Not much longer than a day in the country and I was on the M6 motorway driving up to Wolverhampton in the car with my buddy, reminiscing about the past years competition and how the weather might play a big part in this years event. You see, whilst on the surface Tough Guy is an event that looks very much like a physical challenge, only past competitors realise that it’s actually more of a mental challenge.
The course will test almost every fear you have and most definitely your patience. Here’s brief YouTube video of some of this years competitors.
When you sign up for Tough Guy, you’re signing up to an obstacle course that will go ahead regardless of the weather. There are clear instructions making sure newbies realise that – “No Cancellations Is Possible”. It’s pencilled in for the last Sunday in January, because that’s meant to be the coldest day of the year in England.
Leading up to the event, every day I looked at my Facebook newsfeed I saw ToughGuyHQ fan page had posted an advent calendar style photo of the course, telling competitors how many more sleeps were left to go. We all knew how many sleeps were left. Seeing this from across the globe made me realise this year was going to be a cold year.
– Photo courtesy of ToughGuyHQ –
The night before the event, the heavens opens and there was some pretty hard rain. On the plus side, it was so heavy it pretty much cleared the snow from the ground. On the downside, it meant the course would be pretty waterlogged and a rather muddy affair. There was still thick ice in the pools of water that littered the course.
We arrived at 08:30, which was 2.5 hours before the start. It sounds a little early, but the reason was to get register (collecting your run number, tag and signing your death warrant), get some food in me and inspect the course we were about to do. The death warrant acts as a disclaimer that you accept the dangers of the event and if you die “it’s my own bloody fault for coming”.
As you walk through the registration office, you get a chance to have your number marked on your face – not only for photo recognition, but for the finish line too. That’s because, at the end, when you’re hypothermic and stuttering in mind and speech, they’ll ask you for your run number. It’s not to be cruel, but rather to make sure they have everyone accounted for at the end. Given your paper run number might have been ripped off by an obstacle, the last thing you wanna do is stand at the finish line freezing, trying to remember your number.
Back at the car, we got a stove going to stock up on some warm porridge and bananas. Good old fashioned british fuel to get us round the course.
At 10:30 we made our way to the start. People watching at this point is an interesting affair. It reminds me of boxers stepping into the ring. You get the confident ones throwing themselves around, the quiet ones getting focused. Who knows who’s going to make up the third of the people who are destined to drop out before completing it. With around 5000 starting each event, it’s strange to consider so many people not finishing the course.
Unfortunately for the newbies, the odds are stacked against them. They’re branded a “Wetneck”, “Dickhead” or “Ghoon” and start in a series of cattle-like pens right at the back of the pack. “Front Squad” are the ones at the front competing for a time and “Tough Guy” squad are the veterans, who’ve completed the course before, so get the “respect” of starting at the front, just behind the “Front Squad”.
When the starting gun is fired, a mass of people start charging down the hill, whilst smoke flares are thrown and horns sounded. The idea is to generate some of the chaos associated with war. It certainly helps. There’s plenty of people slipping and falling even at the start. It’s pretty funny carnage to witness.
The course starts with a stretch of running to get the body warm and the legs tired. After you step through the first water ditch, there’s a good chance that’s the last time you’ll feel your toes. The ice water is cold enough to send your feet numb for the rest of the course. There’s logs to leap over or duck under as you go.
Now it’s time to introduce the group’s philosophy. I ran as part of a group of five, which, according to traditional etiquette, run the race as a group through the hardest route possible.
What does that mean?
It means we always wait for the slowest member at each obstacle.
It means, if you come up against a log that high up, rather than simply duck under it, we’d climb over it.
It means, if you spot a pool of water on the track, rather than dodge it, we run through it.
It means, if there’s thick mud in view, you need to wade through it.
Sounds pretty crazy when you consider how gruelling the course is without the extra effort.
Although completing the course as a group is tougher (because it takes longer and you stay wet and colder for longer), the mentality keeps a strong mind and camaraderie of the group keeps spirits high at all times. If you’re always going for the hardest path presented to you, you’ve got the fearless mindset that ANY obstacle in your way is there to be beaten. You accept anything ahead of you much more.
The stewards would laugh when the group would “request” if we could run through various extra pools of water or climb down and up from a deep ditch when the rest of the pack ran across a bridge. Other competitors would look perplexed when five people would commando roll under a log which everyone else just trotted over.
After a fairly flat 10k of running, you’re leg muscles are well and truly destroyed from slaloming up and down hills for 20 minutes, then subsequently in and out of icey ditches deep enough to need a hand to be pulled out of. The etiquette in the field is that you help push the person in front of you up and turn around to lend a hand too. Whilst this part is physically tough, it’s really your ally – keeping your body temperature up as high as possible for what lay ahead.
After this, you enter the “Killing Fields” which is the collection of obstacles that aren’t so cardiovascular-based. Huge A-frames, high boards and plenty of cargo netting. It’s pretty frustrating trying to grip onto ropes when your hands are so cold that your grip is starting to fail you.
The organisers of the course always tinker with it to introduce new obstacles each year. The first year I competed, the new obstacle was the “Torture Chamber” (see later), but this year, it was the “Tiger Waterway”. It was a truly genius invention for the masochist. A 100m long lake to wade through with water just under waist height. Given the cold weather, there was ice floating everywhere. Each time you took a step, your shins would hit the thick pieces of ice floating in the water. Given the water temperature being so cold anyway, your cold legs were really sensitive to anything it hit. After a 100m stretch both ways, you were left with stinging shins.
– Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images –
Two more obstacles from the course deserve a special mention. Firstly, the “Torture Chamber”. I remember the first time I jogged into the dark shelter and glanced at the sign gently propped outside I thought “I wonder what this one’s about”. As you went deeper and it got darker, I could hear people shrieking. I initially thought it was all part of the camaraderie – keeping spirits high by shouting. Unfortunately, as I started crawling on my belly passed hanging objects from the ceiling, I heard a “crack”, saw a spark and felt a nasty electric shock. Naturally, I gave a shriek amongst the chorus of others and it made sense. Basically, given the strength of the electric shock you just received, you couldn’t help but let out a shriek. With people stacked up in front of you, there were times you didn’t have a chance to avoid the live wires. You just had to grin and bare it. This year, being familiar with the chamber, it was enough to get just the odd shock as I crawled through as quickly as I could.
Unfortunately for one competitor, the shock from the “Torture Chamber” mixed with some bad luck proved very serious. A competitor almost drowned when he stopped breathing â€˜for several minutesâ€™ after collapsing face down in a water tunnel in the chamber. It’s thought he may have suffered a reaction from an electric shock. You can read the article here about how the quick reactions of the nearby security helped save his life. As we speak, the organisers are asking the opinion of other competitors as to whether to keep the obstacle as it is or tone it down.
The second obstacle worth a mention is the “Water Tunnels”. This obstacle is about 3/4 of the way through and consists of a series of logs at water level that you must duck under. Now, up until the “Water Tunnels”, you didn’t HAVE to get your head under water. Only waist or shoulder deep at the most – so a wet body but not a wet mind. This is the point you need to go under water – very muddy water. Unfortunately, you need to do it four times in a row too.
The best way to describe the feeling as your head pops out the water is like you’ve just come back from being knocked out and your body needlessly gasps for breath in panic. Each time, it gets a little more severe.
– Photos by Ian Walton/Getty Images –
Before you reach the “Water Tunnels” though, there’s a long water pool to wade through with a handful of logs. Everyone jumps over the logs, so as not to get their heads wet before the mandatory dunkings. As described before – the team etiquette was to “always take the toughest route”. For the logs leading up to the “Water Tunnels”, that meant ducking under them instead of going over them. Although it seems pretty stupid to do more dunkings, it really did help. With a space in-between these logs, you gave your body a chance to pull itself together before each dunk, then one you got to the 4 mandatory ones together, you were more used to the effects.
After the “Water Tunnel”, we did the best we could to keep in a good mental state. For me, that meant a couple of token press-ups and a signature pose to entertain the crowd.
After this point, your body is cold. Really cold. You body has had any warmth you built up from the rest of the course taken away by the water. This is the point most people start to show the signs of hyperthermia. As I climbed another A frame, the wind picked up and felt like it cut through my wet body like a knife.
How can you tell your hypothermic? Well, your mind starts slowing down, your speech starts stuttering and certainly my case, I start chatting absolute garbage. It’s probably my body’s way of creating motion to generate heat in any way it can. I can only imagine how funny it is for bystanders watching two hypothermic people having a conversation. One person would attempt to speak, making no sense and another nodding furiously in agreement, without even hearing the full statement, like a hyena on drugs.
Before climbing that A frame, at a time when I certainly felt my coldest, it was make or break time for another competitor. That competitor was a woman named Courtney. Courtney was “initiated” into the group about halfway round the course after hearing she was doing Tough Guy on her own after a friend pulled out last minute due to a car breakdown. Another guy in our group said to her “you’re running with us now… as long as you do the toughest route”. She was a “Dickhead” so that meant was her first time and could probably do with some moral support. Personally, I think it’s much tougher first time, because you have no idea what to expect.
By this point, your mind is really playing tricks and waiting for any excuse to feel sorry for itself. As Courtney started climbing the base of the frame, another competitor turned around and said “you look cold Love, you should drop out”. She paused and looked like she was about to take the advice. Now I’m not for putting people in serious danger, but the way this guy said the statement sounded a little derogatory to me – and she still had some life left in her. It certainly felt like the stewards that lined the course were better placed to spot a serious case of hyperthermia than someone who came across as needing to get others to fail to make himself feel better. I wouldn’t be surprised if the drop out rate of women is lower than men – they say women are better at handling the effects of physical pain. Perhaps this guy said it as a reaction to the bottleneck of people, forced to wait patiently in the freezing cold as everyone painstakingly climbed the frame.
As a group, we chipped in with “we’re almost there”, “we’re all cold” and “if we told you there’s only another couple of obstacles, would you drop out now?”. The truth was, anyone who had got this far had done the bulk of the course challenge – the rest was dealing with the EFFECTS of the cold as best as you could. There wasn’t much left and for us, getting another competitor through the course, was as satisfying as finishing it ourselves.
Sure enough, after a couple more smaller pools, crawling under some barbed wire and stepping through a track of tires, we hit the finish line.
3 hours and 35 minutes the clock said.
That’s a long time to be freezing cold. No wonder the hyperthermia had set in.
After a brief pause to get a group photo, we were ushered into the barn where we spluttered our race number, given our priceless medal, a foil wrap and a warm drink thrusted into our hands. As we stood trying to put together a “cheers” of our hot drinks, our hands were all shaking so violently, that we ended up spilling most of our drinks.
The final challenge before you can really rest, is to get back to the car and get changed into dry clothes. Every year, it still amazes me how getting out of your wet clothes and putting on a dry item of clothing (even just a T-shirt) is enough to feel so much better.
An event like this can teach you some important survival lessons –
- Your body can withstand a lot more than you think it can
- Losing your mental focus is more likely to cause you harm before your body is ready to give up
- Keeping moving is a cheap but invaluable way of staying warm
- Understanding the worsening effects of hyperthermia in yourself gives you clues where you stand
- Don’t underestimate the positive effects of keeping your spirits high in dire situations. It really can help.
Lastly, a special thanks to Mr Mouse, for organising Tough Guy. It’s no wonder people travel from across the world to compete in this event. It truly is the safest, most dangerous event around. Hopefully, pain aside, the experience helps explain why I value it so much. Looking forward to next year’s one already…
If you’d like to sign up, entries are open at http://www.toughguy.co.uk