Tough Guy Recap from The Nomadic Runner


Tough Guy - My flag!

Let me start this by saying how much I dislike the cold. I’m one of those people who complain when the temperature falls below 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit), yet is loving every second of 40+ degree weather (104+ Fahrenheit).


So how did I, a heat-loving Western Australian, find myself standing in cold water in the middle of England in winter? Part of it was because I am on a mission to seek comfort in discomfort, but mostly it was because I wanted to celebrate the 30 year anniversary of the world’s first ever obstacle course race – Tough Guy.

Tough Guy - Start Line

For those of you unfamiliar with Tough Guy, it was founded in 1987 by Billy ‘Mr. Mouse’ Wilson and is held in Wolverhampton, England, at the end of January each year. It has become an iconic event within the OCR community and is one challenge that a lot of OCR fans dream of taking on. When it was announced that 2017 would be the final Tough Guy ever I bought a ticket and flew halfway around the world to join in on the fun.


In the weeks leading up to the event, social media was abuzz with photos and footage of frozen lakes and icy fields. The outside air temperature was due to be close to freezing making this a challenging event. Sure, there may be over 200 physical obstacles to conquer, but none compare to the biggest obstacle of all – the cold.

Tough Guy - Slalom in the trees

On the morning of the event I was excited and nervous. However, my excitement was replaced with frustration soon after arriving in Wolverhampton. It was evident that chaos was going to be the theme of the day as it took over an hour to drive down the road that led to the carpark. The event was due to start at 11 am but due to issues with parking and registration it was postponed to 11:45 am.


People were packed into the festival area like sardines (if sardines wore DryRobes) as everyone tried to figure out what was going on. I managed to push through the crowd to the registration area and collected my bib just in time for the start.


As I joined the 7000 other participants, Mr. Mouse’s Ghost Squad got us clapping along and cheering before sounding the starting horn.

Tough Guy - Mr Mouse

There are no small starting groups here. So when the starting horn sounded, it was a bit of a mad scramble as everyone climbed the start hill before sliding down the other side and running off with a nice mud stain on their rear.


The start of the course was set up slalom style, with about ten rows of hay bales placed along the course. The idea was to break up the crowd, but when I saw hundreds of people waiting at each hay bale row, I knew that this course was going to be chaotic.


After getting past all the hay bales, the course then took us on another slalom style path, this time going up and down the side of a small hill. It was repetitive to say the least – walk up the hill, go around a tree at the top, slide and run back down the hill, then do it all again about ten times. Passing people was impossible as there were too many people and branches to contend with, so some people decided to cut the course to get ahead.

Tough Guy - Finishing Chute

After emerging from the trees, I ran through the paddock once more, past an empty water station, through some waist-deep water (the first of many crossings), before heading back into the trees. I followed the directions of a volunteer before realizing that I’d missed part of the course. They’d cut off a muddy creek walk due to the time it was taking people to get through it, so I had no choice but to join others in climbing over A-frames made from logs, and crawling under cargo nets for another kilometer.


Following the climbing and crawling, we faced with muddy trenches. We’d slide down the muddy embankment into the muddy waist-deep water, climb out the other side, then do it all again about 20-30 times. Despite being protected from the wind, the constant cold water and the rain were causing a lot of people to struggle physically and mentally. But the worst was yet to come.

Tough Guy - A Frame

Enter the killing fields. This is where the big Tough Guy obstacles are places as well as the coldest water seen in an OCR. It started with some huge A-Frames that looked like they’d seen better days. The electricity that was meant to be surging through the dangling wires had been turned off (much to our delight), but there was still plenty to test us still on course.


As I walked through a long stretch of waist-deep water, I started questioning my sanity as I realized I couldn’t feel my toes. The ice-cold water had made them numb, so I hurried to get out of the water as quickly as possible. There were plenty more muddy trenches that followed, as well as some high obstacles that made some participants break down in tears.


Just as I exited one patch of freezing water, I was directed to cross a fence and go straight up a hill. The volunteer advised me and those around me that the course had been cut and they needed us off course soon as the sun was due to set within the hour. Again I had a wave of disappointment flow over me as I was re-directed for the second time.

Tough Guy - Slalom in the mud pits

Teamwork was key to help those struggling though the underground trenches. People pushed and pulled their fellow participants through the tunnels as muscles seized due to the small spaces. As we emerged on the other side, we have directed up a hill and told (yet again) that the course had been re-routed.


The final obstacle was utter chaos. What should have been a quick walk through freezing waist-deep water and up a slippery hill turned into a 15-minute ordeal as hundreds of people tried to get to the finish line? Everyone was shivering, and teeth were chattering as the temperature kept dropping and people struggled to get up the slippery slope.

Tough Guy - Start

As I crossed the finish and grabbed a medal, I was feeling mixed emotions. I’d had fun but was disappointed that I didn’t get to complete the whole course. Submerging yourself in freezing water is the toughest obstacle at Tough Guy, yet so many people didn’t get to experience it because the course was cut short and water obstacles were closed early.


This event was about pushing yourself to your limits – both physically and mentally. While I was out of my comfort zone in the cold environment (give me the heat any day), I never got to experience the true toughness of Tough Guy that would have come with submerging myself repeatedly in the freezing water.


This was meant to be the highlight of my OCR life yet I left the event feeling underwhelmed and disappointed. To me, it felt like Tough Guy had bitten off more than it could chew by allowing so many participants. There should have been more planning to prevent some of the chaos that occurred, which would, in turn, have given every participant the chance to truly test themselves against the Tough Guy course.


Despite all that I am still glad I went. It was the muddiest, coldest and craziest event that I’ve ever done and I did have fun. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and tried to embrace the cold. I hope that one day I will look back at this event and only remember the positives, but for now, the negatives are so fresh in my mind that it’s dampened my opinion of the event. If there’s ever another Tough Guy (even if it’s just a charity race), I’ll have to return and seek redemption!


Vanessa Letts

About Vanessa Letts

Vanessa Letts aka The Nomadic Runner left her job in Australia and has been traveling the world, finding adventure, and conquering the latest race or challenge.
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