Over the last year or so, I’ve undertaken some quite odd activities: ribbon twirling to the theme from Black Beauty, hanging upside down in a giant silk hammock and throwing myself face-first at a crash mat to name (sort of) a few. However, crouching in the undergrowth of Highgate Wood with some ex-marines one lunchtime earlier this summer has got to be up there with one of the strangest.
I’d not heard about HQ Recon until I was invited to a taster session a couple of months ago. All I’d really understood from the email was that it was a fitness event, think Tough Mudder and the like, taking place later in the year which essentially involved mucking about pretending to be a marine, which naturally I was well up for.
One lost Oyster Card and a bit of confusion as to which side of the road is Highgate and which is Queen’s Wood later, I’m already a little flustered when I arrive, and I’m promptly introduced to the concept of the event, the tagline for which is apparently “Everyone has a breaking point”. Reassuring.
The premise of HQ Recon, which would ordinarily take place in the grounds of a country estate rather than a cordoned off patch of woodland, is that you’re a Marine working through a number of zones. In each zone your objective is to locate your enemy’s camp where you’ll find a tablet holding an encrypted code, which you must then download and memorise until you get back to your own base camp. The aim is to return as many codes as possible. If this already sounds vaguely complicated, you also have to contend with patrolling guards who want to stop you from nicking their codes. If they “capture” you, you’ll spend 15 minutes in HQ Recon’s very own Guantanamo Bay of sorts, where an ACTUAL MARINE will make you carry out drills in the hope that you crumble under the pressure and hand over your codes.
I’m a bit worried about this. Getting captured seems like a forgone conclusion and whilst I’m in much better nick these days, we’d have to be in pretty dire straits before anyone conscripted me into the armed forces. The other participants are younger lads, who look like they’d probably have a better shot at armed combat (not that we’re armed, I should probably point out).
My second issue is my reluctance to suspend disbelief, to which my long-suffering Eastenders-viewing flatmates can attest (“But why is he getting his girlfriend beaten up by bouncers?”, “But why doesn’t he just go to the police and say he’s being blackmailed?”, “But why would anyone boff Max Branning?”). I didn’t watch Lord of the Rings for TWO YEARS after its release because I thought I’d find it “silly” (I was wrong, it was awesome), how am I going to take this seriously? But then how seriously should you take such an exercise? It is, after all, pretty much the civilised equivalent of my brothers and their mates, in their teenage years, dressing up as elves as an excuse to go down to the woods and beat each other with sticks.
After a quick tour of the area we’ll be, for want of a better expression, LARPing (that’s Live Action Role Play for those of you who didn’t have brothers that used to dress up as elves and beat each other with sticks) in we’re released by ourselves. For a fleeting moment, I’m genuinely concerned that I’ll be lost in the wood with only berries and leaves for sustenance, so I take the executive decision to initially follow the sportier-looking chap. He is, after all, running in the direction I would have chosen to run in anyway. We’re looking out for guards on patrol who we can hear approaching from the sound of bleeping radios etc, which is useful. Having successfully navigated our way to enemy camp, the sporty lad makes it into the tent with the tablet in it before me (largely because I’m following him) and I’m crouching in an adjacent tent, aware that there is a guard nearby who will pop out of his tent every now and then in an attempt to capture us.
Having obtained his code, Sporty Lad has run off into the distance and I’m on my own. I can hear the guard outside and the old adrenaline is pumping. Something a bit strange is happening and it’s all gone a bit Laser Quest 2000, when I basically went postal during a game of Quasar within the Colchester Rollerworld complex (enough to elicit an “episode” in even the strongest of people) and with ruthless efficiency took down all the boys with whom I was Quasaring to INEXPLICABLY become Top Gun. 14 years later I remain baffled, proud and to be honest a bit worried by how seriously I took that game.
Having obtained the code I’m legging it into the woods, with scant regard for the spider webs or even trees in my path, BUT WAIT: I CAN SEE A GUARD! Oblivious to the ridiculousness of the fact that I’m basically LARPing in Highgate Wood like an actual child, I’m lying on my back in some shrubbery, heart pounding, waiting for my imminent capture – I feel sure he’s clocked me. The reality of being captured is that I would just wander back down to the “base camp” and eat some biscuits, but I CANNOT LET THIS HAPPEN. Though after what feels like an eternity, unbelievably the guard turns and walks away. After leaving a sufficient amount of time to ensure he’s out of sight, I disentangle myself from the bush I’ve been hiding in and sprint back to camp. I’m not even the last one back.
But the terror hasn’t even started yet. To give us the full experience, we’re now going to go be put through our paces in the “capture” part of the event. This is basically 15 minutes of torture via the medium of strength and cardio exercises whilst a Marine shouts at you. The tactic, apparently, is to hold out in the strength exercises for as long as possible to use up your 15 minutes without having to get too heavily involved in the cardio.
We start with a plank, and whilst the boys are dropping like flies, I’m really not up for the burpees that I see before me and manage to hold out for over two and a half minutes. It’s good to know I’ve got it in me, lest I ever find myself in a situation where I’m extraordinarily rendered (to be clear, there’s absolutely no reason why this should occur, but we’ve all seen that film with Jake Gyllenhaal – mistaken identities can happen). But the plank is the least of my worries, as I find myself in turn squatting, holding medicine balls aloft and dragging myself around the enclosure JUST BY MY ARMS. I’m not going to lie to you, this element of the experience is tough, but like all manner of boot-camps and circuit classes, in many ways it’s as tough as you make it – you can probably get away with slacking off a bit or you can really push yourself if you want to be challenged. As for my own experience, suffice it to say, by the end of it we’re pretty much one David Gray song shy of a waterboarding.
I can’t say this is something I would ever have envisaged myself having a go at, but it was really a lot of fun. Primarily because it made me feel, in equal measure, like a mega-geek and a double hard bastard and because of the nature of the event, it’s exercise that doesn’t even feel like exercise, which can never be a bad thing. But also, it’s fun because you feel like you’ve achieved something at the end, even if that achievement isn’t really preventing some kind of global catastrophe by your cunning interception of intelligence.
HQ Recon is holding three events over September and October, more details and tickets are available on their website.