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Tough Times at Tough Guy

by Paul Hayward
Friday 5th February 2016
The only way to discuss Tough Guy would be to start from the end of this fabled “race”. Normally it is that moment that we all love, where we cannot stop grinning after crossing the finish line and achieving the impossible. Only bettered by being handed a huge shiny medal to show everyone that we made it.  Only this did not happen for me, or at least for a few hours, as moments after finishing I was in a huge barn, semi naked, shivering beyond belief (whilst my girlfriend was warm in my dryrobe), shaking like it was 1996 and I had just discovered Cypress Hill, covering people in hot chocolate like it was champagne. 
Why was I in such a state? Tough Guy 2016. The ‘original’ Obstacle Course Race (‘OCR’).  The race that a third of people do not finish.  This year, however, was fondly called by some hardened nutters, or ‘regular’ Tough Guys, as the ‘tropical edition’. Only it did not feel tropical, despite the sunshine and rumoured 8 degrees, and I was in a real state for the first time in ages as I could not stop shaking and my teeth would not stop jarring. After being undressed by two kind people, as my soul and heart was still under the barbed wire in the Killing Fields where the cramp first got me and the remainder of body had given up, they said to me “would you do that again?”. 
My response, emphatically, was “no way, I would rather do an Ironman any day of the week than go through that shit again”. 4 days on, I am not sure I feel any different to be honest, although part of me loved it and I cannot stop wearing my extra large finisher’s t-shirt. For all the pre-race hype and legend, in particular the stories of people being dragged screaming from the Torture Chamber or the Lollipops taking victim after victim, I was actually enjoying the race for the first two thirds. 

Tough Guy start

You see Tough Guy starts unlike any other race I have ever been to, competed at or seen. Depending on how much you paid (which all goes to Mr Mouse’s Donkey Sanctuary charity), you can either find yourself on hill with thousands of people screaming ready to run down it or even in the fabled ‘ghost squad’ that is comprised of people dressed as some pretty scary creatures. No matter where you are, one thing holds true - the atmosphere is electric. Everyone is waiting for the cannon to go off and the torture to begin. 
I had been a complete wuss and upgraded my entry into ‘Mr Mouse Squad’. Mainly as the legend had got me, see my thoughts pre the-race (here), and I was worried about not making it all the way round. Three hours on and my fears would have been well founded it appeared. But as the smoke grenades went off, the cannon blasted and I charged down the hill, one thing grabbed me - the emotion of it all. 

Tough Guy water buddies

Tough Guy offers something so special at the start, from a peleton of Swiss athletes, with a flag charging down the hill, to the men or women in merely underwear, face paint and boots, that is hard to calm down from or grasp, and as I charged into the ‘warm up’ of a 6.5 mile cross country run, I could not help but think I was part of something much bigger than an OCR. 
Bar some pretty horrid hills, a number of large wooden hurdles and far too many slaloms to be considered healthy (or navigated on your own), the first ‘half’ of Tough Guy was not too testing and merely provided a chance to thin the field out and ensure that the Killing Fields were ready to test you to the brink of your comfort zone. 
You may have seen images on the internet of two huge wooden A frames draped in cargo nets. This is the proud obstacle and gateway to the Killing Fields known as ‘the Tiger’. These obstacles, or pure ascents, provide a surge to the stars and once you reach the summit, you have to ask what you are doing here, as the wind pounds you and you gasp at the pure amount of people in front, to the side and behind you. 
But the trick is not to take too long and keep going, as the longer you are in the Killing Fields, the more chance you have of not making it home. ‘The Tiger’ is followed shortly by ‘the Behemoth’, which in essence is a number of rope traverses through a structure made in 1977 and still standing today. As I traversed across these ropes, looking down and instantly regretting my decision to do so by the pure distance between me and the ground, the fear set in of the ‘Lollipops’ and just would I live through several ice dips and full submersion in very cold water. 

Tough Guy man in water

This was the least of my worries as I approached ‘the Torture Chamber’, a huge bunker where competitors are asked to crawl through small areas and a mixture of metal rods and wires bursting with electric volts. I had heard the rumours last year that it had been “switched off due to all the people being dragged out last year” but then the same people told me that “Mr Mouse just switched it on full blast usually”. 
I started to crawl through the metal rods, which themselves had you guessing if they had electricity charging through them, and came to some evil looking wires. The only issue was the crawling space dropped down a ledge into some water and the space to go through was minimal to say the least. As I lay on my back crawling, the wires goaded me. Cracking away, and literally laughing at me. This fear was broken by a loud scream followed by some verbal unpleasantries, and the face of the chap next to me will probably stay with me forever - fear, pure fear. 
If you survived the electric nodes, freedom was merely a crawl through a pitch black vertical concrete tube. I got lucky, despite the realisation that I am actually scared of pitch black darkness in confined spaces, and made it out first time but others continually slipped back down, screaming in frustration, finding the ascent a little too much. Rumour had it that some of them were blocked. I can only guess how that would feel. 
After a few smaller obstacles I came to the infamous ‘Lollipops’. This obstacle is a series of wooden beams set across a river, in a row of four, that require you to dive under each one, come up in between them and make it to the end. Renowned for giving people brain freeze, I had opted for a ‘secret weapon’ of a neoprene skull cap and gloves in the hope that I would stay warm enough to continue.  

Tough Guy water woman

As I swam up to the first wooden beam and hesitated, I came across a young girl staring at the first beam, screaming “I cannot do this, I really cannot”. As I stayed by the beam and said to her she could, she had come this far, she had too - the cold set in and I hesitated for another moment before going under. The cold water ravaged my body and kicked and punched its way through my clothing to my skin and soul. Despite the tropical promise, the water was freezing. I looked back - she was still shaking her head. 
Each submersion kicked and punched me a little more and on making it to the land, I wondered just why I was doing this. However the race was now on and I was the lucky one, people were stumbling all over the place and some were sprawled out on the ground. It was easy to see how this obstacle took so many victims but I had to make it home, I had little more than half a mile to go. As I climbed a truck blocking the path, more people were dropping like flies, screaming due to cramp and the screams echoed to the next obstacle: ‘walk the plank’. Which is a chance to get back into the water through submersion. 
What little warmth I had generated was about to be obliterated and as I sat on the plank, whilst the brave ones jumped in, I looked into the water and I really did not want to go back in. “Half a mile Paul, half a mile”. It sounded easy but on hitting the water I was back to being frozen and what little hope I had was dwindling away. I ran, or stumbled, to the barbed wire crawl and on bending down the pain shot through my hamstrings. Cramp had got me and I could not move my legs. The only issue was I was now halfway under a row of barbed wire. 
Ironman or not, I honestly thought at this point I was done for. It took so much to crawl just using my arms and what little support my legs gave me. I could have cried at this point if I am honest, I had not been quick enough - I was going to be taken and I genuinely thought it was over. I stumbled across the next quarter of a mile, over tyres on the ground and over concrete tubes in horrendous pain, to the last obstacle - a river wade and a rope climb up the hill. 

Tough Guy water wading

I climbed to the top of the obstacle, mostly due to my friend Steve screaming at me that we were there, and I was done. I was across the finish line to the words “you are a Tough Guy”. Sadly no Paul Kaye but if I am honest, maybe as emotional. My next real memory was in the shed, being undressed by two young men. 
Even when I was dressed I was described as a ‘state’ and my girlfriend looked genuinely worried for me, referring to me as ‘grey’, and despite my dryrobe and several layers - I was still cold. Yes it had not been -4 like the infamous Tough Guys of before, but I had nearly been one of those famous statistics, it had nearly beaten me and it was cold, it was hard and it had been one of the best experiences I have had in OCR. Maybe. 
More information on Tough Guy, including their summer races and 2017’s winter race, can be found here: http://www.toughguy.co.uk/ 
Images kindly supplied by James Appleton Photography. More information and a portfolio of his work can be seen here: http://www.jamesappleton.co.uk/ and here: https://www.facebook.com/James-Appleton-Photography-149911978367129/

About The Author

Paul Hayward

I am 33 years old and spend the majority of my life within an office environment. Whilst I played football, I never really took an interest in sport let alone athletics. In 2011 I joined a gym as I was slightly concerned about my weight. However I was, like an awful lot of my colleagues, coasting and I considered spinning three times a week a workout.
This changed when I took up a circuits class and found myself entering Men’s Health Survival of the Fittest London in November 2011. I was assured by my friends that this was a good idea and would be a “challenge”.
I had never entered any form of competitive event before and training for this run changed me. I listened to my personal trainer, who assured me that if I quit drink I could be dangerous, and sorted out my diet, stopped drinking so much and focussed my training. I completed the race in just over an hour and I was instantly bitten by the racing bug, I loved the challenge the event offered. 
Nearly two years on I have completed a half marathon in 1hour 49 minutes, came 6th in the Rat Race Horseplay 5k event and usually come within the top 30% at Obstacle Course races. I am also a part time triathlete and I am lucky to find myself in a running club where we have a great coach and the focus is on members. If I am honest - I came to running through these events and I am not alone.
My aim through Run 247 is to promote, discuss and publicise Obstacle Course racing. It is becoming huge and over the coming months we will cover all of the major races and the new competitors entering the scene. 

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