— I have backdated this post to the weekend of Tough Guy – 29th of January 2017. In reality, I didn’t start writing it until about April and then ignored it until July. —
There was a fallout after Tough Guy. Hell, there was a fallout BEFORE Tough Guy when Mr. Mouse hinted that it might not actually be the last one. Lots of people were already pissed off going into the race and, when it didn’t exactly go to plan, even more people were pissed off coming out of it.
Annoyed runners would say they didn’t get a chance to do the Killing Fields. Tough Guy would say that’s because the obstacles always have to be closed after a certain time for health and safety. Runners would say they couldn’t reach the obstacles in time because the race started late and became a shuffle. Tough Guy would say that’s because thousands of people decided to show up barely an hour before the start time and then jumped the start and squashed themselves into a mass. Runners would say that’s because Tough Guy got greedy and allowed far too many people to enter the race. Tough Guy would point out that there were only 10% more runners than in previous big years, which went ahead fine because people educated themselves regarding what to expect. Runners say that what they expected was to have a fun day out. Tough Guy would point out that it’s not meant to be a fun day out; it’s meant to be a miserable soul destroying survival experience. Runners would say that even a survival experience should have a decent car park.
And so on and so on and so on and so on, ad-abso-fucking-lute-tedium. For months. It got to the point where I never wanted to read anything about an obstacle race ever again, let alone write something about the 30th Anniversary of Tough Guy itself.
Luckily, lots of other people weren’t pissed off at any point. They took Mr. Mouse’s preemptive comments with a pinch of salt, turned up to the race and had an awesome time. Some were first-time Tough Guys who said it was their best OCR experience ever; others were multiple-time Tough Guys who said it lived up to everything they loved about it. It was having those conversations that persuaded me to document my own experiences of the day: that’s experiences, not opinions.
Of course I have my own opinions about the event, but I’m in the position of having seen things unfold live from all different sides at once. I know how complicated the entire thing was and I’m not going to even attempt to critique any of it.
Instead, here is my personal experience from the day. It’s obviously very, very different from most because I’m in a unique position at Tough Guy.
It starts with rum. No wait! It doesn’t start with rum: that in itself is enough to make this a curious tale…
It starts with whisky. It was Wednesday afternoon. Rise of the Sufferfests‘ Scott Keneally had just landed in London and we headed straight to the pub to meet Pete and Claire Rees, then later James Wallman (from the excellent Stuffocation). We drank beer and whisky, and talked about the kinds of things that beer and whisky make you talk about.
Then we came home for rum. We finished off the supplies I smuggled into the country from Cuba, most of which had turned alarmingly sweet and sickly. Can rum go off?? Anyway, despite all this we departed in an uncharacteristically punctual fashion the next morning to make it to Tough Guy in time to film this little segment for the BBC:
Quite how they persuaded us to leap into the water on what turned out to be the coldest day of the year is a mystery. (That Thursday ranged from 2 degrees to -3, which was 4-5 degrees colder than the actual day of Tough Guy!)
We spent that night at the local hotel, The Mount. I made a half-baked effort to drive to Manchester to party and watch Evil Scarecrow, but realised the general idiocy of my plan partway through and returned to the hotel where Scott and I drank through the night. Apparently I am growing up…
The BBC segment aired at 9ish on Saturday morning (fuck knows what happened to Friday) and we enjoyed it with various breakfast beers.
Then it was time to head to the farm and begin the long, elaborate and ever-mysterious process of summoning and empowering the Ghost Squad…
Tough Guy 2017: The 30th Anniversary and Final Ever Tough Guy
The day started how it always starts: freezing cold on the floor of a barn, with a hangover that would slay an elk. All the Ghost Squad had survived the night, which was relieving if somewhat surprising. War paint was applied, squats were performed and – to the strains of Helvegen – we did the Ghost March to the forefront of the battlefield for one last time, whereupon we created our own little hell.
Then I remembered I had a job to do.
I clambered up the starting hill (much much harder than it looks) and forced my way to my specially constructed bellowing plinth, there to perform the warm up. I arrived to discover that it had been commandeered and turned into a makeshift MC platform. I leaped up there anyway and looked out over the starting pens.
Before me was a sea of people – 5000 strong – standing shoulder to shoulder, looking grim and cold. I can’t find any photos from my perspective, so here is a photo from the reverse looking up:
Behind me, great clouds of multicoloured smoke wafted forth from the valley where Ghosts bellowed and stalked and beat on drums. The tension was phenomenal; I could feel it tugging at me – thousands of nervous people itching to get going and face the fears that were starting to niggle in the backs of their minds.
From up high I was clear that nobody in this mass of freezing cold humans had room to breathe, let alone perform any kind of warm up. Instead, we simply performed the Icelandic clap:
If I couldn’t prepare their bodies, at least I could prepare their minds. I reminded them that simply by turning up for Tough Guy they had proved themselves brave. I pointed out that by plunging headlong into fear and hardship, they would emerge greater than before. I told those 5000 people on the start line the simple truth: that they were hours away from achieving glory that could never be taken away from them; they were however many thousand torturous steps away from being Tough Guys and Gals – the last ever.
Soon the clap was complete. There was no cannon. There was no gunshot. Nobody even said ‘go’. Yet for some reason lots of runners decided that it was time to start. Perhaps they were just, understandably, bored of waiting. Perhaps they had no idea what to expect from Tough Guy and thought a madman clapping his hands meant GO!
Whatever the reason, thousands of people suddenly mobilised themselves and started to plunge into the valley. Only the fearless and savage efforts of the Ghost Squad held them back as I bounded my way down the hill to join them, and together we held the lines until the starting cannon boomed and the dam broke.
Before us, a wall of bodies surged forwards. For a few seconds we withstood it, then one by one we started to get taken out. Eventually I crawled and fought my way up onto a side bank whence I could bellow and ignite more smoke bombs, as the endless tide of runners swarmed into the final ever Tough Guy.
Then it started to slow down. People have mixed opinions about the mass start at Tough Guy. I love it: it’s madness, but it’s all part of the experience. On this occasion, there was a plan – and that plan was ruined by the false start.
Apart from the front squad, everybody at Tough Guy 2017 was meant to start behind the starting hill. The idea was for people to have to climb up it then CHARGE down into the valley. Not only was this a suitably epic start to the final Tough Guy – an homage to those going up and over at the Battle of the Somme – it would also help to thin out the thousands of people all starting the race together, because only so many can filter up and over the hill at once.
Instead, people decided they were going to start on top of the hill whether we liked it or not, so that’s where they stood. As the false start began, those people ran down into the valley and swamped the front squad. The people on the bank of the hill were shoved over it and down into the valley, as the people behind them climbed up and over the hill, or simply cut around it.
Eventually we ended up with a solid mass of thousands of people in front of, on top of, and all over the hill designed to thin their numbers out. For many of those people, their race was fucked before it even began. After the initial storm of a start, a large part of the race slowed to a waddle as thousands of people shuffled forwards together. Apparently that’s how some of them stayed for the whole race, which sounds pretty miserable – but then again it also sounds a lot like my first Tough Guy experience.
The rest of my day was spent in a rum-fuelled craze. To be honest, most of what I saw just looked like Tough Guy: a few people running – barely anybody racing – and most people just clinging on to survive. It was unlike any other OCR I’ve seen, but then again it always has been.
Most the people I met at the finish were in high spirits. It was only afterwards that I realised lots of people hadn’t had such a fulfilling experience. Normally we Ghosts would drink and revel and celebrate the end of a great day, but that didn’t happen this year. Something deep inside me died along with Tough Guy and even my solemn vow to party hard couldn’t raise my spirits.
Instead I simply collapsed in that freezing cold barn for the last time, then awoke the next day and parted ways with my kin.
Thus began a post-race depression that would have me questioning just about everything I’ve spent the last few years doing with myself. Over the next couple of weeks the sport that sucked me in with its incredible spirit and positive attitude churned out so much hatred and anger that I wondered whether I’d ever attend another OCR.
Since then I have done, and I’m glad. That’s why I’ve finally published this piece of shit article.
Tough Guy may be over, but Ghost Squad is just beginning. That’s what matters to me now.