West Point’s Infamous Indoor Obstacle Course

Gray Matter – 17 March 2011

Mention of the words “indoor obstacle course” to most West Point cadets or graduates, and you are bound to get an interesting reaction. For some, it recalls a recurring opportunity to set a record in physical education, or at least chalk up a maximum grade. For others, it means several afternoons spent in practice, attempting to cut a few seconds off the time required to negotiate an obstacle by improving one’s form, if only for bragging rights within one’s cadet company. For many, it was part of the natural course of events – neither feared excessively nor considered a great way to spend an afternoon. For some, however, images of “mission impossible” come to mind, due to inherent problems with height or upper body strength. All, however, unite in recalling the dry, dusty feeling in one’s lungs during the three laps on the indoor track that immediately preceded the finish line.

The indoor obstacle course now must be passed in order to graduate, and it is a devilishly intricate and demanding test of agility, flexibility, confidence and endurance involving eleven obstacles. Early versions arranged some of the obstacles in a different order, but the three minutes or so of hell remain about the same for all.

Nowadays, the first obstacle after the command of “Go” requires one to crawl under a low frame with a plastic or other sheet over the top. Hitting the supporting frame is slightly painful; bumping the sheet too much slows you down. Immediately following is obstacle two: a series of tires that forces you to raise your legs high to navigate without tripping. Not terribly difficult, but a single misstep can cause you to fall and lose precious seconds. An overly cautious approach costs almost as much time and runs the risk of being run over by the cadet who started 15-20 seconds behind you.

Obstacle three has changed in spirit, if not substance, over the years. It is a padded pommel horse draped in a mat, and at one time in the past, a dive, tuck and forward roll was required. Since military movement first became a part of the curriculum of the Department of Physical Education, now one’s hands may be placed on the horse and a vault executed with no other part of the body touching the horse. Also, a degree of subjectivity is introduced. A grader determines if you landed “under control” or not.

Assuming that you were under control and did not fall, you proceed to obstacle four, the shelf. It is a plywood platform about six or seven feet off the floor and supported by a pipe framework. One must grab onto the shelf – not the pipe framework – and pull one’s self onto the shelf. Then one faces obstacle five, the horizontal bars. Just navigate to the middle of the gym by walking on a pipe framework with vertical supports just far enough apart to challenge your balance in between supports. Being cautious again costs precious seconds – bounding from one support to the other like a monkey is faster. Then drop back down to main floor level and obstacle six, the suspended tire. Super athletes can jump feet first through the tire and slide their upper torso through on the run. Most cadets grab the two cables suspending the tires and then thrust their legs through, costing them about five seconds. Next is obstacle seven, the balance beam. Walk the entire distance without falling off, then jump down and execute a forward roll. Fall off or do a bad roll? Start over.

Obstacle eight is hated by the vertically challenged or those with less upper body strength. It is the infamous eight-foot wall. Get over it in any way possible without touching the vertical supports on either side. Easier for a tall cadet or those unafraid of rushing the padded wall at full speed, jumping up, and getting most of one’s body over on the fly. Obstacle nine is a horizontal ladder. Putting both hands on the same rung takes too much time. Alternating hands is faster, but only if you don’t fall. You have to start over if you do, and the clock is always ticking.

Take heart; the end is in sight. Of course, the finish line is on the indoor track above, and you are down on the main floor of the gym. Enter obstacle ten, the rope climb. Make it to the red line on the rope, jump onto the platform and climb onto the track. Getting your feet on the platform without reaching the red line with your hands will cost you a 15-second penalty; don’t make it up the rope and it costs you 30 seconds – enough to fail most cadets. Then you still have to climb a rope ladder up to the track and run anyway.

Once on the track, a helpful staff member hands you a medicine ball that you proudly carry around the track for one lap. Then you carefully place the ball into a bin and pick up a baton for another lap and another careful return to a bin. Then your dust-dry lungs must attempt to scavenge enough oxygen for a partial lap at full speed to the finish line. That or discover that giving less than everything you had left – even though you were certain that you had nothing left – puts you across the finish line at one second over the course record or the company record or the passing time for the indoor obstacle course test. There are several large plastic waste receptacles off to the left for those who need them. Better luck on the re-test.

Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire

Please forward guest articles, comments and suggestions for future topics to JPhoenix@wpaog.org. You may also sign up to receive Gray Matter directly at that same email address.

Did you know that a number of previous Gray Matter essays may be found at http://www.westpointaog.org ?

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