Meet Mark ‘Billy’ Billingham. You might recognise him from the hit Channel 4 show ‘SAS: Who Dares Wins’. And statistically speaking, he should be dead. He’s been shot at, stabbed, held hostage, and fell into a vat of caustic soda. He’s lucky to be alive, and he’s aware of it.
He spent 27 years in the military, just over 17 of those with the SAS and 9 in the Parachute Regiment. His time in the military earned him the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery, as well as an MBE for outstanding service as the SAS ground commander during the 2005 terrorist attacks in London, and for leading several hostage rescues in Iraq.
Alongside being a member of the Directing Staff (DS) team on the show, he’s also a mountaineering/ice-climbing instructor, a navigation/tracking instructor and a philanthropist.
And now he’s released a book, The Hard Way: Adapt, Survive and Win, which has been soaring up the Amazon book charts.
Why? Because it draws on a “no BS” approach to his time in the military. Its rawness is uniquely relatable.
Billy found time in his busy schedule (a new season of SAS is impending) to talk to us about life outside the military, his appreciation for the outdoors, and why being humble is the key to a fulfilled life.
FROM WALSALL TO THE REST OF THE WORLD
His story starts in Walsall. In a home with a lack of routine, Billy was free to run riot around the town.
“My mom and dad couldn’t control me. I’m from a poor background and they were constantly at work, both doing 12-hour night shifts, so I was just running rogue,” he explains.
It was during this time that a chance encounter with a stranger reshaped his life.
Billy recalls: “I was dared to steal his hat because we were just bored kids. But instead of giving me a good hiding, he just took his time and said ‘hang on a minute, there’s something about you.’”
He notes this as the turning point in his life. The stranger saw something in him that everyone else had overlooked, and helped Billy put his teenage angst into something more productive.
With encouragement from this newcomer, Billy started boxing. In turn this would lay the foundation for the resilience and habitual routine required by the military.
“Boxing isn’t a brutal sport. It’s a poor man’s game of chess,” he explains.
“Following the hat incident, I realised that I gravitated towards older people. I was smart enough to understand that the older generation had already been through the circle of life and I could learn a lot from that.”
BE CONFIDENT, BUT STAY HUMBLE
Hindsight is a fine thing. And we can learn a great deal from the generations that came before us.
Perhaps this is where Billy learnt to be modest about his achievements.
“Be humble about what you say, what you do and how you do it. It’s about gaining confidence, keeping that humanity and remaining realistic,” he advises.
With that mindset, he wasn’t afraid to enlist as the self-proclaimed “smallest and skinniest guy in the room”. He kept his head down and just kept going, slowly and steadily.
Aged 16, he failed his first attempt at joining the army due to the aforementioned accident with caustic soda. But this didn’t stop him. If anything, it fuelled him. A year later he went through selection to the Paras, and was crowned ‘champion recruit’.
Since then, Billy has witnessed the worst in mankind and lived among people suffering at the mercy of Mother Nature. This doesn’t change his outlook on life.
“You have to realise there are people a lot worse off than you. I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it. It taught me to be humble and remember how lucky I am,” he explains.
And this is one of the key themes and title of his previous speaking tour, to push “always a little bit further”, to keep putting yourself out there, even if you don’t win.
EMBRACE THE OUTDOORS
We can take the approach of “putting yourself out there” and apply it to the outdoors. Literally.
Time outdoors feeds the soul. It realigns us with nature and helps us reflect on life and remember what’s really important.
And those are the basics that we need to get back to. A simpler approach to living that leaves behind materialism and instead focuses on our mental and physical wellbeing.
Jogging for just 15 minutes a day can reduce anxiety and depression. And high-energy sports like snowboarding and MTB flood us with dopamine which aids cognitive function. Want to read more about how your favourite sports enhance brain function? Check out our infographic here.
“I’m a huge advocate for the outdoors,” Billy says. “I exercise every part of my body outside. If you want to work your arms, find a tree and do pull-ups, it’s all possible. You can train out there, in the fresh air, just go out and do it.”
“The outdoors is there for everybody, it’s free and it provides so many opportunities. Nature gives you everything, and the best thing ever is going up and down a mountain, putting your legs to real use and breathing in the clean air. It’s a realistic movement instead of doing squats over and over and neglecting other muscles in your legs in the process.”
And getting out there doesn’t just help us physically, it incites a mental challenge that brings us back to nature.
He goes on to explain: “Nothing beats a bit of navigation, with some weight on your back as you explore the outdoors. I even love the rain, a bit of rain makes it all the better for me.”
Connecting with the outdoors gives us that wild edge. It boosts an innate animalistic thrill that we all inherently seek.
“Adrenaline helps us keep check of our actions when outdoors, it helps you recalibrate your sense and stability,” says Billy.
SAS: WHO DARES WINS
Of course, we couldn’t go through the whole interview and not ask about the show…
What’s important to remember is that the show is designed to push people to the edge both mentally and physically.
“We don’t want to break anyone. We just want to peel back the layers and find out exactly who they are,” Billy explains. “There’s a lot of people that don’t even know who they are, they have a social media life and a normal life.”
It becomes part of the DS’s job to unwrap the recruits. “We need to find out where the conflict is, find out what they struggle with and then help them improve,” he continues. “We find that most people want those layers peeled back, they’re searching for themselves.”
That’s why the fittest recruits often fail to win.
“You don’t have to be the fittest person, we just want to see you push yourself further and give 100%. You could be at the back of the race, but still giving it your all, and that’s what counts.”
This is where the 80/20 rule comes into play. It’s been said that sport is 80% mental and 20% physical. You don’t need to be a Grade A athlete to succeed, you just need to demonstrate the willingness and grit to push yourself and try.
“You’re completely out of your comfort zone and have to give it your all. It’s a ballsy show, and I admire those who come on it,” Billy concludes.
SAS: Who Dares Wins Australia will be released in October. Billy is currently filming the UK version of the show.