The most brutal OCR in the UK, and possibly in the world is also the oldest OCR in history: Tough Guy the Original. Unfortunately, this year’s event was also the final event in its 30-year long history.
The Tough Guy is a gritty challenge. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a few facts:
- 1/3 of participants DNF. And they all drop off in the final couple of miles, the notorious ‘Killing Fields’ segment of the race. Here, the course weaves in and out of icy water so many racers get struck down with hypothermia before they can finish all the obstacles.
- Unforgiving temperatures. Indeed, the event banks on January’s freezing weather as it’s always been held on the last Sunday of January. There’s ice cold water (with some ice on top that racers need to break), freezing winds and miles of mud to slog through.
- Over 250 obstacles in just 15km (~9.3mi). That’s right buddy! A Spartan Race Super packs only 20ish obstacles in the same distance.
- One heat for all participants. This year there were over 4,000 racers all starting together, descending a hill at the start line into the murky fields below. Because it was the last ever event, there were more participants than usually – this caused massive queues and waiting around in the cold.
- The father of OCRs. The OCR documentary Rise of the Sufferfests describes the story of how this event’s blueprint was taken mainstream by Tough Mudder. Let’s just say the Tough Guy founder Mr. Mouse is not a fan of Tough Mudder CEO Will Dean aka Dirty Dean…
But What’s Tough Guy Really Like?
The race kicked off as us 4-5k nutcases spilling over a hill onto the course below. Although there aren’t separate heats, the participants are grouped together based on their history with Tough Guy. I was in the newbie squad – the Wetneck Squad.
But let’s back up a bit. The Tough Guy event is so different from any OCR we’re used to that it’s worth saying a few words about the location and atmosphere.
Tough Guy is held at Mr. Mouse’s farm/compound. There’s barns and all the paraphernalia you’d find on a farm, and for once, the mud almost smells like manure. Everything is rugged but authentic. Even the music playing through the speakers isn’t your typical dance / pop playlist, it’s old school rock. Tough Guy definitely has its own look and feel, starting from their race materials:
and race instructionals:
Ending with the actual race course with giant wooden obstacles that look like they’re built to break rather than last. The structures are made of raw wood, planks and seem very DIY:
This gave whole experience a rugged and primal feel, which Spartan and Tough Mudder lack in comparison. Again, I have to mention the authenticity because the feeling of being at Tough Guy is just so different from walking into any other OCR village, with highly engineered races putting safety first and trying to provide an experience for everyone, and no one. Because of the unprecedented numbers the race started late. Nobody really cared, since camaraderie was very high:
At first we walked for around half a mile in a big crowd and I couldn’t figure out if the race already started. Slowly the people spread out and I dashed to overcome the participants that were obviously unprepared. You know, the ones that decided to sign up because of the hype but ignored the warnings of hypothermia and sheer brutality of the challenge. I could tell by outfits, body shapes and movement if the person would finish or not. However I was proven wrong too, because some of the fittest people were lying in the trenches shaking, once we reached the Killing Fields.
The Killing Fields
Ahhh. This last stretch of the race was designed to break racers. Imagine obstacle after obstacle at an unrelenting pace. It was brutal because some obstacles were repeated again and again. And again. For example, we’d have to run downhill into a pit of knee-deep mud then run up and out and back in for about 20 times. This was the first race where running in and out for the 5th time I had to ask myself: why am I doing this?
It took me roughly 1.5h to get over this part of the course. If you consider that it weaves in and out of freezing water, you can start to understand why so many don’t finish. It’s extremely disorienting because you have to dip into water, swim, run then dip again for what feels like an infinite number of times. A repetitive underwater dive made me feel amnesiac at least for a minute before I could dive again.
Luckily, I wore a neoprene wetsuit, which at first seemed like a bad idea – it was way too hot to run with it for the first 10k of the race. However, once my body hit the first pond of freezing water, I was grateful for the wetsuit. Also for my preparation by taking regular cold showers and learning Wim Hof’s cold-water breathing methods.
So How Does Tough Guy Compare with Other Races?
It’s the toughest race I’ve ever done.
As I ran this ever tougher course, I thought that Mr. Mouse’s mind just has to be twisted to an untold extent. I also had to smile at how horrid Joe De Sena’s obstacles and challenges once seemed (Spartan Race Founder and another twisted fellow). Boy, did they pale in comparison.
I was actually surprised that there had only been one death over the last 30 years. The majority of people don’t reach that dangerous point (luckily) as they’re pulled out of the race as soon as they’re too hypothermic to continue. There’s a lot of broken bones, twisted ankles and other injuries that are par for the course at an OCR.
This year’s event has gotten mixed reviews online. Some are praising it as the best race they’ve done, while others complain that it was too slow with many queues. I side with the first crowd.
What about the competing athletes?
Even though there’s one heat, Tough Guy has its competitive side. The first few hundred elites are always at the front of the starting line pack.
This year’s results weren’t surprising, as the top of the finishers were two of the UK’s endurance greats:
Jon Albon and James Appleton (3x Tough Guy winner).
In comparison, with all the queueing it took me 3 hours to finish:
You can see how destroyed I look – it’s exactly how I felt.
If you wonder what the terrain’s like or how the course maps out on the 600 acre farm, here’s my Strava entry:
After those hours of true grit, I tumbled down the finishers hill and somehow found my way to my partner in crime Helena. We had a meeting spot and an estimated time of 2 hours 15 mins after start. After which I told her to check the paramedic tents. Luckily, she hadn’t raised the alarm when I got to the finish 45 minutes late. Better to arrive late than on crutches!
I’m simultaneously glad and disappointed that it’s the last Tough Guy ever. I didn’t get the hype before I tried it, but I’m sold on it now. I’d return for this challenge even though it destroyed me.