It always draws you back!
30 years have passed since Billy Wilson A.K.A Mr Mouse created Tough Guy- the first ever obstacle course race (OCR) of it’s kind. Every one of those years participants have willingly put themselves through hell, via electrocution, fire, barbed wire, freezing cold water submerges, extreme hill slaloms and the aptly named Torture chamber but still they continue to flood to his farm in the West Midlands village of Perton at the coldest point of the unpredictable English winter.
It doesn’t matter how much pain you go through, how cold you get, how crazy the pre race propaganda is, the last Sunday in January is Tough Guy day and once you get your first taste of the emphatic atmosphere there’s no escaping it. That’s my excuse anyway and I’m sticking to it!
Yes, I muttered those famous words “never again” after my first experience on that bone chilling day in early 2014 but sure enough in 2015 I was back in that old barn literally signing my life away in the form of the death warrant race waiver and last weekend there I was again, just like I will be every single year I’m physically able to do so. Make no mistake, it hasn’t got any easier or any less scary and no matter how many times you do it the challenge that lies ahead is just as intimidating as it’s always been. I’ve just accepted the fact I’ll be draw in each year and now I’m embracing it.
I’m certainly not the only one either. Every year competitors from over 50 different counties travel to the ‘Mecca’ of OCR. Weather you’re only ever going to do one OCR event or you’ve done several of the thousands of other races around the globe that have followed in Mr Mouse’s muddy footsteps then you should come to Tough Guy. This is where it all started. It’s what Wembley is to football, It’s home. No matter how many others come and go Tough Guy stands alone. There’s nothing else like it and I can confidently say there never will be.
This year I arrived with two aims. The primary one was to make the top 20. The secondary one if that fails was to beat my highest finishing position of 29th. I have trained hard and have been running well so I was in confident mood. That showed with a strong start inside the top ten for the first few miles in what is predominantly fairly flat cross country running. Then the real pain begins with the sadistic hill slaloms.
I managed to hold 8th place for the majority of what seems like never ending climbs. No matter how much hill preparation you do these still get you. I lost a couple of places on the last few ascents but came away still feeling pretty good.
Next up is what always seems like a long drag of a section to me in the big bear woods which consists of a whole host of cargo net crawls and beam jumps. I continued to hold my place in the top ten before what I find the hardest part of any race. The dreaded Chataway chase. It’s a long water section broken up by a relentless succession of fences blocking the way meaning a climb out and a jump straight back in a good twenty or more times. This is so energy sapping it’s unreal. I pushed as much as I could but lost a few more places before entering the Killing fields in roughly 12th place.
Rather uncharacteristically for this event I was actually feeling quite warm. I had dressed for the expected freezing conditions that almost always greets you at Tough Guy but it seemed the weatherman hadn’t received the memo. There was none of the frost, snow or ice that has been seen on this course so many times before and unlike the crazy participants, even the recent heavy rain and strong winds had stayed away this year.
No matter what has preceded you this race is almost always won and lost in the last three miles around the notorious Killing fields. For me that was certainly the case as my creditable early efforts began to fade as my energy levels dropped. I dug deep and held my own for much of the remainder of the race but a few rough spells saw me overtaken by some of the sports big names and up and coming stars as well as a few who just come seem to come out for Tough Guy every year.
I managed to get through the Torture chamber without being zapped by any of the dangling electric wires but nothing eases the pain on the knees as the skin grates against the concrete on the tight tunnel crawl to escape what is possibly the worlds most feared obstacle.
Then came the new addition of the Skywalk at the very top of the Paradise climb. This was a sequence of balance beams suspended some thirty feet in the air. You were not allowed to touch the sides to support yourself. Luckily I’m not afraid of heights but this must have been a massive challenge for anyone that is.
We then got to feel just how cold it actually was on this warmer than usual January day at the water tunnels or as Mr Mouse likes to call it ‘lolly pop head’ because of the brain freeze feeling it gives off. 5 full under water submerges later and I can confirm that I was no longer warm. In fact I was a shivering mess just like the twelve or so that had already passed through and almost every one of the thousands that were to follow. In the past this obstacle has wiped out some of the very best. It’s hypothermia waiting to happen. All you can do is get it over with as soon as possible, get out and get moving.
It wasn’t long after this point that I hit a rocky patch. My abilities to push on had been significantly reduced. Several small groups overtook me and I saw my top twenty place slip away. I dug in with all I had left and managed to pull a few places back in the final mile.
As I finally reached the course’s very last obstacle ‘Viagra’ not only did I receive my first zap of electric, I was also passed by one more fellow competitor as I crawled up the slippery slope to the finish line.
I was so exhausted I was reduced to my hands and knees to get up the hay bales to collect what has to be the most well earned medals in the sport. I’ve built up quite a collection of bling over the years but my Tough Guy brass medals definitely mean more to me than most. They are the ones to cherish and trust me when I say no matter how satisfied you are with it, each time you look at it proudly hanging the temptation to add to it becomes greater.
For me one of the biggest things that draws me back is my competitiveness. This is up there with the biggest and best challenges you’ll ever face so it’s one I always want to go back to improve on. This year I ended up finishing 26th so my highest position so far but that top twenty finish still escapes me.
It may take a while but in time you forget the cold, the pain, the fear but you never forget the atmosphere, the sense of achievement, the pride. This is Tough Guy and it isn’t going anywhere. It’s waiting for you. Every January come rain or shine. Never again? See you next year.