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Survival trumps positions when even the electric shocks can't lift the fog

by Editor
Thursday 5th February 2015
 
 

Race report: In the second part of our Tough Guy coverage, James Appleton takes us through his emotions during an epic journey to the finish line

Tough Guy® The Original © Epic Action Imagery

Tough Guy® The Original © Epic Action Imagery

I can feel something stinging me on the back. I cannot feel much else, but there is definitely something there. I am crawling up the last hill of the race on my hands and knees, one agonising movement at a time. It feels like I am crawling through treacle.

Above me there are voices dimly shouting at me from out of the fog – it is all muffled and I cannot make out what they are saying. I know the finish line is less than a hundred metres away, but that doesn't make any difference – at snail’s pace, I am going as fast as I can.

Something stings me again; this time right on the back of my neck. Somewhere out of the fuddled mess of incoherent thoughts tumbling around my head I remember – electric shockers. It is the electric shockers. You have to crawl up the last hill through rows upon rows of them. Sluggishly I wonder if I should try ducking under, but I decide I just do not have the energy. I just want to get to the top and lie down. Another one whips a bolt onto my wet back. I don't even flinch.

I make a decision – I am never doing this race again.

Tough Guy® The Original © Epic Action Imagery

Tough Guy® The Original © Epic Action Imagery

I knew things were heading in a bad direction way too early in the race this year round. As I mentioned in the previous article (HERE), the course changes every year - this year it was wetter and longer than ever. The weather was not on my side either; it was still above freezing but there was a vicious wind across the whole exposed course.

I had decided to wear slightly fewer layers than the previous year as I felt I had finished the 2014 race in an acceptable state. At least, I had been able to race all the way to the finish. But this time, before we had even entered into the main, obstacle-heavy section of the course known as the “Killing Fields”, there had been a long out-and-back section of wading through bitterly cold water.

I came to the end of it and I felt like it had chilled me to the core. I knew I had to run as I had to try and generate some heat; but this was no easy task. As I took on more obstacles, which acted as more hurdles to slow you down, instead of generating heat, I could feel what precious heat was left draining out of me.

In the past I have always said it is a race until the underwater tunnels, and after that the game changes to one of survival – just making it to the finish. That was more true than ever this year. I have always gone into those tunnels in the past feeling good, and started the descent into hypothermia afterwards. This time, as I stumbled down the hill towards their inevitable pain, I felt deep-core chilled.

Tough Guy® The Original © Epic Action Imagery

Tough Guy® The Original © Epic Action Imagery

I was in second place, having clawed my way past two previous winners of Tough Guy on the infamous hill slaloms, and as I arrived at the tunnels I saw the leader, a team-mate and great friend of mine Jon Albon,  going off the walk-the-plank. I knew this was maybe three minutes worth of lead. I am not kidding myself, Jon is a phenomenal athlete and way beyond me at the moment (his run had been blisteringly fast) but it was nice to see I had gained something back through the Killing Fields.

I had taken a quick look behind me at the top of the previous obstacle, the Paradise Climb, that sits overlooking the whole course, and I knew I had no-one in sight behind. All I had to do was get through the tunnels and hang on to the finish, and I would  be happy with second place.

Sadly, all of that was about to change.

It is always the last dunk that is the worst. There are a series, and each one hits you like a sledgehammer, but the last one really punishes you. I came out spluttering and the whole world had gone muffled and quiet – I could hear my own heart pounding in my head as I dragged myself up the bank and onto dry land, and had to take a minute, on my hands and knees, to try and clear the fog in my head.

The fog did not go away, so I got up and stumbled on anyway. “Get running” I told myself, you're still racing. I wasn't; the game was up. In the last fifteen minutes of the race, I went from maybe three minutes behind Jon to almost ten. There is very little running after the tunnels, just a series of slow, time-consuming obstacles to traverse over or round, and more full-submergence in that water.

Looking back at footage, I was barely even jogging once I got out of that water. By the last mile, I was staggering like a drunk zombie. I didn't care about generating heat, I didn't care how slowly I moved – I just dragged myself forwards trying to make sense of the world, and get to that finish. At some point, Conor Hancock came past me, I remember seeing him race by and it looked like he was moving at superhuman speed.

Tough Guy® The Original © Epic Action Imagery

Tough Guy® The Original © Epic Action Imagery

In a flash he was gone and I was back in my own confused little world, and I didn't care. The normal me is competitive to a fault – I would never give up without a fight. But at that point the fight wasn't with the other racers for a position, I did not even turn around to see if anyone else was threatening to push me into fourth or fifth, the fight was just me against the cold, and it was taking everything I had just to stay on my feet.

After that final hill, where I took those electric shocks for what felt like an eternity, my memory is a little confused – my mind has decided that two absolute legends, Pete Rees and Paul Hayward, caught me right over the line and physically carried me through and next to a fire, it couldn't have taken more than a minute, where I slowly came back to life.

In reality; it took a lot longer and there was at least five minutes in a cold shower with Jon Albon, who'd taken the victory with ease, and still had the energy and generosity to help me strip off the freezing wet layers that had contributed to my downfall.

I have no memory of the finish, the journey to the shower or the shower whatsoever.

What went wrong then? Clothing. I have said before that I always try and balance warmth to weight, it is a race after all, but this time I took it too far. The only neoprene I chose to wear was a 0.3mm thin vest, and the only wool was a hat.

Everything else was thin compression. I wanted to protect my skin from the burns and brambles, but I did not want to overheat during the run, or be weighed down by water later on. That was what destroyed me – once they were wet, which happened way earlier than I wanted it to – those layers stayed wet, and the wind pulled heat off me faster than I could generate it.

Tough Guy® The Original © Epic Action Imagery

Tough Guy® The Original © Epic Action Imagery

Both Jon and Conor were wearing far more neoprene and merino wool, and got it right. Both were also (I think...!) in shorts! there is a lot of water, but you do spend more time out of it than you are in it. When they got out of the water it would drain off, and their legs could reheat themselves.

In my case, with thin compression leggings, the water stayed wrapped around me in a thin layer than was supercooling my legs in the wind. The only muscles I had to really heat my body were being frozen-down as fast as I was trying to get them firing.

Big mistake. Those clothing choices worked for me on the start line and in the running, but they nearly killed me in that water.

No worries though – I will get it right next time.

Footage of James’ finish from Rise of the Sufferfest

Tough Guy® The Original © Epic Action Imagery

Tough Guy® The Original © Epic Action Imagery

Find out more about Tough Guy® The Original at www.toughguy.co.uk

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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