On the 30th of January I participated in ‘Tough Guy’, as announced here, and the memory of the pain has now faded sufficiently for me to write about it. 😉
I travelled down to Wolverhampton the night before with a number of other Durham students, and we arrived after dark so as to make setting up camp difficult. Here’s this post’s only nugget of chess content: on the coach journey I prepared against the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit, which as a King’s Indian Defence player I could still meet via the move order 1. d4 Nf6 2. Nc3 d5 (preventing a Pirc transposition) 3. e4. The night proved to be as tough as I’d imagined Tough Guy itself would be, as the temperature dropped into the minuses and I was unable to keep warm, even whilst wearing two jumpers, a ski jacket, hat and gloves and inside my sleeping bag.
We emerged from our tents at 7 am, having had a few hours’ broken sleep, and in my case to a breakfast of cold pasta. The event didn’t start until 11 am, so I passed the hours in a state of high tension, with my mindset alternating between ‘it can’t be that bad’, and ‘I can’t feel my toes now, so I’ll be frozen solid within the first mile’. From 9 am the excitement really began to build as participants started streaming in, some dressed as ballerinas or superheroes, and a few particularly brave or foolish individuals without tops or wearing only a ‘mankini’. After collecting our race numbers (for which I was made to do pressups on my knuckles), we finally managed to find our way through the crowds and the confusion to our starting position.
I’ll skip quickly over the wait to start, which featured a Scottish band with bagpipes and drums, a rugby ball being kicked around, people peeing in the midst of the crowd in little wooden urinals, a furious duck fight between starting groups separated by a fence (we’d been given little plastic ducks to throw in the first water feature and attempt to find at the end), and occasional glimpses of the magnificently-moustachioed Mr. Mouse, the event’s founder. Finally, at a few minutes past 11, our group was off, letting out a massive roar and shielding ourselves against the redoubled effort of the groups still waiting to pelt us with ducks.
The race began with a slide down a steep, muddy hill, and then we were into the ‘Country Miles’, the portion of Tough Guy that’s essentially just a cross-country run to spread the field out. It did start with a few nasty ditches of icy water to scramble through, but with those over there were several water-free miles which in retrospect were bliss compared to what lay ahead. The ‘Ghurka Grand National’ – a series of barriers to jump over or roll under – and ‘Slalom’ – where the path goes about 10 times up and down a steep hill – were accomplished without too much difficulty, and then began the ‘Jungle Slalom’, the only really objectionable bit of the Country Miles. This consisted of a muddy ditch filled with waist-high cold water, and the path went diagonally back and forth across this ditch, I would guess about ten times (though it felt like more). The water was full of large ice chunks, which hacked up your shins upon each plunge down into the water, and the scramble up the muddy bank on the other side was at times only possible with pushes or pulls from fellow competitors. Finally, a sign announced the start of the ‘Killing Fields’, and my heart sank as I realised that the Jungle Slalom I had just completed had been just a taste of the pain ahead.
The Killing Fields began with a large log climbing frame, and as you ascended the gaps between logs became alarmingly large, with my legs fully extended to bridge the gap, and shorter people really struggling. The ‘safety net’ far below looked less than encouraging, and, while it would probably have been enough to prevent death, I expect you’d still have broken a bone if you’d fallen. Over the climbing frame and into the water again; icy water to your waist or chest punctuated most obstacles, taking your breath away each time, and numbing and cramping your limbs. I’ll skip through the fire, the tire tunnels (which ripped off any exposed skin), and a variety of other obstacles and fast forward to the most hideous of all: The Torture Chamber.
The Torture Chamber was a new attraction for this year’s Tough Guy, so none of the participants knew what awaited them as they wormed their way on their bellies into an underground chamber. As you got further in the sound of grown men screaming all around you made some people hesitate, but there was no turning back now. Upon entering the chamber I paused, crouched, for a few moments, trying to work out what the danger was and avoid it, but all that could be seen in the darkness was the faint outlines of things dangling from the ceiling, and they were too numerous to be missed. I proceeded on hands and knees and soon knew what the screams were about as I was knocked flat on the ground by a powerful electric shock. Onwards, through several rows of electrified tape, and then I was mercifully at the exit, which took the form of ‘Vietcong Tunnels’. These were narrow, pitch-black concrete tunnels, and I chose to lie on my side and push myself along with a leg, in the process sustaining an impressive-looking graze (though I didn’t notice it at the time). A light at the end of the tunnel, and out, headfirst into more freezing water.
So it continued. Climb, wade through water, run, more water, climb, jump off a high plank into water. Then came the head dunks, and for me and I think many people these triggered a worsening of my condition. A number of planks were laid across the surface of the water, and to proceed you had to submerge yourself completely in the icy water, fumble your way to the other side of the plank, breath, and repeat.
Obstacle 26 out of 28 was a large figure-of-eight through a lake, alternating between climbing frames and wades or rope walks. My last memory during the event is either repeatedly trying and failing to pull myself out of the water, or wandering around in a daze asking people which direction to go in. My next is a hazy recollection of a period in a barn with a woman repeating the words ‘severe hypothermia’. Apparently I was pulled out of the race and warmed up by St. John’s Ambulance volunteers, for which I’m grateful, as I was obviously in no condition to continue to the end (but equally had no intention of leaving the course voluntarily). Tough Guy is supposed to be about ‘mind over matter’, but it seems to me that the phrase has little meaning when you have no mind left.
It is frustrating to have come so close to finishing and failed, especially as I was on target to finish in the top two hundred out of over five thousand competitors. I feel obliged to return next year and try again, but in order to succeed and avoid succumbing to hypothermia once more, I will have to get fatter, not fitter.