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Toughest lands in the UK and find itself at home

by Paul Hayward
Thursday 28th April 2016
Last weekend marked something special in the Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) calendar for 2016, the arrival of European heavyweight Toughest Race at, according to Toughest’s race director Andreas Sjolin, OCR’s 'motherland' - the United Kingdom. Famed across Europe for their approach to OCR with consistent penalties for obstacle failure, two lanes of obstacle racing with vary degrees of difficulty and innovative obstacles. The stage was set for something special. 
If you were in any doubt of Toughest’s intentions to bring their style of OCR to the UK, the showed they were serious by picking the highly regarded Pippingford Park (home of the legendary Spartan Beasts of old) to hold the beginning of their 2016 season and their first UK race - Toughest London. Having read a lot about Toughest and spoken to a number of people that have competed in their races, it was claimed that this was 'the race to be at this year' if you enjoy OCR and wanted to try something special. Indeed our previews (here) of the course showed that Toughest were not here to hold an event, they were here to hold the event. Looking at the numbers signed up it did look like the race to be at – 4,000 people for the first UK event which when you have one of the worlds best marathons taking place that weekend just down the road is a significant achievement.

Toughest 1

From the off the organisation and presentation looked and felt incredible and within minutes of being within the race village, shadowed by a huge DJ booth and sections of the course interlinking throughout it, you got the feeling that this was going to be a good day for the ongoing development of OCR in the UK. I have long held the view that Tough Mudder has something special from the start in their race village, be it the atmosphere or the integration of the course with the village and a number of races fall down here despite their excellent obstacles, as there is nothing to see for competitors and spectators. Simple, but hugely effective, decisions like placing large sections of the course in and around the race village entailed that spectators and competitors alike were spoilt for views, action and it created a genuine buzz of excitement as you saw people warming up (a distinctly European thing) and the elites race. 
This is, of course, superficial if the course itself does not deliver through a combination of terrain and obstacles that push you out of your comfort zone, physically and mentally.  Safe to say that Toughest’s take on OCR, with the majority of their big obstacles containing two lanes offering a 'normal' option followed by a crawl or climb and a 'hardened' option (fast lane) without the crawl, ensured that different abilities were catered for from the off and the race provided a real glimpse of obstacle diversity. 

Toughest 2

Some of the obstacles placed a lot of emphasis on upper body strength with rigs containing monkey bars, Olympic rings and various mixtures of ropes, bars and hanging numb chucks all requiring you to use grip strength to proceed (as demonstrated by Thomas Blanc here). When a break was provided from these obstacles, obstacles such as the 'Dragon’s back' or the Slide tested you mentally due to their size and their features. In particular the Dragon’s back required competitors to run up a sloping wall, catch a bar and then climb over. This does not sound too daunting but then you are asked to jump onto a slope with a bar afterwards four times! This not only really challenges your thought process, as it feels impossible, but the idea becomes crazy the more you think about it (here). 
Toughest’s innovation was not limited to this obstacle thankfully and 'flying monkey' offered competitors the chance to swing between distanced bars as if they were actually monkeys in trees. Fear not, if this was not for you then you could always take on the traditional monkey bars but these came with the feature of a subsequent crawl under a cargo net (that was pinned down to perfection) and a climb over a wall. 

Toughest 3

This layout represented the beauty of Toughest and what they are trying to achieve in OCR. For the first time individuals are rewarded for taking the harder option, or training to be able to do it, and are safe in the knowledge that if they achieve it - then they will overtake their competitors who took the safe lane due to the extra obstacle. Add into the mix a penalty system that for obstacle failure that requires competitors to run for an additional distance and you have a real glimpse of something that could look like a sport. 
The final sprint to the finish line offered you the chance to take on a halfpipe, such as those used in Ninja Warrior only much larger and steeper, with the DJ’s music pounding and running commentary from the team at Toughest. I am a huge fan of a large obstacle at the finish line and this genuinely provided an adrenaline racing moment as you surged forward and tried to run up it and grab the bar. Some made it on their own, others were caught by people at the top and some failed despite numerous attempts – all competitors had one thing in common though, a resounding smile at the end as they received their finishers’ medal.

Toughest collage

Toughest has done something really special, despite a number of hitches, last weekend in that they offered a glimpse of something special. An obstacle course race with options and rewards, an obstacle course race with a fair penalty system and most of all an obstacle course race that provided a challenge for all competitors. Toughest served a timely reminder why I, and many people do these events, to get outside of our comfort zones and be pushed. On this evidence (and the feeling over the days after where I felt like a train had hit me) there is real hope that obstacle course racing could become something special, a sport. 
More information on Toughest can be found here.
Pictures with kind permission from James Appleton Photography and Toughest. James’ twitter handle is here: https://twitter.com/jamesappleton86 and his portfolio can be seen here:

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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