An assault course is the armed forces' preferred test of fitness, stamina, courage and intelligence that will push participants to the limits of their capabilities. Assault courses vary in design and obstacles, but most follow a rough pattern. There is a difference between an assault course and an obstacle course, though. Most US courses, as seen in Hollywood films, are in fact obstacle courses. These require a large degree of physical dexterity but do not sap morale or over-tax the participant's physical endurance capabilities. The quickest way to tell the difference is to see if the participants get wet. If they are dry, it is probably an obstacle course. If they look like the creature from the black lagoon, it is probably an assault course.
The key to successfully completing an assault course is teamwork. You must make the team work for you. A number of the obstacles are made considerably easier when others help you across them. So you must use your wits to ensure you get the maximum help available.
Of course, it is not enough just to complete the course - you must finish as high up the standings as possible. As each team member finishes, it is customary to then egg on and encourage your team-mates. In practice, this is an exercise in humiliation. When you are soaked, exhausted, filthy, demoralised and seriously considering just lying down to die, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, worse than some grinning Herbert exhorting you to try harder. Conversely, there is a perverse pleasure to be taken in dishing out the humiliation. Whatever happens, you must not finish last.
The following is a step-by-step guide to completing a typical assault course.
Obstacle One - The Wall
The first obstacle is inevitably an unfeasibly high wall. This is what you and your minions have to stare at for five minutes while you wait on the start line. When the order to go is given, you will be instructed to run at full speed towards the wall, yelling wildly as you go. Tip number one: save your breath. By all means open your mouth wildly and stare in a mad manner while gesticulating. This will help you to fit in. But do not expend valuable breath and energy yelling to impress the watching primates, sorry, instructors.
Tip: try to be the third person to reach the wall. The reason for this is there is a technique to scaling them. The first and second people to get to the wall will crouch and lift the succeeding people up. This involves a fair bit of physical effort, and means your head is going to be stood on, your face is going to be kicked and the skin will be worn from your hands by wet, muddy boots. The third and fourth people will sit on top of the wall and pull everybody else up. If you manage to be one of those sitting on the wall, you get a nice breather and the opportunity to either drop people you do not like or throw them over the other side.
Do not hang around to pull the last two people up: this is quite hard work. The best way to avoid it is to make it look as if the third-from-last person pulled you off the wall by accident. The advantage to this stratagem is you now have three people behind you who will not catch up.
Obstacle Two - Getting Wet
The second obstacle will involve you getting wet. It might be a neck-deep pond or a tunnel full of water; there is no avoiding it. Just go through it as quickly as you can. If it is a pond, use the opportunity to push some of the minions underwater and get ahead of them. Tip: if it is a tunnel, grab the heels of the person in front of you and let him drag you through. Getting soaked through is an important part of the course. It instantly saps your energy and dampens the spirits. For the rest of the course you will be in heavy, dripping wet, chafing clothes.
Obstacle Three - A Balanced Approach
The third obstacle may be designed to test your balance, which will be off in any case because you are wearing sodden clothes. It may involve running along planks or the top of an inclined wall. The only way to approach this is at full speed. However, to avoid hilarious slips, take a second to clean the mud from the soles of your boots. The faster you go, the less steps you will have to take on the obstacle, and the faster you are across. If you are going fast enough, your momentum will take you over, even if you slip. Tip: grab a handful of mud before you get there and slap it onto the first few feet of the plank or wall. This will send any unwary people who are following you flying off.
Obstacle Four - The Cargo Net (Horizontal)
Obstacle four may involve crawling under a cargo net pegged out on the ground. The best way to negotiate this is not by crawling, but bent double so the net slides over your back. Be sure to keep your head down to create a smooth curve and avoid being throttled like a gasping haddock. Tip: if someone else is using the same technique, get as close to them as possible but make sure they take the weight of the net. As you exit the net, if someone is not already doing so, hold it up as high as you can to make it easier for those behind. As they exit, get the next person to continue holding the net up. This ensures they will be slowed down and you have eliminated another rival.
Obstacle Five - The Tunnel Of No Love Lost
The fifth obstacle may well be a tunnel. Usually very dark and cramped, the more sadistic course tunnels will also be filled with water and the bottom lined with sharp stones. Try to arrive at this obstacle with people directly in front of and behind you. As you enter the tunnel, put your hands on the first person’s ankles and lean on them instead of the sharp stones. As they slow down complainingly, the person behind you will push up. With luck, you can rest your knees on their hands and spare yourself injury.
Obstacle Six - The Cargo Net (Vertical)
The next obstacle may involve climbing a cargo net. This is where technique pays off. Instead of looking at the squares of the net like a ladder, focus on one vertical strand of the net and treat it like a rope. As you pull the net taut, the horizontal strands on either side will become tighter and easier to step up on. When you are at the top, do a forward roll and slide down the other side on your back, rather than waste time trying to climb down. Tip: try to slide down, aiming for someone climbing down below you. This will slow your descent to a more manageable speed.
Obstacle Seven - Getting Wet Again
At some point there will be the inevitable rope swing over a pit of water, or monkey bars over a pit of water. Again, the object of this obstacle is to get you wet, so why fight it. Jump straight into the pit and wade across. If you do so with aggression while yelling wildly, the instructors will be too nonplussed and pleased at your attitude to make you go back and do it again. The advantage of this is it saves the strength in your arms for the final obstacle.
Obstacle Eight - Dizzy Heights
The last obstacle is usually a very high rope suspended horizontally above either another blooming water pit or, more creatively, beds of stinging nettles. The best way to get along the rope is to drape yourself over it so it runs under your chin, along your chest and stomach, and along one leg, with your foot hooked over it for support. Let your other leg hang down for balance and pull yourself along hand over hand.
Again, the key to this is speed and momentum. Slowing down leads to wobbles and looking down. If you over-balance, you will end up having to complete the obstacle while hanging upside down like a sloth, or hand over hand, like on monkey bars. Both are very slow and tiring. It is much quicker to just fall straight off into the water or nettles and go around to do it again.
Tips: if you are a man, wear tight swimming trunks in anticipation of this obstacle. It keeps all the more delicate and dangling bits together and less likely to be trapped against the rope. If someone is on the rope in front of you, the best thing to do is to get them off. The easiest way to achieve this is by throwing yourself on the rope and making it bounce wildly. If by the time you get to them they are still clinging on, either your belt buckle dragging over their knuckles or the boot from your trailing leg will soon dislodge them.
On completion of the course, it is important to cheer on and encourage your team-mates. It is a team exercise, after all.