Only for Tough Guys

Translated from the original text: A version from this text was published at Piauí Magazine 64 (Brazil, april/2012).

Mud, hypothermia and electrical shocks in the world’s toughest race

It was a typical winter Sunday, in Perton, Staffordshire, a place about 20 minutes from Wolverhampton, England. A thin layer of ice was covering many points from the lakes that are part of the Tough Guy’s course – a race that is considered by many (and self-proclaimed) the toughest race in the world. It was about 1ºC that january morning, when a cannon shot the starting signal, releasing a rabble of 3.4 thousand people, from many ages, coming from all around the world, some of them in costumes. There were a good percentage of women and maybe a dozen men in ballet skirts. From those people that started the race – according with statistics from the organization – at least one third will not finish the route of about 13km.

The mastermind of the race is Billy Wilson, most known as “Mr. Mouse”, a pleasant 73 years old man, porting an emblematic moustache. Mr. Mouse was walking around, nattily dressed with his kilt, inspecting closely all details for the beginning of the race. He is experienced in races organization. Tough guy evolved from some cross country trails that he used to organize and dispute. There are no official register, but this winter obstacle marathon happens every year since at least 1987.

“Every year we try to add something for a more difficult race. Sometimes we make some change in the route or we add new turns at the Slaloms… some change to make an obstacle a little bigger or tougher. Anything for a different race every time someone does it. I raced it eleven times in the winter and eight times in the summer and it was different each one from another”, said Paul Gossy, 46, who, further on the organization, is one of the marshals around the place, helping the competitors that fail in keep going. “We used to have some electrical wires at the Tiger, and now we put some at Interrogation Pit, some at Viagra Falls. This year we have electrical wires everywhere.”

Electrical socks, however, are only a tiny part of the sadism to be faced in the Killing Fields, the obstacles camp in the end of the course. This masochism also includes drag toward pipes, jump fires, crawl under barbed wires, hang in high ropes, transcend tire mountains, jump and dive in almost-frozen lakes… Obstacles also have some suggestive names, such as “Torture Chamber”, “Vietcong tunnels” or “Death Plunge”.

“The water tunnels are the worst part. Cold is definitely the bigger problem. Even in the summer, some people have problems with hypothermia, especially the thinner ones, that can’t retain so much warm. This year we are lucky with the weather. In our worst year, we had -9ºC and there were a thick 10cm ice layer in the lakes. Before the start, we had to break the ice for the competitors jump in”, said Paul.

Hypothermia, hyperthermia, dehydration, flesh rippers, broken bones. The race’s collateral effects list is present in a folder given to all participants at the sign up. Using Comic-Sans and stretched images, the folder informs that “Everyone should have a current tetanus vaccine. I have watched horses die slowly as lockjaw sets in to all joints” – what made me vainly force my memory of all my vaccinations. “I confirm that, if I should die on Tough Guy, that it is my own bloody fault for coming”, also said the commitment term that everyone had to sign. During the race, the traffic of medics and ambulances are constant. Spectators are accepted, but not recommended – this way the medical traffic gets easier and they can worry exclusively with competitors. The race has already two fatal victims: in 2000 and 2007, when competitors had heart attacks due to hypothermia.

However, obstacles are not restricted to killing fields, but are spread all over the course. It’s a cruel path, that includes going up and down a hill many times, cross a muddy stream, jump walls and telegraph poles and crawl under nets in a forest. During the race, there are no rivalry between competitors; instead everybody cooperates together pushing each other to overcome obstacles. It’s the kind of competition where “finish” is more important than “finish first”. The edition of 2012 had, besides some break bones and a few hundred hypothermia cases, 2851 finalists, between 17 and 69 years old.

When asked for the reason of doing something so stupid, most of participants don’t have a ready answer. “I think I was drunk when I made my registration.”, said Paula Ijzerman, 36, product manager from a multinational. “And mud. There something with the mud. I love mud.”

“My mother finished the race ten years ago and, since then, I am trying to gather courage to also do it.”, said the RH manager Fiona Wynne, 34, that even dragged three friends to this folly event.

“I believe that is something with living your life at maximum”, said Pio Cardoza, 41, while preparing himself for his second Tough Guy in a row. Pio already finished three marathons around the world and considers this race much harder than any other. “In a marathon, everything you have to do is keep going, keep running. Not here: There are so much things to worry about and you have a lot going in your head… and there is the frozen water, the height, dark indoors… all your fears have to be faced.”

Peter Fee, 41, came from New York just for the race: “The sensation before the beginning, the satisfaction of finishing, those are feelings that I will never forget”, said after the end of the race. And he pretends to do it again: “This whole event elevated me as a person to an upper level. I can hardly wait for next year.”

Finalists are welcomed with a thermal blanket, tea, hot chocolate and cookies. I finished the race in 3h41, tottering. When crossing the finish line, I couldn’t feel my frozen feets anymore, had a muddy taste in my mouth, cramps in five different points of my legs and didn’t ever pretended to that madness again in my life. During the race, however, while crossing an obstacle called skywalker, I’ve been overpast for a 60 years old competitor that was doing the race for the 35th time, between winter and summer editions. That was really a tough guy.