Tough Guy 2019 was my first TG event since 2015 where I have taken part as a competitor, rather than a member of the Ghost Squad. I needed to come back and try it again. I needed the challenge.
Although I knew I wasn’t up to it.
Tough Guy is not for the faint hearted. It starts with a mad dash to find your place in the pack. With every one of the almost 1000 strong field setting off together, sprinting for their lives. The field evens itself out, and you take on a cross country run of roughly 12km, most of which is comprised of hill repeats and this year, forest running. Unlike conventional OCR’s, the obstacles are not placed at even distances throughout the course, so if you’re not a great runner and you’re doing a Spartan say, you can run a bit, do an obstacle, walk a little, run a bit, do an obstacle.
Tough Guy hits you with a straight up cross country run, with very minor obstacles which don’t give you a break, they just break you.
This isn’t the hardest bit of this event though. Oh no. that comes right at the end. Well, not almost the end, but when it is tantalisingly in sight.
Starting with the Tiger as the official start of the Killing Fields- although I always think of the Gurkha Grand National as the entrance, as this is where I start to get cold, and go downhill- what then follows is a few short kilometres of hell. Up and over this giant wooden structure. Seemingly simple enough, but requiring enough grip to hold on to wooden bars, enough nerve to keep moving upwards, and enough strength to lift your body. This after a hilly run and freezing cold water trenches, one after the next. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
The Somme follows, long slogs through equally icy water, chased up with trenches and hip height bars to clamber over. It’s all very cleverly designed. This one obstacle is folded in on itself and loops round, down one long trench of water, and back up the other side, out and above to dip in and out of the trenches and climb. As with most of Tough Guy and the Killing Fields, you can see what’s gong to happen, but you don’t quite know when, how far you have to go, or what you’ll come to next. Psychologically, it’s very very clever.
Physiologically it’s a bastard. Freezing water followed by an action which is designed to give you cramp? It’s not done by chance, it’s designed by someone who wants to take you to the brink of hell, and see what happens when you get there. And there’s plenty more of where this comes from.
One of the toughest aspects of the Killing Fields is the lack of opportunity to get your body moving and warmed up. There are few, if any, periods of running, and over several KMs when you are in and out of the water, it’s going to cause the strongest of men problems. You may not have a fear of heights, but when you are shaking with the cold and can’t grip, you’re unlikely to love being on top of the Behemoth. Even if you don’t normally have a problem with claustrophobia, try hauling yourself uphill through a slim concrete tunnel, bodies behind you, no sunlight ahead, and see how you fare.
Another element that makes it particularly tough is not knowing what happens next. The Killing Fields wrap around, looping back and forth, the course crossing above and underneath itself. It all happens in a very small area, but so much is crammed in. You don’t know what’s coming up. Whether this deep pool of water is just before the end, or if you’ll have another half an hour in the freezing wind to contend with. For me, that makes it terrifying, and the toughest event out there.
Tough Guy is about more than physicality. It’s more than having the strength or technique to do certain obstacles. It’s about doing things that you can’t train for.
This year the event was limited to 1000 people. For me this was a god send. Although the start line was a little lack-lustre (this is the only criticism I can give to this race), the course itself was so much better due to less congestion. Running the course empty would be so much faster, but when you are standing a top an obstacle in the wind, you feel the real Tough Guy experience.
Mr Mouse’s words rang in my head at one point, we truly were clinging together for survival. Up on the newest obstacle, a triple tier creation which involves a climb up, a narrow plank to walk across, a climb down, through the centre of the obstacle back on yourself, and yet another climb down. We were standing in queues, in two rows. We were slowed down by people climbing down, the path a little uneasy, people being cautious. I was so cold at this point, and the wind was whipping across us. I’d been singing ‘You are my sunshine” to myself for the last 45 minutes, the song I sing to my daughter, to try and keep my spirits high. I started singing out loud, and a few people joined in, until the wind struck us so savagely we nearly toppled over. Grown men were being pushed by this wind. We hunkered down and held hands to stay steady, edging our way closer to the end of the obstacle. It was at this point the cruelty of the course design was apparent, as right next to me I could see the finish line, but we still had a way to go yet.
My fear is water, and the cold. Add the two together and you get a bit of a mess. I came with a goal: to complete the Lollipop Heads. When I ran in 2015 I was unable to do it. This year, I was better prepared. My clothes were well planned and were doing their job. Although I wasn’t feeling strong I wasn’t feeling awful. However, as I approached the dips I felt the fear creep up inside me.
My body shut down and just said “NO”. Tensing up, and on the verge of tears, there was no way I could get into that freezing water, and dunk four times under the logs. What if I can’t find my way out again? What if I get stuck? I know how cold the water is and I can’t handle it. It’ll slow me down too much and there’s too much of the course to go.
I ducked round the side waiting for my friend who completed them. As always with Tough Guy, it’s your choice what you do. It’s not a timed competitive event, it’s a personal challenge.
In his own words Mr Mouse states:
“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.”
He is an advocate of listening to your body and mind, and coming back and trying again. So whilst on Sunday night I felt low and unsatisfied that I had not completed what I set out to, the sensible part of my brain told me “You were not properly prepared, it’s cold. Practice underwater more, get outside. Go back in the summer and see if you can handle it again”. For me, to be able to achieve this horrendous obstacle even in the summer and not the winter would be such an accomplishment after two failed attempts.
After this the water obstacles hit us in abundance, and we were also spoilt with bonfires dotted around to warm our little bodies. We reached the final stretch, smaller obstacles to climb over, everyone ignoring them. “It’s cute to think anyone has the strength at this late in the game to climb up there” I laughed. Cramp attacking my calves with the simplest of manoeuvres. That horrible spiders web of elastic. Which sadist thought that up?
Attempting to run the final stretch, my legs so heavy, but wanting so much to get there. No hesitation as I jumped into the final pool, my face split into a huge grin as I know soon we’ll be done. Up Viagra, the hay bales, Smile for photo! And Medal.
That Medal. Is there anything like a Tough Guy Horse Brass?
Having not done the Lollipops I was not suffering like a lot of people, although I was very cold. And though I was disappointed in this it paid off. Into the spa barn to get changed and I could see people really shaking and struggling. A few men were huddled round the fire, one appeared to be alone. I offered him some coffee from my flask, wrapped my dry robe and my arms around him, and helped him get warm, until the cold really struck me. This I felt was my pay back. Sure, I didn’t go through what I wanted to, but I helped people who couldn’t help themselves because they had.