Rad’s Guide to Tough Guy, The Original Obstacle Course Race

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What you need to know about Tough Guy

You will bleed, you will get burnt, you will suffer hypothermia and you will almost certainly get electrocuted.  How’s that for a sales pitch? Tough Guy started up in 1987 and is the granddaddy of all obstacle course racing (also known as OCR). The scene has exploded in the last decade, with the emergence of Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, Toughest, Rat Races, Spartan Races and many others. Despite its age, Tough Guy continues to inspire an almost religious reverence throughout the OCR scene.

Unlike newer OCR creations, Tough Guy has refused to franchise or expand, keeping itself confined to an unlikely cradle for a global phenomenon – a farm in Perton, outside Wolverhampton, South Staffordshire. Forget about slick marketing and PR budgets, Tough Guy prides itself on being a relic from a bygone era; with a raw and spartan feel.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Staples

The Event

The site is a working farm and horse sanctuary; it looks, feels and smells like one. The obstacles have the appearance of backyard creations from yesteryear before health and safety became a concern or even a concept. Other OCR events have been crafted to create an “experience” for their participants, but Tough Guy doesn’t care about you finishing.  

To illustrate the point, on arrival all participants are required to sign a disclaimer of liability, befittingly called the Death Warrant. The small print can be summed up as – “I was told by everyone that this is a stupid idea and if anything happens, it is my fault.”

Tough Guy bills itself as the toughest race on the planet. Behind this bluster, there is plenty of truth. The injury and drop rates are much higher than at comparable single day events, with a third of the field failing to make it around the full course on an average year.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Staples

The Race

The starting cannon sets off a human avalanche sweeping down the first section of the race, known as the “Country Miles”.  These are made up of energy-sapping mud with numerous deep trenches and telegraph poles cutting across your path. Next up is the “Slalom”, made up of a succession of steep hill climbs. Expect to be clambering on all fours by the time you reach the peaks. This rapidly thins out the pack, before you are confronting participants with more fences and ditches. Teamwork will often be necessary.

The second section of the race is affectionately known as “The Killing Fields”.  This is an unrelenting terrain of approximately 35 closely packed obstacles, which will hammer whatever’s left of your physical abilities.  The variety is commendable, with highlights including being invited to crawl under barbed wire and through claustrophobia-inducing concrete tunnels, climb A-frames and cargo nets, and vault over burning bales of hay. 

Photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Staples

However, of all the obstacles, the stand out award belongs indisputably to the cold water.  Multiple cold water immersions are the order of the day. Expect full body submersions, brain freezes and every part of your body to complain bitterly against the intense cold.  This is to little avail. The only solution is to push harder.  

Fittingly, the final obstacle “Viagra Falls” combines some of the most demanding elements of Tough Guy. This obstacle requires one to muster their failing arm strength to haul themselves up a slide out of a freezing pond, while hoses dump more water; removing the little foot grip your cramping legs can still offer. Meanwhile, you do your best to try and dodge the electrified wires dangling menacingly above you. Finishing the course after these ordeals will feel like winning the Olympics. You’ll love it, you’ll hate it, and (if you’re like me,) you’ll probably want to do it again.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Staples

Tough Guy Experience

The first time I completed Tough Guy, I was drastically undertrained and underprepared.  It was a cold year, and elbows were necessary for the first few runners to crack through the ice covering the ponds; before wading in for the full body shock of the cold.  Regular cold showers did help prepare for this, but it still wasn’t pleasant. In my case, by the time I dragged myself over the finish line, I had lost all my fine motor skills. Completing the race took me less than two hours.  Being able to remove my shoes and muddy clothes took me close to an hour.

Unsurprising, Tough Guy attracts an international audience, with busloads of Germans, Dutch and French attending every year.  Many participants are former or current military, which speaks of the calibre of the challenge on offer.  Fancy dressers are welcomed, and over the years Playboy bunnies, brides, Victorian gentlemen, gimps and mankini-wearing Borat’s have all graced the muddy fields.

In addition to memories and bragging rights for life, completing Tough Guy provides you with one of the largest and heaviest medals on the OCR circuit. Gruff and unrefined, it is a fitting embodiment of the spirit of this event.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Staples

Rad Tips

The pro tips are:

i) Use trail running shoes, which might just save your ankle snapping in the mud
ii) A neoprene body vest preserves a precious layer of body heat when you are immersed in water
iii) Gloves guard against the hand shredding rope obstacles

Since inception, Tough Guy has always taken place on the last weekend in January.  However, 2020 presents a break in tradition with the race taking place on Sunday 29th March 2020.  Prices start at £110 and increase as the race date approaches.  Discounts are available to Tough Guy veterans.

For those less enamoured with cold water, Tough Guy HQ offers a warmer version of the event, called the “Nettle Warrior.” The next one takes place on Sunday 1st September 2019; on the same site.  We can expect the layout to be substantially the same, but unlike the winter version, participants are required to complete two laps of the Killing Fields rather than just the one.

Are you ready? Read more about how to train for an obstacle race. 

Featured image credit: AFP

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Petr Maslov

Petr "Maz" Maslov speaks five languages and has lived in seven countries, two of which no longer exist. He's a regular marathon runner, tire flipping champion, festival and fancy dress addict and runs a debating society. He and Joe Mela comprise the Adrenaline Flunkies.


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