I wrote this article in November 2015, after emails back and forth with Mr Mouse, and a day spent at the farm.
I hope for anyone reading it it helps you to get a better understanding of what I feel, is the most sincere and honest event out there. Tough Guy has always meant something more to me than any other event, and I am so sad that this year will see the last Winter Tough Guy.
There are elements to this article which are now more true than theye were when I wrote them back in 2015, so I hope everyone who reads it can take something away for the sake of us all.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting the Godfather of OCR, the inimitable Mr Mouse.
Once my OCR addiction truly kicked in it didn't take long for me to discover the history of the sport and be truly fascinated with this enigmatic character, the man who started this whole thing back in 1987.
After signing up for and completing my first winter Tough Guy in 2015 I have since been even more obsessed with this event. There is something about Tough Guy, and the place it is held, Mr Mouse farm for the unfortunates. Even on a warm day, the wind whips around the site, somehow the emptiness of a non race day making the course seem even more intimidating and powerful.
What are you talking about woman, I can hear you ask... you're waxing lyrical about an Obstacle Course as if it were Lourdes! Well, in all honesty, to some people, it is. There's a power and a peacefulness to this place which I can't put my finger on. There's something here which makes me sentimental and terrified at the same time. We need to make something clear, this isn't an Obstacle Course Race. This isn't something set up over a day, made of scaffolding with thousands of people trampling through, spending their money, made purely for profit. This is, to many many people an experience... with its own meaning to each one, but an experience and a challenge all the same.
One thing that becomes quite clear as soon as you meet this man, he has an over riding desire for development. Of people, of himself, of his course, of the sport. He wants to help make things better. When asked what inspired him to start Tough Guy, his response was “I wanted to help guide others, to find their leg up out of the gutters of life”.
Despite his meekness,- and yes you may not believe me, but do ask, where did the Names Mr & Mrs Mouse come from? Meek and humble and grateful for their existence-, Billy Wilson did not have an easy upbringing. These experiences in his early life have shaped the man we see today, and maybe, if 1% of his years can be transported in Tough Guy, then his goal is being achieved. Achievement is not gained by sitting around on our backsides, it is by the struggle of life, by overcoming fears or hard times. Most people live a comfortable life, with very few physical hard times, and there is nothing like your body working past its very extremes to make you feel alive.
Responsible for helping his mother from a young age when being told “There is no Father Christmas, you are the eldest, you are a man”, fetching coke for the fire through the gang territories of his neighbourhood, beat up and attacked but always defiant. These early experiences later inspired Tough Guy training.
In 1955 under compulsory conscription he joined the Grenadier Guards, he was determined to be the first and best at every task, creating “a fearless killer and defender of the weak”.
I was very lucky to meet a few of the staff who work year round at the Horse Sanctuary (yes, in case you didn't know, he devotes his time to helping and rescuing animals). Lovely kind hearted people who have worked with Mr Mouse for years, who are part of the family and part of the very foundation of the place. As we chatted over the course of the afternoon I was treated to stories of how he has welcomed and encouraged people from all sides of society, from those of a more criminal nature to those who would struggle to fit in in a “regular” working environment but have plenty to give, to join him and work on his farm.
Some people, when thinking of Tough Guy, think that it is designed to be the most fearful thing, that is designed to terrify the life out of you, and make you fail. This is not true. Yes you are pushed to the edge, in order to get something back for yourself, but you are always in safe hands. The idea is not to terrify the life out of you, but to help you (and here is this word again, get used to it) develop.
I asked this very question, and the response was quite different to what you would expect:
“You only came to me because you believe that I can drag you through your scared fears. Love of giving a taste of deaths fingers gripping the very edge of endurance where fear joins up the circle of family feeling for each other. Sharing the warm hand of friendship, where materialism has melted by the heat of comfortable goodness [Tough Guy is] a gateway to personal gratification to overcome fears, claustrophobic, acrophobic, panics, accompanied by thousands of like minded WillingIAm's
A Tough Guy experience is like a Special Forces battle plan. Surprise is the biggest factor, shrouding mental and physical debilitating action, a taste of near death to thrill, not to kill.”
Compare this to some the more empty claims of events you see and you start to get a feeling of why people cannot stay away from this place.
Each and every year, Mr Mouse and his team assess the course. Should they have had too many injuries on a wall for example, they lower the wall. They do not want hypothermia, they do not want injuries. This place is constantly developing and building, and that is what has earnt it the reputation that it has.
I discussed with Mr Mouse my own problems that I had faced whilst on his course, namely the cold. I had been unable to complete the Lollipop heads due to the cold, but had finished the course. In my mind this felt like a failure, and I wanted to discuss this with Mr Mouse to see where he stood on this point.
“Life is very precious. We are morally and vicariously pledged to bring you through your ordeal and to send you back home as fit and healthy as when you arrived. We are the experts on hypothermia, we monitor how much cold water each person can take. When you have reached your limits our Special Forces Running Marshals are trained to observe to drag you out kicking and screaming.
I have no fear to ignore your plea to follow your personal choice, listen, learn, come back better prepared.”
For many years Tough Guy was the only event like this on the scene, until two large brand names popped up. Both coming from the US, these were Joe De Sena's “Spartan Race” and Will Dean's “Tough Mudder”. Rapidly rising to the top of commercial racing, Tough Mudder seemed to be imbibed with some of the impetus behind Tough Guy, but watered down for the masses. It is well known amongst the community that there has been a battle ensuing between Mr Mouse and Will Dean for years, but there is little out there in the public sphere regarding this. I was keen to touch upon this and see what his viewpoint and personal opinion was.
As previously mentioned, and even with myself, Mr & Mrs Mouse are eager and keen to invite people into their home, to show you hospitality and speak with you for hours, sharing their stories and experiences. When approached by Will Dean, keen to learn the ins and outs of what they did, their doors were wide open. Working and living together they discussed the inner workings of Tough Guy and the development of the sport, in the understanding of Mr Mouse that they would together try and and create something even more exciting. This is until Dean left them and started up Tough Mudder. I had earlier asked why they hold so few events at TGHQ and the response was “we are happy with our lives, we have a good balance, we don't need any more”, so I believe I am correct when I say that the reaction to this was not one of greed, but one of betrayal. To hear stories about how Dean ate with them, collected their children from school, was involved in all aspects of their life... their reaction is one of pure shock that someone could be so involved in their lives, to then turn around and deny them, thinking only of personal gain and profit.
However, despite the financial gain, and the worldwide dominance of brands such as Tough Mudder, there are two things that can be said: 1: they will never have that draw of Tough Guy and 2: In a weird roundabout way, I suppose I am grateful to them. Without the rise of these brands, I myself would never have discovered OCR, having taken part in a Spartan race first in 2013.
It is however this greed that Mr Mouse feels is creating events which lack panache and virtue, and I must admit, I agree with him. More and more, on the back of the rise of the Mudders we see brand popping up every weekend, some with integrity, but some out there only to make a fast buck and ride on the wave of success of what they have seen. This is filtering down into the masses, where cheap merchandise is being flogged to anyone who blindly follows a week old “community”. Along with ego and arrogance, greed will kill what it is that so many love about this sport. Pitting groups of people against each other for supporting this site, or that one. Creating divides where there needn't be any, all for the gain of filthy lucre. If only everyone realised, that not only for the good of the sport, but also for the good of their own brands, working together could make everything so much better. We don't need to compete.
An idea along these lines was brought to Mr Mouse in the shape of Carl Wibberly's and Kevin Newey's event “Mudnificent 7”. An event which premiered in 2015, bringing together 7 events into one race, allowing each event 1km to show us what they can do. Within seconds of entering the Tough guy section you were immersed in the TG experience, with half naked painted men (who I know know fondly as The Ghost Squad) banging drums, smoke flowing, and the very same Mr Mouse overseeing all proceedings; you were immediately transported to another place.
Every year each race is named something different, in 2000 participants were treated to the Holy Spirit 'Millennium Year of Jesus Warriors.' 2000 years since the birth of Christ, and 2000 wooden crosses to be carried by Tough Guys....these crosses were brought to Mudnificent 7, we were treated to an insight of the thought, the depth, and the touch of insanity that goes into the creation of these races.
In 2015 we saw two exceptional people win the men's and the women’s categories: Jon Albon and Clare Miller. Since Jon's win many of us have pondered exactly what Mr Mouse meant when he claimed Jon was the only person to have completed the course in the manner in which it was intended. I am pleased to pass on this wisdom to you here:
Rope Crossings- Single rope monkey style over 20 metres, not using foot ropes
Stair Diving- Hedgehog rolling down 45' Tiger- Paradise descent
Brandenburg/Berlin Wall- 14 metre high dive into soggy net
As we walked around the course we inspected these obstacle up close, discussing how Albon had even had time to go back and complete an obstacle differently when he realised he had not completed it in the way it was meant.
However, Tough guy is not really about who comes first. Tough guy is a personal challenge, and over the years there have been tens of thousands of people who have taken it on, but a few stand out in the mind of Mr Mouse.
Alan Rayment, a double amputee who completed every obstacle, travelling the in-between in a wheel barrow pushed by his team. Nina Pitcairn, who fell from a rope with legs wide, fracturing her pelvic bone..she overcame this with a great smile to continue her quest for obstacle dominance. Jack Garner, a blind man who completed the full course with modesty.
Amongst these positive stories of achievement, there are also those tales of sadness. The year of 2000 where Michael Green passed away by his wife’s side after exiting the dragon pool. The cause was a heart of faulty valves. A sandstone rock now lives at Tough Guy HQ, to mark the place where his spirit lives and to celebrate his love of Tough Guy, simply inscribed
“Michael Green, my Tough Guy 'Alive in the Sun'- Alison”
After spending a wonderful day with Mr & Mrs Mouse, gratefully receiving their advice, walking the course, and talking about everything and anything, I was sent away with one piece of advice that had been discussed many times throughout the day; to encourage us all to work together for the future of the sport. To encourage the athletes and help them develop, to encourage each brand to work together and not against each other, for communities to not compete but to support. To help this wonderful sport grow in the best way possible. This is something I have always believed in, and I have made my distaste for those who are out to exploit the sport clear. I hope that this vision can become a reality, that the development of the sport and the athletes can continue to allow the very best to shine through and reach its potential. I am behind this movement 100%, for a unified OCR community, I hope that others join in and we can move on and create something brilliant.