I’m lying, prostrate, in thick, clammy, cold mud.
My filthy face is tear-streaked and I’m not sure if the shakes in my arms are down to fear, low blood sugar, (one jelly baby can only provide so much fuel), exhaustion… or all three.
In the last two hours I’ve ‘walked’ (been pushed off) a 12ft high plank into a murky lake, yelped through eight foot high nettles, fallen off a rope ladder (jarring my back) been electrocuted, and had to be rescued, whimpering, from an underground tunnel.
Now, I’m summoning the energy to drag myself, commando style, beneath endless banks of barbed wire. Glancing up I see my parents wide-eyed with horror among the spectators. My mum actually has her hand to her mouth.
They’d cheerfully packed their picnic rug, Thermos and grandkids that morning, to cheer me on in, what they thought would be, a jolly cross country race.
“I’ve seen some rough things in my time but, by God, that was brutal,’ Dad stormed later. “What were you thinking of? Don’t ever do anything like that again. Ever.”
Now wasn’t the time to confess I’d signed up for the winter version – reputed to be even harder…
Tough Guy – hailed as the world’s toughest endurance race – celebrates its 25th birthday this year. Every January and July adventurers from all corners of the globe descend on a corner of farmland in rural Wolverhampton to take on the challenge.
But which is toughest – the height-of-summer Nettle Warrior or the bitterly cold Winter Tough Guy?
Most of us would assume that there is no contest, surely. It has to be the winter one. But, organiser and founder Billy Wilson, aka Mr Mouse, insists it’s not that clear-cut.
“They’re both equally hard,” he says. “Right from the beginning we thought ‘how can we equal the winter one’. ‘How do you make the summer one as tough as cracking through ice?’
The answer? Introduce ‘hybrid super strength stinging nettles’ and an extra lap of the Killing Field obstacles. It’s an ‘evil twist’ he admits ‘… less of the cold – more of the pain’.
“If you have done the winter one first it can be a real shock to find out that a summer one can be that much more difficult,” he says.
There was only one way to find out. Both Nettle Warrior and Tough Guy have long been on my ‘races to do’ list. I’ve spectated several times – laughing uproariously at competitors receiving electric shocks or clinging on to the precariously swinging parallel ropes over Dragon Pool.
Gathering on the start line last July I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be nearly as funny. “You’re all very quiet,” the compare mocked over his crackly microphone. “Are you scared…?”
As the cannon fired and smoke bombs erupted it was like a battle scene from Braveheart as we stormed down the famous steep hill.
Within minutes, my hopes of a straightforward ‘cross country’ run were dashed– as I screeched to a halt at a deep water-filled ditch… the first of many.
As fellow competitors leaped in and out like gazelles I tentatively stepped in, sank to my knees in the quicksand-like mud and toppled over.
My upper body strength is rubbish – and boy did it show, as I hung feebly from a rope, unable to wriggle even a fraction up the steep bank.
Suddenly, my buttocks were grabbed and I was being propelled skywards with a rallying cry of ‘go on, love, up you go’. I’d just experienced my first taste of the famous Tough Guy camaraderie. For the next three hours I was hoisted, shoved and dragged over, under and through obstacles. Without the man-handling, I’d still be out there now.
I fared better on the slalom (a gruelling, glute-busting up and down run along a steep hill) but struggled on the Big Bear Wood – endless giant fences and ‘bent-double running’ under pony-tail grabbing heavy cargo nets – and failed miserably at the energy-sapping Gurkha Grand National – yet more endless ditch crossing.
My joy at spotting the first Killing Fields obstacle – which meant the run was finally over – was short-lived. Close up the two giant 40ft A’ frames of the Tiger are huge – separated by a field of innocent looking ribbons. But these Electric Eels pulsate with enough electricity to stun a cow. Yells, howls and expletives rang out as limbs were zapped (much to the delight of the watching spectators) so I was amazed to emerge unscathed. For now…
Every competitor comes face to face with their worst nightmare during the race. I’ve heard people talk in hushed tones about the water tunnel but I found it surprisingly easy – holding my nose and scrunching up my eyes.
My own personal terror lay within the Underground Interrogation Pits – a re-enactment of the Vietcong tunnels built under American camps during the Vietnam War.
Crawling through chest deep water, getting clunked on the head by heavy blackthorn posts isn’t a laugh a minute. But I was bewildered at the blood-curdling screams ringing out around me. It wasn’t that bad.
I hadn’t seen those innocent looking ribbons…. Crack. My left arm jolted violently and I shrieked. As a searing pain coursed through my right buttock, I screamed. Another caught me in the leg. ‘Ow!’ I shrieked. ‘Ow, ow, ow.’
As well as being zapped by wires I was also receiving shocks passing through the water from other howling competitors. Panic rose, my breath coming in ragged gasps as the zaps came thick and fast.
I’ll be eternally grateful to the competitor behind me who shoved me forward until I somersaulted off a ledge, fell head-first into another water-filled pit and had to be dragged up coughing and spluttering.
I clung to my rescuer until we emerged into daylight – then promptly burst into very girly tears.
My second low point came at the Splosh Pool where I hovered, trembling, on a plank trying to pluck up the courage to jump twelve feet into a murky lake. All I had to do was jump. All around me tougher guys were leaping in with ‘way-hays’ of triumph. But I just couldn’t do it.
In desperation, I turned to the competitor waiting behind me. ‘Can you push me?’ I implored. Then I closed my eyes. The drop went on forever. I was still shrieking when I hit the water.
My ordeal was far from over. On one of the many wooden obstacles (they all blurred into one after a while) I was gingerly climbing a rope net when an over-enthusiastic competitor leaped onto it enthusiastically. As it shook violently, I lost my grip and fell off. Landing heavily on my arse in shallow water my teeth clattered. I saw stars.
“We’ve got a faller,” someone shouted and two medics materialised. Having ascertained I wasn’t paralysed (I’ve already got a compressed vertebra from a sledging accident in my teens) I was more worried that my top had ridden up exposing my white, rounded belly to all and sundry and scrambled unsteadily to my feet. “I’m alright,’ I insisted and stumbled on, angrily wiping away yet more tears. Hitting the wall in a marathon was nothing compared to this.
Even worse was the thought of having to do the whole lap again.
A fellow competitor took pity on me as I hovered, trembling, at the entrance to the interrogation pits repeating ‘no, no, no…’ to myself. (I think I was on the edge of a breakdown at this point).
‘Come this way, love – you’ll be ok,’ he said, taking my hand. Still whimpering, I crawled in behind him and followed his path. He was right. ‘Thank you,’ I gushed. If I wasn’t already married I’d have proposed there and then.
For the second Splosh Pool, I was beyond even being pushed. ‘Jump with me,’ the man on the next plank enthused. ‘One… two…’
Seeing as I had absolutely no intention of joining him voluntarily, he firmly took my hand and yanked me in with him.
Finally, I was on the last obstacle – Viagra falls… a water slide and yet more overhanging electric wires.
Unfortunately, an impatient competitor tired of my snail’s pace progress, set off too early and clattered into me in spectacular fashion – sending us both hurtling into the water.
Winded and wincing, I hobbled over the finish line.
The thought of doing it all over again in winter filled me with terror. I was black and blue (mums at the school gate queued up to gasp at my bruised knees and shins) with a jarred lower back and cracked left rib.
Friends and family urged me to throw the towel in. “It was hard enough on a sunny day – what will it be like in the depths of winter?’ they all implored.
But I’m a stickler for doing a job properly. I’d signed up. I was doing it. I just didn’t tell Dad.
After rest and chiropractic treatments a weight-training friend offered to transform me from wimp to warrior.
Three times a week, I performed bicep curls, press-ups, squats and step-ups. In between I sought out the muddiest, wettest, filthiest, cross country routes.
But as the race approached, and the temperatures plummeted, fear gnawed at my stomach.
I don’t ‘do’ cold. I wear thermals just to sit at my desk. How would I survive Arctic conditions?
Tough Guy has had one fatality. (A peace memorial garden is dedicated to 44 year old Michael Green who died of a heart attack in the Millennium event). I woke in cold sweats – vividly imagining all the possible ways I’d be joining him.
A gung-ho 20 stone competitor landing on my head in the Splosh Pool? Getting stuck under solid ice? I hadn’t even considered personal insurance first time around. Second time it was unthinkable not to*.
Signing the Nettle Warrior death warrant at registration had been a hoot. This time, my scrawl under the ‘I confirm that if I should die on Tough Guy route 2013 it is my own bloody fault for coming’ statement was decidedly shaky.
Lining up for the start, I couldn’t bring myself to join in the rousing rendition of Oggy Oggy Oggy.
The first difference was the sheer numbers. While 1400 started Nettle Warrior last summer (far less than the usual 3,500 because of the website being sabotaged by hackers, says Mr Mouse), 4,200 started Winter Tough Guy. (Some 1,000 more didn’t even make it to the start line).
From the outset, competitors were far more serious. Eyes glinted with determination to get to the front and avoid obstacle queues. There was a fair amount of ungallant elbowing, shoving and jostling as the run started.
The second difference? The temperature. We’re talking bone chillingly, skin-burningly cold. And then there was the mud. A sudden thaw had created a shoe-sucking, energy-sapping quagmire. Running was nigh-on impossible.
Thanks to the training, dragging myself out of ditches was far easier. The slalom however was a million times worse as we crawled up sheer muddy banks on all fours and slid down on bottoms.
Layered up to the hilt I actually started sweating. It didn’t last long. Feet numb with cold is one thing. But feet numb with cold and heavy with mud is worrying – especially when trying to hoik your legs over obstacles 40 feet high.
Mr Mouse promises a new, brutal obstacle for every Tough Guy. He didn’t disappoint with the Gallipoli landings.
Wading into an ever-deeper Arctic lake triggered excruciating pain. Every cell screamed. I found myself noisily performing the yogic breathing I’d mastered for childbirth. People were crying out in agony – both from the sheer cold and collisions with chunks of razor-sharp ice.
My husband has video footage of me stumbling slowly from the lake… a broken woman.
Once again, the interrogation pits rang with blood curdling screams – but I remembered the safe route from last time and escaped shock free. I was lucky.
We learned afterwards that a teenage competitor was dragged unconscious from the tunnels after knocking himself out while dodging a shock.
“Luckily behind him was a paramedic policeman who dragged him out and pummelled him to squeeze the water out of him,” said Mr Mouse. “He coughed back to life.”
Local newspaper reports were more dramatic – recounting how rescuers performed CPR. He was airlifted to hospital but discharged the following day – and presented with his horse brass in person by Mr Mouse – who asked forums whether the electric wires should be removed. The answer was a resounding no. But he says: “We will be improving safety and installing people inside the tunnels. It’s made us realise we need to have observers in there all the time. Accidents can happen.”
Nettle Warrior might have been hard – but I never doubted I’d finish. With Tough Guy you can’t be so sure – no matter how hard you’ve trained. Once the cold creeps into your bones, it becomes a teeth-gritting race against the clock to finish before hypothermia sets in. The thought of getting so far – only to be unceremoniously dragged off the course and wrapped in a foil blanket was unbearable.
As Splosh Pool loomed, I prepared to meet my maker. Instead, I met Lady Luck.
With competitors dropping like flies with hypothermia (two per minute at one point), medics were struggling to cope. For the first time in race history, marshalls were closing the deep water obstacles. Reader, I will not lie. Given the option, I walked – nay, skipped around the planks and headed straight for the brain-freezing water tunnels.
Atop one of the giant obstacles I experienced a surreal moment, gazing down at ambulances ferrying the injured away. As the wind whistled around me and the air filled with sirens, cries, yelps, screams and shouts, it was like a war zone.
By the time I reached Tyre Torture – three obstacles from the finish – runners were in a bad way. One man, clad only in shorts and t-shirt, (how he’d made it this far without a hat, defied belief) was stumbling unsteadily with mad staring eyes. When a chap fell for the fifth time a woman held out her hand to him and they continued together. I felt choked.
Finally, there was just one obstacle to go. Faced with Viagra Falls (no thanks) or a wade through a lake. I chose the wade.
As the finish line appeared like a mirage – I sprinted towards it with renewed energy. It was over. I was still alive. And I never had to do it again.
The hot drink placed into my cupped hands shook violently. I was bruised, battered, filthy, and chilled to the bone – but invincible, proud and elated.
I was staggered at how long it had taken. Despite being 7km shorter, it had taken 3 hours and 7 minutes) – only 19 minutes slower than the summer event (3:26).
My Nettle Warrior and Tough Guy horse brasses now hang proudly side by side for all to see. So which one was harder?
I found the summer one more brutal – simply because I wasn’t prepared – either mentally or physically. I’ve done seven marathons and a half ironman but Nettle Warrior, was the toughest thing I’ve ever done.
However, had my first experience been Winter Tough Guy I’m not sure I’d have survived – let alone finished. Because I’d already experienced the horrors I had an idea of what to expect.
Tough Guy is shorter but brutally cold. Nettle Warrior is warmer – but longer and relentless.
Which one is toughest? The first one you do – regardless of when it falls in the calendar. I can promise you – nothing else after Nettle Warrior/Tough Guy will ever be so bad….
PS. And, yes, my Dad went ballistic afterwards…