If you’ve ever heard about the Night Operations Challenge hosted by Atomic Athlete, you probably trembled in fear – and we don’t blame you. Atomic Athlete, a strength gym located on a quiet corner of east Austin, is known to be intimidating, tough, and push your body and mind to the limits. But don’t let the harsh exterior fool you; these guys know how to have a good time.
The Night Operations Challenge (informally dubbed “Night Ops”) was created out of the Atomic Athlete’s training framework. The gym’s mission is to motivate its athletes to train inside with the intention to perform outside. Thus, the outside test was born. Night Ops takes real world components and conditions to test an individual’s ability to think critically under physical stress while working in a team setting.
“At Atomic Athlete our motto is ‘Stronger, faster, harder to kill,’” Coach Tod Moore says proudly. “Our main goal for Night Ops is to make people live strong, move their bodies around and not get injured.”
Moore has run marathons, competed in triathlons, road cycling and mountain biking races, yet Night Ops still proves challenging for him. Although Moore has earned his right to sit back and be entertained by those who compete, that doesn’t mean he won’t provide assistance when the opportunity is presented.
“The key, in line with good communication, is picking the right team,” Moore says. “You want each person to be good at least one or two things, preferably something you may not be good at.”
The fitness industry – with no exception to Austin – is flooded with mud races, CrossFit competitions, triathlons, and other tests of physical ability, most of which deem the winner as the “fittest” that day. Unfortunately each of these events require a high level of sport specific skills, training and sometimes equipment, and this form of fitness does not always translate to real world situations. Atomic Athlete wanted a test that wasn’t branded as an adventure race or course challenge, but rather a dose of reality.
As the sun sets, the designated team leader is given a mission packet with a list of checkpoint addresses and any pertinent information that is required to finish the race. All team members are required to wear a weight vest or a backpack equaling to 20 pounds of weight for men and 10 pounds for women. Additionally, all members must wear a headlamp and complete the entire mission on foot.
Night Ops is typically put on once or twice each year, and every production is different, so veterans of the event don’t have too much of an advantage over newcomers. A riddle or clue will lead teams to various checkpoints, where certain tasks of varying importance will be waiting. Some checkpoints are mandatory to complete Night Ops, while others simply might win your team a small prize at the finish line. Absurd challenges in the past have ranged from unlocking a chained cinderblock and carrying it for the rest of the mission, to untying an oiled-up monkey knot, to jumping into muddy water to retrieve a fishing bobber.
This unique mission demands athleticism because the clues will send you and your team running (not walking, if you’re competitive) all over Central Austin. And don’t expect the locations to be arranged in a convenient order, because nothing about Night Ops is easy.
The most recent addition Night Ops included are the “reapers” – staff from Atomic Athlete who hunt for teams during the competition. If anyone on your team gets tagged by a reaper, everyone must jump down on the spot and do burpees together.
Keep in mind that the strongest competitor won’t guarantee victory, just as being the smartest won’t either. In this game, your team must be able to strategize. It is key to be present in the moment, be able to step back and assess the situation, and have the humility to communicate what is going right or wrong.
The challenge itself doesn’t begin until dusk, and the darker it gets, the more dramatic and despairing Night Ops can seem. It’s easy to spot the teams that joined to win, and the teams who are looking to have a blast. If you’re focusing too hard or too long, you could miss a key step or distract yourself from the quickest route. Atomic Athlete has seen both types of teams place in the competition. According to Moore, the riddles and strategy far exceed any physical exertion.
“People fall apart thinking they can just bust their ass and get through as many things as possible,” Moore says. “I’ve seen really fast guys struggle and not get through a checkpoint. Something very last minute could make them lose.”
The key to success in Night Ops is taking time to check and recheck, be observant and have a game plan. Pick a well-rounded team, choose the right leader, have a positive attitude, and realize this is not an individual event.
When the challenge ends, all participants celebrate a newfound appreciation for camaraderie with a spread of food and booze.
The next Night Ops Challenge will be held in Spring 2016. Check their Facebook page or Atomic Athlete’s site for updates and reminders to sign up. If you think you have what it takes to thrive and survive the challenge, assemble a team and prove it.