IN EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA, JAN. 3 -- It is a very difficult thing to do an attractive push-up, something that a lot of reporters had reason to notice this week, watching their friends grow red-faced and ugly trying to pass the Operation Desert Shield correspondent's physical fitness test.

The idea was this: do a bunch of push-ups and sit-ups (in two minutes, number depending on age and gender) and run 1 1/2 or two miles in a prescribed amount of time (again depending on age and gender).

Succeed and you have won a place on a combat news pool and a chance to observe first-hand what may be the biggest war the United States has fought since Vietnam.

You may wonder why everyone was so eager to pass. Some reporters wondered this as well. Was it peer pressure? The spirit of teamwork? Journalistic competition brought to the athletic field? Sado-masochism? Stupidity?

The women toiled at dawn by the swimming pool of a rather shabby but exorbitantly priced hotel in eastern Saudi Arabia. Single-sex exercise is de rigueur in Saudi Arabia. Men and women aren't even supposed to eat together in public, let alone grunt and sweat.

Sources from the women's exercise class said the drills were conducted by two Navy petty officers (female), both of whom smoked and were extremely interested in having everyone pass the test.

And everyone did. The standards were 27 sit-ups, five push-ups (boys' style, i.e. with feet, not knees, on the ground) and 1 1/2 miles to be run in 17 minutes and 15 seconds. Strong performers helped weak performers, everyone gave everyone else cheers and moral support, and the petty officers paced off the run so everybody could finish it on time. One participant described the test as a nurturing experience, good at developing teamwork and mutual support.

The men gathered at 4 p.m. by the swimming pool of the same hotel. Their leader was Army Col. William Mulvey, known simply as Bill when he's not torturing reporters. Mulvey, who runs the press office here, does attractive push-ups, and can even talk about them while he's doing them: "Lower your body until your arms are parallel to the ground. Rest in the 'up' position but not in the 'down' position."

Of course nobody saw him do more than a couple, since he was just giving floor samples. Then again Mulvey is 44, just like this reporter, and when you're 44, an attractive push-up -- any attractive push-up -- is a work of art.

The men were not supportive, and the test was not a nurturing experience. The men were competitive, and they cheated. If you were young, you had to do 38 push-ups. If you were old, like Mulvey and this reporter, you had to do 27. If you worked for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, you could do 700 extremely attractive push-ups in two minutes, not cheat at all and hardly break a sweat.

But if you were almost anyone else, the lessons of junior high school were soon remembered. Style One: barely move your arms up and down, a strategy designed to yield prodigious numbers of push-ups with almost no effort. Style Two: bow your back and duck your head, giving the appearance of vigorous movement while moving nothing. Style Three: move your shoulders up and down while leaving your body inert.

Male military officers monitored the test (but did not take part themselves, it should be added), which was fortunate since they obviously knew and had used all the cheating strategies themselves and were reluctant to blow the whistle on reporter backsliders. This is called male bonding.

Sit-ups were much the same. The trick, of course, is to not come up all the way, or not go down all the way, or to let your hands slip from in back of your head, etc. It worked fine. Everybody passed.

The men's run offered two attractive options: the Navy 1 1/2 miles, to be completed in a half-hour or before the end of the first dog watch, whichever came later; the Army two miles, to be completed only after completion of the Navy 1 1/2 mile, and only if you felt like it.

This reporter lurched home at dusk in 16:24 for the Army two-mile, thereby earning a coveted spot on the Marines combat pool.

Oh, joy.