Sunday, 3 February 2013

Event review – Winter Tough Guy, Midlands, 27th January 2013

Well, the time has finally come- Tough Guy is here for the first time since I started obstacle racing last May. The stories that I have heard about this event paint a picture of freezing temperatures, physical and mental torture and provide many with the firm belief that this is THE toughest obstacle race on the planet. I can’t wait!

I’ve been waiting to tackle this event since running the Tough Guy 10K in September 2012. The 10K was good fun and great starter event for the guys with me that hadn’t run an obstacle race before. Lots of lovely mud, deep water and purpose-built high rise obstacles made for a fun and challenging day and only heightened my desire to take on the full 10 miler in winter J

The start to the process wasn’t the best as I was met with a similar level of pre-race information before the beginning of the race. Whilst a large race pack arrived in the post shortly after registration, the photocopied pages were very difficult to read in places and seemed in many parts to be written in broken English. The story was similar on the Facebook page- updates regarding snow and parking seem to be written in “Tough Guy English” often missing words from sentences meaning that they either didn’t make sense at all or could be read one of two ways with two contradicting conclusions. I noted that other users were having similar issues but veterans of the series did not. I’m assuming this is something that you pick up after a while and I’m sure in 5 years’ time I will be getting frustrated with the newbies who can’t understand basic instructions!

Whilst annoying, I do remember a similar situation with the 10K (Even at the start line we still didn’t really know what time we were due to start!). Whilst pre-race clearly wasn’t a strong point, the race itself is, and that should be the main thing really. So I decided to go with it and as long as I knew were to park and where to register, I would figure everything else out on the day.

January 27th was a cold day and despite the snow of the previous week completely vanishing, it was still cold enough to warrant a few layers waiting for the race to begin. Rumours, eventually confirmed, that the stagnant water pools were approximately minus 10 degrees, cemented my decision to run with a top on. This is not normally something that I do as I get very hot, but the ice chunks floating on the top of the water spoke for themselves. So my kit list included my normal shorts, Under Armour ColdGear long-sleeve fitted top, Invo-8 MudSoc 20s, Altura wind guard for my ears, GoPro HD Hero2 on the head mount, a shed load of Vaseline and of course my trusty Invo-8 Talon 212s. I also carried a spare battery for the GoPro in my pocket, sealed in a waterproof bag*.

As I was videoing the race on my GoPro, I wasn’t expecting to put in any competitive times. I knew I’d have to change the battery, which in a muddy run is a good 5 minute job. That coupled with my plan to complete the Wolf6Pack challenge at a suitable part of the course meant that a good time would be impossible, so instead decided to just enjoy the run and take it all in.

The venue was easy to find through the postcode in my new satnav (finally joining the 21st century!) and although I was taken to an impassable ford at one point, I got there in good time. There were several car park entrances with helpful marshals looking at the colour-coded car park passes hanging from the rear view mirror and directing us to the correct places. The “blue” car park held my space and was on the side of a grassy (muddy!) hill. Getting into the space was quite easy, again with loads of marshals to assist, but I had a feeling getting out would not be as much fun!

Despite there already being thousands of people on site, there were no registration queues and the registration process was as simple as quoting your name and number, signing and initialling the waiver, and being handed your race pack. Race number transfers were included, along with a room with wet sponges to apply them with. Little things like this make a big difference to the whole experience. Timing chip was also included along with the official race number and confirmation of my squad, the Tough Guy Squad. As I only registered a week before the race I was expecting to be in a much later wave, but more than happy with that!

I went to the bag drop/changing rooms to vas-up and chat to some fellow competitors. A final bite to eat and sip of water and I was ready to start running. Making my way towards the start line at about ten to eleven, I had to fight past a lot of people to get past the later start waves. It was easy to see the start lines for the squads with large signs, however I couldn’t see the Tough Guy Squad start. In the end I found a large group of people standing on the back of the hill with TGS numbers and decided to start with them.

Just after 11am the cannon fired, fireworks went off and we ran into battle!

The ‘running’ was few and far between over the first half mile. The sheer volume of runners meant a serious bottle-neck and even with very wide running sections, we constantly slowed to walking pace. After a while the running sections opened up a bit and I could open the taps to move past some of the slower runners. This wasn’t the same issue that Spartan Races tend to have where they make you run down a single file track but more that the waves of runners aren’t spread out enough and there is a huge volume of people trying to get down a track. This unfortunately was a common theme throughout the race- not so much of a problem at this point as I wasn’t going for a time and was nice and warm, but got very problematical later on in the race when the cold started setting in.

The run had a few small hurdles with some thick mud to start with, moving on to a nice long trail section through thick mud with some higher hurdles and steep hills. A few people had already started to dodge these where possible and some even down to walking pace within the first mile. This didn’t bode well!

Moving on we moved onto a slalom hill section- Constant very steep muddy hills to run up and down. My Talons performed excellently here. I know I rant on like I’m sponsored by them, but they really were superb. There were very few places where I slipped and I notice that most others in the same situation were using Talon’s or Mudclaws. Truly amazing shoes! This was one place where queues got frustrating with a lot of people down to walking pace, and again the sheer volume leaving little room to move around them. 

On getting to the top of the slaloms we were treated to a short but heavy rain-shower, which was more than welcome to keep us cool. We moved down the hill into the wooded section that I had previously experienced through the 10K run. This was exactly as before with a section of cargo nets and high steeples to climb. It was equally as annoying as last time- these obstacles aren’t tricky or taxing in any way. The only thing that they do is get caught on my GoPro, which is a real pain in the bum.

We then moved on to the river slalom. This was the second time we were in water, but a proper dip this time, right up to chest level at some point for a short-arse like me. Whilst the layout was no different to the 10K, one thing was different… the cold. It was truly freezing, and with each dip in the water my feet got colder and colder. Chest and legs held up ok (Though my legs did go very pink!) but it wasn’t long before I couldn’t feel my toes.

Out of the water and time for a battery change and to complete the Wolf6Pack challenge (A friendly fitness challenge which, on the day, involved me videoing myself completing 21 press-ups. Here is a link to see what it’s all about).

With that done, we moved on to more water, cargo nets and a berlin wall or two before reaching the first high-rise net climb with the first electrocution of the day. Now, I’m not sure if it was generally more powerful or if it was that I was wearing a top for the first time, but the electric gave more of a shock than I’d previously experienced by a very long way! I felt it all across my back that made me think that it might have been that I had a soaked top on. I feel an experiment coming on…

Next was the beginning of the serious water- what seemed like a 100m wade through chest-high, freezing water. It was tough, but I was determined not to slow my pace and kept a quick stride up, passing many people. I did not want to be in the water longer than I had to, and I knew my trusty Talons would drain very quickly once I was out.

With that out of the way, we moved on to a few walls, up to another high-rise via cargo nets then across balance ropes before heading back down to more water. Plenty of dips into the water and out again, with fire to run through in between. The bit of heat was a pain, as you felt warmth then cold, then warmth then cold. The end of this was a tyre tunnel to crawl through into the last section of water, so deep that a short-arse like me had to swim. I was pretty glad to be out of this as I was very cold and was looking forward to being able to sprint off and warm up a bit.

Next followed a large stint of thick mud, really testing on the calves and thighs, then on to the dreaded Torture Chamber. The Torture Chamber required you to crawl in near pitch-black within about 2 foot of height. The floor was a few inches of water and rows of logs followed by electric cables hung down throughout. As you crawl in, there are blood-curdling screams from other runners getting zapped by the cables. I got hit about 5 or 6 times and on one of those I am sure I blacked out. This was pretty horrific- physically not too bad but physiologically the screams and not really knowing where the electric was going to hit really made you not want to go forward.  Top work Mr Mouse, top work!

These moved on to the Vietcong Tunnels which were easily tackled and onto the next high section, the Skywalk and Paradise Climb. By this point, the cold was starting to become a pain as the inability to close my grip on my hands properly really made me have to think about things that normally came naturally. Because of this, it took far longer for me to scale down the ropes. I was expecting for the cold to cause physical issues, but was not ready for the way it changed my thinking during the run.

A small run later and into the deep water. A combination of swimming and the first forced dips under the water was a killer. My lungs started to burn towards the end of this and getting out of the other end was when I really started to feel too cold. The next high climbs, walk-the-plank and rope traversal was a struggle, not physically, but mentally working out what I had to do. The cold was really starting to get to me.

I started really sprinting between each section, trying to warm up as efficiently as possible. The long section of tyres helped with a nice section of running with high knees followed by some nice warming electricity. Another dip in the water, and run up the hill and the final slide down into the lake and up to the finish line.

What followed next was standing in a hot shower for about 10 minutes, and very quick change and a sprint back to the car to get the heaters on. 20 minutes of sitting in the car with fresh clothes and I just about stopped shivering enough to be able to start the long drive back to Salisbury.

The pictures and times came up very quickly. I came 410th overall which, considering I wasn't going for time and the queuing I had to do, I was more than pleased with. Banter afterwards on the Facebook page for Tough Guy was great and you get the real sense of a community of people, all bound by the blood, sweat and tears shed together. Many didn't finish, some finished in hospital, but I have huge respect for every single person that started this race. 

In conclusion, there is only one word to describe the Winter Tough Guy: Epic. Physically, I feel like I could have run it three times over, but the cold was just crippling. Many other races claim to be the toughest or hardest of these obstacle races but truth is that nothing I have done so far even comes close to this. If you think the others are tough, you have to try this. Mr Mouse, I salute you! 

*I don’t use the GoPro battery BacPac on the head mount as it makes the camera too heavy and the video goes all over the place.  

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