The History, The Present and The Future.
Many iconic UK running events have come and gone, some have stuck around a little longer than others and some stand alone in their respective fields and look like they are never going nowhere. They become a part of life, something you rely on and expect to stay forever. There’re some people that embrace them and take part every single year and others who say ‘I’d love to do that one day’.
As the saying goes ‘all good things must come to an end’ but when it was announced that Tough Guy, the original obstacle course race, would be bowing out after an incredible 30 years the people acted in their masses. Pleas for it to continue were heard from all corners on the globe and with the end of an era approaching record numbers signed up for what was being billed as the last ever Tough Guy The Original.
Way back in 1981 another famous race had began, the London marathon. That day a father and son pairing took part dressed as a pantomime horse. The father, propping up the rear end, was one Billy Wilson. Billy, better known to many as Mr Mouse, was quite some athlete for his age and although they ended up having to pack the costume up into a bag part was round the course they returned the following year to knock out an impressive sub 3 hour 30 minutes clocking. Later that year Mr Mouse put on the first ever Wolverhampton marathon and was seen as a key figure in building mass participation running events in the UK.
Half a decade later he wanted more. He wanted to do something different and give people even more of a challenge. Test them in ways they’re never been tested before so in 1987, on Mr Mouse’s farm in Perton, Tough Guy was born.
It started modestly. Similar to today it began with a cross country run and ended with a section of obstacles but all on a much smaller scale. There were 83 participants. Compare that with the 4,000+ of this year’s event and it tells a big part of the story of how this event has grown and become a part of history.
This past Sunday residents from over 40 counties had made the trip the West Midlands to ensure they didn’t miss out and you could tell. The incoming roads were gridlocked, the registration rooms were overflowing and the surrounding barns to store kit and shelter from the cold wet weather were jam packed. There was little room for manoeuvre as people started to assemble in their allocated pens for the advertised 11am start. Word soon got round of an inevitable delay as thousands churned in all wanting their place on the start line on what is the craziest pre race build up you’re ever likely to experience.
Those lucky enough (and those who had earned the right) to be towards the front were treated to the motivational cry’s, drum thumping and war dances from the event’s renowned Ghost squad as smoke bombs and fireworks were ignited causing a thick sea of coloured mist. Those future back made their own chants as the atmosphere reached its peak.
As the masses were released from their sections everyone crushed together before the cannon finally blasted to signify the start. A stampede followed before those towards the front were able to settle into their running and those towards the back were reduced to a walk before the field began to spread out a little.
This year the usual running part of the course had been reversed meaning participants reached the punishing hill slaloms earlier than expected. This was a refreshing change for those that got away quickly but caused more hold ups for those that didn’t. Once these relentless climbs were over it wasn’t long before we were treated to our first feel of the water.
When you consider how cold the previous couple of weeks had been we’d got lucky in that conditions were in the pluses and the wind had stayed away but that wasn’t going to make the water temperature much more bearable and the rain had got heavier too. As I plunged in and out of the first of many, many water ditches this course had to offer the feeling in my feet sent fear throughout my body knowing it would all be submerged later on.
From here the obstacles increased but remained fairly standard for now. Lots of A frame climbs, cargo net crawls and hurdle jumps. Throughout this section there was never more than a few meters when your feet weren’t splashing through ice cold water, then after a slightly more extended run that water got a whole lot deeper.
I’ve done over 50 obstacle course races in my time but in terms of sapping your energy nothing else compares to what comes next. It’s a long water section along a canal broken up by a ruthless succession of fences blocking the way meaning a climb out of the steep, slippery bank and a jump straight back in a good twenty or more times. It takes almost everything you have just at a time when you need it the most because up next is the aptly named Killing fields.
Here, around 10km into the 15km course, is where Tough Guy lives up to its name good and proper. It’s where it’s world famous reputation was built (literally) and where every ounce of your human fibres are tested. Absolutely huge wooded structures, electricity, fire and freezing cold water stand in your way before you can even begin to think about the finish line. Up until this point it’s been about racing but from here on in it becomes about survival. Get through this and you become a real tough guy.
It’s one mammoth challenge after another all testing you in different ways both physically and mentally. Fears are met head on whether that be acrophobia, aquaphobia or claustrophobia, there’s no escaping it.
The worse of it involves balancing along ropes, nets and planks suspended some 30 feet in the air, crawling into an underground chamber filled with dangling live electrical wires before escaping through the tightest of concrete tunnels and wading into a 5 foot deep lake and then dunking your entire head under water five successive times before finding your bearing enough to workout how and where to exit from. Tough Guy doesn’t have the motto of ‘The world’s safest most dangerous one day survival ordeal’ for nothing. It’s been earned!
If and when you do actually make it through this (and hundreds don’t) there’s no fancy finish either. True to the event’s culture it’s over some hale bales and into an old barn where you receive a medal, traditionally made from horse brass but rather disappointingly in my opinion not so this year, and a cup or tea or hot chocolate. It’s then back into the respective barn where you left your bag and where survival mode needs to be in full flow to get out of your wet clothes and into something dry and warm before the later, more worrying signs of hypothermia kick in because the chances are you’ll already be in the early stages of it, that’s inevitable.
Everyone is different but for me, the first time I completed winter Tough Guy I felt the pride of finishing the moment I crossed the finish line itself but the last few years it’s taken a walk back onto the course and a look at the shear carnage still going on around me to really feel that sense of pure accomplishment in what I have just achieved. I think that’s because of a combination of the competitor in me being focused on the job in hand and just getting caught up in doing what I need to do. I believe if you think about it too much you’ll start to question what on earth you are actually doing but once you’ve actually done it then you know.
We do these crazy and difficult things in life to push our limits and test what we are truly capable of. Without things like Tough Guy we wouldn’t know. Mr Mouse has spent the best part of a lifetime providing these challenges and for that I and so many others will be eternally grateful. Long may it continue. Long live Tough Guy!
Review by Chris Lamb.