By Cody Carroll
At 0430 on May 15th 22 teams of Recon Marines plunged into the dark ocean off of the California coast. Frigid 6 foot waves pummeled the teams in the surf zone, and they fought a strong longshore current to get past the breakers, but within minutes the teams had disappeared, their green chem lights (glow sticks) masked by the ocean swells as they made their way to the buoy, 500 meters offshore.
The RECON Challenge is an annual event held by the Recon Training Company aboard camp Pendleton. Reconnaissance units throughout the Marine Corps select competitors to participate in the event. “The RECON Challenge will test the competitors mental, physical, technical and tactical reconnaissance skill-sets. The RECON Challenge will put these competitors through a series of difficult obstacles and events covering distances up to 30 miles through the rugged mountainous terrain of MCB Camp Pendleton, California.” The event is only open to graduates of the Basic Reconnaissance Course (BRC) or the now closed Amphibious Reconnaissance School (ARS).
Back on the beach, race supporters and staff light torches, which will serve as the target for the swim teams to shoot for as they fight their way back through the heavy surf. It’s a steep rocky beach, with the sand washed away by a week of rain and continuous beach drift, and the first teams begin to wash ashore with their 60 pounds of combat equipment in tow after about 30 minutes. After a quick check-in and change out of wetsuits, they step off to traverse the 1700-foot ridgeline that parallels I-5. They will have to hit 2 more checkpoints before they reach the obstacle course.
By 0830, the first teams are visible up on the ridgeline. They look tiny coming down the hill known affectionately, as “The Microwave”, with its massive fire break. It’s been raining since before the start and we can tell that the Recon Marines are having a tough go with the mud. Those that have hiked on Pendleton can tell you about how with just a light rain, the clay clumps cling to your boot soles and before long, your are carrying pounds of it on your feet and sliding around like you’re on an ice rink.
All of the teams complete the obstacle course, despite the rain and the mud, and make their way to the Camp Horno pool. A “terrible place that I still have nightmares about” as one competitor describes it, referring to his time at BRC as student, where classes make almost daily runs or hikes down the 3 mile trail to participate in grueling 4 hour pool training sessions. I have to admit, I’ve had dreams about that place too, and I even prayed for some sort of divine intervention, including meteorites to delay those pool sessions when I was a student there. But in the end, I knew that even if a meteorite had smashed through that pool and all the water drained out, the staff would find another one for us to train in or devise something much, much worse for us to endure. After all, pain, misery and agony suffered silently are things that all Recon Marines embrace.
This time the task at the pool for each team was to move a 7-ton truck tire (weighing about 200+ pounds) 50 meters into the deep end of the pool, sink it until it lays flat on the bottom, then inflate it to bring it back to the surface before swimming it back the 50 meters and lifting it onto the pool deck. Sounds easy right? Maybe for most decent swimmers, until you get that giant tire to the deep end, where it became a full on aqua wrestling match for some teams getting the air out of it. And the tire has to lay flat on the bottom at 15 feet before the judges allow you to inflate it. And no, there isn’t a pump to inflate it, it’s done one breath at a time, each Recon Marine diving down and blowing two lungs of air into the tire, until it rises to the surface. There would also be one more pool station before the day was over, this time rescuing a “drowning” instructor and recovering a 150- pound dead weight dummy from the 15 foot deep end.
But before the second pool iteration, there would be several more physical challenges including weapons proficiency testing, where the competitors would fire 1911’s, M4’s, M249’s, M240’s and the M110 SASS at targets placed at unknown distances. “A lot of people think that Recon Marines only train with M4’s and pistols, but we also devote a lot of training time to belt-fed machine guns and sniper rifles” said one spectator, who is also a Recon Marine. The teams were judged on their ability to hit the steel targets, and bonus points were awarded for rounds remaining per station. Accuracy pays in this competition.
The first teams started crossing the finish line at close to the 9 hour mark, which was packed with spectators and a platoon of “ropers” or Recon Marines in training, identified by the sling rope they are required to wear until graduation, or when they quit from the arduous training program, and hang their rope on up on the “Jack”, a ritual similar to the famous bell ringing at BUDs. By this point, they had traversed about 26 miles of Camp Pendleton’s rugged terrain, demonstrated proficiency with a suite of weapons, programed military radios and transmitted messages, recited objects from memory (KIMS games), competed in assigned survival tasks in the pool, were tested on knots and rope skills, completed a double obstacle course, and swam 1000 meters in the dark and cold ocean through some pretty big waves.
So who won? Well, yes this is a competition and there are winners. Marine Reconnaissance is a not community where everyone gets a trophy. But it’s not really about winning in this race. Every team picks a fallen Recon Marine to represent during the race, and that becomes their team name. They carry an air panel marked with the name of fallen in bold letters. The RECON Challenge is about honoring the Recon Marines that have died in the line of service for this great nation doing the dangerous things that Recon Marines do. Not about individual glory for athletes or units. At one point, I saw a competitor pull a blood stained patch of Marpat material from his pocket, no doubt that it came from the uniform of the fallen teammate that he represented during the race. It was a powerful statement. It is a race unlike any other that I have ever witnessed.
Magpul Industries sponsored the 2015 Recon Challenge and will continue to do so in the future. Magpul was founded by a Reconnaissance Marine, and employs many veteran Marines and other service members as well. And we continue to stay in touch with our roots in the Reconnaissance community. For more information on how to get involved and sponsor the Recon Challenge go to:
We hope to see more industry support for the RECON challenge next year, and we’ll see you on the beach!