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The nightmare that keeps them coming back

by Editor
Friday 30th January 2015

James Appleton shares some invaluable advice ahead of the legendary Tough Guy

Tough Guy is the original Obstacle Course Race and was the first of its kind starting back in 1987 in a farm in Staffordshire. It has been described by many as "the toughest race in the world" and the winter race tests, both mentally and physically, everyone who dares to enter it. 

We asked inov-8 OCR team member James Appleton, a three time previous Tough Guy winner, the 2014 Spartan Beast winner and a top 10 Spartan World Championship finisher for two consecutive years in 2013 and 2014, to provide us with coverage of this year's race on February 1, 2015.

In his first part; James looks back on previous events and provides some key tips for those entering this infamous race:

James Appleton shares some invaluable advice ahead of the legendary Tough Guy

There's nothing else quite like finishing an obstacle race, plastered from head to toe in mud and lake-water, exhausted and bleeding from throwing yourself through the course, and still feeling warm. Rarely does the British weather allow such a luxury, even in the summer months. Even rarer still, in the deepest grip of winter, when the water has frozen over and fierce winds rip the heat off you as fast as you can generate it.

So you can imagine my contentment when I crossed the finish line of the infamous Tough Guy race, only to find myself flat on my back, and wonderfully warm. Warm, cosy, and so very sleepy.

Fortunately for me, after decades of experience, a watchful marshal spotted me lying on the damp straw, shouted for some help and dragged me up from the cosy floor. I slurred a protest that all I wanted was a nap and I would be fine, while they carried me out of the finish area and into the St. John's Ambulance tent. Four hours of whole-body-racking shakes later, cocooned in layers of blankets and foil, I emerged. I felt like I had just gone through twelve rounds with Mike Tyson. But I was smiling – I had a satisfyingly heavy medal hanging from my neck and I was alive.

I had survived the legendary Tough Guy.

This year will be my fifth winter Tough Guy. It is the only race I have ever had recurring dreams about, and they're rarely positive. The simplest way of putting it is that if Hell ever froze over, Tough Guy would give it serious competition for the final punishment of the Damned. There is no pre-determined distance, the course changes each year, and everything you go through seems never-ending.

It is not one hill, it is the same hill 10, 11, 12 times over. It is not one dip through a chest-deep trench of iced-over water, it is 15 dunks one after the other after the other. All of this torture occurs before you even reach the real meat-grinder main section of the course, the “Killing Fields”.

James Appleton shares some invaluable advice ahead of the legendary Tough Guy

Every time I go back to this crazy event I tell myself I have trained harder, kitted-up better. Alas every single time it kicks my ass and makes me doubt myself. Before I really understood what training was, I used to put in a couple of months of extra tempo and interval sessions, along with a healthy dose of hill-reps, to sharpen up for the race. These days, now that Obstacle-Course Racing is a far more widespread sport, born from Tough Guy itself, training is all year-round and is constantly focused on improvement.

That said, there are a few things that the more dedicated of competitors will do to tune their body for the destruction that is Tough Guy; these can be summarised as:

  1. Cold water acclimatisation - You cannot run or hide from hypothermia; immerse yourself in cold water for long enough, and it will get you. But you can prepare for how your body reacts to the initial shock, so you do not waste precious seconds gasping for air whilst your body sits neck deep in dark, ice-filled water.

    There is no other way to prepare then to just do it and face the fear; so after runs I find myself looking for the nearest deep-water to home or somewhere warm, and take a dip. Learning to stay calm and breathe whilst the shock of the cold hits you is a valuable tool. It also helps mentally to know you can deal with the cold, at least for a while.
  2. Hills and Intervals - Steady mileage is a great way of developing your strength and stamina. But in something like Tough Guy, with obstacles coming thick and fast, it is more akin to a 90 minute interval session. Nowhere more so than on the hills, which are short, sharp, and painfully repetitive. Expect somewhere between ten and fifteen “slaloms” up and down the incline. You'll need to be ready to recover from their jelly-leg effect fast if you want to keep your speed and body heat up afterwards.
  3. Your kit - Every time I go back to Tough Guy I try something different, in the hope of one day finding a magical guaranteed package of warmth vs weight. I have not got it yet, but one thing I have learnt is that you have to test your gear beforehand – right from which shoes to wear (fast draining, grippy, very tight fitting) through to gloves (neoprene vs hollowfibre vs merino). There is nothing more annoying than having socks that don't drain water (sealskins), gloves that fall off, or finding that those layers you put on which were lovely and warm when dry are now wet and visibly sucking the life out of you.

    If I could give one piece of advice it would be to layer-up, and wear a snug woolly hat. You will thank me after the underwater tunnels. It is not going to stop the water getting through, but it'll slow it down and avoid that horrific ice-cream headache that makes people forget their names and what the hell they are doing swimming through a bog in the midlands in January.

Tough Guy® The Original from Mr Mouse on Vimeo. © Film by Realm Pictures

As I have mentioned; I plan to take on the Tough Guy challenge, along with hundreds of people, all searching for the finish line and whilst being accustomed to Obstacle Course Racing and the challenges this offers - Tough Guy is a whole new ball game. Be careful out there and be safe; I hope to see all of you at the end.

Tough Guy® The Original takes place on February 1, 2015. Find out more at www.toughguy.co.uk


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