Everyone has their favourite races, the ones that they never want to miss that go straight onto their racing calendar as soon as the date is released. For me there are three. The London marathon, Endure 24 and Tough Guy. The later always falls on the last Sunday in January. I say ‘always’ as it has been around as long as 30 years BUT it had been announced that this would be the very last winter Tough Guy.
That news had caused quite a stir and encouraged several hundred more people to sign up to what is already one of the biggest participated obstacle course races anywhere in the world. There were also many others who refused to believe the event would be coming to an end and thought it was just a publicity stunt and seemed to want to make a point of this by staying away. For me it made no difference. I was going to be there anyway. This is a race that challenges you like no other and one I will attend for as long as I’m physically able to. If they call it a day it will be a truly sad loss for the sport, if they don’t then great. Long live Tough Guy.
One of many reasons I like it so much is that you’d have to go a long way to find an OCR that offers such competitiveness. The best from all over Europe and ever further afield flock to the creator Mr Mouse’s famous farm in Wolverhampton. You get to really test yourself against the hardest of hardcore competitors.
This would be my forth consecutive winter Tough Guy. All of the previous three years I’d come off the course knowing that I’d really earned my horse brass medal but having felt I’d never really done myself justice for one reason or another. I’d been ill in the build up on all there occasions and in 2015 I’d also arrived late and never really got going. My finishing positions had been 29th, 31st and 26th respectively. I went into the 2017 event determined to better that. I was illness free, in good shape and wanted to ensure that if this was going to be my final shot then it would be a good one.
All started well. I got away from what is a crazily hectic start unscathed, I settled down into my early running and held a strong position inside of the top 15. I was pleased with the early course adjustment meaning that we reached the killer hill slaloms earlier that usual so I was fresher and then had more running afterwards where I could work to my strengths and I was moving well through the first of the obstacle sections.
Then came the part of the course that always knocks me back both in positions and energy. 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.
Now the going got much tougher. I felt very tired but dug deep. I knew I was still in with a good chance of my best finish and that was driving me on. It was now one big obstacle after another for the final 3 miles with very little running in between and a lot of freezing cold water to get through.
My energy was depleting by the minute but I was still holding my own with only a few people passing me. I think this was more down to the gap I’d created during the early running rather than the speed I was negotiating the huge wooded obstacle structures at but I was still confident of another top 30 placing and hopeful I could finish strongly to maybe sneak inside the first 20.
Then disaster struck. I waded my way through the chilling water to what is most people’s biggest fear at this event, the under water tunnels. Its 5 full submerges under planks that lay across the lake. I actually don’t mind it too much. I feel that I cope quite well with the cold so it becomes more of a mental challenge and one that I embrace in the knowledge that it will affect so many others most that me. This time that wasn’t to be the case though.
Three dunks down and right in the middle of the obstacle, shoulder deep in numbing H20 my left hamstring was struck with bolt of excruciatingly painful cramp. The marshals asked me if I wanted them to pull me out but I refused. I knew if I didn’t get the last two submerges done I wouldn’t have truly completed the course and that would niggle away at me for longer than I could care to imagine.
I needed to get out so that I could stretch the muscle and I knew the quickest way to do that was to finish the job. The feeling of the cramp was actually distracting my thoughts and feelings away from the biting waters which probably made those last two submerges slightly more bearable.
Once out I lay on the muddy grass with my leg straight out above me. As the tightness eased I hobbled on. I still had two miles remaining and a huge climb immediately in front of me. I now had to be overly cautious. I knew any sudden movement would bring the twinge back on. This was easier said than done in the environment I was in.
I was reduced to a feeble limp with the muscles on the side of my upper leg just above the knee extremely tender. Once again I had to lay down in the hope I could ease it for a final push to the finish. Steams of runners were now passing me. My dreams of a high placing had gone and it was now just about surviving to the end.
Eventually I got there. As I dipped under the timing arch and collected my medal I was feeling most disappointed at a time when one should be feeling as accomplished as ever. I had no idea of the final placing but I knew it was nowhere near where it could have been had the dreaded cramp not set in.
This was supposed to be a occasion for closer but as I left Tough Guy for what could be the final time I felt I’d left a whole lot of unfinished business behind me along with the 30 years of obstacle course racing tradition. This event will always be remembered for being the first, the craziest and one of the very best. It’s crafted the way for a sport I love and I’ll be forever thankful of that whatever happens next.
In the week that followed I found out my finishing position was 72nd which on reflection was about what I was expecting. I also learned to Tough Guy would be living on in some form or another. Like most of their media publication in the past it was unclear as to exactly what way they would be going but it sounds like although there will be another race next winter it won’t be ‘the original’ Tough Guy. The course will be changing and I’d very much expect the level of serious competitors and overall numbers to dramatically decrease too but only time will tell.