I’m standing in waist-deep, ice-cold water, and I can’t feel my toes. I don’t mean that figuratively. I am trying to wiggle them but they are so cold that I literally can’t feel them anymore. Just as I start to question my own sanity, I remember why I’m here.
For those of you who know about obstacle course racing (OCR), but are unfamiliar about how it all started, you can thank a man by the name of Billy ‘Mr. Mouse’ Wilson. In the 1980’s Mr. Mouse had the idea of creating an assault course on his property that mimicked the courses he used to run when he was in the army. The true brilliance came when he opened the course to the public and gave it a name (Tough Guy®), and just like that, the sport of OCR was born.
Fast forward 30 years and I’m standing there, in freezing water, questioning my own sanity. I’d flown halfway around the world to participate in the 30th and final Tough Guy event, held in Wolverhampton, a city in the West Midlands area of England.
The whole point of Tough Guy is to push people to their breaking point. Sure there’s the distance and obstacles that may break some people’s spirits, but the true obstacle of Tough Guy is courtesy of Mother Nature herself – the cold. The event is held on the last Sunday in January each year (i.e. the middle of winter) to try and maximise the impact of the cold.
I’d arrived in England a few days before the event and I was pumped. 2016 revolved around OCR so I was keen to get the year started with Tough Guy. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned on the day.
Thanks to some friends and the generosity of complete strangers, I was picked up by a UK Mudd Queen named Laura and together we drove out to Wolverhampton, ready for a day of freezing cold fun. Our aim was to get to the venue at around 9am, giving us plenty of time to register and drop our bags before starting at 11am. But the other 7000 participants all had the same idea. We joined the back of the parking queue just after 9am and at 10:20am we’d finally got through the final 2km of road and found a parking spot. Frustrations were running high while spirits were being crushed all over the carpark.
Finally, we battled our way through the massive crowds and joined the queue to register. People were talking about a delay to the start time, which has been moved to 11:45am due to the chaos with the parking and registration. By the time Laura and I registered, dropped our bags and joined the mass of other freezing bodies it was 11:30. I was shivering so I put on the neoprene gloves that I’d borrowed from my friend Beth, and jogged on the spot to try and warm up.
The Ghost Squad is a group of Tough Guy veterans, adorned with body paint, there to get the crowd going and help people when in need. They got the crowd clapping and yelling before blowing the starting horn.
It was like someone had just opened a shop door at a Black Friday sale. People launched forwards in a mad scramble to get over the starting hill and get ahead of as many other people as possible. I hung back as the first 500m was just full of bottlenecks as thousands of people tried to get through narrow paths.
As I jogged along I spotted Mr. Mouse so I whipped out my GoPro and got a quick shot before heading on and seeing the longest human chain snaking through the fields. There was almost no break in the chain as I watched people clamber over hay bales before racing off to the next one. By the time I reached the first few I had to wait almost a minute to be able to climb over myself as there was a huge backlog of people. I still had a smile on my face and was starting to warm up so I removed my gloves as my hands were sweating.
After jumping over about 10 hay bales I jogged with the crowd to what looked like more human chains, this time snaking up and down the side of a hill. I’d already lost Laura in the crowds so I was on the lookout for someone else to run alongside. I headed up the hill for the first time, and as I came down I heard my name being called. I turned and saw my friends Michael and Leah from Texas. I joined them in their section of the human snake before losing them too as they ran down the hills whilst I slid on my bum after tripping twice on roots.
The course continued weaving through the trees, up and down the hill, and it reminded me a lot of the OCR World Championships from 2016. People were complaining until a stranger ran past with the Vengaboys blaring from a speaker in his backpack. We’d all ignored him when it was playing Motley Crue and Katy Perry, but as soon as the Vengaboys started everyone was enjoying some OCR karaoke.
My watch beeped at the 5km mark and I downed a gel before jogging out of the trees and heading to what I thought was the first water station. All the water had gone by the time I arrived so I continued along, interrupted by two mud pits and a small water crossing.
The grey sky got darker and a light rainfall started which was just enough to be annoying. Luckily there wasn’t any wind, but the rain and open paddock started making me a bit cold. I started chatting to a lady walking next to me and she commented that she was boiling as she had the following clothes on:
- Neoprene pants
- Long compression pants
- Long sleeve compression top
- Long sleeve neoprene top
- Long sleeve loose top
- Compression t-shirt
- Neoprene gloves
- Neoprene socks
- Head buff
I was amazed that she wasn’t boiling hot from all the layers! But I couldn’t really talk as I was shivering at times due to my apparent lack of clothing. I was wearing:
- Long compression pants
- Knee-high compression socks
- Long sleeve compression top
- Bib singlet
- Neoprene gloves
- Head buff around my neck, and another on my head.
I had a rain jacket wrapped around my waist that I was saving for when I hit the water obstacles. I was sweating but freezing cold (a very strange feeling), so I tried to move faster to keep warm.
I crawled under cargo nets and climbed over some barriers before getting to a junction. The marshal pointed me in the direction of the next obstacles and advised me and others that the course had been cut due to the time constraints. I was a bit disappointed but wasn’t too fussed about missing a mud walk, so I joined the masses in climbing over log walls and crawling under more cargo nets.
After one wall I started chatting to a couple – Tom and Sarah – and asked if I could join them for the rest of the course. We’d been passing each other during the start of the course so we joined forces and trudged on. Soon we hit a long creek with barriers, meaning we had to join another snaking line as we climbed into the water, walked through the water, climbed up the embankment and then did it all over again (about 20 times). By the time I got out of that water I was shivering and it was time to put on my rain jacket.
We arrived at the Killing Fields (where the onslaught of obstacles are) and made our way over some rickety looking A-Frames and rope traverses. There were more mud mounds and barriers to climb over before eventually getting to a long water crossing.
I was halfway along that water crossing when I realised that I couldn’t feel my toes. We hurried along and started jogging after getting out of the water in an attempt to warm up our feet. I spotted my friend Arnel from OCRTube and said hi (and stopped for an interview) before continuing up another A-Frame.
After another rope traverse we jumped over fire and crawled through muddy tubes before being diverted a second time. Another 1km loop had been cut from the course as we were running out of time. So we headed into the underground trenches and ended up lying in a muddy pit at the end.
My spirits were crushed for a third time when another marshal pointed us towards the final two obstacles. Due to the late start and the amount of people they had to get everyone off the course within a certain timeframe. It was almost 4pm and it was getting darker so they couldn’t risk people being out on course any longer. This third cut meant that I missed all the obstacles that required people to submerge themselves in the water. I was disappointed as that was part of the reason I’d come to Tough Guy. I’d come to push myself to my limit, and considering I hate the cold I knew that submerging myself would make me incredibly uncomfortable and test my spirit.
There were grumblings from everyone around me as we missed obstacles and headed into the cold water one last time, before joining hundreds of people on a very slippery and muddy slops as we tried to get to the finish.
As I crossed the line I was happy that I’d finished, but sad that I hadn’t done the whole course. I was surprisingly warm thanks to the body heat and adrenaline, but when I stepped out of the finish barn I was hit by the cold. I got changed as quickly as I could (a bit hard when you’re shivering, hungry and dehydrated) and Laura and I headed off.
I had fun at Tough Guy, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed about the overall experience. The sheer numbers of people meant it was organised chaos and so many people missed out on the true Tough Guy experience because of it.
I have to give two thumbs up to Mr. Mouse for creating Tough Guy as it spawned an incredible industry. I don’t know where I’d be without OCR, and I’m glad I made the trip to see where it all began.
Event: Tough Guy
Date: 29 January 2017
Distance: 15+ km
Location: Wolverhampton, England