The man behind the Nuts – How an ex-para created the UK’s best assault course
I have the massive honour to present our recent interview with the founder of Nuts Challenge, Wayne Monkman. Regular Mudstacle readers will know how highly I rate Wayne’s events and I have just as much respect for the man behind the magic.
Wayne’s a fascinating guy and I could have talked to him all night. He’s filled with stories and anecdotes that not only show how authentic and influential his military background is, but also hint at how much good he’s done for the community and many other projects along the way.
For those who are new to the Nuts Challenge, it’s a heavily packed obstacle course race near Reigate in Surrey. The course is “only” 7km long, but they run four multi-lap distance options at their March and September events: 7km, 14km, 21km and 28km. There are an immense range of people who come along, from fun runners, to hen parties to serious endurance athletes - it really has something to delight everyone. What’s more, back at their March event they helped raise over £100,000 for charity!
Wayne and wife Nina with 911 General (Cambodian King's Guard)
I’ve found it really hard to edit this article down; we covered so much interesting stuff! It’s well worth a read, so grab a brew and get stuck in...
Hi Wayne, it’s so great to talk to you. I’ve been a big fan of Nuts Challenge since taking part in your three lap race last September. It struck me as something really special straight away and knocked me for six in terms of difficulty. Having come back in March to run four laps, I’d say that you’re setting up some of the most challenging races on the market. Yet people still seem to totally underestimate what’s in store at Nuts Challenge.
Yes, that’s right, the thing is we don’t tend to push the “tough guy” image so the people on the longer course options often get a bit of a shock! I don’t know whether that’s where we fall down or stand up.
I think it’s where you stand apart. Definitely. When I came to do three laps last September, I thought 21km was doable. It’s a bit longer than Nettle Warrior and a similar distance to Tough Mudder, I’d done both of them, so thought “it’ll be fine.” But it absolutely destroyed me. I got through, but it took everything I had!
That’s it, quite often we’ll have people who have done the other races, they book up for three laps and just make it around one. After breaking through the ice on the lake back in March, we were having a chat about how we didn’t think many people would get though the 7km let alone the 14km and a few guys overheard us. They said “we’ll be alright, we did Tough Mudder.” So we chuckled amongst ourselves and said, “oh in that case you’ll be okay!” Not one of them did, not one of them got around 14km. Of course March is a different story with the cold. We don’t want to scare people off, it’s a difficult balance.
I loved the fact that it was so much more than I ever expected it to be, so I’m 100% in the camp that says it’s your strength rather than your weakness. I think so many people are going to run and fail and hopefully come back more prepared... either that or come back and enjoy a one lap option next time (which is a doable challenge for most).
Wayne and his regiment earning their German military wings, back in 1978
So has your military background moulded the way that Nuts Challenge is?
Definitely. I did my parachute regiment training back in ‘67 when I was 17. We had 100 guys started and only 19 completed and we lost a couple of guys along the way.
Woh! How did that come about?
We had an assault course up in the air. One of the guys fell off and broke his back - it was pretty tough! Hardest thing we had to do was 51 mile exercise across the Brecon Beacon in full kit. I lost a couple good friends to hypothermia on that one.
Obviously we’re not out to recreate anything that dangerous, but a lot of what we learnt was mental toughness as well as the physical. So that’s a massive part of what we’re trying to do with the Nuts Challenge. If you’re coming around on the second lap and you’re approaching the finish line, it’s a mental thing. You’ll be thinking “I’ve paid for three laps but I could just take the easy route and finish here”. If you carry on you know what’s in front of you. That’s the secret of the multi-lap challenges. Your body can only go as far as your mind can take you. I mean, you know that, you’ve been through the course. Your mind has to be set on it. I think that’s what makes us different. We try to have that thing where it’s continuous. One obstacle after another after another.
I definitely felt that when I did four laps in March. My thought process and motivation changed massively over that four hours. From the start I wasn’t very confident; I had a couple of tweaky injuries and wasn’t sure whether I could make it through. I knew how hard it was and I knew how cold it was and I just wasn’t sure I had it in me. But as soon as I got through that first lap I felt great, I thought to myself “yeh, you know what, I can do this!” For a while I felt amazing but as soon as I hit that last lap it all just fell apart again. I don’t even know how many races I’ve run now, but nothing has ever compared to that kind of mind game.
Pete, beyond exhaustion, near the end of four laps in March
I’m glad you’ve said that because that’s exactly what we were trying to do from the beginning! That whole thought pattern. That planning in your brain. That’s exactly it. That’s what comes out in the regiment. That’s what it’s all about.
Our whole image is built around original thought, it isn’t meant to be pretty. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of American military films where you have these beautifully laid out assault courses, but that’s not really how it should be. You should use the natural environment as much as you can. Keeping the pressure on, so that you go over one obstacle and think it’s over then you go around the corner and you’ve got more.
But yeh, I remember back in March, there was just six that made it and three of them were your Mudstacle guys!
Yeh, that’s right, I’m pretty pleased about that. It’s not a bad record!
I think it’s brilliant, I was so pleased that you guys made it through. It made my day, I was smiling the whole time because that was bloody hard. I think it’s the hardest race I’ve seen. The cold was taking people out left, right and centre. It’s a hell of an achievement to get around that!
How many obstacles would you say that you face per lap?
I don’t know. My thought is that an obstacle is something where you stop running and think about it. In terms of man made obstacles, there’s around 60. They’re not big compared to some races, they’re designed to whittle away your energy bit by bit. But, when you include all of the natural features, there are way over 100 obstacles to negotiate per lap.
So tell us a little about the history of the course.
It all started out when I was working with Chris Ryan [Former British Special Forces operative come writer, check out his wiki]. He wanted to select a team for a mission and we wanted to whittle 100 guys down to four. We sent them around an endurance assault course and really put them through their paces. Then at the end we’d get them to fire off several rounds. I remember some of them getting down on the ground to take aim and throwing up from exhaustion. When we saw that, we thought it was a bloody good idea for a competition.
We started running ad-hoc events and military training camps based on a natural course. For those who know the course, the section with the rivers and banks has been going for 15 years. Then in 2004 we set up the “Pegasus Bridge Project” to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of D-Day, where we got a group of young people from all sorts of backgrounds and trained them in a second world war style - with the same equipment and everything. It was all leading up to the end of the project where they achieved their Dutch military wings (where we threw them out of a second world war Dakota over the historical drop zone of the 6th Airborn Division). One of their training objectives, just like the second world war soldiers, was to build their own assault course. So the young people themselves built the main central section of the Nuts Challenge course that still stands today, with the rope swing, wall climb, barbed wire crawl, tyres, etc. Once it was constructed they had to go over that course every morning and improve their time.
We’ve also done a lot of film work. In 2010 we did a similar project with Channel 5 called “The Battle of Arnhem - Tour of Duty”, where we trained and prepared a group of teenagers to recreate the 1944 parachute ariel assault on the Netherlands. It was an amazing story, they all actually parachuted in on TV.
Wayne (2nd on the right) with the Thailand Royal King's Guard. Ian (kneeling on the left) will be parachuting in to the September Nuts Challenge.
How did Nuts then grow out of these ad-hoc events?
We started out by having groups of 30 or 40 people and it’s gradually built. Every time we ran an event it doubled, to 80, then 160 and that’s how it went. Then all of a sudden in the last couple of years the whole thing has mushroomed, hasn’t it!?
So you were developed into a well established event at the right time!
I would say we were already there with a good sized client base, so yeh. Back when we started there weren’t any other competing events that we were aware of. Then it just built it up bit by bit. It was when the Americans brands hit the scene that it all changed.
Yeh, I guess the likes of Tough Mudder and Spartan have really done you guys a favour.
It’s like going to a village that only has a little pub in a front room. When a bigger pub opens up down the road, more people start drinking. Then people will go and try all the different pubs and restaurants and will eventually choose the ones they like. So yes, they’ve helped to kick it all off.
I’ve been involved in all sorts of outdoor pursuits over the years. I got involved in the early days of paintballing competitions, in fact we started it off in the UK. The big two american franchises at the time were Skirmish and Survival Game. The Brits invented it and then the Americans came over and made it big.
How does the March event differ to September?
The March one is totally different to September. I don’t know if you remember but Jonathan Albon won the September race - he was whipping round so fast and doing stuff like the obstacles weren’t there. But come March he passed out on the third lap - bang, gone! Maybe it was because of his build, maybe not wearing the right gear or maybe because he missed out on a few all important fuel stops..
I had seen him at the start line and remember thinking, okay great, see you on the flip side, you’ll win for sure, but I was amazed when I heard that he had dropped out. I only caught up with him a couple of weekends ago about it. It was mad hearing about how he had got completely confused and stopped for a sleep and just not got up again, then just got picked up and driven back to the event village.
Yes, I had a long chat to him afterwards and he’s a really great guy. What I love about this is that everyone involved are just really nice people. It hasn’t got to that point where people start to get overly competitive. There’s a real camaraderie and friendliness, which is great.
So what’s new for September?
We’re currently widening part of the course so that we can cut down on congestion in the central section. We’ve been analysing footage and making decisions on what needs to be added.
I didn’t face any congestion on the Sunday but having walked around a lot on the Saturday it looked like the sloped tunnels coming out the the river were a bit of a bottle-neck. Nothing too bad though - I’ve seen a LOT worse!
We’re making all of that twice as wide. Every now and then we’d get a log jam but that’s the nature of the course to an extent. The longest run is 300-400 metres at the beginning after that it’s obstacle after obstacle.
So are there any new obstacles?
We’ve been planning a couple of new obstacles! I think we’re going to keep them secret for now and drip feed them nearer the time - as soon as you bring something out somebody copies it.
Yes, I’ve noticed a few obstacles around that were unique to you guys. Tough Mudder’s new floating platforms were very similar to what you guys have got set up.
Ha! Yes, I guess it’s quite similar. That was a thing we originally put together for a corporate team building event, where they had to work together to build a pontoon. It made a good addition to the Nuts course!
We’re also turning the September event into a bit of a family event and military show. We’ll have a climbing wall and will be getting all the military vehicles and reenactors to come along. Some of my guys are going to do a parachute display, dropping right into the start line. The one who gets closest to the start will win a prize.
Are they going to run straight into the course from there?
No! Most of the lads are around my age, so they’re more likely to just head straight to the beer tent!
On that note, we’re going to have live music in the day. Then a big fire and an acoustic set later on after dark. We’re going up a notch basically.
I hope the weather stays nice!
We’ll be okay, we’re getting two massive marcquees going up.
How many people do you expect to get signed up?
We’ve already got 2,000 people booked up and we’re thinking about going to 3,000. Keeping it at 300 per wave but maybe pushing more waves into the Sunday to keep the long course runners company!
Cool, well, I think I had better stop things there, but it’s great talking to you Wayne. I’m really looking forward to taking part again in September!
Great, cheers Pete.
Find out more about the race on www.thenutschallenge.co.uk