My 6 year old daughter asked me why I’d done the Tough Guy race in 2015, and my answer was this:
- To get to know my running mates better. I’ll call them Gazelle and Junkel
- To get to know myself better – how I’d respond to an intense, extreme challenge
- To motivate myself to exercise
How was Tough Guy 2015?
It was quite jolly at first. Looking around, it was a hard-core crowd compared to the other obstacle races we’d done. There didn’t seem to be any large groups from the workplace where everyone was invited – even Doughnut Dave from Accounts Receivable. We went to register the day before, and were surprised at just how few people had English as a first language. We were also surprised by the people arriving on bicycles from Holland, setting up tents on the exposed hillside. So yes, fit people.
The long first section seemed great – it was cold in the wind but not too oppressive. Slightly confusing, and the first place we heard the ubiquitous Oggy Oggy Oggy chant.
Gazelle was hard to keep up with, and champing at the bit – his bare legs blindingly white before us. He would run off and then wait for us. We were soundly in the middle of the pack of fellow Wetnecks – other first timers. Chatting to a few German contenders on the way, one of them panting, “Nicht schnell!” to his buddy, (Not so fast!) we thought that there were perhaps many other first-timers, and many who wouldn’t do it again.
At the first real climbing frame obstacle, on the side of a hill, we became aware of the bottlenecks. The marhsall advised that there was approximately five minutes to wait in line, and that we could run around if we wanted. It wasn’t so cold at that point – above freezing and surrounded by flesh, we were like Emperor penguins in the centre of the throng of bodies, shielded from the wind. Some runners went under the tape and went around to the “Boo!” of the waiting penguins.
Much of the course had this filtering effect. Some of the running trails were narrow so that only two people could run abreast at most, and this meant we would frequently hit tailbacks as people merged and everyone slowed to the pace of the slowest, save for those insistent on barging past to keep their pace up. I was glad for the excuse to walk a little, and it gave our threesome time to regroup. Gazelle was easily recognized by being half a foot taller than most with a red hat, Junkel was harder to spot, save for his blue Wolf Run shirt.
The obstacles were often logs placed at a height designed to make it hard to get over, and at one point I got stuck, unable to jump up onto one that was higher than the others. I didn’t have the diving, hugging and rolling over technique down – the one I saw people using to keep their centre of gravity low. I was more of a sit up and swing legs kind of guy. Which wasn’t very manly or fast, but it made it more controlled and less likely that I would swing a knobbly running shoe into the faces of the people beside me. There were very few obstacles without several people abreast, so space was really limited. A good thing when things went wrong – I saw Junkel dangling from one arm held by a stranger behind him when he slipped. He righted himself, expressed gratitude and forged on.
The real leg-sapping part was a series of switchbacks up and down a steep muddy hill – perhaps a dozen times up and down in all. Something that Junkel later described as “F**king barbaric.” Uphills were walked after the first, and again you could feel yourself being stacked up in a queue as the front of the human centipede gradually slowed through the climbs. So it was the opposite effect of a roller coaster – when at the back you are slowed down by the fatigue of the front carriage rather than dragged along by its gathering momentum. My big fear here was having my hand stepped on as I scooted down the steepest bits on my backside. Mostly as I’d already got over my other biggest fear by receiving an electric shock from a dangling tentacle of doom on one obstacle. This started off a tirade of obscenities, and the obscenity obsession stuck with me for the rest of the course.
Another memorable obstacle was a set of switchbacks up and down a muddy bank into a waist high running river. Some realized that there was a shortcut available – just wade under the marker string and stay in the bed of the river, rather than hauling yourself up a near vertical bank 10 foot bank of mud twenty times. Again at this stage there was no way we were missing an opportunity to push ourselves so our trio was up and down all sides. Junkle inadvertently pushed me sideways in the mud once, and almost knocked me down a hill. If it wouldn’t have been him, it would have been someone else due to the density of the stream of participants.
I wasn’t wearing my glasses, and my focus was mostly on the mud directly in front of me, and the heels of the person in front. There was a little talking at the start – mostly “How are you doing?” but that tailed off to the occasional shout of “Hole!”, or “Big rock!”, so that the person behind didn’t fall foul of the route. Occasionally I’d have the energy to swear, or to say, “Booyakasha!” to Ali G as he ran past.
There were only a few obstacles where we were actively adjacent. One was a grueling slither up a rock strewn mud bank beneath some barbed wire, made worse by the indifference of the nearby spectators to our struggles. I was next to Gazelle for that one – he chose a watery muddy chute a little lower below the barbs, while I went the higher and drier route by his side – less clearance, but I didn’t have to actively submerge myself as we progressed at a snail’s pace.
There were techniques for some of the obstacles – going through a tunnel of tires on your back for example. Passing these techniques back to the person behind you and listening carefully made a big difference. And running backwards under cargo nets using your backside to lift up the webbing rather than your hands.
At one point we ran through an open field, the sun was up, and while it wasn’t warm, I wasn’t feeling any injuries or too much pain. I made a mental note that it was quite pleasant, and ploughed on, seeing people being treated for cramping calves.
The Killing Fields are the final and most dense set of obstacles – more likely for people to quit (1304 out of 4075 didn’t finish) and closer to the medical tents. I saw a handful of people in serious distress getting attention, and tried not to look to closely. This is where the deepest water, the most frequent immersion and the highest obstacles were. Some required you to grip onto ropes, and despite wearing two pairs of gloves, I couldn’t reliably feel what my fingers were doing. In a situation where you have to hang onto a ladder and you can’t rely on your hand to close properly, the risks of falling become much more real. I tried warming up my fingers in my armpits but that made me too cold – I sacrificed my extremities just as my body was doing. Gazelle was reassured that someone else was without feeling, and two days later, feeling was still not back in some of his finger tips.
One of the helpers on the obstacles answered a question with, “A third.”
“A third left?”
“No, a third completed.”
My heart sank, as I was pretty cold and spent, and I tried to put it from my mind. I wasn’t sure if I had enough gas in my tank to keep going. Junkel had a similar experience when he saw a 4km sign on the route, and thought that meant we were just under a quarter in. We were in fact almost done.
There were no electric shocks in the tunnels which was a saving grace, as were the jelly babies dropped into our mouths by volunteers when we emerged. The occasional teenage military cadet clapping and saying, “Well done!” made a huge difference. The Oggy chant was no longer present. We were in the shadow of a hedge row for a while, no sun, cold, and no one was singing any more. My favourite part was the burning straw bales. A fireman was tending them with a rake and this seemed to mean that jumping over wasn’t an option – but standing on one side was, and so we did – briefly feeling some heat entering our hands through sodden gloves.
I took off one wet outer glove to see if it would warm my hand up, and it didn’t seem to improve. I jogged along with a wet glove in one hand for a while before realizing that I didn’t need it and threw it to the ground. Sometimes I realized that my feet were dry only by hitting another stream. Sometimes I was urging my legs to run and I couldn’t feel anything below the hips, but the worst was still to come.
A wide log lay across the deep pond we had just run into. We had to submerge ourselves fully to get under it. It was take your breathe away cold and it was suddenly very, very cold and the breeze just sucked heat out of you. Junkel and Gazelle opted to get out of the pond and to run around the next obstacle – dipping your head under 4 more logs and being watched by volunteers to make sure you didn’t drown. I though about doing it, and even went up to the start and got some encouragement from a volunteer. I hesitated, and that made me balk and I climbed out too. There was no need to get even colder. I failed the Water Tunnel test.
Then there was an obstacle that involved walking a plank and jumping into a deep lake. Jump straight in and don’t even touch the bottom deep. Which meant that despite holding my breathe and being prepared to swim, the cold shocked me and my swim was more of a survival splash. A diver in a dry suit reached out for my hand and told me to breathe slowly. I was confused and reassured by his voice, and afterwards realized that without it I might not have made it to the side. As it was I took in a mouthful of water and felt my abdomen tighten.
This was the start of the shivers. I was convulsing and I could see people at the side of the lake being wrapped in blankets. My legs weren’t responding to my brain’s requests very well so I started shaking my arms to generate some heat. I must have been quite annoying to my team mates shouting, “Keep moving.” all the time – something I probably got from watching a show about Bear Grylls in Siberia the night before. The shivering didn’t stop, and I found that I had to start running faster. The ability to run faster was quite a surprise to me – something I didn’t realize I had, and possibly something due to a marshall telling me we were only a mile or so to go.
Hitting traffic at a few nondescript obstacles Gazelle looked at us and gave us the nod. With the people in front not moving and the people in front of them stuck clambering a cargo net, we skirted a few climbs. I couldn’t face not moving, and longed for more burning straw bales which never appeared.
At some point someone in the crowd said, “The finish is just up that hill.” Completely disoriented I hoped it was true, and that the slow moving slog up the mud would be the last. It was too steep to climb without a rope, and the trudging slow pace was grinding me down. Less gentlemanly now, I scrambled from a full rope to an empty one in the dirt and scampered up next to a man in a suit. We crossed the top of the hill, but there was more. Straw bales to climb. Had we finished? There was a throng of people, and it took a while to realize people were getting medals and waiting for photos to be taken. I was thoroughly confused.
Our team was together and the shivering increased even though we were queuing past the tea and biscuits tables in the finish tent. The tent was far warmer than outside, but I was expecting medics, survival blankets and hot showers. What we got was a long queue for some hot chocolate past some sinks where a dribble of water suggested we might clean our hands. The polystyrene cups and the chocolate hobnobs were so very welcome, and the biscuits served as an indicator of the shakes – you could see them amplifying the involuntary shaking of our limbs.
Somehow we realized that our bags were nearby and we got to them. The hot chocolate burnt my mouth, and unable to drink it I just found a bowl of sugar and heaped it into the brown liquid in an effort to cool it down. Gazelle was struggling out of his clothes and needed a hand, and also in getting some clothes on. Junkel and I couldn’t get our shoelaces undone. A lack of motor control, either fine or coarse prevented us from undoing the knots – a crucial component to releasing our legs from wet tights.
I must have stuffed about a dozen biscuits into my muddy maw, and after drinking my brown sugar realized that I couldn’t face going upstream against the brown salmon flesh to get another. I managed a run from the tent to the car, and once I had warmed up and my brain had started to process sequential and relevant thoughts, I realized I didn’t hurt too bad – abrasions and cuts yes, cramp and limps no.
We had done it. Gorging on Mr. Kipling’s French Fancies and any other source of food I could find, I had got through in one piece. I don’t have any real urge to do it again, “to complete the obstacles I missed and get a better time.” It was done. It had taken 215 frigid minutes.
Now I could retire from running. Gazelle was turning his attention to bicycle races, and now I need another goal. One that didn’t involve jumping in freezing lakes in winter time.
Tough Guy 2015 in Summary
It started out quite pleasantly, but was full of dark cold shivering times, barbaric energy sapping obstacles, and was attended by mostly quite fit-looking people. There were injuries and the constant specter of hypothermia to keep you going, and enough obstacle variety to freak out everyone in the team. We skipped a few obstacles, I don’t regret it, and the density of competitors means that sometimes you’re waiting in line and getting kicked in the face. Being submerged in ice cold water after 3+ hours of running is quite confusing.
I wasn’t in the best shape of my life, in fact I couldn’t even run the 15km of the course in one sitting beforehand, but I finished in 3 hours 35 minutes, two hours slower than the winner, and in the top 45% of entrants. 32% of entrants didn’t finish.
Tough Guy Tips
If I were to run the tough guy again, these are the things I’d do better or differently at the event:
- Pack a good after race bag, and leave it in the tea tent. In the bag my favorite things were my large towel and my clean clothes – a dry base layer and a thermal fleece, gloves and hat. Next time I’d include dry shoes and possibly a pair of scissors to cut my shoe laces.
- Pack some hand warmers. I handed out at least 10 instant hand warmers, and even some of the larger body warmer packs. They take a while to get going, but they help you warm up if left in pockets, gloves, underwear or strapped to your abdomen.
- We didn’t see the showers. They may or may not exist. I had no interest in a shower at the end – just getting dry and putting on some dry clothes. There wasn’t much water in the hand washing station, so I’d add hand sanitizer to my stuff bag
- Wear double gloves. I wore cheap bicycle gloves to protect my palms and first knuckles, and over them I put some cheap fleece gloves which I threw away when they were too wet.
- Wear tights. Unless you want to be that guy in the mankini, a good pair of running tights will save you some leg abrasions
- Wet suit top. I saw some people in wetsuits and neoprene tops and wished I’d had one. I would go for one next year as hypothermia is the biggest race killers.
- Wear double hats. I wore a swimmer’s hat under my fleece hat, and threw the fleece hat away when it got wet.
- Mud running shoes. It’s not just running up muddy inclines, sometimes you have to run along a muddy incline above a lake. Junkel wore road shoes and nearly slid sideways into the lake, I wore some grippy shoes and was fine.
- Plan far more time to get to the event by road than you were thinking. We were queuing in traffic to get into the event about 90 minutes before it started for about 45 minute, and it didn’t give us any time to get ready when we were there. Allow an extra hour to get there.