’s hard and skip ahead to the last paragraph before the ‘Tips’ section. If anybody is going through the same experience and wants some tips, they are at the end.
As noted previously, I wanted to make it into the Combat Search and Rescue Unit called 669. In order to make it into that group, one has pass the Yom Sayarot and be offered Gibush Matkal, and then pass that latter test as well. When the day finally came around, I was very excited. I was ready in every way possible. I had even made sure to go heavy on carbohydrates for a few days before and to drink a lot of water. The day of the test came and began with lots of pump-up music, nervous checks to make sure I had everything with me, and talking to everybody else I knew who was going.
Yom Sayarot is held at the Wingate Complex, a giant (dozens of acres) sports complex outside Tel Aviv. The complex is also home to an army base (the occasional sounds of practice gun-fire did nothing but rile everybody present up even more). When I got to the complex I immediately started getting a little intimidated. The three hundred or so other participants definitely didn’t look like pushovers and I knew the statistics – less than half the participants even make it to the end of the test, let alone pass it. I began to mingle with some of the crowd, taking reassurance in that everyone else was just as nervous. After lots of waiting (what would turn out to be a hallmark of the test), we were called to sign in, get our numbers, and draw them on our shirts.
The first day of the test was very light. Shortly after we were ready and had gotten approved by one of the doctors at the camp, we were sent out in groups of 90 to run a 2k. The point of the 2k is to run it as fast as you can, and then the instructors use your results to create the group you will be in the following day. Before I got to Israel, I tested myself on my 2k running time. After four years in college, drinking, procrastinating, and otherwise being a typical college student – it wasn’t very good… at all. In fact, before I came to Israel and started working out, I couldn’t even really run a full 2k without stopping. I had been working very hard on my endurance since getting there and, with only a month of getting in shape under my belt, I couldn’t have been happier with the results. The run was on sand so it was slower than usual, but I finished after about 8 minutes (that’s 1.25 miles at a pace of slightly faster than a 6:30 mile) in 36th place out of 90. Was it perfect? By no means – but it definitely got me feeling good.
Right after the run, it was time to eat dinner (if you can call it that). Dinner consisted of pasta with no sauce, cucumbers, stale bread, and enormous vats of goopy liquid white cheese to put on the bread… gross. But as I’m told, that’s something to get used to in the army. After dinner we were dismissed and told we must be asleep at 8:00pm. This was a bit of a challenge for everybody because, honestly – who goes to sleep at 8:00pm? I got in to my army-sanctioned sleeping bag and was lucky enough to somehow fall asleep for a few minutes. Unfortunately, I spent most of the night, like everybody else, restlessly tossing around and getting not very much sleep.
The next morning we were woken up at 4:00am and given half an hour to get ready. Breakfast was more stale bread with chocolate spread on it. By my best estimates the sandwiches were prepared approximately six to seven years ago. At 4:30 we were split into our groups; I was in a group with about twenty other guys. We were told that this would be our last chance to quit the day for a medical reason and still be able to come back again. I was nervous here because I actually had come down with a bit of a cold literally the night before and wasn’t feeling 100%. I decided though, to stick it through and keep my mouth shut. We were told to pick up all of the equipment laid out for us (two giant water packs, a few chairs, shovels, a stretcher, and empty sandbags) and follow our instructors.
We walked a short while until we got to an area of giant sand-dunes. We climbed to the top of one of the dunes and set down all the equipment. Climbing the sand-dune, one immediately realizes the difficulty in working out on it. The dunes are steep and long, and the sand is extremely soft and loose. Every step you take moves you only a fraction of what it normally would. Without further ado, the day got going. We were told to sprint down the dune, around a chair, and back up to the top where we were to line up in the order in which we got there. ‘Understood? Ok… GO.’ We sprinted down, everybody pushing themselves faster than they ever had, elbowing and jockeying for the best position. Turning around the chair I was pushed and fell over. I got back up and sprinted up to the top after everyone, finishing in almost last place. I was off to a bad start, but wasn’t going to let that put me down. I got to the top and before I had time to even think, ‘GO!’ We sprinted back down – this time I was more prepared. I made sure I was on the inside of the turn, got in good position, and sprinted back up top, coming in second. ‘GO!’ and then ‘GO!’ and then ‘GO!’ again. By the fifth or sixth sprint, everybody was dead- out of breath, panting, and hot. The commander was relentless though and sent us off again and again. By the ninth and tenth time, sprint became a very relative term. Everybody was trying hard to out-position those around them, but by this point was running a heavily labored jog at best. After about twenty minutes of this, feeling dizzy and fatigued, I got up to the top, struggled over to some bushes, and began to vomit. By this point, dozens of participants had already quit and the only thing on my mind was that I was throwing up and didn’t want to run another sprint. The commander asked me if I was ok and if I needed to leave. I sucked it up, had a sip of water, and said, ‘No, I’m continuing.’ This point was absolutely the lowest of my day. Waking up early, eating, and then sprinting my body had just gone into shock. I was feeling horrible but luckily was able to pull it together and keep pushing through.
After a few more sprints, we were given a short break to drink and fill sandbags with at least 20 kilos (44 pounds) of sand. Our next task was to put the sandbags on our backs and walk around the same path that we had just been sprinting. The point was to walk as fast as you could and do as many loops as possible in the time allotted (we weren’t told how much time that was). This exercise was less aggressive in its competitiveness – no more pushing and jockeying. The sandbags were heavy but endurable. I kept my eyes on the target and walked around the path once, twice, five times, ten times… twenty… After what was probably half an hour or so and twenty-five laps later, we were given another break and then our next task. Our task was to dig a hole with a small shovel / pickaxe that was one meter long by one meter wide and as deep as possible. I picked up my shovel, made my way to a nice looking spot of sand, and got to it. I watched others around me digging determinately, but with a pensive look and steady pace. I decided to take another route, switch the shovel to its pickaxe setting… and go absolutely insane. I hacked away at the ground as hard and as fast as I could. Sand, dirt, and rocks were flying all around me, at me. More often than not I had to close my eyes and just swing blind to avoid getting hit in the eyes. Eventually I got deep enough so there was no sand, just solid rock. I kept going like a madman, hammering away, breaking rock, and throwing the little boulders I dug up out of my beloved hole. I went as fast as I could and as hard as I could till they said stop. The instructors came by and looked at everybody’s holes. I looked around me to see most holes, two or so feet in length and maybe waist deep. I looked back at my own with a deep sense of satisfaction – my hole was above my shoulders, and wide as well. The instructors came by to ask about my hole. They maintained a serious look throughout the whole day, but I was pretty sure I noticed them holding back some laughter when they got to where I was. They asked me if I felt I had succeeded in my task and I said yes. They asked me how I measured the dimensions of the hole and, trying to make some light of the situation, I told them it was about 1/100th the length of a football field in each direction. They weren’t so amused.
After a short break we were on to our final, and hardest, test of the day. This test was just the same as the first one, only after completing a sprint, the first four to finish had to pick up a stretcher with about 180 pounds of weight on it, the fifth and sixth positions had to pick up the water tanks, and then everybody had to sprint another lap up and down the dune with whatever equipment they had to carry. Running up the dune with the stretcher is painful and very difficult. Running up the dune with the water tanks is even harder. The tanks are half full and the water is constantly sloshing from side to side inside of the tank, changing the balance every second. I ended up being on the stretcher five or six times, with a water tank probably ten to twelve times, and made it seventh place or more maybe two or three times. You would think that being with a stretcher or water tank would be a break because you can go slower, but it was extremely difficult.
After that last exercise was over, the physical portion of the day was done. It was only about 8:30am – a mere four hours after we had started. The day felt like it had passed quickly, but every exercise was extremely difficult, and it took all my willpower just to keep going. After a bunch of nonsense (cleaning up the tents, more food, cleaning the area, rating our peers, etc.), and several hours of waiting around, we were all sat down in a group. I looked around astounded to see maybe 130-150 guys left out of the original group of nearly 300. The head commander came over and gave us a pep-talk about how no matter where we end up in the army we can do great things and that the outcomes of this day weren’t the end of the world. He then proceeded to call off the numbers of everybody who made it into different groups. Before I go on into what exactly happened, there are four groups you can get put into:
- Gibush Matkal – If you get Gibush Matkal, you go on to a week-long test. If you pass that test you get put into either Matkal – Israel’s top-secret special operations unit (like Delta Force in the US) and probably the most desired unit in the army, Shaldag – another top-secret commando group belonging to the air force, or 669 – the elite combat search and rescue unit that I want.
- Gibush Shayetet – If you get Gibush Shayetet, you go on to a four day long test. If you pass that test, you get placed in Shayetet 13, the Israeli equivalent of the Navy SEALS, a very highly desired group.
- Gibush Hovlim – If you get Gibush Hovlim you go on to a four day long test. If you pass that test, you go onto a course to become the captain of a ship. Though a great task, it is not very desired and is sometimes considered the consolation prize of the Yom Sayarot. It’s like first place gets a million dollars, second place gets half a million, and third place gets three free entrees at T. G. I. Friday’s.
- The final group is the people from the day who were not deemed fit for any further testing and will continue with the normal army selection process.
So what happened to me? The commander first called out the numbers for Gibush Matkal – I didn’t hear my number. He then called out the numbers for Gibush Shayetet – again, I didn’t hear my number. He then called out the numbers for Gibush Hovlim – still no number. At this point of time, I was bummed. I had worked really hard and, though I understood how I didn’t get Gibush Matkal, I was sad I didn’t get Gibush Shayetet, and then not even Hovlim??? The commander proceeded to call the numbers of everyone that was left and, again, he didn’t call my number. I went up to ask him what had happened. He looked through his list again and it turned out he skipped over my number! I had gotten into Gibush Shayetet. Though it wasn’t my first choice, I was ecstatic. Coming off of the low of thinking I failed to getting to go to a test for an extremely highly regarded group felt great and I was beaming for the rest of the day. I took the next several days off to recover from my soreness and in a couple of weeks, it’s off to the next big test!
For anybody reading this blog who is considering going through a Yom Sayarot, I know I wanted as many tips and pointers as I could get, so here are some that I could think of.
- Everybody here will tell you Yom Sayarot is “Hakol Barosh” (it’s all in your head), meaning that it’s a hard physical day but in the end those with mental endurance will thrive. I would like to clear this up and say that that is actually complete bullshit. I am sure in other tests the army throws at you, that’s the way it is. Yom Sayarot, however, is maybe 20% mental endurance and 80% fitness. There were many people who didn’t have the mental endurance and quit throughout the day. The bottom line, however, is that those who made it anywhere were the ones who came in, on average, first to maybe sixth place. And to do that, you need to be in great shape.
- When you’re training before hand, run on sand, and run on hills. If you can mix the two, great. Your training should be primarily running. Work on sprints: sprint 100 yards, wait 10 seconds, and repeat for half an hour in a row.
- Start going to sleep early several days before the test – I mean not later than 10pm.
- During the day itself, drink a ton of water. Drink more water than they tell you to.
- Push yourself, 100%, the entire time. During it you feel like it will never end, but at the end of the day it’s only a few hours long. Don’t let yourself feel like you ever weren’t giving it your all.
- Don’t get intimidated by those around you. Everybody looks like they’re in good shape and most people are, but that ends up having no correlation to who succeeds and who doesn’t.
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