Tough Guy – mud, obstacles, ice and hypothermia
I'm doubled over and dripping wet. My head is throbbing, cloudy and numb. I've just dunked myself under water several times in an ice-filled lake and clambered up the bank to shore. A voice punctures the fog, "Are you okay mate?" And my conciousness snaps back enough for me to stand up straight and focus on the path ahead - leading to a 30ft cargo net structure. As I struggled to run in a straight line, a thought flashed into my head: is this the best moment to be tackling such a dangerous obstacle?... well, I wasn't going to wait around getting colder was I!
|Massive thanks to Ben Cawthra/LNP for this insane opening shot!|
I have run a lot of "tough" mud and obstacle events now, but none have been as much of a concern as this weekend's winter Tough Guy. I have taken part in the summer "Nettle Warrior" a couple of times and, although that's longer, the weather is obviously a darn sight better. Being fully aware of the amount of water obstacles at the event, I have been nervously watching the weather over the last couple of weeks get colder and colder. Although the air temperature was forecast to increase on Sunday, I was sure that the water would still be frozen. There was no doubt in my mind that this was going to be my toughest challenge to date. This is Mudstacle's Tough Guy review...
As I arrived on site I was astounded by the amount of people. A good 5,000 people were taking part and there were a lot of different accents and languages. I'm sure that this event puts a lot of people off, but it's clear to see that Tough Guy's reputation draws crazy idiots (like myself) from far and wide.
After a tense delay at the start line, hoards of runners came pouring downhill and onto the course. I jostled into a comfortable position and made my way through the fields, into ditches and over barriers. This was my comfort zone, I knew I could run well and I even knew I could get through the punishing hill slaloms okay. It wasn't until the "Big Bear Wood" where I knew my tiredness would kick in. The woods are filled with heavy cargo nets to push your way under. I'm not sure whether it's because I'm 6'6" and can't get as low as most people, but I dread those obstacles more than most things. Sure enough my thighs were punished and I was actually quite relieved to have a short dip in a river on the other side of the wood to cool me down.
|And they're off!|
Unbeknown to me, that was one of the last times that I'd feel my feet for the next couple of hours, as we trotted on to "The Grand National". This feature takes the form of a slalom across an icy water-filled ditch. You have to jump down the bank and up the other side of the ditch at least 10 times. At one point something as hard as a rock smashed into my shin as I jumped in. A little surprised, I reached down and picked up a 1 inch thick slab of ice. That was my first introduction to the hardness of ice... and I was going to be reminded a lot more of that over the next hour or so! Running away from the Grand National was very odd. Although I was loving life and my body had lots more to give, my feet were completely numb with cold!
Before long the legendary "Killing Fields" assault course was in sight and I tackled the first major obstacle - two 30 foot wooden A-frames to clamber over. After that, however, we took a detour to a new section of the course - a 100m length of lake to wade up and down. As I first scuttled in it wasn't the coldness that first hit me, it was a massive slab of ice smashing into my shin. The lake was filled with them and they were literally 2 inches thick and most were a good couple of feet in diameter! They honestly felt like floating lumps of concrete. My shins took the brunt of it at first, but as the water got deeper, they started to attack my knees then thighs, then eventually midsection. Then, as the water got deeper, my groin started to scream with pain in the freezing water. Guys all around me were crying out - it was excruciating! As we turned the corner and headed back towards shallower water, the ice smashed back into already bruised shins. This was a truly brutal addition to the course!
|Courtesy of @Gengiskem on twitter (thanks!)|
From then onwards, everything was far more familiar - climbing over large structures and jumping into waist-deep water. Thankfully, although there was plenty more ice around, none of it was quite as thick as that first lake, so it was just a matter of keeping chirpy and alert, as more of my body heat was chipped away with every dip.
One of the more intimidating features in the Killing Fields is the "Torture Chamber", a long dark wooden shack filled with watery ditches and dangling wooden poles, ready to crack you in the face. In amongst the logs are wires that give off an insane electric shock, which isn't something I'm keen on! The chamber was filled with blood-curdling screams and I decided that I would try to avoid the shocks at all costs. I scraped my face along the submerged floor in an effort to avoid them - I definitely saw that as the lesser of the two evils! The chamber's exit is a series of narrow concrete tunnels that slope up hill. They were incredibly slippery and cut skin like sandpaper. Getting up there was a cramped and exhausting experience.
|Thanks again to Ben Cawthra/LNP for the photo|
It wasn't long after the Torture Chamber that I faced the over-dramatic opening paragraph of this article. I waded along another long water section. Although I was feeling cold and numb, I was still in control and was pushing myself on as hard as I could. I approached a series of four logs on the surface of the water, which you had to duck under. Until that point, I had got wet all over but my head had managed to keep relatively warm. The first dunk hit me like a sledgehammer. I came up gasping for air after uncontrollable swallowing a mouthful of water. I was shell-shocked with a tightness squeezing my brain like an extreme ice-cream headache, and I had to do the same thing three more times! After making my way under the fourth log, I was completely dazed. I tried to focus on getting out of the lake. A kind and supportive marshal in diving gear checked that I was okay and pointed me in the direction of the bank. As I pulled myself out I came to realise how hard the coldness had hit me. I stumbled a few paces and then doubled over, as I fought to get my head together and get back in control of my limbs. I think it must have been a concerned spectator who shouted "Are you okay mate?" I felt bad for not acknowledging their concern with a response, but it had encouraged me to look up at the monstrous cargo net covered structure ahead that had captured my limited attention. I was very aware of how cold I had got and, although I didn't really feel in control of my limbs, the climb seemed like a good way of warming up a little.
Everything from that point onwards was a bit of blur. Instantly my head had switched from "competing" mode to "survival". It really is amazing how drastically the world had changed around me. After a climb, I found myself on the top of one of the largest structures, I'm guessing it was higher than a two story building. A strong, icy wind was whipping over it and the path ahead took the form of a series of narrow wooden planks with a large drop below that I didn't even want to consider. Although I try to suppress it, I'm not particularly good with heights and I had already established that I was incapable of walking in a straight line. I've faced the same obstacle several times in the Summer "Nettle Warrior" where I have swiftly told myself to man-up and get on with it. However I can honestly say that the next couple of minutes were petrifying. The only upside was that there were a couple of people ahead of me who were also freaking out, which made me feel like slightly less of a muppet! For the first section of planks we were able to hold on to a wooden railing to the side but there was a fair section where you had to walk un-aided. Although a few people walked past un-bothered, I was relieved to see the guys ahead of me getting onto all fours for the final section of planks, so I followed on behind them in a similar manner.
|Courtesy of Ben Cawthra/LNP|
Onwards I staggered, numb in the body and mind. Every time I fought for control, I was knocked back by another dip into cripplingly cold water. With some obstacles, submergence was unavoidable, like walking the plank 15 feet above water. However, I had lost my nimbleness and also fell from many of the other obstacles over water, and got wet when I didn't have to; compounding my problems. I was confused and uncoordinated and, like many people around me, I was starting to show signs of mild hypothermia. It was apparent that a lot of people weren't so lucky, I started to notice the sound of sirens more regularly, and saw a lot of people wrapped in foil being tended to by medics. In a way I found that comforting. Marshals were always concerned with our well being and were always checking to make sure we were okay. I knew that if things went badly wrong for me, there would be somebody on hand to help me out.
I was relieved to see the barbed wire crawl ahead of me, I knew that the end was close. I faced several paths under the wire - to the left there was hardly any gap between the floor and the barbs - to the right there was more head room but there was a deep trench of water. Several people in the crowd screamed for me to head right into the water trenches but I was so frustrated by getting wet that I headed left. It was tight and a painful crawl, in which I tore my clothes several times, it might have been the wrong decision but my judgement was all over the place.
|Unnecessary dunkings came thick and fast|
I picked myself up and let my legs go into auto-pilot, I looked down and watched them stumble numbly over stacks of tyres. It was like watching a video - I really wasn't in control of what was going on. I crawled under electric shock stingers and, as I stood up on the other side I found a camera being pushed in my face. "How did you find it?" came a voice. My brain tried to process what was going on. I remember trying to talk but nothing would come out. I moaned and groaned then forced myself to concentrate on what I was doing. Eventually I managed to squeeze out some words "...I'm speechless." Satisfied with my achievement, I trotted on. Looking back, I was clearly on another planet. If anyone sees that footage, please let me know, I'd love to see it!
From that point onwards I heard odd shouts of encouragement along with plenty of reassurances that the end was very close. After a final climb and slide under electric stingers I stumbled through the line. The marshal on the line asked me my number (I had lost the one attached to my shirt long ago). Again I tried to speak but again nothing came out but a slurred murmur. I managed to expose the chip on my shoe and eventually spat out "605".
|A while before I lost my mind!|
Beyond the line I was wrapped in silver foil and ushered into the recovery area, where a marshal took my gloves off and forced me to wash my hands. I had little control over what was going on but just felt myself being ushered along. Next thing I knew I had a cup of hot chocolate in my hands. I concentrated hard on it but I just saw it flying everywhere as my hands started to shake violently. I stumbled to the changing area and somebody asked me if I was okay. I forced myself to focus and I think I smiled and said I was fine in as chirpy a manner as I could muster I think he was another marshal. I looked around and it was like a war zone. It was 50-50 with people either looking completely normal or shivering uncontrollably. The marshals and medics definitely had their work cut out for them!
I found my bag but lost the energy to do anything with it. I curled up on the floor, but thankfully a burst of sense hit me. I knew that I didn't want to entertain resting before I was out of my wet clothes. Getting changed was a massive ordeal and I wasn't capable of the intricacies of undressing. I fumbled around trying to get my leggings off for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually I collapsed on my back dejectedly. A guy nearby (one of the capable 50%) came over and asked me if I needed a hand, and very kindly helped me to undress. I don't know who you are, but if you happen to read this thank you very much, I really don't think I could have done it without you! Anyway, I won't continue to bore you with my changing-room stories...
I gathered my things and wandered to the cafeteria area, where I thankfully bumped into my partner. Now, as lovely as Becky is, she's not the most sympathetic. She would sooner tell me to man-up and get on with it after most of these events, but she was genuinely worried. I was shaking uncontrollably so she sat me down and ran off to get another hot chocolate. I felt the shivers coming on heavier and heavier. Looking back I was well into moderate hypothermia, but at the time I wasn't particularly concerned, just dazed. While Becky was gone a man started telling me I was too cold and tried to force a cup of tea into my hand. I murmured and mumbled and eventually explained that I had a hot chocolate coming. He wouldn't take no for an answer though and continued to force me, but I refuse as politely as I could. Becky arrived and he calmed down a little, I thanked him massively, even getting a little emotional with the amount of kindness that he'd shown... I was clearly in cloud cuckoo land! Becky handed me the hot chocolate and half of it ended up on my lap as I continued to shake violently. Even when I managed to get the cup to my lips, I couldn't really swallow its contents - it was useless to me. I explained to Becky that I had to wait around because I had arranged to meet some people after the race. Although I protested, she ushered me up and forced me in the direction of the car park. We passed a marshal on the way who asked me if I'd do it again. "Hell yes!" was my response. He carried on talking to me and I noticed that he was looking at me intensely. I realised that he might not have just been passing niceties; he was checking to make sure that I was okay. By that point I was getting a little more practised at talking, so I think I passed the test.
Within 5 minutes of being back in the car with the heaters on, my shivers came under control. My head was still a little fuzzy but I was well on the way to recovery. I talked nonsense all of the way home and was unaware of most things, but physically I was starting to feel okay.
|An all too familiar sight on the course|
So, there you have it. I feel like I have rambled on more about the affects of the course than the actual course itself! But that is what this event is about. It's not the longest course and it doesn't require the highest level of fitness, but one thing's for sure, it is the toughest. With this year's weather at least, it was an insane assault on the senses. You are brutalised every step of the way in so many different ways. I have utmost respect for everyone who finished the race. Even more so for those that finished in 4 hours than those that finished in 2. I don't know if I could have spent much more time on course than I did.
I have to give massive congratulations and thanks to the organisational team on the day. This event requires an immense amount of support (literally as a matter of life and death). That support was there every step of the way. Sure, their website and marketing is confusing and their communications are unfathomable at times, but Mr Mouse and the team really know how to run an exceptional obstacle course race!
More awesome photos from Ben Cawthra can be found on bencawthra.photoshelter.com