From the Archives: obstacle course

Jenny Seeman

A recent Crossroads post from the archives remarked on how October is a time of transitions. For cadets at Royal Roads Military College (RRMC), there was no transition more significant than the end of recruit term and the official beginning of junior year at RRMC.

Recruit term was a challenging start to life at military college. For a period of around four to six weeks, the new arrivals were given a harsh introduction to the rules and regulations that would govern their lives for the next two to four years, and perhaps their entire career. During this period, recruits barely saw any of the military staff: they were entirely managed by the senior cadets. Since the senior cadets had only just advanced from their role as juniors, they relished the chance to exert their new found authority. The new arrivals were subject to routine and random inspections of uniforms, rooms, comportment, dining etiquette and anything else the recruits might think they knew how to do quite well already in civilian life.

The rules the recruits had to learn were explicitly defined in a manual called CADWINS (Cadet Wing Instructions), and it covered everything from daily routines and duties; how and when to wear correct uniforms; how to fold and store clothing; and when it was permissible to grow a mustache. (Women could enroll in the college from 1984 onwards and the CADWINS was adjusted accordingly.) Penalties for infraction of any of these rules were awarded by the senior cadets, and usually meant running circles. A circle was the route from the parade ground in front of Grant Building, down past Nixon, around in front of the Castle under the porte-cochere to the road, and back up to Grant. It was about 1/3 of a mile and most recruits couldn’t avoid earning several miles worth of circles on top of the demanding physical training routines.

During recruit term, the new arrivals were warned to be physically ready for the gruelling obstacle race that would mark their readiness to join the cadet ranks. Cadets were divided into flights for their time at RRMC and the reputation of those flights in sports, academics and all the other aspects of life at military college was important part of team building. Winning the recruit obstacle race for their flight would be a huge badge of honour.

1965: Seniors preparing the course

In the final weeks leading up to the obstacle race, seniors would mysteriously disappear into the woods with slop buckets, shovels, and ropes and come back hours later, muddy and smirking. The route for the obstacle course changed slightly each year, and the obstacles were designed by the senior cadets, but were always checked and monitored for safety by military staff before the event. Despite the challenge of the course itself, senior cadets loved to add to the difficulty. Often, recruits had to wear their uniform backwards, and on some occasions, everyone was instructed to throw their footwear onto a pile and the race began with a scrum of recruits trying to find and put on a suitable pair of shoes!

1963: The scramble net at the start of the race. Recruits are wearing their uniforms backwards.

A typical route began with a scramble net at the entrance to the forest on the east side of the lower playing field. From there, recruits encountered a number of obstacles as they waded their way up the stream along what we know of today as Charlie’s Trail. There were logs to scramble over and under, and 10 foot walls to scale, with unavoidable mud patches waiting for recruits on the other side. There were greased poles, rope swings, and – possibly the most challenging part – the crawl through the culvert under Belmont Road. The tunnel is about 30 feet long with a bend in the middle so that the light at the other end is not visible. The already tired recruits had to go through on all fours, often holding the ankles of the person in front to help guide them through the darkness and rushing water.

In 1963, the race was held on October 18. Teamwork was necessary to succeed.

Further up the stream, recruits left the water to climb an embankment, only to be met with senior cadets wielding fire hoses trying to thwart their ascent. Once past this obstacle, and emerging near the Gatehouse, they headed to the upper playing field (where the parking lot is today) and encountered another series of commando-style obstacles such as box horses, greased ramps and car tire jumps.

1973: Commando nets on the upper playing field

From there, a trail through the woods brought them out near the Library where they jogged through the gardens. No obstacles were allowed in here to protect the garden features. Once down at the lower pond, they faced a crude rope bridge slung about eight feet over the water. Either through seniors’ intervention or because of impossible slackness on the rope bridge, recruits were doomed to fall in the centre of the pond and then had to navigate more log obstacles before dragging themselves out on the east bank of the pond for a final sprint to the finish line near where they had begun on the lower playing field. After roughly 5 km of running, punctuated by icy cold water, challenging obstacles and yelling seniors, the exhausted recruits could proudly call themselves Juniors.

1984: An exhausting, muddy run to the finish line with seniors (and spectators) shouting encouragement.

Even with bragging rights going to the winning flight, everyone who completed the race had just cause to celebrate, and that is exactly what traditionally happened on the evening of race day. The newly appointed junior cadets joined the seniors for the first mess dinner of the year. After the rigor of recruit term, the mess dinner was a heady mix of formal and wildly informal partying. Contact the archives for more details!

For more visual details of the recruit obstacle course, consult the digitised RRMC photo albums. In addition, pick up a copy of The Roadants by Douglas Cope. Written by an ex-cadet, the book is a wonderfully detailed, somewhat fictionalised story of life at the military college in the 1960s. A full chapter in the book describes the obstacle race and helped inform this article.