I first heard about the Night Ops Challenge from a flurry of posts on Facebook from friends this past summer. I saw all these photos of people dressed up in camo, sporting headlamps and Army-grade garb, like Alice Packs, and ranger panties (code for extremely short army shorts). It looked awesome. When I did some research, I found that the challenge had been developed by Atomic Athlete, a local fitness training company. These guys are a wily group of former Navy SEALs, paratroopers, and all around tough guys. If there was ever an Army-esque fitness challenge to be had, these were the guys to host it.
I decided to compete in the second annual Night Ops Challenge last Friday and recruited four friends to join my five-person team. My endurance level and inexperience in this sort of fitness event had me worried, so much so, that I told friends, family, and co-workers my goal was to simply “not die.” Not only did I not die, I am happy to report that it was one of the most unique and gratifying experiences I’ve had. Here is my report to help you decide if you think you have what it takes to compete in the next NOC.
The race began at 8:15 p.m. in West Austin Park, which was when the Night Ops Challenge Facebook page posted the location of the first checkpoint. All 22 of the five-person teams scurried off into the darkness, each making its own route to that first location. There, we were greeted with two challenges, both mental, which required no real need for physical skill or strength. So we let the women take over and get to work. The challenges involved tying a specialized Navy knot with a provided rope and answering five riddles. Upon proof of completion, we were given the location of Checkpoint 2. This first checkpoint would prove to be our eventual downfall in completing the entire challenge (note: always read instructions carefully!).
Getting here took us through the UTs campus over an approximately three-mile run between the first and second checkpoints. At Checkpoint 2, we found groupings of cinder blocks locked together with chains and padlocks. Our task was to a carry a cinder block to Checkpoint 3 at the State Capital. Yes, the State Capital… ugh. The answers to the five riddles at Checkpoint 1 turned out to all be numbers, and we quickly figured out these were the combination that allowed us to unlock the padlock containing our cinder block. I later heard one team that didn’t have the right answers to the riddles simply just cut the chain with bolt cutters (you can bring whatever tools you need in order to get your pack to the required weight. Men had to carry 20 pounds and women ten pounds).
The girls on our team arrived at the Capital before us, as Otto and I redistributed the weight in our packs so I could carry the cinder block. Running with a cinder block on your back isn’t much fun, and this was probably the toughest part of the night for me. As we met in front of the Capital, we had to take a group photo of our team as proof that we all arrived at the checkpoint. We were then instructed to Checkpoint 4, the BMX Park on 9th Street.
This was the last checkpoint of the night and the lengthiest. We were the second team there and felt pretty damn good about ourselves. We were provided with a small puzzle that had to be assembled order to reveal the last clue written on the back. The ladies rocked the puzzle and, with the clever application of some tape that we had brought along in our packs, we were able to turn the puzzle over to reveal the last clue. Unfortunately, the clue was a jumble of numbers and letters that made absolutely no sense. We struggled to find any answer to it, which caused serious delays. This also made us forget about a task that was given to us at the first checkpoint–tying three specific knots on the same rope provided at Checkpoint 1. With no idea on where to go, the girls and their intellect took action; when someone from another team took off running, our three girls chased after him while Otto and I lumbered along. The finish was at Zocalo Café. We couldn’t believe it; we were the third team to roll in. We had done it! Or so we thought. Upon checking in, the Atomic Athlete judges asked to see our rope with the three correct knots tied. Whoops. We had the speed, strength, endurance, and intelligence to succeed but failing to read instructions and stay focused on what we had to accomplish became our downfall. We just didn’t have the absolute attention to detail. This was the difference between winning and losing—between life and death in a combat scenario.
After 15 minutes of watching YouTube videos on our phones in order to tie the needed knots, we finally got them done. The judges weighed our to ensure we had the required weight and approved our knots. We had successfully completed the NOC 2.0 together. And, damn, was it fun. Atomic Athlete, Zocalo, and other event sponsors threw a fantastic party right there at the finish line, complete with drinks, food, and prizes. Around 100 – 150 finishers and supporters stuck around trading stories and strategies into the late hours of Friday night.
My team included an experienced group of athletes (Ashley Elgie, Julie Pickler, Nancy Zambrano, and Otto Stoudt), yet none of us had any experience in this type of event. We went off into the darkness together and made it to the finish about two hours later—exhausted and dirty, enjoying every minute of it. Mission accomplished. We survived.
Smartphone with the ability to take / send pictures, view Facebook and YouTube, and GPS capabilities
Prescribed weight for your gender (water and food does not count as weight – mission essential clever items count as weight)
Pen / Paper
Sturdy shoes (minimalist shoes not recommended)
Headlamp / Flashlight
1 liter of water
Change of clothes (suggested, since you’ll be a dirty little athlete)
Your team must remain on foot
You must keep your weight with the team (20 lbs male – 10 lbs female)
You must have a headlamp / flashlight on with each team member
This course is roughly 6-7 miles in length. Expected completion time is 1.5 to 2.5 hours. Along the course is a series of checkpoints that have tasks assigned to them. You will not find out the tasks until you arrive at the first checkpoint. Look for the Red X. It will have a URL below it that you will need to put into your phone and will give you your first set of instructions. Attention to detail and following instructions is critical to success in this race. Further instructions will be provided via URLs and text messages throughout the race. Sound kinda vague….well, it is supposed to…..