Why is it that stories about the crazy things people put themselves through never get old? We don’t know. But this story is way more interesting than whatever that answer is.
What I desperately need right now are simple things: ibuprofen, a hot shower, and a large box of Q-tips. Antibiotics -- thanks to the sheer tonnage of pasture effluent that invaded what the ancient Egyptians called the seven openings of the head -- will be vital eventually, but that must wait until I fly home. The cleansing of my foul racing gear will also have to wait till I arrive home. My shorts, shirt, and socks are currently limning a permanent mud oval around the heretofore virgin-white bathroom sink in Wolverhampton’s Ely House Hotel. My running shoes, meanwhile, will be left behind when I check out in the morning -- they’re too emotionally scarred to ever run an honest mile again. As if all that isn’t enough, a glance in the mirror shows a man with a face lined and gray, at least two decades older than his actual age.
I look, quite frankly, broken.
This is my life after Tough Guy, a seven-mile odyssey of pain, suffering, and freezing-water immersion. The title is tongue-in-cheek, but the cruel severity of the competition is not. Since its inception in 1986, Tough Guy has become an increasingly worldwide phenomenon, beckoning otherwise sane men and women to the British West Midlands in the dead of winter to sprint through pastures, scramble through thorns, jitterbug through electric cattle prods dangling like Portuguese man-of-wars from ropes strung above knee-deep mud, climb and descend acres of cargo netting, and swim underwater through an icy pond.
There is icy and there is icy, so let me explain the concept of “Tough Guy icy” in order that you might better understand what happens here: During the 2006 race, competitors actually had to break through frozen pond ice for the privilege of full-body immersion. Seven hundred competitors later succumbed to hypothermia, and more than a dozen were so numb that they simply toppled off the large obstacles and broke various bones. Folks like me -- and many of you -- saw this as a litmus test. The number of Tough Guy applications submitted almost doubled the next year.
This is the ultimate end of the running boom, and it is something far beyond the passive metronome of the Hawaiian Ironman, in which competitors pound out their miles in quiet, monotonous hell. Tough Guy, with its bagpipes and mud and frozen Borats, is a massive mutation of competition into something primal and potentially deadly.
It’s as if endurance racing has not moved forward to become something more modern and sleek and welcoming for the sheer act of being simpler, but backward -- to toughness and to a time and place when and where mankind raced through mud and cold because rapid forward locomotion was the only sort of feral behavior that kept it alive.
They line us up just before 11-ish in the morning. We -- the Front Squad -- stand on the brow of a hill while strange men dressed like pirates weed out the poseurs who have dared to move forward and infiltrate our lead pack. I wear a trash bag with holes poked out for my head and arms to keep out the freezing chill until the starting gun sounds; my hardier British compatriots wear just shorts and T-shirts. The temperature is in the high 30s, and though the sky offers hope that the sun may appear, it remains a dirty gray. There are 7,000 competitors here who have paid hard-earned money to clamber up and down and through this course.
How much? The entry fee starts at around $50, but I shelled out $400 extra for the privilege of starting with the Front Squad in order to avoid getting stuck behind the great mass of humanity farther back. (It’s worth noting that I didn’t even bother to include this absurd dollar amount in my American Way expense account, knowing that such an ungodly figure would be dismissed as some sort of weird fantasy by accounts payable. Look, you pay the money out of passion. There’s no other way to explain it.)
Among the competitors are women; men; SAS soldiers; Navy SEALs; two guys with Air Force Academy Rugby gear bags who have painted their bodies red, white, and blue; and a guy in a Day-Glo green Borat-style banana hammock.
As the select few of us in the Front Squad await the inevitable cannon blast that will launch us into Tough Guy, Mr. Mouse, also known as Billy Wilson -- eccentric owner of the property and the organizer of Tough Guy -- places the Front Squad interlopers into nearby stocks, where they are roundly jeered by the thousands of spectators and racers. Somewhere on the hillock behind us, bagpipers begin a patriotic dirge. Mr. Mouse, a stoic man with a gray walrus mustache and a mysterious past, steps to one side of the long frozen line of the Front Squad. Now seems like a good time to strip off the trash bag and feel the brisk winter air against my skin.
Just then, at 11-ish on the dot, Tough Guy begins.
If it sounds horrible, it is. And yet …
If you can imagine an endurance race that combines the absurd best of Monty Python with the punishing numbness of Navy SEAL training, then you can comprehend Tough Guy. To go one step further: If you are the sort of person who doesn’t just imagine such a race but also hears an irrational voice in the back of your brain as you read this copy of American Way (which you plucked out of the seat pocket randomly but now wonder if it’s part of some act of fate) asking if you are indeed Tough Enough , then I am almost positive that one January very soon, no matter the status of your marriage or career or credit card balances, you will not consider your life complete until a Tough Guy finisher medal hangs around your neck. You know who you are.
Here’s my story. I first learned of Tough Guy on a flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles years ago while watching race footage on a small seat-back screen. My headphones didn’t work, and I was half asleep. Yet those miserable images of the filthy, drenched bodies of the competitors, who looked like Battle of Agincourt reenactors, called out to me. It was a kindred spirit of sorts, and I knew I had to be part of it. I did not find Tough Guy, as it were. Tough Guy found me.
A sulfurous cloud of yellow smoke envelops the Front Squad as we gallop down the first quarter mile of pasture, each of us knowing that the rest of the pack will soon be racing to catch up. Eyes burn. Throat stings. My feet search for smooth purchase -- a simple buckle in the turf can roll an ankle and make my race even more daunting before it actually kicks into high gear. I suppose I could quit if I broke an ankle. Anybody could.
But what sort of man flies a fourth of the way around the world, leaving behind wife and children, to validate his Tough Guy-ness , only to come up short within the opening minutes? I’ve been there, my friends. I’ve been there. I once rode a mountain bike through the jungles of Saipan on a bare rim because I didn’t want to face my wife’s inevitable look of disappointment upon her learning I’d dropped out because of two fl at tires 5,000 miles from home. Sometimes, being a Tough Guy just means holding up your end of the spousal contract. Know what I mean?
The first course of mud comes soon after the start. It’s a simple dirt road turned filthy by rain and too many footfalls. My body is now spattered with flecks of cold mud, but I feel warm because I am running hard, and I wonder how long this sense of comfort will last. We churn a mile through a pasture, and the pack settles into a rhythm. This is just like any other Sunday run -- that is, until we start scrambling through the nettles.
There is a low crawl after the nettles, followed by a climb over a hay bale; it’s a pattern that is repeated for the next mile. My body heat begins to dissipate as the course forces me to leap into a shallow stream, cross the knee-deep water to the other bank, clamber out and into the pasture, and then repeat the process countless times. Soon after that, the race gets hard: cargo netting, tire tunnels, and flaming bales of hay. And all the while, the mud gets more frequent and the water crossings get deeper, until my feet are numb and it has become commonplace to wade through water up to my chest. I think the worst has come. I am wrong.
I read back over my words just now, looking for some form and structure. There is none. These are the ramblings of a man whose brain was frozen by sharp spikes of cold water, who has only recently seen the Seinfeld-ian concept of cold-water shrinkage no longer having such an obvious effect on his lower extremities. (The water was so cold -- and I can say this because we are all friends by now -- that I could actually feel my lower appendages scrambling, turtle-like, to recede inside the relative warmth of my torso. No lie.)
How is it possible to suffer so completely and have such a great time? I’m still not sure. All I know is that I have scratches and scrapes up and down my body and that the remains of a Sharpie-written race number still beam indelibly from my forehead.
What is it like to leap into a freezing lake in January, not once but several times, and to hold your breath and swim underwater -- all of this after miles of running, climbing cargo nets, and enduring electric shock? Let’s just say that the race organizers are clever gentlemen and throw the first instance of midrace baptism at competitors at the exact point when the numbing reality of incredible hardship has worn off and the brain has just begun to cope like a Tough Guy muscle all its own, uttering such thoughts as, This isn’t so bad, and, I think the worst is behind me.
Which, as you all know, are some of those lies we tell ourselves when life gets tough.
The Tough Guy course gets incrementally harder, mile by mile, and hides its difficulties by weaving around on itself. I never know what’s coming next or how many times a particular challenge will be repeated. (The endless succession of low crawls followed by stream wading is particularly cruel, softening us all up for the fiery pits and the first cargo-net climb, to the top of a tall tower, which is immediately succeeded by a high-elevation rope crossing). Mr. Mouse gamely reminds all competitors that he does not have insurance. If I slip and break something (large signs point to the room where plaster casts are applied), it’s “my own … fault,” as the race waiver says.
It takes me 1:35 to finish the race (which puts me in the top 1,000 finishers), and most folks seem to get done within an hour or so of that. The first few miles, you just flat-out race against each other, but after that, there’s a shared solidarity. Having trouble getting over a wall? Some friendly hand will shove you up and over. Wondering when your feet will stop being numb? Someone whose feet are clearly just as numb will run alongside, coated head to toe in mud, reminding you that no one is immune from the challenges.
There is a moment in the last mile, after I’ve gone into the icy waters one too many times and climbed what I thought was my last high-altitude cargo net, when I can see that the next obstacle is to walk the plank off the side of a tower for a 20-foot plunge into yet more icy water and then immediately swim 30 meters to shore. Men and women are just behind me, breathless and shivering, waiting their turn.
I have been frozen and filthy for too long. I do not care if I am tough or not. I cannot stand the thought that I must, inevitably, jump. This is not a race moment of exhilaration or pride, but a midrace “I am broken” moment. Hypothermia has set in. I do not know how I will pull this off.
A guy next to me mumbles to himself, “Get it done,” as he eyes the drop. But it is as though he is talking to me, for I know exactly how he feels.
There is some sort of perverse personal growth that takes place when you ignore the fearful voice telling you not to leap. It is at that moment that you simply take a bold step forward and fling yourself off the plank, knowing that the next sensation of cold and immersion will be very, very, very unpleasant. I can’t describe why pushing through those self-doubts and fears of being uncomfortable makes me feel so happy, but it does.
So I leap. The free fall is short, and the seconds underwater are far too long. I sputter to the surface, swim to shore, and then fling myself down into the mud to low-crawl beneath barbed wire as part of an obstacle named for the Battle of the Somme. There is much more hardship to come (yes, more icy water), but finally crossing that finish line and sipping my cup of hot tea with shaking, hypothermic hands is a most amazing moment of happiness.
I honestly don’t believe you can know that feeling without some great personal challenge -- no matter whether it’s Mr. Mouse’s footrace or any other of life’s adventures. As the man on the plank said in that moment of reckoning, being a tough guy is about finding a way to get it done.
All right. That’s as profound as I get in this reduced state. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m long overdue for that hot shower.
I say this with all honesty: Do Tough Guy. The race is held the last Sunday in January. Fly to London, take the train to Wolverhampton (which is about 2.5 hours north of London), and follow the signs. Check out the website for more info: www.toughguy.co.uk. Just so you know, there is also a summer Tough Guy, but as one competitor wondered aloud at the starting line, “What’s the point?” Meaning no self-respecting Tough Guy wants to race there when it’s warm. With that, I wholeheartedly agree.