With the fathers' race at his child's sports day looming, John Crace was nervous. A tough regime of army training beckoned ...
"Why are you so much older than all the other daddies?" asked my five-year-old daughter a couple of weeks ago, as I pushed her on the swing in the playground. Gee, thanks, sweetheart. Why not go the whole hog and mention that I'm fatter than them, too?

Unfortunately, she had a point. And the point was, that come the fathers' race at her first school sports day, there would be all these sleek, healthy twenty-something dads and me - pushing 40. It was certain humiliation. Which is how, a few days later, I found myself drawn to The Paras Ultimate Fitness, based on the Parachute Regiment's own training regime, in my local bookshop. I could run a mile in seven minutes, the basic requirement to start the book's programme, so no wimpy Jane Fonda or Mr Motivator work-outs for me, thank you very much. I needed something, well ... hard and, with its back-cover blurb promising to turn me "from average civvy to lean, mean, fitness machine in only 16 weeks", this book looked like it could deliver. The Paras, after all, were the soldiers who had recaptured the Falklands virtually single handed and who were once described as "men apart" by none other than Monty.

The contents were even more promising. The programme would deliver such benefits as cardiorespiratory fitness, reduction in obesity, motor fitness and muscular strength; it would also result in increased self- confidence and greater self-awareness. The author, Claire Gillman, claimed to have personally witnessed how exhausted recruits "grow an inch with glowing pride" when they are awarded their Red Beret at the end of their fitness-test week. Now, I'm tall enough not to be too interested in this extra inch, but the message was clear: anything was possible. Even Olympic stardom, apparently. For there in black and white on page 52 was the confident assertion that: "It doesn't matter what motivates you. It could be the objective of finishing the London marathon ... or being able to run a sub- four-minute mile."

After recovering from the crushing disappointment of having got hold of the book 16 weeks too late to secure my place in the squad for Atlanta, I settled down to my new regime. The first bit was a doddle - in fact it was better than that; it was a pleasure. As a confirmed hypochondriac, I'm always looking for excuses to visit my GP, and I had barely finished the sentence that read: "It is always advisable to see your doctor before starting a strenuous training programme," before booking the appointment. One worryingly short medical later, I was passed fit to start.

Within a few days it was going horribly wrong. My arms and legs ached constantly from the non-stop diet of five-mile runs, pull-ups, sit-ups, press-ups, step-ups and any other ups you care to think of. I was so tired I could barely speak, and just thinking about the 18-mile run carrying 45lbs that lay ahead in week 15 left me feeling profoundly depressed. I was already thinking in terms of having the odd day off. "You must have the right, positive approach," the book said. "You must develop a belief in self and your own abilities." In my case, these sentences happened to be contradictory. I had developed a belief in my self and my abilities: I was convinced I couldn't do it.

But I knew some men who could, and when the Parachute Regiment invited me, on behalf of the Independent, to join them at their training centre for a day of their Test Week (which all new recruits must pass after 17 weeks basic training similar to that in the book) I couldn't resist. Would the professionals be able to motivate me any better, encourage me to achieve more than I'd managed on my own? The early signs weren't promising. "Our blokes do in the first week of training what other regiments achieve after twelve," said Staff Sergeant Mark Geddes, trying to inspire me when we first met at the camp in Catterick, Yorkshire. But it had the opposite effect. If the rest of the British Army can't handle the Para fitness training, what hope was there for me?

It was day three of the assessment, and the recruits, laden with 45lb back-packs, were out on an 18-mile tab (tactical advance to battle) across the Pennines in the teeming rain. I tucked in at the rear with Captain Gary Wright for the ascent of a peak known as Murton Pike. Very soon one of the men fell behind. "If he gets more than three minutes behind, put him in the Jeep," said the captain to Corporal Smith.

I started to feel rather sorry for the poor recruit, but no one else did. Planet Para is an unforgiving world. "It has to be like this," explained Wright. 'We have to know where a man's breaking point is before we send him into battle. Otherwise he could get us all killed.'

My legs were killing me by the time we made it to the top of the hill; my clothes were soaked through and I was feeling thoroughly miserable. As ever at such moments, my thoughts turned to subversion.

"Why don't the men get together and organise a bit of a go-slow? If they were all in it together the instructors might not notice," I ventured.

Wright had clearly never considered the possibility of cheating.

"The brain is also a muscle," I muttered.


"Nothing," I replied, a coward to the last.

The final few miles took place over flatter terrain, and I was idly contemplating a gentle stroll, when Wright whispered to me: "Now we'll find out who really wants it," and ordered everyone to run back to base. As predicted, one of the men began to struggle.

"Come on, Gore. There's no way you're f*****g stopping. If you fall behind now, you'll never catch up and you'll fail the course." The aptly named recruit was in a desperate state. His eyes were rolling and his legs didn't work properly.

"Cramp, Sir," he mumbled.

"Pain is just a sensation," yelled Wright, as he dragged Gore along by the straps of his back-pack.

And so was dying, it occurred to me. By the finish I had managed six and a half miles, two of them at a brisk march up the hill, but without the 45lb backpack and 9lb machine gun carried by the recruits. I felt knackered, dispirited and ached all the way back to London.

Everyone who begins the Para training course has to pass an initial assessment, and once accepted they live an ordered, structured life, supervised by qualified instructors. Even so, 35 per cent usually fail to make it, and the figure can be as high as 70 per cent. So where does that leave the ordinary punter who invests in a copy of The Paras Ultimate Fitness?

Claire Gillman claims that "anyone who's really motivated can do it", but the Paras pride themselves on being a breed apart - "You're born a Para, really" - and they would be gutted to think any "Joe Crow" could do what they can. So would I. They are trained to do an unpleasant job, and I wouldn't want to be like them any more than they would want to be like me.

The Paras Ultimate Fitness is packaged to appeal to male vanity. Its regime is something that men can aspire to but in my opinion few have much chance of completing. Indeed, it is probably best if they don't, for as Lieutenant-General Pike's introduction points out, "If you try to tackle anything like this on your own, unsupervised by experts, you are very likely to injure yourself needlessly and, perhaps, seriously."

"Fancy jumping out of a plane next?" are Claire Gillman's parting words in the book. Very funny. Right now, I can hardly jump out of bed. And I'll be nursing a strategic injury at school sports day.

'The Paras Ultimate Fitness', by Claire Gillman. Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 9.99.