© Channel 4
In January, 40-year-old Vicki Anstey hit our TV screens as one of Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins recruits. We saw the Barreworks founder undertake a version of the SAS’s gruelling selection process: eleven days of physical and mental stress, that included enduring physical beastings, ice hole submersions, facing her fear of water and heights and, finally, the mental and physical pressures of interrogation and stress positions.
The selection process took place in the freezing Chilean Andes, where temperatures regularly dropped below zero. Now back in sunny London, Vicki took time out of her schedule to share her SAS experience with me.
Tell me about your fitness background – you founded Barreworks ten years ago. What kind of fitness do you practice alongside it?
I discovered barre and the ‘Lotte Berk Method’ around 12 years ago, at a time when I was overweight and leading a fairly unbalanced lifestyle in marketing and advertising. I was told it was like doing exercise without it even feeling like a workout. Exactly what I was looking for. How wrong was I?! But, I was also hooked. It transformed my physique and along with a regular running schedule, I lost the weight and looked like a completely different person. I have run five marathons in different countries around the world and barre has been my constant. It’s kept my bio-mechanics strong, kept me injury-free and helped me recover after long runs.
These days, I change things up a lot. Barre is always there – I call it the glue that holds me together – but I do a lot of weight lifting including CrossFit, plus BMF (British Military Fitness) which I have done for 12 years, and I love to spin when I get the chance. I still run, but with my dogs and not for marathons.
Had you watched previous series of SAS: Who Dares Wins before you applied to the show?
I had watched all three previous series, yes. So based on that, I knew what to expect. But they (the DS, Ant Middleton, Jason Fox, Ollie Ollerton and Mark Billingham) are far too clever and skilled to give you what you might be expecting. It really was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And while I could train for the physical element to the best of my ability, nothing could prepare you for the mental tests, the altitude, the cold and the anxiety. It was constant. The cameras didn’t switch off and we all had a cuppa – it really was 24-hour a day brutality.
What kind of selection tests did you have to do for the show?
The physical assessment included a bleep test to a minimum of 10.2, 50 sit-ups in 2 minutes, 44 press-ups in 2 minutes, a weighted jerry can walk and a progressive lift over 1.5m. We also had to undergo a CPET test to check heart and lung function, a V02 max test and various psyche tests. It was pretty full-on!
What kind of physical preparation did you do in the run-up to the show?
I only found out I had passed the physical assessment and would be going to Chile, subject to medical and psych tests, two weeks before. I had to rely on the fact that my fitness and strength would be enough. My training regime is really varied, with weights, pushing, pulling, dragging, running, spinning and barre all thrown into the mix. I’ve done that for years and no amount of sudden, specific training was likely to give me an extra edge at that stage, so I turned my focus to things like swimming and boxing/wrestling where I didn’t have much experience or felt ‘out of my depth’.
My brilliant PT, Mel Deane, took me to the pool and chucked me in a few times. He held me under and made me feel generally uncomfortable in water – as if I didn’t already panic when my head went under! He also wrestled and boxed with me. I asked him to punch me square in the face at one session, in the knowledge that might happen [in Chile] which it did, and so that I didn’t have to experience that for the first time in Chile. It hurt a bit, and he wasn’t happy about doing it, but it prepared me so well.
Did you do anything to mentally prepare yourself for the challenging conditions?
Actually, no. A few people recommended that I try to get into mindfulness, but it’s just not my bag. I think I knew that deep down I had the determination and mental resilience to get through it. I can be incredibly stubborn when I want to be. I’d also had a difficult year with my divorce in the lead up to it and had really toughened up mentally as a result. I knew I could handle anything that was thrown at me.
It looked absolutely freezing! Did you have to get into damp gear every day?
It was! You were cold to the bone most days. It really taught me that even in those conditions, wearing thin clothing, you can keep your body temperature up by moving fast. When I heard that we were going to Chile, I hoped we might be going to the Atacama Desert as I love being in a hot climate, but it turns out, we went high into the Andes for Arctic Warfare training. We had two sets of clothing. A ‘wet’ kit and a ‘dry’ kit. We had no means of washing them, but had to take the opportunity to hang them out to dry whenever we could. They pretty much both ended up being wet for the majority of the time.
Everything looked hard but were there any moments you found particularly challenging?
A lot of the physical ‘beastings’ weren’t shown. I did pretty well and kept my head down with all of them, which is why I was featured fearing water and heights. I guess strong performances don’t make the best TV! But there was one task that I thought I would not get to the end of – [which was] when we had to carry each other up a 60% incline ‘snow hill’. The snow was thigh deep in places, so you could barely take a step without sinking down into it. I just kept telling myself that it didn’t matter who was strongest or fastest, that I just had to keep going.
Mentally, were you in a permanent state of anxiety?
Yes! And in many ways, that was the hardest thing of all. Never knowing what was coming next, or when. Not knowing how much time you had to eat, sleep or pee. We lived on adrenaline for 11 days solid.
In one episode you’re in the dark trying to evade capture, and it looks like you’re hanging by your fingertips above a sheer drop. You look terrified – did you believe you could fall?
Yes, absolutely. That was the single most dangerous thing I have ever done. There were no harnesses, no Directing Staff or Health and Safety team. Just the four of us and a camera man. I’m amazed to this day that no one sustained an injury, or worse. The course really was as close to SAS selection as you can get – we were told – except in some ways harder as we had no military experience, and no training in the specific tasks prior to just getting on and doing them.
You faced your fear of heights and water during the series. Did the experience teach you anything about fear?
It taught me that when it matters, you can ‘switch your brain off’ and just get the job done. Ant Middleton calls it a ‘fear bubble’. You step into it to deal with the immediate situation, then step quickly out of it before it consumes you. I still don’t know how I walked across that ladder or got through the snow holes. But I did learn that you can control your mind. And that your body can keep going far longer than your brain tells you it can.
How did you cope with the sleep deprivation?
Before I went to Chile, I spoke to someone who told me that human beings can function on 90 minutes’ sleep. I found that fascinating. Of course, you wouldn’t function at an optimal level, but for a short period of time and under the effects of a high adrenaline state it was possible to perform. If I hadn’t had that information as a logical thought to use when woken in the middle of the night, I’m not sure I would have got through it. Another example of how you can overrule your mind and get the job done. Another example of how amazing our bodies are.
What did you eat each day and did you notice your energy levels were affected?
We had a very high carb diet. Porridge for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and rice/pasta/potatoes with some protein for dinner. Generally, the food was enough for me, although I still lost 4kg in 11 days. But some of the guys who carried more muscle mass struggled. They completely cut our food during the last 48 hours. We woke on the tenth day and there was no breakfast so we knew we were in for a really tough time after that.
In the weeks after filming did you notice any after-effects following your experience?
Yes, my sleep was really disturbed and I had nightmares. I stayed awake one night on ‘night watch’, which [during the show] we were rota-ed to do each night between 12pm and 6am. I felt very apathetic about almost everything [on my return]. My body was in pieces physically so I couldn’t even train to pick myself up. It took a good month to get back to normal physically and mentally.
Since you’ve been back home has your training changed focus at all?
Well, I don’t have to do water drills anymore, or work on my press-up-per-minute rate! I don’t think it has changed focus really, but I have been determined to maintain the same volume and intensity of training I did beforehand. To be honest, although my training changed a little in the run up to the show, the truth is that I have trained for 15 years to be in a position to take it on. And I intend to keep that going, because you just never know what opportunities there are around the corner!
What are your favourite items of kit for training?
I’m a real athleisure addict. I have tonnes of leggings and bra top combos, more than regular clothes! But that’s how I spend my life. I love brands like Varley and PE Nation. I love my Asics trainers and Inov-8 lifters. I use a foam roller any time I can get my hands on one, especially a Pulseroll vibrating ‘peanut’.
Have you got anything exciting on the horizon for Barre Fitness?
This year marks the 10 year anniversary of Barreworks, which is pretty exciting. So there are lots of things planned to celebrate that, including the launch of some brand new projects as we continue to pioneer and be thought-leaders in the discipline of barre in the UK.
Any future plans for you personally?
For me personally, I’m eager to take on some new challenges. I’ve become fascinated in the gap between what we think we can do and what our bodies are really capable of. The science of that. I’ve been doing lots of interviews, podcasts ad speaker events about SAS and what I’ve learned from it and I want to continue to do that. I’m overwhelmed by the response from people who say it has inspired them.
And I’d like to continue to confront my own fears and take on new challenges – to test what my body is capable of. I’m a pretty mean cyclist as it turns out, so I’d like to do some velodrome training. I’m also good on the rower and have challenged my friend Kiko Matthews, who solo rowed the Atlantic, to a paddle. I’m also obsessed at the moment by slacklining and wonder if that could help me overcome my fear of heights. Doing SAS: Who Dares Wins has given me a completely different outlook. I have become even more curious to see what I’m capable of and I want to inspire others to see that potential in themselves too. Watch this space!
You can follow Vicki on social media via www.instagram.com/vickianstey and www.twitter.com/vickianstey. To find out more about Vicki and Barreworks visit www.vickianstey.co.uk and www.barreworks.co.uk.
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